Saturday, October 31, 2020

As society progresses, our tolerance for early death diminishes. Over 225,000 deaths from COVID-19 is less acceptable now than in the so called "good old days."

In many ways, society is becoming loss tolerant of early and preventable death. I've read that the 1918 flu pandemic killed roughly 675,000 Americans. This, out of a total population of only around 104 million. Society's response to control that epidemic was slow at start. It was more "business as usual" than today.

So far, this epidemic has killed around 225,000 Americans out of 325 million total. There have been more measures, early on; such as here in Washington State, to try and stop the spread.

Our prevention measures haven't been as good as they could be; especially at the national level and in certain states. The 225,000 death toll is appalling to our modern sensibilities.

Seems like some of the folks, who would want us to go back to business as usual, could bring us to a higher tolerance of death than most of society is accustom to in modern times.

Some will argue that death from the forced slowdown of our economy could be worse than that from the virus itself. The increased poverty, isolation, domestic violence and so forth.

These things are harder to measure as they are spread across many death rates and categories of statistics; versus a death toll from the virus itself which is easier to pinpoint.

Few politicians, in today's world, would want to have a high death count under their watch; especially if it can be blamed on something they did, or didn't do.

In today's society, we have better technology to prevent death. Along with the better technology comes less tolerance for unnecessary death.

Given the understanding of infection today, we could do better than we have done, up until now. A more robust social safety net would help. People shouldn't be loosing their health insurance and having to go homeless during a pandemic. Businesses should be able to operate with reduced crowds and pay their rent and fixed costs, but rents and fixed costs have gotten too high.

We could adapt to this situation better, but the high cost of life, in America, makes it more difficult. More generous fiscal support (Congress willing to spend money) is needed to prop things up.

Part of the problem is the many past years of low interest rates. People don't have much in the way of "rainy day savings." Money in regular "liquid" bank accounts doesn't pay much when interest rates are low.

Low interest rates have, instead, encouraged a mountain of private debt which still needs to be serviced.

Now it looks like more government debt is needed to prop up the other debts that businesses and individuals have incurred. Quite a few economists say that government debt isn't as much of a problem as they've thought in the past.

This is debatable, of course, but there is an emerging school of economics called "Modern Monetary Theory." Popular among Bernie Sander's camp, and in other places.

MMT places less worry on government going into debt. Rather than looking at the debt total, since government can create its own money, these economists watch for signs of inflation. If we are now in danger of deflation, spending can happen.

This thinking may be partially the result of years of high deficits and low interest rates. Interest rates remain low, so what's the worry?

I feel that the low interest rates have pushed up fixed costs, such as property values, while other things in the economy; such as most wages, have lagged behind.

Technology has pushed down the cost of many goods and services including the need for labor. It's time to try and rebalance.

Government bailout continues to be needed as businesses and individuals, that have been lured into high debt and fixed costs, struggle.

We could do better if we had an economy that could shift into lower gear more easily. Lower gear for a temporary period. Being able to survive on part time work, for instance. Then we could better ride out this situation till vaccines and cures become available. Ride things out as technology continues to advance.

Shifting into lower gears could help us adapt to climate change as well. There is always some economic disruption when transitioning to something new. Transitioning to clean energy; for instance.

We can do better looking forward.

I've often thought that around 35,000 Americans, dying each year in traffic accidents, was an appalling cost of "business as usual." This figure is out of step with other safety measures in our modern society; such as workplace safety and building codes.

Future generations, riding in safe self driving vehicles, might look back on our current highway death toll the way we look back on the high death toll, due to cholera, before better treatment of drinking water.

The death toll, from the corona virus pandemic, is much worse than the steady background of car crashes. It is a temporary and unique situation. Future generations could look at this death toll with horror the way we now view the 1918 pandemic.

Years ago, I think negative news was less available, so, to tell the truth, I never even heard of the 1918 flu pandemic until more recent times.

