Waking up to political reality

While the upcoming national election campaigns appear to be hold, or at least on simmer, a political firestorm is nevertheless brewing.

For starters, many of us are not pleased that the choice for chief executive is coming down to two white males in their 70s, but the differences between them are vast. As in HUGE. (I’ll save that rant for later, if necessary.)

We weren’t happy that the other remaining alternative was also a white male in his 70s, but the scarier part was the rabid stance of some of his followers that if he’s not on the ballot, they won’t bother voting. They say they’ll vote only for the Revolution, and some even say that it will rise from the ruins of what’s falling around us. I wish they’d see it’s not that simple or natural. When Rome fell, it was gone.

Another revolution has been taking root in the past four years, one that’s not yet completed but definitely threatening everything the Founding Fathers established. Not all revolutions end on a positive note, after all. Look at history and you’ll see how many have ended in dictatorships and/or social destruction.

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So our political quandary is not all about Covid-19, either, or at least not directly, though the epidemic has been exposing some longstanding stress points in society.

Health care is one, though it still has a long way to go to work efficiently and equitably. Covid-19 is exposing many of its weaknesses and heroic strengths.

Education and student loan debt is another frontier, going back to the shortcomings of No Child Left Behind and a comprehensive understanding of just what education means, especially when we’re dealing with children born with a laptop or smartphone in their fingers. Those kids face the world in a whole new way. What on earth can play even mean for them? And a public school system designed to train them to work in factories that have long since left the USA is another obstacle. Is anybody talking about this in the public arena?

And then there’s the broader economy, beginning with the disconnect between investors and labor. More crucially, the disturbing awakening some conservative analysts are seeing between the gains of digital advances and the devastating losses of lowest level labor. This is going to be HUGE when the bills start amassing.

This shouldn’t be an arcane discussion.

Still, let’s look at the more pressing aspect. The biggest depression in a century? Combined with the makeshift payout, with one with the Donald’s signature on the checks.

Who’s paying for all this? Yes, we had to go back to get his unauthorized fricking egotistical name of the bills we’re paying.

Look, we’re lending free money to big banks, which in turn charge HUGE usury rates on their credit cards. WTF? No wonder we’re getting next to zero on our return on any savings. Real conservatives used to advocate personal savings. Far from that any more. The faux/Fox pseudo-conservatives are on that public-treasury gravy train. Besides, many if not all HUGE corporations aren’t paying federal taxes. Ditto for many of the super-rich who benefited from the so-called trickle-down tax reforms starting in the Ronald Reagan posturing.

Let us all eat cake, then. Does anyone else remember where that led? (Whack! Whack! Whack!)

By the way, whatever happened to antitrust actions? I ponder that every time I get my online server bill, which inches by dollars up every month. Not that this corporations has any real competition. This household is about to bolt to the only other alternative and swallow the quality difference.

A generic side to Dover’s downtown transformation

As I’ve looked with delight at the renaissance of my small city’s downtown, one modeled in part on Jane Jacobs’ then revolutionary attack on urban renewal back in the ’50s, I am a bit bothered by how much of it is now based on a commercial cookie-cutter concept known as mid-rises – five-story stick-frame construction above a steel-frame pedestal that’s then given a brick or similar exterior facing.

It’s happening all over the country, actually, and not just in the heart of a city, either. Even here in Dover, we’re seeing something similar happening about a mile south of downtown as an over 50s-something neighborhood called Pointe Place with rents that astound me. Who can afford it? Some retirees, apparently. It’s a downtown within a doughnut, in effect. You can’t really walk there from anywhere else.

Of course, the Covid-19 pall casts a big shadow over these developments, but some observers say it might encourage more people to move from big cities to smaller communities like ours. We’ll have to be patient and see what actually unfolds.

As I’ve argued here in various forms, I’d rather have a real city center abutting organic neighborhoods, one with a funky fringe of mixed-use buildings, unlike apartment complexes surrounded by parking lots along the major highways or shopping strips.

What we definitely have here in Dover is the attraction of a river that rises and falls with the tide, as well as the historic mills once renowned for their calico and now serving as entrepreneurial incubators and housing.

