Friday, May 29, 2020

Two West Coast Presidents

Did you know that just two of America’s 45 Presidents were born west of the Great Plains? Their names are Richard Nixon, born in 1913 in Yorba Linda, California; and Barack Obama, born in 1961 in Hawaii.

This trivia is less surprising if you remember that every President, except Obama, was born in 1946 or earlier.  In the summer of 1946, when Bill Clinton, Bush Jr., and Trump were born; Southern California still hummed on 50 hertz power instead of 60, television was a scientific experiment, transcontinental phone calls were expensive, and air travel in propeller aircraft was reserved for adventurous members of the 1%. The mean center of US population was at the Illinois-Indiana border; today it sits 350 miles southwest in Hartville, Missouri. As a foregone conclusion, a septuagenarian cut from this long-bygone era will be elected this November. The 2024 race will certainly represent "passing the torch" to a new generation.  

Sunday, May 17, 2020

The Classroom and Coronavirus

In privileged quarters, students of elite colleges are asking for a “universal pass” on this semester’s courses. These colleges have returned the favor with Pass/Fail grading. (Anemona Hartocollis, NY Times, 3/28/20). Who are they to speak? Meanwhile, in the K-12 environment, contingency plans “tore off the bandage”, revealing deep discrepancies in our first-world society.

Internet access- Many families with broadband internet access face strict bandwidth limitations, which prevent full utilization of online meetings and classwork. Many rural households rely on dial-up internet, running over phone lines placed during the 1930’s Rural Electrification Act.

Technology- Among the working class, cell phones serve as the family’s primary link to the internet. Household surveys focus on whether or not a family has a home computer, etc. It does not consider if each member of the family- adults and school-age children- has a way to work online.   

Childcare arrangements- Among working-class and poor families, we might as well be back to the Upton Sinclair’s Chicago stockyards. Because of smaller and atomized families in a more mobile America, teachers have found that older children are taking care of younger siblings. In other cases, small children follow their mothers to attend chores outside the home. In certain quarters, teachers and the school system have been equated to child care providers; Kamala Harris was of this opinion.

Economic strategy for adverse time- This comes up in crisis management training for EMTs and fire squads: keep track of your receipts so the governor can hand FEMA the bill. Yet prior to this outbreak, the US had no clear strategy to handle the personal and small-business economic fallout of contagion. We are highly leveraged as a society, and run on thin margins as household budgeters, landlords, and business owners. Our savings rate is much lower than in Asia. Over the next year, displacement and eviction, as well as household consolidation into shared quarters, pose a risk of disruption to student’s learning.

Control of contagious diseases- Special protections for service workers, such as Plexiglas shields, were introduced too late. Outside of the medical field, transportation workers, police, and cashiers have been punished hard by the virus, with many untimely deaths. COVID joins a handful of other maladies whose patients receive care at government expense. Each of these diseases has a chapter in American history: Polio, leprosy, kidney failure (ESRF) and, until 1981, shipboard medicine.  

Monday, May 11, 2020

Coronavirus: Price Gouging Works for Me, but…

Panic-buying emptied the shelves of rice, canned goods, bleach, toilet paper and paper towels at the base commissary. Even the much-neglected Underwood potted meat was sold out. This was not a surprise, as every military family is required to have a nucleus of survivalist / prepper mentality (Survive, Evade, Resist, Escape is the name of the mandatory course).

But the grocery stores, convenience stores, and pharmacies in town were also laid bare. I thought of one place that hoarders may have passed over: the windowless urban corner store. Tiny and dim, small selection, but carrying all essentials. Including toilet paper and paper towels. They had a different supplier, perhaps the back of a family minivan or pickup truck: The brand names on the shelves were from Maryland and New York, not Lower Virginia. Or perhaps, living paycheck-to-supplement check, the neighbors couldn’t afford to hoard like the city gentry and suburbanites. More likely, the shopkeeper controlled demand by raising prices. Any big store or chain which took that libertarian step would’ve been pilloried by the press, excoriated on social media, and investigated by the attorney general. The corner store was small fry, probably selling 12 rolls of paper per day.

In the end, nobody ran out of toilet paper. Most consumers were able to procure their paper products through traditional means, as supplies were available, and at a fair price. Voluntary rationing and redistributing toilet paper from offices and schools to retail stores helped close the gap. As I only shopped once every other week, there was a snowball’s chance in hell that products would be on the shelf during the two hours a month I was in the grocery store. Paying a bit more for toilet paper saved me from making a special trip to the office, where that commodity is kept unused by the crate-load.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Then and Now: World War Two and Coronavirus

Make Do Without
A month ago, it was easy to be a consumer. Today, with restrictions on in-person shopping, and necessary slowdowns in e-commerce warehouses, one reconsiders their purchase before hitting “click to buy”. Is this essential? Do I put someone at risk? Is there someone who need this more than I do?”
In the first week of social distancing orders, canned goods disappeared from shelves; even the potted meat and Vienna Sausages. Later supply disruptions were seen in milk, egg, and meat shelves; these are more labor-intensive to produce. Many grocery stores rationed their in-demand goods: one carton of eggs, two pounds of meat, at the military commissary. No coupon books or point tokens required, but cashiers were counting. Spoiled with a plethora of authentic restaurants, some New Yorkers are struggling to adapt to a new reality of cooking at home. “What if I can’t find (x) ingredient?” Just make do without.  