I'm assuming that future generations can still make progress over what we have now if we can put technology to good use and control looming threats such as climate change.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Maybe Trump sincerely does want to raise all boats with prosperity, but prosperity as an only goal is problematic; especially given climate change.

Some people might laugh at me for saying this, but I think Trump's main goal is to increase prosperity for all Americans. He believes the rising tide lifts all boats thing. That's one reason why he doesn't care much about climate change; even the pandemic. Addressing those problems gets in the way.

Biden does have the goal of reducing climate change, but he believes addressing that goal will bring more prosperity. He's probably right, in the long run, but the road to change can bring a lot of disruption and economic dislocation along the way.

Banning fracking could mean banning oil production as (these days) it just about has to come from fracking. The easily pumped oil is already gone. This is an example of disruption. That's why Biden really can't push for something like a ban overnight. He can advocate a gradual transition, versus Trump who's even said, "bring back coal."

At least Biden places a high priority on trying to do something about climate change.

Our addiction to prosperity, as the highest goal, is a problem. There are some things that are more important than how much money we make. Obviously, a livable planet, but also quality of life in many ways. Less stressful living.

How we plan our lives and our neighborhoods hold a lot of the keys to solving the problems of climate change; even reducing the pandemic. Technology is a big part of the solutions also.

The most important changes to neighborhoods and lifestyles, for reducing climate change, don't seem to get discussed that much in national politics. They are sometimes discussed more in local politics. Transportation, walkability, affordable housing.

Actual health doesn't get discussed that much either, at the national level, when talking about healthcare reform or, to some extent, dealing with the pandemic. A healthier public could reduce costs.

We do need to keep evolving as a society. Otherwise we are just shaking our fists at whatever politicians get elected who aren't able to fully deliver on their promises.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

People grumble about Hunter Biden's high payment for sitting on that board. Fame opens doors; like the artist who commands a big price on name recognition.

In our society, fame and fortune can bring one opportunities not easily available to others. There's the famous artist who, supposedly, can sell a canvases for a fortune by just putting a dot on it.

Relatives of famous politicians will often get breaks on name recognition. For instance Hunter Biden's stipend for being on that board; something being talked about in a few circles these days.

One way to deal with these sort of inequities would be higher taxes on the elite. Many in the elite even want this because they see it as a price to pay for civil society. Billionaire Warren Buffett is noted for advocating some tax increases that would apply to himself. He's said that it doesn't make sense for his secretary to pay a higher percent of taxes on her wages than he does on his capital gains.

During my college years, the gay student organization would bring speakers to campus for symposiums. They would get stipends for coming to campus. I think usually around $50 plus travel, food and hotel expenses. This was back in the 1970's.

One year, they brought a famous former football player to speak. David Kopay. His stipend was $1,000. I remember thinking that was a lot of money. He had made a big name for himself in professional sports and later came out of the closet. This was a big news item at the time. It made for bigger headlines than the gay symposium normally got in the campus. A win for symposium organizers. WWU was pretty liberal toward LGBTQ people, back then, but bringing Kopay to campus was a real headliner.

During 1977, sculptures on campus were controversial. A foundation paid $55,000 for an iron sculpture called "India." When people questioned it's worth, I remember a quote from one professor, on the Art Acquisition Committee at the time, saying, "$55,000 is not a bad price for an Anthony Caro Sculpture." Caro, a famous artist.

I thought, "it's the name."

After that sculpture was installed, a few gorilla artists left welded assemblies in the grounds around the campus with signs saying, "I donate." The money for India came from something called the Virginia Wright Foundation which had donated several sculptures.

One morning, there was a big pile of old tires in the main square of campus with a sign attached saying "Pakistan." A few days later, maintenance removed the tires.

It doesn't snow that often in Bellingham, but the best picture, I have, of India was during a snow storm.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Economy needs to be propped up by government spending as the marketplace fails. Private business works, but the marketplace has failed.