Call it atmosphere and scale.

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As Dover’s emerged as New Hampshire’s fastest growing city, the bulk of the new downtown residents are presumably singles and child-free couples, either young professionals or older folks who want the amenities of living close to restaurants, parks, and public events.

The retail and professional rentals are a larger concern, though, especially as many small merchants find themselves at a disadvantage against Amazon. Take the local hobby shop as an example. And that’s even before the bigger threat of coronavirus hit the entire economy.

Even so, these projects haven’t been on hold.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The new Orpheum takes shape downtown, matching the height of the old Masonic building to its east and the old Strafford Bank across from that. The spire at top left is city hall, a block away from the back of the new building in what was previously a parking lot.
The Robbins Block storefronts are now gone and a five-story Orpheum is rising in their place. The hardware store, lower right, is still there. From the top left are the library, community center, and district court.

The old block may look charming in the photo, but the buildings were rundown and unwelcoming to pedestrians, as was the sprawling parking lot behind them. There was also a traffic bottleneck that’s being eliminated.

Greetings from the bunker

Unlike many journalists, who lust after the scoop – to be hailed as the first to the punch in revealing the newest surprise in a hot ongoing drama, especially – I preferred to wait for the dust to settle a bit so we could discern the bigger picture. Yes, I was still competitive, but too often all the latest clamor struck me as confusion. What’s REALLY going on here, rather than who’s speaking the loudest or all that, is what I wanted to hear.

(Actually, with the presence of ’round-the-clock cable news and Internet connections, it’s gotten much worse. Just look at how the current resident of the White House stirs up something fresh before the outrage of his last errant lunacy can even sink in.)

The Covid-19 situation is turning into something similar. Who can keep up with the story? There are so many elements, not just the latest numbers or locations.

We’re definitely facing some ominous long-term impacts here, and we’re not getting much clarity yet.

A big exception has been voices like the Atlantic, as well as the New York Times and Washington Post.

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For me, many of the biggest issues emerge around the question:

Who’s going to pay for this?

Wall Street still hasn’t factored in the debt load, unless maybe as inflation. Make that HUGE debt load and HUGE inflation, unless the wealthiest five percent of the population come to the rescue, whether they want to or not. We can look at their gains via tax cuts as longterm loans to be repaid royally now.

As a few of the clairvoyants have noted, many of the problems now emerging have been long simmering and coronavirus is merely bringing them to the fore.

Student debt loan would be one, especially if bankruptcies become widespread.

The future of retailing would be another. And the entire medical system.

The lack of antitrust action in the face of cable operators, Amazon, Walmart, and the like would be yet another.

We get glimmers here and there, but little in the way of big pictures, which are ominous.

As one voice emphasized, we do have socialization in America, but not for the people. We’ve privatized profits while socializing risks for big corporations. That’s not real capitalism. Just watch as they line up for a bailout at the public trough. Keep an eye especially on the ones laying off people and closing plants while taking the aid for themselves and their overpaid top executives. How about tying any aid to an exchange of stock placed in public trust funds, for starters?

By the way, is anyone else aghast at the Donald’s insistence on putting his signature on those relief checks, as if he’s paying out of his own pocket? Such bombast!

Well, we can’t go out to dine, but we can get an early start on grilling in the Smoking Garden beside the barn. Cheers!

~*~

One canary-in-the-mine-shaft question of mine asks:

How will performing arts organizations survive this shutdown?

For me, they’re essential components to society. The artists have trained all their lives for what are often marginal wages, and the supportive structures are not easily created. Rebuilding audiences will not be easy, especially in the face of damaged incomes in general. Yet they’re crucial to the fabric of civilized community.

Unlike sports, the arts don’t have huge advertising revenues. They reflect a number of similar services that make our communities better places to live, no matter how modest their seeming place in the overall scene. We need to make note of them, too, and redress the suffering.

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Is anyone else watching the impact as Covid-19 spreads from the big cities into the suburbs and rural areas – that is, from urban (which also translates as black and immigrant and blue) into red-district Trump country? The virus is no longer a safe distance from “them,” or what was originally dismissed as a liberal hoax to tarnish their cult leader, and instead clearly appearing as a cruel reality. We’re back to the already fragile state of health care in rural America, for starters.

