Monday, October 26, 2020

We've Been Through Long Elections Before and Can Do It Again

 As the November 3, 2020 Presidential election approaches, anxiety has grown over the possibility of lengthy processes for the counting of votes and determination of a winner.  The unprecedented amount of mail-in voting may complicate the counting process in many states, although efforts are underway to reduce potential logjams.  These are logistical problems that likely can be resolved with a little extra time.  There's no legal requirement that all votes be counted on Election Day, nor is there a legal requirement that only votes cast on Election Day be counted.  America has been through long elections before and can get through this one.

Elections used to take weeks.  Before 1848, Presidential elections were conducted over a 34-day period with each state specifying a particular date of its choice for voting.  Citizens had to wait quite a while for final results.  The telegraph came into use starting in 1844, and Congress became concerned that the rapid transmission of results from early voting states could affect the results in states with later election dates.  So the first Tuesday of November was established by federal law as the date for Presidential elections beginning in 1848.  Even then, there wasn't and still isn't any requirement for all votes to be counted on Election Day, or that only votes counted on Election Day matter.    

The modern era hasn't been exempt from lengthy election processes.  The 2000 contest between Al Gore and George W.  Bush wasn't resolved until Dec. 12, 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bush.  Even though the five-week period of uncertainty from that election exacerbated social and political divisions that had been vociferously aired during the campaign, America didn't fall apart.  

We'll have to be patient with the tabulation of votes this year.  But Americans in the past have been patient--sometimes very patient--while the democratic process played out.  It's at moments like this that true Americans tightly embrace democratic principles.  There are news stories reporting that Trump may not respect the outcome of the election if he loses.  Some of his far right followers are reportedly preparing for violence on his behalf.  We should stick faithfully to our democratic principles.  Nothing really bad has happened when we did so in the past.  Nothing really bad will happen now if we stay true to democracy. 

Monday, September 28, 2020

Could Russia Have Used Donald Trump's Business Problems to Recruit Him?

Recent news stories report that President Donald Trump didn't pay any income taxes in 10 of the 15 years starting with 2000. He reportedly paid only $750 in income taxes in each of 2016 and 2017. (See, e.g., https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/28/politics/donald-trump-taxes-election-2020-joe-biden-debate/index.html.) He supposedly took massive write-offs on his tax returns for business expenses and losses to avoid taxes on hundreds of millions of dollars of income.  These reports, if accurate, raise crucially important questions about whether Trump is the successful businessman he claims to be.  More chillingly, these reports raise questions about whether his business problems gave Russia leverage to recruit him as an agent.

When recruiting spies, intelligence services look for weaknesses.  One potentially useful weakness is financial need or financial stress.  A man with business problems is a possible target.  Could Russia have used Trump's business problems to recruit him as an agent?  Trump may be financially connected to Russia or Russians through Deutsche Bank, which has been a major lender to Trump and his companies. See https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/28/business/deutsche-bank-trump.html.  While no firm connection between Trump and Russia or Russians through Deutsche Bank has been established, Deutsche Bank has confirmed it has some of Trump's tax returns. See https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/trump-tax-returns-deutsche-bank-relationship-drawing-intense-scrutiny-2019-8-1028482268?op=1#.   So Deutsche Bank may well have known about Trump's massive tax write-offs.  Whether or not Russia knew about Trump's write-offs, it may have known that he needed funding.  U.S. intelligence has said that Russia sought to help Trump get elected in 2016 and is working to get him re-elected this year. What greater intelligence coup could there be than to have one's agent elected the national leader of an adversarial nation? 

So we have to ask whether Trump's business problems gave Russia an opening to recruit him.  The FBI may have been looking into this question, but the fate of its investigation seems to be clouded. See https://www.salon.com/2020/02/18/doj-appears-to-have-abandoned-possible-deutsche-bank-case-involving-russian-money-laundering-scandal_partner/.  Trump has been highly critical of the FBI and his Department of Justice is investigating the FBI's handling of the 2016 Russian interference in the Presidential election and also its investigation into the Clinton Foundation. See https://www.foxnews.com/politics/durham-assumed-parts-of-john-hubers-clinton-foundation-review-source. Is Trump trying to cow the FBI into avoiding a thorough investigation of his links with Russia and Russians?  

America deserves a complete investigation of Trump and his links to Russia and Russians.  That seems unlikely today, with Trump seemingly attempting to strip professionalism from the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI.  In the meantime, Americans can express their views of all this in the upcoming election.  Will America be truly secure with such a potentially vulnerable man in the White House?  

