Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Masks and Shutdowns: We aren't going back

     "Even as  models project hospitalizations in excess of 300 by the end of September, state officials have no plans for reinstating statewide measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus."

              Oregon-live news story today

The Delta variant changed the epidemic. But it is not changing the mood of the people. No more mandates. 

Officials in Multnomah County (the county that contains Portland) promulgated a recommendation that people once again wear masks when indoors around other people, whether vaccinated or not. The announcement is in response to the more virulent Delta variant causing COVID cases to have climbed dramatically in Oregon. COVID is back.

The announcement contained the observation that mask-wearing is primarily needed in order to protect the un-vaccinated.  That is a deal killer for a new round of masks and shutdowns.

Vaccinations changed everything. Now people who worry about COVID can protect themselves.

The largest group of Americans are the vaccinated. Vaccination was free; by late spring vaccinations were convenient and readily available; few people had side-effects beyond what would be resolved by taking two Tylenol tablets after the second dose. There was no big financial or convenience price to pay for vaccination. The benefit is that vaccinated people now appear to have little or no risk of a bad COVID experience. We were set free. Having tasted freedom, we don't want to go back.

A second group of people is large and easy to overlook. These are the un-engaged, the procrastinators, the people who don't want to think about COVID much and haven't gotten around to doing much, including get vaccinated. Maybe they have heard something about the vaccine that gives them pause; maybe they don't like needles; maybe they just consider this low priority. Humans are motivated by deadlines, which is why we have them. There is a tax filing deadline, an election day, and a date when a late fee is imposed on a bill, and a lot of people wait until then to take action. COVID vaccinations lack a firm deadline. 

The third group of people are those this blog mentioned yesterday: Trump-influenced vaccine resisters. They think COVID is overblown as a risk, that masks and shutdowns are a cruel and unnecessary blow to the economy and personal freedom. They don't intend to get vaccinated. They don't like wearing masks, either. 

There is no payoff for masking up and shutdown complianceThe people inclined to obey mandates and shutdowns, and to feel them legitimate and necessary, have been vaccinated. Yet the people they would most directly be protecting are people who don't care enough to protect themselves, or who do care but oppose it. The mismatch of interests creates a huge political problem for elected officials. There is no natural constituency for masking up by the people who would comply if it didn't seem like someone was taking advantage of them.

You mean we are protecting people who are too lazy or pig headed to protect themselves??? No thanks.

The result is bad public health but a predictable response of human nature. Humans are closely attuned to who is a "freeloader," a person who takes more of common resources than what he or she puts in. A governor or other leader would be asking the conscientious to sacrifice for the benefit of people who don't want the help, or don't care.  

As long as the Delta variant primarily targets the un-vaccinated, the smart thing for officeholders to do is nothing. That appears to be what Oregon's governor plans to do. Nothing. Yes, extra people will die, but it is the consequence of freedom.  People are making choices, primarily for themselves. Governors need to let them. 

What they must not do is ask people to be saps. If they try to do so, there will be political hell to pay.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Leave anti-vaxxers alone. .

If they die, they die.

Stop trying to persuade vaccine-refusers with information, prizes, and pleas. 

Be a smarter salesperson. Back off.

Biden wouldn't be "giving up" on his fellow Americans. He would be doing what any competent salesperson knows to do. Notice the cues. 

I learned some things in a 30-year career as a Financial Advisor. In the arena of courtship, we have the vocabulary for it. "The guy came on too strong." 
In a sales context, we say the salesperson was "pushy."  Customers are quick to see a "hard sell." They hate it.

Sitting across my desk at my brokerage firm, if I saw a potential new client cross their arms or purse lips, I got an unmistakable cue. They felt pressured. They were defending themselves from me. The worst thing I could do would be to repeat the advantages to my helping them invest, i.e. "keep selling." In their eyes, I was a predator, themselves the prey.

What did I do?  I leaned back in my chair.

I communicated that I gave up and they should probably go elsewhere, and they would probably be all right, and in any case, happier. They inferred a powerful message: I would now be taking care of other people. Not them. The polarity of the relationship changed. I wasn't the needy one. They wondered what other people would be getting.

