Thursday, April 09, 2020

Don't take too much comfort from the stock market rally

The Washington Post reports that 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployed benefits last week, bringing the coronavirus total to over 17 million.  Here is a sobering quote from that article:
“It looks like the unemployment rate is headed to 15 percent,” said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at MUFG Bank, in a note to clients. “This isn’t a recession, it’s the Great Depression II.”
And yet you may have noticed a sustained rally in the stock market over the past two weeks.  If you had bought at the bottom on March 23 you would have made a 30% return by now.

All this might lead you to experience some cognitive dissonance.  If we're headed for another Great Depression, why is the stock market rallying?  Wasn't the great crash of October 1929 and subsequent bear market one of the hallmarks of the original Great Depression?  Might it be that this time the market knows something that Chris Rupkey and the Washington Post don't?  Well, it's possible, but I doubt it.

There is one enormous difference between what is happening today and what happened in 1929, namely, that in 1929 the Fed didn't intervene to try to fix the problem and today it is staging the biggest intervention by a central bank ever in human history.  In a nutshell, it is offering essentially free money in the hopes that people will take it and use it to keep the economy from collapsing during the pandemic.  As the same time, Congress is also pumping vast amounts of cash into the economy through what appears likely to become a series of stimulus programs.  At the moment all this appears to be working.  Supermarket shelves are still reasonably well stocked (except for toilet paper).  There is no widespread civil unrest.  The churches and the gun stores are still open, at least they are if you lucky enough to live in a red state (and yes, that was intended to be ironic).

So maybe it's working this time.  It is certainly working as a temporary stop-gap.  Things would certainly be much worse right now if not for these measures.  But there is a very, very big danger for the medium-to-long term.

The problem is that the stock market is being propped up by cheap credit which is exactly what led to the crash of 1929.  Banks are borrowing money from the Fed and using that money to buy stocks, which are cheap by historical standards.  If the economy were functioning normally they would be a bargain, having dropped 37% from their peak.  (And note that percentage drops don't combine intuitively with percentage gains.  A 37% drop followed by a 30% gain is not the same as a 7% drop, it's a net 18% drop.)  But the economy is not functioning normally.  Vast sectors of it -- travel, entertainment, restaurants, pretty much the entire hospitality industry -- have been completely shut down overnight, with ripple effects into other sectors that supply the hospitality sector.  So the actual value of the U.S. economy is dropping like a stone at the same time that cheap credit is pumping up the price of stocks.

This is not the same as October of 1929.  This is much, much worse.  In 1929 the U.S. economy was basically sound.  There was just as much productive capacity after the October crash as before.  What amplified the crash into the Great Depression was the Fed's failure to relax credit which in turn led to a cascade of bank failures.  A similar thing happened in 2008, except that lessons were apparently learned and we kinda sorta dodged a bullet.

Today there is not as much productive capacity as there was a month ago.  There is a lot less.  So there are only three ways that this can play itself out:

1.  We find a way to end the lockdowns and return to work before too much time goes by.  The only way this could be done safely is through the discovery of an effective treatment for covid-19, or more widespread testing so we can be more selective about who we isolate.  The other possibility is to just throw in the towel and let a million people die.

2.  The Fed continues to prop up the market for as long as the crisis continues.

3.  The banks who borrowed the money realize that they now hold overpriced stocks and begin to sell in order to lock in their profits.  Once prices start to drop, panic selling sets in.

At the moment the Fed has indicated a willingness to do #2 but whether they are really willing to stick with this in the long run is unclear.  Artificially propping up prices by pumping money into the economy is no panacea.  Germany tried that during the Great Depression and it did not end well.

We dodged Great Depression 2 in 2008 by the skin of our teeth.  We did that in an era when the crisis was driven entirely by policy and not by any underlying physical factors, and when the people in charge were mostly competent and honest.  Today none of those things are the case.  We have an actual significant drag on the economy, and the country's leadership is both corrupt (really really corrupt) and incompetent (really really incompetent).

We Americans are a resilient and resourceful people and maybe we'll figure out a way to make this all work out somehow despite the headwinds.  But I wouldn't bet my life savings on it.

[UPDATE] If you were pinning your hopes on the prospect that the Trump administration is not rampantly incompetent but rather perhaps just a little slow on the uptake, and that now that reality has set in they will finally do the Right Thing and deal effectively with the crisis, well, I wouldn't count on that either.
 

Saturday, April 04, 2020

When the going gets tough, the Trumps go golfing

We may not have enough masks, personal protective equipment, or ventilators, but at least the Secret Service has been able to complete an emergency procurement of 30 golf carts at one of Donald Trump's resorts in order to "protect a dignitary."  At least the Trump administration has its priorities straight.

(Can you imagine the outcry from Republicans if Obama or Hillary had done this?)

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

A Modest Proposal

With the dawning of a new month and the as-yet-not-entirely-fulfilled promise of Spring I have decided to combat the melancholy of sheltering in place with some out-of-the-box thinking.  Towards that end, I have resolved to re-examine my core beliefs and embrace the Great Wisdom embodied in the Very Stable Genius (VSG) of Donald Trump and those who were wise enough to recognize from the beginning that he was sent by God to deliver us from liberals.  I am abandoning the principle that one of the jobs of government is to ensure that people have access to certain basic necessities like safe food and clean drinking water, and adopting instead the ethos of the conservatives: if someone is making money, everything else will take care of itself.  And more to the point, if *I* am making money then I must be doing everything right and fuck you.  If you're not making money, well, maybe you should have signed up for Trump University.


The best way to make money, of course, is to create a product that meets someone's needs.  But that by itself is old-fashioned thinking.  Even liberals can get on board with that boring old idea.  In order to really win in today's world you have to go big.  In particular, it's important to recognize the following truths, which should be self-evident to any thinking person:

1.  Donald Trump, VSG has never made a mistake in his entire life.  Everything Donald Trump has ever done, is doing now, and will do in the future, is Perfect.

