Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

Following the French

December 31, 2021

I could have sworn I blogged some years ago about an initiative with some French grocery stores to sell ugly produce at lower prices. This based on the reality that only a portion of produce grown is able to be sold to grocery stores, who generally want perfect fruits and vegetables which will appeal to consumers. Those less-than-perfect fruits and vegetables often end up rotting with no buyers available. However, I wasn’t able to find either that post or any related online material about the program. Hopefully it’s still going!

But the French are continuing to re-evaluate how to be environmentally friendly in the grocery store, this time banning plastic packaging. I’ve been amazed (and depressed) that despite alleged concerns over the environment and trash here in the US, disposable products continue to be created and marketed – a triumph over alleged convenience over any sort of ecological or environmental conscious. The example that sticks in my mind is commercials for single-use disposable plastic cutting boards.

Attempting to reduce the production of single-use plastics and the ongoing creation of trash bound for landfills ought to be a common-sense topic for those who truly believe human beings are behind climate change. It ought to make sense in general, regardless of your views on the origins of climate change. Less trash is good, and reminding people of the financial as well as environmental benefits of reusing and reducing is something we all could use.

Might even make a good resolution for the new year!

Old Testament Laws Today

December 26, 2021

An interesting article about the Old Testament rule that Israelite farmers needed to observe a sabbath year every – seventh year – from planting and harvesting crops (Exodus 23:10-12). I’m sure there were complicated issues of politics in Old Testament times as well as today. The directive was given for the express purpose of benefitting the poor (who had no fields of their own and could glean from whatever sprouted in their wealthier neighbors’ untended fields.

Following Up

December 19, 2021

Following yesterday’s post on the rather narrow focus of Covid-response measures (essentially vaccinations for everyone) I came upon this article from National Public Radio. It references “surge teams” created to assist hard-hit Covid areas and provided a link to more information. That led me to this White House press release from 12/2/21. While it doesn’t talk about building more healthcare infrastructure – temporary or permanent in nature – it does briefly describe several teams of personnel available for deployment nationwide, as well as funding measures to support locally-based groups of medical volunteers.

These are certainly good responses and I wish we heard more about them. Since it’s apparent already vaccinations alone are not going to stop Omicron or likely future strains of Covid – at least not to the extent we don’t have to worry about surges in cases and potential corresponding increases in hospitalizations – directing some serious thought and resources to additional infrastructure only makes sense, could help to provide jobs and economic stimulus to various areas, and would provide people more hope that we will get through this time one way or another.

I can’t take credit for these ideas (dang it!), but I can at least recognize that other people far better placed than myself are thinking about them.

Narrowing Solutions

December 18, 2021

We’re ramping up for a dire winter according to many predictions. The Omicron variant is widely believed to be far more transmissible than Delta even as early reports from South Africa and other places say it is less severe in the symptoms of infection. Or, you’re more likely to get it, but less likely to be hospitalized or die from it. On the whole good news if you presume (as I do) that Covid variations are not going to just disappear on their own and we are not going to suddenly develop bio-technology to eradicate them. Like the flu, Covid will continue to be around but will gradually grow less challenging as people develop better immune responses.

Thus far, the only solutions to yet another wave of Covid I’ve read focus on the need for vaccination, despite the fact many initial reports indicate vaccination does not prevent infection or even symptoms, but reduces the impact of infection. Or, getting the Omicron variant if you’re vaccinated should be less painful than if you get it and you aren’t vaccinated. Of course, I haven’t read many comparisons of the effects on vaccinated vs. non-vaccinated persons. If you have, send me a link. I surmise the lack of discussion about this is because vaccination is the solution we have culturally honed in on to the situation.

But if Covid will become endemic rather than pandemic (something common and expected as opposed to new or unfamiliar), the virus could continue mutating for some time, causing repeated spikes. While I pray this is not the case and the virus goes the way of other pandemics such as the Spanish Flu, which was really only extraordinarily deadly for 2-3 years, we can’t know that for sure. If it doesn’t, and there are recurring spikes, the problem is less a matter of keeping people from getting the virus than it is having the capacity to assist those who experience it more harshly and in potentially life-threatening ways.