Trump voters get signals from Trump and Fox News that vaccines are possibly good, but that Democrats are trying to force them. Guest after guest on Fox complains about the tyranny of potential vaccine mandates and passports, and of the right of freedom-loving Americans to say no. 

What to do?  Sell smarter. Announce publicly that Biden and the CDC understands that one size does not fit all, and that they will now re-focus resources to where they are wanted. Publicly--visibly--close under-used vaccine centers in areas of concentrated vaccine-hesitant Trump voters, and move those resources to areas of Blacks, Hispanics, and groups where low vaccination rates are due to access and information, not political opposition. Step up use of trusted Black leaders to do outreach to Blacks and recruit more youth celebrities to target young people. Make a show increasing resources to places where it will do good, but not wasting them on people who don't want them, i.e. dug-in Trump voters.

I am suggesting Biden lean back in the chair. 
Empathize. Say openly that Biden understands that hesitant White conservatives trust other sources of news. Say Biden understands that many of them dislike and distrust Anthony Fauci. The GOP won't buy it. Republican officeholders and their media will complain loudly that Biden is no longer begging us! Biden wants Trump voters to die! Why look, he is ceding responsibility to Trump and Fox News to persuade people. 

Acknowledge openly that a great many people trust Trump and Fox, and that people have a right to choose whom to trust. GOP leaders will voice suspicion and resentment that Black and other communities will be getting the attention and vaccines once urged on Trump-supporting Whites. Blacks may like the attention; White Trump voters will resent it and wonder why they aren't being begged. This response is not a bug. It is a feature.

Stick to the story: Biden is just accepting reality that some Americans don't want the vaccine. He is letting people do it their way, out of respect. Some Democrats harbor secret feelings of pleasure at the disproportionate COVID illness among Trump voters. They are doing it to themselves, so let them stew in their own juices, some think and some say. It is an unkind sentiment and best kept unvoiced.

Good government and morality require that Biden govern for the benefit of all Americans, including ones who didn't vote for him and never will. My sales advice for Biden will not serve the purpose of killing off Trump voters, although that will be the accusation. The current approach of pleading with Trump voters is what is killing them. They have dug in.

Biden needs to be a better salesman. Change direction. Let the customer come to you.

[Note: To get this blog daily by email go to: https://petersage.substack.com   Enter your email. It is free and always will be.]

Sunday, July 25, 2021

We the People

      "We've lost the right understanding of, and appreciation for, populism."

                 Herb Rothschild

The opening words of the Constitution assert that the country is created by the people. Populism makes the assertion that the country should be governed by and for the people.

Herb Rothschild's Guest Post reminds readers what "populism" really means. Educated at Yale and Harvard, Herb Rothschild returned to his home state of Louisiana to join the English Department at LSU and get into the Civil Rights Movement. He promoted civil rights and civil liberties in Louisiana. He worked in the Peace Movement in both Louisiana and Texas. After moving to Southern Oregon in 2009, he ran Peace House in Ashland, and for many years wrote a weekly column for the Ashland newspaper.

Guest Post by Herb Rothschild

Because our political commentariat, Up Close not excepted, has come to identify populism with Donald Trump, too many of us associate populism with racism, xenophobia, flag-waving, and a contempt for democratic values. Thus, we’ve lost the right understanding of, and appreciation for, populism. This guest column is my effort at redress.

When the admirable Tom Harkin of Iowa came to the U.S. Senate in 1985, he helped found the Populist Caucus. Harkin said that populism is based on the conviction that “freedom and democratic institutions rest on the widest possible dissemination of wealth and power—and we’ve come to the point where too few people have too much and the rest of us have too little.” That same year, in his address to the National Press Club in D.C., Jim Hightower, then Texas Secretary of Agriculture, affirmed Harkin’s characterization. He said that populism “is rooted in that realization that too few people control all the money and power, leaving very little for the rest of us. And they use that money and power to gain more for themselves. Populism is propelled politically by the simmering desire of the mass of people to upend that arrangement.”

It wasn’t Trump’s racism, xenophobia and fascist temperament that disqualified him as a populist. Both in the U.S. and abroad, some genuine populist leaders have embodied and extolled such dreadful values. What disqualified Trump was that, in office, he served the concentrated wealth and power he had bamboozled people into believing he would challenge. His 2017 Tax Cut and Jobs Act and his rollback of corporate regulations gladdened the hearts of the oligarchs. It is because he used his power to do just the opposite of what a true populist would do that the Republican establishment permitted—and still permits—the party to be the Party of Trump.

