Thursday, April 30, 2020

Inside the Mind of Elected Officials During a Crisis

"I better make the right decision..."

During a crisis such as COVID-19, it helps to understand the thinking that goes on in the minds of elected officials behind closed doors. 

First of all, they are human. They are fearful of making the wrong decision since so much is at stake. 

Fortunately, the only true “life or death” vote Congress has to take from time to time is sending soldiers to war, which happens infrequently. 

Government shutting down the economy to save lives due to a virus has now become another “life or death” decision. We have never had a coordinated federal/state/local government shutdown of our entire economy before under any circumstance — not after Pearl Harbor, not during swine flu, not during the AIDS outbreak of the 80s, not during the polio virus epidemic of the 1950s in America, and not after 9/11. 

What is the precedent we are setting for the future?  

We don’t ask our elected officials to lock us up every year to protect us from all harm. If we did, we could avoid 40,000 car-related deaths per year. Our economy stays open every flu season even though it claims an average of 45,000 Americans in spite of the fact we have multiple vaccines available today. The sheer impracticality and absurdity of 330 million freedom-loving Americans living cloistered lives prevents any elected official from considering such draconian measures. 

“The art of politics,” said Reinhold Niebuhr, “is finding proximate solutions to basically insoluble problems.” We elect people to find ways to help protect us from certain threats by mitigating risk and loss of life as much as possible even though we know that eliminating risk and death 100% from daily life is completely and utterly impossible. 

Politicians engage in utilitarian theory, whether they know it or not, to find those proximate, but not perfect, solutions on a daily basis. Espoused by 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill, utilitarianism helped foster the notion that “the greatest good for the greatest number of people” should be the goal of every politician. An ardent advocate of individual rights, Mill argued that freedom offered the greatest hope for the most people in any society. 

Despite being a proponent of personal freedom, Mill did acknowledge the necessity for the coercive power of government authorities, through the law and public opinion, to defend ourselves and others from being harmed. But under what conditions and for how long of a period of time? 

On March 11, Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for coronavirus and the NBA canceled the season. Two days later, the New York Times published a story that led with the assertion that 2.2 million deaths “could” occur in America without a lot of caveats and hedging until later in the story. 

Faced with the possibility of 2.2 million deaths and a complete stampede of hospital capacity, President Trump, governors and mayors listened to health experts who urged them to take prudent cautionary steps to issue stay-at-home orders and essentially shut down the economy overnight. 

Today, experts expect nationwide fatalities of 67,000 due to COVID-19-related complications. Had 67,000 fatalities been predicted in March, a whole different set of policies would have been taken at the federal, state and local levels of government. North Carolina is now expected to experience 370 fatalities due to COVID-19 by Aug. 6, far down from the many thousands predicted in March. 

The utilitarian question today is this: What is “the greatest good for the greatest number of people” going forward? What is the proximate, albeit not “perfect” return-to-work policy? How long should our economy be closed down before 750,000 laid-off North Carolinians can go back to work? The longer North Carolina businesses stay closed-to-semi-closed, the higher the probability becomes that many of the small businesses that laid off their workers will not be open to hire them back. 

One thing we do know for sure is that our economy has to open up pretty soon with certain protective health restrictions such as social distancing and wearing masks and gloves or else we will revisit the economic devastation of the Great Recession of 2008-2010.  

We can’t stay closed forever.  That would be utilitarian theory in reverse: "The least good for the leas number of people".

(first published in North State Journal 4/29/20)

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Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Parable of the Hive Beetle

Life Before Hive Beetle Pandemic
My wife has a beehive in the backyard. Our sons gave it as a birthday present to her as if she had nothing else to do and needed yet another activity in her busy life. 

Beehives are a favorite of ministers everywhere. There are hundreds of life lessons on virtues that can be learned from bees; industriousness, cooperation; perseverance. Honey is mentioned 61 times in the Bible signifying something good about to happen — entering “the land of milk and honey” for one prominent example. 

