The Politics of Climate Change and Wildfires

Some Evidence and Assessment

Bob Sheak, September 18, 2020

bsheak983@gmail.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/vitalissues-bobsheak.com

In this post, I return to one of the most existentially-threatening realities facing Americans and all humanity, that is, the human-caused (e.g., the burning of fossil fuels), accelerating, increasingly catastrophic climate change. I have written many times on this disturbing issue. You can see all 64 posts I have written over the past 3 ½ years, including quite a few dealing with climate change at https://wordpress.com/posts/vitalissues-bobsheak.com. In order to cope meaningfully with this vast and deepening problem our society and other societies must radically reduce in the next decade or two the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere (i.e. carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide). The position I have taken is based on scientific evidence and a progressive/leftist perspective. The post I sent out on December 28, 2019 it titled “The realty and challenges of the climate crisis.” The first paragraphs of that post, which follow, provide an appropriate introduction of how dire the problem of this unfolding crisis is. As you probably well know, Trump, the Republican Party and their allies essentially reject the realty of climate change or want to do very little to address the problem. 

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The climate crisis grows, leaving humanity very little time to avoid a terrifying outcome. Recent scientific findings based on systematic field observations, sophisticated computer modeling, meta-analyses of research continue to document how the effects of the climate crisis are accelerating and affecting all parts of the earth.

Bob Berwyn reports for Inside Climate News (12-18-19) that scientists are “confidently saying 2019 was Earth’s second-warmest recorded year on record, capping the warmest decade. Eight of the 10 warmest years since measurements began occurred this decade, and the other two were only a few years earlier” (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/18122019/decade-climate-heat-drought-extreme-storms-arctic-sea-ice-antarctica-greenland).

There were plenty of examples of this rapidly unfolding crisis in 2019. “Arctic sea ice melted faster and took longer to form again in the fall. Big swaths of ocean remained record-warm nearly all year, in some regions spawning horrifically damaging tropical storms that surprised experts with their rapid intensification. Densely populated parts of Europe shattered temperature records amid heat waves blamed for hundreds of deaths, and a huge section of the U.S. breadbasket region was swamped for months by floodwater.” And that wasn’t all. There were deadly heat waves, droughts, and wildfires in many parts of the world.

“…wildfires burned around the globe, starting unusually early in unexpected places like the UK. They blazed across country-size tracts of Siberia, fueled by record heat, flared up in the Arctic and devastated parts of California. Australia ended the decade with thick smoke and flames menacing Sydney and a record-breaking heat wave that sent the continent’s average temperature over 107 degrees Fahrenheit. Again and again, scientists completed near real-time attribution studies showing how global warming is making extremes—including wildfires—more likely.”

Leslie Hook cites evidence from a The UN’s World Meteriological Organization documenting that “global average concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose to 407.8 parts per million in 2018, up from 405.5 parts per million in 2017.” This particularly reflects how the biggest economies of the world continue on energy paths dependent on fossil fuels. Hook quotes Petteri Taalas, Secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization: “There is no sign of a slowdown, let alone a decline, in greenhouse gases concentration in the atmosphere despite all the commitments under the Paris agreement,” [adding] “It is worth recalling that the last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3 to 5 million years ago…. Back then, the temperature was 2 to 3°C warmer, and sea level was 10 to 20 meters higher than now.”(https://insideclimatenews.org/news/26112019/unep-emissions-gap-report-paris-climate-greenhouse-gas-peak-2030).

Jake Johnson brings our attention to a study issued by the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) on just the day after the report by the World Meteorological Organization was made public. The UNEP confirmed in its annual Emissions Gap report that levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a record high in 2018.” Johnson also quotes from the report: “It is evident that incremental changes will not be enough and there is a need for rapid and transformational action….By necessity, this will see profound change in how energy, food, and other material-intensive services are demanded and provided by governments, businesses, and markets (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/11/26/science-screaming-un-report-warns-only-rapid-and-transformational-action-can-stave). The UNEP finding that only “profound change” is enough to curtail greenhouse gas emissions has relevance for the 2020 elections. In this context, Bernie Sanders calls for “revolutionary” change, which seems far more appropriate than Democratic candidates who want only incremental change.

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Recent evidence

The growing body of scientifically verifiable evidence on the climate crisis/disaster continues to accumulate.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

NASA appears to be one government source that has not yet been corrupted by the Trump administration. The NASA site can be found at https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence, and is regularly updated, most recently on September 9, 2020. NASA includes pages on the evidence, causes, effects, scientific consensus, and vital signs. With respect to evidence, NASA reports on changes that are altering the earth’s fundamental ecological support systems, including rising temperatures, warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, retreating glaciers, decreasing snow cover, rising sea levels, declining arctic ice, the increase in extreme weather events, and ocean acidification. According to NASA, “[t]he current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is extremely likely (greater than 95 percent probability) to be the result of human activity since the mid-20th century and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented over decades to millennia.1” The data come from earth-orbiting satellites and other technological advances, ice cores, tree rings, ocean sediments, coral reefs, and layers of sedimentary rocks. They show that the accumulation of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere, accelerating in the mid-20th Century, are the principal cause.

The Royal Society and US National Academy of Sciences

The Royal Society of England and the US National Academy of Sciences have also published a 2020 updated report of the evidence on global warming (https://royalsociety.org/-/media-Royal_Society_Content/policy/projects/climate-evidence-causes).  The following excerpts from this report captures the gist of their analysis.

“CLIMATE CHANGE IS ONE OF THE DEFINING ISSUES OF OUR TIME. It is now more certain than ever, based on many lines of evidence, that humans are changing Earth’s climate. The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, which has been accompanied by sea level rise, a strong decline in Arctic sea ice, and other climate-related changes. The impacts of climate change on people and nature are increasingly apparent. Unprecedented flooding, heat waves, and wildfires have cost billions in damages. Habitats are undergoing rapid shifts in response to changing temperatures and precipitation patterns. The Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences, with their similar missions to promote the use of science to benefit society and to inform critical policy debates, produced the original Climate Change: Evidence and Causes in 2014. It was written and reviewed by a UK-US team of leading climate scientists. This new edition, prepared by the same author team, has been updated with the most recent climate data and scientific analyses, all of which reinforce our understanding of human-caused climate change.”

Wikipedia

The online, open-source encyclopedia Wikipedia says this about “climate change”:

Climate change includes both the global warming driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases, and the resulting large-scale shifts in weather patterns.[1] Though there have been previous periods of climatic change, since the mid-20th century the rate of human impact on Earth’s climate system and the global scale of that impact have been unprecedented.[2]

Observed temperature from NASA[3] vs the 1850–1900 average as a pre-industrial baseline. The main driver for increased global temperatures in the industrial era is human activity, with natural forces adding variability.[4]

“That human activity has caused climate change is not disputed by any scientific body of national or international standing.[5] The largest driver has been the emission of greenhouse gases. Over 90% of these emissions are carbon dioxide (CO
2) and methane, with fossil-fuel burning being the main source, and secondary contributions from agriculture and deforestation. Temperature rise is accelerated or tempered by climate feedbacks, such as loss of sunlight-reflecting snow and ice cover, increased water vapour (a greenhouse gas itself), and changes to land and ocean carbon sinks.

“Because land surfaces heat faster than ocean surfaces, deserts are expanding and heat waves and wildfires are more common.[6] Surface temperature rise is greatest in the Arctic, where it has contributed to melting permafrost, and the retreat of glaciers and sea ice. Increasing atmospheric energy and rates of evaporation cause more intense storms and weather extremes, which damage infrastructure and agriculture.[7] Rising temperatures are limiting ocean productivity and harming fish stocks in most parts of the globe. Current and anticipated effects from undernutrition, heat stress and disease have led the World Health Organization to declare climate change the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century. Environmental effects include the extinction or relocation of many species as their ecosystems change, most immediately in coral reefsmountains, and the Arctic. Even if efforts to minimize future warming are successful, some effects will continue for centuries, including rising sea levels, rising ocean temperatures, and ocean acidification from elevated levels of CO.”
2.

The problem of climate change is steadily getting worse

Bill McKibben writes in The New Yorker on September 3, 2020 that the changes wrought by the climate change/disaster are so great that they are altering the “world each and every day” and “radically remaking the planet, [all] in the course of one lifetime” (https://www.newyorker.com/news/annals-of-a-warming-planet/how-fast-the-climate-changing-its-a-new-world-each-and-every-day). The greenhouse gas emissions from human activity, principally from the combustion of fossil fuels, captures heat in the atmosphere at a level equivalent to “exploding four Hiroshima-sized bombs each second.” And he points to another dramatic realty: “For almost all of human history, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide stuck at about two hundred and seventy-five parts per million, meaning that the planet’s energy balance was essentially unchanged. The physical world worked in predictable ways. But there’s around twenty-five parts per million more CO2 in the air now than there was a decade ago: That’s more change in ten years than over all the millennia from the invention of agriculture to the start of the Industrial Revolution. To think about it this way is to understand why this is a bigger predicament than any we’ve ever faced. Our other dramas—wars, revolutions—have played out against the backdrop of an essentially stable planet. But now that planet has become the main actor in our affairs, and more so every second.”

A majority of the US population takes the climate crisis seriously

Abrahm Lustgarten provides a quick summary of this evidence (https://popularresistance.org/climate-change-will-force-a-new-american-migration). He points to “signs that the message is breaking through” and gives some examples from polling data. “Half of Americans now rank climate as a top political priority, up from roughly one-third in 2016, and 3 out of 4 now describe climate change as either “a crisis” or “a major problem.” This year, Democratic caucus goers in Iowa, where tens of thousands of acres of farmland flooded in 2019, ranked climate second only to health care as an issue. A poll by researchers at Yale and George Mason universities found that even Republicans’ views are shifting: 1 in 3 now thinks climate change should be declared a national emergency.” We must wait to see whether this has an impact on the election. It’s hard to see how it benefits climate-denying Trump, his administration, and the Republican Party, perhaps the only major political party in the world that holds such a degenerate view.

A case study of one major effect of climate change– the western state wildfires

The scope of the wildfires

In an article published online at Inside Climate News, Michael Kodas gives us an idea of how extensive the wildfires are in “the hot, dry West” (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/09092020/wildfires-america-west-climate).

He reports on “80 large, uncontained wildfires” in the western regions of the US, in California, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Utah, burning millions of acres of woodlands and thousands of homes and buildings. For example: “…on Tuesday evening [Sept. 8], the Glendower Fire, a brush fire that ignited that morning outside Ashland, Oregon, burned up the Interstate 5 corridor into the towns of Talent and Phoenix, where the wildfire turned into an urban firestorm that ripped into Medford,a city of nearly 85,000 residents.” And: “In a news briefing Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington reported that 330,000 acres burned across the state on Monday alone—more than in any of the previous 12 fire seasons.” The Creek fire in the Cascadel Woods area of unincorporated Madera County, California, “helped California break its annual record for the amount of land burning in one year of wildfires, with 2.2 million acres scorched by Labor Day [up to 2.8 million by some estimates]. But the state’s most deadly and destructive months for wildfires are still to come.” And the fires are likely to keep up. Kodas points out that “the Creek Fire is pushing into mountain forests where 163 million trees have died since 2010 due to drought and insect infestation, providing ample fuel for the new fires” and the usual peak fire season has yet to start.

The controversy over the causes

Climate change and/or forest management

President Trump, self-styled expert on everything, asserts that the fires are not due to global warming but rather to poor forest management by the impacted states. His version of appropriate forest management is to have the for-profit lumber companies cut down, or harvest, trees at will, thus, in his mind, a really good thing because it reduces the fuel for fires, generates profits for some, and pleases his plutocratic supporters.

Lindsay Whitehurst and Sara Kline, AP journalists, report on Trump’s first trip to the wildfire-devastated states, comparing the president’s explanation with the science-based explanation of the affected-state governors. On this difference, they write: “The Democratic governors say the fires are a consequence of climate change, while the Trump administration has blamed poor forest management for the flames that have raced through the region and made the air in places like Portland, Oregon, Seattle and San Francisco some of the worst in the world” (https://searchandnews.com/news/read/article/the_associated_press-fires_raise_fight_over_climate_change_before_trump_ap/category/news). “Scientists say,” the journalists point out, “that the wildfires are all but inevitable, but that the main drivers are plants and trees drying out due to climate change and more people living closer to areas that burn. Forest thinning and controlled burns have proven challenging to implement on the scale needed to combat those threats.” They refer to a statement by Greg Jones, a professor and research climatologist at Linfield University in McMinnville, Oregon, who says that it “isn’t clear if global warming caused the dry, windy conditions that have fed the fires in the Pacific Northwest, but a warmer world can increase the likelihood of extreme events and contribute to their severity.”

Sonali Kolhatkar points that lightning, in the context of the conditions created by climate change, is another proximate cause of the wildfires. She writes: “In California’s Bay area, more than 10,000 lightning strikes triggered hundreds of fires in August” (https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/09/17/fighting-fire-with-fire-what-tribal-people-know-about-forest-ecosystems).

Climate change must be addressed

Democracy Now devoted a major part of their online program on Sept. 15 to the wildfires, focusing on the causes (https://www.democracynow.org/2020/9/15/california_wildfires_indegenous_land_stewardship).

Hosts Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez quote California Governor Gavin Newsom, who addressed Trump’s persistence in blaming the fires on poor forest management. The governor makes two points about the wildfires. (1) “We obviously feel very strongly that the hots are getting hotter, the dries are getting drier. When we’re having heat domes the likes of which we’ve never seen in our history, the hottest August ever in the history of the state, the ferocity of these fires, the drought five-plus years, losing 163 million trees to that drought, something has happened to the plumbing of the world. And we come from a perspective, humbly, where we submit the science is in, and observed evidence is self-evident, that climate change is real, and that is exacerbating this.” (2) The federal government and private owners have much more responsibility for the lack of forest management than the states: “57% of California’s forests are on federal land, compared to just 3% that is owned by California, the rest privately owned.”

In an article published in The Washington Post on Sept. 16, Sarah Kaplan and Juliet Eilperin consider the argument that climate change is the fundamental cause of the increasing frequency and lethality of wildfires (https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2020/09/16/fires-climate-change).

In this case, they report, fires and climate are linked by basic physics. The describe the link as follows. “Human greenhouse gas emissions have warmed the planet. Higher temperatures trap more water in the atmosphere, drying out vegetation and making it more likely to ignite. In the American West — where temperatures are already as much as 4 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than in the preindustrial era — landscapes are burning in fundamentally different and more destructive ways.” The wildfire problem grows as the temperature rises, but even scientists underestimated how rapidly the fires would increase and become so destructive. They write: “A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that human-caused climate change doubled the amount of forest burned between 1984 and 2015. California’s own climate assessment in 2018 predicted that higher temperatures would cause 2.5 million acres to burn annually — the models just did not expect it to happen until 2050….The scale of this year’s fires have horrified even those who saw them coming. As of Tuesday, 3.2 million acres in California have been incinerated — almost double the previous record of 1.9 million, set in 2018. In Oregon, blazes have erupted in parts of the wet Western Cascades that have not burned in years. On a single day last week, red-flag warnings on fire weather stretched along the entire West Coast from the U.S. border with Mexico to Canada.” They add: “The intensity of the blazes creates towering plumes of heat called pyrocumulus clouds, which in turn trigger lightning storms and swirling fire tornadoes. Powerful winds push fires farther and faster than firefighters are used to. Embers carried far ahead of the main front enable fires to travel dozens of miles in a single day.”

Forest management – little being done

Kaplan and Eilperin report that as temperatures rise and wildfires multiply, “the federal government is supporting less research into the issue. The budget for the Joint Fire Science Program, which is funded through the Interior and Agriculture departments and produces research on the best practices for fire prevention and management, has steadily declined since the mid-2000s. In a 2017 budget deal approved before the current administration, the program’s funding was reduced from $12.9 million to $8.9 million. In 2018 and 2019, the White House sought to eliminate it entirely. The program now receives $6 million a year.”

Forest management ala Trump focus on logging that has exacerbated the problem. Trump signed “a 2019 executive order,” calling “on the secretaries of Agriculture and Interior to consider harvesting 4.4. million board feet of timber from public lands as a means to reduce wildfire risk,” which would be up from 3 billion board feet annually. But, unlike the helter-skelter logging by the for-profit logging companies, the thinning of forests must be nuanced, taking into account the types of trees, topography, ecology, and wildlife. Even then, however, Kaplan and Eilperin refer to research by Chris Dunn, a forester at Oregon State University who worked as a firefighter for eight years. He “found the most intensively managed industrial forests experienced more severe fire than untouched old growth — even when huge amounts of debris had accumulated on the ‘untreated’ forest floor. This is because younger trees planted for harvest are less resilient and fire spreads easily between them.”

But unfortunately, the rising temperatures accompanying uncontrolled climate change may stifle any approach. The journalists quote Monica Turner, fire ecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who told Kaplan and Eilperin that (paraphrasing her) “[r]esearch also shows that climate change is making forests so hot and dry that almost no intervention can keep them from igniting. Just look at this year’s fires. They are burning through tree plantations and wild forests. They have consumed fire breaks and jumped rivers.

“When the climate conditions are as extreme as they are now, it doesn’t matter how you’re managing it,” she said. “The fires will burn across anything.” Turner also said we can reduce the risk of wildfires by “stopping greenhouse gas emissions. According to Turner, “United Nation scientists reported that the world would need to start cutting emissions 7.6 percent annually to limit warming to a ‘tolerable’ 1.5 degrees Celsius. At that point, fires would likely be even worse than they are now – but not nearly as bad as they might otherwise become.”

Tribal forestry

There may be one way to manage forests that does help to reduce the extent and intensity of the wildfires now occurring. Given the level of catastrophic climate change, it is probably something less than a total solution, but it may, if implemented well, have some positive effects. In an article for Counter Punch, Sonali Kolhatkar refers to “tribal forestry” as an approach that can contribute to managing forests in a way that may help reduce somewhat the extent and intensity of the wildfires now occurring (https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/09/17/fighting-fire-with-fire-what-tribal-people-know-about-forest-ecosystems).

Her source for this information is Ali Meders-Knight, a Mechoopda tribal member from Chico in the northern part of California, who “[f]or more than 20 years …has practiced what is now called Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and has worked as a liaison for tribal forestry programs addressing precisely the problem of California’s mismanaged land and fuel that end up giving rise to out-of-control deadly fires.”

In an interview, she explained to Kolhatkar that “The plants and the land are adapted to fire. [The area is] used to fire; it wants fire.” Meders-Knight explained further “that the optimal days for controlled fire burns are hard to predict weeks or months in advance, which means that the state’s permitting process needs to be far more flexible. And firefighters, whose job it is to put out every fire during the hottest months of the year, could be trained as ‘fire technicians’ to manage fire in other months—thereby making their jobs less dangerous and overwhelming than they are now. She sees this as a ‘workforce development initiative’ that could be part of a ‘green jobs’ project in the state, especially at a time of mass unemployment and a housing crisis. Prison inmates who are recruited to fight California’s fires could also benefit from such a program.”

Kolhatkar also cites a New York Times article to add credence to the idea of tribal forestry. She writes: “an Aboriginal burning program started seven years ago has cut hot and destructive wildfires in half and reduced carbon emissions by more than 40 percent….in Australia, fire was a crucial tool in managing the land before the arrival of Europeans.”

Bear in mind that well-managed forest management has not been a priority for the Trump administration or the private sector. Indeed, both favor a mostly unregulated market to solve economic problems and both have been steadfast climate-deniers or have dismissed the problem is too economically costly and have used their economic and political clout to maximize the primacy of fossil fuels in federal energy policy and unregulated access of lumber companies to forests. Sen. Mitch McConnell has just admitted that human-caused global warming exists, but he doesn’t have a climate plan and has no plans to have the Senate consider this earth-altering issue (https://insideclimattenews.org/news/03092020/kentucky-2020-senate-climate-change-election-mitch-mcconnell-amy-mcgrath).

When communities burn: Living amid the forests or leaving

Even if a new administration in the White House begins supports major programs to support renewables and phase out fossil fuels, the effects of such efforts would take decades to stem global warming and reduce the excessive carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. Nonetheless, government officials, scientists, experts, and various community and environmental groups believe there is a role for well-conceived forest management.

Spencer Bokat-Lindell throws some light on the causes of wildfires and what can be done with respect of forest management (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/15/opinion/california-wildfires-climate-change.html). He refers to an analysis by the former Times climate reporter, Kendra Pierre-Louis, who “wrote in 2018, many of the deadliest and costliest fires start not in the heart of isolated forests but at the wildland-urban interface, where developed and undeveloped land meet.” Continuing: “About 44 million houses, equivalent to one in every three in the country, are in these zones, and the number is rising particularly fast in California. Wildfires already pose the greatest danger to people in the wildland-urban interface, and their presence there tends to increase the number of fires that start in the first place.”

Bokat-Lindell says that experts tell us that “governments “could impose regulations to make housing developments more resilient, including stipulations for fire-resistant building materials and moats of cleared vegetation known as defensible space. California adopted many of these standards, some of the strictest in the country, in 2008. One analysis of the devastating Camp Fire that killed 85 people in 2018 determined that about 51 percent of the 350 single-family homes built to the new codes escaped damage, compared with just 18 percent of the 12,100 homes built earlier.”

However, “there are considerable obstacles to making such fire-resistant homes and communities. In many states, developers have resisted new regulations. Retrofitting the millions of houses already built can be prohibitively expensive. And in the aftermath of a fire, the pressure to rebuild often wins out over safety considerations.” Bokat-Lindell quotes Max Moritz, a wildfire expert affiliated with the University of California, Santa Barbara, who said: “At this point we’ve learned a lot about how to engineer homes and communities so that they can be more survivable. But these lessons aren’t being implemented fast enough.”

Others, including the Los Angeles Times editorial board to which Bokat-Lindell refers, call for a “managed retreat” away from the forests, or relocating threatened homes. This is the kind of proposal that has also been applied or proposed to communities facing coastal erosion or flooding. Such proposals have not gained momentum, the editorial board notes. People are locating in such areas for economic reasons “driven in part by soaring housing prices that have pushed people out of cities. Prohibitions against building in fire-prone areas would therefore entail building denser, affordable housing in urban economic centers.” Presently, many people communities affected by the fires want to rebuild the same sort of houses in the same locations. At some point, this tendency may be interrupted by insurance companies that stop offering home insurance policies.

Other causes and responses to wildfires

There are other causes of wildfires. Some fires are caused by “negligent utility companies and natural causes, most are caused, intentionally or unintentionally, by people,” according to Bokat-Lindell’s reporting. “In Washington State, for example, people have started more than 1,300 fires so far this year. The Seattle Times editorial board argues that climate change has only increased the need to cultivate a more rigorous ethic of fire prevention among the public.”

“Vigilance about fire safety must be an everyday concern. From cigarette butts tossed on the roadside to campfires and fire pits, each outdoor spark is a threat to bucolic wild lands, property and life during these long parched weeks,” the board writes. “Every Washington resident and business shares this responsibility. Schools and public-safety bulletins should urgently spread this gospel. The message must be amplified each summer.”

In the final analysis, forest management does not go far enough

There is no doubt that there are constructive proposals on what can be done to reduce the proximate causes of wildfires. The list includes: education about safe practices by people when they are camping or engaged in other activities in forests, or using more resilient materials in housing construction, or giving people affordable housing options outside of fire-prone forest areas, or better regulation of and better practices by utility companies, tribal forestry, or limiting and regulating the practices of lumber companies. But they leave aside the fundamental causes, namely, the extended droughts, rising temperatures, and other conditions that stem from global warming.

Facing the prospect of a massive new American migration

Abrahm Lustgarten provides an in-depth analysis of the increasingly limited options available to people, communities and investors in locations more and more affected by wildfires in the West, by hurricanes in the East, and be droughts and flood damage throughout the nation (https://popularresistance.org/climate-change-will-force-a-new-american-migration). He elaborates as follows. “This summer has seen more fires, more heat, more storms — all of it making life increasingly untenable in larger areas of the nation. Already, droughts regularly threaten food crops across the West, while destructive floods inundate towns and fields from the Dakotas to Maryland, collapsing dams in Michigan and raising the shorelines of the Great Lakes. Rising seas and increasingly violent hurricanes are making thousands of miles of American shoreline nearly uninhabitable. As California burned, Hurricane Laura pounded the Louisiana coast with 150-mile-an-hour winds, killing at least 25 people; it was the 12th named storm to form by that point in 2020, another record. Phoenix, meanwhile, endured 53 days of 110-degree heat — 20 more days than the previous record.”

Lustgarten’s sources are wide-ranging. He “interviewed more than four dozen experts: economists and demographers, climate scientists and insurance executives, architects and urban planners, and ProPublica mapped out the danger zones that will close in on Americans over the next 30 years. The maps for the first time combined exclusive climate data from the Rhodium Group, an independent data-analytics firm; wildfire projections modeled by United States Forest Service researchers and others; and data about America’s shifting climate niches, an evolution of work first published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last spring. (A detailed analysis of the maps is available here.)”

His data reveal “a nation on the cusp of a great transformation.” Specifically: “Across the United States, some 162 million people — nearly 1 in 2 — will most likely experience a decline in the quality of their environment, namely more heat and less water. For 93 million of them, the changes could be particularly severe, and by 2070, our analysis suggests, if carbon emissions rise at extreme levels, at least 4 million Americans could find themselves living at the fringe, in places decidedly outside the ideal niche for human life. The cost of resisting the new climate reality is mounting. Florida officials have already acknowledged that defending some roadways against the sea will be unaffordable. And the nation’s federal flood-insurance program is for the first time requiring that some of its payouts be used to retreat from climate threats across the country. It will soon prove too expensive to maintain the status quo.”

Other victims of wildfires

In an article for The New York Times, Mike Baker and his colleagues report that :[t]he fast-moving fires that swept through Western United States have wiped out critical populations of endangered species and incinerated native habitats that may take years to recover, if they recover at all” (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/16/us/fires-oregon-california-washington.html). Yes, “tens of thousands of people forced to flee their homes, possessions and livelihoods destroyed, and state and federal fire fighting resources have been stretched beyond the limit.” But the devastating effects on wildlife is equally significant.

They quote Davia Palmeri, policy coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, who says: “We now have to think about climate change when managing wildlife.” Additionally: “Several endangered and threatened species, including the northern spotted owl and the weasel-like pine marten, depend on the mature mountain forests that bore the brunt of the fires.” In Washington state, “Fire that raced through the sagebrush steppe country of central Washington this month destroyed several state wildlife areas, leaving little more than bare ground. The flames killed about half of the state’s endangered population of pygmy rabbits, leaving only about 50 of the palm-sized rabbits in the wild there.” Thirty to seventy percent of the endangered sage grouse and sharp-tailed ground have been wiped out the fires and their critical breeding grounds of been burnt to the ground. Ranchers in Douglas County, Wash., “were unable to get cattle out of the way and many died. On the range they found deer and other wildlife staggering around, severely burned.” And: “The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is bracing for winter rains that could wash ash and silt into local streams and impact endangered salmon.”

Unlike Trump, Joe Biden takes climate change seriously.

Audrey McNamara reports for CBS News, Sept 16, 2020, on how Biden and Trump responses to the wildfires are antithetical. In short, Trump refuses to accept the realty of climate change, while Biden believes it “poses an existential threat” (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/biden-trump-climate-change-western-wildfire-response).

Trump’s position was revealed again at a briefing with government officials in California on Monday, Sept 14 at the McClellan Airport in Sacramento. In what McNamara describes as a striking exchange, the head of California’s Natural Resource Agency, Wade Crowfoot, pleaded with Trump for “cooperation in addressing climate change.” Crawfoot said: “We want to work with you to really recognize the changing climate and what it means to our forest, and actually work together with that science — that science is going to be key.” Trump “dismissed Crowfoot’s plea, “suggesting that global warming will somehow reverse itself. ‘It will start getting cooler. You just watch,’ he said. Crowfoot, an expert in climate and sustainability issues, replied, ‘I wish science agreed with you.’ To which the president said, ‘I don’t think science knows actually.’”

Given his stand on climate change, it is likely if reelected that Trump will continue to advance maximalist-fossil-fuel energy and deregulation policies as long as there are profits to be made and he is able to wield authoritarian power. Indeed, “Trump has called climate change a ‘hoax,’ and rolled back numerous policies put in place to protect the natural environment. Despite his record, the president recently declared himself the greatest environmentalist since President Theodore Roosevelt, who helped protect 230 million acres of public land.” Contrariwise, Trump has increased the amount of public land available to mining, logging and other private interests. Jim Robbins offers some information that conflicts with Trump’s claim ((https://e360.yale.edu/features/open-for-business-the-trump-revolution-on-public-lands). Here’s what he writes.

“Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon coined the term “deconstruction of the administrative state,” to describe efforts to take power away from the federal government and allow business a freer hand in development. Nowhere is that policy being carried out more systematically than in the Trump administration’s actions on public lands, where the businesses seeking that freer hand are primarily the oil and gas extraction, logging, and mining industries.

“There are hundreds of millions of acres of publically owned lands across the West and Alaska, including National Forests, Bureau of Land Management lands, National Parks and National Monuments. They include some of the nation’s most iconic landscapes, and they are also critical to state and local economies. As a percentage of each Western state, federal ownership ranges from 29 percent of Montana to 79 percent of Nevada.

“According to a study in the journal Science, the Trump administration is responsible for the largest reduction of protected public lands in history. Three months after taking office, Trump issued an executive order that led to dramatic reductions in the size of two national monuments in Utah — Bears Ears National Monument, shrunk by 85 percent, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, shrunk by 51 percent”

McNamara reminds us that it was only two years ago, when “the administration’s own National Climate Assessment — a peer-reviewed assessment mandated by Congress — warned in 2018 that ‘more frequent and intense extreme weather and climate-related events, as well as changes in average climate conditions, are expected to continue to damage infrastructure, ecosystems, and social systems that provide essential benefits to communities.’” To repeat what many others have said,  Trump cares little about facts and evidence and much about winning, supporting his powerful and rich constituencies,  and holding together his large, fact-avoidance, right-wing coalition, including tens of millions of voters who seemingly support him whatever he says or does.

What about Biden’s positions on the wildfires and global warming? McNamara points to Biden’s campaign website, featuring the candidate’s climate change plan, which stresses that it threatens not just the environment, but also ‘our health, our communities, our national security, and our economic well-being.’” Biden “endorses [a version of] the “Green New Deal, noting that it ‘captures two basic truths’  at the core of his climate change plan: ‘(1) the United States urgently needs to embrace greater ambition on an epic scale to meet the scope of this challenge, and (2) our environment and our economy are completely and totally connected.’ His plan sets a goal for a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050.” As the president traveled to California, “Biden told supporters in Delaware, “We need a president who respects science…. Who understands that the damage from climate change is already here. Unless we take urgent action, it’ll soon be more catastrophic.”

Biden’s Green Energy Plan – Is it up to the challenge?

Bident’s plan “for a clean energy revolution and environmental justice” can be accessed at: https://joebiden.com/climate-plan. It is referred to it as the “Green New Deal.” Biden’s plan will “address the climate emergency and lead through the power of example” and it will ensure “the U.S. achieves a 100% clean energy economy no later than 2050.” When he is elected, Biden will in the first year of his presidency “demand that Congress enacts legislation…that: (1) establishes an enforcement mechanism that includes milestone targets no later than the end of his first term in 2025, (2) makes a historic investment in clean energy and climate research and innovation, (3) incentivizes the rapid deployment of clean energy innovations across the economy, especially in communities most impacted by climate change.”

The provisions of the plan make it clear that it accepts the accumulating scientific evidence on climate change, that human activities, especially the fossil-fuel sector, are the principal causes of rising temperatures and their myriad effects, and that the problems is so serious that we must institute countervailing changes as soon as we can. Here I quote from a few sections of the plan to give you a sense of how positively different Biden’s plan is from Trump’s environmental utterly destructive views and policies. There are questions about whether a Biden administration will be able to accomplish enough to curtail and then reverse the climate crisis and its many devastating effects as it is confronted by opposition from Republicans in the U.S. Congress, widespread corporate opposition, Trump-appointed judges in the federal judiciary, a continuing massive disinformation messaging from right-wing media, and base of tens of millions, including armed milita. Withal, the Biden climate plan articulates overall a path that addresses the real, pressing problems of existential importance.

Beginning on his first day in the White House, he “will make smart infrastructure investments to rebuild the nation and to ensure that our buildings, water, transportation, and energy infrastructure can withstand the impacts of climate change.” He will authorize the development of “regional climate resilience plans, in partnership with local universities and national labs, for local access to the most relevant science, data, information, tools, and training.” The climate plan also has an international dimension. Biden will “recommit the United States to the Paris Agreement on climate” and go further in supporting efforts to “get every major country to ramp up the ambition of their domestic climate targets,” and make sure that these “commitments are transparent and enforceable.” Moreover, he will “take action against fossil fuel companies and other polluters who put profit over people and knowingly harm our environment.” Specifically, on day one of his administration, Biden plan tells us his administration will begin to act as follows.

  • Require “aggressive methane pollution limits for new and existing oil and gas operations”
  • Use “the Federal government procurement system – which spends $500 billion every year – to drive toward 100% clean energy and zero-emissions vehicles”
  • Ensure “all U.S. government installations, buildings, and facilities are more efficient and climate-ready, harnessing the purchasing power and supply chains to drive innovation”
  • Reduce “greenhouse gas emissions from transportation – the fastest growing source of U.S. climate pollution – by preserving and implementing the existing Clean Air Act, and developing rigorous new fuel economy standards aimed at ensuring 100% of new sales for light-l and medium-duty vehicles will be electrified and annual improvements for heavy duty vehicles”
  • Double “down on the liquid fuels of the future, which make agriculture a key part of the solution to climate change. Advanced biofuels are now closer than ever as we begin to build the first plants for biofuels, creating jobs and new solutions to reduce emissions in planes, ocean-going vessels, and more.”
  • Save “consumers money and reduce emissions through new, aggressive appliance- and building-efficiency standards.”
  • Require “public companies to disclose climate risks and the greenhouse gas emissions in their operations.”
  • Protect “biodiversity, slowing extinction rates and helping leverage natural climate solutions by conserving 30% of America’s lands and waters.”
  • Protect “America’s natural treasure by permanently protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other areas impacted by President Trump’s attack on federal lands and waters, establishing national parks and monuments that reflect America’s natural heritage, banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands and water, modifying royalties to account for climate costs, and establishing targeted programs to enhance reforestation and develop renewables on federal lands and waters with the goal of doubling offshore wind by 2030.”

The Biden plan also includes language on how the plan will be funded. Here’s what it says. “The Biden plan will be paid for by reversing the excesses of the Trump tax cuts for corporations, reducing incentives for tax havens, evasion, and outsourcing, ensuring corporations pay their fair share, closing other loopholes in our tax code that reward wealth not work, and ending subsidies for fossil fuels.”

Concluding thoughts

We must await the outcome of the November elections. If Trump and the Republicans manage to steel the elections, then we can expect the climate crisis to worsen and, among other dire effects, for wildfires to proliferate. If Biden and the Democrats prevail, we can hope that the promises embedded in the climate plan will be actually pushed forward – and that there will be strong public support behind it. There is, though, little time to avoid the worst outcomes.

The Trump/Republican Economy: A Realty Check

Bob Sheak

Sept 9, 2020

Trump has long claimed that he inherited a wrecked economy from Obama. But then he says he overcame this and, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, made the US economy the “greatest” it has ever been. While it has been, in his view, temporarily derailed by the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, under his management, will bounce back even greater once the virus is defeated or we learn to live with it – “it is what it is.”

Trump’s narrative also plainly says that “he” is responsible for whatever is good about the economy and “others” are responsible for what is bad. Trump’s claims about his alleged impact on the US economy are central to his reelection campaign. It’s important to emphasize that his economic policies are grounded in neoliberal assumptions and practices that go back to the efforts of the Republican Party over the last forty or more years to shrink selectively much of what the federal government does through tax cuts, unprecedented deregulation, the appointment of pro-Trump people to decision-making positions in all parts of the executive branch, and advancing policy through executive action.

Despite Trump’s claims, the evidence does not support his views on the economy in the post-Great-Recession years of the Obama administration.

ONE: The economic policies of Trump and the Republicans prior to the pandemic

This post disputes three of Trump’s central economic claims. One, the economy that Trump inherited from Obama was a “mess”? Two, assessing the economy under Trump prior to the pandemic reveals serious problems? Three, Trump and his right-wing allies made the economic problems accompanying the Covid-19 pandemic worse they might have been.

Obama inherited the worst economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s

Josh Bivens provides an apt summary.

“In February 2009, the first full month of the Obama administration, the economy had been in recession for 13 months, and the severity of the economic crisis was accelerating. In the six months ending in February 2009, the economy lost 650,000 jobs each month on average.

“In short, the Obama administration inherited the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Even if it had been the most effective and wage-focused administration in history, the actual performance of wage growth over the following years would have still likely been sub-par.” As it turns out, it was better than this.

“The political context is equally important. A concrete example makes the point best: while the administration inherited a horrible recession, the recovery from the recession, even years and years after it ended, was historically slow. How much of this is the fault of the administration? Not much. The cause of the agonizingly slow recovery is clear as day: fiscal austerity at all levels of government. This austerity was the result of state-level decisions that were out of the administration’s hands, as well as demands for steep spending cuts issued by congressional Republicans as a condition for increasing the nation’s statutory debt ceiling in the summer of 2011. The annual budget proposals issued by the Obama administration routinely called for far more fiscal stimulus than a Republican-controlled Congress ever ended up passing. Could the administration have played the politics better and gotten different policy outcomes? Possibly. But, their publicly-stated policy preference (more fiscal support for recovery) would have worked, and that’s what they should get credit or blame for.”

Republican obstruction in Congress during the Obama presidency

Steven Benen provides an impressive analysis in his book The Imposters: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics of how Republicans did their best to obstruct most policy initiatives by the Obama administration or congressional Democrats during the eight years of Obama’s presidency. Their central goal was to undermine Obama’s presidency and to keep the president and congressional Democrats from having any success, except when they gave the Republicans steep concessions. He documents his thesis in chapters on economic policy, health care, climate change and energy policy, foreign policy, immigration policy, the federal budget, gun control, civil rights, reproductive rights, and government shutdowns and debt-ceiling crises. Here, I’ll focus on some of what he writes about economic policy.

Overcoming opposition to the “Recovery Act” During the Great Recession

In November, 2008, the month Obama was elected, “the American economy lost 727,000 jobs” (p. 21). In January, 2009, the economy lost another 783,000 jobs. The seeds of the economic collapse of the 2007-2009 Great Recession were planted by the Bush administration and Republicans in the US Congress, and caused by tax cuts, illegal and costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the lack of regulation of the financial sector. In response to this economic calamity, on the sixth day of Obama’s presidency, House Democrats “introduced economic-stimulus legislation called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, or simply the Recovery Act, calling for $1 trillion of spending. The new president reached out to the Republicans, “organizing a series of policy discussions intended to secure broad backing, only to find that the Republican economic agenda amounted to little more than demanding tax breaks and opposing government investment of any kind. The Democrats controlled the House and Senate, but, in the Senate, “Republicans not only opposed the economic recovery plan for reasons they strained to explain, but they also refused to allow the majority to even vote on the Recovery Act unless Democrats could overcome a legislative filibuster.” Benen notes: “Obama’s party had fifty-seven votes in the hundred-member chamber at the time, but they’d need sixty in order to put the rescue plan into effect” (p.22).

Eventually “three GOP centrists ultimately agreed to support the White House’s economic plan,” though only when they were given significant concessions, such as, reducing the budget for the legislation to $800 million, an arbitrary number never explained (p. 23). Nevertheless, the reduced Recovery Act had an almost immediate and positive economic impact: “economic growth and hiring improved nationwide, and the Great Recession officially ended four months after Obama put the plan into action.” Benen continues: “By early 2010, the domestic economy was adding jobs again, and the longest economic recovery in US history got under way.” A 2011 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office “found that this one piece of legislation delivered what the nation needed when it needed it, creating up to 4.6 million jobs and adding as much as 3.1 percent to American’s overall economic growth rate” (p. 28). Another benefit: “the deficit shrank significantly during the Obama presidency” (p. 29). There were problems with this legislation. For example, it didn’t reduce the power of the banking sector or offer assistance to many people who had lost their homes due to fraudulent mortgages. Of course, Trump and the Republicans have little interest in rectifying these problems, as was true all along.

Saving the auto industry

Benen writes that “Obama tapped funds from the Bush administration’s Wall Street bailout to restructure General Motors and Chrysler.” Republicans opposed this initiative. In the end, however, “Obama’s policy worked beautifully, salvaged the industry, and, as a bonus, turned a tidy $15 billion profit for American taxpayers, just six years after the initial investment” (p. 30). Moreover: “The Big Three automakers turned a profit in 2011, the first time since 2004 (p. 31). Even so, Republicans continued to condemn it. Benen gives a quote from GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell that “US automakers ‘should have been allowed to reorganize or fail’ without the benefit of federal intervention.” At the same time, this was a missed opportunity for Obama and the Democrats to insist on a re-purposing of the industry to focus on manufacturing solar panels, and wind generators. The Republicans would, of course, have opposed such an option.

The American Jobs Act

With the unemployment was down from the 10 percent rate in October of 2009, but still high at 9 percent in September 2011, Obama “unveiled a $450 billion plan to boost domestic hiring with a policy blue-print he called the American Jobs Act.” The Congressional Budget Office “concluded that the Democratic plan would sharply improve employment, and, thanks to a proposed modest surtax on millionaires and billionaires, the plan actually would have reduced the deficit.” There were other “independent economic analyses” that found that “White House’s blueprint would create nearly two million jobs and shave a full percentage point off the nation’s unemployment rate fairly quickly (p. 33).

Republicans in the Senate then unveiled a Republican Alternative, the Jobs Through Growth Act, “a combination of unspecified spending cuts and deregulation ideas, eliminating the Affordable Care Act, and a constitutional amendment to prohibit deficits. They said that the legislation would create five million jobs, but “made no effort to explain how they arrived at the figure” and “never submitted [it] for an independent analysis.” They would not compromise (p. 34). So, when “Democrats pushed a stripped-down measure – a $35 billion proposal to save or create roughly four hundred thousand jobs for teachers, police officers, and fire fighters – the GOP killed that, too”

The implications of the Republican obstructions

Benen considers other examples as well as they ones above. Overall, they exemplify “a decade of GOP nihilism on economic policy making, which was guided by no discernible governing vision,” except to do what they could to prevent Obama and the congressional Democrats from advancing constructive legislation. He elaborates his point as follows. “They executed a plan involving opposition to all forms of economic stimulus, fighting tooth and nail to take capital out of the economy through spending cuts; rejecting simulative social-insurance programs such as extended unemployment benefits; undermining economic confidence through a pointless debt ceiling crisis; deliberately trying to make unemployment worse; prioritizing austerity and deficit reduction over growth; and pleading with the Federal Reserve… to raise interest rates” (pp. 35-36).

Nonetheless, the economy grew during the Obama years

Benen provides this striking examples. “In realty, quarterly economic growth [in some quarters] topped 3 percent in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, and 2015” (p. 41). Brooks Jackson offers a look at “Obama’s Final Numbers,” in an article on FactCheck.org (https://www.factcheck.org/2017/09/obamas-final-numbers). Here’s one: “The economy gained a net 11.6 million jobs. The unemployment rate dropped to below the historical norm.” Christian E. Weiler and Brendan Duke off the following summary.