Already cities and states and counties and countries are locking down again. While this may slow the transmission to some extent it certainly doesn’t stop it, as we’ve already seen in the various Covid waves thus far. But what it can do is minimize the number of people who have to go to the hospital. The concern ultimately is that we aren’t equipped to help those who are most likely to require hospitalization, that hospitals and ICUs will become overloaded and unable to help everyone who needs it.

I still marvel that no exploration of increasing our capacity (literal, our hospital bed capacity) has generated any notice or interest. We can’t shut down countries and states and cities indefinitely, but we could expand our hospital capacity to help more people who might require it. Considering we’ve spent already $3.5 trillion dollars on Covid-related relief, expanding capacity in New York City or Los Angeles seems like a good investment. At the very least, it could be good practice.

It’s not like there isn’t a plethora of real estate available that could be put to this use, even if temporarily. Creating the equivalent of higher-tech, more robust Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals seems like good practice to have. Beyond dealing with pandemic issues such experience could be valuable for other types of natural or national disasters. And if we had the capacity to handle the most serious cases Omicron might bring this winter, we could allow the virus to run it’s course in the hopes it is indeed less severe and could therefore provide additional levels of immune and antibody resistance to larger numbers of people more safely. There are reports that even for vaccinated people, contracting Covid further improves their immune response.

Our resolute determination to eliminate Covid may be valiant at one level, but it’s also a very narrow response. It would be nice to hear about other approaches to handling this pandemic so that it truly can transition to endemic status if our efforts to simply eliminate it fail. This sort of investment could economically benefit a much wider segment of our businesses than just the pharmaceutical companies.

Show Me the Math

October 31, 2021

It’s hard in life as well as poker to know when someone’s bluffing. It’s easy to act and speak as though you’ve got a winning hand, and finding out if that’s true or not always entails a certain amount of risk. Some people aren’t willing to risk calling a bet to see if the other person is bluffing or not. Others love the risk.

Elon Musk certainly seems like a guy who isn’t afraid of risk. And why not – he certainly can afford to call a few bets now that he’s worth over $300 billion dollars. I’m glad to see he’s willing to put his money where someone else’s mouth is – if they can back their claims. Elon Musk has signaled he’s willing to spend $6 billion dollars to substantially alleviate world hunger, if the UN official who named that figure can prove his math.

Frankly, this is a great move – by both people.

The assumption that the wealthy could fix the world hunger problem (either in the short or long-term) has been a steady assertion by progressives advocating for wealth redistribution. However efforts to stave off or solve world poverty and hunger issues have at best blunted the damage of famines and other disasters, and have not resulted in the elimination of chronic poverty, hunger, malnutrition, etc. In some cases at least, aid efforts may have actually made things worse in the long run. This information is not often discussed by the media, though others are willing to point it out.

So for the United Nation’s World Food Program director to put a $6 billion dollar price tag on saving 42 million lives from eminent starvation is not unusual save for the specificity. But specificity is exactly what is needed. I assume the wealthy have reached their state of wealth and maintain it by some very good evaluation and analysis skills, something often lacking in wild assertions about how taxing the rich will fix various local, national, or global problems.

Musk’s calling out of this claim is also crucial. Talking about how the rich can save the poor is one thing. But showing it is quite another – or at least I assume it is. I assume the reason poverty and hunger have not been eliminated already by massive influxes of aid is because the calculations of experts and mathematicians and others fail to take into account basic human sinfulness. They operate strictly within the realm of the theoretical without accounting for the avarice and cruelty that is part and parcel of a fallen humanity.

Wanting to solve hunger is different from being able to, and the issue is not simply money, unfortunately. However hopefully this exchange – in addition to saving very real lives – could lead not just to future giving and investment increases, but improvements on the processes by which aid is envisioned, planned, and executed. I’ve got to believe that if the mechanisms were clearer, more people would be prompted to give. And if the mechanisms are flawed, then business people are far more likely to be able to help correct and improve them.