More corona virus relief bills are being discussed, but looks like passage is unlikely; at least for quite a while. Some Republicans, in the Senate, are worried about the growing national debt.

Seems like the economy and even the stock market depends on stimulus from government. These days, government has to create new money to keep it going. This process can be inflationary, but why isn't inflation raging?

My idea is that new money is just propping up the inflation that has already happened. Without it, the high property values, rents and other things in the economy would start deflating.

Seems like the private marketplace is broken. Private enterprise, itself, isn't necessarily broken, but the marketplace is.

By private enterprise, I mean privately owned businesses that provide goods and services. Often private companies do a better job than government bureaucracy, but companies are often doing the work that's paid for by government. Government contracts; such as developing the vaccine.

Why doesn't the private marketplace bring us the things we need without the money from government?

It's because the market, itself, is broken. We can't rely on people's mass spending habits to bring us the things society needs, for the most part. It might work to some extent, but it does need lots of infusion from government spending.

Government often has more rational spending priorities, such as providing healthcare to people based on need rather than how wealthy they are. Affordable housing seems to be another thing provided by government. We also need things like roads, police, basic scientific research; the list goes on.

The private market provides some things also; like a lot of the media. Hollywood films, pro sporting events (before the virus). Government often does chip in for building the stadiums. Here in Washington State, the private market brings the marijuana industry, now legalized in Washington State.

Thinking about failure of the marketplace, climate change comes to mind also.

Back when I was in college, it looked like we were running out of oil. The price was going up. It looked like the marketplace might work to push us toward alternative energy because oil would get so expensive that other forms of energy would be cheaper by comparison. The path of least resistance. The market would seek the least expensive product.

Turns out private enterprise figured out how to extract more oil. The fracking revolution was born. There was fracking before, but the technology, now, has brought a glut of relatively inexpensive oil out of places, like North Dakota and Texas.

Now we have another problem. We are not running out of oil, not for a long time. The problem is climate change. Too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and there is no cost to releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Normal market forces of supply and demand don't work in curbing carbon emissions.

We need something like a carbon tax to rig the market so it works for the long term good of our environment.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

We need to do better than just going back to the 1950's, 1960's economy.

Interesting article from Strong Towns:

Dangerous Nostalgia: Why Romanticizing the 1950s and 1960s Won't Get Us Anywhere

I'll add that so many people, including a lot of Democrats an Republicans, romanticize about the prosperity of the 1950's and 60's. A time when suburban sprawl, single family neighborhoods and automobile dependency really revved up.

US was pretty much the undisputed industrial leader after World War II, it was also a historic anomaly not likely to be repeated. A pattern of life that's unsustainable emerged. What replaces it could actually be better. Strong Towns has a lot of good ideas for better planning.

I still support the Democrats, more than the Republicans, but there are big changes in planning and living that mainstream politics, on both sides, tends to ignore. I see more talk about these needed changes in local, rather than national, political discussions. Local politicians have to deal with traffic gridlock and so forth.

A better world, in my opinion, would include things like more walk able neighborhoods. This, encouraging healthier, less costly lifestyles.

While the 1950's brought a surge of prosperity, all was not happy. Ask gay people. A lot of minorities were left out. Pedestrians were relegated to the status of second class citizens.

Much of our lives, today, are rooted in the patterns of the 1950's and 1960's. At that time, the patterns seemed beneficial to a lot of people. Comfortable lives, a growing middle class. In a lot of ways, we could do better in the future, but it will be different. It would need to be something more healthy and environmentally sustainable.

I remember the song from the 1960's about little boxes on the hillside made of ticky tacky. People were critical of things, back then. The boxes were houses in Daily City California, so I remember.

Today, those little boxes command very high prices. There is a high price which indicates a strong demand for going back to the way things were before, but back then, there were less people in America. Global warming was hardly an issue. We could get by with it. Today, it's price is very high, but there are people willing to pay for it. Really? Can't we find something better?