The behavior in office of Huey P. Long, one of the few great people to come from my home state of Louisiana, exemplified a genuine populism. Long was governor of Louisiana from 1929 through 1932, then U.S. senator until his assassination in 1935. As senator, he continued to run the state, over which he achieved total political control. No one before or since did for the people of Louisiana what Long did. His achievements were astonishing.

In 1928, Louisiana had roughly 300 miles of paved roads, which meant poor farmers often couldn’t get their crops to market. By 1935 it had 9,700 miles of paved roads, this during the Depression. Before Long, the parishes (counties) maintained the few public schools there were, and nothing was free. He made sure the state provided free schooling, busing, and textbooks to every child. He made college almost free and required only an in-state high school diploma for admission; enrollments tripled. Among Long’s public works projects was the charity hospital system, at which medical care was free. He abolished the poll tax, reduced utility rates, and exempted from taxes the first $2000 of a home’s value. He created the Debt Moratorium Act, which stopped foreclosures and gave families a grace period to pay mortgages and settle debts. If space permitted, I could extend this list.

Long wasn’t a racist; his programs helped blacks and whites alike. He was, however, contemptuous of civil liberties and resented any opposition to his authority. In organizing nationally in pursuit of the Presidency, he formed a close relationship with Gerald L.K. Smith, an increasingly notorious racist, anti-Semite and pro-Nazi sympathizer. What explains these behaviors is Long’s belief that he, and only he, could fix the nation. In that regard, he resembled many populists of both the Left and the Right.

As long as wealth remains so concentrated in the U.S., populist politics will appeal to voters. The 2016 Presidential campaign testified to this truth not only by the success of the pseudo-populist Trump, but also by the remarkable showing of the real-populist Bernie Sanders despite his lack of name recognition by Southern black voters and Hillary’s early lock on the Super-delegates. The Trump and Sanders candidacies aroused levels of enthusiasm that no others approached.

It’s fortunate that Biden has pursued in office policies far more committed to economic justice than did the Clintons and Obama, the last of whom recently admitted that he misjudged how ready Americans were for progressive politics. If Biden and Congressional Democrats can surmount the obstacles Senate Republicans are erecting to the pursuit of a more equitable polity, the Democrats can once again be a perennially majority party.

                                                                    -----   -----   ----- 

[To receive this blog daily by email, usually in the late morning Pacific time, subscribe by going to: https://petersage.substack.com  It is free and always will be.]


Saturday, July 24, 2021

The problem with having memory and experience

      "As long as the music is playing, you've got to get up and dance. We're still dancing."

          Chuck Prince, CEO of Citibank July, 2007

The dancing destroyed Citibank, and with it my retirement savings.  I remember that.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average hit a new high yesterday: 35,000.

Today's blog post is less a market prediction of future market turmoil and collapse than it is a reflection on the mindset that can come from memory and experience. I am less bold now than I observe young people to be. I see red flag warnings everywhere.

I may have over-learned past lessons. Home prices seem crazy high to me, priced way beyond what the incomes of purchasers can support. If people need to sell an overpriced house to buy an overpriced house, then experience shows me that before long, prices will adjust down. People buy houses with leverage, a few percent of the price paid as a down-payment, the rest borrowed. When trouble hits many owners owe more than their houses are worth. Banks get the houses back, and they dispose of them quickly. That cascades into more selling pressure and lower prices. 
High home prices are red flags to me. 

There is more. People are paying high prices for one-of-a-kind images, identical to others available for free, and treating them as investments. I remember the beanie baby boom and bust. Day traders are buying and selling "meme stocks," including companies in bankruptcy. I remember 1998 and 1999, when people with good careers quit them to day-trade. Investors are putting money into blind pools priced at far more than the dollars invested. I remember go-go mutual funds.  Academic economists and central bankers promote MMT--Modern Monetary Theory--now confident that money can be created without limit to buy bonds issued by the government to finance deficits. I see the public employee pension crisis. Eventually people want the government to pay people what they are owed. Red flags.