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The fact is, at the rate Covid-19 cases were initially multiplying, we could have had 40 million infected people by Easter, had we not gone into quarantine. As I almost quipped back then:

How would the nation’s funeral industry cope with an extra 450,000 corpses?

Does Covid-19 spell the death of local newspapers, too?

Jack Shafer of Politico magazine recently aired his argument against including newspapers in stimulus aid for companies hurt by what he calls the coronavirus apocalypse. As his title says, “Don’t waste stimulus money on newspapers. You wouldn’t put a dead man on a ventilator, would you?”

It’s a harsh assessment, coming not from a right-wing fanatic but someone who values the experience of reading the news on paper. He knows all too well the precarious state of the news industry even before the Covid-19 devastation, and I hate to admit I have to agree with him.

If you want to see my take on some of the deep systemic financial problems, just turn to my novel Hometown News, available as an ebook.

For a little perspective, you have to realize you can’t even purchase blank newsprint for the cost of your local paper, and that’s without anything on it or delivery to your doorstep or favorite store or the box on the corner.

Shafer is not talking about the handful of national papers that are thriving, thanks to a surge of online subscribers during the Trump nightmare. He’s talking about the local papers across the country, many of them now owned by hedge funds and similar short-view gaming investors. The kind of enterprise that has gone from family ownership with roots in the community to a global conglomerate that sees money in liquidation, as in who-are-you-all-anyway and why-do-you-matter when it comes to the locals.

Well, with oil companies lining up for relief aid, newspapers definitely should be higher on the list. But I digress.

In some ways, the papers are a canary in the mine shaft, or a dinosaur looking into the eyes of an approaching train, if you care to mix metaphors. Remember what happened to the railroads, after all, when the Interstates were built … with public money. Again, I digress.

The biggest question for me is what happens to local communities if and/or when the local papers expire.

First, of course, is that the public loses an essential watchdog on grassroots level politics. Believe me, local officials act differently when they know they’re under scrutiny. It will cost you dearly when they’re not.

Covering their meetings and the impact takes time, knowledge, ability, and courage. If you’re simply blogging in your spare time, you can be bullied or miss the follow-up phone calls. ‘Nuff said there. We’re facing a threat to ground-level democracy, OK? How many of us can really afford a lawyer?

Second, though, is the loss of local identity. I think most newspapers have fallen down here, failing to raise distinct columnists you just have to read first thing in the morning, but that’s not the only problem. How important is your neighborhood and the general area to you, anyway? Do you even know your neighbors?

A third problem involves the local economy. For one thing, there’s been a huge shift in local retailing, from mom-and-pop stores to the big-box intruders at the mall or Miracle Mile and then online, as in Amazon. The mom-and-pops are the lifeblood of newspaper revenue. Those glossy inserts pay next to diddly. And when’s the last time you saw anything from that monster Amazon or even Craig’s list, which is killing the classifieds?

The obvious shift would be from on-paper publication altogether to online presence only, but no newspapers have figured out how to manage this. It requires subscriber-paid content. Web users are way too used to getting everything for free.

By the way, I hope television and radio are not included in the assistance packages. Yes, they, too, are suffering loss of ad revenue and audience. Rotsaluck. Their news coverage, meanwhile,  often rips off a lot of newspaper stories and then act as if they actually had reporters there. Who will take up the slack? Again, rotsaluck.

Which leads me to one more thought. Sports radio. That once hot-in-the-ratings screaming format that pushed broadcasting from music to talk and then to professional, mostly, athletics – with regional loyalties and identity. What’s happening there, now that nobody’s playing?

Where are you getting your community news?

Religion and the global backlash

Have you ever heard someone blame religion for all the armed conflicts in the world? It’s an easy accusation to make, at least until you look deeper to see the financial, ethnic, even racial motivations underlying the violent and oppressive actions throughout history.

Karl Marx may have called religion the opiate of the people, but he also saw economic inequalities as the real oppressor. Labor inequities were only the tip of that iceberg. For once, you can call me a Marxist, at least on that count.