These are real lives at stake, and the inability to solve hunger and poverty totally should not hold people back from saving very real lives here and now. Hopefully the upshot of this exchange will be saving lives and showing others – wealthy and otherwise – how their donations can make real differences rather than just ending up in the pockets of anyone with a gun, a gavel or a scepter who decides to help themselves first.

Still Watching Netflix

October 21, 2021

On the heels of my post last week regarding the controversy between Dave Chappelle and the transgender/LGBGQ+ community I took the opportunity to watch his special at the center of the storm entitled The Closer.

This is not for the faint of heart. Ever since my one – and only – live stand-up comic viewing nearly 30 years ago I’ve never understood the need to resort to the basest language and the exploitation of all manner of sex. Chappelle, while clearly far more intelligent and insightful than the average comic trying to win cheap laughs from an intoxicated audience (thanks to the drink minimums comedy clubs at least used to require in addition to cover charges), is not above snagging some easy laughs from simple crudeness. Likewise, if you’re averse to race-related language and criticisms you’ll likely not enjoy this either. Although I knew this all going into it and considered it more a research exercise than the sort of entertainment I would naturally gravitate towards, I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions. The man clearly knows his art.

The issue is what is that art? I’d argue Chappelle’s art is cultural analysis and critique. One may agree or disagree with his conclusions and assertions but that’s what he’s doing under a thin, and I mean very thin veneer of comedy. Much of his material is designed to elicit not just a laugh but the follow-up internal examination why did I laugh at that? Should I have? Is there something wrong with me? Am I part of the problem?

Everything about the show should clue the viewer in that Chappelle is up to more than simple entertainment.

This is the last of his contracted Netflix specials. He’s very clear that he feels not only the freedom but the obligation as such to say some things people aren’t going to like. He’s choosing specifically to be controversial in this special. And the entire special is bracketed within the somewhat comedic narrative arc of issues related to a black rapper named DaBaby.

Chappelle begins with commenting on the curious fact that DaBaby was involved in a Walmart shooting that left a man dead. He slapped a female fan who he claimed took a cell phone photo too close to his face with the flash on. He has an arrest warrant in Texas for a charger of battery. And he and his associates allegedly jumped a concert promoter they believed paid only 2/3 of the money agreed upon for a performance in Miami. In this altercation they stole a credit card, $80,000 in cash (almost 3 times what was originally agreed upon and far more than the $10,000 they were allegedly shortchanged) in addition to beating the promoter.

None of these events slowed down DaBaby’s career in any regard. The Walmart altercation where a man was killed eventually saw DaBaby pleading guilty to the misdemeanor charge of carrying a concealed weapon. The other situations all saw DaBaby posting bail and walking free within a matter of hours.

However DaBaby made a series of homophobic comments at the start of one of his concerts in July 2021 and at the demands of the LGBTQ+ community he was dropped from several concerts, a fashion collaboration, and his contributions on a popular song were edited out of the song, resulting in his removal of credits for the song. Effectively, as Chappelle notes, his career has been destroyed.

Destroyed not because of his violence and even killing a person, but because he hurt the feelings of the LGBTQ+ community.

This provides the crux for most of the material that follows. In this material Chappelle calls out the LGBTQ+ community for their power, and for their hypocrisy. He has garnered little love and much animosity from that community over the course of his career because of his insistence on mocking some of their ideological tenets (biological gender is a social construct rather than a biological fact, etc.). They’ve accused him of punching down on their community – a term that implies a level of superior social standing or other advantages inherent by Chappelle personally.

His counterargument – provided rather powerfully if often offensively – is that the LGBTQ+ community has achieved far more, far more quickly in their march towards equal rights than racial minorities in America. In the span of a few short decades it has become possible for this community to destroy the careers of multiple people opposing their demands not just for legal equality but for preferred treatment and depiction. Meanwhile Chappelle argues, minorities in America continue to deal with racism and discrimination.