2.  Everything good that has ever happened to you or anyone you know is a direct result of the wise and bold leadership of Donald Trump and the Republican Party.  If you are not falling on your knees daily to praise their names then you are the most ungrateful and undeserving person who has ever lived.

3.  Everything bad that has ever happened is the fault of liberals.  If they had not advanced their bogus impeachment of Donald Trump, VSG, the Very Bad Chinese Wuhan Chink-chink Virus would never have escaped from that shithole country where it originated and invaded our homeland.

4.  Where are the emails?  Where is the server?  Lock her up!

Looking forward now it seems clear that the thing to do is to boldly embrace the power of free enterprise.  Accordingly, I am here to let you in on the ground floor of my next venture.  Like I said, the best way to make money is to make a product that meets a need.  But casting about for people's actual needs is too much work.  The real way to make money is to create demand by anticipating a need that people didn't even know they had.

So what is the thing people need most right now?  A vaccine for the corona virus!  It's probably too late to catch that particular wave.  Lots of people more capable than me are working on that already so there's going to be too much competition.  They key is to create the vaccine for the next killer virus before it arrives, and the best way to do that is, obviously, to create the Next Big Virus.

So here's my business plan: we're going to take the Covid-19 virus and genetically engineer it to make it even bigger and badder than it already is.  We're going to keep this new virus, tentatively dubbed Covid-21, under tight wraps as a corporate trade secret.  At the same time, we're going to develop a vaccine for it.

Now, mind you, we are never going to actually release Covid-21.  That would be highly unethical.  But you never know when an unfortunate accident might happen and people will want to be prepared this time.

How much is advance immunity to Covid-21 worth to you?  How much would you pay to not have to shelter-in-place next time?  $100?  $1000?  If you are one of the people with the foresight to protect themselves, then you could be one of the privileged few who gets to go out while everyone else has to stay home.  You'll get to keep your job, go to the beach, take that cruise (probably at a substantial discount).  If you buy a gift vaccination for your grandparents you might even extend their lives, and all life is precious (unless of course it stands in the way of making a profit.)

But I'm no asshole like Martin Shkreli.  I'm not going to squeeze people for every penny they can pay (although I probably could).  I want everyone to have my product, so I'm going to price it very modestly: just $10 a month, or $100 a year if you renew annually (you never know when the virus might mutate!)  That's still a pretty lucrative business model.  Even with only 10% market penetration world-wide that's still over $50B a year in revenue, almost all of which will be pure profit.  Such are the rewards of altruistic free enterprise.   All hail The Donald who hath showed us The Way!

I am offering you a very exclusive very limited opportunity for readers of this blog to buy an advance subscription to the Covid-21 vaccine.  Supplies may be limited at first so you'll want to reserve your priority slot now!  Don't wait, leave your contact information (or your credit card number) in the comments below, and we will contact you within 24 hours!  And, for the truly visionary and deep-pocketed among you, I am also raising a friends-and-family-and-soon-to-be-immune-people investment round, terms to be disclosed upon execution of an NDA.  But trust me, if you don't get in on this, you'll regret it for the rest of your possibly-soon-to-be-abbreviated life.

Who's in?

Friday, March 27, 2020

We're number one

Today the U.S. overtook China as the country with the most confirmed corona virus cases in the world.  Italy is still the world leader in deaths, but that will almost certainly change before too long because we have six times as many people and we have not yet battened down the hatches.  I can just see president Trump getting on TV and crowing about the fact that once again the U.S. is leading the world.  Never mind that it is leading the world into an unprecedented catastrophe.

The U.S. has had it so good for so long that it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that we really are chosen by God or something like that, that we are somehow cosmically entitled to be the richest, most powerful nation on earth, and so all we have to do is carry on as usual and everything will turn out all right.  Unfortunately, everything is not going to be all right this time.

It has now been over three months since the Covid-19 epidemic began, and the U.S. still doesn't have widespread testing in place.  Lockdowns are still sporadic and widely ignored.  Hospitals are already starting to be overwhelmed.  The President is talking about getting everything back to normal by Easter.

It ain't gonna happen.  We have only to look at Italy to see what our future looks like.  Italy has been on lockdown since March 9 -- more than two weeks ago -- and their numbers, both confirmed cases and deaths, are still going up every day.  Wuhan was on lockdown for two months before the situation began to improve.

So even in a best case scenario, where we lock down the entire country tomorrow, we're looking at the beginning of June before we have a realistic prospect of getting back to normal.  But of course that is not going to happen.  It's not going to happen because Donald Trump and his Republican enablers have their heads buried in the sand.  They still believe that American exceptionalism knows no bounds, that we are the chosen of God and are therefore exempt from the laws of physics and biology and economics.

I have bad news for them, and for you: we are not exempt.  But because we are proceeding on the assumption that we are, a lot of people are going to go bankrupt, and a lot of people are going to die.

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has (in)famously suggested that all these deaths are perfectly fine.  Here's the quote:
No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’ ... If that is the exchange, I’m all in.  That doesn’t make me noble or brave or anything like that. I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country, like me, I have six grandchildren, that what we all care about and what we love more than anything are those children. And I want to live smart and see through this, but I don’t want the whole country to be sacrificed…I’ve talked to hundreds of people, Tucker, and just in the last week, making calls all the time, and everyone says pretty much the same thing. That we can’t lose our whole country, we’re having an economic collapse. I’m also a small businessman, I understand it. And I talk with business people all the time, Tucker. My heart is lifted tonight by what I heard the president say because we can do more than one thing at a time, we can do two things. So my message is let’s get back to work, let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it and those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country, don’t do that, don’t ruin this great America.
I have to admire the man's skill at taking what would normally be an unspeakable suggestion, that we intentionally condemn hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of people to die slow and painful deaths suffocating on their own bodily fluids, in order to preserve the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and making it sound not-entirely-unreasonable, even noble (notwithstanding his humblebraggy insistence to the contrary).  But this is the way of demagoguery.  It never sounds overtly unreasonable.  You have to actually think in order to see it for what it is, and apparently there are vast numbers of Americans who are no longer capable of this.