On the left, some people say the 1960's American Dream can come back with liberal spending policies, taxing the wealthy and putting more money in the hands of ordinary Americans. Raising minimum wages and so forth to help small business have more customers. Bringing back unions. To some extent, this may be true, but I think the whole dream has to be modified. I think we need new definitions of prosperity. That's why I prefer talk about sustainable development to a lot of the traditional left wing talking points.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Higher taxes passed along to consumer might mean higher prices for cheap stuff. Do we really need all that cheap stuff?

Some economists point out that even if we just increase taxes on the wealthy, higher costs will get passed along to consumers and workers. This argument sometimes kills tax proposals; like the rich folks have us over a barrel due to our cravings for cheap products and services.

I have to ask, do we need all these cheap products and services from places like Amazon and Walmart? Do we need all that clutter in people's lives with it's impact on the natural environment?

There is no free lunch. Life does have tradeoffs. For instance something like a carbon tax would increase things like the cost of gasoline. This is needed for the environment and to nudge technology toward greener energy, but it will hit working people, in the short run. A price that might be worth paying; especially if things are planned carefully to help those who really do need the energy; such as farmworkers following the crops.

A carefully crafted tax bill would need to preserve most of the working assets of businesses; such as the buildings and equipment. Businesses would need to be able to exempt some expenses so the business climate could remain a healthy source of jobs, products, services, taxes and charitable contributions. Otherwise, politicians will hear hell and the political climate favoring the taxes will crumble.

While there is no free lunch, it does seem like we can get by taxing the wealthy to some extent. Due to wide wealth discrepancy; there does seem to be a lot of loose money awash around the world. Wealthy people are looking for places to park their extra personal wealth. Not necessarily in creating businesses. Wealth is used to buy up real estate and in some cases even just leave it empty. They buy empty condos and various properties while other people remain homeless. I hear about wealthy folks buying condos and leaving them empty since having renters is too much hassle. The property goes up in value anyway, even while empty. This indicates too much money is flooding into real estate. In Vancouver, BC. this has been a big problem so they have passed a tax on foreign investors of empty property. Sometimes called the "empty condos tax." This is a worldwide situation. Empty investment properties is a problem in the US as well. A sign of an overheated asset market.

Taxing the wealthy could cause a decline in the markets for things like high priced antiques, summer homes, yachts, collectables, high priced art and so forth.

Increasing revenue for governments could boost the economy in other ways such as infrastructure development and creating jobs in green energy. Also governement can put more money in the hands of lower income consumers thus stimulating consumption.

Friday, October 09, 2020

Macho American "can do" spirit, that Republicans push, doesn't fit the current condition of American's elderly and couch potato public.

The macho American "can do" spirit that so many Republicans like to talk about doesn't really fit the current state of the American people. "Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" might have been more applicable when the demographics of our population skewed more toward younger people. Now we have more of an elderly population and even a lot of younger people with various disabilities. Positive thinking is still useful, but we need a smarter strategy.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Why Republicans can't come up with a better plan than Obamacare. Premiums have to be subsidized for many and Republicans don't like wealth transfer.

Here's why Republicans can't preserve coverage for preexisting conditions and replace Obamacare for average people.

The way that insurance has kept premiums affordable, in the past, was to deny coverage for people with preexisting health conditions. Premiums are less in a pool of lower cost healthier people.

Protecting people with preexisting conditions raises the premiums higher than a large segment of the population can pay. Thus the need to subsidize premiums for lower income people; something Republicans don't like. Subsidies are a form of wealth transfer.

Another way around that dilemma is to have a large pool of insured people; such as big employers providing coverage or universal government provided single payer coverage. The bigger pools tend to spread and soften the spikes in the cost a bit more, but if there are a lot of unhealthy people in the population, premiums are still high. Employers have paid those premiums in the past, but as time goes on, more and more employers are dropping the health coverage they provide to their employees and / or making the employees pay a bigger share of the cost.