The show closes with where it began, with his appealing to the LGBTQ+ community to lay off of DaBaby – and by extension Chappelle and anyone else who happens to simply disagree with them.

He defends his relationship to actual LGBTQ+ individuals while maintaining his stance in opposition to many of their ideas. He affirms his support for the biological reality of gender. And he observes that things have reached an unhealthy place when no dialogue is possible on these issues anymore. That any resistance to the increasingly wild assertions of the LGBTQ+ community simply results in financial ruin for the opposition. In such a toxic environment Chappelle maintains, there is no dialogue and therefore things are dangerously unhealthy. As such, he vows to make no more transgender or LGBTQ+ jokes in his shows until some sort of healthy dialogue is restored. It is not a cease fire so much as a refusal to engage with an enemy who insists he has no right to his opinion (or scientific fact) while he must not only agree but endorse every opinion offered by literally anyone within the LGBTQ+ community. Until this is rectified and acknowledged he will not pretend there is healthy dialogue when there clearly is not.

That’s a lot for a comedy special!

Unsurprisingly, the very situation he criticizes in this special – the inability to speak on the issue at all except in complete and total support and enthusiasm for LGBTQ+ assertions – is demonstrated through demands from LGBTQ+ employees of Netflix to not only remove Chappelle’s program from Netflix’s lineup but for Netflix to actively invest in more content that agrees with and furthers the ideas and demands of the LGBTQ+ community.

Ironically, the LGBTQ+ community claims this is not an example of cancel culture. They argue, hilariously, that this isn’t an example of cancel culture because they invited Chappelle to rupudiate his statements and embrace their ideals and demands and he refused. Therefore they’re justified in attempting to not just figuratively but literally cancel him.

Uh, somebody should explain the definition of cancel culture to these folks!

Friends of Chappelle struggle to not abandon him while not incurring the wrath of the LGBTQ+ community and facing very real financial and professional challenges as a result. Jon Stewart is reduced to simply asserting his love for Chappelle and his necessary belief that this is all just somehow a miscommunication. This is hilarious and pathetic all at the same time. The problem is not miscommunication, the problem is that Chappelle has dared to communicate too clearly and directly. And Stewart – who’s no slouch when it comes to mocking those he disagrees with – is reduced to simpering on the sidelines instead of calling this what it is, a hostage situation.

For whatever reasons (and there are plenty that should be examined) the LGBTQ+ community is in a position to financially and professionally and personally smear and destroy anyone they decide to if that person disagrees with them or fails to meet their expectations. Despite being a tiny percentage of the overall population, they are in a position to dictate to Hollywood to portray LGBTQ+ characters in huge disproportion to the general population. Judging by commercials and movies and other forms of entertainment, you’d likely come to the conclusion that LGBTQ+ folks comprise close to half of the general population, instead of under 5% (although recent studies indicate an uptick of reported LGBTQ+ affiliations by young people – hardly a surprise when this is actively taught in schools to developing minds and personalities).

Chappelle has indicated a willingness to talk with the disgruntled Netflix employees. He has also promised to launch a 10-stop American tour if his show is removed by Netflix. Chappelle appears more than willing to go toe-to-toe with the LGBTQ+ community on this issue. A man who has been vocal about the racism he perceives in our culture is equally willing to stand against and speak out against other forms of abuse. Whether you agree with his perspective on racism or not, he has a lot to say and is very capable and willing to say it, though in language some of us find distasteful and offensive. I’d be fascinated to sit down over a drink with Chappelle and just talk with him.

Netflix in the meantime seems to be wavering, with the CEO apologizing for mishandling the situation. So far they haven’t removed the special, and the disgruntled employee group has dropped that demand from their list of demands. Chappelle is one of the few people willing to speak out actively against these tactics though, and perhaps one of the few voices able to be heard by a large cross-section of people. It’s a shame it has turned out this way, but apparently everyone else has too much to lose, or is too afraid of losing what little they have.