“The economy improved markedly under former President Barack Obama, from the start of 2009 through the end of 2016. Faced with the specter of another Great Depression in winter 2009, President Obama enacted a series of policies that helped the economy avoid that fate. The economy was growing again by the second half of 2009, and jobs followed suit by early 2010. Economic growth continued apace for the rest of President Obama’s time in office, and job growth logged its longest expansion on record by early 2017, dating back to 1939.1 Employment opportunities improved, the unemployment rate fell…and household debt dropped sharply” (https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/reports/2017/06/01/432923/obamas-legacy-economy-anything-mess).

Two – The Trump/Republican economic policies and their effects prior to the pandemic

Trump’s pre-Covid-19 years (the first three years) evinced the continuing decline of the officially estimated unemployment rate, a slow rise in average wages, a stock market trending up, a huge tax cut, large increases in the military budget, and a revised trade agreement with Canada and Mexico. However, there were problems. Inequality soared, corporate CEOs and the rich captured a disproportionate share of the tax-cut benefits, from the CARES Act, from the Federal Reserve, and from a rising stock market, little of which trickled down to most Americans.

In-depth analyses of even the employment data painted a much less impressive picture of the job situation for many workers. Trump’s specific promises to improve the nation’s infrastructure went unfulfilled. Few good-paying manufacturing jobs returned from abroad. His energy policy, which focused on maximizing the growth of fossil fuels, was fraught with contradictions and with little regard for the increasingly dire environmental effects. Moreover, he and the Republicans in the US Congress failed to replace Obama’s Affordable Health Care program or offer an alternative health care plan, failed to keep health care costs or prescription drug prices from rising, and let the number of Americans without health insurance increase year by year.

A mixed appraisal

In an article for the Washington Post printed on February 4, 2020, prior to the impact of Covid-19, Heather Long addressed Trump’s touting of “his economy as ‘the best it has ever been,’ but stresses that the data did not support the president’s claim (https://washingtonpost.com/business/2020/02/04/trump-touts-his-economy-best-ever-is-more-mixed). In his State of the Union address, Trump “had a lengthy section celebrating the U.S. economy as suddenly improving. However, as pointed out above, the economy had been growing since 2009.

Long agrees with Trump “in a number of ways,” writing: “the current economy [prior to February 2020] is [in some ways] the best the nation has seen since the late 1990s. Unemployment is at a 50-year low, economic growth is steady, inflation is tame, and consumer confidence is high. This situation is helping many Americans get jobs and pay raises after years of struggles. Any president would be touting an economy like this, with record low unemployment rates for African AmericansHispanics and people with less than a high school diploma.” Average wages did not rise under Obama,, but they began to rise in 2018, climbing for nonsupervisory workers “as high as 3.6 percent in October, a level not seen since the crisis, according to the Labor Department, though the rate has since fallen.”

According a Gallup poll cited by Long, consumer confidence had risen considerably from 46 percent of Americans who expressed satisfaction with the state of the economy in January 2017 to 68 percent in January 2020. Long explains this increase to a “combination of higher wage gains in recent month and Trump’s tax cuts [that] have helped most Americans feel richer, even though many still worry about how to pay for health care, child care, and college.”

However, Long disagrees that “this economy is the best ever.” Trump goes too far when he asserts that he inherited a wrecked economy from Obama. His tax cuts may have helped to keep the economy growing but it “also inflected pain.” On his trade policy, Trump’s “tariffs have hurt U.S. manufacturing and agriculture. Long illustrates her point on tariffs: “The tariffs caused companies to drastically scale back spending and pushed U.S. manufacturing into a mild recession in 2019. The tariffs have hit the hardest on parts used to make cars, washing machines and other products, raising costs for U.S. companies. A widely watched gauge of the health of the manufacturing sector — a survey of purchasing managers from the Institute for Supply Management — fell in December to its lowest level since the Great Recession.”

And, moreover, Trump’s tax cuts and increased government spending have added substantially to the national debt.” In addition, the US economy grew 2.3 percent in 2019, which is “well below the 4 percent level Trump promised. In the pre-pandemic years of Trump’s administration, Trump’s term, economic growth averaged 2.5 percent. That’s higher than under Presidents Barack Obama or George W. Bush, but much slower than the averages for Clinton and Ronald Reagan.”

The Republican/Trump tax cut had little positive effect on economic trends

Annie Lowrey takes up this issue in a February 2020 article printed in the Atlantic Monthly magazine. She argues that “the low unemployment rate, decent wage growth, and solid corporate earnings are all artifacts of a long expansion, not signs that the [self-proclaimed] very stable genius in the White House has unleashed American enterprise” (https://theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/02/trump-didnt-make-this-economy/606115).

Reporting on Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address, she quotes Trump’s triumphant claims: “Three years ago, we launched the great American comeback. Tonight, I stand before you to share the incredible results. The years of economic decay are over.” The economy “is the best it has ever been.” And it is all happening thanks to Republicans.

From Lowrey’s viewpoint, “The White House had far less control over the economy than generally assumed. And Trump’s signature economic legislation, the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), has not provided anything like the economic ‘rocket fuel’ the Republican White House promised, particularly not for blue-collar workers in the heartland.”

Indeed, the economy remained on pretty much the exact same growth path it had taken for the past decade: There was no inflection point around the time of the 2016 election or the late-2017 passage of the TCJA, or any inflection point at all. Growth has plodded along at 2.5 percent a year, give or take. The unemployment rate has been falling consistently. Not much has changed. Lowrey reminds us that that tax cuts were aimed at the wealthy and did “so little that most households did not notice the effect.” And, citing the right-of-center American Enterprise, the tax cuts produced “no discernible break in trend” in business investment” and that “[m]any economists think that the TCJA provided only a minor boost to the economy, a boost that seems to have already faded.”

Moreover, manufacturing had not much revived, as Trump promised. Lowrey writes: “In the past year [2019], employment gains in construction and manufacturing have slowed down, with mining firms actually shedding jobs. The White House’s trade war has hit blue-collar firms hard, leading to layoffs, farm closures, and the need for billions of dollars in bailouts. Factory activity has hit the lowest point in a decade. Rural areas continue to lag high-cost cities in terms of job creation, productivity gains, and wealth creation.”

More on Failing to bring back manufacturing jobs

Economist Dean Baker takes up this issue (https://counterpunch.org/2020/08/28/the-comeback-of-manufacturing-jobs-maga-land-and-the-real-world). When Trump campaigned in Midwestern swing states in 2016, states that “had been hard hit by the loss of manufacturing jobs due to trade,” Trump “insisted that he would bring back these jobs as a result of his great skills as a deal maker. He would negotiate new trade deals so that we would get back the jobs we had lost.”

Baker cites evidence that Trump failed in this regard. He considers the “picture as of January 2020,” prior to when “the pandemic began to have an impact on the economy.” He focuses on five states: Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin and compares the manufacturing job numbers for the last three years of the Obama administration with the first three years of Trump’s.

Baker’s general finding is that there were more manufacturing jobs created in Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio during the Obama years than during the relevant Trump years. For example, he writes: “The largest difference by far is in Michigan, where the state added 59,800 manufacturing jobs in the last three years of the Obama administration, compared to 11,600 jobs in the first three years of the Trump administration.” The opposite is true in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin: “Pennsylvania lost 5,800 manufacturing jobs in the last three years of the Obama administration but gained 13,100 manufacturing jobs in the first three years of the Trump administration. In Wisconsin, the performance under Trump is 15,500 new manufacturing jobs, compared to 5,000 manufacturing jobs in the last three years of the Obama administration.” The gains in these two states, though, hardly made up for the 308,000 manufacturing jobs lost in Pennsylvania between 2000 and 2010, or the 172,000 manufacturing jobs lost in Wisconsin.

Baker concludes: “The basic story is that Trump may have rebuilt our manufacturing base and brought back the jobs lost to trade in his head, but he did not do it in the real world.”

The rising trade deficits

Jake Johnson helps us recollect that Trump “pledged to eliminate the trade deficit and end job outsourcing” during his presidential campaign in 2016 and he would do this rapidly and better than any previous president” (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/09/04/trump-fraud-exhibit-one-billion-trade-deficit-soars-12-year-high-despite-presidents).

Johnson points out that the most recent figures for July 2020 from the Commerce Department “show that the trade deficit soared to a 12-year high in July due in large part to a surge in imports, bringing the total negative trade balance in the first seven months of 2020 to $340 billion.” In addition, the Labor Department “has certified more than 300,000 American jobs were lost to outsourcing and imports during his presidency.” The large growth in the trade deficit is especially notable, according to Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, “given that trade flows have declined overall because of the global Covid-19 crisis.”

Johnson cites other sources. He refers to an Associated Press article published on Thursday, September 3, reporting that “the new Commerce Department statistics show that ‘despite a number of high-profile trade battles and a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, America’s trade deficits have remained stubbornly high’ throughout Trump’s presidency.” The AP report also notes that in July 2020, “the deficit with China in goods totaled $31.6 billion, an 11.5% increase from the June imbalance,” while the “goods deficit with Mexico hit a record high of $10.6 in July… The United States ran a deficit in goods trade of $80.1 billion in July, the highest on record.”

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reports that despite Trump’s repeated vows to “bring back” U.S. manufacturing jobs, the president’s first-term trade agenda and disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic have “wiped out much of the last decade’s job gains in U.S. manufacturing.” Robert Scott, senior economist and director of trade and manufacturing research at EPI, said: “”Nearly 1,800 factories have disappeared under Trump between 2016 and 2018,” and rose significantly in 2019. This is before the emergence of Covid-19 and includes the first three years of Trump’s administration. Scott added that the trade deficits reduced economic growth “by roughly 0.25% annually over the past three years.”

Three – Dealing with the economic chaos accompanying the pandemic

The Republicans kill the CARES Act (the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act)

One of Trump’s most repeated claims is that, under his leadership, the economy will generate more good jobs than ever. Of course, this was hardly the case after the Covid-19 pandemic spread. We should remember that his mishandling of the rise and spread of Covid-19 made the economic effects as well as the health effects worse than they could have been.

One beneficial, though short-lived, government action – “Trump Had One Good Response to Covid-19. His Party Killed It.”

Economist Paul Krugman draws our attention to the passage of the CARES Act in March by Congress and signed by Trump (https://nytimes.com/2020/08/31/opinion/trump-coronavirus-economy.html).

He considers “that in important ways [it] was just what America needed” and “something for almost everyone.” For example: “Small businesses got loans that they could convert into grants if they used the money to maintain payrolls. Big businesses got loans, too. Most adults got stimulus checks, typically $1,200, in the hope that they would spend the money and hence support consumer demand…. But the really crucial element of the CARES Act was expanded aid to the unemployed. Benefits were expanded to people like gig workers who had previously fallen through the cracks, and everyone receiving benefits got an extra $600 a week…. This expansion of aid to the unemployed did double duty. It alleviated hardship, letting laid-off workers continue to pay rent and put food on the table. And it supported overall spending much more effectively than those stimulus checks, most of which were probably just saved.”

However, there is an important detail that is usually overlooked. Krugman observes that the “crucial unemployment provisions” in the CARES Act “were devised largely by Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, and the most you can say about [Steven] Mnuchin [Treasury Secretary] and Trump is that “they didn’t reject Democratic demands that these provisions be included.” Republicans came to hate that $600 supplement, “insisting – with no evidence – that it discouraged workers from taking jobs.” McConnell and the Republicans in the Senate and the House refused to extend this aid “or make a good-faith counteroffer. Consequently the supplement expired at the end of July, “even though we’re still down 13 million jobs from where we were in February.”

Trump’s executive action to offer $300 for some workers for a few weeks is not the answer. In the meantime, Krugman expects some hard times for millions of Americans, writing:  “It may take some time before we see the full effects of this abandonment of American workers, but it’s a good bet that we’ll see slowing growth, a surge in evictions and, in general, the kind of mass suffering we managed to avoid in the first round of the Covid-19 crisis.”

The Unemployed –

Limited assistance

Jessica Corbett reports on the effects of the GOP’s failure to continue the $600 per-week boost to federal unemployment insurance benefits that ended at the end of July. She cites a poll by Morning Consult that found that, as a consequence, the “number of unemployed people struggling to cover basic needs has doubled” by the end of August, involving 8.3 million Americans and up from 27 percent in July(https://commondreams.org/news/2020/09/01/poll-shows-number-unemployed-people-struggling-cover-basic-needs-has-already-doubled).

The $600 supplement was included as one part of the Covid-19 relief package, which Congress passed and Trump signed this spring, as the number of people losing jobs or out of work soared. However, as Corbett reports, “Republican lawmakers and the president have resisted attempts by Democrats to continue the expansion—clinging to their debunked claim that the temporary relief was deterring people from returning to work.” Corbett notes as well that “the GOP-controlled Senate [refused] to vote on the House-approved Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES) Act, despite millions of Americans struggling to afford housing, utilities, food, healthcare, and other essentials during the pandemic.”

Amid the Republican-created impasse, “Trump took [tepid] executive action in August to use [existing] disaster relief money to increase UI benefits by $300 per week—with states contributing another $100,” though “funds are limited and the rollout has been slow.” Corbett cites the statement made by Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute: “The president’s executive memorandum is a nothing burger and a false promise that actually does more harm than good because it diverts attention from the desperate need for the real relief that can only come through legislation.” Meanwhile, “new polling from Gallup and West Health revealed that 50% of Americans are concerned a major health event could lead to bankruptcy, a five-point increase from a survey last year.”

The situation is dire for tens of millions of Americans. Corbett quotes Michael Linden, Groundwork Collaborative executive director, who says: “Not only is it unconscionable that the Trump administration cut the incomes of 30 million unemployed workers during a pandemic and eliminated key lifelines and support for families across the country…but over the past month we’ve seen the impact of his inaction ripple through the already-fragile economy and make this crisis so much worse than it needed to be.” There is a real danger that the recession will become a full-blown depression.

The August report on unemployment

Ben Casselman reports for The New York Times that “unemployment fell to 8.4% in August, but the gain of 1.4 million jobs was the weakest in months” (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/04/business/economy/jobs-report.html).

Additionally, the end of federal aid programs is casting a shadow.” He writes:

“All told, less than half of the 22 million jobs lost early in the pandemic have been recovered. But the unemployment rate has fallen much faster than most forecasters expected, from 10.2 percent in July and 14.7 percent in April. And the labor force grew in August, an indication that jobless workers are not yet giving up their searches as many did during the last recession a decade ago. Some sectors that were dealt a blow by the pandemic, such as the retail industry, continued to post strong job gains.” Gains in real estate were strong, but not so much in other sectors.

Casselman also reports: “Economists said the slowdown was a worrying sign that the low-hanging fruit of the recovery — the rehiring of millions of furloughed restaurant, hotel and entertainment workers — could be largely gone….“Just 174,000 jobs were added last month in leisure and hospitality, a disappointing gain for an industry that lost more than eight million to the pandemic and has recovered only half. And as companies reopen, many are discovering that with demand still weak, they don’t need or can’t afford as many workers as before the pandemic.”

There is also concern about the future jobs situation, given that the federal unemployment supplement and other aid programs are gone.” Casselman cites “Julia Pollak, a labor economist for the employment site ZipRecruiter, [who] said many businesses were facing similar decisions heading into the winter season, which is a challenge for many small businesses in the best of times….[and] “Widespread business failures, Ms. Pollak said, ‘could have a cascading effect on those local economies.’ That is especially true of Black neighborhoods that often struggle to draw investment from large corporations.”

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Also reporting in The New York Times, Eduardo Porter writes: “With 11.5 million jobs lost since February and the government’s monthly report Friday [August 4] showing a slowdown in hiring, stories like this have become painfully common. When companies dispatched office staff to work remotely from home, cut business trips and canceled business lunches, they also eliminated the jobs cleaning their offices and hotel rooms, driving them around town and serving them meals…. For this army of service workers across urban America, the pandemic risks becoming more than a short-term economic shock. If white-collar America doesn’t return to the office, service workers will be left with nobody to serve” (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/04/business/economy/service-economy-workers.html).

Porter continues: “The worry is particularly acute in cities, which for decades have sustained tens of millions of jobs for workers without a college education. Now remote work is adding to other pressures that have stunted opportunities. The collapse of retailers like J.C. Penney and Neiman Marcus has wiped out many low-wage jobs. The implosion of tourism in cities like New York and San Francisco will end many more.’

She includes specific examples in the article to highlight her report, including the following ones. “Consider Nike’s decision in the spring to allow most employees at its headquarters in the Portland area to work remotely. Aramark, which runs the cafeteria and catering at Nike, furloughed many of its workers. With no need for full services anticipated “for an undefined period,” Aramark says, 378 employees — waiters, cooks, cashiers and others — now face permanent layoff on Sept. 25….The question is whether dislocations like this will be only temporary. About one-fifth of adults of working age who do not have a college degree live in the biggest metropolitan areas — in the top quarter by population density — according to estimates by David Autor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Most are in service industries that cater to the needs of an affluent class of “knowledge workers” who have flocked to cities in search of cool amenities and high pay.” Additionally: “Jonathan Dingel and Brent Neiman of the University of Chicago have calculated that 37 percent of jobs can be done entirely from home. Those jobs tend to be highly paid, in fields like legal services, computer programming and financial services. And they tend to concentrate in affluent areas like San Francisco; Stamford, Conn.; and Raleigh, N.C.”

Other examples. Intel, headquartered in Portland, Oregon, “employs 20,000 mostly well-paid people there. It is a pillar of a high-tech cluster known as the Silicon Forest stretching between Hillsboro and Beaverton on the western edge of the city. And it supports a network of contractors and subcontractors whose income trickles down through the area’s economy…. Only about 40 percent of Intel’s employees are working on site — those indispensable to its vast chip-making plants — and remote work is set to continue until at least next June. Even after that, said Darcy Ortiz, Intel’s vice president for corporate services, ‘there will be more flexibility in the way we work’…. For businesses that rely on Intel’s footprint, that may not be great news. ‘Intel has sustained us,’ said Rick Van Beveren, a member of the Hillsboro City Council who owns a cafe and a catering business that remain mostly shuttered. ‘We cater to a constellation of businesses around Intel.’”

“The same type of decision is being made around the country. Scott Rechler, chief executive of RXR Realty, which owns over 20 million square feet of office space in New York City, estimates that every office worker sustains five service jobs, from the shoeshine booth to the coffee shop. Yet only about 12 percent of his tenants are in the office.”

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The headline of Aimee Picchi’s article for CBS News is eye-catching: “Labor Day celebrates workers. But this year, 1 in 5 are unemployed” (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/american-workforce-unemployed-economy-labor-day-weekend-2020).

“Although 11 million people have since been rehired as states reopened their economies, the progress has tapered off, economists say. Notably, there are still 11.5 million fewer jobs now than prior to the pandemic…. That’s a staggering reversal of fortune from February, when the nation’s workers were enjoying one of the best job markets in history. That helped boost wages as well as bolstered the efforts of union-backed labor movements such as the Fight for $15. But much of that momentum has since vanished, with 28 million workers — one in five — currently drawing unemployment benefits….’The state of the labor market is an F,’ said Heidi Shierholz, senior economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute and the former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor. ‘We have fewer jobs than we had at any time during the Great Recession. There is no way you could give this economy a passing grade.’” 

The road to recovery is likely to be measured in years, not months. “Federal Reserve of Chicago President Charles Evans said in a speech this week that he doesn’t expect the economy to recover to pre-pandemic levels until late 2022.” “On Friday [August 4], the Labor Department said the unemployment rate fell below 10% for the first time since March. But the rate of hiring is slowing, with employers adding fewer workers to their payrolls for each successive month this summer.” In the meantime, “28 million workers are receiving unemployment benefits — that’s 1 out of every 5 people in the workforce.”

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Robbing the Social Security system to win votes – while potentially bankrupting it

Trump promised to protect Social Security during his presidential campaign. So much for another of his whimsical, insincere promises. Now, in desperation, he is about the undermine this very popular and long-standing program by signing “a memorandum that,” as Igor Derysh reports, “would temporarily stop the collection of payroll taxes, which is a 12.4% tax split evenly between employees and employers that funds the Social Security and Medicare trust funds” (https://truthout.org/articles/social-security-would-be-depleted-in-3-years-if-trump-kills-the-payroll-tax).

Trump is gambling that by reducing the Social Security wage tax and putting some extra money in the pockets of workers he will win some of their votes.

Derysh reminds us that the president cannot cut taxes, which means that any payroll tax savings would “have to be repaid by next year’s deadline – though Trump says, if reelected, he will “push to forgive the deferred taxes.” Then the president “went a step further earlier this month, vowing not just to forgive this year’s payroll tax but eliminate it entirely.” This is what Trump said during a news conference at his Bedminster, N.J., golf course: “If I’m victorious on November 3rd, I plan to forgive these taxes and make permanent cuts to the payroll tax. I’m going to make them all permanent,” he said during a news conference at his Bedminster, N.J. golf course. “…In other words, I’ll extend beyond the end of the year and terminate the tax. And so we’ll see what happens.”

 Democrats in the Senate and House oppose such actions. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, responded as follows: “The Social Security Administration has made it clear: eliminating the payroll tax, as Trump has proposed, would bankrupt Social Security and prevent seniors and people with disabilities from receiving the benefits they have earned. Defunding Social Security may make sense to the billionaires at President Trump’s country club, but it makes zero sense to me. Instead of dismantling Social Security, we must expand it so that every senior can retire with the dignity they deserve.” Even Republicans in the Congress are opposed to Trump’s initiative. Derysh refers to a NBC News report in July that found that a “majority of Senate Republicans didn’t want a payroll tax cut.” 

In line with his practice, Trump paid little attention to how his proposal would be implemented. His “memorandum called for the Treasury Department to start deferring taxes starting on September 1, but that appears highly unlikely since the department has not produced guidelines for employers or payroll processors to defer the taxes.”

Tony Romm reports on the lack of clarity in Trump’s proposal and that it is meeting with confusion among tax experts and resistance from some big employers (https://www.washingtonpost/com/us-policy/2020/08/28/trump-payroll-tax-irs). He writes:

“The administration’s guidance perplexed tax experts, who said it could frustrate workers and add to the burden facing businesses, which may be deterred from implementing Trump’s order at all. Last week, automakers, restaurateurs, retailers and a torrent of top employers signaled that possibility, when they joined with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in calling the president’s plan “unworkable.” Their opposition means that many workers may see no change to their pay — and the economy may see few of the gains Trump has touted.”

“Businesses fretted about the difficulties they’d face updating their payroll systems on a short time frame, and tax experts felt workers might struggle to repay the sums they owe, which could reach into the thousands of dollars depending on their incomes. Many, however, feared the future effects on Social Security and Medicare, particularly as Trump vowed to “terminate” the tax. AARP, the powerful senior’s lobby, sharply rebuked the White House earlier this month out of concern that the president’s plan could threaten future benefits, even as senior administration officials promised to protect retirees.”

In an article for Common Dreams, Nancy J. Altman, considers the potential consequences of Trump’s rash actions (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/09/07/labor-day-social-security-future-hangs-balance). Altman is president of Social Security Works and chair of the Strengthen Social Security coalition. She has a 40-year background in the areas of Social Security and private pensions. Her latest book is The Truth About Social Security. She is also the author of The Battle for Social Security and co-author of Social Security Works! She refers to a letter released by Stephen Goss, “the independent Chief Actuary of Social Security’ on “Trump’s plan to ‘terminate’ Social Security’s dedicated funding if he is reelected.” In the letter, “Goss states that if Social Security’s funding were terminated, the Disability Insurance (DI) Trust Fund would be exhausted by 2021 and the Old Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) Trust Fund would be exhausted by 2023 ‘with no ability to pay benefits thereafter.’”

If this should happen, “one out of two seniors would be left impoverished. So would millions of people with disabilities and millions of children who have lost parents.” The big deal is that, without Social Security, one out of two seniors would be left impoverished. So would millions of people with disabilities and millions of children who have lost parents. Like the military, the free press, our fair elections, and our postal service, Social Security is a vital institution. The choice this election could not be clearer.”

She points out that, in contrast, “Joe Biden wants to protect and expand Social Security” and “understands that expanding Social Security’s modest benefits is a solution.” Altman continues: “It is a solution to our nation’s looming retirement income crisis, where too many of today’s workers will not be able to retire without a drastic decline in their standards of living. It is a solution to rising income and wealth inequality, made worse by the pandemic. He supports expanding Social Security while requiring those earning over $400,000 to pay more.” Biden is also “championing a proposal—originally from Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Ron Wyden (D-OR)—to increase Social Security benefits by $200 a month for the duration of the crisis.”

The stock market – no trickle down to most Americans

“Stocks Are Soaring. So Is Misery.” This is the thrust of Paul Krugman’s argument in a column for The New York Times (https://nytimes.com/2020/08/20/opinion/stock-market-unemployment.html). The crux of his article is captured in his following sentences. “On Tuesday, the S&P 500 stock index hit a record high. The next day, Apple became the first U.S. company in history to be valued at more than $2 trillion. Donald Trump is, of course, touting the stock market as proof that the economy has recovered from the coronavirus; too bad about those 173,000 dead Americans [up to 188,000 by Sept. 4 and rising] – but as he says, “It is what it is.” Krugman elaborates on the rising “misery that “is.”

Millions of workers have not gotten their jobs back and have now seen their unemployment benefits slashed. Food insecurity is increasing and “the number of parents reporting that they were having trouble giving their children enough to eat was rising rapidly.” Krugman expects “to see a huge surge in national misery.”

Moreover, the conditions of most Americans, who have no or very little investments in the stock market, has nothing to do with the stock market. He writes: “The truth is that stock prices have never been closely tied to the state of the economy. As an old economists’ joke has it, the market has predicted nine of the last five recessions.” Investors in stocks are counting on gains in the future and will, if they are lucky, benefit from low taxes on the capital gains they get when they  cash in their stocks. Investors care about profiting on their investments, not on what’s happening to most people. But that’s where the rising misery is.” In short, a rising stock market does not readily translate into economic well-being for most Americans.

Concluding thoughts

Trump’s basic assumption is that the rich and powerful will save the economy if they are unimpeded by government politics and bureaucrats. In the event that this morally hollow, win-at-whatever-the-costs, man is re-elected, the outcome will be dire. He has provided inconsistent and weak leadership on the Covid-19 pandemic. His actions have demonstrated that he much favors opening the economy without safeguards whatever the health consequences. And, to twist the dagger, deeply flawed economic policies.

If Trump is re-elected as a result of vast voter suppression, the gutting of the US Postal Service, and disinformation, a majority of Americans will suffer, the economy will become ever more unequal, democracy will shrivel, the “culture” will be dominated by far-right “populous” values and interests, including the impact of extreme evangelical influence, along with the consolidation of influence of white supremacist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-abortion groups. And, without a doubt, the Trump/Republican climate deniers will squelch scientific voices on the existential climate crisis and its myriad effects and do their utmost to advance fossil-fuel interests and sideline solar and wind energy.

The alternative? No one know whether Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will win in November or whether there will be a “blue” wave of victories in races for the Senate, House, and state offices around the country. However, Biden has put out his plans for job creation with environmental concerns taken into account. He has a detailed plan for creating “10 million clean energy jobs” (https://joebiden.com/climate-labor-fact-sheet), a plan for “building a modern, sustainable infrastructure” (https://joebiden.com/clean-energy), a “buy American” plan (https://www.cnbc.com/2020/07/09/biden-proposes-a-700-plus-buy-american-campaign.html), and promises to create 3 million jobs in caregiving and early education (https://abcnews.com/Politics/biden-launch-3rd-pillar-economic-plan-touting-million/story?id=71889055).

There will be opposition from the rich and powerful, from the extreme right-wing base, from FoxNews and the right-wing media, but Biden and the Democrats give democracy a chance to survive if not thrive and give the economy an opportunity to become more responsive to the needs and interests of the majority of Americans, whereas Trump and his enablers and supporters do the opposite.

Plutocracy v Democracy: A showdown of existential significance

Bob Sheak – August 23, 2020

The “leader”

We all know by this time that Trump is unstable, maliciously narcissistic, and vengeful, that he spews hate and lies continuously, and that his own take on issues can change from day to day, confusing the public about what to expect from the government. We know that he will do anything to stay in power, encouraging voter suppression of the democratic majority, undermining the US postal service through his appointments and false rhetoric, and failing, out of incompetence and caprice, to address the society’s major crises, from the pandemic and economic depression, to levels of rising inequality that have not been seen since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, to an existentially-threatening climate crisis, to systemic racism, and more.

He is not alone in such misbegotten endeavors. He promotes a hyper partisan pro-corporate, pro-rich agenda that has little concern for protecting the environment or workers or the poor or social justice, while also encouraging and performing for a broad “populous” base on non-economic issues. Political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson argue that there is a plutocratic-populous alliance that underlies the power of Trump and that is cultivated and nourished by the president (Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality).

There are fascist tendencies reflected in Trump’s governance that are not challenged by the plutocratic-alliance. Federico Finchelstein, professor of history at the New School of Social Research, posits that the leader in a fascist movement or state represents what many people at a given time and place yearn for. He writes in his book A Brief History of Fascist Lies: “the reality that their fundamentally authoritarian lies and racist fantasies about the world become constantly normalized and supported by a wide segment of the population, as well as major party figures. Most pointedly, Finchelstein writes the following about Trump: “He does not lie because he is a crazy cheater; he lies because he belongs to a political tradition that proposes an alternative notion of truth that emanates from the sacred infallibility of the leader” (p. 104). He continues: “…Trumpism represents an extreme form of… antiliberal, and often anti-constitutional, authoritarian democracy with a political rationale of its own. This is a political formation with a mythical notion of the truth,” so he replaces “historical truth with fake ideas about the glorious past that their leaders promise to revive,” with expressions such as “Make America Great Again.” For his tens of millions of followers, he promises to restore to life “a past that never existed” (p. 105). But it must be added, Trump also behaves as he does so as to advance a relatively unfettered, neoliberal-oriented capitalist system and to protect the interests of the mega-corporations, the rich, and his own family’s wealth.

There is little doubt that Trump and the Republicans must be defeated at the polls in November if any semblance of authentic democracy is to be saved. This will take a massive outpouring of democratic voters and a margin of victory that cannot be fuddled with or contested. However, given the corporate-dominated economy, the huge political clout of economic elites and the plethora of radical-right groups, some very extreme in their goals and willing to use violent tactics to achieve their ends, the US political system is unlikely to be without serious tensions and conflict whatever the outcome of the elections. The worst-case outcome, though, occurs if Trump wins, in which the fragile democracy that exists may further wither away.

The plutocratic-populous alliance

Hacker and Pierson describe “plutocratic populism” as the Republican Party’s “bitter brew of reactionary economic priorities and right-wing cultural and racial appeals,” a “hybrid” that “emerged after 1980” with the election of Ronald Reagan (p. 5). Trump is the public face of this alliance, its cheerleader, and, with his hand-picked advisers and officials, its facilitator. The Alliance has three parts.

The Plutocracy

One part is represented by the increasing economic, financial and political power of the mega corporations and the rich and their interests to maximize profits with little taxation or regulation. Another is represented by the Republican Party and by the ascendance of Trump and his domination of the party. The principal agendas of Trump and the Republican Party are to protect and advance the interests of the corporate elites and the super-rich. Together they constitute a plutocracy, which political scientists Jacob S. Hacker define as “government of, by, and for the rich” (Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality, p. 1). The third part is the “populous,” or the multifaceted base of the party, where the interests of right-wing groups are advanced. I’ll discuss this populous base later in the article.

The benefits to the powerful and rich from supporting a right-wing government

Higher Incomes

Hacker and Pierson give the following examples. From 1980 to 2016, “the share of income accruing to the richest 1 percent doubled, increasing from 10 percent to more than 20 percent. Over the same period, the share of national income accruing to the bottom half of households declined by half, from (roughly) 20 percent to 10 percent.’ “Most of the top 1 percent’s rising share has in fact accrued to those in the top 0.1 percent (the richest 1 in 1,000 Americans)” and most are corporate and financial executives (p. 45) – “Over the four decades between 1979 and 2016, the share of national wealth held by the richest 0.1 percent of Americans increased from 7 percent to roughly 20 percent…. the top 0.1 percent (fewer than 200,000 families) now holds almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent of Americans combined (about 110 million households)” (p. 57). And more evidence:

From 1980 to 2016, “the share of income accruing to the richest 1 percent doubled, increasing from 10 percent to more than 20 percent. Over the same period, the share of national income accruing to the bottom half of households declined by half, from (roughly) 20 percent to 10 percent.’ – “Most of the top 1 percent’s rising share has in fact accrued to those in the top 0.1 percent (the richest 1 in 1,000 Americans)” – most are corporate and financial executives (p. 45) – “Over the four decades between 1979 and 2016, the share of national wealth held by the richest 0.1 percent of Americans increased from 7 percent to roughly 20 percent…. the top 0.1 percent (fewer than 200,000 families) now holds almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent of Americans combined (about 110 million households)” (p. 57).

Lower Taxes

Hacker and Pierson point out that the 2001 Bush tax cuts “gave 40 percent of their benefits to the richest 1 percent” (p.3). Trump delivered an even bigger tax reward. The “tax cuts of 2017…delivered more than 80 percent of their largess to the top 1 percent” (p. 4). Overall, the trend in tax cuts for the powerful and rich has fallen steadily, even before Trump.

They write: “For the richest 400 households, local, state, and federal taxes were over 70 percent of income at the end of World War II and still more than 50 percent as late as 1970. They fell to 40 percent by 1995 and again to 30 percent by 2005. (By 2018, the effective tax rate of the top 400 families was 23 percent)” (p 65).

Wealth

The richest 0.1 percent of Americans saw their share of national wealth increase from 7 percent in 1979 to “roughly 20 percent” in 2016 (Hacker and Pierson, pp. 56-57).

Deregulation

Fossil fuel companies benefit as well from the anti-environmental and policies of the administration, along with policies that open up public land to drilling and support the extension of oil and natural pipelines. The big auto companies benefit from low federal fuel standards, the government’s purchase of gas-guzzling vehicles, and from the massive inter-state infrastructure of roads and bridges across the country. Companies in the military arms industry benefit from the huge increases of the military budget and the administration’s support of the industry’s export of weapons. Pharmaceutical companies benefit from government research on new drugs, the virtual absence of price controls, and the failure to create public companies that produce and distribute drugs as well as create them. Wall Street banks benefit from the Federal Reserve’s extraordinary support of low-interest rates and government low-interest lending policies. Agribusiness benefits from subsidies and little regulation of practices that devastate the soil or prevent toxic runoff of fertilizer and herbicides into groundwater and other waterways. 

Corporations and the private-sector generally have additionally benefitted from weak or non-enforcement of the National Labor Relations Act that have eviscerated unions and failed to enforce OSHA regulations. On top of all this, Trump and the Republican Party have carried on the right-wing tradition of opposition to social-welfare programs designed to assist those who experience poverty, the working class, students, the elderly, the physically or mentally disabled, and others who don’t have the resources at points in their lives to acquire the basic necessities of life. Trump threatens to support steps that would lead to the bankruptcy of Social Security and to the partial or total privatization of this essential, very popular, social insurance program, a program that has lifted or kept millions of elderly, disabled, and survivors out of poverty since the 1940s. From the perspective of the White House and Wall Street, such an eventuality would open up vast opportunities for Wall Street, increasing costs to recipients and making them vulnerable to the machinations and volatility of the market. As Hacker and Pierson put it, “Wall Street saw the prospect of managing millions of new retirement accounts,” a prospect that, by the way, the public opposes (p. 66).

Recent examples of the Trump government “letting big corporations get away with whatever they want.”

This is the title of an article by Ralph Nader (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/05/16/trump-letting-big-corporations-get-away-whatever-they-want). He makes his basic argument as follows. “Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump has allowed large corporations to run rampant, exploit people, and get away with it. Trump considers himself above the law, boldly claiming, ‘I have an Article 2, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.’” Nader views Trump’s presidential record as one that “embraces American-style fascism and nepotism.” He makes five points in documenting his argument.

One: “In 2017, Trump betrayed his own voters by giving the corporate rich a nearly two trillion-dollar tax cut instead of fulfilling his promise to invest in repairing infrastructure and expanding well-paid-job opportunities.” As widely reported, the “tax cuts for the rich and big corporations, which benefited the Trump family, ran up the deficit for our children and were largely used to give executives bonuses and let CEOs waste money on stock buybacks. In short, the corporate bosses lied to the Congress, saying they wanted these tax cuts to invest and create jobs, but actually used them to enrich themselves.”

Two: Trump has gone a spree of gutting health and safety law enforcement, with resultant “harm to workers, consumers, and defenseless communities. He refers in documentation of this point to a New York Times article that  reported 98 lifesaving regulations were revoked, suspended, or simply replaced with weaker versions. What remains on the books is not enforced.” He notes, further, that “Trump has worked to further punish student borrowers; diminish workplace and auto safety; and remove safeguards against banking, credit, and payday loan rackets.” And: “With vicious madness, Trump pushes for federal deregulation of nursing homes where residents are dying from Covid-19. He pursues court cases in attempts to end Obamacare, the result of which would be throwing 20 million Americans off their insurance during a lethal pandemic. He is cravenly freeing corporate emitters of life-destroying mercury and coal ash in our air, condemned pesticides and toxins in drinking water, and whatever else is on the deadly wish list given to him by his corporate paymasters.”

Three: Trump has given his corporate allies “more loopholes for tax escapes ($170 billion buried in the $2.2 trillion relief/bailout legislation).” He elaborates: “Big companies such as banks, insurance companies, real estate behemoths, and Silicon Valley giants have so many tax escapes and cuts that they’re moving toward tax-exempt status.”

Four: Trump and his Republican allies in the Congress want legislation “giving big companies immunity from lawsuits by victims for their negligently harmful products and services.” For example, Nader writes: “Trump’s agencies actually announced that they’re putting their law enforcers on the shelf. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) astonishingly told foreign importers of food and medicine that inspections overseas are suspended. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signaled similar retreats, as have other enforcement agencies. Why would the Trumpsters signal green lights for corporate crooks? Especially since corporate scams and other corporate crimes—some crude, others sophisticated—are exploding as trillions pour out of Washington.”

Five: There has been under Trump a steep decline in the number of corporate prosecutions and fines. Nader writes: “A year ago, Public Citizen reported a steep decline in corporate prosecutions and fines under Trump. Now, compared to the size of the previous corporate crime wave, they’ve fallen off a cliff. You can ignore the stern warnings by Attorney General William Barr. He is a phony. He has neither allocated nor asked Congress for a budget that will provide the Department of Justice the capacity to crackdown.”

Removing federal government regulations on businesses

There is now wholesale deregulation under the Trump administration. Jake Johnson reports on how “Trump’s corporate-friendly executive orders aimed at rolling back even more regulations that protect the public is just the latest sign that his solution to the pandemic is the opposite of what the public needs”  (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/05/20/corruption-full-display-trumps-executive-order-directs-all-agencies-gut-business).

On Tuesday, May 20, Trump “signed an executive order directing the heads of every federal agency to ‘waive, suspend, and eliminate’ all regulations that they consider unnecessary obstacles to economic recovery from the coronavirus crisis.” This means more pollution from fossil fuel corporations, more drilling on public land, less regulation of toxic chemicals, less safety on the job for American workers, less protection for consumers, fewer drug regulations. Johnson quotes Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen to capture the essential thrust of Trump’s executive order, namely: that “instead of real, direct help for the tens of millions of Americans struggling financially due to the pandemic, or a real plan to reopen the economy safely based on the best public health expertise, Trump wants to keep giving handouts to corporate interests.”

Not all corporate oligarchs and the rich are on the plutocratic bandwagon, but most are

Not all the rich and corporate oligarchs are supporters of the plutocratic policies of Trump and the Republican Party. Hacker and Pierson put it this way: “neither Trump’s tariffs or his immigration policies are popular in moneyed circles.” They continue: “It is also true that precincts of the business community, such as Silicon Valley, find the president downright detestable, and that plenty of very wealthy people support the Democratic Party and style themselves progressives.”

At the same time, they write: “most of the superrich are broadly aligned with the core Republican economic agenda. Few among the fabulously wealthy speak openly about these priorities, and many of the most public plutocrats (think Tom Steyer and George Soros). But in those rare instances when political scientists successfully survey the views of the very wealthy, those views turn out to be much more conservative than commonly believed. For example, a 2011 poll of rich Americans – average wealth of respondents: $14 million – found that just 17 percent of those wealthy citizens said they’d support high taxes on the rich to reduce inequality, a position endorsed by over half of the general public” (p. 8). Overall, Hacker and Pierson find that “The wealthy are much more conservative on average: more anti-tax, more anti-regulation, more opposed to unions, more concerned about deficits, and less supportive of programs like Social Security” (p. 58).

Hacker and Pierson also refer to other evidence to substantiate the view the powerful and rich are supportive of plutocratic government. Consider the following examples. “Of the 100 richest Americans on the Forbes’ famous wealth list, according to a recent study, roughly two-thirds contributed mainly or exclusively to Republicans or conservative causes, and their spending outweighed the spending of those in the top 100 who gave to Democrats or liberal causes by a ratio of three to one” (p. 57). “When you look at the ultra-wealthy activists who are spending fortunes to remake American politics – especially through their huge outlays of ‘dark money’ encouraged by the ongoing decimation of campaign finance limits – you see one that’s even more conservative.’ “In 1982, less than 10 percent of campaign dollars came from the top 0.1 percent of donors. By 2018, nearly half (46 percent) did, with almost (22 percent) coming from just 400 mega-donors.” Furthermore: “Much of the money is channeled through nonprofit ‘trade’ or ‘social welfare’ associations – tax-exempt organizations empowered by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court in the 2010 Citizens’ United decision. Those groups are not required to disclose their donors and most don’t” (p. 68; also see examples of dark money donors on p 68).

They additionally substantiate their analysis as follows. “When you look at the stances and investments of the political organizations that magnify the influence of corporations and the superrich, you see one that’s more conservative still. The most effective groups representing economic elites – the Koch Network, the US Chamber of Commerce, the American Legislative Exchange Council – range from the hard right to the even harder right” (p.8). “Charles and his brother David (who died in 2019) had long supported conservative think tanks and public intellectuals. In the 2000s, however, they emerged as the nation’s leading benefactors and coordinators of organizations and donors espousing a hard-right philosophy” (p 67). The Kochs had two key goals: “ramping up political spending by the conservative wealthy and building organizations to push the GOP further to the right (and, after 2008, to fight President Obama)” (p. 67). The central hub of the Kochs’ political efforts is the Americans for Prosperity, with an “annual budget of $150 million, more than 500 paid directors, and nearly 3 million activists,” and drawing heavily on Tea Party volunteers (p. 70).

Would Trump, the plutocrats, corporate elites and the rich rather see the end of democracy than to give up power and wealth?

In an email I wrote to Jacob Hacker on August 13, I posed the following questions. “Are US plutocrats so obsessed with maintaining their power and wealth that they would rather be dead – have civilization collapse from the accelerating ravages of climate change – than give up any power and wealth? Or are they in the grip of larger forces over which they have little control?” Jacob answered: “Unfortunately, I think the answer is mostly yes to your first question – at least with regard the (large) portion of the plutocracy aligned with the GOP. As Paul and I point out in our book, “Let Them Eat Tweets,” the GOP is far and away the most climate-change-denying major party in the world, and it’s hard to believe it would be so if there wasn’t so much money on the side of denialism.”