Monday, August 10, 2020

How to Vote Safely During a Pandemic


The 2020 elections may rank as the most important elections since 1932, when Americans faced a fundamental choice over the direction of the country.  America's choices today also are fundamental and have been etched into acutely sharp relief by the COVID-19 pandemic.  The varying responses to the disease from different politicians and government officials, with their contrasting implications for health, life and death, vividly illustrate the importance of voting this year. But going to the polls on Election Day could involve a major health risk.  So how can one vote safely?

There are a number of alternatives to going to the polls.  They vary from state to state, so you may not have all the options listed below.  The only way to know for sure what your state allows is to check with the state's election officials.  The rules in some states are even now being changed--by government officials and by judicial decisions, as courtroom battles over voting have already begun--and may continue to change up until the moment you cast your ballot.  So the information here can't be guaranteed to be fully accurate and up to date.  But here's an overview of choices you may have, depending on your home state.

Voting by mail is perhaps the safest way, from a health standpoint, to cast a ballot.  You can just fill out the ballot at home and mail it.  Sometimes, you can drop it off in a designated drop box at municipal location, or have an agent mail or return the ballot.  Voting by mail falls into three categories. 

     Absentee ballots  requiring a specific, legally permitted reason for not being able to go to the polls, such as a physical disability, being out of town on Election Day, service in the military, and so on. 

     Early voting by mail without need for an excuse, which is now available in about 30 states.

     Mail-voting only elections, which are conducted in five states (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington). 

The first two options--absentee ballots and early voting by mail--require you to apply for a mail ballot.  Typically, you can do this by submitting a mailed or online request.  A few states allow telephone requests.  States with the third option--mail voting only--mail ballots as a matter of course to all registered voters.

There have been controversies over the delivery of mailed ballots (see https://www.salon.com/2020/08/08/friday-night-massacre-at-us-postal-service-postmaster-general-boots-top-brass-ahead-of-election_partner/).  Sometimes, questions have also been raised about agents permitted to collect and return ballots.  It's best to mail or submit a ballot yourself.  Make sure you trust any agent you use to submit your ballot. But don't let these delivery issues deter you from voting by mail if you feel it's your best choice.  Responsible Americans are working very hard to ensure the validity of voting by mail, and we should not now shrink from exercising our franchise as citizens in whatever way we think is best.

Early voting involves going to a designated place (usually a local government office, but sometimes other locations as well) before Election Day and voting in person.  The time period for early voting can begin as early as 45 days before the election, or as little as a few days, depending on the state.  While early voting requires you to go to a public office, it may involve less congestion and waiting than going to a polling station on Election Day.  So your health risks may be lower.  And it is one way to ensure that your ballot gets into the hands of election officials.

Online voting, where you vote from a cell phone or other computing device, is in its infancy.  Early experiments have raised security concerns and there is very limited online voting in America.  If you have this option (and very few of you will), think carefully about the possibility that a hacker may vote for you, and if you don't like that idea, consider your other choices.  But, whatever your choice, remember to vote.



Saturday, July 18, 2020

Are Ron DeSantis and Brian Kemp Making a Play For Donald Trump's Base?


The governors of Florida and Georgia, respectively Ron DeSantis and Brian Kemp, have mystifying been trying to overlook the science of the novel coronavirus and not ordering protective measures like mandatory wearing of face masks and increased restrictions on retail and commercial activity.  DeSantis has allegedly obscured state-level information about COVID-19 hospitalizations (https://www.salon.com/2020/07/14/former-covid-19-data-chief-outbreak-is-much-worse-than-desantis-administration-lets-on-in-florida/ ). Kemp has filed suit to prevent the mayor of Atlanta from imposing a face mask requirement (https://www.salon.com/2020/07/18/its-a-mess-republicans-turn-on-georgias-gop-gov-brian-kemps-stubborn-war-on-masks_partner/).  Their seeming recklessness could lead to greater numbers of infections and deaths in their home states--and in other states as interstate travel and commerce spread the disease.  One thing that is clear from watching the virus defeat President Trump is that defying medical science is a failed strategy.  Are DeSantis and Kemp crazy?  Or is there a purpose to this madness?