As a member of a historic Peace Church denomination (a grouping that also includes Mennonites, Brethren, and Amish), I can view the wider Christian stream from a critical perspective that acknowledges the many ways faith communities get co-opted by what is often called the World in earlier pronouncements or Empire in corners of our own – even seduced by the vast range of secular idols. What emerges is corrupted and even false religion, not even of a godly scope.

That perspective can provide for a long examination, one far too broad for a mere blog post.

Nevertheless, in the face of the rising stream of intolerant and often violent social and political backlash across America and Europe, especially, I sense that the anger and hatred are fueled by a post-Christian mindset, one that is ultimately materialistic, divisive, and nihilistic.

In contrast, what I’ve often found in radical faith across traditions is an alternative of hope, humility, justice, and love. Repeatedly, progressive social, political, and economic reformers have had religious roots and support. It’s not an even history, and one that is too often countered by reactionary forces, but I wonder how else the world might turn back the growing darkness without people drawn together in deep spiritual faith and discipline.

The continuing marginalization of religion – especially radical religion, like that I espouse – is one more means of inhibiting any challenge to the few who are reaping the vast benefits of the ongoing social breakdown for their own personal gain.

Where do you find refuge, renewal, and opportunities for social progress?

 

How are your out-of-pocket expenses going during Covid-19?

Back at the beginning of February, my wife and I each began using little notebooks to record all of our out-of-pocket spending, a practice I’ve discussed on the Talking Money series at my Chicken Farmer I Still Love You blog.

While both of us had a good grasp of where these little expenditures were going, by sitting down together once a week to compare them, we had a clearer of idea of what the other was up to as well as how some of our own impulse purchases were adding up. Or, more accurately, subtracting from our resources. I hate to admit I was probably stricter on my own indulgeances when I knew I was being watched. Ahem.

Well, we did well for most of the month and then slid on the data sharing as out schedules got out of kilter when it came to finding time of the comparisons.

Flash forward two months from that start, and I’m looking at what’s left of my notebook as well as at my wallet and coin change pile.

Quite simply, during the self-isolation of Covid-19, I’m spending very little beyond the usual checks for utilities and the like. I’m not going much of anywhere, so gasoline usage, car maintenance, and highway tolls spending are way down. My wife’s working largely from home, so her commuting costs are down, too. We can’t dine out and we’re not ordering takeout, apart from one mushroom-and-sausage pizza several weeks ago. I’m not dashing out on small grocery runs, and we are being more focused in the usual supermarket shopping, trying to keep it to once a week. Instead, we’re trying to work down through our pantry and big freezer, as far as food goes.

In addition, this is Great Lent, so we’re off wine, beer, and gin, not that we can blame that on the virus, but the savings there are significant, even as the ennui of quarantine does raise the temptation level. Admittedly, I do miss my evening ‘tini.

With many stores open reduced hours, the major shopping temptation is online. Gotta be careful there, as I see from all the Amazon and UPS and FedEx trucks popping down the street. I’m grateful every time one goes past without stopping here.

We are realizing that our charitable donations will be more important than ever.

And looking ahead, I am wondering about this year’s yard sales and how they’ll be affected.

How is the Covid-19 impacting the money in your life?

Colleges closed down 50 years ago this spring

With all of the college students furloughed home to study online, it’s hard to believe the last time American campuses shut down was springtime a half century ago. Make that the ONLY time.

It was different, though, in several key ways.

The kids weren’t told to pack up and go home. No, we stayed together rather than scattered.

The strikes came from the students and then faculty as a protest against administrators and national events, rather than orders from the top-down.

They were triggered by the slayings of unarmed students at Jackson State in Mississippi and Kent State in Ohio by police and national guardsmen. (Sorry about the pun.)

There were other factors as well.

For those who are interested, my novel Daffodil Uprising covers much of that experience.

~*~

What’s happening today reflects a much different generational divide.

We shared a dream, and our career options appeared wide-open, though they chilled greatly in an economic downturn later that spring. We felt a hippie kinship across much of the nation. And we were angry.