But I have been wrong in being so cautious, or at least early to think we are facing a coming crisis. We are progressing merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily down the stream, and there has been no waterfall surprise to end the joy-ride. The investment world is full of short, memorable sayings, one of which is "Would you rather be right, or would you rather be rich." The meaning is simple: An investor who is sure that he understands what is right--what ought to happen--may stick to a position while the world passes him by. 

Surely, the stubborn investor thinks, after a burst of enthusiasm for cars, the price of buggy whips would return to their old levels. Surely men would start wearing fedoras again. Surely housing prices in California will "normalize" to something like housing prices in St. Louis. Surely the old realities and relationships would re-assert themselves. Maybe not. Maybe the world has changed.

Republican and conservative media messaging on Joe Biden repeatedly points to his presumed mental incapacities. He is a doddering fool, they say, barely able to express himself, confused, and senile. It is an unfair, exaggerated view, but it has traction because he looks frail compared to many other people his age. The truth may not be dementia, but it may be the incapacity and timidness than comes from knowing too much history--from having lessons of experience burned deeply into one's memory. Humans can over-learn things. When Citibank collapsed, and with it much of my retirement savings, I absorbed a hard lesson about the fragility of markets. I see red flag warnings everywhere now. Maybe I should see them as progress, or at least new realities. Sometimes the world reverts; sometimes the world changes.

Joe Biden is old school. He believes in NATO, perhaps too well. He believes in trade unions, perhaps too well. He believes in trains as the transportation vehicle of the future, perhaps too well. He believes that Republicans will "come around" and embrace bipartisanship like the old days, perhaps too well.  

It would be possible for Biden to mis-understand his mandate and the times. Voters wanted a restoration of comity in our political discourse, but not a restoration of the 20th Century.  Biden has not yet sent clear signals of openness to fresh thoughts. Democrats want new deals and frontiers. He needs to show he is open to new realities. He may not be the person to do it. 

Friday, July 23, 2021

Morning reading list

You are what you eat. 

I try to keep a civil, fair-minded tone in this blog. I try to be careful about what I read. 

I don't want to create junk commentary. 

Journalism in the internet age is built around engagement. My blog hasn't "gone viral." It's readership has plateaued.  I am OK with that. I made my choices. The blog reflects my thoughts, not the market's appetite.

Outrage generates sharing and that brings "success" defined by audience growth. The best way for political commenters to grow an audience is to find and service an audience with something consistent that affirms their point of view. I am not a cheerleader for a team. Democrats and Republicans are both messing up.  Democrats have gone overboard being intimidated by White academic purist scolds, who are as unlovable as the Moral Majority scolds were thirty years ago. People don't like feeling guilty for being who they are, and they don't like people saying they should feel guilty for things they think are petty and nit-picky and outright incorrect. Republicans developed a taste for ethno-nationalistic authoritarianism. Trump made them into the party of Pat Buchanan. Too many think Capitol rioters attempting to overthrow an election is justified, and the ones that don't think that are cowed into silence, which is almost as bad.

I read and write in the mornings, early. I love mornings.

 Most of the written material I read comes to me with push notifications by email.

General Circulation News:  
New York Times; Washington Post; The Atlantic; The New Yorker; The Guardian; Bloomberg; The Nation; Axios; Willamette Week and the Oregonian (www.oregonlive.com) for Oregon news; the Medford Mail Tribune for local news; JWA Associates (www.jwapublicaffairs.com) daily email of curated links to stories about events in Oregon, 

Political news and commentary: 
Politico; TheHill; FiveThirtyEight; Fox News; Newsmax; Sabato's Chrystal Ball; the libertarian www.reason.com; Daily Beast Cheat Sheet for links to liberal-oriented news stories; Conservative News; for links to conservative-oriented news stories; Conte' Nash Spotlight; Vanity Fair's The Hive.

Financial news and commentary: CNBC.com;  www.hussmanfunds.com for bearish commentary saying the stock market is wildly over-priced; Morgan Stanley research; Abnormal Returns, for links to financial news stories; Over My Shoulder links to financial commentary curated by John Mauldln.