(At the risk of stating the obvious, it's not just people who step up to the plate and volunteer who are going to die.  The virus does not discriminate on the basis of patriotism.)

Funny how no Republican ever suggested that the victims of 9-11 should be written off in the name of preserving freedom and economic prosperity.  The conservative devotion to the sanctity of human life has some very peculiar Ts&Cs.

I can't help but wonder just how deep this conservative capacity for denying obvious truths runs, but we're about to find out.  You think things are bad now?  You ain't seen nuthin' yet.  In the next few days, the death toll from the virus in the U.S. is going to exceed that of 9/11 (2977).  A few weeks after that it will exceed the direct U.S. military casualties of the Iraq war (4,491).  Very likely, unless we radically change direction in the next week or two (and I don't see that happening) we will very likely exceed the total number of civilian casualties in the Iraq war (hundreds of thousands, but no one ever actually counted them all).  A final tally in the millions is not out of the question.

I wonder if there will ever come a point where Donald Trump's supporters will realize that much of the pain to come could have been avoided if the pandemic had been taken seriously early on rather than being dismissed as a Democratic hoax.  We spent a trillion dollars attacking Iraq because we thought they might have WMDs.  Now that we are actually under attack by the operational equivalent of a biological weapon, Donald Trump is still dithering about what to do about it, indeed, whether anything needs to be done at all.

Remember this in the coming weeks and months.  Things are about to get worse than you have ever imagined they could.  People you care about will probably die.  You could die.  This is not all Donald Trump's fault; he didn't start the pandemic.  But he actively fanned its flames long after it was apparent that it was burning badly out of control, and long after people sounded the alarm.

I'm writing this not because I think it can have much of an impact on what is to come, but in the hope that once this blows over and the conservatives cry, "But we couldn't have known" (which I am sure they will) I will be able to point to this post and say: no.  We were warned.  We were warned about the pandemic, and we were warned about Trump long before the pandemic started.  It's too late to avoid catastrophe this time.  But maybe, just maybe, next time we will listen.

Friday, March 20, 2020

If you only read one thing about the Corona Virus, make it this

If you only ever read one article about the new corona virus, make it this article by Tomas Pueyo.  Read it all the way to the end.  It points the way to effective and hopeful policy more than anything else I have read.  Then contact your elected representatives and tell them to read it.  Then contact everyone you know and tell them to do the same.  If the information in this article can spread faster than the virus (and it can) we might be able to beat this thing.  But time is very, very short.  Do it now.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Don't count on corona virus being seasonal

A lot of people are pinning their hopes on the corona virus being seasonal and magically going away during the summer like the flu.  Don't bet on it.  Brazil, where has hot and humid summer-like conditions year-round, saw its first case of corona virus on February 25.  Since then they have been on the same exponential growth curve as the rest of the world.

Our only realistic hope for keeping this from spreading to everyone in the country (and a concomitant death toll in the millions) is to dramatically ramp up our testing capacity.  You can't fight an enemy that you can't see.  We are badly behind the curve on this thanks to the Trump administration being asleep at the switch (to say nothing of active denial) about this for so long.  Make no mistake, this virus is nasty.  It's not the flu.  Yes, it's still true that there are fewer cases of COVID-19 than there are annual deaths from the flu, but that probably won't be true for much longer.  Summer might bring a miracle, but the numbers from Brazil do not look promising.  This is probably going to get a lot worse before it gets better.  It will eventually get better, but it will take months or years, not weeks.  We need a better plan than shelter-in-place.

Atlantic Monthly: The Gaslighting Vaccine

I know November seems far away, but the time to start preparing for the coming onslaught of Republican misinformation and gaslighting is now.  Towards that end, I would like to recommend an excellent series of articles in The Atlantic starting with this one entitled "We were warned."
We were warned in 2012, when the Rand Corporation surveyed the international threats arrayed against the United States and concluded that only pandemics posed an existential danger, in that they were “capable of destroying America’s way of life.”
We were warned in 2015, when Ezra Klein of Vox, after speaking with Bill Gates about his algorithmic model for how a new strain of flu could spread rapidly in today’s globalized world, wrote that “a pandemic disease is the most predictable catastrophe in the history of the human race, if only because it has happened to the human race so many, many times before.” If there was anything humanity could be certain that it needed to prepare for to prevent the deaths of a lot of people in little time, it was this.
We were warned in 2017, a week before inauguration day, when Lisa Monaco, Barack Obama’s outgoing homeland-security adviser, gathered with Donald Trump’s incoming national-security officials and conducted an exercise modeled on the administration’s experiences with outbreaks of swine flu, Ebola, and Zika. The simulation explored how the U.S. government should respond to a flu pandemic that halts international travel, upends global supply chains, tanks the stock market, and burdens health-care systems—all with a vaccine many months from materializing. “The nightmare scenario for us, and frankly to any public-health expert that you would talk to, has always been a new strain of flu or a respiratory illness because of how much easier it is to spread” relative to other pandemic diseases that aren’t airborne, Monaco told me.
Never forget that in the face of all these warnings, Donald Trump closed the White House pandemic office.  He fired Tim Ziemer, the head of global health security on the White House’s National Security Council, and did not replace him. He tried to cut funding for the CDC (happily that bit of insanity was thwarted by Congress). He called the corona virus a Democratic hoax.  And, despite failing piled upon failing, he steadfastly insists that he's doing a terrific job and takes no responsibility for anything.