I have grown to love the bees too. Except when they sting me and my hand or face swells up. I may have learned how to seal up my entire body with beekeeper protective gear to prevent being stung again, although, like in real life, no matter how many precautions I take, I probably will be stung again. 

Life itself is risky. 

We have a beautiful hive. It has grown and split and swarmed so many times that over 2 million bees with the DNA of Queen Lorraine have pollinated flowers and vegetable gardens in a 2-mile radius since 2016. 

The hive has produced extraordinary honey. Once you try it, you will never buy honey in a grocery store again. Our honey has hints of jasmine, quince and hawthorn depending on the season when harvested. It is clear amber, sometimes a darker shade, sometimes lighter but always amazing and magical when you realize it comes from 80,000 bees working in harmony together. 

Until three weeks ago, that is. Through no fault of the bees and to the total surprise of their beekeepers, the hive was invaded by a scourge called the hive beetle. A native of sub-Saharan Africa, they migrated to America in 1988 where they wreak havoc on bee colonies across the nation.  

Hive beetles are to beehives what General Sherman was to the South in 1864 — total swift destruction, annihilation and warfare. 

In late March, 60,000 bees left the hive with the previous queen which is what healthy beehives do. A professional beekeeper came one night to capture the swarm which he took to his farm in Wendell.  

Past swarms have happened and our hive has rebuilt each time with a new queen as Nature intended. This time, with no warning whatsoever, even though the hive had been inspected by an expert right before the swarm, hundreds of hive beetles invaded at the most vulnerable time and proceeded to lay thousands of eggs next to bee larvae in the honeycomb. 

Seven days later, the hive beetle eggs hatched. Tens of thousands of beetle larvae emerged and marched right through the entire hive. The invaders destroyed tens of thousands of bee larvae and pristine honey in a matter of days in what had been a perfectly operating hive just two weeks prior. 

Eighty pounds of beautiful honey was converted into a disgusting, fermented waste dump overnight it seemed as hive beetle larvae ate their way through the hive, defecated and “slimed” every frame in the hive. Nothing was left of the pure, sweet amber honey we had enjoyed in previous years; it had all been converted into a blackened, smelly putrid tomb of honeycomb wax. All of the next brood of bees were destroyed as well. 

The attack of these hive beetles revealed the fragility of life. One day, everything seemed normal and rocking along in our beloved beehive; the next day brought disaster. 

What matters most now in the aftermath is how the bees respond to the crisis. 

Despite the total destruction of the beehive by an invading force, the remaining bees are hard at work trying to rebuild the hive with new clean frames supplied by their beekeepers. There may or may not be a viable queen left to sustain the hive; if not, a new one will have to be found and placed in there to restore normal function again.  

The bees are too busy working to restore the hive to be blaming other bees or their beekeepers for this crisis. That is what bees do; they work. 

Once restored, every precaution will be taken to prevent the re-occurrence of the Hive Beetle Pandemic of 2020. We don’t ever want to go through this again and neither do the bees.

(First published in North State Journal 4/22/20)

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Wednesday, April 15, 2020

China Will Pay For This Coronavirus Catastrophe

One thing is certain; after this COVID-19 virus dissipates around the globe and in the United States, China will pay for this catastrophe one way or another.

In order to put the crisis caused by China in perspective, zero worldwide pandemics can trace their source to the United States over our 231-year history.

At least four in the 20th century alone can be directly traced to China: 1957 “Asian flu,” 1968 “Hong Kong flu,” 1977 “Russian flu” and the 2002 SARS outbreak. There is evidence that the massive 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic also had its origins in China.

There is 100% agreement, outside of China, that COVID-19 originated in Wuhan Province probably from the completely unregulated and unsanitary wet markets. Some believe it came out of a biowarfare lab run by the communist Chinese army.

Until China adopts rigorous verifiable policing and regulation of their food safety and health protocols, American business has no other choice than to build redundant manufacturing plants elsewhere purely for national security and safety reasons as well as supply and delivery reliability concerns.