Scientific American; Geopolitical Futures www.geopoliiticalfutures.com for foreign affairs commentary,

The Bulwark, by Charlie Sykes, an old-school conservative Republican dismayed by what Trump has done to his party; Animal Spirits, a lively fast paced conversation on financial markets; Pivot, a lively fast-paced conversation between technology journalist Kara Swisher and NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway; Honestly, with Bari Weiss; Useful Idiots, a leftist political commentary by Matt Taibbi and Katie Halper; FiveThirtyEight Politics, an audio version of the web's political commentary.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Jeff Bezos, the Space Cowboy

Is he trying to look like a jerk? Or doesn't he care?

I ask these as serious questions. 

Jeff Bezos wore a cowboy hat and cowboy boots into space. 

It was a swashbuckling, devil-may-care look. In a country digging its way out of a COVID shutdown that gave a huge tailwind to Amazon, making his fabulous wealth even more fabulous, he chose to go with swagger. 

Jeff Bezos, space cowboy.

His warehouse employees work under close supervision and punishing quotas. Bezos thanked his employees for making him so rich. “I also want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all of this."


It didn't seem like he was sharing a sentiment of humble appreciation. It was the grin of the winner at the poker table letting the losers know he is walking away with their chips.

I questioned myself: Are my impressions unfair and just my own?  Did others see what I saw?  I scouted around the internet to look at reactions to him. Others saw the same thing.

He must have wanted to project a certain kind of image--or at least been wantonly unconcerned about how he came across. Yet it seems so counter-intuitive for the CEO of Amazon at this moment, when regulators are looking closely at Amazon and other technology firms. Amazon uses its market domination not as a neutral "common carrier." Some of its business practices are openly abusive to third-party sellers on its platform. Rockefeller did this in the early 20th century. It causes companies to get broken into pieces. Plus, his company was criticized for extracting concessions from cities to get a second headquarters. Amazon was an unapologetic bully. Bezos personally was outed as being one of the billionaires who paid zero taxes.

One would think this might be a time for Amazon to stress its corporate good citizenship. Yet his rocket took him on a joy ride into sub-orbital space for some three minutes of weightlessness.  It had a fiddling-while-Rome-burns look to it.

What is he thinking?

Possibly this is utterly personal. Bezos is not just a CEO. He is also a man post-divorce, possibly just acting out.  After the Bezos' marriage dissolved, Mackenzie Bezos married a high school science teacher and changed her last name. She has been giving billions of dollars away. She isn't putting her name on things; she isn't showing off. She announced the gifts in a simple blog post on Medium that concludes with this poem by the 13th century poet Rumi:
A candle as it diminishes explains, 
Gathering more and more is not the way,
Burn, and become light and heat and help. Melt.
In her philanthropy and comments she is making a moral and philosophical statement that material things are not the center of life. Mackenzie chose empathy and philanthropy.  

Here is one explanation: Mackenzie Scott chooses to go in one behavioral lane and Jeff Bezos is grabbing the opposite one. She wants to be Mrs. Nice? OK, Jeff will be Mr. Naughty and be proud of it. Maybe Cowboy Jeff wasn't a big "F---you" to the world. Maybe it was toward his ex.

The other thought is the bigger picture one. America is going through another era marked by dramatic income inequality. There was the famous "robber baron" period of the late 19th century age when great fortunes were created through flagrant stock manipulation. The great winners felt triumphant, and they built mansions to show it off. The "roaring twenties" were a second period, when easy credit and flagrant lawbreaking surrounding Prohibition created an environment of high-living show-off wealth, the kind described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby.

We are in a similar era, now. Credit is easy, the economy is great for people who are already wealthy. Joy-rides into space substitute for mansions in Newport, Palm Beach, and the California coast. It may be a blow-off gesture signaling the crazy exuberant end of a period. Bezos' space ride is the equivalent of Hearst's castle at San Simeon--a mansion over the top but unapologetic, with gold fixtures, objects moved from European cathedrals, exotic animals. Why not? Hearst and Bezos could afford anything.

It is never clear until afterwards that an era reached its moment of maximum exuberance, the moment when an era finally sows the seeds of its own destruction and the pendulum swings the other way. Maybe this is it. Maybe this is the straw on the camel that allows changes to the tax code, new people looking at anti-trust laws, a majority in the Congress that ignores Amazon's lobbyists. 