James Fallows has been writing a long series in The Atlantic documenting all of Trumps disastrous decisions in real time since 2016.  There are so many it can make tedious reading, but we're all going to have more free time on our hands in the coming months.  One of the ways you can use that time is to inform yourself about how we got into this mess so that we can start to make better decisions going forward.  You can start with the first four installments of Fallows' series dedicated specifically to the corona virus, because even the most die-hard Trumpeteer is going to have a hard time avoiding the reality of the situation.  It is true that Donald Trump is not singlehandedly responsible for the disaster that is currently unfolding.  But there can be no doubt in any sane person's mind that he has made the situation much, much worse by failing to provide leadership at a crucial time, in other words, by utterly failing to do his job.

Pay attention.  This matters.  A lot.  Our last chance to rid ourselves of this pariah comes this November.  Success depends on convincing people who have been very effectively vaccinated against facts, so this is not going to be easy.  But in this case here are, quite literally, lives at stake.  We can't afford to blow this again.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Fedex: when it absolute positively has to get lost twice in a row

Last August I sent a package from California to Colorado via Fedex.  It never arrived and we never got it back despite jumping through all kinds of hoops to open an account so they would send it back.

I vowed I would never voluntarily do business with Fedex again, but last week, to my regret, I broke that promise.  We finally got our generator transfer switch installed so it was time to get a generator.  I decided to get an Onan p4500i and happily there is a dealer down in Santa Cruz which is about 50 miles south of us.  Unfortunately, when we got there we realized that the generator was just a little too big to fit in our car.  We probably could have squeezed it into the back seat, but there just happened to be a Fedex truck right there, and the cost to ship it turned out to be fairly reasonable so I decided to go for it.  It was only 50 miles.  The tracking estimator said it would arrive the next day.  What could go wrong?

Because I didn't trust Fedex, I took a photo of the shipping label attached to the box just in case.  Here it is:


Notice that the destination address is in Emerald Hills, CA, the zip code is 94062, and the ship date is Wednesday, March 11.

Day 1

On Thursday, I checked the shipping status.  Here is what I saw:

OK, still on track to be delivered today, but why did they send it to Tracy?  That is out in the central valley, almost 100 miles out of the way.  (See if you can spot the answer.)

Look at where it says the package is being sent to now: Pleasant Grove, Utah.  That's outside Salt Lake City, about 800 miles away.  It turns out that the zip code for Pleasant Grove is 84062.  Someone had apparently entered the destination zip code manually, and gotten it wrong by one critical digit.

This begs the question: why is anyone entering the destination zip code manually at all?  Don't they just scan the bar code?  And why was there no alert that told whoever entered the wrong zip code, "Um, this is not what it says on the shipping label.  Are you sure you got this right?"  (Of course I harbor no illusions of ever learning the answer to those questions.  I'm just stuck at home trying to avoid the corona virus (again) and so I have nothing better to do than to ponder the unanswerable questions of the universe, like why Fedex can't deliver a package to a destination 50 miles from where it was shipped.)

On Friday I got a call from Fedex.  The CSR said that the package had been located, the destination corrected, and it would soon be on its way back.  And indeed at the moment their system says it's due to be delivered today:



Of course, it also says that it's still in Utah so I'll give long odds against it actually making it on time.  Notice that it has been in Vineland, Utah, just outside Salt Lake City, since 6AM on Friday.  As I write this it is almost 3PM on Monday and the package hasn't moved.  I called Fedex again and they told me it would arrive somewhere in California on Wednesday, but frankly I would not be a bit surprised if it is never seen by human eyes again.

[UPDATE] The generator was finally delivered today, March 21, ten days after it was shipped.  During that time we had yet another Fedex screwup: a box of light bulbs that I ordered showed up as having been delivered when in fact they had not been.  Fortunately, I noticed this right away and called Fedex and they were apparently able to contact the driver and have him go back to wherever he had mis-delivered it to and bring them to us later the same day.  Still, Fedex is now 1 for 4 (we had one successful delivery the day before) on our last four shipments.  That is not a good track record.

To give credit where it's due though, I have to say that their front-line CSRs are quite good.  They were always friendly and helpful, and except for one occasion yesterday (Friday) evening when I gave up after waiting for 40 minutes, I never had to wait on hold to talk to one.  Still, if I ever need to ship stuff, I'm probably going with UPS.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Don't let conservatives gaslight you: the chaos to come is Trump's fault

In the weeks and months to come you are going to hear a lot of conservative apologists praise Trump's early and pro-active response to the corona virus outbreak, like this from a comment on this blog:
President Trump has declared a national emergency very early in this pandemic. Recall we first learned about COVID-19 on December 31.
Don't believe a word of it.   The Trump administration has been actively and affirmatively dismantling the mechanisms we have (or had) to deal with outbreaks like this.  They have been doing this since the beginning of the administration and people have been sounding the alarm about it since it started happening.  Here, for example, is a story from the Washington Post from April of 2017, less than four months after Trump was inaugurated.  At the risk of violating copyright law, I am going to quote it here in its entirety because this is really important.  Trump and his supporters are going to try to gaslight the country in the next few months.  If history is any guide, they could very well succeed.  It is crucially important that we not let them.  Never forget: this mess is absolutely Donald Trump's fault, notwithstanding his pathological refusal to accept any responsibility for it.

The Trump administration is ill-prepared for a global pandemic

 
April 8, 2017 at 3:11 p.m. PDT

The Trump administration has failed to fill crucial public health positions across the government, leaving the nation ill-prepared to face one of its greatest potential threats: a pandemic outbreak of a deadly infectious disease, according to experts in health and national security.

