Category Archives: Current Affairs

Stories by the Numbers

Some interesting numbers. First, check out this graphic from today’s (May 8, 2020, 1:00 p.m.) Wall Street Journal website that highlights why the stock market is a pretty lousy proxy for the economy:

This next number caught my eye because it features a small Nebraska city, Grand Island, where Celeste and I spent one night last summer when we were driving home from Colorado. It’s from an article in the May 7, 2020 Wall Street Journal:

Local officials have now confirmed hundreds of coronavirus cases, with more than 200 linked to a local JBS USA beef plant and another 40 to area nursing homes. There were 1,228 Covid-19 cases as of Tuesday in a city of roughly 51,000, according to the regional health department. That puts its per capita rate of infection well above that of New York, the hardest-hit state in the nation by the coronavirus pandemic.

Compare those numbers to my hometown of Winston-Salem, NC, which has a population of 246,000, 347 confirmed COVID-19 cases and five deaths as of 5/8/2020. So despite have five times the population of Grand Island, Winston-Salem has had less than a third the number of confirmed cases. One interesting piece of info though: Winston-Salem has seen a recent spike in cases and a high percentage of those cases are tied to people who work in a Tysons Food poultry plant located in a county that’s an hour away.

Long story short: food processing plants are becoming a significant hotspot in the less urban parts of the country, and since those operations are all essential and can’t be done remotely, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that small cities and towns across the country could see a significant per-capita impact for months into the future.

What if…

As I write this the world is in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis and America is essentially shut down. The vast majority of Americans have been living under “stay at home” orders for several weeks, a majority of businesses have been shuttered, unemployment is growing by millions of people per week and there is a growing debate about when to open the country back up.

A central argument in the debate about reopening, and its timing, is about whether the lives saved by shutting down justify the economic damage and human suffering the shutdown is incurring. Of course there are a few problems we face when we have this debate:

  • We have no way of knowing how many lives we’ve saved with this action, partially because we don’t have widespread testing to know how many people have been infected, also because we have imperfect reporting of causes of death (numbers are constantly revised) and partially because we have imperfect models with which to estimate the true infection and mortality rates of the virus.
  • We don’t, as a society, have an agreed upon threshold for the lives we are willing to sacrifice in order to keep our economy functioning at a “normal” capacity.
  • We don’t, as a society, even agree what a normal economy should look like. At a time when we are experiencing extreme wealth disparity it’s almost a given that people will disagree with whether or not the economy that COVID-19 blew a hole in is the economy the majority of Americans want to return to.

I think we can all agree that we will disagree in fundamental ways about when and how we will get back to normal since we will disagree about what normal even is. But, for the sake of this exercise let’s just accept that we want to get the country working again so we can get back to some semblance of normalcy. So, what do we need to do that and what will “normal” look like when we do?

Let’s do this for a thought exercise: let’s assume that we decide that the benefits of some form of social distancing are great enough that they should be considered normal. Why? Well, let’s look at one of the arguments that people on social media seem to love when arguing for ending the stay at home orders: Since X number of people die every year from the flu and we don’t shut the country down then, why should we shut it down for COVID-19?

Again, we have no idea what the true number of COVID-19 deaths would have been without the shutdown, so let’s not argue about that. Instead let’s argue about whether we should do some form of social distancing every flu season. Here are the data points for the debate – all of the numbers are made up simply for the sake of debate:

  • In an average year we lose 100,000 people to flu-related deaths and 500,000 people hospitalized
  • After this COVID-19 crisis we learn that thanks to social distancing we reduced the probable mortality rate by 50% and hospitalization rate by 25% and if we implemented some forms of social distancing during flu season we would see a similar effect for flu-related deaths/hospitalizations.
  • We also learn during the crisis that because of the economic shutdown we, as a society, “lost” $10 million per person killed or $2.5 million per person hospitalized

What do we do? We know that we could save 50,000 lives but is it worth risking the trillions of dollars it would cost the economy to totally shut down the economy every year? Or do we find a middle ground? Do we decide to leave businesses open but require the wearing of face masks and gloves in any public space during flu season or when the signs of an outbreak are spotted? Do we reduce occupation limits on all businesses that serve the public? To help offset the economic impact on those businesses do we provide them tax breaks? If we discover that implementing socialized medicine reduces the overall impact on the economy – keeps us open while reducing the overall economic cost – do we go for it?