That’s definitely an unhealthy situation, no matter how you feel about LGBTQ+ ideals.

Mandatory Vaccinations

June 3, 2021

Interesting but pretty low-key coverage last week of an announcement from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that employers can mandate employees to get COVID vaccinations. Most news reports I read emphasized how employers could incentivize employees to get the vaccine, but the far more concerning aspect to me is that they can mandate the vaccine. No vaccine? No continued employment. How does that not qualify as “coercive”, something employers are supposed to avoid in their incentive programs? About the only part of the reports that make sense is that there will be a lot of lawsuits as employers and employees try to navigate whatever the EEOC is trying to accomplish but prefers to do so through the private sector rather than Federal decree.

What is the rationale for allowing employers this broad degree of control over the personal health choices of their employees? Will this be used in conjunction with future possible COVID-related shutdowns, so that companies that require their employees to be vaccinated will be allowed to continue operations while other similar companies with no such policy will be shut down if non-essential?

If an employer can mandate COVID vaccinations, what else can they mandate in the realm of personal choice regarding health care? Can they mandate flu vaccines? Under what conditions? The EEOC’s own website acknowledges that public health guidelines are subject to fluctuation, so what about companies that mandate the COVID vaccine (or any other vaccine) only to have public health guidelines alter or reverse? You can’t undo an injection.

Section K is the relevant section of the EEOC’s most recent COVID-related guidelines, and section K.1 stipulates that employers may require all employees to obtain vaccination as a condition for physically returning to a workplace. What this means is that in terms of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) there is no grounds as interpreted by the EEOC for claiming some sort of discrimination towards protected classes. It isn’t discriminatory of a company to mandate all employees be vaccinated. But that’s a rather narrow criteria for determining whether a company should be allowed to make such a requirement in the first place. All the EEOC is really focused on is whether such a mandate would be unfair to protected groups, and it’s pretty obvious that it wouldn’t be if it’s being applied evenly to all employees (instead of targeting certain groups) and accommodations are made for those who may have legally protected exceptions from such a mandate.

But shouldn’t all Americans be legally protected from being forced to get a vaccination (or any other specific health procedure) to keep their job? It might be easy to say from the outside that if you don’t like that particular policy, quit and go work someplace else. But anyone actually working (or who ever has actually worked for someone other than the government) understands that it’s hardly that simple. And if all employers decide to require such a vaccination, how does that impact personal liberties?

These are all questions unique to America. Many Americans don’t seem to understand this. It makes life as an American in America more complicated. But those complications are deemed warranted in order to protect something valuable – personal liberty. As we’ve learned after 9/11 and today in an age where fear is increasingly being promoted and used to drive people towards approving certain policies, personal liberty is difficult to obtain, easy to cede, and effectively impossible to take back once ceded. So these questions and issues are important to think through carefully, and to ensure that what is required of people either by the private sector or the government is as narrow and limited and carefully defined as possible. Precedents are being set in a time of panic, and once that panic is over the precedents will remain and will be used as justification for further erosions of personal liberty in the name of safety or convenience or whatever else seems effective.

“How Do You Spell Billiyuns?”

May 21, 2021

Shout out to my all-time favorite comic strip, Bloom County for the title and Carl Sagan for the inspiration beyond that.

Just a little side note to the whole discussion of making vaccines near mandatory, if not by government fiat then by the private market (insistence on proof of vaccinations in order to fly, etc.). There are nine new individual billionaires in the world, executives at major pharmaceutical companies who created and are selling COVID vaccines. The article doesn’t mention how many new millionaires there are related to vaccine production but it seems reasonable to assume there might be more than nine. The article also doesn’t indicate how close these nine people were to the billionaire mark prior to the COVID vaccine production, which I personally would have found relevant and interesting.

I’m not against companies and executives making a profit. I think this is a good incentive to innovate, create, etc. I don’t have definite thoughts on what sort of profit margins are reasonable (like the 30% profit margin the article cites for COVID vaccines). But it does make me itchy when there’s heavy public pressure and possibly even insistence to buy or use a particular product that someone is profiting off of. And I’m sure that 30% profit margin keeps some poorer nations from having access to the vaccines, something some of the companies try to address later in the article by promising 2 billion doses for poorer countries later this year.

