Here’s some stuff you might like.
Business: The graph reflecting the increase in unemployment claims from very small to 3.3 million nationwide in one week probably tells the story as well as anything. About 1 person in every 100 in America (100 people, not 100 workers) lost their jobs in the past week, and we’re just getting started. I used to write in this section that these are the good times economically that we will some day look back on fondly. I didn’t expect to be so right so suddenly.
This morning, the House passed a $2 trillion stimulus package that includes increased unemployment benefits, direct payments to some people, depending on income, and bridge loans for small businesses. The Senate passed the bill earlier this week, and the president will presumably sign it right away. Some of the bridge loans won’t need to be paid back so long as they are used on payroll or other qualifying expenses within two months. And the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. is getting $25 million so at least well-heeled folks in the capital can once again demonstrate how cultured they are once this is all over.
For most, the business environment is really bad, and the bill may help at the margins. However, the longer the quasi-shutdown remains in place, the more uncertain businesses and consumers will be about what the world is going to look like when the worst of the emergency passes. For example, if you own a restaurant you might be wondering if people will start eating out again once they can.
In most economic downturns, the government tries to help or at least tries to appear to help, but what it does often has little to do with the outcome and as often as not makes things worse. In this case, the economic shock is being caused primarily by the government’s response to the coronavirus, so government action related, especially, to the degree of quarantine, will be key to improving the situation. More than anytime in any of our lives (unless you were born prior to the end of World War II), we need our elected leaders to, well, lead. More on that in a bit.
Law: A number of cities in Oregon, including Portland and Bend, outlawed single-use plastic bags and eventually the state followed suit. This has mainly caused me to pay Safeway or Fred Meyer more money for paper bags because I could never remember to bring the reusable ones, but more responsible people like my wife remember to bring the reusable ones from home.
The coronavirus has a knack for turning everything on its head, and it’s done so with plastic bag bans. Those reusable bags that keep single-use bags out of the landfill also bring with them germs from home to the new epicenter of American life: the grocery store. As a result, Massachusetts is now banning reusable shopping bags, and prohibiting stores from charging for single-use plastic or paper bags, overriding a number of local ordinances. Washington, one of the states hardest hit thus far by coronavirus, is plowing ahead with its single-use plastic bag ban, the governor having just signed the bill.
Some stores in Central Oregon are forbidding customers from bringing reusable bags inside due to the risk of infection. Oregon’s ban requires the stores to then charge the shoppers for single-use bags. Shoppers are mad at the stores, but they don’t have a choice. When the legislature convenes, it should repeal the ban and allow stores statewide to give shoppers sanitary, single use bags.
Politics: A couple weeks ago I wrote that the coronavirus was that rarest of creatures these days, a non-partisan thing. Hahaha. That’ll teach me to underestimate partisanship. We’ve seen partisanship rise up in the form of disputes about when to ease off on the quarantine, and whether it’s ok to hold up the stimulus bill in order to require more efficient jet engines in airliners.
Like nature, politics abhors a vacuum (I just had to Google whether “politics” is singular or plural . . . I was a politics major). When a vacuum appears in politics, it’s often filled with partisanship because the party we belong to is often a proxy for our worldview. We trust people in our own parties because we think they more or less usually think like us so we don’t have to understand an issue – we just go with what our guy or gal says. I’m not saying that’s good, but the vast majority of people are just not going to invest the time to actually understand the details of most issues to reach an independent conclusion.
Politicians realize this and act accordingly. Recent elections in the U.S. have tended to be “turnout” elections, in which the leaders of both parties try to maximize turnout among their respective bases by emphasizing issues that are popular with their party but often unlikely to win enough support to become law. Think Medicare for All for Democrats or wall-building at Mexico’s expense for Republicans. There’s really no attempt made to convince the non-believers that it’s the best path forward because the policies are meant primarily to maximize partisan enthusiasm.
Coronavirus is different. It’s an actual, immediate problem that requires our leaders to develop a strategy and marshal evidence to sway voters of all parties that the strategy is the best one to pursue for now. The problem is that our leaders have been chosen in large measure by the old “fire up the base” approach and it’s no surprise that most of them are proving inept at persuasion of those outside their base.
Back to the vacuum. In 2020 more than ever, persuasion requires data. We are a cynical people now, because we’ve been burned by politicians many times before and the Internet makes sure we know it. So, no one is going to “just trust” you. Leaders need to bring voters into their decisionmaking process so they can see the logical connection between data and decision. To do that, voters need to have the same data as the decisionmaker. Unlike in war, there is no secrecy imperative to the information surrounding coronavirus. Our leaders should tell us the metrics upon which they are making decisions and share that data with us. Then, we can make educated decisions about whether we’re on the right track or not.
To Oregon’s credit, it is making more data, including more hospitalization data, available. But additional measures are necessary, including amending HIPAA, the federal law that causes medical offices to send us endless unread notices about their privacy policies but also prevents sharing more specific information about patients suffering from COVID-19. Information like age, underlying conditions, where they live, etc. that can help the public understand the nature of the challenge and the adequacy of our leaders’ response. In times when the rights of so many Americans are being severely curtailed to combat the coronavirus, it’s reasonable to relax patient privacy to ensure that people really understand what’s going on.
If our leaders would demonstrate to us that they are doing everything possible to empower us as citizens to understand the problem and their solution, they would fill at least part of the vacuum that partisanship relies on. People are paying attention, because their lives depend on it, and they can and will process and use the information they have. If that information is lacking, they’ll return to their partisan trenches, which will harm our ability to get out of this mess.
Et cetera: Anna and I don’t get to watch many movies outside the Pixar genre because kids. This week, though, we used the quarantine as an excuse to watch “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” which is the Tom Hanks movie about Mr. Rogers. It’s really, really good. If, like me, you watched Mr. Rogers as a kid, the movie is absolutely captivating. It’s a happy story for a difficult time.
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Have a great weekend!