Neighbors Helping Neighbors
COVID-19 forced a reassessment of what talents and treasures are important. With stay-at-home orders, a health crisis has become a nascent economic crisis. As governments work out stimulus plans, members of the community are emerging with a spirit of volunteerism. These range from dispersing essential information on neighborhood forums, assisting with grocery shopping, and donating facemasks and sanitary supplies.   

Take Care of Yourself
The Bethesda Chevy Chase Rescue Squad was founded 83 years ago in 1937, but is celebrating its 80th Anniversary this year. They humbly refuse to take credit for the wartime years, when the squad was disbanded on account of manpower shortages. Community health leaders provided training and information on self-care for minor health issues. For the first time on a nationwide basis, industrial and personal safety were emphasized. “Tojo like careless worker”, read a poster showing an ambulance in front of a nighttime factory.  With so many doctors deployed overseas, an ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure. Recently, Baltimore’s mayor, and a Philadelphia surgeon, expressed concern than victims of violent trauma were taking critical care beds away from COVID-19 patients. In normal times, the medical community advised citizens to “call 911 if in doubt”; today, the prevailing advice is to first speak with a doctor over the phone before coming to the hospital.  

Adapt, Improvise, Overcome
Many Americans of the silent generation (born in the 1930s and early ‘40’s) fondly remember their wartime childhoods. While relatives were occasionally killed in action, Americans made sure that children were not left behind. For the first time, quality daycares were established for working mothers. Overseas, childhood was more traumatic in the midst of air raids, interrupted schooling, rural relocation, and genocide. Today, with schools closed, it appears that our situation is more similar to wartime London. Parents, teachers and childhood professionals are adapting with various efforts. A set of “best practices” may emerge soon.

Remember those on the front lines
This current battle is being fought with ventilators, hand sanitizer. But like any war, morale and public civility must be maintained. Moments of appreciation count. Medical professionals are giving their all. Delivery drivers and grocery clerks are busier than ever. New York Police Department and transit workers are falling ill in the line of duty. Medical colleges are graduating early.

Vacation at Home
During WWII, it was assumed that tourism took gasoline, train seats, electricity, and manpower away from the war effort. Florida, even then a vacation destination, had to be careful in advertising tourism in light of the wartime sacrifice. Instead, the Office of Defense Transportation put out a poster reading: “Me travel? Not this summer.” Today, excessive travel is seen as insensitive to the times, and a proven vector for virus transmission. A spring break airplane from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico was singled out as an example. (When did college kids begin chartering airplanes?) In hard-hit touristic counties of the Northeast and Mountain West, local sheriffs are pulling over and questioning motorists with out-of-state license plates.

Food is a Weapon
The farming and food packaging industries were coordinated to either provide a growing percentage of foodstuffs to cafeterias and restaurants in industrial packaging (Sysco and US Foods), and a slightly shrinking percentage as consumer groceries to wholesalers and supermarkets. In the face of COVID-19, inefficiencies in the marketplace led to empty grocery shelves, and the industrial consumers refusing to purchase farmers’ crops, milk, and livestock. Understandably, it is difficult for food producers like Kraft, Nestle and Nabisco to retool towards consumer packaging on a dime; regrettably, restaurant providers like Sysco and US Foods have not asked groceries, governments, and families to consider purchasing industrial-sized packages, and avoid food waste. I have long wondered why major grocery chains have not attempted to break into the foodservice business, or why Sysco and US Foods have not attempted to open wholesale clubs.    

Fresh milk is being dumped into lagoons, crops being plowed over. As much as farmers dislike this waste, they cannot subsidize the transportation costs of unsold goods. The food situation is akin to the Great Depression, when there was no central coordination to bring food from farms to the urban poor. The US Department of Agriculture rectified this waste in the 1940’s; with the abundance of industrial farming, these efforts slipped in the 1950’s; but were restored with the Food Surplus Program in the 1960’s.

Queen Elizabeth II Speaks
During WWII, a young Princess Elizabeth II worked as a military truck driver and mechanic. The Queen of England, now 93, made a rare public address on Britain’s resolve to overcome the coronavirus.