Archives for category: Politics

In last week’s Economist (13-19 February, 2021) Bartleby gives us a month by month set of memories of the past year. As if we ourselves hadn’t already lived through it.

The thing is, memories of learning Zoom etiquette and how to mute ourselves and others in meetings ceased being funny a long time ago. The sameness of days working from home has long since ceased to be news, and the columnist pointing to June as the month when we started feeling ‘Groundhog Day Syndrome’ doesn’t make it any more ancient history.

Canceled holidays and the rollercoaster of lockdowns followed by eased restrictions followed by more lockdowns – well, almost all readers of the Economist know what that’s like. And we’re all suffering from the continued effects of the entitled thinking that a period eased restrictions means that the world with Covid is actually safer. The fact that we’re still dealing with this shit means that we as an office-dwelling species don’t get it and never have gotten it. I’m not the first to say that eased restrictions means there’s room in the ER or A&E for you.

I have expat friends who have long complained that a large segment of the population of this country don’t wash their hands. A survey in May (well into the pandemic) indicated that half the Dutch hadn’t gotten the message. Have they yet? Who knows? But our infection numbers go reliably up when restrictions are eased and reliably down when they’re not.

I got on my high horse at the beginning of this thing and said (only to my wife who pays for the Economist subscription and understands the nature of the system far better than I do, and alluded to it on this blog) that the only way to conquer this thing was to go on a war footing, put in the restrictions and move manufacturing to getting PPE and support to medical staff. ‘Yes, the economy will take a hit, but then we can get back up and moving again.’

But I don’t understand human nature any better than anyone else. I know I still forget a mask sometimes and feel ridiculous about going back for one, but I bloody well do it. I don’t understand the refusal of our societies to support the front line folks first (medical, educational, retail). I don’t understand why there’s a question about how quickly to vaccinate teachers, nurses, and supermarket workers. If I did, I’d be an economist or a financier, and not a tech writer.

I wasn’t the first to note that DJT would have won the election had he lifted one finger to handle the pandemic with sense and reliance on experts. Is there a blessing in the fact that he didn’t and is therefore no longer president (his own rants notwithstanding)? I don’t know. Half a million dead in the US might prefer that he’d just once acted in the interest of the country and not his own. But because he couldn’t, here we are.

The Economist column concludes with the suggestion, ‘Perhaps at some point in 2021 Bartleby will be back on the London Underground, crammed like a sardine while waiting for the platform to clear at Earl’s Court. Suddenly social isolation doesn’t seem so bad after all.’

For much of the working world, the thought of being on a crowded commuter platform (or movie theatre or concert or fast-food joint or anywhere else that keeping distance is rendered impossible) isn’t a point of humor but the opening salvo of an anxiety attack. For another large part of the working world, that anxiety and the associated Covid risk are facts of life that won’t be letting up any time soon.

The topic of this Chomsky quote is very much on my mind these days. It’s not an original thought to say that in the US we have a fascistic party (the one we keep calling the Republican Party, though their behaviour in the last 12 years at least would horrify such stalwarts as Eisenhower, and, heck, even Reagan and Nixon), a right-wing party whose interest are aligned with the financial industry and what used to be law and order (formerly the Democratic Party), and a budding medium left-wing party of folks like Bernie and AOC.

About that middle point: If the Democrats aren’t the party of the finance industry, why was their VP choice in 2008 (the year the financial industry screwed over working Americans in very large numbers) the man who was rightly accused of representing MBNA and Citicorp rather than the people of Delaware? (Note that the state of Delaware has such lax banking laws that many banks use post office boxes there as their corporate addresses.) If Democrats aren’t the party of law and order, why is it that in a year that saw massive uprisings against more and more flagrant police brutality the Democrats’ VP choice was the former California AG and San Francisco DA who has a long record of siding with the police over the citizenry of the City and then the state.

I’d love to support a left-wing party in the US, but we don’t have one right now, so I’ll support Nancy Pelosi and the other conservatives over the fascists when that’s the choice for getting the fascists out of the way. The problem, of course, is that getting rid of fascism is more complicated than that. In my fantasies every one who was part of that deadly idiocy at the capitol on January 6th would be tried for sedition. Ditto for all of the members of Congress and the Senate who played along. I don’t see that happening, especially the latter.