By the way, we weren’t burdened by tuition debt, much less one we’d likely never be able to pay off over our working lifetime.

~*~

At the moment, the generational divide I’m watching is an attitude many have that Covid-19 is just for old folks (like me) or those with preexisting conditions (like some younger people I’m worrying about). Some of them think they’re immune or won’t get truly sick. As one I overheard saying, “I’d take a coronavirus for the team.” Oh, dear.

Let’s get real. I’ll go back to that report from France, where half of the intensive care beds were occupied by people under 30.

Still, there’s much more in this generational divide that’s simply festering. We ignore it at our own peril. What’s your take?

What’s with all the hoarding?

Where I live, any weather forecast of an approaching nor’easter, big snow, or deteriorating hurricane is enough to prompt a run on all of a supermarket’s milk, canned soup, and bread, usually in that order. It’s idiotic, I know, but it is a New England tradition for many households.

Somehow, though, those grocery shelves are always reloaded by the next day or two. Not to worry.

What we’re seeing with Covid-19, however, is something different. I mean, toilet paper? At first, I thought it was a joke, considering all the BS emanating from the hat-guy and the mess we’ve been hoping to clean up through the last three years. But no, not quite that, even if it does make for an easy-to-connect symbol of what’s passing for leadership.

I’m not sure where this one originated, but my old roommate from the early ’70s sent it my way.

Face it, people are scared.

Scared of something they can’t see, a virus.

They want something to hold on to, a sense of security or invincibility.

No wonder sanitizer suddenly became a valued commodity.

As “it” spread – the virus and the hoarding – the dried bean shelves were soon also emptied of something most Americans normally wouldn’t eat on a bet. (When’s the last time you had bean soup? It raises a specter of soup kitchens and poverty in the Great Depression, right?) So leave the chick peas (garbanzos), lentils, turtle beans, and the like for those of us who really cook with them, will ya? Store after store, ransacked.

‘Fess up. How are using beans in your kitchen? Which ones? Kidney beans in chili count, by the way.

Add to missing in action list all those ramen soup packets, which do reflect changing tastes in the USA. Besides, they’re easy to cook, even for a 10-year-old, so I can understand why they’ve been raided. But the sriracha? Maybe we should spread a rumor that it’s Chinese. (Its roots are Thai or Burmese, actually, but why quibble?)

Coffee and beer supplies, meanwhile, seem to be holding up, at least here.

We’re told of massed shoppers queued up in lines winding around one Costco building in California days on end. We just don’t have one within an hour of home, so we haven’t witnessed that phenomenon for ourselves.

We do know of one independent grocery, however, that’s being shunned – the Chinese one down the road. That’s a shame, for their food’s notable. You want fresh fish? They know their stuff. Where do you think we first found ramen and Sriracha and tofu, anyway?

Well, in all of this, we can add another phrase to our common usage: shelf-stable items.

What empty shelves and missing items have surprised you the most?    

Now for the real estate hit

A few months back, I was reading an analysis by one business columnist who argued that in the upcoming recession, which at the time looked about a year away, real estate prices would be little impacted.

Hah! Despite his numbers and the curves on his charts, I thought he was badly mistaken. I felt – and still do – that he was leaving an important factor out of his calculations. So much of what I saw in the 1990 real estate collapse was a consequence of households where one of the two working adults had been laid off. With housing prices as high as they were, one income was dedicated solely for the mortgage payment while the other was left to cover the remaining living expenses. Nonexistent savings weren’t going to be part of that calculus.

An old rule-of-thumb was that the purchase price of the home should be no more than 2½ times the annual household income Looking around here, I’ve been puzzled that anyone can afford a home at all, especially considering the declining wages we’ve been seeing across the board or the difficulty of younger workers trying to land full-time jobs with benefits.

Quite simply, we couldn’t afford to buy our own house if we were in the market again. And many of the people we talk to admit the same thing, nodding their heads in sad agreement.

As for single-adult households? The odds are even worse.

Flash to the present, with its record layoffs already. History sometimes does repeat itself.

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In the past week, two stories have pushed the developing Covid-19 situation along these lines.