The most direct way to make China “pay” for this disaster is to offer U.S. tax credits to companies who will source at least half of their production back in the United States. There is approximately $120 billion worth of American direct investment in plants and equipment in China. Chinese direct investment in the U.S. is about $65 billion by comparison.

An investment tax credit of 30% on half of U.S. investment in China today, or $60 billion, applied to repatriated American manufacturing investment to the U.S. would cost the U.S. Treasury $18 billion in tax revenue spread over a few years. $18 billion in lost revenue is decimal dust compared to the $6 trillion+ Marshall Plan we are now undertaking to save our own economy, not of defeated enemies as in the past.

China has been cheating, stealing, pirating and pillaging American business now for the past 30 years. They have made no secret that they intend to replace the U.S. as the premier superpower in the world and replace the dollar as the reserve currency with their renminbi.

The cavalier manner in which China lied about the origin of the virus, covered up its spread and tried to tell the world there were only 3,341 related deaths has led to worldwide panic, economic collapse and millions of Americans needlessly being thrown out of work.

The crisis has cost the U.S. taxpayer at least $2.4 trillion in added debt plus trillions more in Federal Reserve backup liquidity to the markets and financial outlets. If the U.S. dollar were not the reserve currency, we would not be able to fund any of these emergency measures without immediate fear of rampant inflation and currency depreciation.

China has to pay for their aberrant ways and decisions through economic and financial means. Diplomacy has obviously not worked to bring China into the civilized world of 21st century health, hygiene and fair trade. Totalitarian communist regimes never take the blame or express sincere regret and remorse, because that is not what totalitarian governments do. They take advantage of every weakness they find in adversaries and keep pushing until they win or the adversaries push back.

That is, unless an exogenous event happens such as the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. Some experts believe that event, not the Star Wars program of Reagan, led directly to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989.

Perhaps COVID-19 is China’s Chernobyl.

Senators in Washington are already talking about the possibility of China forgiving $1.2 trillion in debt we owe them as one way to get China to “pay” for the damage they have caused the US. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a Chinese “Jubilee” to happen but ask your elected representatives to hold China accountable in tangible financial ways for this disaster.

It is about time they are expected to operate as responsible citizens of the world like any other modern nation.

(first published in North State Journal 4/15/20)

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Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Passover 2020 Is For Everyone

The First Passover

A person doesn’t even have to be religious to participate in the transformational aspects of Passover this year. COVID-19 has forced us to all become more “Jewish” whether we acknowledge it or not.

We are all cloistered, for the most part, in our homes while a deadly pestilence makes its way through our population. In a very small way, we can understand why Jews have been observing Passover for close to 3,500 years. Once we make it through the crisis and get back to a more normal schedule and rhythm of life, we should remember this time as a time of testing, a time of resolve and a time of deliverance, just like the Jews have done every year since the first Passover.

The Jews had been held in slavery by various Egyptian pharaohs for hundreds of years. Moses, born a Hebrew but adopted into Pharaoh’s family, was banished and then returned to free his people. When nine plagues failed to convince Rameses of the power of the Hebrew God, Yahweh, a 10th plague was unleashed that killed the first-born son of every family in Egypt, including the first-born of every animal.

Only the Jews who brushed sacrificial blood of a lamb over their doors were spared as the Angel of Death “passed over” their homes.

The Great Pharaoh himself, despite all his perceived power and might, couldn’t protect his own son from the 10th plague. He finally relented and set his Jewish slaves free. The Jews had to leave quickly so all they could take were some belongings and unleavened bread which is commemorated each year in the Seder meal.

During Passover, Christians will observe Good Friday and then Easter Sunday during a week that has intertwined the two faiths for over 2000 years. Both religious observances address something important in the lives of human beings everywhere — the passage from bondage to freedom, from despair to hope and from death to life.

To Christians, Jesus was the sacrificial lamb who shed His blood not over the door frames of their homes but over the hearts, lives and souls of believers to allow them to “pass over” from death into eternal life.