I’ve yet to hear anyone who isn’t a crackpot argue that we should have done nothing in the face of COVID-19. Rather, all the arguments have been about what and how much to do. That’s not surprising, because COVID-19 is new, very scary and in the absence of experience and accurate data our leaders have erred on the side of extreme caution. We literally go in the other direction with the flu because it’s a known quantity; as a society we’ve come to accept the tens of thousands of deaths that happen every year and shrug our shoulders and accept it. If we flip this debate we’re having on its head and ask ourselves, “If we can flatten the curve on COVID-19 can we do the same for the flu?” then maybe we can be honest with ourselves. We can ask the hard questions, that need to be asked, not just about COVID-19 but about our society’s priorities in general.

Time to Get Over Our Millennial Obsession Syndrome

So, have you heard about this Millennial Generation? <Insert sarcasm here>. Of course you have. We all have. Repeatedly. Over and over and over and over…you get the drift. We’ve been reading, listening or watching stories about the Millennials longer than some of them have been alive and most of those stories focus on gross generalizations like “they’re more entitled than previous generations” or “they’re soft – participation trophies have made them emotionally fragile and needy” or “they think they’re too good for entry-level positions.” Well, as the parent of three millennials and as an employee of a trade association that trains literally hundreds of millennials every year, I can tell you that I find these generalizations to be sheer and utter bullshit.

Here’s what I see when I see Millennials these days; young adults who have the same character traits that their parents and grandparents had when they were the same age – impatience, brashness, exuberance, some misguided swagger, a belief that their parents and grandparents are out of touch and a bedrock belief that their generation will fix what their predecessors screwed up.

I also see a huge group of young adults whose world is very different from their parents and grandparents and who are reacting in the same way that I sincerely believe we older adults would have if we were in their shoes today. They are starting families far later than we Xers did, but that’s a very logical thing to do when you’re saddled with student debt, wages are stagnant, rents are soaring and the barriers to homeownership are much higher than they were 20 years ago?

Later household formation has a ripple effect. Huge numbers of them are reaching 30-35 years of age without having experienced many of the rites of passage that their parents – and grandparents in particular – experienced between 18-30. They haven’t gotten married or had kids so they haven’t had to learn what it’s like to lose control of their own daily lives. If most of us older folks are honest with ourselves we will acknowledge that our young, single selves exhibited the same traits as those we disparage in Millennials; we just had a shorter window of time to do so.

And there’s the not-so-small matter of the changes in society between our coming of age and the Millennials’. In an interview with Rolling Stone, newly-minted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, probably the most prominent Millennial-aged politician in the United States right now, makes this observation in response to the question, “What do you think you know that the old guard doesn’t?”:

One of the things that I bring to the table is a visceral understanding that people under 40 have been shaped by an entirely different set of events. We’ve literally grown up in different Americas. They were shaped by a Cold War America, a post-World War II America; and we are an Iraq War America, a 9/11 America, a hyper-capitalism-has-never-worked-for-us, Great Recession America. People are used to talking about millennials as if we’re teenagers. We’re in our thirties now. We’re raising kids and getting married and having families, and we have mortgages and student-loan debt. It’s important that [Congress is] in touch. People tend to interpret this as me railing against older people and being ageist. But that’s not what this is about. It’s a problem of representation. We don’t have enough intergenerational representation. We largely have one generation. That’s not to say that one generation should be out of power, it’s that others should be here as well.

You don’t have to agree with her politics in order to recognize and accept the reality that she’s pointing out: the world these young adults grew up in is very different than the world their parents and grandparents did. Again, this is nothing new. The world we Gen Xers came of age in was very different from the world that many Baby Boomers (especially the older ones) and the World War II Generation came of age in. We were all influenced by our environments and in retrospect, our behavior at that time was exactly what you’d expect. I think in 20 years we’ll say the same is true of the Millennials, so let’s just admit that in principle they’re like every generation that preceded them and we’re like every generation that preceded us – grumpy old(er) people who wish those young folks would quiet down, watch how it’s done, and wait their turn.

The reality is this: all of us are playing the same roles our ancestors played, we’re just using wearing different looking costumes and dancing to different sounding music. What we older folks need to remember is that part of our role is to be ready to help our successors because we know how hard and cruel the lessons of life can be and when they get to the other side of those lessons they’re going to be just like us. Actually, based on what I’m seeing I think they’ll be better than us, and for the sake of our world, I hope I’m right.

Forgiveness is Required

From the Wikipedia entry for “forgiveness”:

Forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, forswears recompense from or punishment of the offender, however legally or morally justified it might be, and with an increased ability to wish the offender well. Forgiveness is different from condoning, excusing, forgetting, pardoning, and reconciliation.