One noted that real estate transactions have essentially gone dormant. Nobody’s out looking to buy and move up, forget an open house, and sellers are reluctant to have strangers traipsing through their dwelling and touching their stuff. We’re all more or less hunkered down.

And now we’re hearing dire warnings that the mortgage industry is on the verge of collapse or meltdown as homeowners (and presumably many businesses as well) are already falling behind in their payments.

Let’s see how the stock market reacts when it wakes up to these turns.

There’s a lot more to the economy than Wall Street, for sure.

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By the way, the U.S. is now the epicenter of the pandemic, and the numbers are just beginning to soar. Nate Silver, the statistics guru at FiveThirtyEight, reports that the cases and fatalities are rising faster in the Trump-leaning red states than in the blue states, where more of the testing has occurred. Within a month, he says, the per capital rate of new coronavirus cases in Trump country should outstrip those in the rest of the nation.

Let’s see what that does to public discourse and opinion.

About those numbers we’re all watching

Part of the fixation in watching the Covid-19 spread in the U.S. is in the suspense of discovering how accurately the experts’ projections hold up, especially in contrast to the deceptive and wishful thinking emanating from the White House and its cronies.

With the disease now in all 50 states and up more than 600 percent in the last week alone – or from 30 cases at the beginning of the month to 68,440 as of Thursday – the question becomes just how high and how fast those exponential numbers soar. You know, do our social isolation actions tamp down the rise or do continuing exposures fuel more spikes in the spread? To think, at the current rate we would have 2½ million cases in two weeks or 90 million by a month from now. Here in New Hampshire, the eventual infection rate is pegged at 50 percent.

You’re already familiar with the hospital overload potential. With 95,000 intensive care beds in the United States, most of them in regular use for heart attack and accident victims and the like, and a population of 330 million, there’s not a lot of margin to deal with.

For perspective, think what a serious cold does to you. I mean, sometimes it really zaps your thinking. Think of your workplace if even a quarter of your colleagues were out sick. Now extend that to every service you rely on. Uh-huh. Oh, yes, and what about those lingering bugs we seem to get, the ones that never quite go away like forever. By the way, a fever of 103 to 105 degrees is nothing I want to ever endure again. How about you?

And then, if our efforts really do deflate the dreadful scenarios we’re seeing, will a large portion of the public cynically dismiss the warnings as liberal hype? The disregard for the warnings has been disturbing enough, especially the part about infecting others even if you aren’t exhibiting symptoms.

The bigger health matter is not about the number of cases but rather the 20 percent of those that become life-threatening serious. Not just the deaths, either, but the potential for long-term harm. Permanent heart damage, for instance. We’re just now learning.

People under age 65 have been assuming it’s no big deal, but a figure out of France should be a wake-up call. Half of those in intensive care there were recently reported to be under 30. As for here? Welcome back from spring break. One more figure to keep an eye on.

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You know many of the other questions and uncertain answers we’re following as we watch the numbers.

  • Will the number of cases actually fall off in warmer weather?
  • Will the coronavirus mutate and come back hard in autumn?
  • Will it become like the common cold, something that returns year after year?
  • How much immunity will we have?
  • How soon will a vaccine be available and what will the side-effects be? Will the anti-vaccers refuse it or welcome it?
  • And then there are all the stories coming out of the “shelter-in-place” experience.

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In my circle, we’re still sputtering over the audacity of some of those who claim to be “pro-life” but now claim that the deaths of up to two million presumably older Americans is a small price to pay to “save” the economy. Remember, theirs is already a pro-military (not exactly a “pro-life” mission) camp that was all-too-ready to spout misleading anti-Obama advertising warning that “death squads” would rule important health-care decisions (totally ignoring the reality that insurance companies were already doing that) when it came to medical coverage. Now we see the true colors of these callous offiials. It’s been all about profits, not people, all along. Babies didn’t cost them anything. Honestly, they should be tagged anti-abortion. Pro-life is far more inclusive, embracing health care, housing, and education support.

~*~

What’s surprising you the most in the Covid-19 developments? For that matter, what worries you the most?