Prior to the social distancing and shelter-in-place orders to protect us from coronavirus, if we are honest with ourselves, we can admit that we harbored certain aspects of our basic humanity that are not generally considered virtuous or admirable. We “hated” people who had different political views from ours. We worried too much about our financial health at the expense of our physical, mental, psychological or spiritual needs, because we said we would “get to it someday down the road.” We did not love one another with brotherly affection.

Perhaps this shared time of quiet while waiting for the pandemic to subside will allow us to shed whatever burdens we had in the past and make a new fresh beginning. A personal “Passover” for each of us.

There may be non-religious people who can turn on their internal goodness directional finder without any spiritual guidance or belief structure. If so, good for them; they are far better people than many of us. Humans are hard-wired to think of themselves and their families first due to thousands of years of genetic selection. If non-believers can figure how to love their enemy and turn the other cheek when wronged without any faith or spiritual help from above, well then God bless them.

Regardless of how we get there, Passover 2020 can be a time where we are all transformed in a way that makes us more thankful for what we have rather than complaining about what we don’t have. 

Post-COVID-19 can be a time where Americans act with more charity, grace and mercy towards one another than we have in the years before this trial.

(first published in North State Journal 4/8/20)
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Thursday, April 2, 2020

The World After COVID-19

9/11 changed America forever. Chernobyl changed the Soviet Union forever.

COVID-19 will change the world forever.

Asymmetric threats are defined as unexpected attacks from unusual sources that catch military leaders unawares and unprepared. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld memorably commented after the Islamic terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in 2001: “We don’t know what we don’t know.”

For some reason, COVID-19 is one such asymmetric threat that caught the world flat-footed. Fear of Coronavirus has caused exponentially more disruption around the globe than SARS, MERS and H1N1 combined in past pandemic scares.

What do we know will be different going forward in America already?

The first bubble that has been popped is the argument that pharmaceutical and medical device companies are “mean and evil” and only interested in making money for their shareholders. Even the most bitter critics of the health care industry in America are refraining from attacking the very people they are hoping will figure out solutions to curb the bow wave of infections across the nation.

The “armed forces” in this war against COVID-19 are dressed in white jackets, wear N95 masks and work in hospitals and labs. Every health care worker should be viewed as a hero much like our men and women in the military for protecting our health against these invisible invaders.

Colleges and universities are going to have trouble justifying huge annual tuition increases now that it’s been shown they can educate millions of students remotely online for a semester. Why not a full year at much lower cost?

China will not replace the United States as the preeminent world superpower in our lifetime. Their constant history of lying, covering up and cheating has caught up with them in their handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Major U.S. corporations are going to have to re-source production from China to America for critical materials such as surgical masks, medical equipment and pharmaceuticals to prevent shortages of any product or material that can be considered “essential to our national security.”

The FDA has proven it can expedite clinical trials with relative lightning speed during this crisis. Expect to see efforts in Congress to make it more streamlined for approvals in the future.

Voters are going to wonder how the Schiff intelligence committee of Congress can spend millions of taxpayer dollars over three years and never find one piece of evidence that a bio-warfare virus might have escaped a Chinese military lab in Wuhan province.

Young voters will have much more debt to pay back with the passage of the $2 trillion CARES Act. It usually has taken at least three years to add $2 trillion to our national debt in the last decade; this herculean feat will happen in two months.

The open borders movement has lost. Borders are closing all over the world to protect their citizens from deadly virus transmissions from everywhere else. The EU is closing borders so fast that it may cease to function as an economic entity since the UK got out right before the crisis hit.

The World Health Organization will be scrutinized for its role in not preventing the spread of the virus and subsequent mitigation. Many of its pronouncements have fallen far short of the truth so far.

Perhaps everyone will take advantage of the stay-at-home orders and get the rest and exercise they
need to become more fit and healthy for life on the other side of this shutdown. Many people may experience a spiritual renewal, and churches will see attendance rise instead of steadily declining like in the last decade.

If nothing else, Americans should be nicer to each other in the aftermath of such a shared crisis experience. It is amazing how many nice people you can meet walking around your own neighborhood when everyone else is doing the same thing.

(first published in North State Journal 4/1/20)

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