On yesterday’s Stay Tuned With Preet, Preet Bharara interviewed David Frum, a conservative from way back who was a speechwriter for George W. Bush and an advisor to Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign. As far back as 1994, however, he’s written about the problems of supply-side economics and evangelicals.

Frum’s views evolved to be pro same-sex marriage, and he’s pro-gun control (and, yeah, I’m getting a lot of my info about him from his Wikipedia page, but I’ve listened to him on Left, Right and Center for years. These views aren’t new for him). Despite misgivings about Palin, he voted for McCain in 2008, and has distanced himself from the party since the craziness that ensued after Obama was elected.

That said, in a way he’s putting his money where his mouth is as part of a group of classic Republicans (aka fiscal and tangentially social bootstrap conservatives) who are trying to form a new Republican party. As you might guess, I find these efforts attractive on a certain level, but what precisely is the goal? Reclaiming the party of Lincoln or the party of Reagan? If you support gun control and marriage equality and fiscal responsibility, why isn’t the current iteration of the Democratic Party doing it for you? Is a minimum wage that a person can live on too much? Was Eisenhower too much of a lefty? Is healthcare that doesn’t drive a person to bankruptcy with one accident or one out of plan ambulance call too much to ask? National parks (Thanks, Teddy Roosevelt, another Republican) that aren’t sold to the highest (if the treasury is lucky) bidder for drilling rights? I’m failing to see which policies of the Democratic Party are too much.

Oh yeah, there’s the union question, of course. Unless it’s the police unions. Can’t step on those, can you?

I know the big target is abortion rights, and that it’s a step too far for a lot of people. I could take a big left turn and write the obvious article about how if you take care of things like birth control and sex education, and a few other things, the abortion rates plummet. That’s fodder for a different blog entry.

The need for another party or two or three in the US is not new, but it’s certainly a far more vital issue now than it has been in generations. I don’t see Frum’s efforts doing much to move the needle, but I’d be very happy if they did something to dilute the country’s burgeoning fascism.

Before I get into this, I’m aware that what I’m about to say may fall into the categories of both virtue signalling and performative anti-racism.

Black-Lives-Matter-Black-Sabbath-sm

A Facebook friend with whom I have little in common politically responded to this user pic with the rather reductive question ‘Slogan or movement?’ I’m not sure what my answer is. (And I’ll be honest – I saw a picture of a rock star wearing a shirt with this design. It’s in the style of the cover a Black Sabbath album. Part of my choice of image is sheer amusement at the conflation.) Starting with the slogan, though, there’s a meme going around which posits a person telling their partner about the pain they’re experiencing. The partner responds with something like, ‘Many people feel pain.’ True, but hurtful. This reflects how I feel about the common responses to the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ – Yes, all lives, but it’s black people being killed by white cops on the street, in their own homes by cops with no-knock warrants to arrest someone already in custody, while playing in the local park with a toy, while walking home with a bag of skittles. So for those folks and so many more like them, I say Black Lives Matter.

In our societies, this is how the phrase has been used since Trayvon Martin was brutally killed and his killer, who stalked the boy even when told to stand down, acquitted.
Systemic racism has been a boot on the neck of people of color since well before Reconstruction. And I know there are far better essays by people much better read and more experienced than I am on the subject. Repeating the phrase is a way of showing that I no longer want to operate in society in a way that doesn’t move us from racism to anti-racism. I want to be on the side of making this better, not on the side of complacency.
Is professing the phrase a precondition for action? I don’t know, but we don’t get to the next level of this society on word or faith alone. By standing up, I’m trying in a small way to say and be on the side of the repressed. It’s in that middle ground between speaking the platitude and doing the work. I know that I’m blessed as a cis-presenting white male, I’ve been the subject of very little discrimination. It’s well past the point that those who step or live outside of that is subject to repression and discrimination, and worse. I can, at this point, only imagine what it is like in these times to be Black and Trans, for example.
When I say that Black Lives Matter, I speak out that the rights to life and to simple self determination do matter and that the right to be treated equally under the law matters, and that the right to be judged as a person and not a representative of a group of people with the same skin color matters, and that the right to the same education as white peers matters, and that there is a right not to be mocked by society for two weeks every year matters, and that  the claim of tradition is no basis for being hateful.