Trump and the Republican Party have done their best to subvert our democracy, obstruct Democratic legislative initiatives in the US Senate, advance a neoliberal agenda designed to benefit the mega-corporations and the rich, and also rallied an electoral base of right-wing and extreme groups that includes fundamentalist evangelicals, gun rights absolutists, anti-immigration advocates, white supremacists and racists, those who distrust the federal government, and those who espouse a variety of conspiracy theories (e.g., see Jeet Heer’s article on the QAnon movement and its influence in the Republican Party at: https://thenation.com/article/poltics/ganon-future-republican-party). The Southern Poverty Law Center keeps track of far-right groups. In an email sent out to supporters on August 22, the organization refers to its new report (August 10, 2020) that “documented 125 rallies, marches, and protests organized and attended by far-right extremists, including white nationalists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, the ‘alt-right,’ and right-wing reactionaries during” the last three years (https://splcenter.org). Many do not support Trump because they find his policies insufficiently radical. The SPLC’s report includes the following observation.

“The overwhelming emotion among white supremacists now is rage. Many of these white supremacists feel cheated by a president whom they see as failing to fulfill his most authoritarian promises. They face intense scrutiny and resistance whey they try to organized in the streets and find themselves being deplatformed from online spaces that initially helped them amplify their messages.”

It is important to note that Trump does little or nothing to discourage the populous base that is so important to his power, and avoids criticizing the far right generally. He saves his venom for protest movements on the left.

The Conservative (plutocratic) dilemma

Hacker and Pierson refer to Daniel Ziblatt’s concept “the conservative dilemma,” which means: “To participate in democratic politics, conservative politicians had to get and maintain voters’ backing even as their elite allies sought, in Ziblatt’s words, ‘to preserve their world, their interests and power” (p. 21). However, the Republican Party, Trump and their corporate allies and benefactors are faced with a political dilemma. Their economic and regulatory policies that favor the powerful and rich alienate and/or do harm to the majority of the electorate. Trump’s handling of the pandemic and resultant economic disruptions makes the challenge of prioritizing the interests of  plutocracy even greater than before.

To retain power, Trump, the Republican Party and their power and rich allies must not only find ways to keep both the corporate and populist wings of the coalition together and politically engaged, but also, even then, to find ways to win elections with less than a majority of the votes. Plutocratic populism brings together two forces that share little in common except their distrust of democracy and their investment in the GOP. Plutocrats fear democracy because they see it as imperiling their economic standing and narrowly defined priorities. Right-wing populists fear democracy because they see it as imperiling their electoral standing and their narrowly defined community” (p. 12).

There are two keys to their possible success. One, they need to hold onto the “populous” electoral base. Two, they need to suppress the vote of those, representing a majority of the electorate, who are opposed to the policies of Trump and the Republican Party. Given how states have been gerrymandered by Republican Parties, Trump could lose the popular vote, as he did in 2016, and still win in the Electoral College.

If in November the right-wing alliance is successful, they will likely only win if they succeed in suppressing or discouraging democratic party supporters from voting or, as in 2016, winning in the un-democratic Electoral College. If that should happen, Trump and the Republican Party will little or no interest in seriously addressing the major crises besetting society.

The populous base

The third part of the right-wing plutocratic-populous alliance is the multifaceted “populous” base, comprising perhaps 60 million voters, or about 40 percent of those intending to vote in November 2020. Hacker and Pierson emphasize that “America’s version of right-wing populism began to surface well before Trump – in fact, well before the financial crisis.” The appeals for the populous base are in many cases “racially tinged, involve strong identities and strong emotions… that draw a sharp line between ‘us’ and “them” (p. 22) and are ‘best suited to single-issue groups, cultural institutions such as churches, and certain kinds of media” (p. 23).

The power of the president and the Republican party hinges on an electoral base of support as well as support for their plutocratic agenda. Hence, support has been garnered over time from a variety of right-wing groups, including, those who want unlimited gun ownership, evangelical groups that favor the end of reproductive rights for women and an end to the separation of religion and the state, groups that want a virtual end to most or all categories of immigration, groups that want to preserve white supremacy and reject as myth the racist and discriminatory history that is so central to the dark side of American history. Trump has a friendly relationship with far-right, sometimes armed, groups support the reopening of the economy, who demonstrate for white supremacists’ values or a reactionary concept of “freedom.” But beyond the particular interests, Trump is also viewed by these supporters as having the ability to transform the government in a way that will make “America Great Again,” put an end to the intrusion of government bureaucrats in their lives, and protect their communities from a secular culture.

Fundamentalist evangelicals see support in the plutocracy for their opposition to women’s reproductive rights and to LBGTQ interests and want the plutocrats to select “conservative” judges to the Supreme Court and federal judiciary that favor “the traditional family” and support for white Christian institutions. The National Rifle Association likes the plutocrat’s opposition to any meaningful gun regulation. Among other – or most – right-wing populists, the anti-immigration policies of Trump and his administration are strongly supported. Cutting across such issues is the desire of the right-wing populous base to maintain their “superior” white status at a time when demographic changes threaten their majority position in society. Hacker and Pierson say that “the racism-focused narrative takes various forms.

“Some emphasize contemporary forces: the incessant race-baiting of Donald Trump; white backlash against the nation’s first black president; the anxiety generated by the ongoing shift toward a ‘majority-minority’ nation. Others emphasize the deeper historical roots of white identity. Yet all these accounts suggest that race is the cleavage that defines American politics.” They also emphasize, too, that this cleavage reflects “deep psychological attachments that are easily triggered and highly resistant to change. In this respect, they present a ‘bottom-up’ perspective, emphasizing the underlying resistance of key parts of the white electorate to the shifts in status and power that demographic change entails” (p. 9).

There is a certain antagonism in the right-wing populous base toward government, not because of its economic policies, but because of policies that constrain their non-economic “rights” and/or reduce the advantages of their “whiteness.” There are a host of organizations that represent the various segments of the right-wing populous base and they are major players in educating, mobilizing, and engaging voters in the base to support the Republican Party. On this point, Hacker and Pierson write: “As the GOP embraced plutocratic priorities, it pioneered a set of electoral appeals that were increasingly strident, alarmist, and anti-government extremism, the party outsourced voter mobilization to a set of aggressive and narrow groups: the National Rifle Association, the organized Christian right, the burgeoning industry of right-wing media.

According to Hacker and Pierson, Trump is “a consequence and recent enabler of the GOP’s long, steady march to the right” (Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality, p. 7). The policies of the Republican Party have been unabashedly plutocratic since the election in 1980 of Ronald Reagan. That is, their principal political commitments are to consolidate and advance the interests of the mega-corporations and the business community generally and the rich, especially the super-rich. Most of the rich are connected to the corporations as executive officers or as consultants, or they have investments in corporations of one kind or another. In addition to making tax cuts the centerpiece of their agenda, they have retained their power by loosening regulations and pursuing full-blown deregulation in the economy, by supporting expenditures that benefit the military arms makers, by subsidizing industries and corporations the support the party, by filling policy-making positions in the administration with wealthy corporate backers and executives, by ignoring anti-trust laws, and by reducing funding for programs that benefit or potentially benefit a growing majority of Americans (p. 3).

Examples of the right-wing base

Rural America has been, by and large, for Trump and the Republicans

Robert Wuthnow, professor of social sciences at Princeton University, has studied rural communities in America, one of Trump’s sources of support. He and his assistants have visited hundreds of these communities, “studied their histories, and collected information about them from surveys, election results, exit polls, censuses business statistics, and municipal records” (The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Small-Town America, p. 3). He points out that “30 million Americans live in small towns with populations of fewer than 25,000 residents.” The US Census tallies 44 to 50 million people in what it labels “rural communities.” Exit polls in the 2016 election “showed that 62 percent of the rural vote went to Donald Trump” (p. 1).

Wuthnow finds that the “moral outrage of rural America is at the basis of support for Trump – and involves a mixture of fear and anger. The fear is that small-town ways of life are disappearing. The anger that they are under siege. The outrage cannot be understood apart from the loyalties that rural Americas feel toward their communities” (p.6). They are concerned about declining populations, school closings, businesses leaving, and jobs disappearing. But it is more importantly about cultural issues. They are angry about government bureaucrats who promote diversity, about “moral decline” reflected in the bank bailouts, the sexual promiscuity available on the Internet, the prevalence of crude language on television, about their opposition to reproductive and LBGTQ rights and immigration. Withal, they will vote for Trump again because they like his patriotic slogans, his militaristic foreign policy, his denigration of the media and liberal elites, his anti-immigrant policies, his Christian/evangelical connections, and the misperception of him as a political outsider. It remains to be seen whether the COVID-19 pandemic, now increasingly affecting rural communities, will change their minds about Trump.

Reactionary Populism gains new life under Trump

Along with all the rest, Trump and the right-wing political forces supporting him have gained strength from the growth of a reactionary populism since the 1990s, including “local militias, Christian fundamentalists, and the Tea Party among them.” Carl Boggs, professor of social sciences at National University in Los Angeles, points to how Trump benefited, as 35 percent of his presidential vote come from evangelical constituencies (Fascism Old and New: American Politics at the Crossroads, pp. 12-13). His presidency has “apparently lent new legitimacy to the evangelical movement, especially the selection of Mike Pence as vice-president and Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. As American society moves ever rightward,” Boggs writes, “evangelicals have grown in numbers, organizations, media presence, and general influence. They work indefatigably through state legislatures, PACs, think tanks, conferences, and medical outlets to carry out ‘God’s work, hoping to Christianize secular institutions, beginning with education, bringing ‘family values’ and patriotism to the forefront.” Boggs thinks that they “could help to solidify a social bloc behind fascistic tendencies….” (p. 13).

Historian Kathleen Belew documents the growth of another source of Trump’s “popular” appeal in the American white power movement in her book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Here is some of what she found.

“While white power featured a diversity of views and an array of competing leaders, all corners of the movement were inspired by feelings of defeat, emasculation, and betrayal after the Vietnam War and by social and economic changes that seemed to threaten and victimize white men. White power also qualifies as a movement through its central features: the contiguous activity of an inner circle of key figures over two decades, frequent public displays, and development of a wide-reaching social network.

“White power activists used a shared repertoire of actions to assert collectivity. Public displays of uniformed activists chanting slogans and marching in formation aimed to demonstrate worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment to both members and observers. Activists encouraged dress codes and rules about comportment and featured the presence of mothers with children, Vietnam veterans, and active-duty military personnel. Members showed unity by donning uniforms and by marching and chanting in formation. They made claims about their numbers. They underscored their commitment with pledges to die rather than abandon the fight; preparing to risk their lives for white power; and undertaking acts that put them at legal and physical risk. A regular circulation of people, weapons, funds, images, and rhetoric – as well as intermarriages and other social relationships – bound activists together” (pp. 10-11).

And they thrive.

“The state and public opinion have failed to sufficiently halt white power violence or refute white power belief systems, and failed to present a vision of the future that might address some of their concerns that lie behind the more diffuse, coded, and mainstream manifestations” (p. 239).

The white power movement, ultra-nationalistic, racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, armed, opposed to progressive values and ideas, poses no threat to the power elite. They represent the potential street fighters against those who criticize the existing power structure from progressive and leftist points of view.

Staying in power undemocratically?

The Trump/Republican strategy

Faced with the prospect that a majority of voters will vote for Joe Biden and the Democratic ticket in the November election, Trump, the Republicans, and their allies are pouring money into the president’s campaign, organizing a massive mobilization of their base, spreading disinformation and attacking their Democratic opponents on right-wing media, expecting Republicans running for the US Congress to win in their gerrymandered states, and escalating their efforts to suppress the vote, not the least of which is to subvert the option of mail-in voting by withdrawing resources from an already strapped US Postal Service.

Trump and the plutocratic alliance cannot stay in power and win the elections in November unless they have the support of the “populous” base and unless they can limit the votes of those supporting the Democratic Party, that is, rigging the elections. Much of the corporate community and the populous base appear to be unyielding in their support of Trump and the Republicans. Therefore, the Republican Party has over the years devoted time and vast resources at the state level to gerrymandering congressional districts and to suppressing the Democratic vote, through purges of the voting rolls, limiting early voting, requiring voter IDs that many potential voters don’t have, limiting the number of polling places, changing the location of polling places, sending out false information about when and where to vote, hiring poll watchers to intimidate voters, making it illegal or difficult for those with felony records to vote, discarding some ballots. Additionally, Trump has being doing his utmost to subvert the voting-by-mail option during this pandemic by reducing the resources of the US Postal Service.

The prospects of the Democrats

Despite these un-democratic obstacles, Joe Biden has a lead over Trump in the polls. Kamala Harris brings diversity and a strong black woman to the ticket. The two major wings of the Democratic Party, the moderates and the progressives, have seemingly united in their goal of defeating Trump. E. J. Dionne’s book, Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country, analyzes how they can be facilitated. The Democrats are running strong candidates for the Senate that give them a chance of winning control of it. The party is well funded. Large numbers of people have already been organized around state and local Democratic parties and around progressive movements like Blacks Lives Matter. There are major voter registration drives. Trump’s efforts to subvert the US Postal Service are being contested in the courts and challenged by Democrats in the US Congress.

There are many proposals that now and in the future identify and challenge the voter-suppression tactics of the Trump-plutocratic-populous alliance. At the end of his book, How Trump Stole 2020, renown investigative journalist Greg Palast ten goals for making the voting process fair and inclusive: no more purges; no more push-and-pray [paperless voting] machines; no registration, or second best, make same day registration universal; no ID requirement; make early voting a right; no gerrymandering of polling stations; restore and expand the Voting Rights Act; enforce Section 2A of the 14the Amendment [Equal Protection Clause]; ban required proof of citizenship to vote; let voter intent rule [when counting ballots]; mail-in voting; end open primaries; imprison fraudulent voters; hack-free elections [ban elected partisans from the office of Secretary of State and from election boards].

In his new book, Downfall: The Demise of a President and His Party, political scientist Andrew Hacker is optimist about the prospects of the Democrats. He writes: “This November’s ballots will show how the nation assesses the president’s postures on economics and immigration, the state of the planet and social policy, and his hostility to alliances and interventions abroad. His rallies vouch [or did vouch] that his stalwarts are still on his side. November will hear from less boisterous Americans.” Still: “All told, the Republicans’ candidates have placed second in six of the last seven presidential races Indeed, the most recent year that their choice won in 2004, when George W. Bush attained a second term. (Two years later, he completely lost the House and the Senate.) In politics, a lot is possible. Two upsets were Harry Truman reelection and Donald Trump’s bombshell four years ago. The prime reason for the latter was so many Democrats stayed home. If 2018 signaled anything, it was their remorse. They showed up for those midterms in numbers only matched back in 1932. This November, they’ll be out in force again, no matter who their party nominees. Indeed, the margins will be so high that even an Electoral College end-run won’t work. Every indicator in this book shows…that there aren’t enough Americans two give Donald John Trump a second term” (p. 176). Here’s a sample of why Hacker is optimist about the prospects of Democrats in November.

“To win again, Donald Trump will have to add to the 62,692,411 total he attained in 2016. The reason is that this time, any Democrat will finish with considerably more than Hillary Clinton’s 65,666,168. Up upward 70 million is not implausible. This add-on will obviate an Electoral College debacle. The president’s difficulty is his combined unwillingness and incapacity to appeal to citizens outside his immediate orbit.”

“Gauged by Republican votes in 2018’s House races, his following was down to 50,467,181. Earlier chapters, on midterms and special elections, showed that large numbers of his 2016 supporters were staying home. In 2020, he will need to bring out at least every single one of the 12,225,230 who skipped 2018.

“That said, his challenge will be finding additional supporters. It strains the mind to wonder where they might come from. Unlike other presidents, Trump has no sought to construe his constituency as nationwide.” Rather he fires up his base through Twitter – “by casting his opponents in the grossest of terms” (pp. 174-175).

Trump may try to disregard or postpone the election

However strong and successful the Democratic electoral efforts, there is a dark shadow that threatens our democracy. Trump has said that he may stay in office regardless of the will of the majority. If many mail-in votes have not been counted on election day and if the final tally may take some days or weeks to be completed, Trump may assert that this means that the election process is broken and, to avoid chaos, he must remain in power until there is some solution. He may declare that the election is rigged and decided with fraudulent mail-in ballots.

Even if the tally of votes is completed efficiently, he may still declare that many of the ballots are fraudulent and that the election is rigged against him, using such claims as a justification for remaining in the White House. Then there is recourse for him to declare a national emergency. He and his administration could precipitate a war with, say, Iran, and postpone or call off the election. He could do the same if there was a major terrorist attack in the US, or if a combination of the pandemic and a down economy required, in his estimation, necessitated an authoritarian response. The main point is that we can’t trust Trump not to find a way to stay in office even if he loses the election or is about to lose it.

Concluding thoughts.

Trump and the plutocratic-populous alliance pose an unprecedented challenge to US democracy. Trump has a chance of winning the 2020 election with a minority of the electorate, though the Democrats appear unified and strong in their goal of unseating him. It all hinges on some unknowns. Electorally, it depends on whether the Democrats can overcome the voter suppression tactics of the Trump and his right-wing allies and bring a huge number of their supporters to the polls. It is unlikely that the Democrats have much hope of taking votes from the right’s populous base. An electoral victory by Trump and the plutocratic-populous alliance would mean a further evisceration of American democracy and perhaps, in the worst case, the onset of a authoritarian, if not a fascist, administration and social-political order?

Faced with the prospect that a majority of voters will vote for Joe Biden and the Democratic ticket in the November election, Trump, the Republicans, and their allies are pouring money into the president’s campaign, organizing a massive mobilization of their base, spreading disinformation and attacking their Democratic opponents on right-wing media, expecting Republicans running for the US Congress to win in their gerrymandered states, and escalating their efforts to suppress the vote, not the least of which is to subvert the option of mail-in voting by withdrawing resources from an already strapped US Postal Service. 

Nonetheless, the Biden/Harris ticket has a chance of winning the election if not being subverted. It is likely they will do so without the support of the corporate/rich wings of the plutocracy. In such a likely eventuality, this could make it challenging for a Democratic administration, even with majorities in the House and Senate (where the filibuster may be misused], to raise taxes on the corporate and the rich, to support meaningful regulations, or gain the support in Congress for a sustainable energy alternative while phasing out fossil fuels, or expand the Affordable Health Care Act, or attempting to increase funding for education, housing, social justice, science and research, public health, and other programs that are essential to the well-being and fairness of the American people.

Would the mega-corporations and the rich go along with such policies, or would they – could they – use their vast power to stifle such action? In other words, what are the limits of reform in our corporate-dominated, neo-liberal-oriented capitalist system, in which there are deep partisan divisions in the population? But then these are unprecedented times. What difference does it make, for example, that there are growing existential crises (e.g., the climate crisis) that threaten to steadily destroy the ecosystem and any semblance of “civilization” as we have known it? Check out Ian Angus’s book, facing the anthropocene: fossil capitalism and the crisis of the earth system, for documentation of the accelerating and increasingly cataclysmic climate crisis. Will greed and a flight from reality take precedence over survival or will we as a society find the will and imagination to surmount these dark times?

The nuclear bailout scam in Ohio diverts attention and resources from the need to build a sustainable energy system

Bob Sheak, August 3, 2020

A devious, criminal plan to bailout two uncompetitive nuclear plants at the expense of taxpayers

On July 22, 2020, the public learned that federal agents had arrested one of the most powerful officials in Ohio state government, Larry Householder the Republican House speaker, along with a former state Republican Party chairman and three other people, with other charges pending. They were said to be involved in what is described as a $60 million scheme to bail out a foundering energy company, Energy Harbor, formerly First Energy Solutions. The federal criminal complaint appears to focus on the former parent corporation, First Energy Corp, or, in the affidavit, “Company A.” The specific “offense” is “Conspiracy to Participate, Directly or Indirectly, in the Conduct of an Enterprise’s Affairs through a Pattern of Racketeering Activity.” Racketeering includes:

“(A) [A]ny act or threat involving…bribery[,]…which is chargeable under State law and punishable by imprisonment for more than one year; (B) any act which is indictable under…title 18, United States Code: …section 1343 (relating to wire fraud)…section 1951 (relating to interference with commerce, robbery or extortion), section1952 (relating to racketeering)….section 1956 (relating to engaging in monetary instruments), section 1957 (relating to engaging in monetary transactions in property derived from specified unlawful activity)…”

First Energy is “a public utility holding company for its subsidiaries.” As such, it “directs and controls the various subsidiary entities” under its control. Over a three-year period, from March 2017 to March 2020, the company is alleged to have channeled $60,866,835.86 in secret payments directly to a 501(c) 4 entity, called Generation Now, a dark-money entity controlled by Larry householder. On February 6, 2017 or thereabouts, Generation Now was “registered with the IRS as a 501(c) 4, which is an IRS designation for a tax-exempt, social welfare organization,” in which the names and addresses of contributors are secret. This money and money from other corporations and entities was used to support efforts by Householder and his co-conspirators to develop and implement a scheme to have taxpayers pay higher utility rates to keep two aging, noncompetitive, and unprofitable Ohio nuclear power plants, Besse-Davis and Perry from being shut down. The two plants were under the management of  First Energy Solutions, a subsidiary of First Energy. The subsidiary filed for bankruptcy in 2018 and was divested from Company A in February 2020 and in the process changed its name to Energy Harbor.

Giulia McDonnell Nieto Del Rio quotes David M. Devillers, the FBI attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, who at a news conference on July 22 characterized the conspiracy as  “likely the largest bribery, money-laundering scheme ever perpetrated against the people of the state of Ohio” (https://nytimes.com/2020/07/21/us/larry-householder-ohio-speaker-arrested.html). The 82-page “criminal complaint”was brought against “Larry Householder, Jeffrey Longstreth, Neil Clark, Matthew Borges, Juan Cespedes, and Generation Now,” the principal conduit for the money.

According to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, “In the politics of the United Statesdark money refers to political spending by nonprofit organizations — for example, 501(c)(4) (social welfare) 501(c)(5) (unions) and 501(c)(6) (trade association) groups — that are not required to disclose their donors.[3][4] Such organizations can receive unlimited donations from corporations, individuals and unions. In this way, their donors can spend funds to influence elections, without voters knowing where the money came from.”

Mark Kovac, Randy Ludlow, and Rick Rouan report that “Householder, 61, R-Glenford, is charged by the FBI in an alleged racketeering conspiracy [and the others] involved in the funneling of energy company funds through Generation Now, a dark money group formed by a longtime associate. Additionally: “Some of the proceeds allegedly were used to back the campaigns of legislative candidates supportive of Householder’s run for speaker and to personally enrich Householder.” If Householder is eventually found to be guilty, “The felony carries a potential sentence of up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine” (https://dispatch.com/news/20200721/ohio-house-speaker-larry-householder-arrested-in-60-million-bribery-case).

Nieto del Rio reports “Energy Harbor [First Energy?] the source of the $60 million, said in a statement on Tuesday [July 22] that it had received subpoenas ‘in connection with the investigation surrounding Ohio House Bill 6,’ and intended to cooperate with investigators” but had not been charged with any crime (https://nytimes.com/2020/07/21/us/larry-householder-ohio-speaker-arrested.html).

The heart of the conspiracy

There were two key groups involved in the conspiracy.  One, the “foundering energy” company is Energy Harbor [was known as First Energy Solutions] And, two, Larry Householder and his co-conspirators. The goal around which the two became linked was how to get the public and the Ohio legislature to support a $1 billion dollar bailout ($1.3 billion) for First Energy Solutions’ two aging, accident-prone, uncompetitive nuclear power plants. Larry Householder came to be identified by the company as the crucial link in this process. The money from Company A was funneled directly and through various intermediary entities to advance Householder’s political career, help him become Speaker of the House, influence with bribes some 20 or so members of  the Ohio House of Representatives to vote for the bailout bill, mislead the Ohio public on why they should support a bailout of First Energy Solutions nuclear power plants, and then later to use various media and hired “blockers” to stymie and ultimately destroy the opposition’s efforts to repeal HB6 through an initiative ballot.

The dark money

While Householder and his co-conspirators have been charged with criminal conduct, First Energy has not, even though, according to Nieto del Rio and many others, it is the source of the over $60 million that was funneled through the dark money group, Generation Now, to support the efforts of Householder and his co-conspirators to pass bailout legislation and then later to defeat a 2019 referendum to repeal the bailout law. The money was, Nieto del Rio writes, “not regulated, not reported, not subject to public scrutiny.”  (https://nytimes.com/2020/07/21/us/larry-householder-ohio-speaker-arrested.html).

Del Rio quotes Dave Anderson, the policy and communications manger for the Energy and Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization that supports clean energy. Anderson said that “FirstEnergy Solutions (now Energy Harbor) needed Mr. Householder’s help because its coal and nuclear plants could not generate electricity cheaply enough to compete with newer and cleaner forms of energy. The bailout legislation, House Bill 6, helped support two of the company’s nuclear plants and several coal plants.” Then, “once he was elected, he made passing this bill a top priority of his.”

Dark money flowed from other sources to support Householder’s quest for the bailout legislation

There were other corporate-connected groups that also contributed money to support the passage of HB6, mostly through dark money conduits. Here are two examples.

Randy Ludlow links American Electric Power to the bailout efforts (https://dispatch.com/news/20200725/columbus-utlity-giant-aep-funded-dark-money-spending-in-hb-6-campaign).

He refers to an investigation by the Columbus Dispatch  that “a dark-money group wholly funded by House Bill 6 beneficiary and Columbus utility giant American Electric Power contributed $350,000 toward the campaigns now at the center of a racketeering and bribery case that ensnared House Speaker Larry Householder.” Ludlow continues: “Empowering Ohio’s Economy Inc., a nonprofit operated solely with AEP funds, gave $150,000 to Generation Now, another dark-money group that received $60 million from First Energy-related interests to ensure passage and survival of a $1 billion ratepayer bailout of a subsidiary’s pair of nuclear power plants.” [And] “Empowering Ohio, AEP’s super-Pac and the conduit for “dark money” also gave $200,000 to the Coalition for Opportunity & Growth. The FBI’s “criminal complaint” refers to “spending of $350,000 by an unidentified ‘interest group that was funded exclusively by $13 million from another energy company that supported HB 6.’” Ludlow information comes from a “source close to the investigation… that the energy company is American Electric Power, a publicly traded company that serves 5.5 million customers in 11 states.”

Jackie Borchardt and Randy Ludlow report additionally on the involvement of Ohio coal giant Murray Energy Corp, now bankrupt, which channeled “$100,000in ‘dark money’ involved in the alleged racketeering and bribery scheme that ensnared former House Speaker Larry Householder and four others.” The dark money group, Hardworking Ohioans Inc., “spent nearly $1.5 million to support Householder’s Republican candidates in the 2018 general election” (https://dispatch.com/20200731/ohio-coal-giant-murray-energy-is-100k-dark-money-donor-rsquocompay-brsquo-in-federal-probe).

Ultimately, the efforts by the conspirators were successful, as HB6 was passed the Republican-dominated house on May 29, 2019, a month and a half later the Senate passed the bill with amendments, then the House approved this version of the bill on July 23, 2019. Governor DeWine signed it on the same day. A campaign to overturn the legislation began immediately but was defeated by an onslaught of dark money financed activities by October 21, 2019.

Nuclear plants as a financial albatross on the corporate owners

FirstEnergy Solutions was a subsidiary of FirstEnergy Corp. until the spring of 2018. All along, FirstEnergy Solutions (FES), which operates generating facilities in several states, had the responsibility of operating the two nuclear plants and a coal plant in Ohio. During this time, FirstEnergy Corp. and FES agreed to a “restructuring” plan to have FES become an independent company and to cut all ties with each other. At the same time,  FES, already highly indebted, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on  March 31, 2018 (https://www.utilitydive.com/news/firstenergy-solutions-files-for-bankruptcy-after-pushing-for-doe-energy/520371; and “on March 28, 2018, FES filed notice with PJM Interconnection LLC (PJM), the regional transmission organization, that the three nuclear facilities [two in Ohio and another one in Pennsylvania] would be deactivated or sold during the next three years. In the meantime, the company assured its customers that “all of the plants will continue current operations” (https://www.fes.com/content/fes/home/restructuring.html).

The coincidence of the restructuring plan and the bankruptcy proceeding reflects the interests of FirstEnergy Corp. It seem obvious that FirstEnergy wanted to get rid of this subsidiary, because it was not only unprofitable and encumbered with large debt but had little prospect of becoming competitive.

Anya Litvak offers some support for this analysis in an article published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (https://wwww.post-gazette.com/business/powersource/2019/03/19/Who-s-afraid-of-FirstEnergy-Solutions-restructuring-plan-Every-government-agency-that-has-seen-it/stories/201903180113). According to Litvak, the restructuring plan cuts “virtually all ties between First Energy and FirstEnergy solutions, freeing the former “from any liability going forward.” Litvak notes that “FirstEnergy Corp. has been trying to separate from its unprofitable, non-utility power generating division for several years, after low natural gas prices, slow economic growth and other factors conspired to push older coal and nuclear plants out of the money.” There are creditors and government regulators that had to be satisfied with the creation of this new company. But the restructuring plan went ahead. As part of the deal, FirstEnergy agreed to transfer “about $1 billion in value” to FirstEnergy Solutions and “waive any claims against it,” or about “$2.1 billion in claims (https://www.cleveland.com/politics/2019/04/firstenergy-solutions-banruptcy-plan-rejected-by-federal-judge.html). And to sweeten the restructuring plan for FirstEnergy Corp, the company was given “absolution for potential crimes of the past.”

According to Litvak’s investigation, regulators were “shut out of the process.” Government agency officials complained that FirstEnergy provided no information “about the extent of environmental contamination at the sites and that the restructuring plan was “so vague about what rights creditors are forfeiting…they can’t even make a decision whether it’s a reasonable trade.” FirstEnergy Corp apparently will go to great lengths to remove FES from its corporation.

Prior to the bailout in 2019, First Energy Solutions was saddled, as it is now, with two aging, accident-prone, uncompetitive nuclear plants in Ohio. It had been losing markets to lower-cost natural gas, much of it from environmentally-destructive hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. The only way that it could stay in business and avoid closing the nuclear power plants was by getting substantial financial support from the Ohio taxpayers. A plan unfolded as to how to influence the Republican-dominated state legislature to support a billion-dollar bailout of the company and we are now learning that Larry Householder was a crucial player in bringing the bailout plan to fruition..

 The nuclear plants in Ohio

 The Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Plant is one of these plants. Journalist Sandy Mitchell writes that Davis-Besse “is located on 954-acre site 10 miles north of Oak Harbor, Ohio, and 21 miles east of Toledo (https://www.tripsavvy.com/ohio-nuclear-power-plants-753093). The plant opened in 1978, making it the first in Ohio and the 57th commercial nuclear power plant in the United States. It was originally co-owned by Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company and Toledo Edison and is named for the chairmen of both companies, John K. Davis and Ralph M. Besse.”. Subsequently, First Energy Corp became the owner. Mitchell adds, “Davis-Besse is [has] a pressurized water reactor and produces 40 percent of the electricity used in northwestern Ohio” [and] “The plant contributes over $10 million a year in local and state taxes. Its original 40-year license to operate ran from 1977 until 2017 and then was extended by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for another 20 years to 2037, despite its record of accidents and the unsolved, ever-growing nuclear waste problem.

Gar Smith, author of Nuclear Roulette: The Truth About the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth (published 2012),writes that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recognized “Davis-Besse as one of the most dangerous reactors in the United States and that “Between 1969 and 2005 this single plant experienced six out of the 34 reported ‘significant accident sequence precursors’ – triple the rate reported at any other U.S. nuclear plant” (p. 147). There have been at least another six accidents at the Davis-Besse plant since 2005, according to Sandy Mitchell investigation ((https://www.tripsavvy.com/ohio-nuclear-power-plants-75309). Wikipedia has a summary of information on the “Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station,” including the following notorious example.

“On March 5, 2002, maintenance workers discovered that corrosion had eaten a football-sized hole into the reactor vessel head of the Davis–Besse plant. Although the corrosion did not lead to an accident, this was considered to be a serious nuclear safety incident.[2][3] The Nuclear Regulatory Commission kept Davis–Besse shut down until March 2004, so that FirstEnergy was able to perform all the necessary maintenance for safe operations. The NRC imposed its largest fine ever—more than $5 million—against FirstEnergy for the actions that led to the corrosion. The company paid an additional $28 million in fines under a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice.[2] (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Davis%E2%80%93Besse_Nuclear_Power_Stations).”

You can see further details on this near-catastrophic event in Helen Calicott’s book, Nuclear Power is Not the Answer (pages 81-83), or in James Mahaffey’s Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima (pp. 337-341).

The other FirstEnergy Solutions’ nuclear power plant is “The Perry Nuclear Power Plant.” It is notable because it has one of the largest “boiling water reactors in the U.S.” The Perry plant “sits on 1100 acres in North Perry, Ohio, about 40 miles northeast of Cleveland.” When the plant opened in 1987, it “was the 100th power reactor to be built in the US.” While there have been accidents at Perry and while it is unprofitable and in debt, and while the NRC has included it in a list of “27 reactors most at risk from earthquakes” (Gar Smith, p. 79).

 The proponents’ justifications for the bailout

How do they justify the bailout? John Seewar reports on April 20, 2019 for U.S. News and World Report” on the views of Dave Griffing, vice president of government affairs for FirstEnergy Solutions (https://www.usanews.com/news/best-states/ohio/articles/2019-04-20/nuclear-operator-closing-plants-would-be-felt-around-ohio).

Griffings says the company needs HB6 to be passed to make the electricity generation playing field equal, because solar and wind sources of non-polluting electricity get energy efficiency and renewable energy incentives while nuclear plants don’t. HB6 will help to make up for this past inequity, Griffing is arguing. Note that Republicans have been trying to undermine the renewable incentives since they were introduced. Griffing claims that there have been upgrades at the nuclear plants that “now allow them to operate more efficiently,” implying they are now competitive in the electricity marketplace. The company does not provide any evidence of what the “upgrades” are or that any of its policies have improved its competitiveness. Griffing strongest arguments are based on what the state will lose if the nuclear plants are shut down. Tax revenues will be lost in the communities where the plants are located, affecting “schools, safety services and programs for children and seniors.”1,400 workers plus suppliers and contractors will be thrown out of work, though Seewar notes there are no job guarantees in HB6. And he contends that electricity rates will go up as supply from the plants vanishes and utilities are forced to import electricity from other states. And, as we’ll see, HB 6 does little to strengthen the wind and solar sectors of the Ohio economy.

Thomas Suddes adds to this discussion in an article headlined “Politics, not dirty-air concerns, drive Ohio House GOP’s Green New Deal” (https://www.dispatch.com/opinion/20190421/column-politics-not-dirty-air-concerns-drive-ohio-house-gops-green-new-deal).

While it is dubbed a “clean-air plan” that will be “a fair deal for homeowners and renters” who pay FirstEnergy Solutions for electricity, the passage of HB 6 carries a heavy price and in significant ways is just the opposite of a “clean air” bill. The company had no remedy for the nuclear waste accumulating at the two nuclear plants. Clean air credits (cash) would go to any “Ohio electricity producer (whether generating with nuclear fuel, natural gas, coal, wind or the sun) if its plant, or plants, emit no or reduced amounts of carbon dioxide).” But, as already pointed out, coal and natural gas power plants are the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide. It threatened to cancel the $4.39 monthly renewable-energy and electricity demand charges designed to encourage the development of solar and wind power generation. And the proponents of HB6 warned that if the two Ohio nuclear plants are closed, as FirstEnergy Solutions threatens to do, then 4,000-plus jobs will be directly and indirectly lost, many of them union jobs. Suddes suggests this is a bit hypocritical, pointing out that Republican legislators have not shown “the same degree of urgency for Ohioans in Trumbull (Warren) and Mahoning (Youngstown) counties thrown out of work thanks to General Motors’ Lordstown shutdown. (FYI, total 2018 compensation of Mary T. Barra, General Motors’ board chair and CEO, was $21,870,450.)” When all is said and done, this is a partisan bill that will benefit some Republican contributors.

According to a report by Jim Siegel and Mark Williams, Supporters of the bill highlight that the plants generate about 90% of the state’s carbon dioxide-free power and support about 4,000 workers directly and indirectly, while the plants’ taxes are important to local communities and schools. About 15% of the state’s electricity production comes from nuclear sources, according to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. FirstEnergy Solutions warns that electric bills will go up if the plants close. PJM, which coordinates the wholesale movement of electricity in 13 states, says closing the plants is not expected to hurt electricity reliability in the region. However, closures would require the state to import more power generated elsewhere” and thus be vulnerable to market fluctuations (https://www.disptach.com/news/20190506/what-you-need-to-know-about-ohio-houses-energy-bill).

Enter Larry Householder, et al

Drawing on the 82-page FBI complaint and their own reporting, Mark Kovac, Randy Ludlow, and Rick Rouan provide details on this aspect of the charges brought by the FBI against Householder and four co-conspirators (https://dispatch.com/news/20200721/ohio-house-speaker-larry-householder-arrested-in-60-million-bribery-case). “Redacted court documents unsealed Tuesday afternoon [July 22] did not specifically name energy companies involved, though they noted that “Company A entities [Energy Harbor] paid Householder’s enterprise $60,886,835.86 in secret payments over the approximately three-year period in exchange for the billion-dollar-bailout. The enterprise, widely believed to be Generation Now, concealed the payments … to receive the bribe money and then transferring the payments internally to a web of related entities and accounts.” The nefarious activities occurred “from March 2017 through earlier this year.” No one from the company has yet been charged with involvement in the conspiracy.

On July 22, Householder and four of his co-conspirators were arrested and charged with a criminal conspiracy. The co-conspirators include “Matthew Borges, 48, of Bexley, the former chairman of the Ohio Republican Party and a lobbyist…. Jeffrey Longstreth, 44, of Columbus, a longtime campaign and political strategist for Householder,” Juan Cespedes, a lobbyist also close to Mr. Householder; and Neil Clark, a lobbyist. Householder and Clark were arrested at their homes. “It is unclear, Kovac et. al. write, “where the arrests of Longstreth and Cespedes took place.” After being charged, they were “released from custody… with travel restrictions and prohibitions on contact with others involved in the case.” More arrests are expected.

Householder, the kingpin and dark money

“Householder, 61, R-Glenford, is charged by the FBI in an alleged racketeering conspiracy involving the funneling of energy company funds through Generation Now, a dark money group formed by a longtime associate.” According to the Columbus Dispatch journalists, Generation Now, a so-called social welfare entity, was incorporated by Longstreth in early 2017, but federal officials say they have a recording that shows it secretly was controlled by Householder. Federal officials have a recorded conversation of Clark saying ‘Generation Now is the Speaker’s….’” According to the reporting, “JPL & Associates, a Columbus political consulting firm, was listed as president of Generation Now.” “Jeff Longstreth, a principal in the firm.” As a social welfare entity, Generation Now did not have to disclose its donors.

How the money was spent

The FBI’s 82-page affidavit goes into great detail describing how First Energy funneled tens of millions of dollars to Generation Now, how Generation Now was controlled by Household and operated by his co-conspirators, how they in turn sent out money to a host of dark-money entities as well as to Householder and the other defendants, all with the goal of supporting the bailout legislation and then, later, defeating the opposition that emerged after HB6 was signed into law.

“Some of the proceeds allegedly were used to back the campaigns of 21 candidates for state office in the 2018 and 2019 primary and general elections, including Householder’s earlier  run for a legislative spot and then for Speaker of the House. Nieta del Rio notes that “the energy company helped finance the election of the House speaker, Larry Householder, in 2018.” Nieto del Rio points out that all but one of the 21 candidates, most of whom won their races, “would eventually support Householder’s election as Speaker.” Randy Ludlow reports that the FBI’s criminal complaint found that “First Energy, whose subsidiary [First Energy Solutions] owned the two facilities [the two nuclear plants], “had wired $9.5 million to Generation Now, a nonprofit authorities say was controlled by Householder and run by Jeff Longstreth, to pay for a media blitz and provide ‘cover’ for reluctant House members” (https://dispatch.com/news/20200730/meet-representative-3rsquo-who-benefited-from-larry-householder-cover-campaign).

“More than $1 million was spent on negative ads against those candidates’ opponents, with additional funds paying for Householder’s campaign staff, according to documents.” Householder spent some of the millions on his own personal interests, according to Nieta del Rio.

“The defendants … paid themselves personally millions of dollars in Company A bribe payments, funneled through Generation Now and other entities controlled by the enterprise.” “Householder received $400,000-plus in personal benefits, including funds to settle a personal lawsuit, to pay off credit card debt and for costs associated with his home in Florida, according to documents.”

The FBI investigation found that some of the money was spent on bribes and money laundering that “included dinners and meetings between undercover federal agents and Householder and Clark where the men made incriminating statements about illegal activity and bribes.” Some of it were spent on ads to support the bailout proposal and smear the opposition and some of it, $1.9 million, was spent on blocking a ballot initiative to overturn the legislation”….Generation Now spent “$9 million on TV ads to fight the ultimately failed referendum [initiative] seeking to repeal the bill.” None of it was spent to facilitate fair and open elections or legislative processes or reasoned arguments about what is best in the public interest.

The opposition, called “Ballot Campaign” submitted their ballot proposal language on July 29, 2019, revised it to satisfy the Ohio Attorney General on August 29, 2019, then had until October 21, 2019  to collect 265,000 signatures, all to be validated by the Ohio Secretary of State, in order to get their “referendum” on the ballot. The Householder group mobilized to defeat the ballot initiative, spending millions of dollars in dark money from Generation Now to flood the airways with television and radio ads supporting HB6, for direct mail, for billboards, for petition-signature activities, for putting pressure on lawmakers. And they were successful.

Democrats did offer an alternative to HB6: “The Ohio Clean Jobs Plan”

Kristin Boggs (D-Columbus), a member of the Ohio House Energy Generation subcommittee, provides some details on this Democratic alternative “clean energy” bill on her government website https://www.ohiohouse.gov/kristin-boggs/press/boggs-dem-lawmakers-propose-ohio-clean-energy-jobs-plan).

It differs from the Republican versions of the bill mainly by emphasizing the need to encourage and develop renewable energy companies that “protect and grow good jobs across the state, improve the health of Ohioans and avoid rate hikes on consumer utility bills.” With respect to jobs, the emphasis is on restoring the promise of “better jobs and brighter futures, and gives the next generation of Ohio workers the opportunity to lead again – in advanced, clean energy jobs that will power our state into the future.” The implication is that these jobs will be in energy sectors such as solar, wind, energy efficiency, not jobs in nuclear power plants.

The alternative clean energy plan of the subcommittee Democrats also includes a priority for non-nuclear clean energy when it calls for the establishment of  “a 50-percent renewable energy portfolio standard by 2050, fix setback requirements to encourage large-scale wind turbine investment, and require a 50 percent in-state preference for new wind and solar projects. And there’s more. The Democratic bill wants to “strengthen Ohio’s renewable and energy efficiency benchmarks and re-envisions the state’s Advanced Energy Standards (AES) to save consumers money and grow emerging sectors of Ohio’s clean energy economy.” Boggs refers to a report that “Ohioans could realize $3.5 billion in additional economic value under updated efficiency standards” [while] “Nuclear power will not save Ohioans money on their electric bills.”