No one knows where or when the next outbreak will occur, but health security experts say it is inevitable. Every president since Ronald Reagan has faced threats from infectious diseases, and the number of outbreaks is on the rise.


Over the past three years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has monitored more than 300 outbreaks in 160 countries, tracking 37 dangerous pathogens in 2016 alone. Infectious diseases cause about 15 percent of all deaths worldwide.

But after 11 weeks in office, the Trump administration has filled few of the senior positions critical to responding to an outbreak. There is no permanent director at the CDC or at the U.S. Agency for International Development. At the Department of Health and Human Services, no one has been named to fill sub-Cabinet posts for health, global affairs, or preparedness and response. It's also unclear whether the National Security Council will assume the same leadership on the issue as it did under President Barack Obama, according to public health experts.

“We need people in position to help steer the ship,” said Steve Davis, the chief executive of PATH, a Seattle-based international health technology nonprofit working with countries to improve their ability to detect disease. “We are actually very concerned.”

In addition to leaving key posts vacant, the Trump administration has displayed little interest in the issue, health and security experts say. The White House has made few public statements about the importance of preparing for outbreaks, and it has yet to build the international relationships that are crucial for responding to global health crises. Trump also has proposed sharp cuts to government agencies working to stop deadly outbreaks at their source.

The slow progress on senior-level appointments — even those, such as the CDC director, that do not require Senate confirmation — is hobbling Cabinet secretaries at agencies across the government. Temporary "beachhead" teams the White House installed are hitting the end of their appointments. The remaining civil servants have little authority to make major decisions or mobilize resources.

An HHS spokeswoman declined to comment on personnel decisions. An NSC official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said the administration recognizes that global health security is a national security issue and that America’s health depends on the world’s ability to detect threats wherever they occur.

Trump's NSC does not have a point person for global health security as Obama's did, but global health security is part of the overall portfolio of Tom Bossert, Trump's homeland security adviser, another NSC official said.Global health experts warn that a pandemic threat could be as deadly as a nuclear attack — and is much more probable.

A global health crisis “will go from being on no one’s to-do list to being the only thing on their list,” said Bill Steiger, who headed the HHS office of global health affairs during the George W. Bush administration. He spoke at a panel on pandemic preparedness in early January. He is now part of Trump’s beachhead team at the State Department.

Next month, the G-20 governments, which traditionally focus on finance and economics, will convene their health ministers for the first time, in part to test coordination and preparedness for a pandemic, according to German officials, who are hosting the summit in Berlin. It’s not clear who will represent the United States.

In a speech to a security conference in Munich earlier this year, billionaire Bill Gates said a pandemic threat needs to be taken as seriously as other national security issues.

“Imagine if I told you that somewhere in this world, there’s a weapon that exists — or that could emerge — capable of killing tens of thousands, or millions of people, bringing economies to a standstill and throwing nations into chaos,” said Gates, who has spent billions to improve health worldwide.

“Whether it occurs by a quirk of nature or at the hand of a terrorist, epidemiologists say a fast-moving airborne pathogen could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year.”

The projected annual cost of a pandemic could reach as high as $570 billion.

Last month, Trump met with Gates at the White House. After the meeting, press secretary Sean Spicer said the two had “a shared commitment to finding and stopping disease outbreaks around the world.”

Americans are at greater risk than ever from new infectious diseases, drug-resistant infections and potential bioterrorism organisms, despite advances in medicine and technology, experts say. Not only has the total number of outbreaks increased in the past three decades, but the scale, impact and methods of transmission also have expanded because of climate change, urbanization and globalization.
The outbreak of Ebola that erupted in West Africa eventually infected more than 28,000 people and killed more than 11,000. MERS has killed nearly 2,000 people in 27 countries. Health officials around the world are monitoring a strain of deadly bird flu, H7N9, that is causing China's largest outbreak on record, killing 40 percent of people with confirmed infections.
Of all emerging infectious disease threats, a global influenza outbreak is everyone's worst fear because it could be highly lethal and highly contagious. A particularly virulent influenza pandemic that started in 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people. Today's H7N9 strain poses the greatest risk of a pandemic if it evolves to spread easily from human to human, according to U.S. officials.

Last month, several Democratic lawmakers wrote HHS Secretary Tom Price to raise concerns about the nation’s ability to respond to infectious disease threats. They also asked about the vacancies and the impact of proposed budget cuts in the event of a flu pandemic. They received no response.

“Our whole community is kind of ear to the ground trying to figure out any clues we can discern,” said Rebecca Katz, co-director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University’s Medical Center.Global health security "is clearly an issue that needs to be taken up by the heads of state," said one European official who declined to be identified because her government does not want to appear critical of the United States. Diseases travel fast and don't recognize borders. In today's connected world, a disease can be transported from a rural village to any major city within 36 hours."It's not just from travel of people, but birds, too," she said. Referring to Trump's proposal to build a wall along the border with Mexico, she added: "You can't build walls to stop birds."

Global health security was a top priority for the Obama administration, which launched a partnership in early 2014 to prevent deadly outbreaks from spreading. Experts say the collaboration, known as the Global Health Security Agenda, has raised the political profile of infectious disease threats and strengthened basic public health systems in the countries least equipped to fight epidemics.

In Cameroon, the government developed a new emergency operations center able to respond within 24 hours to an outbreak of a highly lethal bird flu last year, removing more than 67,000 birds that had the potential to spread the virus to humans. In 2015, it took the country eight weeks to respond to a cholera outbreak.

In Mali, personnel who received epidemiology training began vaccination campaigns the day after detecting a measles outbreak last year.

In addition, more than 30 countries have taken part in evaluations to assess their ability to detect and prevent outbreaks, and their “report cards” are made public to spur governments to take action. But the gains made so far are “still fragile and require continued funding until they are strong,” according to an internal CDC analysis.