Or not. Possibly Americans still have an appetite for admiring the extraordinarily wealthy. Possibly their attitude isn't yet one of an economic order out of balance. Possibly Americans look at Bezos and think "why that could be me!"

But I think we are close to the end of an era.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

"I finally capitulated and got my first vaccination."

Delta means change. 

Events are changing ideas and behavior on vaccinations.

Political comment has focused on a shift in the message coming from the political right. The Republicans message had been that the vaccine was useless or risky, and not worth the risk--especially since Democrats were encouraging people get vaccinated. Events intervened to change the story. The delta variant, combined with realization that COVID hospitalizations and deaths were concentrated among the un-vaccinated in red parts of red states, made vaccine opposition seem foolish and self-destructive. 

Republican House Whip Steve Scalise just got vaccinated. Now he calls the COVID vaccine "safe and effective." Fox and Friends' Steve Doocy says to "get vaccinated." Fox's Sean Hannity now says a vaccination "absolutely makes sense."  Click: The Atlantic

There is evolution on what I consider the vaccine-skeptical left.  Some people are skeptical about high tech "Western medicine." They observe a medical industry, and are concerned with how financial incentives have shaped it.

Today's Guest Post is by Michael Shear, a college classmate, a physician, a resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was a pioneer in Emergency Room specialization. He has practiced medicine in Massachusetts and Nepal, and is currently working for the Harvard Health Services. He just now got vaccinated and he shared with me his perspective on why he waited.

Photo from Michael Shear, center, with two colleagues.

Guest Post by Michael Shear, M.D.

I finally capitulated and got my first (Pfizer) vaccination last week. Harvard now requires it of all students and employees (I continue to work part-time at the Harvard University Health Services). I’m not happy about that. I don’t think an injection of a biologic agent that still only has an Emergency Use Authorization should be mandatory. The other reason I’ve capitulated is because the writing is on the wall: if you want to travel internationally any time in the near future, you’ll have to be vaccinated. But I’ll still be careful where I go and what I do, and have a low threshold for wearing a mask.

Of course I would be amazed if it doesn’t eventually get formal FDA approval, because the situation is so politicized that it would be unthinkable for it not to be approved. But as far as I’m concerned, we’re playing with fire.

I don’t have time to go into details (and the details are important). I would only say that the “science” is much more complicated than the public discussion would have you imagine.

If I felt at great risk of dying from COVID I would get vaccinated. 
As for the personal risks of COVID, I feel reasonably protected by my own behavior. The incremental benefit to me personally of vaccination I think will be small. Otherwise, I would wait. Either way, I would avoid high risk situations (prolonged exposure in small crowded spaces with strangers or anyone likely to be sick with a respiratory illness).

We aren’t going to vaccinate our way out of this. We will never attain herd immunity. It’s not possible with a highly contagious moving target, especially when you can’t get buy-in from nearly everyone (and why should you expect to when the vaccine technology has not been sufficiently vetted?). Science is undermining its own credibility with its careless messaging.

I am not an anti-vaxxer. But I know what good science is, and what isn’t. Most medical science isn’t. There is too much money and wishful thinking involved. We could do the studies that would give us the information we need, but they aren’t being done because people are impatient and most stakeholders don’t really want to know.

We still don’t really know how well vaccination prevents spread, so it’s hard to tell younger people that they have to get vaccinated, especially since they may incur a disproportion of the adverse effects (like the young women with cerebral vein thrombosis). If you come across studies that address explicitly the prevention of spread, please let me know. I just saw a preliminary report (from Qatar) in last week’s JAMA--the Journal of the American Medical Association--that suggested vaccination might be helpful, but we need more clean data without spin.

COVID could mysteriously disappear. I think it’s more likely that it will be with us for a long time, like influenza. We haven’t had much impact on influenza by vaccination. We’ve just learned to accept tens of thousands of annual deaths in the US as “normal”. We could adjust our cultural behavior to ameliorate that, but we haven’t, and from all indications, we probably won’t. I suspect it will be much the same with COVID.

The delta variant is raising many questions. And we here in HUHS are seeing more cases of COVID in vaccinated patients, though the University is keeping as quiet about it as possible and not letting us test for variants. There was an outbreak last week in Provincetown. Also an outbreak on the Yankees, all vaccinated.