The message of the Democratic alternative is muddled, because along with the strong emphasis on solar, wind, and energy efficiency,  the bill seems to include support for some sort of bailout for the nuclear plants, as suggested by the following language: “The plan would re-envision and modernize Ohio’s AES to support nuclear technology as part of the state’s energy future and create Advanced Energy Credits to maintain a 15 percent baseline generation capacity from emissions-free nuclear power.”

 Concluding thoughts

As of now, August 3, 2020, it appears that Householder and his co-conspirators will be tried and convicted of criminal activities. Governor Mike DeWine, a supporter of the bailout, wants the now tainted law to be repealed and then replaced by a similar law, in which case the nuclear plants would continue to be subsidized by Ohio taxpayers. There is a good chance that the Republican-dominated legislature will go along with the Governor’s wishes – and for the same dubious and opportunistic reasons it did the first time. It seems that the only way that the bailout can be finally ended is for Ohio citizens to vote for anti-bailout Democrats in November. But this is unlikely to prove successful, given how the Ohio political map is so gerrymandered in favor of Republicans and how Ohio is among the dubious leaders in the nation in voter suppression. The Republican legislators are on record as being supporters of the bailout.

In his new book, How Trump Stole 2020, Greg Palast writes that by mid-2020, Ohio had already purged 432,000 Ohioans from the voter rolls (p. 23). Palast refer to the Supreme Court case, Husted v. APRI (the A. Philip Randolph Institute). Jon Husted, Republican Secretary of State in Ohio, “had removed half a million voters from the rolls in the 2016 election cycle because they’d supposedly moved their residences based on the ‘evidence’ that they did not vote in two federal elections” (p. 49). This ruling conflicts with the National Voting Registration Act of 1993, which states that a purge program “shall not result in the removal of the name of any person from the [rolls] by reason of the person’s failure to vote” (p. 50). But Husted went even further. According to Palast, Husted instituted a rule that, if the Post Office successfully delivers a card to your registration address, and you simply didn’t mail it back, properly filled out, then obviously, says Husted, you’ve moved” (p. 54).

Furthermore, Republicans appear to have no interest in eliminating “dark money” in politics. This means that as the Ohio Republican legislature moves to replace HB6 with a similar bailout measure, we can anticipate that millions of dollars will flow into the political process (e.g., lobbying, campaign donations, faux grassroots operations) and into pro-bailout media to support it. In an opinion piece in The Columbus Dispatch, John Pudnet presents a case for banning dark money in politics, though it will hardly have an impact on the Republican legislators (https://dispatch.com/opinion/20200731/column-speaker-householderrsquos-arrest-emphasizes-need-to-ban-dark-money-from-politics).

Sadly, the focus on the Householder swindle and all the corrupt politics surrounding it also distracts from the larger issues of energy policy and the crucial and pressing question of how to create an energy system that does not fuel increasingly disruptive and accelerating climate change. The two Ohio nuclear plants (and the coal plant) that the original HB6 gave renewed life have grave environmental effects. In an email sent out to Sierra Club email-lists on April 20, 2019, Harvey Wasserman offered a “preliminary draft talking points for this week’s Ohio nuke bailout hearings [April 24] (solartopia@GMAIL.COM). He listed his talking points into four categories of reasons for opposing the bailout and generally for opposing nuclear energy, but also reasons for supporting wind and solar energy.

#1 -The first category is on the “physical status” of the Davis-Besse and Perry nuclear plants, which Wasserman says “literally crumbling.” He elaborates with this example: “The shield building at Davis-Besse is swiss cheese…pock-marked with holes caused by moisture getting into cracks, then expanding in cold weather, then melting in thaws. It could easily drop heavy chunks onto vital components.” Though it came into operation in 1978, based on a 1960’s design, there “has never been a comprehensive inspection of DB in its over 40 years of operation by an independent agency to check for cracking, embrittlement, incomplete maintenance.”

#2 – Wasserman’s second category is about the negative “health impacts” of nuclear power. He gives three examples that apply to nuclear plants generally and, by implication to Davis-Besse as well. In his email, he writes that “All nukes emit deadly radiation,” refers to “downwind infant death rates rise when a nuke opens,” and refers to the cataclysmic nuclear accidents and their massive ecological and health effects at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. In another article, Wasserman point to how Davis-Besse continuously “dumps its waste water into Lake Erie between Toldao and Cleveland” (https://www.opednews.com/article/America-s-Hole-in-the-head-by-Harvey-Wasserman-Cuomo_Energy_Nukes_Radiation-10419.997.html). In his book, Nuclear Roulette, Gar Smith offers the following example of how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been negligent in enforcing safety standards at nuclear power facilities, a contributing factor in the accidents, and, implicitly, to make the point that nuclear facilities are inherently unsafe, accidents compound the problem, and poor regulation further exacerbates both safety and health.

#3 – The third category identified by Wasserman is about “environmental impacts. He makes three points. One, the “Cooling towers at Perry and Davis-Besse kill far more birds than modern industrial wing turbines, solar panels, batteries or LED/efficiency.” Two, “Heat emissions from steam and hot water [from the reactors] ‘kill trillions of marine creatures and unbalance Lake Erie’s eco-system; renewables emit no such heat.” Three, “All reactors create both low and high radioactive waste – [and there is] no realistic management plan.”

#4 – Number 4 is about the problematic “economics” of nuclear-generated electricity. Wasserman maintains that state regulation that has deterred investment in Ohio’s wind. On this, he writes: “The Legislature’s senseless anti-wind setback is purely Luddite, stopping $4 billion in private investment ready to build northern Ohio wind farms that would quickly and cleanly provide the power now produced by nukes.” The conditions in that part of the state are propitious for wind farms. The land is flat and there is plenty of wind. The farmers on whose land wind turbines would be located “want the income.” Wind farms can be up and running in two years and keep going for 30 years. Investment in renewables will create jobs: “More than a quarter-million Americans now work in the solar industry; more than 100,000 in wind, far more than in coal, oil, or nuclear.

Why are there so few new nuclear reactors being built?

Peter Fairley addressed this question in an article for MIT’s Technology Review on May 28, 2015 (https://www.technologyreview.com/537816/why-dont-we-have-more-nuclear-power). His bottom line is that “it’s just too expensive.” There other concerns as well. The accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima added to the worries about nuclear power. The “economics” of the nuclear power plants remains have gone from poor to worse. Fairley refers to a report by the International Energy Agency and the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency that found equipment costs had risen 20 percent from 2010 to 2014. He cites evidence from the financial advisory firm Lazard that the costs of generating power from solar and onshore wind had fallen below the costs of nuclear.

While there are four new nuclear reactors under construction in Georgia and South Carolina, only loan guarantees from the federal government and additional financing support from state regulators made that feasible. For a rebound to occur, Fairly maintains, the nuclear industry will have “to demonstrate that it can build the enhanced-safety reactors that regulators are mandating, on time and on budget.” There is no indication that this is going to happen, at least when it comes to the construction of the large conventional nuclear reactors. The new reactors being built are “now years late and billions of dollars over budget.” The U.S. Department of Energy and other proponents of nuclear-powered energy have hope that work on the construction of small modular reactors will sooner or later become available and will be a boost the nuclear power industry. On this point, however, Fairley found that “the most mature designs have yet to attract buyers.” He continues this point: “Several leading developers, including Babcock & Wilcox and Westinghouse, have recently scaled back their programs.”

 

 

Fossil Fuels, climate crisis, covid-19 pandemic – Recent developments

Bob Sheak, July 16, 2020

bobsheak@gmail.com

The most abundant source of greenhouse gases and rising temperatures stem from the combustion of fossil fuels. The present economic system could not operate without them, as they power industry and much of transportation, energize residential dwellings and business, are integrated into existing power grids, employ tens of thousands of workers, and generate tax revenues for local and state governments, all this as well as wielding extraordinary political power at all levels of government. The great misfortune is that they also are degrading and destroying ecosystems, threatening the US and the world with a host of unfolding environmental calamities, and, not the least, undermining democracy.

But there are early signs that the power of fossil fuel interests is beginning to wane, though this may not happen enough to avoid more environmental devastation. The rising covid-19 pandemic is having a powerfully negative affect on most sectors of the economy and society, including the energy sector. The focus in this post will be on recent evidence documenting the worsening of the climate crisis, with references to and analysis of  related current issues.

—————————–

The Climate Crisis continues to intensify

Some context

In an article in Time magazine on July 9, 2020, Justin Worland writes that the evidence is compelling that “2020 Is Our Last, Best Chance to Save the Planet” and that  there is little time left to do so (https://time.com/5864692/climate-change-defining-moment). The US, and indeed humanity, is at a decisive point in dealing with this huge anthropogenic and growing problem. We face two paths forward, as Worland sees it.

“In the future, we may look back at 2020 as the year we decided to keep driving off the climate cliff–or to take the last exit. Taking the threat seriously would mean using the opportunity presented by this crisis to spend on solar panels and wind farms, push companies being bailed out to cut emissions and foster greener forms of transport in cities. If we instead choose to fund new coal-fired power plants and oil wells and thoughtlessly fire up factories to urge growth, we will lock in a pathway toward climate catastrophe. There’s a divide about which way to go.”

The thrust of Worland’s first “green”path is consistent with what proponents call “A Green New Deal,” that is, the pressing need to mitigate the climate crisis by supporting the massive creation of solar, wind and geothermal energy systems. Though such achievements would be welcome, they may not be enough. In his new book, The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Can, Stan Cox argues that Green New Deal initiatives must be broadened. Here’s what he writes:

“…I will present my case that the Green New Deal vision, ambitious as it is, must go even further and deeper. As the plan is formulated and carried out in coming months and years, it must be accompanied by effective mechanisms to (1) directly eliminate fossil fuels from the economy on an accelerated schedule, and (2) reverse the widespread ecological damage that has  been done in the pursuit of economic growth – damage that reaches well beyond greenhouse warming” (xxiv).

On the first point, Cox is referring to the need for large and detailed government  plans for an energy transformation, along with a pricing system on carbon emissions  to discourage the use of fossil fuels and encourage alternative “renewables” and energy efficiency.. On the second point, he is referring, for example, to the need to reverse massive and ongoing deforestation, the soil-depleting industrial agriculture, the depletion of vital resources (e.g., fisheries), the monumental levels of waste produced by the present systems of production and consumption.

The Focus here

To repeat, this post will not delve into this broad range of issues. Rather, the focus will be on recent evidence documenting the worsening of the climate crisis, with references and analysis on  related current issues.

Books to fill in the background on the climate crisis  

There is a large literature devoted to the analysis of system-wide alternatives to the causes and remedies of the climate crisis and its myriad effects. Check out Stan Cox’s book and the following books:

  • Victor Wallis, Red-Green Revolution: The Politics and Technology of Ecosocialism
  • Will Potter, Green is the New Red: An Insiders Account of a Social Movement Under Siege
  • Kohei Saito, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism
  • Fred Magdoff and Chris Williams, Creating an Ecological Society
  • R. McNeill and Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945
  • Naomi Klein, The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal
  • Bill McKibben, Falter: Has the Human Gam Begun to Play Itself Out?
  • Kristin Ohlson, the soil will save us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet
  • Timothy A. Wise, Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food
  • Ian Angus, facing the Anthropocene: fossil capitalism and the crisis of the earth system

Now to the recent evidence on the climate crisis and related developments.

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The Planet keeps getting hotter

Greenhouse gases continue accumulating in the atmosphere

As the result of the build-up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, as reported by Worland, “the world has already warmed 1.1°C since the Industrial Revolution.” We are at risk of passing 2°C, at which time “we risk hitting one or more major tipping points, where the effects of climate change go from advancing gradually to changing dramatically overnight, reshaping the planet.” The 2018 “landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N.’s climate-science body, warned that allowing the planet to warm any more than 2°C above preindustrial levels would drive hundreds of millions of people into poverty, destroy coral reefs and leave some countries unable to adapt.” Then, in a 2019 analysis in the journal Nature, researchers “identified nine tipping points–from the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet to the thawing of Arctic permafrost–that the planet appears close to reaching, any one of which might very well be triggered if warming exceeds 1.5°C.”

Worland quotes Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research: “Going beyond 2°C is a very critical step not only in terms of economic and human impact but also in terms of the stability of the earth.” Keeping temperatures from rising past the 1.5°C goal means, according to a report from the UN Environment Program (UNEP), that “we would need to cut global greenhouse-gas emissions 7.6% every year for the next decade.” Worland notes that is the level the COVID-19 pandemic will reduce emissions this year by roughly this amount, but virtually no one thinks this deadly pandemic and accompanying economic contraction is a sustainable way to halt climate change–and “recessions are typically followed by sharp rebounds in emissions.” Rather, to “achieve the 1.5°C goal without creating mass disruption has always meant thoughtfully restructuring the domestic and global economies, including the rapid phasing out of fossil fuels. Ominously, scientists and economists agree this is the last opportunity we have to do this.

Not much time

To avoid going to 2°C, Worland cautions, “we need to cut emissions in half by 2030.” This must be done at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic is surging in the US and the news is focused on it. “Nevertheless,” he contends, “this year, or perhaps this year and next, is likely to be the most pivotal yet in the fight against climate change.” He quotes Rob Jackson, an earth system science professor at Stanford University, that the decisions we make now “will define the fate of the planet–and human life on it–for decades.” The US cannot curtail greenhouse gas emissions in an increasingly unregulated economy and concentrated economic power in most sectors, an fossil-fuel based energy system, with a right-wing government that supports unconditionally the system-wide imperative of maximizing profit mostly in disregard of present and future environmental and human harms.

Trump exacerbates the climate crisis

Trump and his administration have promoted and supported the present fossil-fuel based energy system. As Worland rightly points out, Trump “and his GOP allies in Congress have an effective stranglehold on any policy that could push the U.S. to decarbonize, and thus far they have rejected big legislation to address climate change–portraying it as ‘socialist’ and part of the Green New Deal that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party proposed last year to the derision of Republicans.”

Stacy Feldman and Marianne Lavelle provide an overview of “Donald Trump’s [destructive] Record on Climate Change” based on his desire to maintain and strengthen “unfettered fossil fuel development” (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/19122019/trump-climate-policy-record-rollback-fossil-energy-history-candidate-profile). Some evidence.

  • “When U.S. government scientists released their latest volume of the National Climate Assessment, it revealed much about the robust, sobering scientific consensus on climate change. It also revealed the striking disconnect between President Donald Trump and essentially every authoritative institution on the threat of global warming. The president rejected the assessment’s central findings—based on thousands of climate studies and involving 13 federal agencies—that emissions of carbon dioxide are caused by human activities, are already causing lasting economic damage, and have to be brought rapidly to zero.” Trump’s response: “I don’t believe it. No, no, I don’t believe it.” Then, “his cabinet members launched attacks on the report, portraying it as ‘alarmist’ and clinging to Trump’s agenda of fossil fuel energy expansion that the science says is at the root of the problem.”
  • “When Trump delivered his first major energy speech in the fracking fields of North Dakota as a candidate in May 2016, he called for American domination of global energy supplies. To make that happen, he wanted an end to all of President Barack Obama’s executive actions involving greenhouse gas emissions.”
  • “As president, he has rolled back regulations on energy suppliers at a rapid clip slowed only at timesby the courts, while auctioning off millions of acres of new drilling leases on public land. Last year, domestic oil production hit a record high. The result of this, among other things, was the reversal of three consecutive years of declining U.S. carbon emissions.”
  • “Trump began the process of withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate treaty, the agreement signed by nearly all nations to reduce fossil fuel emissions. He replaced Obama’s Clean Power Plan, intended to sharply reduce emissions from U.S. power plants. He took the first step to weaken fuel economy standards for cars, the single most important effort for reining in the largest driver of U.S. emissions.
  • “His administration has undone or delayed—or tried to—most regulatory and executive actions related to climate change, while proposing new ones to accelerate fossil fuel development. Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law counts 131 actions toward federal climate deregulation since Trump took office. In the absence of any comprehensive national climate law, those moves have led to an erosion of the federal government’s main regulatory levers for cutting global warming emissions.

Trump and his administration have not paused in their support for the fossil fuel sector, even amid the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, Andy Rowland writes on Oil Exchange International that “a joint investigation by Documented and the Guardian reported that “over 5,600 fossil fuel companies have taken at least USD 3 billion in COVID-19 aid from the United States government.” He continues: “The paper reported that ‘the businesses include oil and gas drillers and coal mine operators, as well as refiners, pipeline companies and firms that provide services to the industry, “ adding that, “[w]orryingly, the USD 3 billion figure is probably ‘far less than the companies actually received’” https://priceofoil.org/2020/07/09/us-the-arctic-burns-trump-bailouts-fossil-fuel-industry-with-billions).

Presently, a lot depends on the outcome of the 2020 presidential and congressional elections. If Trump wins and/or the Republicans control the Senate, then fossil fuel interests will continue to benefit from beneficial tax treatment, government subsidies, deregulation, the low-cost opportunities to extract minerals from public land, and all with no regard to the ongoing and increasingly catastrophic environmental devastation. However, if they lose, the fossil-fuel interests will lose some, if not most, of their political advantages. Under such circumstances, consider some of the challenges that may end up reducing fossil fuels in the US political-economic system.

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 The political challenge: Biden and his campaign acknowledge the climate crisis and have a plan

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, takes the climate crisis seriously, though it remains to be seen whether as president he would advance policies that reflect sufficiently the deepening climate crisis. Still, he offers some hope. Worland points out that Biden has “touted his Green New Deal and has appointed a committee that includes both longtime Washington climate advocates like former Secretary of State John Kerry and emerging leaders of the Democratic progressive wing like current New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to craft new climate policy. Top congressional Democrats, signaling support for a big climate package, unveiled a 500-page legislative road map on June 30 that includes tax incentives and infrastructure spending to eliminate the country’s carbon footprint by 2050. It won’t become law this year, but it sends a signal that the issue will be on the legislative agenda if Biden wins in the fall.” Biden also promised at a League of Conservation Voters virtual event on June 16 “to re-engage with the rest of the world on the issue, including by helping fund climate measures in developing countries.”

Biden clarified what his climate policy will entail in a speech in Wilmington, Del. on July 14, 2020.  Katie Glueck and Lisa Friedman report that “Joseph R. Biden Jr. announced on Tuesday a new plan to spend $2 trillion over four years to significantly escalate the use of clean energy in the transportation, electricity and building sectors, part of a suite of sweeping proposals designed to create economic opportunities and build infrastructure while also tackling climate change.” Specifically,  Biden’s plan calls for the realization of “an emissions-free power sector by 2035, “enhancing the nation’s infrastructure,” significantly cutting fossil fuel emissions,” “upgrading four million buildings,” “establishing an office of environmental and climate justice at the Department of Justice and developing a broad set of tools to address how ‘environmental policy decisions of the past have failed communities of color,’” and “encouraging “the installation of millions of new solar panels and tens of thousands of wind turbines. (https://nytimes.com/2020/07/14/politics/biden-climate-plan.html).

Friedman and Glueck further learned “from senior Biden campaign officials that the proposal was the product of discussions with scientists, climate and environmental justice leaders, union members and leaders, mayors and governors, and representatives from the small-business and manufacturing communities.” The new plan is more ambitious that Biden’s original climate proposal, which “called for spending $1.7 trillion over ten years with a goal of achieving net-zero emissions before 2050. The new blueprint significantly increases the amount of money and accelerates the timetable to four years.” The plan also “promises new research funding and tax incentives for carbon-capture technology.” Campaign officials told reporters that funding for the plan “will come from a mix of increasing the corporate income tax rate from 21 to 28 percent, ‘asking the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share’ and some still undetermined amount of stimulus dollars.”

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Climate Crisis worsens: some more evidence

Rising, record-breaking temperatures

European researchers at the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) document that the 12-month period ending in June 2020 “tied with the hottest year on record based on global surface temperatures, as reported by Jessica Corbett. (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/07/07/arctic-burns-new-data-shows-june-2020-capped-year-tied-hot).

In another article, Jessica Corbett reports on a study published in the journal Scientific Reports,” in which  in June “researchers at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom examined CO2 levels in past period of earth’s environment that were close to what is being experienced now” (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/07/09/humanity-track-soon-hit-15oc-paris-accord-limit-atmospheric-co2-nears-level-not-seen).

They examined CO2 levels during the late Pliocene about three million years ago, as co-author Thomas Chalks explained when “the warmest part of the Pliocene had been between 280 and 420 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere.” This is like “today’s value of around 415 parts per million.” However, when CO2 levels peaked during the Pliocene, “temperatures were 3degreesC to 4degreesC hotter and seas were 65 feet higher” than today. The implication is that contemporary temperatures and sea rise are already set to rise considerably more than they have – at present CO2 levels. But CO2 levels are now rising “about 2.5 ppm per year, meaning that by 2025 we will have exceeded anything seen in the last 3.3 million years,” that is, rising to a CO2 level of 427 or so.

Corbett also refers to a new report released on June 9 by the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) “about global temperatures likely coming in the next five years provoked similar alarm and demands.” The WMO projects “there is about a 70% chance that one or more months during” the years 2020-2024 “will be at least 1.5°C hotter than pre-industrial levels and about a 20% chance that one of the next five years will be at least that warm.” WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas released a statement on June 9 emphasizing that “WMO has repeatedly stressed that the industrial and economic slowdown from Covid-19 is not a substitute for sustained and coordinated climate action,” Taalas said. “Due to the very long lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere, the impact of the drop in emissions this year is not expected to lead to a reduction of CO2 atmospheric concentrations which are driving global temperature increases.”

Taalas’s statement continued: “Whilst Covid-19 has caused a severe international health and economic crisis, failure to tackle climate change may threaten human well-being, ecosystems, and economies for centuries. Governments should use the opportunity to embrace climate action as part of recovery program and ensure that we grow back better.” We now must view the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity “to pursue bold recovery plans that incorporate policies that combat the climate crisis, such as rapidly transitioning to renewable energy worldwide.” This would be in tune with the recommendations of the Paris agreement on climate change target “of keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5°C.”

An increase in “humid heat extremes”

Climate Central reports that “humid heat extremes” are on the rise in the US (https://medialibrary.climatecentral.org/resources/humid-heat-extremes-on-the-rise). The evidence is derived from “hourly wet bulb temperature data…collected from Raymond et al. (2020), using 474 contiguous U.S. weather stations for this analysis.” In addition: “For humid heat extremes in each location, the change in frequency was found by calculating the value that happened (on average) on 5% of days in the 1980s and 1990s, and then seeing how often that happened in the 2000s and 2010s.” Wet bulb temperatures are high temperatures combined with high humidity, or as the article puts it, “on extreme wet bulb temperatures, which measure how heat, moisture, and other factors affect the body in direct sunlight.”

The researchers “analyzed the most extreme (top 5% of) days by U.S. location, based on wet bulb temperatures. In most places, these humid heat extremes doubled in frequency from 1980-1999 to 2000-2019.” For example:

“In most states and regions, these humid heat extremes have already doubled in frequency—when comparing 2000-2019 to the previous two decades. In other words, conditions on the muggiest 18 days of the year (on average in 1980-99) may now occur on 36 days or more. All but one region has seen these frequencies double, and all but one state has risen by 50%. Parts of New England and the inland West have increased by 2.5 times.”

The impact has disproportionately affected  “senior citizens and communities of color, as well as outdoor workers in agriculture and the military.” Climate Central’s report says that continued climate change that is associated with a rise in such humid heat extremes  will “lead to declines in labor productivity, while worsening social and economic inequities.” They add: “Outdoor activities are all but impossible when the wet bulb reaches 90°F (equivalent to a 132°F heat index), but much lower values are still dangerous.

It will take extraordinary governmental efforts to keep people safe from the hot, humid, days that will inevitably occur if the US and other countries remain stuck in fossil-fuel – high carbon emission – energy systems. Cooling centers will have to be increased for the vulnerable segments of the population and those with air-conditioners will see their “cooling costs rise.” The accompanying energy-demand will soar to unprecedented levels. If the US and other countries have not soon made a transition away from fossil fuels, then, under increasingly deadly heat, the use of fossil fuels could increase and thus, insanely, lead to more greenhouse gas emissions and further rising temperatures. This would be like a contract with the devil with an increasingly hellish outcome. In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic is having the effect of increasing the size of vulnerable populations, while state and local governments are sinking deeply into debt and are cutting back on services.

Hot weather and fires in the Arctic

One of the manifestations of this trend is that there were “unprecedented heat and fires that ravaged Siberia last month” (May 2020). The average temperatures “over all land in Arctic Siberia combined was more than five degrees above normal, and more than a degree higher than in 2018 and 2019, the two previous warmest Junes.” The C3S director Carlo Buontempo finds it worrisome “that the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the world,” that “Western Siberia experiencing warmer-than-average temperatures so long during the winter and spring is unusual,’ and that “the exceptionally high temperatures in Arctic Siberia that have occurred now in June 2020 are equally a cause for concern” (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/07/07/arctic-burns-new-data-shows-june-2020-capped-year-tied-hot).

Bridget Read reports that Siberia is experiencing “record warm temperatures, melting sea ice, and massive wildfires”(https://thecut.com/2020/07/the-arctic-is-on-fire-siberia-terrifying.html). Change is happening faster than expected and faster than the rest of the world. She adds: “Siberian towns are experiencing a heat wave throughout the region, with many smashing centuries-old temperature records, records that are now being broken year after year. Scientists say that the area is warming at three times the rate of the rest of the world, due to a phenomenon called ‘Arctic amplification,’ in which melting ice exposes more dark sea and lake waters, turning zones that were once net heat-reflecting into heat-absorbing. And temperatures rise even more.” It works this way. Record temperatures melt snow create “dry vegetation for wildfires.” The wildfires send out “giant plumes of smoke and release more greenhouse gases than ever before.” Some of the fires are known as “zombie fires” that continue to burn under the snow during the winter and erupt in the air when the snow melts.

There are other effects. The melting Arctic ice “contributes to sea level rise and irregular weather patterns around the world.” Most worrisome is that the high temperatures melt the permafrost in the Arctic, which is a “layer of continuous ice that covers nearly a quarter of the land mass in the Northern Hemisphere.” There are “approximately 1,460 billion to 1,600 billion metric tons of organic carbon” in the permafrost, representing “more than twice the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere, which, if released, would raise the earth’s temperature and its myriad effects beyond human intervention.

Jeff Berardelli, in an article for CBS News, reports on what is happening in the alarmingly “heat scorched Siberia on Saturday [June 20, 2020]” in “the small town of Verkhoyansk (67.5°N latitude) reached 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, 32 degrees above the normal high temperature. If verified, this is likely the hottest temperature ever recorded in Siberia and also the hottest temperature ever recorded north of the Arctic Circle, which begins at 66.5°N” (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/arctic-records-its-hottest-temperature-ever). The town is located “3,000 miles east of Moscow and further north than even Fairbanks, Alaska.”  It is “typically one of the coldest spots on Earth.” For example, “[t]his past November, the area reached nearly 60 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, one of the first spots to drop that low in the winter of 2019-2020.” However, now in June, the temperature in Verkhoyansk has reached near 100 degrees.

The high temperatures, the wildfires, the melting ice, are all the result of “heat trapping greenhouse gases that result, by and large, from the burning of fossil fuels and feedback loops.” The rising temperatures from the burning of fossil fuels have reflected in environmental disruptions and anomalies  across the earth, but in the Arctic the warming is “more than two times the average rate of the globe.”Berardelli points out that this “is leading to the decline of sea ice, and in some cases snow cover, due to rapidly warming temperatures.” The corroborating evidence is indisputable. “Over the past four decades, sea ice volume has decreased by 50%. The lack of white ice, and corresponding increase in dark ocean and land areas, means less light is reflected and more is absorbed, creating a feedback loop, and heating the area disproportionately.” But the heating of the earth is global in scope and, as fossil fuels are burned, there will be more frequent and more intense heat waves everywhere. Scientists say that, to avoid the worst climate-related outcomes, we must phase out the use of fossil fuels and do it quickly.

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Recent legal setbacks for fossil fuel interests

Heather Hansman reports on three court decisions in the early part of July on pipelines that went against fossil fuel interests (https://www.outsideonline.com/2415467/acp-keystone-pipeline-protest-wins; July 9, 2020). She opens her article with the following succinct summary.

 “Over a span of two days earlier this week, there were three big wins for environmental groups fighting controversial natural gas pipeline projects. On Sunday [July 5], Dominion Energy canceled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), citing delays and rising costs. And on Monday [July 6], District Judge James E. Boasberg ordered a shutdown of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) on the grounds that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not adequately assessing the risks. The same day, the Supreme Court stayed an order to halt construction on the Keystone XL Pipeline because it was in violation of the Endangered Species Act.”

Hansman also makes the point that the opposition that has a significant influence on the courts was laid over the six years before the court decisions. Specifically: “Opposition to all three pipelines has largely been led by the Indigenous and Black communities that would be hardest hit by the pipelines’ pollution and risk. For six years, the residents of Union Hill, Virginia, a town founded by freed slaves, fought an ACP compressor station that would have kicked toxic air pollution into their neighborhoods, filing suit against Dominion for the threat. More than a thousand miles away, at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, DAPL protestors repeatedly stood their ground as rubber bullets and tear gas flew through the freezing air, physically holding their right to the land, as their lawyers brought suits about that pipeline’s damages.”

The decisions, Hansman notes, is that the Trump administrration’s aggressive pushing for “a deregulatedindustry-friendly energy-production agenda, shoddily planned, dangerous, and unnecessary fossil-fuel projects don’t hold up in the courts or at the banks.” But more importantly, she maintains, it is “a confirmation of the power of organizing and of staying the course in the intertwined fight for racial and climate justice.” On this point, Hansman quotes Dallas Goldtooth, campaign organizer of Keep It in the Ground for the Indigenous Environmental Network, who says: “They’re all wins that wouldn’t have happened if people hadn’t gotten out into the street to make it public. It shows you that this works. It’s definitely a win for people.” Patrick Hunter, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, “says

If nothing else, “[a]ll these legal cases slow down the process and, ideally, make sure the voices of constituents are considered.” And there are economic realities that are making “natural gas…less necessary and those jobs could be better filled in a more sustainable industry, one that doesn’t threaten the community that supports it.” And renewable energy alternatives are becoming real practical alternatives. Hansman writes: “Last month a study from the University of California at Berkeley found that 90 percent of U.S. electricity could be emission-free by 2035, in part by slashing natural-gas use by 70 percent.” In June 2020, Patrick Hunter, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center “says that Virginia and North Carolina, which were scheduled to start new natural gas projects, “already have a glut, and both states recently signed sweeping carbon-reduction goals, so there was no need and no desire.” Changes in the administration of the law are necessary, but “most of their legal work was elevating the voices of the communities that would be impacted by the pipeline.” He continues: “Without people caring about this, nothing happens. When Dominion planned it, I think they thought they could steamroll and grease the political wheel, but that didn’t happen. I hope it inspires people to speak up. It shows that sometimes David can beat Goliath.”

(Also check out Bill McKibben’s article on the court decisions that went against fossil fuel companies in The New Yorker on July 8, 2020: https://newyorker.com/news/annals-of-a-warming-planet/its-been-an-awful-week-for-the-fossil-fuel-industry, and Hiroko Tobuche and Brad Plumer’s article in The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/08/climate/dakota-access-keystone-atlantic-pipelines.html.)

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Declining profits and fearful investors

It is news when two of the world’s largest energy companies, Royal Dutch Shell and BP, publicly admit that they will not be able to sell the volume of oil and natural gas products that they have predicted. This is the gist of the news story on July 2 by Nicholas Kusnetz for Inside Climate News (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/01072020/bp-shell-coronavirus-climate-change). Specifically: “This week, Royal Dutch Shell said it would slash the value of its oil and gas assets by up to $22  billion amid a crash in oil prices. The announcement came two weeks after a similar declaration by BP, saying it would reduce the value of its assets by up to $17.5 billion. Both companies said the accounting moves were a response not only to the coronavirus-driven recession, but also to global efforts to tackle climate change.” Here are additional details.

BP said in mid-June that it expects governments will accelerate a transition to low-carbon energy in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, and that the two forces together had compelled the company to revise its long-term outlook for oil and gas demand. As a result, BP said, it would need to cut the value of its assets by between $13 billion and $17.5 billion, and that it may never develop some of its prospective projects.

“Shell had already lowered its long-term outlook at the end of last year. This week, it released a more pessimistic projection for oil demand over the next few years too. The company also said the cuts to its refining asset values would “support the decarbonization of its energy product mix.” The biggest hit to Shell’s books came in its investments in liquefied natural gas, which the company hopes can still play a growing role in global energy needs. Those assets are now worth up to $9 billion less than Shell had hoped, the company said.

“Both companies announced this year they would aim to eliminate or cancel out their direct greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century.”

Kusnetz quotes Andrew Logan, “senior director of oil and gas at Ceres, a sustainable business advocacy group that has represented major investors in their engagement with oil companies.” Logan is quoted as follows: “I think we may look back on this as the turning point, the moment the industry finally started to say that real assets with real dollar figures associated with them are likely to be ‘stranded'”—or left undeveloped—”in a decarbonizing world. This is a huge turnaround from the industry’s previous stance, which had been that no existing assets were likely to be stranded, that there may be risks in the future, but not in the here and now. That acknowledgment, that the risk is real and it’s here in the present, is a really big deal.”

In the US, the tune is different so far. US energy corporations like “ExxonMobil and other US-based companies, are holding the line and “generally have indicated they believe global oil demand is likely to continue to grow for many years.” But business is not good. In May, “Bottom of FormExxon announced $2.9 billion in write-downs that the company attributed to lower oil prices.”

Andrew Grant, head of oil, gas and mining at the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a financial think tank, told Kusnetiz that “the write-downs are likely a combination of corporate spin and real change.” Grant also “we’re likely seeing the beginning of a process he has warned about for years, when companies need to reconcile with a future of less fossil fuel demand by admitting they’re not worth as much as they once were. And, he added, they still have a long way to go.”

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 The Covid-19 pandemic, its detrimental effects on “clean energy,” but there is some optimism as well

Kate S. Petersen documents the harm being done to “clean energy” by the pandemic in an article for Daily Climate titled, “Beyond the “silver lining” of emissions reductions. The title of her article: “Clean energy takes a COVID-19 hit” (https://www.dailycom.org/covid-19-renewable-energy-2646372644.html). Much of this has to do with the policies advanced by Trump and his administration. On the one hand, they promote the interests of the big fossil-fuel companies through deregulation, lower taxes,  the opening up of public land to fossil fuel extraction, the expansion of pipelines for natural gas, and the building of liquid-natural-gas export facilities. On the other hand, they do what they can to discourage the development of solar and wind power, renewables generally, and the infrastructure that would support the advance of such energy systems.

Peterson begins her analysis with an example of how the pandemic has affected policy in the state of Washington. “In early March,” she writes, “the Washington state legislature passed a community solar incentives bill meant to help meet renewable energy goals and increase low-income communities’ access to solar technology.” She continues: “The bill, HB 2248, enjoyed widespread stakeholder support; environmental justice groups, renewable energy coalitions, and utility companies were all on board.” But then Covid-19 began to have an impact in the state, when, in the day after the bill was passed, “Washington Governor Jay Inslee shut down public schools in response to the escalating COVID-19 pandemic.” [And] “Over the next few weeks, as businesses were shuttered, and a stay-at-home order was issued and then extended, it became increasingly clear that the pandemic would not be easily contained and that the loss to human life and economic stability would be far-reaching.” As a result of the economic impact of the pandemic, the governor vetoed HB 2248 in early April, justifying his action that funding in the state budget “really needed to go toward the most essential state services.”

According to Peterson, the “fate of the Washington state solar bill is a microcosm of what economists and industry groups say is a profound and nationwide disruption to renewable energy development and progress toward greenhouse gas emissions reductions goals. In stark contrast to the “silver lining” stories of short-term emissions reductions related to stay-at-home orders, experts say that job losses and declining investments are hampering U.S. strides toward a clean energy future.” The problems of the renewable industry are reflected in “investment declines” and job losses.

Declining investment in clean energy

With respect of declines in clean energy investment, she relies on the work of a team of researchers led by Yale economist Kenneth Gillingham. They have “attempted to quantify the impact of the COVID-19 related disturbances to renewable energy investments on long-term greenhouse gas emissions.” Gillingham’s team is seeing “declines in air pollution and improvements in air quality” as the lockdowns in some states occurred,” but at the same time recognized “the pretty substantial innovation we’ve been seeing in clean energy over the past few years is being slowed.” The team finds “that smaller, less established renewable energy businesses may be forced to close, and others, such as automotive companies, would slow or suspend development and production of clean energy technology as the market declines. Public electric car charging station construction could also be slowed.” Additionally: “By the end of 2020, global electric vehicles sales are expected to contract to 43 percent of 2019 levels. Further, as Americans face reduced or eliminated incomes, they are less likely to invest in rooftop solar or make energy efficiency modifications to their homes.”

Job Losses in clean energy sectors

Even before the pandemic was acknowledged by government officials across the country and even as Trump and his administration dismissed the emergent signs of a pandemic as a hoax, of little significance, likely to vanish momentarily like a puff of smoke, “[c]lean energy workers are already feeling the slump.” But the job losses have mounted during the unfolding of this massive health crisis. Peterson cites “a June 15 analysis of  the BW Research Partnership, a company that tracks business trends [that] reported that 620,590 U.S. renewable energy employees have lost their jobs since the pandemic began,” representing a loss of 18 percent of jobs in the industry. This occurred despite the “many companies [that] were able to avoid layoffs due to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a federal program that grants forgivable loans to small companies to help them retain employees during COVID-19 related shutdowns” and despite the extension of program by Congress to August 8.” The future of the industry and related job prospects depends on how long the pandemic persists and on related government policy. However, even with the PPP program, the job losses in clean energy have been enormous.

Peterson cites a report from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), “a U.S. trade group that lobbies for solar to meet 20 percent of U.S. energy needs by 2030, reported that the job losses caused by the pandemic have undone five years’ worth of industry gains, with 38 percent fewer workers employed than forecast before COVID-19.” Also, according to SEIA, “new solar installation is 37 percent below projection for 2020, a number that represents a loss of infrastructure that could power 288,000 homes and an economic investment of $3.2 billion.”

“Policy action could change the whole story”

Despite the bleak data, “Gillingham says that policy intervention ‘could make a pretty massive difference.’” His optimism is fueled by that facts that government support and private investment in solar and wind energy could put many millions of people to work. And, on July 1, “the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Moving Forward Act, a bill intended to reestablish economic stability during the pandemic by investing in infrastructure and creating jobs. It has some provisions that support renewable energy development. Groups such as SEIA as well as Greenpeace and the Sunrise Movement, praised the effort as a step in the right direction, but the latter groups said much more investment was needed to secure a clean energy future.” However: “In a press release, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposed the bill, calling it ‘the cousin of the Green New Deal’ and stating that ‘this nonsense is not going anywhere in the Senate.’” Thus, any support for clean energy will require a political change in the presidency and the US Congress. And Trump, the Republicans, their corporate allies will use all their power to see this does not happen.

Concluding thoughts

There is no doubt that the planet and US are getting hotter. There is no doubt that fossil fuels are the greatest source of this existential problem. There is no doubt that Trump supports the continuation and expansion of the industry. There is no doubt that, if this malicious narcissist is reelected, the climate crisis will worsen. There is no doubt that the effects of the climate crisis have already contributed significantly to increasing societal instability and suffering. There is no doubt that governments have little time to mitigate and reverse the climate crisis. Biden and the Democrats may offer some hopeful proposals, but they will be saddled with multiple crises, a fragmented political system, powerful right-wing forces, and Trump’s “base.” Then there is the conservative Supreme Court. Well, withal, I’ll let Bill McKibben have the last word. Here is what Bill writes at the end of his book Falter.

“So, yes, we can wreck the Earth as we’ve known it, killing vast numbers of ourselves and wiping out entire swaths of life – in fact, as we’ve seen, we’re doing that right now. But we can also not do that. We could instead put a solar panel on the top of every last one of those roofs that I described in the opening of this book, and if we do, then we will have started in the right direction.”

“We have the tools (nonviolence chief among them) to allow us to stand up to the powerful and reckless, and we have the fundamental idea of human solidarity that we could take as our guide.”

“We are messy creatures, often selfish, prone to short-sightedness, susceptible to greed. In a Trumpian moment with racism and nationalism resurgent, you could argue that our disappearance would be not great loss. And yet, most of us, most of the time, are pretty wonderful, funny, kind. Another name for human solidarity is love, and when I think about our world in its present form, that is what overwhelms me. The human love that works to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, the love that comes together in defense of sea turtles and sea ice and of all else around us that is good. The love lets each of us see we’re not the most important thing on earth, and makes us okay with that. The love that welcomes us, imperfect, into the world and surrounds us when we die.

“Even -especially – in its twilight, the human game is graceful and compelling” (pp. 255-256).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The desperate efforts by Trump and Republicans to steal the 2020 elections

Bob Sheak, July 1, 2020

bobsheak@gmail.com

 Introduction

 This post makes two basic points. The Trump presidential re-election campaign is sinking and the reasons why. And Trump and the Republicans are doing their utmost to rig the electoral process to avoid losing elections. I also, at the end,  refer to some proposals for how to strengthen the right to vote.

Good News: Trump’s re-election campaign is in trouble

Trump’s presidential re-election campaign is in trouble, but he will battle to the end. Philip Bump, identifies some of the reasons for his troubles in article for The Washington Post  (https://washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/06/25/massive-shift-away-trump-six-key-states-indicates-serious-trouble-his-reelection-bid)

According to Bump, Trump and his campaign team have seen the president’s reelection chances “withering” away for weeks. Bump’s sources come from “reporting  on “meetings at the White House,”  “shake-ups in staffing aimed at bolstering the president’s position,” the president’s own “sense that things are [not] progressing.” The concerns of the inner circles of the Trump reelection efforts stem from “a steady deluge of bad news for the president, including an embarrassing primary loss in North Carolina and a humiliating failure to turn out supporters at an event in Tulsa last weekend [June 20] meant to mark his splashy return to the campaign trail.”

In order to avoid losing the presidential election in November, Trump and his allies will do whatever they can to win the election, and that means strengthening and expanding all the means by which voting can be limited and reduced in counties across the country that are identified as likely to vote for Democratic candidates. There is a long history of such voter suppression efforts, especially related to African Americans, it has been intensified in recent decades, and, without sufficient opposition, it may reach new heights in November. Primary elections already completed reflect how votes may be suppressed. The COVID-19 pandemic puts added stress on an already fragile and under-resourced electoral system. And, topping it off, is that we have an authoritarian-inclined president who would declare a national emergency and disregard election results based on an allegation that the election was immersed in fraudulent voting and uncounted votes. There are many huge, even existential issues, before us, and the chance that Trump would use his presidential power to nullify a presidential election and virtually end the already tenuous democracy that we have, is the stuff of the worst nightmares.