The Obama administration committed $1 billion to the program, which is due to end in fiscal 2019. Although it has strong support among global health officials and some Republican lawmakers, the Trump administration has yet to say whether it plans to continue funding the initiative.


President Obama also brought up global health regularly in meetings with foreign leaders. Trump has said little since taking office, except for a reference in his inaugural speech about his desire to rid the earth of disease.

During the Ebola outbreak, Trump tweeted that health workers should be blocked from returning to the United States, despite advice from the CDC and other experts that doing so would not protect U.S. health and would harm efforts to stop the outbreak.

The administration’s proposed budget is also problematic, health experts say.

If approved by Congress, Trump’s request for the current fiscal year would slash the entire $72 million budget for global health security at USAID. And his request for fiscal 2018 calls for a nearly 18 percent cut at HHS, which includes the CDC.

The request does propose a new federal emergency fund intended to allow HHS to respond to emerging public health outbreaks. However, administration officials have provided few details.

Many Republican lawmakers have criticized the requests, saying Congress is unlikely to approve such deep cuts to health agencies.

“You can have the best people in the world, but if you’re slashing the NIH budget by 20 percent, and presumably the same thing to CDC, then I don’t care how good your people are, they’re not going to be nearly as effective as they need to be,” said Rep. Tom Cole, (R- Okla.), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services, education, and related agencies.

The health agencies are “the front lines of defense for the American people for some pretty awful things,” Cole said. “If the idea of a government is to protect the United States and its people, then these people contribute as much as another wing on an F-35 [fighter jet], and actually do more to save tens of thousands of lives.”

Friday, March 13, 2020

A glimmer of hope

Maybe this is the beginning of a trend.

https://twitter.com/wittelstephanie/status/1237716422610075653?s=20

Trump administration blocks states from using Medicaid to respond to coronavirus crisis

If there was any remaining doubt in your mind that the Trump administration is both unashamedly cruel and fantastically incompetent, this story from the Los Angeles Times should put it to rest:
Despite mounting pleas from California and other states, the Trump administration isn’t allowing states to use Medicaid more freely to respond to the coronavirus crisis by expanding medical services.
Donald Trump apparently does not realize that the corona virus does not discriminate on the basis of income.  It will infect and kill rich white people just as happily as it will poor black ones.  By blocking medicaid funding for coronavirus response the Trump administration is insuring that the virus will spread more widely than it otherwise would, and so the death toll will be higher that it otherwise would.  Some of dead will surely be people who voted for him.  But whether they supported Trump or not, the blood they cough up before they die will be on his tiny, pathologically oblivious and utterly incompetent hands.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The cruise that went worng

Hello.  Yes, I'm still alive.

I have not posted anything here in over three months mainly because I've fallen into some rather deep despair over the political situation in the U.S., a situation that doesn't promise to improve any time soon.  I am breaking radio silence now because I have just returned from a trip that turned into a rather interesting (in the sense of the Chinese curse) story that I thought I would share.  I would have live-blogged it, but the world has changed in the 17 years since I started writing, and I now have some serious doubts about the wisdom of advertising on the internet the fact that I'm away from home.

On the plus side, you won't have to wait to learn how it ends.  (Spoiler alert: we made it home OK.)

The story starts with a prelude that actually relates to the power outage that I wrote about in October.  After that experience forced us to retreat to a hotel we decided to get the house retrofitted for a generator.  That turned out to be much more complicated than I had ever imagined.  I thought that the process would be a simple matter of hiring an electrician to do the work.

I was wrong.

For starters, it turns out that electricians are really hard to find on the San Francisco peninsula.  They are all apparently quite busy nowadays.  Of the half dozen or so that I contacted, only two returned my calls, and only one gave me an estimate.  To my pleasant surprise the cost turned out to be quite reasonable, and he said he could do it without having to turn the power off to the house.  That struck me as a wee bit fishy, as I could not imagine any way that a generator hookup could be installed safely without disconnecting the power, but I figured that since he was a licensed electrician he must know what he was doing.

I was wrong about that too.

The quote he gave me included a line item for a mechanical interlock that would prevent the generator from being inadvertently connected to the grid.  The cost of that one item was surprisingly large, almost a quarter of the total.  When it came time to do the installation, the interlock was missing.  The electrician (I'm going to call him Bill -- that's not his real name) said that the part he had ordered turned out not to be the right one, and he was having trouble locating the correct part.

I have to digress here for a moment and tell you a little bit about the electrical wiring in our house.  (Believe it or not, all this will turn out to be relevant.)  We have two electric meters and two adjacent main electrical panels, all mounted on 4x4 posts out by the street.  The installation looks like this:


The panel on the left runs our house.  The one on the right is actually owned by the county, and it runs our sewage ejector pump.  Our house is built on the downhill side of a slope, and so the pump is necessary because parts of the house are below the main sewer.  In both cases, the electricity comes in to the meter through an underground conduit, runs through the meter into the main panel to the right of the meter where the circuit breakers are, and then down through another conduit to the house or the ejector pump.

So back to the story: I volunteered to help Bill find the right part for the interlock.  An internet search produced no results, so I called the technical support line for the manufacturer of our main electrical panel (Siemens).  They were very helpful, and told me that the reason we were having trouble finding the part is that it didn't exist.  The reason it didn't exist is that the panel we had was not designed to be connected to a generator.

And yet, our electrician had somehow wired it up to accept a generator.  We had a nice shiny RV-style connector to plug the generator into and two brand new breakers in the panel box.

I started to wonder what our electrician had actually done, so I opened up the main panel.  This is what it looks like when it comes from the manufacturer:


The electric meter is installed in the round opening on the left.  The electricity comes in through thick cables from below (not shown in this photo), runs through the meter, then out the the two short black cables into the main breaker on the right.  From there, two more cables (again, not shown) go down to deliver the electricity to the load.