I’m writing this post exactly one week before the 2018 mid-term elections in the United States. Yesterday I sent in an absentee ballot and I’m relieved to have done so because I’m already exhausted with this election and I want to stop thinking about it. I’m also aware that my country is experiencing an important moment in its relatively short history. It’s not as momentous as many others – anyone who compares it the periods of time surrounding the Civil War, Reconstruction, WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, Vietnam or the Civil Rights Movement needs to find themselves a serious dose of perspective – but it is an important point in time for this country.

Why? Because we have a set of elected officials who are as divided, inept and cynical as any we’ve had in recent history. They are headlined – notice I didn’t say led – by an absurdly narcissistic opportunist the likes of which we haven’t seen since at least the Nixon administration over 40 years ago. I don’t know any of them personally, so I can’t speak to their personal lives, but in their jobs, they are all guilty of ineptitude at best and criminal negligence or corruption at worst. And yes, we chose them.

So what do we do about it? Obviously, we can fire them by voting them out, but would that solve the problem? Even if we elected an entirely new stable of congresscritters and a new president, our newly elected officials would inherit a populace that has just been subjected to extreme abuse. Abuse of our trust, abuse of our community, abuse of our time and treasure. Why should we believe any of the newly elected officials would be any better? Why should we trust anyone to lead us to be a better society? And what about the people who got us here – both the people who were elected and the members of the electorate who embraced and promoted their divisiveness – what should we do about them?

My first step will be to forgive all those who abused our trust, and that includes President Trump, and to forgive those who I might believe have embraced an ideology that offends me and hurts others. Until I forgive them, they own me and more importantly, they prevent me from moving on to more productive endeavors. For our elected officials that doesn’t mean that if they broke the law they shouldn’t be punished, or if they worked against the greater good of the country they shouldn’t lose the election. For those fellow citizens who spew vile and hateful comments towards those they perceive as “others”, it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be dismissed and ignored by those whom they’ve verbally abused, or escape legal consequences if they’ve threatened or actually physically harmed others.

What it means is that once I’ve done what I can do – voted against those elected officials I think have harmed our country, tried to share my point of view with those who might value it, tried to defend those who have been attacked, and tried to refrain from sinking into a tit-for-tat argument with those whom I disagree – that I give myself the gift of forgiving those who I feel have harmed/insulted/abused me or my fellow countrymen. That I release them to the dustbin of history and wish them well with the rest of their lives so that I can go on living mine in a way that, hopefully, leaves my little part of the country better than I found it.

Next Tuesday, once all of the election results have been tabulated, no matter who wins the only way I will have lost is if I haven’t found my way to forgiveness and that is completely within my control. That thought alone gives me a sense of peace I haven’t felt in a long while.

Judging the Judge

Yesterday featured the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing dedicated to testimony from Professor Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, of sexually assaulting her in high school back in the early 80s. By all accounts, it was a remarkable day in recent US history, but for me, this had a weirdly personal feel to it. Why? Because I’m the same age as Ford and Kavanaugh, I grew up within a 20-minute drive of them in the DC suburbs, and this whole episode is bringing up intense memories of my own high school and college years.

So yes, it hits close to home. And because I can’t know what happened I, like everyone else, have to wrestle with what I believe happened. And I do have those beliefs and they are influenced by the biases I have based on my experiences, but that’s not what I’m going to write about today. What I’m going to write about is what I saw during yesterday’s hearing and why I think that’s what needs to be focused on when determining if Kavanaugh is fit to serve on the Supreme Court.

What I saw were two people who seemed to sincerely believe their version of events. I saw a woman who tried to remain as composed as possible during her testimony and did about as well as you could expect given the situation. I saw a man who also tried to remain composed, but could not contain his rage or his disdain for many of the Senators on the committee and at some points could even be described as petulant.

Many of Kavanaugh’s defenders/proponents in my social circles have said something to the effect of, “His reaction is totally normal for someone who feels falsely accused of sexual assault in front of the whole country.” I agree, but for a nominee to the Supreme Court, I expect better than normal. I expect the extraordinary. I expect an exceptional level of grace under pressure, someone who can remain composed in the most adverse situations, and perhaps most importantly, a person who can retain their objectivity towards all parties no matter their personal feelings towards any of them in a dispute.

Yes, Kavanaugh’s emotional reaction was what I’d expect from an average man in his situation, but I don’t think the citizens of the United States deserve an average person on the Supreme Court. We deserve an extraordinary person and yesterday’s hearing revealed to all watching that Kavanaugh is simply an ordinary man unable to rise to an extraordinary challenge. We can, and should, do better.