This post has two parts. The first part reviews some of the trends and developments that have the Trump and his political machine worried. The second part considers the anti-democratic methods and electoral dysfunctions that have undermined primary elections in some states and how such methods and dysfunctions may be unfortunately harbingers of what is to come in November. This future is not inevitable, but unless Democrats and democrats can find ways to match the outpouring of money to Trump’s campaign, counter his deceptive political misinformation, and energize the Democratic electorate to vote in large numbers, then Trump will win – and America will lose.

Part 1: What has trump worried

Playing the racist card may end up costing him votes

There is an emergent racial justice movement stirred by the brutal, sometimes murderous, police treatment of African American citizens, and, with it, a renewed focus on eradicating discriminatory treatment and laws generally. The problem for Trump is that he has a long racist record that is directly opposite of what the protests are about. His views may help him to consolidate his white-supremacist constituency, but it may at the same time, alienate a lot of “independent” and suburban white voters, especially women, and increase their vote and the African American vote for the Democrats.

The President has shown his disdain toward this movement, proclaiming himself to be the “law and order” president. David A. Graham and his colleagues at Atlantic magazine review his racist record up to 2019 (https://theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/06/trump-racism-comment). Economist and columnist Paul Krugman refers to recent events in June, 2020, “in which the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody led to demonstrations against police brutality, and these demonstrations were met by more police brutality — including unprecedented violence against the news media….And Donald Trump, far from trying to calm the nation, is pouring gasoline on the fire; he seems very close to trying to incite a civil war” (https://nytimes.com/2020/06/28/world/coronavirus-updates.html). Krugman emphasizes that “Trump clearly sides with those who reject any notion that police officers — or any other authority figures — should be held accountable for abusive behavior. Remember, he’s used his authority to pardon members of the U.S. military who were accused or convicted by their own services of committing war crimes.” Furthermore: “In a call with governors on Monday [June, 28], he showed no sign of recognizing either that there might be some justification for widespread protests or that he should play some role in unifying the nation. Instead, he told the governors that all the violence was coming from the “radical left,” and he insisted that governors must get tougher: ‘You have to dominate or you’ll look like a bunch of jerks; you have to arrest and try people.’” Trump is now pushing to extremes a decades-long Republican agenda “spent exploiting racial hostility to win elections. But it may backfire.

Amanda Marotte delves into Trump’s racist behavior and policies in an article titled “Yes, the racism is real: Trump thinks white-supremacist trolling is his path to re-election” (https://salon.com/2020/06/12/yes-the-racism-is-real-trump-thinks-white-supremacist-trolling-is-his-path-to-re-election). The President initially scheduled his Tulsa, Arizona, rally on June 19, a day of celebration of the end of slavery in Louisiana and Texas known as Juneteenth. The problem: “Tulsa is the location of the infamous mass lynching of 1921, in which hundreds of black residents were murdered and a prosperous black neighborhood was decimated, an event recently dramatized in the HBO series ‘Watchmen.’”  Stephen Miller, a documented white nationalist with a strong interest in the history of white supremacy, is one of Trump’s closest and most trusted advisers. Bending to the outcry against the original scheduling of his rally, Trump  rescheduled the date for the rally by one day to June 20. Marotte refers to other examples of Trump’s racism and inclination to use force, even military force, to quell what he views largely peaceful protests as a breakdown in law and order.

“Trump clearly believes that the key to his re-election in November — along with massive voter suppression, of course — is to go all in on white supremacist posturing. The hysterics about ‘riots’ and ‘antifa’ and ‘THUGS’ pouring out nonstop from Trump’s Twitter in response to the anti-racism protests — which were largely peaceful until cops started gassing and beating people — is all about this. That’s why Trump keeps waxing poetic about the National Guard cutting through protesters ‘like a knife cutting butter,’ or justifying violence against protesters by saying, ‘You have to dominate the streets.’”

“For instance, Trump is picking a fight over Confederate monuments and memorials, many of which are being reconsidered in light of the anti-racism protests. In particular, Trump is fighting efforts to rename military bases named for Confederate officers, resisting the idea that perhaps they should be named for people who didn’t wage war against the United States in defense of slavery.”

“And, as a topper, the campaign announced that Trump will give his relocated Republican National Convention speech in Jacksonville, Florida, on Aug. 27, which happens to be the 60th anniversary of a brutal racist attack in that city known as ‘Ax Handle Saturday,’ when the Klan orchestrated a beatdown of civil rights activists by a white mob.”

Some polls offer some hope

A CBS News poll reported on June 28, 2020, finds “A majority of the American public, including more than half of whites, say they agree with the ideas expressed by the Black Lives Matter movement. And more support than oppose the people protesting the treatment of African Americans by police. Most, regardless of their view, expect a lasting impact: 8 in 10 Americans think the protests will have at least some influence on the way police treat racial minorities” (https://cbsnews.org/news/black-lives-matter-police-reform-opinion-poll-28-06-2020). On the question of whether “ideas of the Black Lives Matter Movement,” 60 percent overall agree, 53 percent of whites, and 84 percent of blacks.

Being wrong again and again on the COVID-19 pandemic

The President and his supporters, eager to reopen the economy with no mandated national guidelines, have also misjudged terribly, based on ideology rather than science, that  the rate of COVID-19 cases would decline, but  now “26 states [up to 30] are reporting rising numbers of new coronavirus cases as the first wave of the COVID-19 outbreak rages on” (https://yahoo.com/gms/arizona-covid-19-cases-hospitalizations-continue-rise-025760367.html). The rising number of cases are setting records. Hannah Knowles and her colleagues at The Washington Post report: “Across the United States, 39,327 new coronavirus infections were reported by state health departments on Thursday [June 25]— surpassing the previous single-day record of 38,115, which was set on Wednesday” (https://washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/06/25/coronavirus-live-updates.com). The number is now over 40,000 a day.

These bleak COVID-19 trends are reflected in the polls, which is not good news for Trump. A CBS News poll released on June 28, 2020, finds that the percent agreeing that Trump is doing a “good job” in handling the coronavirus outbreak has fallen from 53 percent on March 24 to 41percent “now”[June 28] (https://cbsnews.com/coronavirus-trump-americans-opinion-poll-28-06-2020).

The polls have Biden preferred over Trump

There are other problematic developments for the president. On June 25, as reported by Philip Bump, polls conducted by Siena College for the New York Times in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, representing a third of Trump’s electoral vote in 2016, show respondents prefer Biden over Trump by an average of 9 points. The youth vote continues to be against Trump. Even among those 65 years and older, Biden now leads Trump in four of the six swing states included in the Times-Siena poll, all states where Trump won with those voters four years ago.” Independents are moving toward Biden, moving 15 points away from Trump in the six states. That’s not all.  “Biden’s also doing better with white voters in all six states, an important factor because of how much of the electorate is white in each case.” And, among those who didn’t vote in 2016, “Biden earns at least half of the vote, leading by 30 points across all six states.

If the Siena College poll numbers hold up and are translated into actual votes in November, “Trump stands to lose about a third of his electoral votes and, therefore, the White House. The longer version is that this is one poll at one moment, months before the election itself. It does, however, both mirror national polling showing a broad Biden lead and other state polls (like one from Wisconsin released on Tuesday which showed a similar Biden advantage). It also reflects the obvious differences in the race, like Biden’s relative popularity compared to Clinton.” Bump adds: “the new polls make clear why Trump’s team has been scrambling. Without a significant reversal, Trump will lose. Such a reversal is certainly possible — but it’s not inevitable.”

Some older, white Americans are moving off the Trump bandwagon

Alexander Burns and Katie Glueck report on this story in an article for The New York Times (https://nytimes.com/2020/06/28/us/politics/trump-approval-older-americans-coronavirus.html). Republican presidential candidates have won the elderly vote since the 2000 election, when Al Gore won a majority of this segment of the electorate. In 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton “by seven percentage points with voters over 65” and “won white seniors by nearly triple that margin.” But today, Burns and Glueck report, “Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden are tied among seniors, according to a poll of registered voters conducted by The New York Times and Siena College. And in the six most important battleground states, Mr. Biden has established a clear upper hand, leading Mr. Trump by six percentage points among the oldest voters and nearly matching the president’s support among whites in that age group.” This is a particularly important development, “given the prevalence of retirement communities in a few of those crucial states, including Arizona and Florida.”

What are the issues driving a growing number of elderly voters away from Trump? Burns and Glueck offer this summary. “The grievances of these defecting seniors are familiar, most or all of them shared by their younger peers. But these voters often express themselves with a particularly sharp kind of dismay and disappointment. They see Mr. Trump as coarse and disrespectful, divisive to his core and failing persistently to comport himself with the dignity of the other presidents that they have observed for more than half a century. The Times poll also found that most seniors disapproved of Mr. Trump’s handling of race relations and the protests after the death of George Floyd.” The Times/Siena poll also found “seniors in the battleground states disapproved of Mr. Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic by seven points, 52 percent to 45 percent. By a 26-point margin, this group said the federal government should prioritize containing the pandemic over reopening the economy.”

There are still some segments of the elderly electorate who support Trump. Burns and Glueck put it this way: “The abandonment of Mr. Trump by older voters is far from universal, and he still has a strong base among older white men and self-described conservatives. Nationally, the oldest voters approve of Mr. Trump’s handling of the economy by 12 points, more than double the figure for voters of all ages.” This could change because Trump and the Republicans are threatening parts of the social safety net that are particularly important to elderly people, that is, their efforts to privatize Social Security and have the Supreme Court strike down the Affordable Care Act. In the battleground states, “Mr. Trump has a 10-point lead over Mr. Biden with white men over the age of 65, even as Mr. Biden has opened up an advantage with white women in the same age group. Nonwhite seniors in the battleground states currently support Mr. Biden over Mr. Trump by a huge margin, 65 percent to 25 percent.” However, even among some of Trump’s elderly supporters, “there is an undercurrent of unease about the way he approaches the presidency.”

The economy is in bad shape

An Associated Press story on the economy, published in The New York Post, reports on the bad economic news confronting the country (https://nypost.com/2020/06/25/us-economy-shrank-5-percent-in-first-quarter-more-bad-news-ahead). According to government data, the AP reports that the US economy shrank at a 5 percent rate in the first quarter and “a vastly worse performance is expected in the current three-month period [second quarter], when the coronavirus pandemic began to spread across the US.” The report continues: “The first-quarter period captured just two weeks of the shutdowns that began in many parts of the country in mid-March. Economists believe that GDP has plunged around 30 percent from April through the end of this month [June]. That would be the biggest quarterly decline on record by a long shot: Three times bigger than a 10 percent drop in the first quarter of 1958.”

The declining economy is also reflected in the data on unemployment claims. Claire Hansen reports that About 1.5 million people filed for unemployment during the third week of June, the 14th straight week that unemployment claims have topped 1 million and an indicator that the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic will be slow. (https://usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2020-06-25/unemployment-claims-exceed-1-million-for-14th-straight-week). Overall, these claims have trended down from their peak of 6.9 million in March but remain far above pre-pandemic levels.

The National Bureau of Economic Research says that the US economy “officially entered a recession in February 2020, that is two consecutive months of negative “gross national product activity, “bringing the longest expansion on record to an end as the coronavirus pandemic caused economic activity to slow sharply” (https://nytimes.com/2020/06/08/business/economy/us-economy-recession-2020.html).

This is particularly bad news for Trump, since one of his principal claim is that he is responsible for  making the economy “great” – and that if the Democrats win in November all his good work will be undone with the “tax and spend” Democrats in power. And now, during the pandemic, he reminds voters of how well the overall economy was doing before the virus and how it will rebound before the end of 2020 under his self-identified  “stable genius” tutelage. Greg Sargent reports that there is still a majority of voters in six battleground states, 56 percent, who “approve of Trump’s handling of the economy…despite the economy being ‘mired in the worst recessions in nearly 100 years, and even as Trump and Republicans are resisting new economic rescue efforts amid widespread misery” (https://washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/06/25/trump-is-deep-trouble-new-polls-show-he-has-one-hidden-advantage). Sargent explains this persistent, though dubious view of Trump’s record as a businessman and the impact of his policies during the pandemic.

First, strategists have told Sargent, that there are “lingering perceptions of Trump as a competent businessman. He quotes Democratic pollster Jeffrey Pollock: “Voters have always been more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on the economy because of their false belief in his business acumen,” overlooking or being ignorant of his lifetime of economic failures.

Second, the economy did grow and unemployment did fall to low levels during the first three years of Trump presidency – the pre-coronavirus years.

Third, many voters see the spread of the coronavirus as the cause of the economic recession and don’t hold Trump personally responsible. This is based on mistaken reading of the causes and spread of the disease. Sargent is quick to point out that  “Trump’s catastrophic mismanagement of the coronavirus itself was a big reason the lockdowns were so severe.”

Fourth, Trump has continuously blamed China both for having unfair trade advantages with the US and for being the source of the now global coronavirus pandemic. However, Trump’s promise to bring good manufacturing jobs back from China to the US has not happened.

Sargent submits that, if the coronavirus pandemic and economic recession do not go away, attitudes on Trump’s economic policies will turn against the president. Nonetheless, the widely held attitudes that Trump is a good manager of the economy may persist unless Biden and the Democrats can run a campaign that disproves such contentions, do it in a way that ordinary Americans can understand it, and “unveil a plan that persuades American voters that they can control the coronavirus and simultaneously revive the economy.”

Part 2 – Can Trump and the Republicans steal the election?

Steadfast in support of the right-wing agenda

The response of Trump and his administration during these dark times is to double down on neoliberal policies that their corporate and rich backers want. Most prominently this is reflected in massive and ongoing deregulation of the executive branch agencies, the appointment of people with hard right-wing views to the cabinet and various decision-making positions in these agencies, the firing of agency attorney generals, and promises of new tax breaks and relief programs for their wealthy supporters. Amid it all, as reported by Justin Wise, the money continues piling up. In the first quarter of 2020, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee (RNC) raised $212 million, with $240 million in cash on hand (https://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/492454-trump-campaign-gop-raise-212-million-in-first-quarter). Wise reports that “the campaign says [it] is funding the largest ‘field program and date operation in the GOP’s history.” And Trump has resumed fundraising (https://apnnews.com/e418a369ac2d294c27a90ab89381fd1a).

Simultaneously, Trump also works his electoral base and various special interest groups  through his continuous twitters and media coverage, as he lauds the police, describes demonstrators for racial justice as anarchists, looters, radical socialists, escalates his anti-immigrant policies, and caters  to the interests of evangelicals, 2nd Amendment gun absolutists, white supremacists, and those who love the idea of an all-powerful military.

Rigging the electoral process

But Trump and his allies are taking no chances, as they continue and intensify a wholesale attack on the country’s voting systems, an attack that goes back to the country’s origin and subsequently with some moments of progress. Their aim is to limit the number of voters who are likely to vote for their political opponents. This history and recent efforts to limit the franchise, especially of African Americans, are analyzed in outstanding recent books, including Eric Foner’s The Second Foundation: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution, Carol Anderson’s One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy, and Gilda R. Daniels’ Uncounted: The Crisis of Voter Suppression in America. Here, I want to offer some examples of the Trump/Republican efforts to intensify the rigging of the system in their favor, strengthening and employing voter suppression mechanisms, along with examples of how voter suppression is being implemented now.

Voter suppression in 2020

In a reported titled “Block the Vote: Voter Suppression in 2020,” the ACLU identifies five long-established voter-suppression tactics that Republicans have supported with the goal of for limiting the vote wherever there are likely to be potentially anti-Republican majorities (https://aclu.org/news/civil-liberties/block-the-vote-voter-suppression-in-2020). The thrust of the report is laid out in the introduction: “Suppression efforts range from the seemingly unobstructed, like voter ID laws and cuts to early voting, to mass purges of voter rolls and systemic disenfranchisement. And long before election cycles even begin, legislators can redraw district lines that determine the weight of your vote. Certain communities are particularly susceptible to suppression and in some cases, outright targeted — people of color, students, the elderly, and people with disabilities.”

#1 Voter ID Laws – Thirty-six states have such laws and seven states have strict phot ID laws, “under which voters must present one of a limited set of forms of government-issued photo ID in order to cast a regular ballot – no exceptions. These strict ID laws are part of an ongoing strategy to suppress the vote, and it works. Voter ID laws have been estimated by the U.S. Government Accountability Office to reduce voter turnout by 2-3 percentage points, translating to tens of thousands of votes lost in a single state.” Also, “Over 21 million U.S. citizens do not have government-issued photo identification. That’s because ID cards aren’t always accessible for everyone. The ID itself can be costly, and even when IDs are free, applicants must incur other expenses to obtain the underlying documents that are needed to get an ID. This can be a significant burden on people in lower-income communities. Further, the travel required is an obstacle for people with disabilities, the elderly, and people living in rural areas.”

#2 Voter Registration RestrictionsAccording to the ACLU report this “is one of the most common forms of voter suppression.” Such laws “can include requiring documents to prove citizenship or identification, onerous penalties for voter registration drives or limiting the window of time in which voters can register.” Republicans “often use unfounded claims of voter fraud to try to justify registration restrictions.” For example, “In 2011, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach championed a law requiring Kansans to show ‘proof of citizenship’ documents in order to register to vote, citing false claims of noncitizen voting. Most people don’t carry the required documents on hand — like a passport, or a birth certificate — and as a result, the law blocked over 30,000 Kansans from voting. The ACLU sued and defeated the law in 2018.”

#3 Voter PurgesThe ACLU report affirms that “cleaning up voter rolls can be a responsible part of election administration because many people move, die, or become ineligible to vote for other reasons.” However, states sometimes “use this process as a method of mass disenfranchisement, purging eligible voters from rolls for illegitimate reasons or based on inaccurate data, and often without adequate notice to the voters. A single purge can stop up to hundreds of thousands of people from voting. Often, voters only learn they’ve been purged when they show up at the polls on Election Day.” A recent Brennan Center study “found that almost 16 million voters were purged from the rolls between 2014 and 2016, and that jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination — which are no longer subject to preclearance after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act — had significantly higher purge rates.” Most common, purges are used “to filter out voters who have changed their address, died, or have failed to vote in recent elections.” The report continues: “States often conduct such purges using inaccurate data, booting voters who don’t even fall under the targeted category. In 2016, Arkansas purged thousands of voters for so-called felony convictions, even though some of the voters had never been convicted of a felony at all. And in 2013, Virginia purged 39,000 voters based on data that was later found to have an error rate of up to 17 percent.”

#4 Felony DisenfranchisementSuch laws vary among the states. “Some ban voting only during incarceration. Some ban voting for life. Some ban people while on probation or parole; others ban people from voting only while incarcerated. And some states, like Maine and Vermont, don’t disenfranchise people with felony convictions at all. The fact that these laws vary so dramatically only adds to the overall confusion that voters face, which is a form of voter suppression in itself.” This type of voter suppression affects Black people disproportionately, due to racial biases in the criminal justice system. In Iowa where there is permanent disenfranchisement of persons with felony convictions, “an estimated one in four voting-age black men, do not have the vote.

#5 GerrymanderingHere is how it works. “Every 10 years, states redraw district lines based on population data gathered in the census. Legislators use these district lines to allocate representation in Congress and state legislatures. When redistricting is conducted properly, district lines are redrawn to reflect population changes and racial diversity. But too often, states use redistricting as a political tool to manipulate the outcome of elections. That’s called gerrymandering — a widespread, undemocratic practice that’s stifling the voice of millions of voters.” In their book, Gerrymandering in America: The House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, and the Future of Popular Sovereignty, Anthony J. McGann and his colleagues find that the partisan bias in congressional redistricting sharply increased in 2010, after the Supreme Court decision in Vieth v Jubelirer (2004). The decision gave greater discretion to state legislatures to carry out redistricting in ways that would favor one party over the other, and this is what happened in 2010 and continued to have an effect through the 20-teens. The outcome is that many Republicans in the US House of Representatives have won their seats in districts that have been politically created to ensure they are likely to have Republican majorities.

Recent elections in some states reveal the fragility of their voting systems

 On June 28, The New York Times reports that 46 states and the District of Columbia have “completed primary elections or party caucuses, facing the large challenge not just of voting during a pandemic, but also of voting by mail in record numbers” (https://nytimes.com/2020/06/28/world/coronavirus-updates.html).What is more, “many states had just weeks to scrap decades of in-person voting habits for voting by mail.” Through it all, and despite some debacles, “votes have been counted and winners chosen largely without incident.” However, the challenges will be much greater in November. For one, “in some areas, elections boards are already short of cash.” Two, “Postal and election workers overwhelmed by 55 million-plus primary-election voters now face triple that turnout in November.” Three, “States must recruit armies of poll workers to replace older ones deterred from working because of the virus — nearly six in 10 poll workers were 61 or older in 2018, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center.” Four, “election offices will have to process millions of ballots packed in millions more specialty envelopes — which only a handful of companies are capable of printing.” Five, there only have to be a few hitches driving the vote count down in a few crucial states to make a difference in the presidential outcome.

These systems are shaky not only because of current challenges but also because political parties and politicians, especially on the Republican side, have made them so. Given this context, I want to focus on some worrisome recent examples of voter suppression.

Recent examples of flawed elections, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic

There were seven candidates for the US Senate in the Georgia’s Democratic primary election, with three topping the slate. They included Jon Ossoff , who won the primary for U.S. Senate in Georgia outright on June 9, 2020, having received more than 50% of the vote, Sarah Riggs Amico, and Teresa Tomlinson

(https://ballotpedia.org/United_States_Senate_election_in_Georgia_2020_(June_9_Democratic_primary). The main point, though, is that, as Amie Parnes reported on the Georgia primary for The Hill, “voters waited in hours-long lines, voting machines malfunctioned and election site workers were ill-equipped to handle problems‚ often in communities where large populations of black voters reside” (https://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/502535-democratic-fears-grow-over-2020-voter-suppression). Parnes quotes Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate who is founder of Fair Fight, as follows:

“We should absolutely be concerned about voter suppression and its impact on November’s election,” Abrams said in a statement to The Hill, adding that Democrats “should turn that concern into action through robust voter protection operations, voter education, advocacy campaigns and litigation. Georgia’s primary was an unmitigated disaster, but the solutions are not difficult,” Abrams said. “We need more resources and better training of poll workers and county officials.”

Author and investigative journalist David Daley describes the Georgia primary as a “voting fiasco” and a warning of what may await voters in November (https://theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/11/georgia-election-chaos-november). He writes that in six rural counties new voting machines “didn’t function.” And, additionally, there were an “insufficient number of paper ballots” and precincts “were understaffed and many poll workers lacked sufficient training.” There is more. “In many minority communities the lines were nearly seven-hours long, while voting was a breeze in white, wealthier suburbs.” Indeed, more than “200 precincts across Georgia, disproportionately in minority counties, have been ordered closed since Roberts and the US supreme court” made their decision in 2013in Shelby County v. Holder. The decision “cast aside protections that had prevented states and localities with a history of racial prejudice in voting laws from remaking their electoral rules without federal oversight.”

While the in-person voting options were selectively problem-ridden, “Georgia’s expanded vote-by-mail system melted down, forcing tens of thousands of voters who requested, but never received, absentee ballots to either join these long line” or give up on voting.” “In Georgia, while the secretary of state did take the proactive step of sending registered voters a vote-by-mail absentee application, tens of thousands of ballots did not land in mailboxes on time. Just as bad, the former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams said she received a return envelope that was already sealed. Situations like these forced voters to don masks, find an open precinct, then brave the long lines.”

Daley points out that the problems in Georgia “also occurred in “Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and many other crucial states.” He writes: “Many of the problems we face involve intentional voter suppression, such as the surgically focused voter ID bills, precinct closures and voter roll purges (all of which disproportionately target minority voters), which Roberts’ ruling in Shelby Counter v. Holder  turbocharged across conservative states nationwide. Other issues relate to the coronavirus pandemic, which has slashed the number of willing poll workers and forced even deeper reductions in the number of in-person voting precincts. During Wisconsin’s April elections, only five of 180 precincts could be opened in Milwaukee. Add to all of this the usual underfunding, poor planning and ineptitude.” On a Democracy Now program, aired online on June 23, Cliff Albright was the guest. He is co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter. In the interview, the problem of long lines at the polls in New York, Kentucky, and Virginia, were highlighted. For example, “even as President Trump continues to attack mail-in voting, falsely claiming it leads to fraud, Kentucky had “slashed the number of polling places from 3,700 to just 170 – a 95% reduction” (https://www.democracynow.org/2020/06/23/new_york_kentucky_virginia_primaries).

The problems in Wisconsin were compounded by “an unprecedented increase in absentee ballot requests [that] flooded underfunded election boards.” Daley continues: “Undelivered ballots stacked up in post offices statewide.” In Washington DC voters “also complained that they asked for absentee ballots that never arrived, pushing them into long lines during a pandemic and civil unrest.” Officials in Pennsylvania “are still counting ballots from last week’s primary in which 70% of voters opted to vote by mail, folded ballots snarled some optical scanners, and state law prohibits election officials from tallying results before election day.”

As desire for mail-in ballots is rising partly as a result of the pandemic, Daily is concerned that state election systems may “fall apart” in November, given the many potential and already institutionalized obstacles that exist. He gives the following examples. “State laws requiring too many lengthy steps before voters receive an absentee ballot.” Many election boards are underfunded and overwhelmed. The US postal service is “on the brink of bankruptcy.” There is a “dire shortage of poll workers due to the pandemic” and a “shortage of in-person precincts because, due to Covid-19, senior citizen centers and schools are unsafe gathering spots for voting.”

With an expected “crush of absentee ballots arriving after election day,” there is, Daley writes, likely to be a raft of disputed vote counts and lawsuits. For example, in swing states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, “officials can’t start counting before election day, delaying results for a week.” The confusion is increased by a “mistrustful nation already on edge after a decade of advanced Republican voter-suppression techniques, and a president willing to amplify false claims about voter fraud on Twitter.” And, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic shows no sign of going away and “could force voters to choose between the health of themselves and loved ones, and their right to vote.” All of this could lead to “a disputed election that lands before a 5-4 US supreme court that looks increasingly political and unfriendly to voting rights.”

Daley concludes with this thought. “What’s intentional and what’s incompetence? It doesn’t matter. It all suppresses the vote. it all makes our elections less fair and less free.”

In a long article for the Guardian magazine, Sam Levine covers much of the same ground as David Daley and anticipates how what happened in Georgia and some other states may prevent “a fair and competent presidential vote in November” ((https://theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/12/us-presidential-election-fiasco-voter-suppression). Here is some of what writes.

Levine cites a report by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights that found  more “[m]ore than 1,600 polling places in jurisdictions previously covered by the Voting Rights Act were closed [across the country] between 2012 and 2018, including 214 polling places in Georgia.” He quotes, among others, Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which “has closely monitored the primaries” and found, in some parts of the country, “it feels like officials are making reckless decisions that are a recipe for disaster.” As noted earlier in this post, there have been concerns about mass disenfranchisement even before COVID-19, and “Donald Trump was already making repeated baseless accusations of voter fraud in what appears to be an effort to lay the foundation for contesting the legitimacy of the 2020 election.” He quotes Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida, who studies elections. McDonald refers to “an unprecedented Republican effort to monitor the polls and challenge the eligibility of voters who appear, something that could result in voter intimidation. The Republican National Committee, freed from a decades-old court order prohibiting them from such activity, is seeking to recruit up to 50,000 volunteers.”

Levine has other examples of how Republicans are heightening their voter suppression efforts.

“Recommended deadlines for purchasing necessary equipment and other measures are approaching and in some cases have already passed. Republicans in Congress have also scaled back funding to help states run elections, allocating just $400m so far, a small fraction of the billions experts say is needed. The Republican National Committee also plans to spend at least $20m to oppose efforts to expand vote by mail. In Georgia, Brad Raffensperger, the state’s top election official, refused to acknowledge systemic problems in the way the election was run this week, instead blaming local election officials. In Iowa, Republicans are considering legislation that would prohibit the secretary of state, Paul Pate, from sending absentee ballot applications to all voters, something Pate, a Republican, did ahead of the state’s June primary when there was record turnout. Ohio Republicans are also considering legislation that would bar the state’s top election official from paying for postage on absentee ballot requests and the ballots themselves.”

What to do?

There is no paucity of recommended solutions to the Trump/Republican political assaults on US democracy.

The ACLU refers to a few solutions that seem simple enough on paper but may not be so easy to implement in practice. Nonetheless, here is what the organization recommends. “States can enact measures to encourage rather than suppress voting. Automatic, online, and same-day voter registration encourage participation and reduce chances of error. Early voting helps people with travel or accessibility concerns participate. And states must enforce the protections of the Voting Rights Act. At an individual level, the best way to fight voter suppression is to vote. Here’s how to ensure your vote is protected: Tell your senators to pass the VRAA [Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019], which would reinstate critical protections against voter suppression left behind after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Know Your Rights before you get to the polling booth. The ACLU has also published  a guide on what to do if you face registration issues, need disability or language accommodations, or come across someone who’s interfering with your right to vote (https://aclu.org/news/civil-liberties/block-the-voter-suppression-in-2020).

Gilda R. Daniels closes her book, Uncounted: The Crisis of Voter Suppression in America, with proposals for making the electoral system fair and inclusive. She posits that the US needs a “right to vote amendment” to the Constitution, needs to  “undertake massive civic education programs and stress civic engagement,” needs to eliminate “restrictive voting precincts,” needs to hold elections on a “national holiday,” and needs to  facilitate voter registration through “automatic voter registration” and  “same-day voter registration.”

Beyond these measures, states should ideally prepare to make in-person voting safe and mail-in balloting a reliable and effective option, and the US Congress should take steps to reverse the Citizen’s United decision by the Supreme Court and thereby reduce the amount of corporate and special-interest money that does so much to corrupt the US political system.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What kind of jobs? Who will decide?

Introduction

This post focuses on the federal government’s employment reports and the problems of the underlying data. They highlight “unemployment,” which is only a small part of the problem of inaccessibility to adequate jobs. They fail to describe the poor conditions of many jobs, which have been worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic (working in unsafe job situations) and the resulting overall economic decline. This post also refers to how more and more workers cannot or have increasing difficulty in acquiring enough food, housing, and healthcare. Trump’s policies have compounded the employment and economic plight of many millions of Americans. His promise to bring back good manufacturing jobs to the country have failed. There is also in this post references to a number of proposals on how the “employment” problem can be “solved,” but only if voters defeat Trump and the Republicans in November and if conditions then compel Democrats to adopt a more radical agenda than they have.

The Latest employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics seemed very positive

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides monthly reports on the US labor force situation and is the most authoritative source of such information. The most recent report, released on June 5, 2020, is for “May ( https://bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm). The labor force includes the employed and unemployed. Those 16 and above who do not fall into these categories are considered outside the labor force, even though they may want a job now. The employed, unemployed, and non-labor-force participants make up the “civilian non-institutional population” (https://thebalance.com/labor-force-participation-rate-formula-and-examples-3305805).

Contrary to the expectations of many economists and journalists who anticipated a further decrease in overall employment and another increase in unemployment, “total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 2.5 million in May (from mid-April to mid-May), and the unemployment rate declined to 13.3 percent from the previous month’s rate of 14.7 percent. Trump and his administration were ecstatic about the news and a pro-Trump political ads began appearing on commercial television channels lauding how the president’s policies are responsible for the turnaround and how the economy is about to move back to the high employment and low unemployment levels of February, before the Covid-19 outbreak, when the unemployment rate was 3.5 percent and the number of unemployed was at 5.8 million. Trump takes these numbers very seriously and believes his reelection next November depends on how well the economy is or is not doing.

Not so good after all

Wait! There is a hitch in the BLS numbers. The May employment number from the BLS includes a mistake by the agency in mis-classifying some workers as employed when they were not employed. Here is how the BLS states the problem: “If the workers who were recorded as employed but absent from work due to “other reasons” (over and above the number absent for other reasons in a typical May) had been classified as unemployed on temporary layoff, the overall unemployment rate would have been about 3 percentage points higher than reported (on a seasonally adjusted basis).”

Now if these 3 percentage points are added to the reported 13.3 unemployment rate, the unemployment rate jumps to 16.3 percent. In a labor force of 158.23 people, the number of unemployed at 13.3 percent is about 21 million, while at 16.3 percent it is 25.8 million, a difference of almost 5 million. This nullifies the reported rise of 2.5 million jobs. Still, both numbers are high. Either at 13.3 percent or 16.3 percent, the unemployment rate is higher now than it was during the Great Recession in 2007-2009, which topped off at 9.2 percent in December 2009.

A closer look at the data and some implications

It is useful to consider the data more closely in order to get a better understanding of the true employment situation. I have addressed the issue of the availability and the conditions of employment before in a blog on June 6, 2018 (see “What kind of jobs?).

In the BLS system, employment is narrowly identified as follows. “In the household survey, individuals are classified as employed, unemployed, or not in the labor force based on their answers to a series of questions about their activities during the survey reference week (May 10th through May 16th).” To be classified as employed, a person needs to have been employed over the previous four weeks for as little as one hour in a paid job or working for a family business if unpaid or temporarily absent from work for certain specified reasons (e.g., vacation). Kimberly Amadeo further clarifies what it means to be employed.

“For employment statistics, the BLS includes anyone 16 or older who worked any hours during the past week. They can be paid employees or self-employed. They can be unpaid workers in a family-owned business as long as they worked at least 15 hours a week. The BLS also includes people who didn’t work during the week if they were temporarily absent due to vacation, illness, or other reasons” (https://www.thebalance.com/what-is-unemployment-3306222).

To be classified as unemployed, a person had to be “actively” looking for work during the four weeks prior to the survey and to be currently available for work, including those who are on temporary layoff and expect to be called back to that job. If a person does not have a job and has not recently looked for job, then she/he is, by BLS definitions, outside the labor force. In May 2020, there were 101,820,000 persons classified as non-participants in the labor force. Amadeo provides some insight for why so many people 16 years of age and older are not considered to be in the labor force. Note that this does not mean they do not want or need a paid job.

“People who would like to work but haven’t actively looked for it in the last month are not counted as being in the labor force no matter how much they want a job. But they are counted in the population. [the civilian, non-institutional population]

“The BLS does keep track of them. It calls some of them ‘marginally attached to the labor force.’ These are people who have looked in the past year but just not in the previous month. They might have had school or family responsibilities, ill health, or transportation problems that prevented them from looking recently.

“The BLS calls some of the marginally attached, ‘discouraged workers.’ These people have reported that they’ve given up looking for work because they don’t believe there are any jobs for them. Others have become discouraged because they lack the right schooling or training. They worry that the potential employer thinks they are too young or too old. Some have suffered discrimination. They are counted in the real unemployment rate.”

The key point is that there are some millions of people outside of the labor force who are potentially available for and desirous of paid employment. They may be deterred because  of their previous job searches failed, because of their advanced age, because they are ill, because they are a full-time students, because they have young children or sick parents to care for and they can’t afford to buy such care, because they have a drug addiction, because of a lack of transportation, or because the wages of available jobs are insufficient to pay for necessities. In addition, those who are in the military, federal jobs, incarcerated, in mental health institutions, nursing homes, or other institutions are not included in the BLS calculations.

The number of low-wage workers

Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman have carried out extensive research on low-wage workers. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, they identified 53 million people in 373 metropolitan areas as low-wage workers, that is workers with less than a median hourly wage of $10.22 or, for those who work full-time, year-round, a median annual earnings of about $24,000. Depending on the region, “between 30% and 62% of all workers earn low wages, with median hourly wages ranging from $8.40 to $12.65.” They break their data down by region (https://brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2020/03/19/covid-19-puts-america-low-wage-workforce-in-an-even-worse-position).

The largest metropolitan areas have the highest absolute numbers of low-wage workers. They refer to the Los Angeles region, where 53% of the workforce are in the low-wage category, including 500,000 retail workers, cooks, and food servers. Smaller regions have smaller numbers, “but those numbers are still substantial within the context of the local economy. For example: “Among regions with populations between 500,000 and 1 million, for example, low-wage workers make up between 35% and 56% of the total workforce. In Albuquerque, N.M., that translates into 155,000 people, including 13,000 retail workers and 17,000 cooks and food servers. In Akron, Ohio—a region with a more industrial economic base and a whiter, older population—there are 111,000 low-wage workers, including 10,000 in retail and 13,000 cooks and food servers.” The in “midsized metro areas with populations between 250,000 and 500,000, low-wage workers make up 37% to 58% of all workers. They refer to two examples. “In Norwich, Conn., 37% of workers (41,000 total people) earn low hourly wages, and nearly 10,000 of them are in retail or food service jobs. On the other side of the country in Eugene, Ore., there are 67,000 low-wage workers, including 7,000 food service workers and 6,000 retail workers.” The pandemic has increased the low-wage worker population, seriously impacting everywhere restaurants, cruise lines, and hotels.

Not only low-wage workers

An example: State and local government unemployment keeps climbing

Adam Mazmanian reports that state and local government unemployment has been rising during the Covid-19 inflicted economic crisis (https://gcn.com/articles/2020/06/08/state-and-local-unemployment.aspx). Citing BLS data, he writes that the state and local government sectors of the economy shed 571,000 jobs in May, with over 300,000 cutbacks in education and about 200,000 in other public-sector jobs. This is on top of the “approximately 1 million public sector jobs shed in April. There can be no economic recovery without a strong government sector.

Economic Policy Institute Josh Bivens and David Cooper puts the issue report on their research that, if policymakers in Washington do nothing at the federal level to address the shrinking of the state and local government workforce, there will be 5.2 million fewer of these workers by the end of 2021 (https://www.epi.org/blog/without-federal-aid-to-state-and-local-governments-5-3-million-workers-will-likely-lose-their-jobs-by-the-end-of-2021). Here I’ll quote their article at length.

“Because a weakening economy undercuts state and local tax revenues, and because states operate under balanced budget constraints, the coming months will see intense downward pressure on state and local spending. Reductions in this spending will in turn significantly slow recovery from the current economic crisis. This is not an abstract concern—the historically slow recovery in state and local spending following the Great Recession by itself delayed a recovery in unemployment to pre-crisis levels by four full years.

“Recent estimates indicate that state and local governments will face a shortfall approaching $1 trillion between now and the end of 2021. The methodology behind this estimate is straightforward: High-quality research shows that each one percentage point rise in the unemployment rate leads to a budget shortfall for state governments of $45 billion. Given that local government revenues are nearly two-thirds as large as state revenues, a conservative adjustment would imply that each percentage point increase in the unemployment rate increases state and local budgets shortfalls by $70 billion. With these estimates in hand, researchers have compared the forecasted path of unemployment rates over the next seven quarters and multiplied the excess of forecasted unemployment over the first quarter unemployment rate (3.8%) by this $70 billion.

“If this $1 trillion shortfall is not filled in by the end of 2021, then state and local government spending would be roughly $430 billion lower at the end of 2020, and $570 billion lower at the end of 2021. Each dollar in state and local spending cuts triggers a multiplier effect as governments end contracts with local businesses and public-sector employees see income drops and, in turn, pull back on their consumption spending. After accounting for these ripple effects, the shortfall in public spending will lead to losses in overall gross domestic product (GDP) of just under $800 billion by the end of 2021. This $800 billion represents about 3.7% of forecasted GDP by the end of 2021.”

Trump and the Senate Republicans have so far been unwilling to support financial relief to state and local governments. If they don’t and if the estimates of the financial deficits are correct, the massive layoffs of government workers will have a devastating effect on vital city services, from sanitation, to education, libraries, public transportation, social services, police, and more.

The conditions of work

The BLS data do not consider the conditions of work. There are millions of people who are employed but, as already pointed out, in jobs that do not provide a minimally adequate wage or security. And millions of workers are employed in working conditions that are hazardous, in jobs without overtime pay, or medical benefits, or medical benefits that are affordable, without paid leave for sickness or the birth and caring for newborns, and with no or few paid vacation days. African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, undocumented workers, women are more affected by these conditions than others. Given employment trends, the overall jobs’ situation, pre-coronavirus, now and in the future, are not rosy, as Trump and his allies keep proclaiming.

As state officials open their economies, many work places are  not safe from Covid-19 spread

 Tony Romm and Jacob Bogage take up this point, writing: “As millions of Americans return to work amid the worst economic crisis in a generation, they’re unexpectedly discovering their old positions are far more burdensome than they used to be. Their hours have been cut, their pay has been slashed and their responsibilities are now magnitudes greater. And their job security — despite President Trump’s recent proclamations about an economy on the mend — remains anything but guaranteed.” Even those who remained employed through the first phases of the pandemic, many are anxious about their future job security and health safety (https://washingtonpost.com/business/2020/06/06/workers-pay-cuts-coronavirus).

The authors quote Robert Scott, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute: “People are coming back to work in jobs that are very different than they were three months ago. They’re very risky and there’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s to come. There’s a rocky road ahead, and a lot of work on the economy left to be done.” Nick Bunker, the economic research director for the job-listing site Indeed, says “there was a higher-than-expected spike in part-time employment, one of a few indicators that “suggests there has not been a full return to work” for some people.” Further, according to Bunker, “the highest rate of job growth has occurred within the lowest-wage industries, including some food and beverage stores, raising questions about the extent to which some Americans may be falling behind financially.” Romm and Bogage refer to a “report prepared by the Federal Reserve System, called the Beige Book, [which] found in its May release that sharp reductions to hours and wages have troubled employees nationwide.”

They include many specific examples of changed workplaces and point out that the “effects of the economic downturn are far more widespread, leaving virtually no industry untouched in the broader U.S. economy.” For example: “Restaurant servers, bartenders and other workers who rely on a steady stream of customers — and often the tips they leave — have been disproportionately affected by a pandemic that is spread by social proximity. So too has the coronavirus decimated the retail sector, as online purchases cut into some major brands’ in-store revenue. Some major employers, including J.Crew and J.C. Penney, have fallen into bankruptcy, and others have slashed their workforce, cut the hours of those they keep on staff or changed their job responsibilities entirely. Even hospitals “have placed doctors and support staff on irregular shifts, seeking to save money at a moment of sky-high expenses, threatening some in the medical industry with gaps in their pay. [And] Gig-economy companies including Uber that once offered the promise of a little extra monthly income no longer seem particularly alluring to some Americans, threatening to expose drivers and other workers to strangers who may be sick. Some Uber drivers still on the ride-hailing app say the demand has declined dramatically.”

They allude to the conditions at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami, where before the pandemic “roughly 70 people previously helped clean the tower where Iracema Arrieta has served as a housekeeper.” Now, “fewer than half of them have returned to the job since the coronavirus struck, she said, even though Arrieta and her peers must now do systematic, deeper cleanings of rooms to prevent the spread of the disease. The work is harder, and the cleaning solution sometimes makes it difficult to breathe, she said. Plus, the tips are much less than they used to be, leaving Arrieta to conclude that the state rushed to reopen.”

The Failure of OSHA to protect workers on the job

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was created by Congress in 1970 by legislation titled the “Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.” Its mission, according to the OSHA website, is “to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training outreach, education and assistance”(https://osha.gov/aboutosha). The act applies to “most private sector employers and their workers, in addition to some public sector employers and workers in the 50 states and certain territories and jurisdictions under federal authority.” OSHA is a part of the US Department of Labor. According to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, “The agency is also charged with enforcing a variety of whistleblower statutes and regulations” (https://en/wikipedia.org/wiki/Occupational_Safety_and_Health_Administration).