 

Karl Marx was being somewhat reductionist when he said that history repeats itself, first and tragedy, then as farce. And I won’t be the first person to suggest that the Corvid-19 tragedy in the US is a repeat of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. The earlier was (for those of us in the West) a great tragedy, and what’s affecting us now surely isn’t farce – it’s a tragedy on a larger, faster scale. One of the reasons it’s such a tragedy is that many people learned from the AIDS crisis, President Trump just isn’t one of them.

This probably isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned on this blog the travesty of the Reagan administration in not acknowledging the toll AIDS was taking on a couple of communities in the United States, even when it took the life of his friend Rock Hudson. He refused even to name the disease until well into his second term. That the hardest hit communities were the gays and the intravenous drug users might have had something to do with this. I initially wrote that Reagan was handily reelected even with ACT-UP protests in the capital, but ACT-UP wasn’t formed until 1987. As long as the communities were demonized, though, there was no need to worry. It didn’t hurt Reagan that his opponent in ‘84 was the relatively uncharismatic Walter Mondale.

But the fact is that over the first 20 years of the epidemic, 774,467 people in the US were diagnosed with HIV. 448,060 died of its related ailments. (HIV is still the cause of approximately 1 million deaths per year, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.)

The disease wasn’t discussed in US political circles, except in reference to the innocent victims. Remember the Ryan White Act? Innocent meaning not gay, not a drug user. Comics used it as a punch line. Sometimes the entertainment industry stepped up (Philadelphia), generally not. But eventually there was movement in the research and the disease became less of a death sentence, at least in the West. Africa? Still a different story. Standard Precautions also evolved out of the AIDS epidemic. Previously there had been precautions associated with whatever diagnosed illness the patient presented with. First Universal Precautions (1986 or so), which referred specifically to blood and blood-related bodily fluids, and then Standard Precautions superseded those with a set of practices for all those who had patient (and especially body fluid) contact and weren’t dependent on the patient presenting symptoms. When I was working in healthcare in the 90s (as a secretary in home health for a major HMO), I had to be familiar with these, even though it wasn’t in my daily routine to practice them.

Read that WHO doc on standard precautions, or this one from the CDC. That’s okay. I’ll wait.

Did you note the bits about cough safety and hand washing? Yeah, those ring bells because we’re coughing into our elbows now and washing our hands eighteen times a day. What about PPE, sterilization, and infection prevention? Yeah. We’ve had rules in place about those things for decades.

Which brings us to the current repetition.

We know just about when this outbreak came to the US. And we’ve listened to the president and his cohort lie, cheat, steal, brag, and generally screw over those most in need: those suffering from this dreadful flu and the health professionals doing their utmost to help those patients. If the AIDS crisis was itself a tragedy, what can we say about the sheer numbers of this pandemic and the madness of the federal response?

In United States of America, from Jan 20 to 2:00am CEST, 15 April 2020, there have been 578,268 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 23,476 deaths. (https://covid19.who.int/region/amro/country/us)

I’m not really sure how to address this. In less than a week, we will see the number of cases of COVID-19 in the US in three months exceed the number of AIDS cases recorded in 20 years. And we knew how to prevent the outbreak, or at least lessen its effects, and we knew what was needed to safely take care of those suffering. (In fairness, we knew how to do those things relatively early on in the AIDS crisis, too.) And we didn’t. Not only were we as a nation unable to meet this crisis in a unified way, we were undermined from the outset by the avarice of those who should have been setting sane policy.

In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag discusses the different ways in which tuberculosis and cancer were treated by the medical profession and by family members of those suffering those diseases. TB had an odd romance about it, but in both cases, even the mention of the disease was thought to add another burden to the patient. One of several dozen key points she makes is that, ‘All this lying to and by cancer patients is a measure of how much harder it has become in advanced industrial societies to come to terms with death. (Ch. 1)’

This speaks volumes to how much we as a society really want to believe that getting back to normal, opening the markets, and so forth is preferable to addressing the massive numbers of suffering on our doorsteps. I’ll be honest, I’ve only finished two chapters of Illness and haven’t gotten to the second volume, AIDS and Its Metaphors. But I think Sontag will have a lot to say that speaks to our current condition.