This is what ours looked like before the installation of the generator connection:


The electricity comes in from the meter on the left through the two fat black wires and connects to the shiny metal plates behind the circuit breaker (called "busses").  It then flows through the  circuit breaker and comes out from the bottom through the red and black cables, whereupon it goes down into the conduit and into the house.

This is what it looked like after the generator cutoff installation:

 


You can see the two additional breakers for the generator on the right.  The small red and black wires go to the connector for the generator.  The problem (see if you can spot it yourself) is that this does not connect the generator to the house, it connects it to the main bus and thence to the grid!  Not only that, but the generator connector is wired for 120V while the grid power is 240V split-phase.  Both of the incoming black wires from the meter are hot 120V 180 degrees out of phase with each other to make 240V across the two.  But on the generator side both hots are tied together!  Not only would the generator have been connected to the grid and not the house, it would have actually shorted the grid, even if the main breaker was off!  God only knows what would have happened if I'd tried to test the installation.

Fortunately, I figured all this out before actually doing the test so we never found out.  Bill removed all the dangerous wiring and offered to give me a full refund.  I declined, on the theory that it could be handy to have an electrician who owed me a favor by not reporting him to the state licensing board.  He also convinced me that this was an honest mistake, and that in general he really did know what he was doing.

We still don't have our generator hookup (yet) but in the process of trying to figure out the right way to do it Bill and I developed a bit of a rapport.  Installing a generator to power your house the Right Way is surprisingly non-trivial, and in the end we decided to table the project until we got back from our trip.

So fast-forward a few weeks to early January, and we fly down to San Diego to board a cruise ship that is going to take us across the Pacific to Hong Kong.  We were scheduled to arrive in Hong Kong on Valentine's day, and our plan was to visit a friend in Macao, spend a few days in HK, and then fly home.  At the time our biggest concern was the protests, but we had a nice hotel in the western part of Kowloon that should have been pretty far from the action and had easy access to the airport.  We felt fairly secure in our plan.

There is not a lot of land in the Pacific between San Diego and Hong Kong.  Our first stop was Hawaii, which we would reach after five days at sea.  (Hawaii is the most isolated land mass on the entire planet.)  But three days into the trip we received a frantic email from our neighbor across the street.  Their car had rolled down their driveway and "hit your side fence and a box with cords and pipes that was next to your fence. I don’t know if this box is dangerous? Does it have electrical cords?"

I wasn't entirely certain what they were referring to (how could anyone be uncertain about whether or not they were looking at electrical cables?) so they sent us some photos.  It looked like this:


 


Our neighbor (I'll call her Chris, again not her real name) called PG&E and they came out and disconnected the power because this clearly was a dangerous situation.

So our house was dark.  And we were, quite literally, 1500 miles away in the middle of the ocean.

Happily, I just happened to know an electrician who owed me a favor.  :-)  I gave Chris Bill's phone number, and he was out there the next day and had the whole installation rebuilt within 24 hours.  It now looks like this:





Unfortunately, before the power could be turned back on, the new installation had to be inspected and signed off by the county.  Now, the car had taken out the meter on Thursday the 16th.  Our electrician had it all rebuilt on Friday the 17th, and the inspector actually came out the same day, but unfortunately got there just before the work was done and so was not able to sign off.  The following Monday was Martin Luther King day, so the earliest possible date to get the inspector back out was the following Tuesday.  And then we still had to get PG&E out to actually reconnect the power.  So we were looking at being dark for at least 3-4 more days.

Fortunately, we had other neighbors taking care of watering our plants, and they had a key to our house so they could come in and take all the food out of our refrigerator.  We waited anxiously through the weekend waiting for news of power being restored.  Our house has an alarm system with a battery backup, but it wouldn't last more than a few days and after that our house would be a sitting duck for burglars.

Tuesday we got word that the inspector had come out and signed off on the new construction, and now it was just matter of getting PG&E to come out and restore the power.  Our electrician told us they said they would be out on Wednesday.

Wednesday came and went.  On Thursday we were told that PG&E had come out, but our neighbor reported that evening that the house was still dark.  I sent an email to our electrician to please come out the next day and try to figure out what was going on -- maybe the main breaker was off?

I never did find out exactly what happened, but Friday evening our neighbor reported that our lights were back on.  Whew!  We breathed a sigh of relief and thought to myself that nothing else could possibly go wrong on this trip.

I was, of course, wrong about that too.

By this time we had left Hawaii and were heading for the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Guam.  The corona virus was in the news, but it still seemed like a fairly remote threat.  Wuhan province is many hundreds of miles from Hong Kong, which has always seemed to me to be generally more civilized (read: sanitary) than the rest of China.  We were still more worried about the protests than about the virus.

We had a very nice time in Guam.  I got to go snorkeling, which was fun.  The coral was in pretty good shape, which was gratifying.  There were tons of fish, a few reef sharks, even a snowflake eel, which I hadn't seen in a very long time.  So that was all good.

We sailed from Guam on Feb 2.  We didn't know it at the time, but we would not make landfall again for ten days.

Our next scheduled stop was Saipan, but when we got there the winds were too high to safely enter the harbor.  We had to abandon that and go on to our next scheduled port of call, Manila in the Philippines.

We were looking forward to seeing Manila, as were many on the crew.  The Philippines is a prime source of labor on cruise ships, so over the years we have met a zillion Filipinos, but had yet to actually visit their homeland.

By this time, the Diamond Princess was just starting to make headlines because she had confirmed cases of corona virus on board and she was not being allowed to dock in Japan.  We thought we were safe because our last landfall had been in Guam.  But then the CDC issued a formal travel advisory for Hong Kong, and shortly after that, the captain announced that our final stop in Hong Kong had been cancelled.  The company had not yet decided where they were going to re-route us, but we were probably going to Taiwan.