While OSHA has had some positive effects over the years; for example, in reducing workplace injuries, it has also been criticized for having too few inspectors, for inspecting too few workplaces annually, for its unwillingness to impose serious penalties on employers who violate the law. This pattern of weak enforcement is also revealed, according to Emily Schwing, in “how OSHA has failed to protect America’s workers from COVID-19” (https://revealnews.org/article/how-osha-has-failed-to-protect-americas-workers-from-covid-19).

The thrust of her article is captured in her opening sentence: “As front-line workers, from emergency room staff to grocery store clerks, face an elevated risk of contracting COVID-19, they have little in the way of regulatory protections to fall back on. Democrats’ efforts to move worker protections through Congress have so far been stymied, and a regulatory process launched by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to mandate protections from infectious disease exposure was back-burned by the Trump administration. Currently, there are no OSHA standards to deal with COVID-19. The three federal government coronavirus bills that have been passed, “including the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act – or the CARES Act – also failed to include any mandated worker protections.” House Democrats introduced relevant provisions, but they were “removed during negotiations with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Senate Republicans as the measure headed into the Senate.

Schwing reports the opposition to such a standard, an infectious disease standard, was “largely due to lobbying efforts by the American Hospital Association, which spent more than $26 million on lobbying in 2019.” She continues: “The trade group fought similar regulation efforts under the Obama administration, congressional staffers and workers’ rights advocates recall. In comments on the provision to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as well as in a March 12 action alert issued to the association’s member hospitals, the group argued that enforcement would be too costly for hospitals and that complying with a new standard amid a severe respirator shortage might limit hospitals’ ability to adequately provide care to sick patients.” 

In the meantime, OSHA has done nothing to ensure that CDC coronavirus safety guidelines are being implemented in workplaces. According to one of Schwing’s sources, Angelo Cucuzza, a former American airlines employee who is now a senior staffer at the Transport Workers Union, the “regulatory failure has put subway, airline and even bikeshare workers” at risk. Cucuzza’s views come from first-hand experience. He told Schwing that Bottom of Form”he spent much of the last week [the first week of April] in New York City, Jersey City and Philadelphia distributing surgical masks to union members who work for airlines and railroads.” And: “We are trying desperately to procure wipes, gloves and hand sanitizer by next week,” he said.

He said roughly 95% of workers the union represents are deemed essential, and said:  “We have to start paying attention to the amount of front-line transit workers getting sick,  arguing that as the coronavirus continues to spread, government officials either need to mandate new worker protections or start shutting down transportation systems.” Most employers will not act voluntarily to protect workers.

Without a mandate, Cucuzza said, it’s unlikely most employers will voluntarily act to protect workers. This week, Washington state’s Department of Transportation announced that a ferry ticket seller had died of complications from COVID-19. Washington does not require all ferry workers to wear gloves, and the Department of Transportation doesn’t require any of its employees to wear masks. And OSHA is ineffective. According to one OSHA area office director, “As an organization, all OSHA can do is contact an employer and send an advisory letter outlining the recommended protective measures.” Debbie Berkowitz, “a former OSHA official who is now the worker health and safety program director for the National Employment Law Project,” summed up the situation: “There is no mandate to protect workers anywhere. There could have been a standard. No one realizes how weak worker safety protections really are.”

The Trump administration wants “essential” workers to go to work regardless of unsafe conditions

Kathy Wilkes reports on this aspect of workplace unsafety (https://popularresistance.org/the-right-to-refuse-unsafe-work-is-more-important-than-ever).  She writes: “Some states at the direction of the Labor Department threaten termination of unemployment benefits for workers fearing return to dangerous jobs. A disturbing June 5 New York Times’ report reveals how far those machinations have gone. The result: workers who refuse to return to unsafe workplaces (e.g., meat processing plants) will be either fired without pay or benefits or trapped in a job where the chances of contacting the COVID-19 virus is high. Thus, the choice is between falling into poverty or being exposed to and possibly contacting the disease – and dying.

This is happening despite an OSHA regulation promulgated by the agency in 1980. Wilkes includes the following excerpt from the regulation.

Your right to refuse to do a task is protected if all of the following conditions are met:

Where possible, you have asked the employer to eliminate the danger, and the employer failed to do so; and

You refused to work in “good faith.” This means that you must genuinely believe that an imminent danger exists; and

A reasonable person would agree that there is a real danger of death or serious injury; and

There isn’t enough time, due to the urgency of the hazard, to get it corrected through regular enforcement channels, such as requesting an OSHA inspection

 As noted, OSHA does little to enforce this rule. Wilkes refers to what a number of authorities have had to say on this point. (1) “‘That’s one of the reasons why we’re seeing catastrophic results in meatpacking plants, at Amazon warehouses, in transit systems, in other workplaces,’ former deputy Labor Department secretary Seth Harris said on MSNBC Live. ‘The cop is not on the beat.’”OSHA’s updated policy expands field staff’s “discretion” in some cases.” (2)  “Not good enough, says the AFL-CIO, which is suing to compel immediate intervention in the face of “grave danger.”(3) “Ironically, these harsh realities reinforce workers’ ‘right to refuse.’ In a blistering April 7 article for Politico, former OSHA administrator David Michaels said the agency ‘is suffering from malign neglect’ under Trump, sparking worker job actions and strikes ‘to force their employers into providing even basic protections.’”

However, in the context of weak labor law or weakly enforced labor law, workers are increasingly put in a situation where they get little assistance from the Trump-dominated National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)or from state workers’ compensation laws. This means that, if they decide not to enter an unsafe workplace, they lose their wages and benefits (e.g., any health coverage they may have). If they do enter such workplaces and get infected with the COVID-19 virus, they are unlikely – or it will take months –  to get any benefit from the state worker compensation boards.

All is not lost. Wilkes elaborates on these points and notes that even Trump’s NLRB agrees that “‘participating in a concerted refusal to work in unsafe conditions’ is protected.” The National Employment Law Project takes the position that “workers whose employers don’t offer safe job assignments should be eligible for unemployment insurance.” She adds: “Contracting COVID-19 on the job may be covered by state workers’ compensation laws that generally require employer-provided insurance for disability pay and health care and also prohibit retaliation for pursuing or getting these benefits.” But, as already noted, these backup legal supports are often subverted and workers will often need legal assistance. “As with almost every worker right, there are exclusions, caveats and case law that impact their interpretation and application. Advice: Get the facts, recruit co-workers if possible, expect a fight,” because you can expect that employers can “refuse to mitigate dangers, challenge claims or fire workers taking a stand, precipitating more battles over reinstatement and compensation.

 Long-term care facilities are pandemic hotspots

Steven Reinberg reports on this deeply disturbing COVID-19 problem (https://webmed.com/lung/news/20200605/nursing-homes-a-hotspot-for-covid-19-deaths). She gives examples of this grim problem from “a new study” that appeared in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (June 5, 2020). “By the end of May, the proportion of COVID-19 deaths in Massachusetts from nursing homes and group homes jumped from 54% to 63%, researchers report.” “In other states, the proportion of deaths occurring in long-term care facilities is even higher. In Minnesota and Rhode Island, the figure rose to 81%. Meanwhile, proportions jumped to 71% in Connecticut and to 70% in New Hampshire. Among another 22 states studied, 50% of the COVID-19 deaths occurred in long-term care facilities.”

But the problem goes beyond just a few states. There are some states that do not report COVID-19 deaths in long-term facilities. There is still the lack of testing for the virus in many, if not most, facilities. And there is the continuing issue of “asymptomatic spread of this virus,” stemming from the fact the essential staff in such facilities “go from nursing home to nursing home, like X-ray technicians, phlebotomists, nurses and nursing assistants who have to work more than one jobs to make ends meet.” At a minimum, there is a need for regular testing. But the long-term care industry, largely run by for-profit companies, is in need of major changes that involve better compensation of core staff and more comprehensive efforts to make the facilities safe, the unionization of non-supervisory workers, and much better government regulation and enforcement.

Cannot acquire necessities

Access to food becomes a more serious problem amidst the pandemic

In one of his weekly columns for The New York Times, economic Paul Krugman addresses this aspect of the economic deprivation afflicting so many Americans with the title “An Epidemic of Hardship and Hunger” (https://nytimes.com/2020/05/07/opinion/coronavirus-republicans-jobs.html). His main argument is that Republicans in Washington are the principal cause of why the US Congress not only doing little to assist the food needs of millions of Americans but actively obstructing any attempts by Congressional Democrats to do so. They don’t want to extend “enhanced unemployment benefits,” and, Krugman writes, they “apparently want to return to a situation in which most unemployed workers get no benefits at all.” Among the many other difficulties, the problem of food security has increased during the pandemic. He refers to one recent survey that found 41 percent of families with children under twelve “are already unable to afford enough to eat.” This is reflected in overwhelmed Food banks, “with lines sometimes a mile long.”

While all this is unfolding, “Republicans are still trying to make food stamps harder to get, and fiercely oppose proposals to temporarily make food aid more generous.” Republicans often justify their opposition to increasing such aid by referring to the growing national debt or to how government aid undermines the willingness of people to seek employment. Krugman notes the hypocrisy of such rationalization. They “didn’t complain when the huge tax cut in 2017 added billions of dollars to the national debt. And there is no evidence that “food stamps and unemployment benefits reduce the incentive to seek work,” as Republicans often claim to justify cutbacks in the social safety net.

Krugman draws the following all too obvious implication. “But we’re only now starting to get a sense of the Republican Party’s cruelty toward the economic victims of the coronavirus. In the face of what amounts to a vast natural disaster, you might have expected conservatives to break, at least temporarily, with their traditional opposition to helping fellow citizens in need. But no; they’re as determined as ever to punish the poor and unlucky.” Rather, they want to “go back to business as usual and accept the resulting death toll,” and they don’t want to see the wrong precedents, that is, fearing that if the “help those in distress, even temporarily, many Americans might decide that a stronger safety need is a good thing in general

 The coronavirus pandemic is making the already existing US housing crisis even worse

This is the title of Isabel Solange Munoz’s article, published in The Conversation. She is an assistant professor of geography at the University of Tennessee

https://theconversation.com/the-coronavirus-pandemic-is-making-the-us-housing-crisis-even-worse-136025). With rising unemployment and so many low-wage jobs, and in the context of the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, millions of Americans “must scramble to figure out how to pay for that home.” She refers to a wide range of evidence.

“According to CNN, one-third of Americans did not pay rent this month.” “Many are now getting eviction notices, while others are organizing payment plans with their landlords. Even those tenants who successfully negotiate postponing their payments will eventually have to pay back what they owe.” “The stimulus bill recently passed by the U.S. Senate, as well as additional state and city moratoria on evictions and foreclosures, provide some temporary protections.” Munoz points out that the legislation “only really offer partial and temporary solutions, and others, like undocumented immigrants, many who have lived and worked in the U.S. for years are ineligible to receive aid.” Her most important reason is that actions by government “do not address the structural problems surrounding America’s decades-long housing crisis.”

The housing crisis has been exacerbated by rising housing and rent prices. “Housing prices have skyrocketed in many cities in the country.” At the same time, rent prices “have also continued to rise, increasing 150% since 2010.” One consequence is that even middle-class families have difficulty in finding affordable places to rent or purchase. Another is that nationally, “1 in 4 Americans now spend more than half of their monthly income on rent,” while “[a]nother 6 million are considered cost-burdened, meaning that they pay over 30% of their income on rent.” Yet another is that there has been “an increase in homelessness. Currently there are over 550,000 homeless estimated nationwide,” a number that is most likely to continue rising along with the climbing employment problems.

Munoz has also studied “low-income families “living in neighborhoods undergoing gentrification” in Denver, Colorado,  where “the pandemic is just another blow to an ongoing struggle to stay in their neighborhood and homes.” Her focus has been on the communities she calls Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, which are “home to approximately 12,000 residents, and almost 87% identify as Hispanic or Latino. The majority of residents earn less than $25,000 a year, with many working in the service and health industries and in construction.”

Denver’s fast-growing housing market and urban redevelopment are making it increasingly hard for these residents to remain in their neighborhood. Many have already been forcibly displaced. One of Munoz’s chief findings: “Without employment and unable to pay rent or mortgage payments, an already cost-burdened community may finally succumb to their struggle against gentrification.” When they are displaced, it “usually means being forced to move to areas and homes that are often unhealthier, poorer quality and far away from city resources and community networks and support.” She continues: “Children are often forced to go to other schools, and parents must commute longer distances to jobs and services.” All these disruptions contribute  “to greater inequality, greater social and economic insecurity and can undermine social cohesion, to name only a few.”

Even if they have received temporary relief under some of the temporary federal programs instituted in April and May by the federal government, “it is hard to imagine how families that already pay between 30% and 50% of their salary on rent will be able to pay off any debts when relief programs expire.” She fears that “many of these Americans will end up on the streets, in motel rooms or isolated in neighborhoods with poor-quality housing, far away from community, schools, jobs and other services and resources.”

The lack of healthcare coverage, made worse by the pandemic

Julia Conley, staff writer for Common Dreams, reports on a new report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and the Urban Institute (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/05/10/next-crisis-43-million-americans-could-lose-health-insurance-due-to-pandemic). The analysts “project that 43 million Americans could lose their insurance when the unemployment rate hits 20%. When they study was completed in mid-May, the BLS reported an unemployment rate of 13.3 percent through mid-May, though some “economists estimate between 19% and 23.6% of Americans would actually be out of a job by the end of May.

According to Conley, “the Economic Policy Institute estimated that 12.7 million people had already lost their employer-based health insurance.” They joined the “more than 27 million Americans who were uninsured before the pandemic.” Conley additionally reports: “Of the Americans who lose insurance due to layoffs or furloughs, RWJF and the Urban Institute, an estimated seven million will remain uninsured—unable to access healthcare through Medicaid or COBRA, the law which allows Americans to pay for the health insurance they had through their previous employer—which can cost hundreds of dollars per month for individual coverage.”

Even before the pandemic, low-workers and many with higher wages, did not have a job-connected health-care benefit. And, with the unfolding and deepening economic recession, the number of uninsured Americans will go up and, in the absence of healthcare, their risks of contacting and spreading the virus will also rise.

In response, Democrats in the US House of Representatives advanced an emergency expansion of Medicare and Medicaid in late March. Jessica Corbett reports that “over 30 House Democrats came together to introduce legislation that would guarantee healthcare coverage to all Americans during the coronavirus pandemic,” estimating that “35 million people could end up uninsured due to the public health crisis.” The title of the bill is “the Medicare Crisis Program Act.” Bernie Sanders had unveiled a similar bill in the Senate (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/05/01/millions-stripped-health-coverage-amid-covid-19-house-dems-unveil-bill-emergency).

The House bill would “‘dramatically expand’ Medicare and Medicaid eligibility, cap out-of-pocket costs for Medicare enrollees, and require all public and private health insurers to fully cover care related to Covid-19—including for patients who display symptoms but test negative for the disease. Further, the legislation would bar healthcare providers from billing uninsured patients for Covid-19 care.”

Corbett quotes Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash), a lead sponsor of the bill: “Millions of Americans are losing their job and their health insurance at precisely the moment when we need everyone to be able to access care and treatment for illness. The Medicare Crisis Program Act would guarantee healthcare for millions of people struggling with the health and economic realities of the Covid-19 pandemic and protect Americans from outrageous out-of-pocket costs.” Joe Kennedy (D-Mass), another lead sponsor, is quoted: “A healthcare system more concerned with profits than patients was never equipped to confront a pandemic like Covid-19. Because of our nation’s stubborn failure to guarantee universal healthcare, millions of people are now not only out of a job, but out of health care coverage as coronavirus ravages their communities. With the Medicare Crisis Program Act, we can begin to fill in the gaps of a fundamentally flawed healthcare system during this pandemic and chart a path towards Medicare For All when it ends.”

With Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of the Senate, such Democratically initiated legislation is unlikely to become law.

The political-economic causes

The employment-related trends have been fostered by a corporate-dominated capitalist economic system that gives priority to maximizing profit and shareholder value. Over the last forty years or so, this system has led to a massive outsourcing of jobs to lower-wage economies, the gutting of government regulations (e.g., Occupational Safety and Health Administration), court decisions and government policies that have severely weakened collective bargaining (e.g., right-to-work laws; use of scab labor to break strikes). Additionally, employers have the legal power to fire employees “at will,” avoid union or high-wage workers by increasingly contracting out work to non-union firms. There are some employers who exploit undocumented workers (e.g., farm, construction, and landscaping workers). On top of these anti-worker strategies, employers are increasing the automation/robotization of work, a topic that is explored in such books as Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s Race Against the Machine, or Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.  African Americans, Latinx, Native Americans, and other groups have been and continue to be subjected to multifaceted types of institutionalized discrimination in the economy and in all facets of their lives. Hence, they end up with higher unemployment rates, higher labor-force non-participation rates, along with lower wages, benefits, and job security than their white counterparts.

There is little evidence that these trends are going to subside or be reversed without  major interventions by the federal government. The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified all of these trends. And, of course, Trump, his administration, the Republicans in Congress and in state legislatures across the country have continued to accommodate to, if not accelerate, these trends. If Trump is reelected, they will only get worse than then are.

One example of Trump’s failed “policies”

Five million manufacturing jobs have been lost over the past two decades. Edward Alden addresses this issue in an article for Foreign Policy titled “No, the Pandemic Will Not Bring Jobs Back From China” (https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/05/26/china-jobs-coronavirus-pandemic-manufacturing-trump). He reminds us of Trump’s pledge to do just that, writing: “No idea has been more central to U.S. President Donald Trump’s philosophy of ‘America first’ than bringing jobs back home.” Alden continues: “In his 2017 inaugural address, he lamented that ‘one by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions upon millions of American workers left behind.’ Under his presidency, a newly elected Trump promised, ‘we will bring back our jobs.” With the rise of the coronavirus pandemic, officials in the Trump administration came to believe that US jobs located in China would surely return to the US. Alden quotes Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross who in January said that the virus, which then was confined to China, would “help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America.” Robert Lighthizer, the US Trade Representative, said that now US companies were left with no choice but to “bring the jobs back to America.”

In the first 3 years of the Trump administration, even before Covid-19 raised its head in the US, trade policy was motivated by the desire to bring back manufacturing jobs from China and elsewhere. Alden reminds us: “The administration’s signature actions on trade—imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum, renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, pursuing a trade war with China—were all crafted with an eye toward forcing U.S. companies to bring production back to the United States. Since January 2018, the average tariff rate on U.S. imports of Chinese goods has risen from just 3.1 percent to nearly 20 percent.” But such efforts are, Alden contends, unlikely to achieve their desired goal for two reasons. “First, the combination of trade war and the pandemic is unlikely to force companies to bring manufacturing operations back to the United States on a significant scale. And second, with the advances in automation, any such reshoring is unlikely to bring the promised benefits in terms of well-paying employment for Americans.”

On the first point, many US companies have relocated their production out of China, but there is “no evidence of any coronavirus-induced rush by companies to return operations to the United States.” Rather, according to the most comprehensive data, collected by Panjiva, an arm of S&P Global that closely tracks supply-chain movements, “shows the winner of the trade war has been Southeast Asia—especially Vietnam.” Alden gives these examples. “Production of Google’s new Pixel 4A smartphone has largely been shifted from China to Vietnam, while Microsoft is now making the Surface tablet there as well. Google is also expanding manufacturing of smart-home products in neighboring Thailand. Foxconn, the Taiwanese company that assembles Apple’s iPhones in China, has increasingly been moving to Vietnam as the new base for its consumer electronics exports to the United States. Telecommunications products such as smartphones now account for more than 20 percent of Vietnam’s exports to the United States, double the share in 2015. The data shows no trend of companies moving production back to the United States.”

Evidence on US imports tells a similar story. Imports from China “dropped by 17 percent between 2018 and 2019,” but “half of that hole was filled by other Asian countries and by Mexico. Meanwhile, despite generous tax cut and aggressive deregulation, “US manufacturing output stayed flat, with higher domestic sales offset by lower exports.”

On top of the trade considerations, manufacturing companies in the US are automating many of their operations. “Where companies are choosing to expand U.S. manufacturing operations, their new factories are heavily automated. For example, LG Electronics, the South Korean company, recently built a new 1 million-square-foot plant in Clarksville, Tennessee, partly in response to the threat of tariffs the Trump administration slapped on imported South Korean washing machines in 2018. But inside the plant, most of the work is being done by industrial robots made by LG’s own Robostar affiliate in South Korea.” Moreover, Alden’s sources think “the pandemic is likely to accelerate the trend toward automation.” He refers to research As Mark Muro and his colleagues at the Brookings Institution who “argue [that] automation happens in bursts, and the virus is likely to trigger a fresh round. In economic shocks such as the one the world is currently experiencing, Muro and his co-authors write, ‘humans become relatively more expensive as firms’ revenues rapidly decline. At these moments, employers shed less-skilled workers and replace them with technology and higher-skilled workers, which increases labor productivity as a recession tapers off.’

At best, Alden writes, the employment gains in manufacturing “are likely to be modest.” In the meantime, the big winners during the ravages of the pandemic are the giant digital corporations. For example, Amazon “has built the most efficient distribution chain on the planet” and is thriving in the pandemic. However, Amazon’s warehouse workers and the drivers that deliver the packages are not well paid. And this is certainly true of  the grocery cashiers, the meatpackers, the sanitary workers, the millions of others who are keeping the economy going during the [just lifted] shutdown, and the millions more who will return to low-wage service jobs when it starts back up.”

Solutions?

Given this growing and dire employment situation in the United States, there are a number of proposals about what to do. Some simply propose new regulations, the enforcement of already existing laws, and/or another round of temporary government relief for workers suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Then there are some different, but complementary, proposals. Here I refer to six of them. Some of these proposals may sound outlandish to the ears of mainstream politicians but then we are living in an outlandish time. It remains to be seen, but the combined pandemic and economic decline may well push more and more people to demand more substantial and permanent changes than the two major political parties now offer. Here I identify six radical options.

One is to enhance the power of workers vis-à-vis employers. Shaun Richman offers a comprehensive proposal on how to strengthen unions, arguing for a “Labor’s Bill of Rights” in his richly documented new book, Tell the Bosses We’re Coming: A New Action Plan for Workers in the 21st Century. He refers to the need to implement ten “rights.”

  • The right to free speech – i.e., to give union representatives a chance to speak to workers at the workplace during union drives
  • The right to self-defense and mutual aid – allow workers to support the strikes of other workers
  • The right to strike – e.g., the right to return to a job after a strike is over
  • Labor organizing efforts should be free from unreasonable search and seizure – e.g., end lawsuits brought by employers to divert employees from other actions and to burden unions with significant costs
  • The freedom from taking away union fees – This is what “right to work laws” do, that is, allow some workers in a bargaining unit not to pay union dues while at the same time benefiting from what has been won in union contracts. Such laws should be challenged and there should be education and public relations campaigns to combat such laws.
  • The right to not be locked out for exercising labor rights – i.e., enforce the law against unfair labor practices
  • The right to your job – i.e., require that termination for a job is for “just cause” rather than just at the will of the employer
  • Freedom from cruel and unusual regulation – by matching full-disclosure of unions with full disclosure by employers of the salaries and perks of a company’s executives
  • The right to make demands and bargain freely – the right of workers or their representatives “to veto or amend management’s decisions to downsize, subcontract, automate or shift work overseas.”
  • Powers not exercised by unions are reserved to workers who act in concert – i.e., the need to protect the right of workers to bring class action suits against employers

Two, provide all households with a government income supplement or alternative to paid work either in the form of a guaranteed minimum income or universal basic income. The idea of a universal basic income is explored in-depth by Allan Sheahen in his book, Basic Income Guarantee: Your Right to Economic Security, and by Daniel Raventos in his book, Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom.

 Three, Marxist economist Richard Wolff has long argued the corporate-dominated system of capitalism that now prevails should be replaced by a system of workplace democracy, in which workers participate in the governance of their workplaces and worker-owned businesses grow  (e.g., Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism).

Four, Michael D. Yates argues for transitional policies that he thinks would take the country toward a form of democratic socialism in his book, Can the Working Class Change the World?  Here is the list.

  • Much shorter working hours
  • Early and Secure retirement
  • Free universal healthcare
  • An end to all corporate subsidies
  • The immediate termination of all forms of discrimination
  • Bans on fracking and other profit-driven environmental dispoliations
  • An end to the war on terror along with the closing of all US military bases in other countries
  • The abolition of the present prison system
  • Free schooling at all levels
  • Open borders combined with the termination of US financial support for oppressive governments
  • Community-based policing
  • Transfer of abandoned buildings and land to communities and groups that will put them to socially useful purposes (p. 145)

Five, some authors delve into what an environmentally sustainable economic alternative would entail. For example, Fred Magdoff and Chris Williams take up this challenge in their book, Creating an Ecological Society: Towards a Revolutionary Transformation.

 Six, economist Robert Pollin envisions how to expand employment within an environmentally sustainable framework across the world his book, Greening the Global Economy.

Concluding thoughts

 The US is caught up in unprecedented dual crises stemming from the pandemic and by a drastic, destabilizing decline in the economy. If Trump and the right-wing forces that support him prevail, we can expect that an increasing proportion of the US population will find themselves economically insecure, marginalized, and/or poor. They will be without union representation and burdened with inadequate employment options, with jobs that pay low wages, provide no benefits or affordable benefits (e.g., health insurance; pensions), and provide little or no job security. If Biden wins in November and the Democrats control the US House and US Senate, policies will be implemented to improve the economic and employment situations of an increased number of Americans, but will be limited by the huge national debt and the threat of “corporate strikes.” If Trump wins, there is a good chance that a full-blown fascist system will emerge, based on an authoritarian leadership of Trump, a corporate-dominated economic system, an anti-democratic influence of unlimited money in politics, extensive voter suppression. So, the upcoming November election is extraordinarily important. If the country is to avoid the worst outcome, Americans must vote in November, to avoid the tyranny of a second presidential term for Trump, to maintain Democratic control of the House, and to win control of the Senate. It is basically about the survival of a rather minimal form of democracy – or not. If the economy deteriorates, and as climate change continues to affect and disrupt more and more of the world, perhaps there will be a chance for more meaningful changes in US political economy than at present.

 

Trump’s shredding of democracy: A turn toward fascism

Trump’s shredding of democracy:A turn toward American fascism

Bob Sheak, May 31

bobsheak@gmail.com

Introduction

In this post I argue that Trump and his allies are supporting and instituting policies that are weakening our already tenuous democracy. Much of what he and his supporters are doing have fascist aspects. Trump is an authoritarian leader with grandiose notions about himself, who has the unquestioning support from a major political party, from support of most segments of the business sector, and from an unquestioning following among a massive number of Americans. However, this is not yet a full-blown fascism.

The president is not yet a dictator. There is not yet a one-party political system. The corporate-dominated economy is not controlled by the central government. Corporate CEO’s make decisions largely on what is good for their bottom lines and shareholder value. The current president and his administration have not fully achieved their hyper nationalist, America First, goals. They give great emphasis to building up an already bloated military to intimidate other countries. They have not yet eliminated diplomacy altogether in their dealings with other countries, but it is antagonistic to multilateral arrangements. There are racist and xenophobic elements in the discourse emanating from the administration. There are millions of Americans who follow the leader-president seemingly without question and armed contingents ready to act to eliminate the “liberal” opposition. And the president and Republican Party are still limited in how far they can go in weakening the social safety net and government regulation. However, if Trump is reelected in November, and if the Republicans retain control of the Senate and hold their own in state and local elections, while there is a right-wing majority in the Supreme Court, then the United States is likely to sink more deeply and unequivocally into the swamp of fascism.

In making this argument, I refer to how there have been powerful fascist groups before in American history, and then draw on wide-range of evidence to make the case that the Trump administration has been exhibiting the characteristics associated with fascism. Trump is a narcissistic, power-hungry leader, who demands loyalty and loves to tell his adoring crowds at rallies of why they should oppose, tweeting continuously to his followers, and appearing on right-wing media, purveying often unsubstantiated and hateful broadsides against  his opponents, immigrants, minorities, and group the President designates an enemy. Journalists at The Washington Post have counted 18,000 lies or misleading claims by Trump during the first 1,170 days of his presidency. Additionally, Trump has the support of the Republican Party in Washington, often viewed as the president’s enablers, and has gone out of his way to consolidate his support from the corporate community and rich with his tax and deregulatory policies.

He and his advisers have sowed confusion and chaos amidst the pandemic, ignoring or sidelining experts, putting forth a continuous stream of disinformation, and now subordinating efforts to contain and curtail COVID-19 to a quick and careless reopening of the economy. In anticipating the presidential election in November, Trump and the Republican establishment want to limit voting as much as they can (e.g., opposing mail-in voting as an option), floating ideas or reinforcing rumors that Trump may somehow use his presidential power to postpone the election of there are indications that he may lose , and recklessly fueling conflict and division, even excusing violence or threatened violence against state officials, that could stir the conditions for “a civil war.” In short, Trump and his allies appear ready to sacrifice democracy and do anything almost to retain political power.

Fascism on the rise

Sasha Abramsky argues in an article for The Nation on May 15, 2020, that the strategy of Trump and the Republicans in the US Congress is fascist or has many fascist elements. The president’s rhetoric, tweets, executive orders, bills signed into law, along with the supportive or complementary actions of the Republicans in the US Congress, have weakened democratic values and institutions and created yet more opportunities for the mega-corporations and the rich. Abramsky writes, “the US is on a public health, political, and economic precipice.” Responses to the pandemic have been chaotic and divisive and threaten to reinforce authoritarian aspects of the Trump administration and, unless defeated in the November elections, will leave the country with an even more corporate-dominated economy, even higher levels of inequality, an even greater surveillance capitalism, even greater environmental devastation, even greater threats of war and nuclear war than existed prior to the pandemic. Abramsky aptly titles his article “If They Walk Like Fascists and Talk Like Fascists…” (https://www.thenation.com/articles/politics/trump-gop-coronavirus-fascism).

Not the first time

The concern about the dangers of an emergent fascism in the US is hardly new. Henry Wallace, who served as Secretary of Agricultural and Vice-President under Franklin D. Roosevelt, identified the growth of an “American fascism” in the 1930s and 1940s. John Nichols provides a brilliant analysis of Wallace’s role in the political debates of the period, his support for progressive politics, and how over the years the progressive influence in the Democratic Party has been marginalized by party insiders, southern Democrats, big city bosses, powerful business interests, and the general movement up to today away certainly from groups that call for structural reforms (e.g., progressive taxes, universal health care, phasing out fossil fuels, greater regulation of the mega-banks).

The title of Nichols’ just published book is The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party: The Enduring Legacy of Henry Wallace’s Antifascist, Antiracist Politics. Wallace’s progressive viewpoint emphasized the need to break up the “monopolies,” create a full-employment economy, end poverty, support civil rights and racial justice, strive for “peace” in international relations, and strengthen democracy. However, there were power forces in the country and in both major political parties who resisted such goals. On April 9, 1944, Wallace published “a landmark essay” in the New York Times Sunday magazine, a media outlet that was generally critical of Wallace, entitled “The Danger of American Fascism.” Nichols quotes from the essay.

“If we define an American fascist as one who in case of conflict puts money and power ahead of human beings, then there are undoubtedly several million fascists in the United States. There are probably several hundred thousand if we narrow the definition to include only those who in their search for money and power are ruthless and deceitful.” He also wrote: “They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interests,” with a final objective of “using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously” so “they may keep the common man in eternal subjugation.”

Nichols notes again that Wallace “saw the prospects of an American fascism in the predictable machinations of big business,” writing: “We all know the part that the cartels played in bringing Hitler to power and the rule the giant German trusts have played in Nazi conquests.” He worried that, in the US, “some monopolists would sacrifice democracy itself” to protect their economic and political power. At the same time, Wallace thought that US political elites, including mainstream Democrats, were too deferential to big business interests.

What is the situation today?

Consolidation of power at the top: The “Leader”

 Trump the “leader”

 What are the characteristics of this unfolding fascism in America today? Among the basic elements, there is the presence of a powerful, authoritarian president, with the unquestioning support of a right-wing political party. In this situation, the government is less and less constrained by democratic values, the constitution, political norms, or the federal court system. The leader, the embodiment of the unifying and purified national spirit, is especially important in a fascist state.

Federico Finchelstein, professor of history at the New School of Social Research, posits that the leader represents what many people yearn for. He writes in his book A Brief History of Fascist Lies: “the reality that their fundamentally authoritarian lies and racist fantasies about the world become constantly normalized and supported by a wide segment of the population, as well as major party figures. Most pointedly, Finchelstein writes the following about Trump: “He does not lie because he is a crazy cheater; he lies because he belongs to a political tradition that proposes an alternative notion of truth that emanates from the sacred infallibility of the leader” (p. 104). He continues: “…Trumpism represents an extreme form of… antiliberal, and often anti-constitutional, authoritarian democracy with a political rationale of its own. This is a political formation with a mythical notion of the truth,” so he replaces “historical truth with fake ideas about the glorious past that their leaders promise to revive,” with expressions such as “Make America Great Again.” For his tens of millions of followers, he promises to restore to life “a past that never existed” (p. 105). But it must be added, Trump also behaves as he does so as to advance a relatively unfettered, neoliberal-oriented capitalist system and to protect the interests of the mega-corporations, the rich, and his own family’s wealth.

Self-glorification: illusions and hyped business practices

In Donald Trump, we have a president who believes that he himself is a “stable genius,” thinks the constitution gives him the last word on government actions, insists he knows more than the scientists while also denigrating the verifiable evidence that scientists generate, and even has said that he became president with the help of a higher power. On the latter point, Alexandria Petri reports: “Glorious news, everyone! Donald Trump is God! Everything makes sense now, and the final purpose of all things is at last clear. Donald Trump on Wednesday proudly quoted a messenger who said he was ‘the second coming of God,’ and he described himself as ‘the chosen one, looking up at the sky” (https://washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/08/21/oh-good-donald-trump-is-god-now).

Over the three plus years Trump has been in the White House, one can easily see that he loves to be in the spotlight. His tweeting gets him continuous media coverage and attracts a huge following of 80 million followers. His pre-pandemic rallies before thousands of seeming unquestioning followers provided a kind of validation of Trump’s often divisive and hateful diatribes. He presents himself as a successful businessman, a billionaire, though this claim is challenged by the evidence. According to David Cay Johnston, the “public record shows that he is an income tax cheat,” citing the findings of two administrative trials held by New York state and city officials”  In going through public records on his 1984 tax records, David Cay Johnston finds they “reveal he is an income tax cheat” (It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration is Doing to America, p. 79). Trump University turned out to be a scam on students.

On Trump’s business record, David Enrich writes in his in-depth book, Dark Towers: Deutsche Bank: Donald Trump, And an Epic Trail of Destruction, that Trump “defaulted on loans to finance his Atlantic City casinos and [stiffed] lenders, contractors, and business partners in other projects.” He continues: “Quite a few banks – including Citigroup, Manufacturers Hanover (a predecessor of JP Morgan, the British lender NatWest, and…Bankers Trust – had endured hundreds of millions of losses at the hands of Trump” (p. 74). For nearly two decades, Enrich notes, “Deutsche had been the only mainstream bank consistently willing to do business with Trump.” Deutsche “bankrolled his development of luxury high rises, golf courses, and hotels. The bank had doled out well over $2 billion in loans to Trump and his companies; at this moment in 2016, he owed the bank about $350 million, making Deutsche his biggest creditor” (p. 5).  Enrich adds: “There was more to Trump’s relationship with Deutsche than money. The bank was…trying to establish its brand in the United States, and despite his financial woes, Trump – whose hit TV show The Apprentice had debuted on NBC – provided splashy publicity for the bank” (p. 118).

Consolidating the power of the mega-corporations and the rich

 Diminishing democracy

The president, his advisers, and allies debunk science and the media, while creating mythical, false, or misleading assertions about reality exemplified in their rejection of the science on climate change, or the notion that Trump alone was responsible for the robust economy prior to the pandemic, or that Iran – not the US –  violated the multilateral nuclear agreement, or that all undocumented immigrants should be forced to leave the country because they take jobs away from real Americans, or that liberals are un-American. They use their power in attempts to rewrite history. For example, their attempts to blame prior administrations for their own inept and slow responses to the pandemic falls into this category.

They are adept at finding scapegoats to explain away any missteps by the president or his administration: China, immigrants, past administrations, the fake news, Democratic governors, any public critic. They are motivated to replace the concept of a common or public good with the idea that economically everything is about investments, production, and consumption as determined by the mega-corporate-dominated market is good. In this way, they fully endorse neoliberalism and its emphasis on deregulation, regressive taxation, privatization, and the need to severely reduce government programs for workers and the poor. Virtually anything goes if it sells. The administration has little interest in breaking up the mega corporations. They believe that employers should have the power to rule their workplaces and are content to have labor policies that make it difficult for workers to unionize. Indeed, they want to quash all opposition or potential sources of adverse criticism in the government by finding ways to punish whistle blowers and firing inspector generals and others who they find to be untrustworthy, regardless of the evidence.

Such an anti-democratic agenda/process is also aided by the growth of the surveillance state and the use of federal forces to harass and deport undocumented residents….The Trump led  state is also one that is hyper-nationalistic, as reflected in Trump’s slogan “America First.” His foreign policy is guided by the idea that the country needs to maintain the world’s largest military force, with the goals of creating a kind of “fortress America.” He has withdrawn the US from military/nuclear treaties with Russia, withdrawn from the international Paris agreement in 2015 to create a framework to reduce worldwide carbon emissions, withdrawn from the multilateral agreement with Iran on nuclear weapons, and refused to join with the European Union in coordinating actions against the pandemic. He is now in the process of escalating tensions with China.

Corporate power prior to the pandemic

The crises in the United States are rooted in our economic and political systems that are creating existential-level problems. At the same time, economists Anne Case and Augus Deaton don’t want us to go too far in this critique. They argue that some people have gotten rich, not through exploitation and environmentally harmful policies, but  by inventing new tools, drugs, or gadgets, or new ways of doing things, and benefit many not just themselves.” They contend that some form of managed or reformed capitalism that takes into account public interests and justice is possible (Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, p. 12).

But the US capitalist economy is undisputedly dominated by mega-corporations in every sector, along with some privately-owned, multi-billion-dollar companies, like Cargill and Koch Industries. The principal driving force of these giant enterprises, and other business enterprises, is to always put profits and the interests of the top executives and shareholders ahead of all other considerations. The focus of corporate executives is on increasing the size, sales, revenues, and profits of these corporations and doing so in ways that disregard the interests of most employees, the environmental impact of their operations and the effects on communities, and the quality or durability of the goods and services they provide. The corporations are constantly faced with the problem of insufficient consumer demand and the saturation of markets. So, they spend enormous sums of money on pervasive, sophisticated, and manipulative sales efforts to goad consumers to buy their products and services, often on shaky, high-interest credit.

There are guardians of the system to ensure profits remain paramount in the calculations of CEOs. They have little or nothing to do with the “common good,” and much to do with capturing profits for the wealthy. Wall Street bankers decide whether a given corporation’s profitable outlook is good enough to obtain financial support and how much it will cost. Private equity funds, sometimes referred to as vulture funds, are the contemporary corporate raiders, always poised to mount takeover efforts when a corporation is viewed as not operating profitably enough or is sitting on too much cash. After taking over a company, some raiders then often sell off assets, drain employee’s pension retirement systems, reduce wages, and maximize profits while letting the company eventually go out of business. Others may revive a distressed company, however, usually at the expense of workers’ wages and benefits. Eileen Appelbaum and Rosemary Batt provide a comprehensive analysis of private equity firms in their book, Private Equity at Work: When Wall Street Manages Main Street. The authors describe how these business enterprises operate.

“Private equity firms have emerged in the last three decades as part of a group of new financial actors – or ‘intermediaries’ – that raise large pools of capital from wealthy individuals and institutions for investment funds. These funds undertake risky investments that promise to deliver higher-than-average returns. Private equity funds buy out companies using high-levels of debt – referred to as ‘leverage’ – that is loaded onto the acquired companies. The use of debt to take over ownership of mature operating companies leveraged buyouts and actively manage them are the characteristics that distinguish private equity funds from venture capital or hedge funds. Venture capital and hedge funds are also investment funds that mobilize private pools of capital, but their business models differ substantially from that of private equity” (p. 1-2).

Hedge funds use the investments of wealthy people to speculate on anything that is deemed potentially profitable, from changes in commodity prices on international markets to changes in interest rates, to the prospects of government spending on the stock value of a given corporation, to buying real estate securities and selling them as their value rises, before it falls. Trades are made at incredible speed based on complex algorithms. They represent a kind of parasitical form of capitalism. Les Leopold analyzes hedge funds in his book, Million Dollars an Hour: Why Hedge Funds Get Away with Siphoning off America’s Wealth.

Coming back to the center of U.S. capitalism, the mega-corporations use their control over vast resources to influence state governments as well as the federal government, through trade associations, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the Business Roundtable, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth, massive lobbying efforts, campaign contributions distributed through various types of political action committees (some anonymous or secret), political ads that favor their preferred candidates, and through a revolving-door in which corporate executives are appointed to important government positions for awhile and then return to their corporate or other private-sector jobs, and vice versa. While corporations have historically supported both the Democratic and Republican Parties, they have increasingly favored Republicans.

Nancy MacLean’s analysis takes us further into one of the principal dynamics of contemporary capitalism

But even all this does not capture the full extent of corporate and business power. Nancy MacLean, author and scholar, delves penetratingly into this issue in her book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. With extensive documentation, she unveils how a radically libertarian view of society, with strong Social Darwinist overtones, has come to have great influence on corporations. This is a view that wants to “undo democratic governance” and majority rule with a system of governance that is controlled by those of great wealth, who define themselves as being superior in accomplishments and perhaps genetically to most others and thus who deserve to – indeed must -lead the country. They claim that the wealth they create will trickle down, but that people should not expect much – unless they have education and skills that are identified as being important to those in charge.

MacLean traces such views to an obscure but tenacious economic philosopher named James McGill Buchanan who from the 1950s on advanced a “revolutionary” right-wing economic and political philosophy that included, at one time or another, the following proposals: end progressive taxation and replace it with a flat tax; end government intrusion and regulation of the property of the wealthy(personal or business); end the right of workers to collective bargaining; end guaranteed pensions; end occupational and safety laws; end affirmative action laws; privatize Social Security, Medicare, the Veterans’ Administration; reduce spending on and access to public assistance programs (e.g., Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers);  privatize virtually all functions of government (e.g., education, welfare, prisons, public media, infrastructure, transportation ….). Additionally, according to MacLean, Buchanan argued that state’s rights should take precedence over federal law and local initiatives because it’s easier to for corporations to control state governments. What Buchanan and his wealthy backers want is, MacLean writes, “a return to oligarchy [and] to a world in which both economic [and] effective political power are to be concentrated in the hands of a few.” She continues that the dream of the leaders of this movement is:

“to reinstate the kind of political economy that prevailed in America at the opening of the twentieth century, when the mass disfranchisement of voters and the legal treatment of labor unions as illegitimate enabled large corporations and wealthy individuals to dominate Congress and most state governments alike, and to feel secure that the nation’s courts would not interfere with their reign” (p.xxxii).