The main reason I’m bringing Sontag’s points into this discussion is that we don’t have the time to be either romantic or blithely quiet about COVID-19. We should be studying and learning and financing the science and the health to get to the other side of this. And doing the work to protect one another. But instead we have the anti-science coming out of the White House and folks like the protesters in Michigan demanding society be reopened so they can shop and have their hair done.

I grieve.

My best beloved reads the Economist every week, and occasionally I’ll read an article or two as well. She’s noted to me that periodicals like the Economist, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal are written for people with an interest in the proliferation of money. As such they’re (historically) neither right-wing nor left-wing. Save for the elephant in the room, of course.

I was rereading a column from last June from the Economist’s ‘Bartleby Blog’. On the web site, this blog is subtitled ‘Thoughts on management and the world of work, in the spirit of the “scrivener” of Herman Melville’s 1853 novel’. This alone is problematic for a number of reasons:

  • Bartleby the Scrivener is a short story, not a novel.
  • The titular character of Bartleby the Scrivener would rather starve than work. His catch phrase is ‘I would prefer not to.’ He utters this phrase whenever his boss or others ask him to do something.
  • It seems that whoever named the blog took note of Bartleby’s initial burst of hard work, not the fact that by the end of the story, he’s been evicted, arrested, and starves in the Tombs, Manhattan’s municipal jail.

With all of this in mind, I point you to the June 29th edition of the blog in which the writer discusses the differences between American and European working hours and vacation habits.

First point: In 1979, the average worker in the US and Europe put in about 38.2 hours per week. Later measurements diverge. By 2000, the US worker was putting in 39.4 hours. This fell to 38.6 hours in 2016.

Second point: European and US workers differ in the amount of holiday they take. Rather than looking at the number of days off each culture has, the blogger points out that over the course of a year, Americans average 34 hours per week, the French 28 hours and the Germans 26.

Third point: The wealthy in the US work longer hours, but still tend to work in daylight as opposed to cleaners and food delivery people who mostly work at night.

Why the differences? Taxation? Possibly. But the key point is made in the passive voice: ‘Another potential explanation is that a decline in trade union membership has weakened American workers’ bargaining power. Except that unionization rates in France and America are not far apart.’

Let’s take a look at that for a moment: What happened to the unions in the US shortly after the 1979 calculation? I’d point to Ronald Reagan’s firing of almost the entire membership of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization rather than bargaining in good faith, given that he had supported the union during his campaign. This act alone signaled the death knell for unions in the United States.

The blogger distinguishes between unionization and policy. What isn’t spoken is how a well unionized country affects policy. Employers in underunionized countries also affect policy. Far more now than they used to. In the US, legislators financed by large employers have succeeded in gutting union power in a variety of areas. And they also succeed in breaking labor laws that protect the rights to unionize. So the question of who shapes policy goes unanswered.

I can’t speak for unionization rates in France, but labor in general speaks louder in Western Europe. Mandated holiday time of at least 20 days per year as a matter of national policy in most EU countries makes a big difference in that average number of hours worked.

Continuing through the blog, we get an assertion that ‘champions of workers’ rights have focused on raising the minimum wage (so far to little avail at the federal level)’. Again, begging the question as to WHY these efforts fail at the federal level. Might it have something to do with who is financing those who set the policy? I have a feeling that it might.

The writer then discusses the longer hours worked by the higher paid than the lower paid in the US. And this class of people discussed: cleaners and food delivery workers? Take a wild guess as to the areas of employment that are the least stable from the employee perspective? And which have unionization efforts stymied by both legal and illegal measures almost before such efforts have begun? Yeah, that would be those classes. It’s not that unionization rates have dropped simply through attrition or that the US minimum wage has stagnated through some kind of Adam Smithian invisible hand of the market. Those with money have made it higher to increase either one to the point of impossibility.