That was disappointing.  The whole point of choosing this itinerary had been to end up in Hong Kong so we could visit our friend in Macao.  We briefly contemplated flying from Taipei to Hong Kong but abandoned that plan almost immediately.  Our friend reported that Macao had turned into a ghost town, and a few days after that she fled to New York.  So that plan was dead.

On the other hand, ending up in Taiwan didn't seem so bad.  We had been meaning to visit there one of these years, so this seemed like as good an opportunity as any.  We cancelled all our Macao and Hong Kong hotel reservations and made new ones in Taipei.

The next day, the captain made another announcement: the port at Manila had been closed to all cruise ship traffic.  We would still go there, but we would refuel at anchor in the harbor.  We would not be allowed to dock or leave the ship.  As disappointing as this news was for us, it must have been devastating for the Filipino crew who had been looking forward to seeing family and loved ones after months at sea.  I can't even begin to imagine how heartbreaking this must have been for them.

By the time we arrived in Manila, the news from the Diamond Princess (and by now the Westerdam also) was starting to look pretty dire.  The Westerdam was virus-free, but because she had been to Hong Kong she was being denied entry at every port in Asia.  Then, while we were at anchor in Manila, it was announced that the port in Taipei had also been closed to all cruise ships.  So now we had no idea where we were going to end up.

I started playing out contingencies in my mind and came to the conclusion that what we really needed to do in order to avoid a serious nightmare was to return to Guam.  I expressed this opinion to the front desk and asked them to relay it to the powers-that-be.  I don't know if my concerns ever made it up the chain of command, but it didn't matter.  I didn't know it at the time, but Guam had also been closed to all cruise ships.  Like it or not, we were heading west, towards Viet Nam, with no idea what our ultimate destination would be.

On the bright side, our ship was "clean", or so we thought.  While en route to Viet Nam we were told that we had been denied entry there because we had passengers on board who had transited through Hong Kong.  Now, remember, that had all happened before the CDC issued the Hong Kong advisory, and there was no sign that anyone on board was falling ill.  But the Vietnamese government didn't care.  We were damaged goods, cruise shippa non grata.

By then I was more worried about overreaction by government officials than I was about the virus.  With Guam, Taipei, Manila and Viet Nam all closed, where could we go?  And what would be the next shoe to drop?  Would we end up like the Westedam, roaming the ocean in search of a friendly port?

We ended up in Singapore on Feb 12 after a total of ten days at sea.  We could have gotten there faster but we were told there was no dock space available before then.  I like to believe that, but it was suggested to me that we were actually under quarantine without being told.  For the last four days we had twice-daily temperature checks.  It was more than a little surreal.  On the plus side, the ship was very nice and the crew was terrific.  The temperature checks were very unobtrusive, and the rest of the time it was business-as-usual.  By far the most stressful aspect was the uncertainty, not knowing whether our permission to dock in Singapore would be pulled at the last minute, or if we'd be able to get off the ship.  But as it happens our arrival was completely uneventful.  We were cleared to disembark in less than an hour and that was that.  We were free.

The story doesn't quite end there though.

We could have stayed on the boat for a few more days but decided to go home the next morning because so many things had already gone wrong on this trip and we didn't want to tempt fate any more than necessary.  I was also eager to get home and assess the damage to our electrical panels.  We had an early morning flight on the 13th so we decided to spend the night at a hotel by the airport.  During the night, I got up to turn off a light in the hallway of our hotel room and stubbed my toe on a piece of furniture.  I hit it hard and ended up bleeding all over the place.  Fortunately we had bandages with us, but it didn't make for a very restful night.

We finally made it home and we thought it was all over but Murphy had one more curve ball to throw at us.  I went out to look at the electrical meters and noticed that the one for the house was on, but the one for the sewage ejector pump was not.  Without power to the pump, we have about a day of normal activity before the holding tank overflows and raw sewage pours out into our yard and down to the creek behind our house.  It turns out that when the inspector came out two weeks earlier he apparently didn't realize that there were two independent meters and each one needed their own inspection sticker, so he only put one on.  Again we were up against a weekend, but happily I was able to get someone at the county to lean on PG&E and they came out the next day and turned the power on.  It was actually an interesting process.  They don't do it by throwing a switch, they do it by physically attaching the electrical cable, which is running through a concrete service box, to a receptacle.  And they do this "live" while the electricity is on, because, well, there is no switch.  It's only 240V but it was still a scary looking process.  Sparks flew because the ejector pump was actually on and so it was drawing a huge startup load.  But power was restored and the technician and I both lived to tell the tale.

So now life is finally back to normal.  But there are two interesting post-scripts to the story.  The first is that I've been told that we actually have to undergo an additional inspection inside our house to make sure that our smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors are in order.  We don't have carbon monoxide detectors.  I'm still a little unclear what this has to do with the power being cut off, but I'm told be reliable sources that yes, this is the law in California.  It's almost enough to make me want to vote Republican.

The second postscript is that after the PG&E guy connected our second electric meter, the head electrician for the county showed up to assess the situation.  He was a really nice guy and really seemed to know what he was doing.  He pointed out a couple of things that our electrician did wrong in rebuilding our setup, but they were minor and said we could probably just let them slide.  But the thing he did that made me really happy was acknowledge that the ejector pump meter belongs to the county, and so it was actually the county's responsibility to get it rebuilt.  It's a moot point now, but maybe Chris can get some reimbursement from them because right now all the costs have come out of her pocket.

Anyway, it was an interesting trip, so I thought I'd share.  More things went wrong on this trip than in all the other trips we've ever taken put together, and by a wide margin.  Hopefully in the future things will regress to the mean.