Along the way, as Buchanan held various academic positions, joining with and supported by like-minded ideologues in academia and with funding by wealthy backers, he argued that the long-term goal was “a constitutional” revolution that would end majority rule. This will be a stealth movement that through incremental successes undermines democracy. MacLean says Buchanan’s efforts have, unfortunately, borne fruit. She writes in her Introduction: “Pushed by relatively small number of radical-right billionaires and millionaires who have become profoundly hostile to America’s modern system of government, an apparatus decades in the making, funded by those same billionaires and millionaires, has been working to undermine the normal governance of our democracy” (p. xxxi).The most influential force in this movement has been the Koch network, which, MacLean reports, “’operates on the scale of a national U.S. political party’ and employs more than three times as many people as the Republican committees had on their payroll in 2015” (p. xxxi). She summarizes the achievements of the Koch network as follows:

“It was occupying the Republican Party, using the threat of well-funded primary challenges to force its elected officials to do the cause’s bidding or lose their seats. It was pushing our radical right laws ready to bring to the floor in every state through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). It was selling those laws through the seemingly independent but centrally funded and operationally linked groups of the State Policy Network. It was leveraging the anger of the local Tea Party groups to move the legislative agenda of Americans for Prosperity and Freedom-Works. Its state affiliates were energizing voter turnout with deceitful direct mail campaigns. Its elected allies were shutting down the federal government; in effect, using its employees and the millions who rely on it as hostages to get what they otherwise could not – and much, much more” (p. 210).

In his book, The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time, Gordon Lafer offers this description of the Koch network.

“…rather than simply contributing to candidates’ campaigns, the Kochs have established a uniquely broad network of related organizations – candidate selection and funding vehicles, think tanks, data firms, communication strategists, and grassroots organizers – that together constitute and integrated and formidable political force. In 2014, Americans for Prosperity alone spent $125 million and had five hundred full-time staffers to organize supporters in target states. Finally, the Kochs not only spend their own money on an unparalleled scale; they also serve as organizers and directors of a network of corporate and private donors. In 2016, this network aimed to spend $1 billion, significantly more than the Democratic or Republican parties raised in the 2012 election cycle” (p. 16).

 Now, Amidst the pandemic, “Letting Big Corporations Get Away with Whatever They Want”

This is the title of an article by Ralph Nader (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/05/16/trump-letting-big-corporations-get-away-whatever-they-want). He makes his basic argument as follows. “Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump has allowed large corporations to run rampant, exploit people, and get away with it. Trump considers himself above the law, boldly claiming, ‘I have an Article 2, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.’” Nader views Trump’s presidential record as one that “embraces American-style fascism and nepotism.” He makes five points in documenting his argument.

One: “In 2017, Trump betrayed his own voters by giving the corporate rich a nearly two trillion-dollar tax cut instead of fulfilling his promise to invest in repairing infrastructure and expanding well-paid-job opportunities.” As widely reported, the “tax cuts for the rich and big corporations, which benefited the Trump family, ran up the deficit for our children and were largely used to give executives bonuses and let CEOs waste money on stock buybacks. In short, the corporate bosses lied to the Congress, saying they wanted these tax cuts to invest and create jobs, but actually used them to enrich themselves.”

Two: Trump has gone a spree of gutting health and safety law enforcement, with resultant “harm to workers, consumers, and defenseless communities. He refers in documentation of this point to a New York Times article that  reported 98 lifesaving regulations were revoked, suspended, or simply replaced with weaker versions. What remains on the books is not enforced.” He notes, further, that “Trump has worked to further punish student borrowers; diminish workplace and auto safety; and remove safeguards against banking, credit, and payday loan rackets.” And: “With vicious madness, Trump pushes for federal deregulation of nursing homes where residents are dying from Covid-19. He pursues court cases in attempts to end Obamacare, the result of which would be throwing 20 million Americans off their insurance during a lethal pandemic. He is cravenly freeing corporate emitters of life-destroying mercury and coal ash in our air, condemned pesticides and toxins in drinking water, and whatever else is on the deadly wish list given to him by his corporate paymasters.”

Three: Trump has given his corporate allies “more loopholes for tax escapes ($170 billion buried in the $2.2 trillion relief/bailout legislation).” He elaborates: “Big companies such as banks, insurance companies, real estate behemoths, and Silicon Valley giants have so many tax escapes and cuts that they’re moving toward tax-exempt status.”

Four: Trump and his Republican allies in the Congress want legislation “giving big companies immunity from lawsuits by victims for their negligently harmful products and services.” For example, Nader writes: “Trump’s agencies actually announced that they’re putting their law enforcers on the shelf. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) astonishingly told foreign importers of food and medicine that inspections overseas are suspended. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signaled similar retreats, as have other enforcement agencies. Why would the Trumpsters signal green lights for corporate crooks? Especially since corporate scams and other corporate crimes—some crude, others sophisticated—are exploding as trillions pour out of Washington.”

Five: There has been under Trump a steep decline in the number of corporate prosecutions and fines. Nader writes: “A year ago, Public Citizen reported a steep decline in corporate prosecutions and fines under Trump. Now, compared to the size of the previous corporate crime wave, they’ve fallen off a cliff. You can ignore the stern warnings by Attorney General William Barr. He is a phony. He has neither allocated nor asked Congress for a budget that will provide the Department of Justice the capacity to crackdown.”

Removing federal government regulations on businesses

 There is now wholesale deregulation under the Trump administration. Jake Johnson reports on how “Trump’s corporate-friendly executive orders  aimed at rolling back even more regulations that protect the public is just the latest sign that his solution to the pandemic is the opposite of what the public needs”  (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/05/20/corruption-full-display-trumps-executive-order-directs-all-agencies-gut-business).

On Tuesday, May 20, Trump “signed an executive order directing the heads of every federal agency to ‘waive, suspend, and eliminate’ all regulations that they consider unnecessary obstacles to economic recovery from the coronavirus crisis.” This means more pollution from fossil fuel corporations, more drilling on public land, less regulation of toxic chemicals, less safety on the job for American workers, less protection for consumers, fewer drug regulations. Johnson quotes Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen to capture the essential thrust of Trump’s executive order, namely: that “instead of real, direct help for the tens of millions of Americans struggling financially due to the pandemic, or a real plan to reopen the economy safely based on the best public health expertise, Trump wants to keep giving handouts to corporate interests.”

Consolidating an electoral base of support

At the same time, support for the president and his political party requires an electoral base of support as well. Hence, support has been garnered among a variety of right-wing groups, including, those who want unlimited gun ownership, evangelical groups that favor the end of reproductive rights for women and an end to the separation of religion and the state, groups that want a virtual end to most or all categories of immigration, groups that want to preserve white supremacy and reject as myth the racist and discriminatory history that is so central to the dark side of American history. Trump has a friendly relationship with far-right, sometimes armed, groups support the reopening of the economy, who demonstrate for white supremacists’ values or a reactionary concept of “freedom.” But beyond the particular interests, Trump is also viewed by these supporters as having the ability to transform the government in a way that will make “America Great Again,” put an end to the intrusion of government bureaucrats in their lives, and protect their communities from a secular culture.

Rural America is, by and large,  for Trump

Robert Wuthnow, professor of social sciences at Princeton University, has studied rural communities in America, one of Trump’s sources of support. He and his assistants have visited hundreds of these communities, “studied their histories, and collected information about them from surveys, election results, exit polls, censuses business statistics, and municipal records” (The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Small-Town America, p. 3). He points out that “30 million Americans live in small towns with populations of fewer than 25,000 residents.” The US Census tallies 44 to 50 million people in what it labels “rural communities.” Exit polls in the 2016 election “showed that 62 percent of the rural vote went to Donald Trump” (p. 1).

Wuthnow finds that the “moral outrage of rural America is at the basis of support for Trump – and involves a mixture of fear and anger. The fear is that small-town ways of life are disappearing. The anger that they are under siege. The outrage cannot be understood apart from the loyalties that rural Americas feel toward their communities” (p.6). They are concerned about declining populations, school closings, businesses leaving, and jobs disappearing. But it is more importantly about cultural issues. They are angry about government bureaucrats who promote diversity, about “moral decline” reflected in the bank bailouts, the sexual promiscuity available on the Internet, the prevalence of crude language on television, about their opposition to reproductive and LBGTQ rights and immigration. Withal, they will vote for Trump again because they like his patriotic slogans, his militaristic foreign policy, his denigration of the media and liberal elites, his anti-immigrant policies, his Christian/evangelical connections, and the misperception of him as a political outsider. It remains to be seen whether the COVID-19 pandemic, now increasingly affecting rural communities, will change their minds about Trump.

Reactionary Populism gains new life under Trump

 Along with all the rest, Trump and the right-wing political forces supporting him have gained strength from the growth of a reactionary populism since the 1990s, including “local militias, Christian fundamentalists, and the Tea Party among them.” Carl Boggs, professor of social sciences at National University in Los Angeles, points to how Trump benefited, as 35 percent of his presidential vote come from evangelical constituencies (Fascism Old and New: American Politics at the Crossroads, pp. 12-13). His presidency has “apparently lent new legitimacy to the evangelical movement, especially the selection of Mike Pence as vice-president and Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. As American society moves ever rightward,” Boggs writes, “evangelicals have grown in numbers, organizations, media presence, and general influence. They work indefatigably through state legislatures, PACs, think tanks, conferences, and medical outlets to carry out ‘God’s work, hoping to Christianize secular institutions, beginning with education, bringing ‘family values’ and patriotism to the forefront.” Boggs thinks that they “could help to solidify a social bloc behind fascistic tendencies….” (p. 13).

Historian Kathleen Belew documents the growth of another source of Trump’s “popular” appeal in the American white power movement in her book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Here is some of what she found.

“While white power featured a diversity of views and an array of competing leaders, all corners of the movement were inspired by feelings of defeat, emasculation, and betrayal after the Vietnam War and by social and economic changes that seemed to threaten and victimize white men. White power also qualifies as a movement through its central features: the contiguous activity of an inner circle of key figures over two decades, frequent public displays, and development of a wide-reaching social network.

“White power activists used a shared repertoire of actions to assert collectivity. Public displays of uniformed activists chanting slogans and marching in formation aimed to demonstrate worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment to both members and observers. Activists encouraged dress codes and rules about comportment and featured the presence of mothers with children, Vietnam veterans, and active-duty military personnel. Members showed unity by donning uniforms and by marching and chanting in formation. They made claims about their numbers. They underscored their commitment with pledges to die rather than abandon the fight; preparing to risk their lives for white power; and undertaking acts that put them at legal and physical risk. A regular circulation of people, weapons, funds, images, and rhetoric – as well as intermarriages and other social relationships – bound activists together” (pp. 10-11).

And they thrive.

“The state and public opinion have failed to sufficiently halt white power violence or refute white power belief systems, and failed to present a vision of the future that might address some of their concerns that lie behind the more diffuse, coded, and mainstream manifestations” (p. 239).

The white power movement, ultra-nationalistic, racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, armed, opposed to progressive values and ideas, poses no threat to the power elite. They represent the potential street fighters against those who criticize the existing power structure from progressive and leftist points of view.

Creating an unaccountable presidency

A President that tolerates no dissent in his administration

 Trump demands absolute loyalty from his staff, advisers, cabinet officials, and those across the executive branch

 Elizabeth Shackelford was a U.S. diplomat until December 2017 when she resigned in protest of the administration. Until then, she had served in Somalia, South Sudan, Poland, and Washington, DC. She is presently a fellow with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and author of ‘The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age, to be published in May 2020. In an article published in Common Dreams, she analyzes Trump’s recent “inspector general purges” and how they are aimed at suppressing any dissent or criticism of the administration (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/05/19/trumps-inspector-general-purge-and-death-dissent). The purges were carried out to coverup fraud and abuse at the highest levels of the Trump administration.

“For six weeks,” she writes, “the Trump administration has executed a stealthy attack on oversight, knee-capping inspector general offices of their apolitical leadership. Most have been quietly revealed late on a Friday night, in hopes of skirting under the radar and avoiding scrutiny.” In early April, Trump ousted Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general, first gained Trump’s ire when in September of 2019 he notified Congress of the whistleblower complaint, an action “he was legally obligated to do.”

Continuing, Shackelford reminds us that “only days later, Trump removed the acting inspector general of defense, who had been tapped by Congress to oversee the distribution of funds under the coronavirus relief measures.” Then in early May, “Trump fired Christi Grim, the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services, while the deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response was in the process of filing a whistleblower complaint over the corrupt and hapless pandemic response.”

Most recently, on May 15, “Trump notified Congress of the removal of Steve Linick, the State Department’s inspector general.” The reasons: “This was reportedly done at Secretary Mike Pompeo’s urging to ensure a friendlier IG was at the helm so Pompeo could avoid accountability in at least two investigations Linick was pursuing into his actions. The investigations reportedly reveal bad behavior at both a personal and policy level — from Pompeo’s misuse of State Department staff for family errands, to his approval of arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the objection of Congress (Pompeo now denies he knew about the investigations).

The purges have the desired effect of stifling independent action by inspector generals throughout the administration. Wrongdoing in government departments will go unreported by potential whistleblowers. The sacked inspector generals will be replaced by political sycophants. “Their impact, Shackelford writes, “will reverberate with damage to the very structure of oversight throughout these agencies at every level, as ‘no civil servant will feel comfortable reporting any form of abuse or violations at all.’”

There are no “populists” in Trump’s administration

Trump’s pre-election promise to “drain the swamp” have been disregarded in Trump’s efforts once in the oval office to surround himself with Wall Street financiers, generals, and former CEOs from across the economy. John Nichols documented, as many others have, the recruitment process of the first year of Trump’s presidency in his book, Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse. He gives the reader an overview of his analysis in the following words: “This book groups the Trump circle into rough categories: ideological messengers, political hacks, military-industrial complex generals and dollar diplomats, and privateers and corporatists” (p. xv).

Confusion and chaos amidst the pandemic

Ignoring or sidelining the experts

The reopening of the economy must in Trump’s view take precedence over the risks of having a spike, or a second wave, in the number of Covid-19 victims, though he hedges his call be claiming that state governors are the ones who will make the decisions. Abramsky (cited earlier) offers several examples on this point. Trump is calling for the reopening of the economy before the pandemic is under control, which, as Dr. Anthony Fauci has warned, has the risk of making a bad situation worse.

In addition, Trump is ignoring the World Health Organization’s call “for a globally coordinated response to tame Covid-19.” He is now cutting off all US funds to WHO.  The president ignored the warning of Dr. Rick Bright, former head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, who “warned that if the country didn’t soon get a proper handle on the pandemic and coordinate a vast national testing and tracing effort, the United States would experience a winter of death unlike anything seen in modern times.” He adds: “Trump’s response: to throw more red meat to his base by calling on Pennsylvania and other blue states to open up for business; to denigrate Fauci for warning about the dangers of prematurely reopening schools; to attack, in racially charged language, a Chinese-American journalist for asking him about the inadequacies of America’s testing regimen.” Such actions by the president create confusion and chaos, fear and uncertainty, rather than “shape an effective strategy to contain the coronavirus. And this is precisely his aim.

Sowing disinformation

 Mike Ludwig, staff writer for Truthout, opens his article by referring to how Russian operatives spread conspiracy theories online in 2016 “in an attempt to sow political chaos and sway the presidential election.” He continues: “Now, the misinformation and conspiracy theories swirling around the COVID-19 pandemic provide a grim reminder of how disinformation continues to shape public discourse, with the 2020 elections only months away. Media watchdogs say homegrown disinformation is now a much bigger problem than foreign interference, thanks to President Trump, his reelection campaign and right-wing extremists fueling viral media content shared widely by the president’s supporters”

(https://truthout.org/articles/trumps-covid-19-disinformation-campaign-is-a-preview-of-the-2020-elections). Ludwig refers to some examples to illustrate his argument.

One, Trump sent a letter to on May 18 to the World Health Organization (WHO), accusing the UN organization of, as Ludwig puts it, “bungling its initial response to the Covid-19 outbreak due to is alleged dozy relationship with China.” Ludwig reports that Trump’s letter contains “an obvious falsehood,” that WHO “ignored credible reports of a virus spreading in Wuhan in December 2019,” referring for example to a report by Lancet, a highly respected medical journal. There was no such report. Ludwig reports that “Richard Horton, The Lancet’s editor, quickly pointed out that the journal did not publish any such reports in December. The first report detailing a viral outbreak in Wuhan was published a month later on January 24 by Chinese scientists. By then, the WHO had dispatched teams to China and convened an emergency meeting to determine whether the outbreak should be declared an international emergency.” Ironically, Trump himself was praising the Chinese for their efforts in January. Nonetheless, Trump’s letter, covered extensively by the media (especially Fox News), allowed Trump “to inject some of his fans’ favorite erroneous coronavirus narratives deeper in the public discourse: COVID-19 is a ‘Chinese virus,’ and the rising death toll can be blamed on China and ‘global elites.’” Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign “is spending $10 million on ads blaming China for the virus and painting former Vice President Joe Biden as “China’s puppet.” The pro-Trump super-PAC, American First, “is also spending $10 million on ads in three swing states accusing Biden of being soft on China.”

Two, anything that Trump says is considered news and “can fuel disinformation with a simple comment or retweet.” Ludwig points to the president’s “legions of supporters [who] work together on social media platforms to boost disinformation and conspiratorial memes.” They amplify whatever he says, without fact-checking, and they are a good way to gin up campaign fund raising.

Three, Trump and his allies have continuously played down the seriousness of COVID-19. And, according to a Harvard survey conducted in mid-March, “29 percent of respondents believed the threat of COVID-19 was exaggerated to damage Trump,” while “an even greater share – 31 percent – said the virus was purposefully created and spread.” These beliefs were “strongly correlated with political support for Trump and his early statements downplaying the dangers of the virus.”

Four, the disinformation flowing from the Trump administration has intensified partisan divisions. It has helped to sway large majorities of Republicans to “support reopening schools, parks and businesses, while large majorities of Democrats say people must stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

And now, the president has generated schisms in the American population over whether it is necessary to wear masks, a symbol of whether COVID-19 pandemic is rising or falling. Trump’s actions have encouraged those who don’t wear masks, who want the economy reopened without any reservations, and who view mask-wearers as unmanly and/or liberal fools.

Promoting harmful medical information

In an article for Common Dreams, staff writer Jake Johnson reports on how Trump’s claim that the drug hydoxycholoroquine can provide relief, if not  protection against Covid-19 infection, is repudiated by an article in the Lancet, a respected medical journal (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/05/22/lancet-study-hydroxychloroquine-shows-trump-usual-dangerously-wrong-covid-19).

The study, published on May 15, “found that the anti-malarial drug President Donald Trump claims he is currently taking—and has repeatedly urged others to take—is not effective for treating Covid-19 and could increase risk of heart problems and death in coronavirus patients.” The Lancet article is based on the examination “of 96,000 hospitalized coronavirus patients on six continents and found that ‘drug regimens of chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine alone or in combination with a macrolide was associated with an increased hazard for clinically significant occurrence of ventricular arrhythmias and increased risk of in-hospital death with Covid-19.’”Specifically, patients  “who were given hydroxychloroquine and an antibiotic, a combination Trump has touted, had a 45% increase in risk of death and a 411% increase in risk of heart arrhythmias, the study found. Patients who received hydroxychloroquine alone had a 34% increase in mortality risk and a 137% increase in risk of irregular heartbeat.” The authors found “no evidence” of benefits from using the drug, which “is most commonly used as a treatment for malaria, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis.”

What are the implications of Trump’s nonsense? It’s consistent with the public health experts who view his behavior as a symptom of “malicious narcissism” (see the book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess the President). It’s consistent with the view that he is a con man who care little about the evidence-based truth. It raises questions about his competence. On this point, Mark Green and Ralph Nader report on how Trump “consistently makes verbal gaffes and asinine comments unprecedented for an Oval Office occupant, a person whose words are beamed to the world and speak for America” (Fake President: Decoding Trump’s Gaslighting, Corruption, and General Bullsh*T, p. 108). Green and Nader also have this example of his narcissism:

“Mika Brzezinski, MSNBC: ‘Given the dire foreign-policy issues percolating around the world right now, who are you consulting with consistency so that you’re ready on day one [of your presidency]?

“I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things… My primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for that stuff (3/16/16).

Trump pronounces the economy will stay open whatever the Covid-19 trend

Chris Walker reports that, whatever the scientists recommend, Trump will not again call for shutting down the economy again even if there is a second wave of the coronavirus with infections surging (https://truthout.org/articles/trump-says-he-will-not-close-the-country-if-second-wave-of-virus-hits). Trump made these remarks while touring a Ford Motor factory in Michigan on Thursday, May21. The president said: Bottom of Form“We are going to put out the fires. We’re not going to close the country,” Trump explained. “We can put out the fires. Whether it is an ember or a flame, we are going to put it out. But we are not closing our country.”

The position of most experts is that there will be a second wave of Covid-19. Walker cites an interview with The Washington Post this week had with Anthony Fauci, who is a well-known “member of Trump’s coronavirus task force and the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauchi says that a second wave is inevitable, it is not going to disappear, and it is highly transmissible. And, contrary to Trump’s position, Robert Redfield, “the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), did not rule out the possibility of implementing another round of shelter-in-place rules across the country if and when a second wave came about.” There is also concern that the United States is “not ready for another spike in coronavirus cases when it comes,”according to Walker’s quote from Megan Ranny, an emergency physician and researcher at Brown University. Walker refers to an NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll published in late May that finds “77 percent of American adults say that they worry about a second wave of coronavirus happening as more businesses across the country reopen. Less than a quarter of the American populace said they weren’t that concerned about it.” Perhaps this is a sign that most Americans are beginning to recognize Trump’s incompetency and real priorities. If so, this bodes well for the Democrats and some progressives in November.

 Creating the conditions for the continuation of Trump’s presidency

Opposition to a mail-in voting option

There is growing concern about how people can safely vote in the November election and this has highlighted in recent public discourse the need for a mail-in voting option. However, Julia Conley, staff writer for Common Dreams reports on how on May 26 Trump “alarmed pro-democracy advocates once again by elevating his attacks on voting rights by falsely claiming that mail-in ballots are inherently ‘rigged’ and suggested the results of the November general election would be illegitimate if a vote-by-mail system is used”( https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/05/26/scared-what-will-happen-if-he-lets-people-vote-rights-groups-know-why-trump-panicked).

While Trump has long railed against supposed “voter fraud,” Conley refers to “multiple studies showing cases of fraudulent voting are ‘vanishingly rare’ and nowhere near common enough to swing election results.” Trump’s recent spate of tweets on the issue were apparently in response to an executive order issued earlier in May by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, requiring that mail-in ballots be sent to every registered voter in the state for the November election. Trump’s opposition to mail-in ballots is based on his fear that they will lead to more votes for his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, than himself in the November election. This is a fear shared by the Republican Party. The Republican National Committee and other GOP groups that have filed a lawsuit challenging the California plan. Conley points out that mail-in balloting is not some new technology. She quotes activist Delilah Asterales who tweets: “They’ve been used for decades. The Military uses them. Entire states use them. YOU [Trump] used one. Get a grip.”

The reality is that they are scared that if voting is not made harder, then more people vote will vote but against them.  Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Colorado, Washington, Hawaii, Oregon, and Utah all conducted elections via mail-in voting. “In recent weeks ,” Conley adds, “other states including Michigan, Maryland, and Ohio have arranged to send paper ballots to voters for upcoming elections, following last month’s in-person primary election in Wisconsin which was linked to dozens of Covid-19 infections.” The implication of the opposition to mail-in voting by Trump and the Republican Party is that they would prefer to make voting difficult and hazardous amidst the pandemic than to have risk losing the elections in November. In this debate, one thing is clear, that is Trump thinks that less democracy will benefit him and the Republican Party.

Postponing the November election?

 For example, “the vapid little princeling Jared Kushner” told Time magazine “that he refused to rule out postponing the November election.” Abramsky adds: “That extraordinary statement could have been a trial balloon; if it was ignored or got positive feedback, Trump could advance the idea. If it got significant blowback, the administration could deny that Kushner was speaking officially and say that he simply tripped over his words.” But “they might not need to postpone the election if they can convince enough GOP state leaders to curtail mail-in voting so much that they make it all but impossible for citizens in densely populated urban neighborhoods to vote in person without risking their lives. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton kicked off the strategy by announcing this week that he would seek to bar the Lone Star State’s big cities from counting voters’ fear of Covid-19 as a valid reason for their being allowed to vote by mail. That adds a new layer of ugliness to the GOP’s years-long voter-suppression tactics” (https://www.thenation.com/articles/politics/trump-gop-coronavirus-fascism).

Reid J. Epstein reports on how the White House messaging on the 2020 election has many Democrats worried (https://nytimes.com/2020/05/24/us/politics/trump-2020-election-voting-rights.html). Some “worst-case scenario planners – mostly Democrats, but also some anti-Trump Republicans – have been [computer] gaming out how to respond to various doomsday options for the 2020 presidential election.” Their concerns “intensified in recent weeks as the president continues to attack the integrity of mail voting and insinuate that the election system is rigged, while his Republican allies ramp up efforts to control who can vote and how. Just last week, Mr. Trump threatened to withhold funding from states that defy his wishes on expanding mail voting, while also amplifying unfounded claims of voter fraud in battleground states.” For example, Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University law professor “convened an informal group of Democrats and never-Trump Republicans to brainstorm about ways the Trump administration could disrupt the election and to think about ways to prevent it.”

Marc Elias, “a Washington lawyer who leads the Democratic National Committee’s legal efforts to fight voter suppression measures,” worries “that the Trump administration could act in October to make it harder for people to vote in urban centers in battleground states — possibilities, he said, that include declaring a state of emergency, deploying the National Guard or forbidding gatherings of more than 10 people.” Elias has been “engaged in multiple lawsuits aimed at making it easier to cast absentee ballots by mail and making in-person voting more available, either on Election Day or in the preceding weeks.”

Ian Bassin, “the executive director of Protect Democracy, a nonprofit group dedicated to resisting authoritarian government, last year convened the National Task Force on Election Crises, a bipartisan 51-member group…that considered 65 possibilities that might wreck the 2020 presidential election. The group narrowed the possibilities down by January 2020 to “eight potential calamities, including natural disasters, successful foreign hacking of voting machines, a major candidate’s challenging the election and seeking to delegitimize the results, and a president who refuses to participate in a peaceful transfer of power.” After the Covid-19 pandemic emerged, the group published “pandemic-related recommendations for state governments to follow.” However, the question remains of just how much power does Trump have and how recklessly will he use it.

Inciting “a new civil war”

In an article published in Truthout on May 18, 2020, Chauncey De Vega refers to how on May 14 “the Michigan state legislature announced it would not convene because of threats of violence and chaos by armed right-wing militias and other paramilitaries, as previously seen during the recent anti-lockdown protests” (https://truthout.org/articles/far-right-extremists-hope-to-incite-new-civil-war-amid-political-chaos-of-covid). Such protests have been encouraged by statements coming from the White House. She writes:

“In what could be construed as an act of treason, President Trump recently ordered such paramilitary groups and right-wing thugs to take up arms and to threaten Democratic-led state governments such as Michigan’s in order to force them to ‘reopen’ their states. De Vega reports: “On Twitter, Trump actually told the pandemic ‘protestors’ to take up arms and force the Michigan state government and others to cease public health measures designed to slow down the coronavirus pandemic.” She adds: “Trump has been threatening to put Barack Obama and other prominent Democrats in prison for participating in a ‘conspiracy’ to overthrow him” [and he] continues to call Democrats and journalists ‘human scum.’”

One implication of such twitter streams is that armed militias and paramilitaries have allied with the Republican Party in its efforts to delegitimize and undermine democracy.

De Vega spoke with investigative journalist David Neiwert, a contributing writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center” and author of several books on the radical right, hate talk, and their conspiracy theories. Neiwert believes that the anti-lockdown protestors have been integrated with other right-wing groups like the Tea Party, the Patriot Movement, the Oath Keepers, and the Three Percenters. And they have been joined recently by the anti-vaxxers [those who think vaccines are harmful]. They are all obsessed with conspiracy theories, that is, views that are rooted in myths rather than verifiable evidence. He says: “The full integration of these right-wing militia groups and the Tea Party took some time to happen, but with Trump it is complete.” They have the back of some rich radically right-wing families like the DeVos family and the Koch Brothers. A lot of “the organizing is being done online on Facebook and elsewhere.” Neiwert said: “They see the pandemic as societal breakdown and therefore an opportunity to get out their guns and finally shoot all those liberals that they have wanted to kill for a very long time.”

According to Neiwert, these extremist groups are “waiting for a spark.” He asks the following question. “If Donald Trump loses the 2020 presidential election, will that be a signal for right-wing militias and paramilitaries to launch attacks against their enemies?” He also refers to Eric Prince, Betsy DeVos’ brother, who commands a “private army of mercenaries” that could potentially “cause a great harm to the country.”

De Vega finishes her article on an ominous note: “I have been writing about these dangers for more than 10 years. People said I was ‘alarmist’ back then. I don’t think they would say that about me anymore. Everything that I have warned about has exactly come true. In fact, under Trump things are worse than I predicted. America is at a key turning point right now in terms of surrendering to fascism. America must decide if it is going to become a damned and foul demon of a country by full surrendering to fascism and Donald Trump in the upcoming election.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

COVID-19 remains a pandemic as Trump pushes to reopen the broken economy

COVID-19 remains a pandemic as Trump pushes to reopen the broken economyBob Sheak, May 12, 2020

bobsheak@gmail.com

Intro

 This post focuses on the dilemma facing government about how to work toward a balance between the pandemic and the unprecedented decline in the economy. The health crisis stemming from the spread of COVID-19 continues to rise, even more than the official estimates indicate, while the rise in unemployment and other job-related problems soar to levels unprecedented since the early years of the Great Depression. Trump and his administration have adopted the view, contrary to what many experts are saying, that the health crisis is ebbing and that it is now time to “reopen” the economy and sideline government stay-in-place or lockdown guidelines. The actions of Trump administration and the US Congress have addressed some of the needs of businesses and the unemployed, but the lion’s share of benefits have gone to big corporations and the rich. Much of what Trump does is geared to what he thinks will advance his reelection chances in November. According to polls, a majority of American remain skeptical of Trump’s approach. It may also be the case that the present economic system has reached its limits and that transformative changes will be necessary to avoid an ongoing economic breakdown or the perpetuation of a system that is so full of contradictions, suffering, and ecological devastation. Alternatively, those right-wing forces with political and economic power may find ways to buttress their advantages. Either way, the country is in for difficult and challenging times lasting beyond November.

On the health side of the pandemic

Debbie Koenig reviews the evidence on COVID-19 over the first 100 days from January 20, when the first case in the US was confirmed, up to May 7(https://webmd.com/lung/news/20200507/100-days-into-covid10-where-do-we-stand). On May 7, there were 1.2 million confirmed cases in the US, while more than 70,000 people had died from the coronavirus. More recent data, just a few days later from Johns Hopkins, finds that by May 11, there were 1,329,799 confirmed cases and 79,528 deaths (https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html).  Koenig writes: “…because testing has been limited, experts say those numbers are really much larger.” She quotes Jeffrey Shaman, PhD, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, “who has led work to model national projections.” Shaman says: “We’re not doing well at all.” Koenig also quotes Caitlin Rivers, PhD., who is “a researcher from the John Hopkins Center for Health Security. Rivers testified before the House Appropriation Subcommittee on Wednesday” (May 6) that “[e]ven though some states have been relaxing social distancing restrictions, not one has met federal guidelines for being able to do so.” I discussed these guidelines in my last post.

Koenig identifies some of the “bad news” trends.

  • The United States has one-third of the confirmed cases worldwide, but we’re less than 5% of the world’s population. And we’re adding new cases at a faster daily rate than most other places on Earth.
  • Death projections vary, depending on which assumptions researchers make about social distancing and other factors, but most show us at around 100,000 COVID-19-related fatalities by the end of May.
  • The curve is flattening, but slowly. And if you take New York, the hardest-hit part of the country, out of the equation, it’s not flattening at all.
  • Some areas, like New York, Seattle, and New Orleans, seem to be past the worst of the outbreak.
  • Don’t expect life to get back to “normal” any time soon. Without firm federal guidance and a national testing policy, outbreaks will continue to pop up.
  • The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington has been making and updating projections based on the latest available data as well as the effects of efforts to ease the pandemic, like social distancing. They now project we could have more than 134,000 total COVID deaths by early August.
  • The statistics-focused websiteFiveThirtyEight tracks five models (including IHME’s), each of which makes different assumptions about social distancing behavior and the way the virus will behave. Those models show anywhere from 93,000 to 111,000 total deaths by May 30.
  • President Donald Trump saidrecently that as many as 100,000 Americans could die, twice as many as he’d predicted previously. But a preliminary interagency report from the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services offered a much bleaker assessment, saying we could have 3,000 deaths and 200,000 new confirmed cases every day by early June.
  • “We’re on a very slow decline on a national scale, and it’s highly variable from state to state. Some places are still growing, some are flat, some are in decline,” says Shaman. “But you want to quash it, not flatten it — you’d like to see a sharp decline.” That gives hospitals some breathing room, in case the numbers spike back up after restrictions are lifted.
  • Amesh A Adalja, MD and a senior scholar at the John Hopkins Center for Health Security, agrees. “The purpose of flattening is to keep the peak below hospital capacity,” he says. “It’s not about the number of deaths. And for that, I do think we’re in a better place than we were in March.” So even though the number of cases is still increasing in some areas, most experts aren’t worried about hospital capacity.
  • This flattening doesn’t mean we’re ready to start reopening the country, both Shaman and Adalja say.

However bad the COVID-19 the actual and expected trends, the situation is even worse than they indicate. Most of the data on confirmed cases is limited to  those who have had symptoms and have sought treatment, or are in work setting that have had outbreaks such as in  meat packing plants,  nursing homes, long-term facilities, jails and prisons. The data do not include those with the virus who have no symptoms but who can “shed” or spread the virus to others, representing perhaps another 15,000 to 20,000 cases. There are only now some efforts to track down those who have had the disease, shown no symptoms, but may have anti-bodies in their blood. But it has not yet been scientifically established whether people who have had the virus, diagnosed or not, are immune or how long they may be immune. Furthermore, there has been virtually no “contact tracing” to identify those in the population who have had recent associations with people who have been infected and who therefore could also be contagious. There are even questions about the data on documented deaths from the virus. Some unknown number of people have died in their homes of the virus without ever being diagnosed with the disease or being misdiagnosed.

In short, the current pandemic is worse than the official and expert estimates, the incidence and prevalence of the disease overall is likely to increase over the next two months. And, if the efforts to limit contact, stay-at-home, social distancing, wearing masks, and personal hygiene are not diligently followed, the experts tell us that the COVID-19 infections will spike upward again.

The unprecedented challenge before US political and economic decisionmakers is how to revive the economy without exacerbating COVID-19 – and,ideally taking into account, what kind of economy do the majority of people want.

An economy moving toward the limits of debt-generated limits, while besieged by depression-level unemployment

The income that enables a most Americans to purchase products and services from businesses comes from paid work in the private or public sectors of the economy, and lesser shares from government programs, investments, pensions (often job-related), and savings. The economy, as we know it, cannot function long with depression levels of unemployment. In the current economic crisis, the government, businesses, and a growing number of households are effected. And strikingly, a growing number of people are out of work or have only inadequate employment, have insufficient earnings, and often little or no savings.

Rising debt levels throughout the society

Meanwhile, the debt of the federal government is growing to wartime levels, while the debt burden of businesses, state and local governments, and a broad swath of Americans grow increasingly burdensome. More people find it difficult or impossible to acquire even the necessities of life.  Economic historian Michael Hudson has long argued that the only solution is to cancel all debts, particularly those of the federal government. See the first volume of his book series on “The Tyranny of Debt” – “…forgive them their debts.” The debt is not something that can be sneezed at or casually dismissed. Robert J. Samuelson gives the issue some worrisome  historical perspective.

“It is customary to express the federal debt as a share of the economy, or gross domestic product. By this measure, the publicly held federal debt was almost 80 percent, or $17 trillion, in 2019, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office. The debt was rising faster than the economy and was projected to reach 98 percent by 2030. That compares to the previous record of 106 percent of GDP after World War II.

“No more. The White House and Congress have already approved trillions of additional spending and tax cuts to cushion the effects of the pandemic. Previously, CBO projected deficits of about $1 trillion for 2020 and for 2021, or $2 trillion altogether. Now, the CBO’s total for those two years is $5.8 trillion, and the debt would reach 108 percent of GDP by the end of 2021.”

At some point, decisionmakers must find ways to address the system-wide economic problems or there will be even more suffering and chaos. There may be solutions buried in a consideration of how the debts have grown and how the federal government has addressed the pandemic. Just stop doing the same thing repeatedly.

The sources of the federal debt

Much of this debt stems from government policies that disproportionally favor the corporate-dominated private sector and the rich, from skewed tax cuts favoring the rich and corporations, corporate bail outs, and huge and rising military spending. On military spending, Juan Cole  reminds us of the money we squandered on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, writing: “George W. Bush and his administration squandered $6.4 trillion on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (https://www//juancole.com/2020/05/11/trillion-afghanistan-coronavirus.html).

Cole refers to the Iraq War: “With regard to Iraq, that was a war of choice. Iraq had not attacked the United States. Iraq’s secular government feared and hunted down al-Qaeda. Bush just didn’t like the looks of Iraq and decided to whack it.” He adds: “You did not need to make Afghanistan into an American colony and try to change the lifeways of its 37 million people. You did not need to invade and occupy Iraq (pop. 38 million) and try to rule it as though the United States were a sort of steampunk Imperial Britain under PM David Lloyd George. You did not need to have 2.7 million American service members serve 5.4 million military deployments. We did not need to drop an average of 3,500 bombs on Afghanistan yearly since 2006. (Quite apart from the death toll, can you imagine how much those bombs and rockets and missiles cost, each, and how much it cost to deliver them? Who was making money off all that? Not you and me.) You did not need to kill 800,000 people (the angry relatives of whom also started taking potshots at you, requiring you to bomb and kill more people).”

But these are not only the misbegotten wars of choice. See John W. Dower’s book, The Violent American Century or Andrew Bacevich’s The Age of Illusion: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

Miles Kampf-Lassin considers some of the skewed effects of  recent government policies that have fueled unprecedented levels of debt and reflect upper class and mega-corporate biases. He points, for example, to a recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies that found “America’s billionaires saw their wealth shoot up by $282 billion in just 23 days as the country was sheltering in lockdown (https://inthesetimes.com/article/22514/covid-19-coronavirus-wealthy-corporate-welfare).”

Overall, Kampf-Lassin finds evidence that “U.S. billionaire wealth grew by nearly 10% at the same time over 20 million people filed for unemployment, and by April 10 had passed $3.2 trillion—topping last year’s level. He continues. “To take just one example, Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO and already the richest person in the world, saw his fortune inflate by $24 billion in the first three months of the year, a surge the report’s authors say is ‘unprecedented in the history of modern markets.’ Meanwhile, his workers have staged a series of walkouts and other labor actions to protest a lack of basic workplace protections as warehouse employees have fallen ill with the virus, and some have died.” And adds: ‘As mass death overtook the country in April and the economy went into free fall, the U.S. stock market saw its best month in over three decades, a boon that has overwhelmingly benefited the richest people in the country. Private healthcare companies have seen major gains, boosting the fortunes of healthcare billionaires, just as an estimated 9 million Americans were booted off of their employer-sponsored insurance plans—a figure that could soon climb to 43 million.’”

The same upwardly biased tilt is reflected in government policies directed at COVID-19.

The direct cash payments of $1,200 and expanded unemployment insurance to small businesses had “acute flaws.” Kampf-Lassin points out: “The direct payment plan excludes millions, including undocumented immigrants, U.S. citizens married to noncitizens, many college students and other dependents. And even among those who are eligible, millions have not yet received their checks and some may have to wait up to five months. At the same time, thanks to a change to the tax code tucked into the relief package, 43,000 Americans who make more than $1 million will be saved an average of $1.7 million annually, costing U.S. taxpayers $90 billion in 2020 alone.”

The expanded unemployment insurance policy gave support to those “newly out of work, [but] also incentivized companies to lay off their workforces rather than retaining them while the government continues to provide them paychecks, as countries like the UK and Denmark are going.” Moreover: “The process of applying for the program has been deemed a “nightmare” for millions attempting to navigate an overwhelmed system.” Then, of all things, “workers at businesses newly deemed ‘essential’ such as meatpacking, are now being forced back to work, often in unsafe conditions—and those who refuse over concerns about their safety will lose this unemployment aid.”

The Small Business Paycheck Protection Program turns out “to be a bust for actual small businesses.” Continuing, he writes: “Of the original $350 billion allocated for these businesses in the CARES Act, over $243 million ended up going to large corporations. This includes the subsidizing of massive chains, luxury hotels and even Trump ‘megadonors’ like Monty Bennett, chairman of Ashford Hospitality Trust, who Forbes says ‘is believed to have received at least $59 million.’ As a result, only 5% of all small businesses were able to access those funds, and over 30 million are still struggling to receive relief.” The banks that are handling the loan applications under the PPP have “made off with $10 billion in fees – including many of the same banks that were bailed out by taxpayers during the last recession in 2008.”

But there’s more: “The true callousness of the approach can be seen most clearly in the corporate welfare at the heart of the relief effort. While often posed as a $500 billion fund for large companies, in fact, the CARES Act allocated over $4 trillion to corporate America, since the federal reserve can leverage the initial funding by a ratio of ten to one.”

The central question before the US government is whether a balance can be achieved between curtailing the pandemic and encouraging economic activity, and to do this before in a year or more there is a vaccine made available, mass produced and, if democratic values had any effect, widely distributed, affordable, and accessible. In the meantime, over the coming months into 2021, devising an economic policy that emphasizes the reopening of the economy that does not lead to the intensification of the pandemic will take extraordinary vision and expertise. These are qualities that Trump, his administration, the Republican Party, and his corporate and rich benefactors do not have. If, in the process, the reopening diverts or undermines efforts to fight the virus, then there is a high risk that the pandemic will rebound to dangerously high levels. In that eventuality, the economy is likely to suffer as well.

Trump acts as though there is no dilemma. He is betting the society’s wellbeing on a policy of reopening the economy with few guidelines, while providing some, though insufficient, resources to the states. While Trump and his administration are offering a rosy scenario of a robust economic recovery in the late fall, before the November election, and a recovery that occurs as the pandemic is, they say, vanquished. They provide no unifying leadership in the struggle against the pandemic and offer no economic plan, except to rely on the “market,” finding ways to give benefits to the mega-corporations and rich, and ensuring that the same neoliberal playbook of tax cuts, deregulation, privatization, and America-first trade policies remains the dominant ideological framework for policymaking.

The unprecedented jobs’ problem

The vast and growing jobs’ problem

New York Times’ journalists Nelson D. SchwartzBen Casselman and Ella Koeze analyze the official unemployment figures on data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for mid-March through mid-April, the most recent available data as of May 11 (https://nytimes.com/interactive/2020/05/08/business/economy/april-jobs-report.html). More than 20.5 million jobs were shed during this period, with an unemployment rate of 14.7 percent, which is higher than at any time since the early 1930s, when in 1933 it reached an estimated 25 percent. The 14.7 percent rate also exceeds the peak unemployment rate of 10 percent during the last recession in October 2009. And the unemployment figures would be even higher if they reflected the continuing shrinking of employment opportunities since mid-April.

The unemployment problem soared as reports of the Covit-19 pandemic led the federal government and many state governments to issue stay-at-home orders as more and more sectors of the economy shut down or drastically shrunk. By the end of April 30 million Americans had filed for unemployment benefits. The NYT journalists quote Michelle Meyer, head of U.S. economics at Bank of America: “What would typically take months or quarters to play out in a recession happened in a matter of weeks this time.”

