Saturday, July 31, 2021

Time to rethink COVID

We thought we were done with COVID. COVID wasn't done with us.

Democrats need to re-think COVID.  It is everywhere and everyone can spread it.

Scientific journal articles are written to be precise, not easy-reading. But it is in English and a reader can slog through this excerpt from the CDC's Weekly Morbidity and Mortality Report. But don't bother. I translate below.

During July 2021, 469 cases of COVID-19 associated with multiple summer events and large public gatherings in a town in Barnstable County, Massachusetts, were identified among Massachusetts residents; vaccination coverage among eligible Massachusetts residents was 69%. Approximately three quarters (346; 74%) of cases occurred in fully vaccinated persons (those who had completed a 2-dose course of mRNA vaccine [Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna] or had received a single dose of Janssen [Johnson & Johnson] vaccine ≥14 days before exposure). Genomic sequencing of specimens from 133 patients identified the B.1.617.2 (Delta) variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in 119 (89%) and the Delta AY.3 sublineage in one (1%). Overall, 274 (79%) vaccinated patients with breakthrough infection were symptomatic. Among five COVID-19 patients who were hospitalized, four were fully vaccinated; no deaths were reported.  Real-time reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) cycle threshold (Ct) values in specimens from 127 vaccinated persons with breakthrough cases were similar to those from 84 persons who were unvaccinated, not fully vaccinated, or whose vaccination status was unknown.

From:    CDC: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report

Let me translate: 

What this says is that vaccinated people do get the highly contagious delta variant of COVID.

What this says is that a small percentage of vaccinated people got sick enough to go to the hospital, but none died.

What this says is that the virus load in vaccinated people was the same as in the unvaccinated.

These three facts brought the study authors to a conclusion expressed plainly: Back to masks. "Science," tells us that vaccinated people going around maskless and living our lives as before, are adding to the epidemic. We spread COVID. We are dangerous to others.

Politically this is worse than no-win for conscientious mayors and governors. It is a thorough disaster. They are not just the messenger of bad news; they are the enforcer of unpopular policies. Fox News and GOP officeholders are in a political sweet-spot, saying people should probably get vaccinated, expressed as the subordinate clause in a sentence that complains about the outrageous tyranny of mask and vaccination mandates pushed by Democrats. 

Democrats in office won't be rewarded for being conscientious. They will be punished for it.

It is time to re-think COVID. More people die from heart disease, cancer, and diabetes than from COVID. We don't outlaw double cheeseburgers with bacon. We don't outlaw cigarettes. We don't outlaw motorcycles. We accept that people will do unsafe things because they are easy and enjoyable and that some unlucky Americans will die because of them. In the case of COVID, it will mostly--not entirely--be people who are already old or sick. Americans can accept that reality; we already have. We want to let people be self-reliant and make their own choices, even if they are unhealthy, dangerous ones.

It is a cold approach.  Accept extra deaths? Do nothing in the face of a known hazard? 

Yes. Exactly that. This is America. Land of the free, home of the brave.

COVID will kill some people this and every year, but now that there is a vaccine, the risks have become "acceptable" within the context of freedom and American culture.  Democratic officeholders are thinking that the news that vaccinated people spread the disease changes things. It doesn't. In an imagined, perfect world of generous, public spirited people, Americans will willingly, eagerly mask up to protect the vulnerable, but COVID is everywhere and everyone spreads it, avoiding COVID is a lost cause. Now it is every person for himself. Some will be unlucky, just like with motorcycles.

Democrats are slow to accept this, to their political peril. They are being led by the medical scientists, the same people who say to lose weight, avoid salt, and exercise. Time for Democrats to let the people lead. There is a line of cars at McDonalds.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Update from the Oregon Secretary of State's office

 I got a phone call. 

The Secretary of State's office says they did not intend to stonewall and resist questions about the 2020 election.

Carla Axtman, the Communications Director for the Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, called me and said her goal was to be quickly responsive to questions on the quantity and nature of fraudulent voting. In being quick, she said she understood her response lacked the detail I sought. She apologized for that and said she would get that information promptly, likely within the next week. 

Americans have heard that their elections are unreliable, indeed so unreliable that it is acceptable to ignore them. The "Stop the Steal" rally and insurrection has support from a considerable number of people, and a larger number who minimize it and don't think it particularly worrisome. There is a premise behind that support and minimization: Elections are an imperfect way of determining the popular will. Attendance at rallies, Facebook posts, and the comments of friends and neighbors are a more reliable guide because so many people are voting illegally. That is the thought and fear. 