Today’s 30-Year-Olds Face Steep Challenges

The graph below, which comes from this Axios article, paints a pretty clear picture of the challenges being faced by today’s 30-year-old Americans:

being30.jpg

My kids – 25, 24 and 21 respectively – face a different economic reality than their mother and I did at their age in the early ’90s. On average they and their peers are earning the same amount of money as we did, but all of their expenses are higher. The result? Far fewer are getting married, having children or buying a home by the age of 30.

These trends are already having an impact on our country. At my day job I spend my time thinking about housing, the apartment industry in particular, and I can tell you that we’ve been seeing the impact there. That decline in the rate of homeownership you see in the graph above? That translates into more rental housing, which is obviously a positive thing for the apartment industry.

Even when they do get married, this generation isn’t rushing into parenthood mode. From the article:

  • Having fewer children: When Boomers were in their 20s, the fertility rate was 2.48, well beyond the replacement level of 2.1. Today, it is just 1.76.
  • When a recent survey asked why they were having fewer kids, most young adults said “child care is too expensive.”

And these folks are understandably more risk-averse than we were. After all they saw what happened during the great recession, when millions of people lost their “American Dream” homes to foreclosure. They are much more likely to wait until they know they’re financially solid before they venture into parenthood and homeownership.

So how do we fix this? Well, it begins and ends with household income. Until household income starts increasing at a faster clip than basic household expenses, we’re going to be stuck in place. Sure we can look at trying to control the costs of everyday life, but inflation is an economic reality so even if we reduce the rate of inflation we still need to make up lost ground on the income side. Easier said than done, but it’s something we must get serious about.

Framing the Issue

Guns are the issue du jour right now, thanks to yet another school shooting (Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida) that resulted in multiple deaths. We’ve had lots of mass shootings in America in recent years, and we’ve also had a well-documented cycle of reactions that lead, eventually, to…nothing. No matter the number of innocent people killed, or the circumstances in which they’ve been killed, the cycle has been the same: outrage, intense scrutiny in the media for a week or less, calls for gun control, calls for mental health reform, lots of grandstanding and then…nothing. Until the next time, usually within a month or two, when the cycle starts anew and we all get a little number, shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it. Is there a good comedy on Netflix to lighten the mood?”

The most recent shooting seems to have a slightly different feel. Mainly that’s due to teenagers. It ends up that some of the kids in the high school that was the scene of the shooting are actually quite articulate, and they’re impassioned, and they’re inspiring a lot of people to speak out for gun control. They’re so effective that the Fox News and NRA crowd are accusing them of being “crisis actors” (whatever the hell that is), which is an amazingly extreme form of victim blaming, not to mention picking on kids, which can only backfire on them in the long run.

When you think about it, this is an amazing turn of events. The pro-gun folks, led by the NRA and their media arm at Fox News, have been amazingly effective at framing the gun control debate for the last generation. No matter how serious the shooting, they always have a plan for framing the debate so that it moves away from gun control and ends up at promoting gun rights and identifying mental health reform as the only viable solution for ending mass shootings. The debate quickly devolves into a bunch of shouting, everyone becomes entrenched in their familiar positions, and within days we have a society that’s lost interest/given up. These kids seem to have at least ensured we’ll be paying attention longer, and that’s obviously a good thing and I’m heartened by their activism, but I’ve been around long enough that I’m highly skeptical their efforts will lead to a radically different conclusion.

My skepticism stems from the gun lobby’s skill in framing the debate. Of late their primary tack has been to say that in addition to mental health reform, the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to have a good guy(s) with a gun around. Because the current focus is on schools and the latest tweak to their scheme is to propose arming a certain number of teachers as the best line of defense against an armed attacker. It’s no surprise that this “solution,” which President Trump has endorsed, has generated a heated backlash and unfortunately, I think this reaction is the turning point that could lead us closer to where we always end up – doing nothing – than to see any substantive change in terms of alleviating gun violence.

I seriously doubt the gun lobby, Fox News pundits, and President Trump, ever truly believed that arming teachers was a proposal that would see the light of day. What they did believe was that it would frame the debate; it would signify the worst possible idea from the perspective of gun control advocates, and stake out a negotiating position for the gun lobby that would allow them to compromise and accept a proposal that would calm the gun control people and still be acceptable to gun proponents. I don’t know what that is, and obviously, it’s better than nothing, but I expect that if you see anything happen at all, it will be closer to nothing than to a solution.

It sucks being pessimistic, and I truly am glad to see these kids getting engaged, but I think we’d seriously be mistaken if we thought this was going to lead to revolutionary change. I guess a more positive outlook would be this: maybe we’re seeing the first step in evolutionary change.

For the sake of innocent bystanders everywhere, I hope that’s the case.