I’m trying to think of another situation where people are pushed hard or required to purchase a product or service near universally. Car insurance is the first thing that comes to mind, though I suspect that market is somewhat regulated (does anyone know if this is true?). Still, I could opt not to drive and not have to pay for car insurance then. There are other transportation options available that make this realistic (depending on where you actually live).

Are there other examples that come to mind?

Beyond this, it makes me wonder what kind of pressure comes into play from lobbyists for these companies to keep the vaccine push on as long as possible, including the boosters they are now starting to talk about. Although some people like to talk about just following the science (at least until science says it’s OK to not wear masks if you’re fully vaccinated) reality is a lot more complicated than that.

And a lot more profitable.

Handling Crises

December 9, 2020

COVID continues to surge around the world, including areas of the world that seemed previously to have contained it.

I’m curious – at least out here in California – why I’ve not heard any mention of expanding ICU bed capacity? China famously put together entire COVID hospitals in record time early on in the COVID crisis, drawing undoubtedly on experience with other outbreaks of SARS viruses since 2000. And granted, there are massive differences between what a totalitarian regime can dictate done in record time and what a democratic country can reasonably accomplish. Not to mention differences in building safety and any number of other issues. The first article referenced above talks about shipping containers being repurposed for ICU beds. It wouldn’t have to be building new buildings from scrath.

Considering the idle real estate scattered around the country and owned by various levels of government organizations, from school districts to the National Guard, it would seem we could spend money to actually expand our capacity to cope with increasing rates of COVID hospitalizations, enabling us to ease the economic disaster foisted on small and mid-sized businesses who can’t operate at anything near full capacity due to state restrictions.

By repurposing – even temporarily – properties already owned by cities, counties, states, etc. it seems as though we could expand ICU bed capacity at least in the major metropolitan areas that are hardest hit. We’re undoubtedly spending a lot of money already, what if some of it could be directed in this way?

Other COVID Effects

December 1, 2020

Just a reminder – COVID and related restrictions have other costs associated with them than just who gets sick and who doesn’t.

A fascinating article here about Japan, where suicide deaths in October alone exceeded COVID deaths for all of 2020. The mental health effects of COVID and associated isolation and lockdowns is being seen in real time in some countries.

Other effects of COVID and related restrictions include deepening levels of social awkwardness as people deal with their own fears of others and reciprocal fears. Traditional understandings of how to engage socially – shaking hands, smiling – are all being deconstructed when our faces are hidden behind masks and human touch as become a social faux pas.

Long term impacts on school-aged children during COVID will be gradually revealing themselves for another decade or more. At risk students has a whole new dimension to it in the age of COVID. I developed and taught online curriculum for over a decade when it was a brand new field of technology and Internet possibility. I witnessed firsthand that online education is not for everyone, and that means both teachers and students. For those with learning styles requiring more or different than what is possible through synchronous or asynchronous online learning platforms, the risk of falling through the cracks is even more prevalent now.

And of course the working world is changing. For the first time the reality of a large percentage of employees working remotely permanently seems to make sense. But of course, not all jobs have that option. Many jobs – particularly ones with lower salaries – require people to show up in order to bag groceries and cook food and harvest crops and any number of very tangible, real-time duties. How does our society deal with this shifting away from the idea that everyone goes to work? Is working from home a benefit to the employee, and as such should the employee be taxed for that benefit in order to provide additional funds to those who have no such option? Or should employers be taxed for this option, since it will inevitably enable them to save money through smaller office space needs and other very tangible, bottom line benefits?

A vaccine is not going to make any of these issues disappear. Damage has already been done, and changes in approaches to work and personal life will continue even if a vaccine is ready or herd immunity is reached or the virus simply quits infecting at the rates it has been. COVID is going to be with us a lot longer than the actual Coronavirus might.