I consider that a proposition subject to verification. There could be widespread voter fraud, and if so, the distrust of elections by some large segment of GOP voters would be well founded. The information from Jackson County suggests that voter fraud is very, very rare. The Heritage Foundation found and reported as such, as well. Our Secretary of State has the information to confirm or refute the notion of widespread voter fraud, at least here in the vote-by-mail state of Oregon. The office is not withholding it, they insist. They are compiling the information now and will be providing it to me and others. It will be posted promptly on their website as well.

I am asked not to be impatient. Instead, I am asked to stay tuned.  I will keep readers updated on what I learn.

Did we have election fraud in Oregon?

There are good questions that deserve good answers: 

Was the Oregon election free and fair? 
Was there fraudulent activity? 
Were fraud reports investigated? 
What did authorities find out?

The Secretary of State's office studiously evaded answering.  Strange.

Shemia Fagan, Oregon Secretary of State

Normally one would expect the office of an elected official to be eager to show the official to be on the job and effective. Oregon has universal mail-in balloting, and former President Trump said vote-by-mail was rife with fraud. A lot of people believe him. Is he right? Was Oregon's 2020 election packed with fraudulent ballots and illegal votes? What are the facts? 

My local election official, Jackson County Clerk Chris Walker, told me she found a total of 10 cases of potential forgery, plus four cases of ballots cast in the names of people who had died--14 votes out of 128,000 cast in the county. 

Walker, interviewed on KOBI
Walker told me she referred these problem ballots to the Oregon Secretary of State for investigation and potential referral for prosecution. If vote problems in Jackson County are representative of the state as a whole, we might expect about 350 problems statewide, but that would be a guess. I wanted to report facts from the source. I asked for a brief phone interview with Oregon's Secretary of State Shemia Fagan. Her office declined an interview, but said if I had questions, I should submit them in writing. I thought I was friendly and clear. Here is what I wrote:
Thanks for your help. I would appreciate an “on the record” response. I will use your comments in my daily political blog, UpClose with Peter Sage Https://

I have a small readership of about 2,000 daily readers. Oregon-oriented articles are the most popular. Most of the readers are politically active Oregonians, primarily in the Democratic/older/donor demographic.

1. Have you had any reports of fraudulent voting in the 2020 general election?

2. If so, what was the disposition of those reports/referrals?

3. The Oregon Department of Justice said they prosecuted few cases (under 100) involving the 2018 election. Is it standard practice for the SOS to refer potential cases to them?

4. How does 2020 compare with 2018?

5. Is there a database you could refer me to of election fraud investigations and prosecutions or some other disposition?

6 Have you had “citizen referrals” i.e. reports by concerned citizens of election violations in 2020, and if so, what did the SOS office do in response.

With all the talk of massive voter fraud and the supposed riskiness of mail-in ballots, I wonder what the Oregon data show. I expect readers will wonder, too.

Peter Sage

I honestly thought the Secretary of State's office would be eager to be helpful. This was an opportunity to clear the record on Oregon's elections with real data. The elected Secretary of State could show herself to be hard at work, both addressing the question of whether there was, in fact, widespread fraud in he election, and also giving detail and color to the kinds and quantity of election misbehavior that does take place. She could show her competence in having an office that investigated and prosecuted fraud, thus assuring the public our elections are secure. I assumed this information would be prime press-release material.

Instead, I got evasion and resistance.  Apparently it will take the Secretary of State's office some four hours to research if they got fraud reports, report how many, and to determine whether the office processed them. They requested $100, or about four hours' time at $25/hour. I doubt this is about the money, even though, of course, I am happy to pay it, and more. This is about information stonewalling. This is about putting up a bureaucratic wall against an outside inquiry about what her office learned about election fraud in Oregon. With all the accusations, speculations, and wild conspiracies circulating, the Secretary of State has the facts at hand to bring everyone back to reality--important work--but the response from her office is to reveal as little as possible. 

When asking if the office got complaints, the answer was yes. When asked how many, the question was ignored. When asked for comparisons with prior elections, the response was "an increase." It was as unhelpful as a bureaucracy could make it.

Michael Trigoboff, a Portland-area reader of this blog, saw a copy of the letter from the Secretary of State's office, and commented: "She could have saved herself a lot of typing, and saved you a lot of time reading, by just replying, “Fuck you.'" That seems too harsh to me. It wasn't overtly hostile. It was a bureaucratic wall, but it was civil, even if oddly and persistently evasive and protective. The office sent the firm message that the Secretary of State's office was revealing as little information as possible about its work. 

Is this simply the instinct of a government bureaucracy when a question comes from an unfamiliar direction? Is there some problem that needs to be hidden, e.g. are they way behind in their work? Can the Secretary of State's office be blind to the fact that overt stonewalling raises a red flag of suspicion in an arena where there is already speculation about hidden, nefarious behavior?