However terrible the official unemployment numbers, they underestimate the full scope of the problem people are having in finding jobs that provide adequate pay and benefits. For persons to be counted as unemployed, they must have been actively looking for work during the four weeks prior to the employment survey. As Schwartz and his colleagues report,

“the measure ill-suited to a crisis in which the government is encouraging people to stay home. Some 6.4 million people left the labor force entirely in April, meaning they were neither working nor looking for work” and not counted as unemployed. Indeed, they note that the “share of the population with a job was at 51.3 percent, the lowest on record going back to the early1930s.”

There are other shortcomings of the official unemployment estimates. According to the BLS, “some unemployed workers were erroneously classified as employed but absent from work. Had they been recorded accurately, the unemployment rate would have been as much as five points higher, or nearly 20 percent.” The official estimates don’t reflect the number of workers who earn poverty-level wages or who have had their low- or modest wages slashed and now cannot make ends meet, or “the nearly 11 million people who reported working part time because they couldn’t find full-time work, up from about four million before the pandemic hit.”

Economist Jack Rasmus emphasizes how rapidly the unemployment problem has unfolded in recent weeks (https://popularresistance.org/the-myth-of-v-shape-economic-recovery). He writes on this point:

“For the magnitude and rapidity of the shutdown of the real economy in the US is no less unprecedented. Even during the great depression of the 1930s, the contraction of the real economy occurred over a period of several years—not months. It wasn’t until 1932-33 that unemployment had reached 25%.

“As of late April 2020, that 25% unemployment rate was already a fact. The official government data indicated 26.5m workers had filed for unemployment benefits. That’s about 16.5% of the 165 million US civilian labor force. Bank forecasts are 40 million jobless on benefits by the end of May. But respected research sources, like the Economic Policy Institute, recently estimated that as many as 13.9m more are actually out of work but have not yet been able to successfully file for unemployment benefits. So the 40 million jobless may already be here. And that’s roughly equivalent to a 25% unemployment rate. In other words, in just a couple months the US economy has collapsed to such an extent that the jobless ranks are at a level that took four years to attain during the great depression of the 1930s!”

“The Disastrous Employment Numbers – Almost Every Job Is At risk”

This the headline of Neil Irwin’s article, published in The New York Times (https://nytimes.com/2020/05/08/upshot/virus-jobless-rate-demand-collapse.html). He refers to a set of tables in the final pages of the BLS Statistics reports, which are about the number of jobs gained or lost in each industry. Astoundingly, as Irwin writes, “Across dozens and dozens of industries, only one added a meaningful number of jobs in April: general merchandise stores, including warehouse clubs and supercenters. They increased their payrolls by 93,400 positions.” And there were a few sectors that has small positive numbers, “including manufacturers of computers and peripherals (employment up 800), monetary authorities (up 100, not very many considering the trillions of dollars in assets the Federal Reserve is buying to stimulate the economy), and the U.S. Postal Service (up 500).”

But otherwise, industries lost jobs, as “Construction employment fell by 975,000. Manufacturing fell by 1.3 million, as assembly lines halted. Clothing stores’ employment dropped by 740,000. The motion picture industry cut 217,000 jobs, and truck transportation 88,000.” Additionally, “Law firm employment was down 64,000 positions, and computer systems design by 93,000. Local governments cut 801,000 jobs, just over half of them in education,” while “employment in health care fell by 1.4 million as Americans avoided visits to their doctors and dentists for all but the direst emergencies.” Irwin draws the following lesson from the data: “We’re all vulnerable, whether we work in an office or a factory or a construction site; whether our employer is public or private; whether our work can easily be migrated to a home office or not.”

Some segments of the population suffer more than others

Schwartz et al refer to the BLS report that found that the hardship of the employment situation has unsurprisingly struck some segments of the population more than others (https://nytimes.com/interactive/2020/05/08/business/economy/april-jobs-report.html). For example, “Low-wage workers, including many women and members of racial and ethnic minorities, have been hit especially hard. Many service jobs are impossible to do remotely and have been eliminated, and some workers have risked their health by staying on the job.”

Writing on “social trends” for the Pew Research Center, Kim Parker, Juliana Menasce Horowitz, and Anna Brown report on a new Pew survey dealing with the “economic toll from the coronavirus outbreak.” The survey included interviews with 4,917 U.S. adults conducted April 7-12, 2020, using the Center’s American Trends Panel (https://pewsocialtrends.org/2020/04/21/about-half-of-lower-income-americans-report-housholds-job-or-wage-loss-due-to-covid-19).

Parker and her colleagues point out that lower income Americans were “feeling significant financial pressure well before the current crisis.” Indeed, average wages have stagnated for forty years, millions of Americans have not had affordable access to necessities (e.g., health care, decent housing, adequately financed public education, even minimally adequate public assistance).

The scope of those in difficult financial circumstances has expanded. They write: “Overall, 43% of U.S. adults now say that they or someone in their household has lost a job or taken a cut in pay due to the outbreak, up from 33% in the latter half of March. Among lower-income adults, an even higher share (52%) say they or someone in their household has experienced this type of job upheaval.” But the financial problems are not limited to those with low incomes. Summarizing other parts of the survey, Parker and her colleagues make the following points.

  • In addition to being among the hardest hit by the economic fallout from COVID-19, lower-income adults are less prepared to withstand a financial shock than those with higher incomes. Only about one-in-four (23%) say they have rainy day funds set aside that would cover their expenses for three months in case of an emergency such as job loss, sickness or an economic downturn, compared with 48% of middle-income and 75% of upper-income adults.1And while 53% of lower-income adults say they will have trouble paying some of their bills this month, about a quarter of middle-income adults and 11% of those in the upper income tier say the same.
  • Only 23% of adults now rate national economic conditions as excellent or good, down dramatically from 57% at the beginning of 2020.
  • Job losses continue to be felt more acutelyby some groups than others. Roughly six-in-ten Hispanic adults (61%) say they or someone in their household has lost a job or taken a cut in pay due to the coronavirus outbreak. This compares with roughly half or fewer of black and white adults. And adults without a bachelor’s degree remain more likely to report job or wage loss in their household compared with college graduates.
  • The extent to which U.S. adults are prepared for a financial emergency also varies significantly across demographic groups. Overall, 47% of Americans say they have rainy day funds on hand that would cover their expenses for up to three months. While this is the case for a majority of white adults, those ages 65 and older and college graduates, it’s not the norm for most other groups. For example, only about a third or fewer of black and Hispanic adults, those younger than 30 and those with no college experience say they have this type of rainy day fund.
  • Among those who don’t have emergency funds, relatively few say they could tap into other resources in order to make ends meet. Only 28% say they would be able to cover their basic expenses by borrowing money, using their savings or selling assets.
  • Even without a financial emergency, many Americans say they have trouble paying their monthly bills. About one-in-four adults (24%) say they cannot pay some of their bills or can only make partial payment on them in a typical month. A larger share (32%) say they won’t be able to pay their bills this month. The gap in the share saying they won’t be able to pay their bills this month compared with an average month is particularly wide among Hispanic adults: 44% say they won’t be able to pay all of their bills this month, while 28% say this is typically the case.
  • Given these financial constraints, more than half of adults who expect to receive a direct paymentfrom the federal government as part of its coronavirus aid package say they will use a majority of the money to pay bills or for something essential for themselves or their family. About one-in-five (21%) say they will save a majority of the money, and 14% say they will use it to pay off debt. The remaining 10% say they’ll use it for something else.2 Again, there are differences by key demographic groups, with black and Hispanic adults, those without a college degree and those in the lower-income tier more likely to say they will use the money to pay bills or cover essential needs.

The states do not have the resources to battle the pandemic without substantial federal support

The Washington Post’s editorial board puts together a case against Trump’s proposal to have the states take responsibility for  reopening the economy despite the rising deaths that are expected from Covid-19 (https://washingtonpost.com/opinion/trump-is-pushing-to-reopen-too-soon-the-consequencies-could-be-tragic/2020/05/06/). They write: “…Yet Mr. Trump, who decided not to conduct a broad federal effort to battle the novel coronavirus and instead passed responsibility to the governors, is now urging them to reopen too soon, risking more infections, more death and still more economic loss. “Will some people be affected? Yes,” Mr. Trump said Tuesday [May 5]. “Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon.”

The editors make the following points. One, “the president is ignoring the strategy he embraced just weeks ago,” when “the White House announced a series of guidelines for governors to phase in reopening, with criteria such as achieving a ‘downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period and putting robust testing in place.” Two, there is nationwide, in state after state, an inadequate capacity for “diagnostic testing and contact tracing so that offices and factories can cautiously begin to resume work without triggering more sickness.” Three, the federal government has failed to provide leadership and has been a major cause of the shortfalls of protective masks and other personal protective equipment. They refer to the whistleblower complaint filed by a senior Health and Human Services official, Rick Bright, that when he warned a group of senior officials known as the Disaster Leadership Group on Feb. 7 about a shortfall of protective masks, other officials responded ‘there was no indication of a supply chain shortage or of issues with masks, and therefore there was no need to take immediate action.’ Such missteps have been endemic.”

One of Democracy Now’s headlines on May 7 highlights the concern about the inability of states to deal with the growing challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic (https://www.democracynow.org/2020/05/07/headlinels). The headline reads:

“The Associated Press reports a 17-page report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offering step-by-step advice to local leaders on when and how to reopen public places has been shelved, with one CDC official saying the document ‘would never see the light of day.’ On Capitol Hill, the House Appropriations Committee heard testimony Wednesday from two medical experts who said not a single state or territory in the United States has met all of the White House’s own criteria for safely reopening. Dr. Caitlin Rivers, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, said states lack adequate diagnostic testing and the capacity to carry out contact tracing. And she warned that many of the states that are reopening have rising rates of coronavirus infections.”

Trump’s approach fails to offer a solution to the dilemma or generate public support

 Trump and his corporate backers want a quick recovery, but it’s unlikely

Economist Jack Rasmus takes this position (https://popularresistance.org/the-myth-of-v-shape-economic-recovery). But, contrariwise, Trump’s supporters from the mega-corporate sectors of the economy are advancing the idea that reopening the economy will lead to a quick economic rebound. Rasmus puts it this way: “Business interests are pushing Trump and Republicans to reopen quickly, regardless of the likely consequences for a second wave of the virus devastating national health and death rates. There is a growing segment of US business interests desperate to see a return to sales and revenue, without which they face imminent defaults and bankruptcies after a decade of binging on corporate debt. A growing wave of defaults and bankruptcies could very well provoke an eventual financial crisis, which would exacerbate the collapse of the real economy even further.” The evidence indicates, furthermore, that the massive government financial assistance directed at American business is not enough to revive the economy. On this point, Rasmus reminds us:

“So far the Federal Reserve central bank has committed to $9 trillion in loans and financial backstopping to the banks and non-banks, in an unprecedented historic experiment by the Fed. Not just the magnitude of the Fed bailout in dollar terms, already twice that the central bank employed in 2008-09 to bail out the banks in that prior crash, but the Fed this time is not waiting for the banks to fail. It’s pre-emptively bailing them out! Also new is the Fed is bailing out non-banks as well, trying to delay the defaults and bankruptcies at their origin, before the effects began hitting the banking system. Bailing out non-banks is new for the Fed as well, no less than the pre-emptive bank rescue and the $9 trillion—and rising—total free money being thrown at the system. But it should not be assumed the Fed will succeed, despite its blank check to banks and businesses. Its historic, unprecedented experiment is not foreordained to succeed….”

However, rather than the quick economic recovery lauded by the Trump administration, the realty is quite different, as Rasmus sums it up: “Many small businesses never re-open and when they do with fewer employees and often at lower wages. Larger companies hoard their cash. Banks typically are very slow to lend with their own money. Other businesses are reluctant to invest and expand, and thus rehire, given the cautious consumer spending, business hoarding, and banks’ conservative lending behavior. The Fed, the central bank, can make a mass of free money and cheap loans available, but businesses and households may be reluctant to borrow, preferring to hoard their cash—and the loans as well.”

Trump’s personal perspective on reopening the economy quickly and safely is illusory

Greg Sargent argues that Trump has been promoting “the illusion that the country is returning to normalcy over taking concrete steps that might make that actually happen safely” and in the process making a successful economic recovery less likely (https://washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/07/big-ugly-paradox-hovering-over-trumps-latest-deceptions). The president is obsessed with doing whatever it takes to bring the economy back from its decline and thus, from his perspective, to increase the chances of his reelection. And he believes that his personal charisma will shape the economy to new heights. It doesn’t matter that his views regularly conflict with what is actually happening in the economy.

Sargent articulates his view of Trump as follows:

“Trump prizes his magical reality-bending powers so highly that he’d rather rely on them to deliver him reelection, because he fears taking the governing steps necessary to get us back to normalcy will render his reelection less likely as well — the real world consequences be damned.” Real efforts would take too long to implement and, implicitly, would bring into question the neoliberal economic assumptions that have been part and parcel of Republican and right-wing views of the economy since the Reagan administration.

Sargent offers the following points on how Trump’s illusionary and misconceived perspective on the economy is linked to his reelection aspirations – and also, one may add, to the underlying neo-liberal ideology which has done so much to shape the economy, with its slow growth, unprecedented inequality, and hollowing out of government regulatory authority.

One, Sargent refers to “a remarkable new Associated Press scoop, which reports that Trump is deliberately refraining from wearing a protective mask in public because he thinks it will damage him politically, for multiple reasons.” Here Sargent quotes the AP scoop: “Trump has told advisers that he believes wearing one would ‘send the wrong message,’ according to one administration and two campaign officials not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations. The president said doing so would make it seem like he is preoccupied with health instead of focused on reopening the nation’s economy — which his aides believe is the key to his reelection chances in November.” In addition, Sargent writes, “Trump, who is known to be especially cognizant of his appearance on television, has also told confidants that he fears he would look ridiculous in a mask and the image would appear in negative ads, according to one of the officials.”

Two, Trump emphasizes how the economy will recover soon and reach new levels of prosperity, because he fears that a preoccupation with the virus and the massive health consequences that the society is experiencing would undermine his reelection campaign.

Three, the president overrates the level of testing for Covid-19 that has been done and the need for more federal involvement in testing, arguing that the “private sector will generate enough testing supplies on its own. But Sargent points to another reason by quoting Trump: “In a way, by doing all this testing, we make ourselves look bad.”

The political impact of the dual crises on Trump is uncertain

Thomas B. Edsall, who writes a weekly opinion piece for The New York Times, asks why Trump’s poll ratings have been so low, given how one might expect him to benefit “through heightened xenophobia, increased acceptance of authoritarian leadership, racial and ethnic schism (https://nytimes.com/2020/05/06/opinion/coronavirus-trump-authoritarianism.html).

 Nonetheless, recent polls indicate the opposite. According to a “P.R.R.I. survey released on April 30 shows Trump’s brief surge of two months ago [is]slipping.” The poll finds that Trump’s favorability rating has dropped seven points over the last four weeks. Today, just over four in ten (43 percent) Americans hold mostly or very favorable views of Trump, compared to a 54 percent majority who hold mostly or very unfavorable views of him.” Edsall draws this implication: public concern over Trump’s competence in handling the spread of the coronavirus has for the moment outstripped the socially regressive forces that Trump has thrived on.” For the moment.

Edsall quotes Robert Jones, the found and CEO of P.R.R.I., who writes: “If history has a lesson for us here, it is this: Where there is a massive wave of suffering and death, a second wave of racism and xenophobia is typically not far behind.” He continues: “Experiences of mass grief and economic stress easily generate a desire for someone to blame.” The political and social responses to an outbreak of infectious disease is also related to how severe the outbreak is. Edsall quotes the findings of Randy Thornhill and his colleagues who write: “populations characterized by a high prevalence of infectious diseases’ foster what they call ‘value systems’ characterized by ethnocentric attitudes, adherence to existing traditions, behavioral conformity, xenophobia and neophobia.”

The evidence is undeniable that the current pandemic “is not only wreaking destruction on public health and the global economy but disrupting democracy and governance worldwide” and “it risks exacerbating democratic backsliding and authoritarian consolidation.” In sync with this finding, Trump’s favorability ratings rose in March, but  in an email from to Edsall,  Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard, wrote that it was only a “minor bump” and “suggests that most Americans aren’t buying the con this time around.”

At the same time, some experts consulted by Edsall find that the pandemic is less likely to sway the views of ardent Trump supporters when it comes to the November election. However, others hold the view that the Covid-19 pandemic re-focuses the attention of at least some of Trump’s grassroots’ supporters on the problems of the health care system, sidelines the immigration issue, and increases faith in health-care experts, while accepting the widely proclaimed notion that health care workers are heroes. How all this play out in November no one knows. Though Edsall thinks one thing is clear: “The more Trump feels cornered, the more dangerous he and his angry, frightened followers can become.”

Presently, most Americans are wary of wholesale reopening of the economy and public spaces, but there are partisan divisions

 Dan Balz and Emily Guskin address this issue in an article for the Washington Post, May 5, 2020 (https://washingtonpost.com/politics/americans-widely-oppose-reopening-most-businesses-despite-easing-of-restrictions-in-some-states-post-u-md-poll-finds/2020).

They cite a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll that finds “Americans clearly oppose the reopening of restaurants, retail stores and other businesses, even as governors begin to lift restrictions that have kept the economy locked down in an effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic.” According to the poll, “[m]any Americans have been making trips to grocery stores and 56 percent say they are comfortable doing so. But 67 percent say they would be uncomfortable shopping at a retail clothing store, and 78 percent would be uncomfortable eating at a sit-down restaurant. People in states with looser restrictions report similar levels of discomfort as those in states with stricter rules.”

The poll also finds that Americans tend to trust their governors more than Trump: “Trump’s ratings are 44 percent positive and 56 percent negative, in line with where he was two weeks ago and only slightly worse than a week ago. Governors earn positive marks from 75 percent of Americans, about the same as a week ago. Partisan differences remain sizable, with nearly 8 in 10 Republicans but just about 2 in 10 Democrats rating Trump positively. In contrast, governors earn big positive majorities across the parties.” Other findings, as follows.

  • Americans also overwhelmingly approve of the way federal public health scientists, including Anthony S. Fauci, have dealt with the challenges from the coronavirus. Fauci’s positive rating stands at 74 percent. He maintains wide bipartisan appeal, winning positive marks from more than two-thirds of Republicans and independents, and nearly 9 in 10 Democrats. Public health scientists in the federal government overall are rated 71 percent positive.
  • In announcing plans to ease the restrictions on businesses, governors have emphasized that their actions represent a gradual and cautious reopening of their economies. Nonetheless, when asked about eight different types of businesses, majorities of Americans say they oppose ending the restrictions on each of the eight. The Post-U. Md. poll asked about the following types of businesses: gun stores, dine-in restaurants, nail salons, barbershops and hair salons, retail establishments such as clothing stores, along with gyms, golf courses and movie theaters. The most significant opposition is to reopening movie theaters, with 82 percent of Americans saying they should not be allowed to open up in their state. There is also broad opposition to reopening gyms (78 percent opposed), dine-in restaurants and nail salons (both with 74 percent opposed).

Gun stores are next, with 70 percent saying they should not be reopened, followed by barbershops and hair salons (69 percent opposed) and retail shops such as clothing stores (66 percent opposed) and golf courses (59 percent opposed).”

Concluding thoughts

 At this point, there is not a clear resolution in sight for the reopening/pandemic delimma.Trump and his allies want to preserve a corporate-dominated economy, existing levels of inequality, and right-wing political control, if not dominance. However, the pandemic and its increasingly dire health and economic effects are unlikely to be resolved before there is an effective vaccine. And even then there is the political question of whether the dual crises will open up opportunities or not for opponents of the present capitalist system to transform  the system, eliminate the rigged politics and the outrageous levels of inequality, as well as to strengthen the position of  the broad working class , to win the rights to tens of millions of Americans to health care and other basic necessities, and in all ways to advance the common good and sustainable ecosystems. What has become clear during these crises is that Trump and his allies have a great tolerance for the death of ordinary Americans and an insatiable appetite for recovering the pre-COVID-19 status quo. What is not clear is whether there are enough Americans who want something different and can be mobilized to work and vote for a more liberal/leftist alternative, that is, if one is available.

Reopening America: a conundrum

Bob Sheak – April 25, 2020

wordpress.com/posts/vitalissues-bobsheak

This post focuses on the White House proposal to reopen America. It is a proposal pushed by President Trump and his economic advisers but only reluctantly supported, if not opposed, by his scientific advisers. Trump is anxious for the economy to come back from its current decline as quickly as possible, because he believes his chance to be reelected hinge significantly on having a good economy. So far, the polls indicate that a majority of Americans choose to stay on the path encouraged by the scientists.

Extraordinary dual crises

There are two systemic trajectories stemming from the onset and spread of the Coronavirus in the United States. One is health related. The Covid-19 virus is causing a massive health crisis, spreading rapidly across the country and the world, transmitted between people and carried across communities, cities, regions, states, and countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020 (https://time.com/5791661/who-coronavirus-pandemic-declaration). At that time, WHO pointed to over 118,000 cases of the disease in over 110 countries and territories with an ongoing risk of further global spread. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general said at the time that “it is a crisis that will touch every sector.” A pandemic, he said, often applies to new influenza strains that are “able to infect people easily and spread from person to person in an efficient and sustained way” in multiple regions. By April 22, according to The Washington Post, “[m]ore than 800,000 coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the United States, with nearly 45,000 reported deaths. Worldwide, more than 2.5 million infections and 175,000 deaths have been reported” in 182 countries (https://washingtonpost.com/world/2020/04/22/cornonavirus-latest-news). Note the virus spread across the world by 2.4 million cases in just 42 days. And these numbers represent only those with symptoms who have sought medical treatment and/or been tested for Covid-19. The great majority of people abroad and in the US have yet to be tested or traced.

The other trajectory reflects the vast economic effects of the pandemic, causing in the United States extreme and widespread economic dislocations, with widespread business closures, rising job losses at depression-levels, and severe deprivation of all sorts among already economically challenged and vulnerable populations. Many state and local governments are experiencing growing fiscal deficits, as sales and income taxes generate less and less money. Consider just the employment impact. Patricia Cohen and her colleagues at The New York Times report the latest government figures on April 23 as follows: “The grim economic toll from the coronavirus pandemic jumped on Thursday when the government reported another 4.4 million people filed new unemployment claims last week, bringing the five-week total to more than 26 million” (https://nytimes.com/2020/04/23/business/stock-market-today-coronavirus.html). With respect to the administration’s proposal for the states to begin planning for the reopening of economies, they point out that it is “understandable when epidemiological and medical experts tell us that there are grave risks in reopening the returning to normal economic activities before the pandemic is well on the way to eliminating the virus. If businesses re-open and workers return to work too soon, then there is a risk that the virus will begin spreading again.”

Trump says wants to reopen the economy soon, despite expressions of caution from scientific adviser

 Chris Walker considers  the reasons for why Trump is pushing to reopen the economy, “even as a number of prominent health experts…are expressing alarm that a premature return to normalcy could create serious setbacks in the nation’s attempts to contain the virus” (https://truthout.org/articles/trumps-push-to-reopen-economy-on-may-1-puts-his-reelection-above-public-health). In an article published in Truthout  on April 10, Walker cites a Washington Post article on Trump’s thinking on the issue, namely, that the president has suggested in phone calls to advisers outside the White House that “he has a strong desire to reopen the nation’s businesses by May 1 or sooner.” He is worried about how “the bad economic news” of rising unemployment rates and a looming recession or worse could damage his reelection chances in November. The president has often spoken publicly about “his wishes for a fast reopening of the nation’s economy.” Walker quotes what Trump said at a press beefing on April 9:

“Hopefully we’re going to be opening up — you can call it ‘opening’ — very, very, very, very soon, I hope. We’re at the top of the hill, pretty sure we’re at the top of the hill.”

In the televised Coronavirus Task Force “briefing” aired on MSNBC on April 22, Trump kept insisting that the pandemic will be all but vanquished by the fall, when there will only be scattered “embers” of the virus existing here and there. In his exuberance, he sometimes says that he and his administration have created the conditions for a reopening of much of the economy in the latter part of April or in May. If the economy is largely reopened in the fall, it will be recorded as a political plus for Trump’s obsessive presidential aspirations and could well be the decisive factor leading to his reelection.

On April 16, the President’s Coronavirus Task Force  put forth a set of nonbinding guidelines, “Opening Up America Again,” designating the criteria and the conditions that should inform when and how fast governors decide to move toward reopening their respective state economies (https://whitehouse.gov/openingamerica). Trump now emphasizes that the final decisions lie with the states, not the President. Peter Baker and Michael D. Shear report as much, writing: “President Trump told the nation’s governors on Thursday [April 16] that they could begin reopening businesses, restaurants and other elements of daily life by May 1 or earlier if they wanted to, but abandoned his threat to use what he had claimed was his absolute authority to impose his will on them.” They report as well that the President “has previously said that as many as 29 states could reopen soon” (https://nytimes.come/2020/04/16/us/politics/coronavirus-trump-guidelines.html).

White House guidance for reopening the economy

The Opening Up America document, 18 pages long, outlines a “phased approach.” First, however, there are a list of criteria for governors to satisfy before taking any steps to reopen their state economies, and what they should be prepared to undertake, including “testing and contact tracing,” an adequate “healthcare system capacity,” plans to facilitate the reopening of their economies, and guidelines for continued good individual practices.” Even then, governors should proceed only when there is a “downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses (LIL) reported with a 14 day-period” and a “downward trajectory of Covid-like symptoms” reported over 14 days. It goes on.

There a few lines on what employers should have in place before they open their businesses. Employers should have “social distancing and protective equipment” for their employees, be able to carry out “temperature checks” on workers and customers, have sanitized their workplaces, disinfected common and high-traffic areas, and limited business travel. They should also be able to monitor the workforce for “indicative symptoms” and “not allow symptomatic people to physically return to work until cleared by a medical provider.” Furthermore, they should “develop and implement policies and procedures for workforce contact tracing following employee COVID-19 test.” These requirements are scientifically reasonable given the lethality of the Covid-19 virus. However, it stretches the imagination to think that most employers have the capacity or willingness to institute such a broad range of protections. And it’s not at all clear how the government would enforce the guidelines. Perhaps it will be the customers who will make the difference.

The guidelines are not legally obligatory but voluntary – and generalized with little instructive detail. Baker and Shear point out the Opening Up America document does not confront , for example, some difficult questions: “how to finance the billions of dollars necessary for expanded testing; whether travel should be restricted between states; when the ban on international travel from Europe and elsewhere would be lifted; and how the states should deal with future shortages of protective equipment if the virus resurged in the fall.”
The guidelines

If the preconditions for the Opening Up America guidelines are met, then the document advises that the reopening of businesses should proceed through three phases. States may enter this phased process only if they have satisfied the preconditions previously reviewed, particularly a 14-day decline in reported Covid-19 infections and a well-provisioned health care system. Dr. Deborah Birx, one the principal science experts on the President’s Coronavirus Task Force, identifies the conditions and practices that should exist in a given state or county as they initiate phase one and then at some unspecified time move onto the subsequent phases (https://nypost.com/2020/04/16/trump-unveils-opening-up-american-plan-aims-for-may-1).

Phase 1, which recommends continued social distancing, closure of schools, teleworking and sheltering in place for vulnerable individuals. Non-essential travel would be discouraged, bars should remain closed and visits to nursing homes and hospitals should remain prohibited, the guidelines warn. “If a vulnerable population needs to return to work, there should be special accommodations for all vulnerable populations. If the schools are already closed, they should remain closed,” Birx said. “All visits to senior living facilities should continue to be prohibited. Large venues can only be operated under strict physical distancing protocols. Gyms could open if they adhere to strict physical distancing.” The concept of “strict physical distancing” has become defined as having persons remain at least six feet apart. (And all employees and customers should wear masks, be screened to ensure they do not have the disease, practice social distancing, and have access to well sanitized environments.)

Phase 2 follows when there is a further decline in Covid-19 cases. Then states and local governments can allow schools, restaurants, and bars to reopen with diminished occupancy. Non-essential travel can resume, and people can gather in groups no larger than 50, but teleworking is still encouraged. “This is for the employers. We still would like to encourage telework, and the common areas should remain closed or be physically distant,” Birx said. “This should be a relief to many households that have small children: schools, day cares and camps can reopen in Phase 2. Visits to senior living facilities however should remain and hospitals prohibited.”

Phase 3 occurs when there are virtually no new cases of the virus, in which case states and local governments may allow workplaces to reopen with no restrictions, and visits to senior care centers and hospitals can resume. “It is essentially returning to our new normal. Good hygiene practices and continuing the respect for spaces between individuals continues, because we know that we still have an issue with asymptomatic spread,” Birx said. At this point, the guidelines are framed as follows: “Vulnerable individual can resume public interactions, but should practice physical distancing, minimizing exposure to social settings where distancing may not be practical, unless precautionary measures are observed.” Employers may “resume unrestricted staffing of worksites.” People can visit senior care facilities and hospitals. Large venues (“e.g., sit-down dining, movie theaters, sporting venues, places of worship) can operate under limited physical distancing protocols,” “gyms can remain open if they adhere to standard sanitation protocols,” and “bars may operate with increased standing room occupancy.”

It remains to be seen whether many counties and locales within the various states will be able to satisfy the conditions that precede with the phased opening of their economies. There is no doubt that the federal government will have to provide substantial support in many cases, but even then the proposed guidelines allowing for a safe reopening of businesses, workplaces, sports events, concerts, supermarkets, and public spaces, nursing home and long-term care facilities, will require behavior that wasn’t normative prior to the outbreak, it will be costly, and many people and families will require public assistance in what may well be a long transition to the new normalcy.

How Trump is playing it

The Opening Up America document provides political cover for the president in the event that the actual reopening of the economy should lead to an increase in infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. If high rates continue through May and in the following months, the president is will be in position where he can disclaim responsibility for any setbacks in the struggle against Covid-19 by claiming, one, that the Opening Up America guidelines were created the experts on his task force and therefore they, not he, are to blame. And, two, he can cast blame on the governors who under the coronavirus task force plan have the independent authority to follow the guidelines or not.

Bear in mind two other factors. All of this unfolds in a context in which, to reiterate, there has so far been too little testing to identify the infected population, little contact tracing, and shortages of protective personal equipment and other medical supplies for hospitals, medical personnel as well as for businesses, most workers, or the public at large. And, bear in mind also, the neoliberal policies that have been pushed by Republicans in the White House and Congress for forty years, including most of Trump’s presidency, have overall weakened the public health system in the US and left it sorely unprepared for this pandemic. Trump, his administration, his task force, state governments, the medical community, businesses have all been playing catchup due to how belated and confusingly the Trump administration came to acknowledge the crisis.

For one elucidation of the neoliberal scuttling of the US safety net, see the article by Candice Amich and Uimanthi Perera-Rajasingham, “Declaring War on a Virus Ignores the Neoliberal Policies that Put Us Here” (https://truthout.org/articles/declaring-war-on-a-virus-ignores-the-neoliberal-policies-that-put-us-here).

Cautionary views

Fauci

 Chris Walker (cited above) quotes Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a coronavirus task force member, who believes “the approach proposed by Trump could result in serious repercussions for the nation.” And, quoting from an earlier CNN interview, Fauci said he wants to see “a clear indication” that the infection rate in the U.S. is “very clearly and strongly going in the right direction” before the economy is reopened.” And then on Friday, April 10, Fauci pointed out: “The virus kind of decides whether or not it’s going to be appropriate to open or not. He added that “prematurely” opening businesses and other places that have shuttered due to social distancing could result in the country winding up “back in the same situation” that we presently find ourselves in. That is, if the economy is opened prematurely and without the introduction of a detailed plan, the number of infections and deaths from the virus will rebound. Then on April 22, according to a report sent out by Yahoo, “Dr. Anthony Fauci said he was convinced the coronavirus would be around in the United States until at least the fall but that the scope of those cases depended on the American people abiding by social distancing measures and lawmakers listening to public health advice before reopening segments of the country” (https://yahoo.com/huffpost/fauci-coronavirus-fall-021009936.html).

Redfield

In an article published in Washington Post, Lena H. Sun reports about concerns of the CDC Director Robert Redfield about how next fall and winter the Covid-19 pandemic will still be with us and will coincide with the flu season (https://washingtonpost.com/health/2020/04/21/coronavirus-secondwave-cdcdirector). She quotes Redfield: “There’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through. And when I have said this to others, they kind of put their head back, they don’t understand what I mean.” He said that we must be careful in any actions undertaken or planned to reopen the economy. According to Sun, “Redfield said federal and state officials need to use the coming months to prepare for what lies ahead.” She continues her quote of Redfield: “As stay-at-home orders are lifted, officials need to stress the continued importance of social distancing. Officials also need to massively scale up their ability to identify the infected through testing and find everyone they interact with through contact tracing. Doing so prevents new cases from becoming larger outbreaks.”

The CDC is in the process of drafting “detailed guidance for state and local governments on how they can ease mitigation efforts, moving from drastic restrictions such as stay-at-home orders in a phased way to support a safe reopening.” While the CDC “has about 500 staff in the states working on a variety of public health issues,” many now working on the covid-19 response, Redfield said “CDC also plans to hire at least another 650 personnel as experts to ‘substantially augment’ public health personnel in the states and assist with contact tracing, among other tasks.” He acknowledged that “a much larger workforce is needed,” and was “talking with state officials about the possibility of using Census Bureau workers and Peace Corps and AmeriCorps volunteers to build an ‘alternative workforce.’” Former CDC director Tom Frieden estimates that “as many as 300,000 contact tracers will be needed. And:

“The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials — which represents state health departments — estimate 100,000 additional contact tracers are needed and call for $3.6 billion in emergency funding from Congress.”

The thrust of Redfield’s statements is that preparations to mitigate the pandemic must grow and continue for the foreseeable future.

The testing gap

 Chris Walker notes that health experts are concerned about a reopening “because there aren’t enough testing kits across the nation to determine which states are able to move in that direction.” Asked to respond to the protests on the Good Morning America show hosted by George Stephanopoulos on Monday, April 20, “Fauci tried to show sympathy for their cause while also noting how their goals couldn’t be achieved without controlling the virus first.” And, he also said “The message is that clearly this is something that is hurting, from the standpoint of economics and the standpoint of things that have nothing to do with the virus. But unless we get the virus under control, the real recovery economically is not going to happen,” Fauci said.

In an opinion piece, The New York Times editorial board addresses the challenge of marshalling resources to support the massive testing that is required for mitigation efforts and to provide necessary information to guide governors who are planning to open up some parts of their economies that have been shut down due to the pandemic (https://www.nyt.com/2020/04/21/opinion/coronavirus-test.html). The editors argue that there is a need for far more tests than have thus far been done. In the week ending on April 16, “about 150,000 Americans per day were tested for the coronavirus, according to the Covid Tracking Project. This total number of testing had remained the same over the previous two weeks.

The NYT editorial board asks, “How much more is needed?” To enable a safe resumption of economic activity even in phase one of the White House plan, it would take “from 500,000 tests per day to five million per day, and beyond.” They refer to a Rockefeller Foundation report published on Tuesday, April 14, that lays out “a useful road map for the United States to reach three million tests per week by late June.” According to the report, 3 million tests per week “would be sufficient to test people with coronavirus symptoms, people identified as coming into contact with those who have the virus and people at high risk if they get the virus.’ The foundation assumes that 3 million tests per week “would allow for a limited return to normal activity [at phase one level] across much of the country.” In order to achieve this level of testing, laboratory facilities that “currently perform other kinds of tests, including university labs and small private labs” would have to be conscripted to focus on tests relevant for the Covid-19 virus. The foundation’s report “estimates that two-thirds of the nation’s molecular testing capacity is used for other purposes and could easily be redirected.” The report calls for the creation of a nonprofit, a central hub, “to place bulk orders for needed supplies, that is, to ensure that there are no shortage of critical supplies to carry out the testing in any location. At a fixed $100 fee for each completed test, the estimated cost is around $100 billion. But this plan would require that Trump uses his authority under the Production Control Act to compel labs to participate, something he has been reluctant to do.

But the goal of doing 3 million tests a week is only the start. The Rockefeller report says that it will be necessary “to aim for the capacity to perform 30 million tests every week by the fall,” if the economy is to move toward expanded – and safe – economic activity.

Many governors say they don’t yet have adequate testing capability

J.M. Rieger reports on this predicament in an article published in The Washington Post on April 22 (https://washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/04/22/trump-administration-says-states-have-testing-capacity-they-need-governors-says-they-lack-testing-supplies). He writes: “Nearly one-third of governors over the past week have said they lack sufficient coronavirus testing supplies to reopen their states, according to a Fix analysis of public statements….Many of the 16 governors who have said they lack testing supplies have not disputed they have ample testing capacity to start to reopen, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other hindrances. Some, like New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), have said his state needs to double existing testing, while others like Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) have said his state needs to quintuple existing testing.” Rieger continues: “Among the testing supplies governors have said they are lacking are swabs and reagents. Some governors have called for the federal government to acquire and distribute testing supplies to the states amid a global shortage.” In any case, they think that some centralized and unified supply source needs to be created.

Trump and his supporters further politicizes the issue

In an article for Truthout on April 20, Chris Walker reports on the protects that have occurred across the country on April 18-19, “in which participants argued against stay-in-place orders meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and in favor of ‘reopening the economy’ now without conditions, as sometimes pushed by President Donald Trump” (https://truthout.org/articles/lifting-stay-in-place-rules-wont-fix-economy-if-virus-still-rages-fauci-says).

Heather Digby Parton digs into other forces that are generating the protests against the stay-at-home rules (https://truthout.org/articles/trumps-praise-for-astroturf-protests-is-a-divisive-relection-strategy). She refers to a report by Salon’s Sophia Tesfaye that the protests are organized, at least in part, by Freedom Works, one of the instrumental forces behind the Tea Party. Freedom Works is “holding weekly virtual town halls with members of Congress [and] igniting an activist base of thousands of supporters.” It is financed by Charles Koch and other big money contributors.

Parton continues: “Other right-wing groups vocally opposing shutdowns include Americans for Prosperity, an organization [also] funded by the Koch brothers, and the conservative Heritage Foundation. There is even a connection to the family of Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. As Michigan’s governor noted, the DeVos family foundation helped fund Facebook ads for this week’s protest.” Pro-gun activists have also joined the activities. Both Trump and Vice President Pence have praised the protestors, despite “common sense and all legitimate scientific advice…  that prematurely letting our guard down will likely lead to a resurgence of the epidemic.” If that should happen, it would mean “shutting down the economy all over again, with even worse consequences.” They – and the Republican Party – are willing to take this risk because they give greater weight to their political futures than to the health of the population. They “are, Parton explains, still convinced that a highly divisive strategy focused entirely on their base voters is the way to go, even in the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis.

The billionaire backers are not alone. “Republicans in Congress are doing their part as well,” Parton points out. “The bill coming up for a vote this week to supplement the small-business bailout fund [now passed by the US Congress, April 24] is missing something vital that Democrats and governors of both parties have been begging for, that is,  “help for state and local governments, many of which are in dire economic trouble and hamstrung by balanced-budget requirements.” Why? Parton refers to research by Axios that finds

“Republicans will use this prospect as a cudgel to force states to reopen: ‘The thinking among some Trump administration officials is that many states should be reopening their governments [and economies] soon and that additional funding could deter them from doing so.’”

The polls go with the experts, not Trump

Parton considers how the pro-protestor backers may underestimate the fear and suffering of the American public. She writes: “The real effects of the virus may upset their plans. Maybe it’s the growing pile of dead bodies — more than 40,000 of them as of Sunday night [April 19; and over 50,000 by April 24]— or Trump’s increasingly unhinged behavior at these coronavirus briefings, but recent polling shows that Trump’s rally-round-the-flag bump in support has already dissipated. Gallup has Trump’s approval rating down to 43%, from 49% last month, while his disapproval rating is up nine points, to 54%. The latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll reports that 60% of respondents say that Trump did not take ‘the threat seriously at the beginning,’ with a similar number in the Pew poll saying that Trump was ‘too slow’ to recognize the threat. His overall approval average is headed back down to the low 40s, where it’s been throughout his entire term.”

More bad news for Trump and his right-wing supporters. The Kaiser Family Foundation conducts ongoing polls of the public on health care issues and, recently, on attitudes regarding various aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic. In their most recent poll KFF finds: “most Americans (80%) say strict shelter-in-place measures are worth it in order to protect people and limit the spread of coronavirus. Fewer (19%) say the strict shelter-in-place measures are placing unnecessary burdens on people and the economy and causing more harm than good. Majorities also say they can continue following strict social distancing and shelter-in-place guidelines for more than another month while less than one in five say they either cannot follow the guidelines at all (3%) or say they can follow the guidelines for less than a month (14%). While a majority of Republicans say they can follow social distancing guidelines for a month or longer, three in ten Republicans say they can either follow them “less than one month” or ‘not at all.’”

Concluding thoughts

 Amidst the double whammy of the pandemic and an increasingly depressed economy, the road ahead remains ambiguous. What is clear, though, is that the federal government must play a leading role in providing a significant part of the resources, financial and otherwise, to assist states, medical providers, displaced workers, business of all sorts, and vulnerable and low-income segments of the population with a safe and healthy environment and a unprecedented assistance in rebooting the economy. And it seems that a growing majority of the population has come to recognize that all workers are essential, that our societies are more fragile than many previously believed,  that unity is better than division, and that government has an important role to play in it all.

If we were operating in the spirit of the 1930s New Deal, the country would also prepare to do extraordinary things. Here are some examples: rebuild the social safety net; introduce a universal, single-payer health care system; strengthen the public health systems at all levels of the society; increase support for scientific research; support public education and accessible educational opportunities at higher levels; create employment-generating programs; enact a robust progressive tax system; advance reforms to transform or replace the mega-corporations that dominate the economy; build affordable housing; support alternatives to industrial agriculture; replace fossil fuels with renewable energy and efficiency; and build an energy-efficient infrastructure. The revenues for such projects would come from a revived economy, equitable taxes, and a healthier population. The Covid-19 virus would still exist but would be controlled, eventually, with vaccines. One other thing. A progressive government would support global institutions to assist the poor nations of the world, and to supplant militarism with diplomacy and cooperation, acknowledging that we live in a highly interconnected place we call earth.

If Trump, the Republican Party and their allies continue to hold the power they do, then there will likely be vaccines that will eventually control the virus, but also a society riven by enormous and increasing inequalities, a rigged political system, a system that is accelerating the degradation of the environment, the continued shattering of the social safety nets, an infrastructure in disrepair, a bias against policies that address the common good, and a foreign policy based on “America first” principles.

There are also middling possibilities. But we do not have a wealth of time to figure it all out. Even if there are eventually vaccines that control Covid-19, humanity continues to confront  an accelerating and increasingly destructive “climate change,” civil strife and war, the growing threat of nuclear war, the ongoing degradation of habitats on the seas and land, unsustainable industrial-type agriculture, massive numbers of migrants fleeing violence and poverty, the fight for increasingly scarce and vital resources, and the rise of autocratic, if not fascistic, governments. And all this takes place while the earth’s human population grows to 9 or 10 billion by mid-century.