Income discrepancy has gotten so high, in this country, that health insurance doesn't work without subsidies.

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Why we humans are worried about this period of climate change and not the others that were millions of years ago.

Why should we be more worried about our current period of climate change than the many big climate changes that have already happened on earth over millions and billions of years?

We weren't living on earth back then so we weren't around to worry about them. This period of climate change, that we are playing a big role in causing, is the one that's effecting us.

Monday, October 05, 2020

Imagine the United States with a population of 1 billion people. A thought experiment.

An interesting thought experiment. What if the US had one billion people? This video says it could be beneficial, due to a larger economy. Bigger markets, more workers, more skills, economic growth.

But what about the environment? Toward the end of this video, the environment was not ignored. Some of the problems and potential solutions were discussed in figuring out how to accommodate 1 billion Americans.

One thing that wasn't mentioned, though, is over population worldwide. At over 7 billion, can the planet survive? 11 billion?

Maybe the US could survive if 1 billion, out of that 7 billion+ people, were to relocate here. The US might be able to hold a larger share of the world's people, but I'd say there is a limit to how many people can comfortably live on earth.

My first thought is that 1 billion Americans would create total gridlock in many aspects of life; especially traffic. If Americans insisted on living, the way Americans do today. Would you be able to find a parking spot?

For 1 billion people to live in USA, big changes would need to be made in the way folks live. More people would have to use alternative transit. There would have to be planning for higher density where most would be living.

As birthrates in the US have dropped, most of this population increase would come from immigration.

According to the video, immigration can fuel economic growth as it has done for decades, but video points out hypocrisy among Republicans who oppose immigration. Republicans seem to want economic growth, but not the growing number of people that fuel the bigger markets.

Republicans say they just oppose illegal immigration which is a valid point, but the author of this video points out that recent Republican policies have strived to reduce legal immigration as well.

Due to China's large market, China is gaining clout and will soon surpass USA.

This video says that Hollywood is now having to kowtow, more and more, to the wishes of the Chinese market. He cited films where mention of Tibetan independence is being removed by Hollywood film makers so the film can sell in China.

I think that this happens, unless there can be custom versions of the film for different markets.

When I was a child, I thought that China's big population was more of a drag; like a millstone around the neck, than a benefit. Too many people for the land and resources.

During my childhood, natural resources, such as minerals, were thought of as wealth. How much copper, iron, timber and food products can you produce? Today, intellectual creativity is more thought of as wealth. In some cases, the more people, the more wealth. Copper and iron can be either recycled or imported.

Still, I have to keep saying, Bigger is not necessarily better and how we live in the environment can make or break us.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Should a vaccine be more widely circulated if it's found to be safe, though not necessarily effective? A bigger trial sample to test its effectiveness?

FDA has a careful process for approving vaccines. I got to thinking the terms "safe" and "effective" are usually said in the same breath. My guess is that "safe" takes less time to test than "effective."

One can get data on the safety of a vaccine pretty quickly if people in the trial aren't having bad side effects.

As for testing effectiveness, people in the trial would need to be exposed to the virus to see if they have immunity. That takes longer as in the normal course of events, not that many people, in the sample, would be exposed. Exposing folks on purpose brings up ethical questions.

Maybe they could separate the two concepts of safe and effective?

If a vaccine is safe, at least in the short run, (not counting possibly some strange cancer 20 years from now), maybe they should distribute it farther and wider? If it's safe though not effective; little is lost.

I would guess it's especially not a big loss since quite a bit of the COVID-19 vaccine has been already manufactured, in this case, to jumpstart eventual distribution. Vaccine that is not safe and effective will have to be thrown out anyway.

A premature distribution could mean a larger pool of people for trials. This would make it easier to test for effectiveness as a larger group of people means more would come in contact with the virus at some point in their normal lives.

Just a thought. Maybe they are doing this, I wouldn't know.

There is also, of course, the worry about public trust of a vaccine when it does become available. I realize that is one reason for caution.