Here it is, verbatim. I will let readers decide what they think is going on. I put my questions in italics and the responses in bold, to make clear which words were whose:

Good morning, Mr. Sage:

I’m writing in response to the questions you sent over to us. We can provide a more thorough answer through additional research, which would cost you approximately $100 based on our fees for providing public records under OAR 165-002-0010. Please let me know if you would like to proceed with more in-depth answers and for which questions you would like those answers.

Please see below for the answers to the questions you provided:

1. Have you had any reports of fraudulent voting in the 2020 general election? Yes.

2. If so, what was the disposition of those reports/referrals? Reports of election fraud were assessed, and a determination made as to whether the reports rose to the level of a colorable complaint. Complaints must be from an individual registered to vote in Oregon and the complaint must be signed. Complaints are also referred to the Elections Division by filing officers, such as a county elections official. Disposition of complaints arising from the 2020 general election range from closed to open to currently being worked by the Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ).

3. The Oregon Department of Justice said they prosecuted few cases (under 100) involving the 2018 election. Is it standard practice for the SOS to refer potential cases to them? The Elections Division refers colorable complaints of voter fraud to the DOJ.

4. How does 2020 compare with 2018? There was an increase in complaints alleging voter fraud during the 2020 general election. Please note that there was also an increase in voter turnout [67.8% in 2018 vs 78.5% in 2020].

5. Is there a database you could refer me to of election fraud investigations and prosecutions or some other disposition? The Elections Division does not have a public-facing voter fraud database containing this information. Complaints involving voter fraud are kept confidential pending final disposition.

6. Have you had “citizen referrals” i.e. reports by concerned citizens of election violations in 2020, and if so, what did the SOS office do in response? Referrals from citizens are processed in essentially the same manner as referrals received from county election officials. All colorable complaints are investigated.

Thank you,
Carla Axtman

Carla Axtman
Communications Director
Oregon Secretary of State

Note: An earlier version of this story said there were 18 questionable votes from Jackson County referred to the Secretary of State's office. There were a total of 14, of which ten were potential forgeries, and four from deceased voters, according to a clarification by the Jackson County Clerk.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

CDC Confusion

"First, you say, you do
And then you don't
And then you say, you will
And then you won't
You're undecided now
So what are you gonna do?


Now you want to play
And then it's no
And when you say, you'll stay
That's when you go
You're undecided now
So what are you gonna do?"

Undecided, made popular by Ella Fitzgerald, 1939

COVID is a moving target. 

The CDC's reputation and credibility are sinking, and with it the credibility of officeholders attempting to do public health consistent with CDC guidance.

Credibility is a fragile thing. It is earned less from being objectively true than it is from being clear and consistent. "The vaccinated don't need masks anymore," is a simple rule. Now there is new guidance.
Clear, simple guidance

The CDC had said vaccinated people could take off their masks, a great visible tangible reward for vaccination. Now, amid the delta variant, guidance changed; we should wear masks indoors around the potentially-unvaccinated, which means nearly everywhere indoors around strangers. The big unsaid, unintended message is that the CDC doesn't know what it is doing. 

I am vaccinated. I got my hopes up. I have been mask-free for a few weeks. Now apparently vaccinations aren't enough. The vaccine is good, but not perfect, and vaccinated people sometimes get COVID. Breakthrough COVID patients apparently can spread COVID, so now to be a good, careful citizen, we need to mask up--mostly to protect the unvaccinated. I have a mental image of the unvaccinated and it is unkind and incomplete. I imagine the negligent person, the selfish risk-taker, and the Trump-supporting, Tucker-Carlson-watching resister, thinking darned if he will give Democrat Joe Biden the satisfaction of taking a dose of that unproven George Soros/Bill Gates mind-control drug.

I think to myself, "why bother" if I am protecting people who won't do their part. Then the CDC reminds us that some people do want the vaccine, but have auto-immune problems, that children under twelve aren't yet eligible and they can spread it, and that some of my community's most vulnerable people-- people with kidney transplants, for example--could get very sick and die if I, a vaccinated and possibly asymptomatic carrier, spread it to them.  

So after experiencing freedom, we are supposed to climb back into our masks. I want to blame someone, and who better than the messenger, the CDC with its confusing, apparently-inconsistent guidance, and the governors and mayors who act on that guidance. First they say they do, and then they don't.

Every county is different

Apparently my home in Jackson County Oregon, is a relative delta hotspot, shown in orange. The next county to the east, Klamath County (home of the Bootleg fire) has fewer COVID cases right now. I need to mask in a grocery store here, but I wouldn't in a Klamath County store. Klamath County is rural, agricultural Trump-country. The common attitude there toward masks, social distancing, and COVID generally is to ignore it and scoff. Yet, somehow, Jackson County people need to protect our mask-refusers, but people in Klamath County do not.

It just seems wrong. Unfair. Illogical. 

Governments have police power to control epidemics. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the 1905 Supreme Court case, established that states can require vaccinations. COVID mitigation is proving to be an unpopular power to use. Democrats should have no illusion that voters in 2022 will thank them for successfully dealing with COVID. They won't. Quite the opposite. The disease will not have disappeared. It is endemic. Moreover, the actions necessary to deal with it are doomed to feel like tyranny to the opponents of vaccination and masking, and mishandled and confusing to everyone else.

There is no good way out of this, which is why Trump was hoping for a miracle. He didn't get it and neither will Biden nor Democratic governors.


Wednesday, July 28, 2021

GOP Silent Consent to Overthrowing the Election.

Moderate Republicans in Oregon have a problem. They need to be Trump-compliant in a state that rejected Trump.

Trump is making it hard for them. So is Liz Cheney.

     "Until January 6th, we were proof positive for the world that a nation conceived in liberty could long endure. But now, January 6th threatens our most sacred legacy. The question for every one of us who serves in Congress, for every elected official across this great nation, indeed, for every American is this: Will we adhere to the rule of law? Will we respect the rulings of our courts? Will we preserve the peaceful transition of power? Or will we be so blinded by partisanship that we throw away the miracle of America?"

          U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Cheney, (R) Wyoming

Click: NBC
A Republican in national office is exposed. There are yes-or-no votes, and Trump does not tolerate apostasy.  Loyal and subservient as Mike Pence was, when he would not unilaterally discard votes for Biden he was no longer part of the Trump GOP. On January 7 Mitch McConnell said on the floor of the Senate, "The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people." McConnell, too, lost Trump's blessing.

Liz Cheney is the most visible current example of a Republican who wouldn't go along with overthrowing the election, and she is condemned by Trump, of course, but also now condemned by the House GOP. She keeps saying what must not be said aloud, that their party's hero attempted--and still attempts--to remain in power despite losing the election. She shames Republicans in national office. 

But Republican state and local candidates have a place to hide. They might win in blue Oregon. It starts with the reality that there is restlessness in the public mood. Problems accumulate. Enemies accumulate. COVID shutdown. Unemployment check delays. Portland disturbances night after night. As a senior Oregon Democratic political operative said to me yesterday, 
Peter, we could have a Republican governor and Republicans for three of the six U.S. Representatives. Democrats soiled their brand, what with Portland and everything. We are all sick of Portland, not just downstate. Up here, too.

The path for a Republican is narrow, though, because the state as a whole opposes Trump and Trump is in the center of the GOP brand. Victory statewide would require the right political biography, combined with mumbling a non-answer to uncomfortable subjects. Oregon has a tradition of voting for Main-Street, Chamber-of-Commerce Republicans. They project a kind of good-government civic-mindedness at odds with the national GOP current message. Populist Trump condemns the institutions of government, corporate elites, and the "Fake News" media. Old-school Chamber of Commerce Republicans lead institutions and support them, and are friendly with the local and state media. They were comfortable with the Bush-Romney party with its traditional pro-business, anti-union, low-regulation, low-tax policies. They don't hate the elites; they are the elites, or friendly with them.

I talk with Republican political operatives, too. (In my long career as a financial advisor I got along well with Republicans.) I asked a senior Republican advocate and donor how Main Street Republicans were going to deal with the Donald Trump/Liz Cheney problem. Isn't ignoring an effort to void an election and then an attack on the Capitol a bit like the macabre joke, "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" I got this answer:

Peter, move on. January 6 is behind us. Biden is president. We're not going to talk about Trump and what he says about the election. It just isn't a subject we think about. 

I asked again later, and got:

Peter, we aren't talking about Trump and whether or not the election was fair. After the primary Republicans can talk about bipartisanship, but until then we won't be commenting on Trump or the election. We are looking past that.

It might work. A candidate might have enough message discipline to keep refusing steadfastly to address what Trump keeps advocating, what Democrats and Liz Cheney keep condemning, and what a questioner keeps asking. "No comment," may seem like sufficient agreement in the ears of Republican voters who expect and assume agreement. It may be ambiguous enough to Democrats satisfied that at least someone isn't praising the insurrection. The strategy is to mumble and not comment.

The big confounding factor will be Trump and Cheney. It doesn't appear that either will let it go, and they aren't mumbling. 

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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.

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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.

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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 ( for Oregon news; the Medford Mail Tribune for local news; JWA Associates ( 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; 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:; 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 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.