Even a cursory glance at the polls tells us that President Trump probably won't be re-elected this fall.  While the outcome of the election won't be known to a certainty until all the voting and counting is done, the gap between Trump and Joe Biden is large, and only widened after Trump's recent failed orgy of racism and hate-mongering in places like Tulsa, Mt. Rushmore and Phoenix.  Trump is flailing around for a way to save his campaign.  But he is too small a man, too hateful, anti-science, and immature to provide the kind of thoughtful, uplifting, unifying and magnanimous leadership Americans now seek.  His chances of a second term are meager and shrinking with each new COVID-19 case and each COVID-19 death.

That means Trump's base is in play.  Their leader probably won't be in politics much longer.  Both DeSantis and Kemp are of an age and have backgrounds that would let them scheme about the possibility of snagging the GOP Presidential nomination in 2024.  Grabbing the interest of Trump's base would give them a huge edge in the contest for that nomination.  And how would they get that edge? By engaging in crazy, wacked out, ignorant buffoonery like Donald Trump.  Maybe their horrifying policies actually make sense from a scheming, manipulative, deceptive, and terribly selfish point of view.   After all, they'd only be imitating Trump, and what better way to grab his base?

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Does President Trump Have a Neurological Problem?


President Trump spoke to graduating cadets at West Point on June 13, 2020.  During the speech, he sipped from a cup of water.  He held the cup in his right hand, but apparently couldn't lift it all the way to his lips.  He then used his left hand to lift the cup all the way and drink. (See the video at https://twitter.com/atrupar/status/1271820635040362497).

Then, after his speech, the President walked slowly down a ramp.  He appears to have some weakness or limitation in his right leg. His left leg does most of the work.  His pace slows down as he proceeds, until the last ten feet when he moves more quickly onto level ground.  Even on level ground, you can see that he favors his right leg. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FTvuVxUmnZ4)

Does the President have a problem with his right side?  Is there a neurological issue affecting him that the White House hasn't disclosed?  At his age (74), such a problem wouldn't be unusual.  But these problems can become serious over time and could affect a person in various ways.  Do we know everything about the President's health?

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Where Will Herd Immunity From Coronavirus Allow Re-Opening?


Recent studies have shown that the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) may be far more infectious than previously thought, perhaps some 50 to 85 times more so (e.g., see https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/17/health/santa-clara-coronavirus-infections-study/index.html).  This evidently is due to the virus' ability to spread while infected persons are asymptomatic, with much of the spread apparently through aerial transmission.  The astonishing celerity of the infection rate means that areas of high infections may well be in the process of acquiring herd immunity.

Herd immunity is immunity of a large segment of a population to a disease agent, such as a virus.  When people become infected, they often produce antibodies that may then insulate them from further infection.  Antibodies don't always provide immunity, and if they do, it may last only a limited time.  But herd immunity, which is said to begin around the time when 50% or more of a population are immune, can stop or largely limit the spread of a disease before many of the non-immune people can be infected.  (In the same sense, high vaccination levels provide substantial protection to the non-vaccinated.)  Herd immunity tends to be most effective when immunity rates are 90% or higher, but lower levels can still be beneficial.

A region locked down by COVID-19 may be able to lift restrictions and stay open if it has herd immunity.  By contrast, a region without herd immunity that lifts restrictions sooner rather than later runs a potentially serious risk of the disease flaring up after people begin to mingle again.  A second and perhaps more rigid lockdown may have to be imposed to avoid tragic death rates.

Where is there herd immunity?  In the areas of greatest infection.  In America, that would be New York City.  Right now, NYC has about 140,000 confirmed cases.  Using 50 as a multiplier, that would imply that some 7 million New York City residents have been infected.  NYC has a population around 8.3 million.  If the large majority of the infected residents produced antibodies, and those antibodies provide immunity, then New York City is pretty likely to have herd immunity.  If that is the case, NYC might be able to re-open when other conditions for re-opening are met (such as clearing the case overload in its hospitals and acquiring enough antibody tests to verify its true infection rate).  It may be able to stay open because herd immunity would protect against re-infection and its economy may start humming again.

States where the levels of confirmed cases are much lower would also have numerous undiagnosed cases, but nowhere enough to acquire herd immunity.  Re-opening soon could involve a serious risk of a second lockdown and even more severe economic pain than they now feel.  Perhaps it's ironic, but the places that are feeling the greatest pain now from the novel coronavirus may be the places that  can re-open and prosper again the soonest.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

In These Times of Coronavirus, Wash Your Face


With COVID-19 raging worldwide, we are told to wash our hands often, which in this case means very often.  We are also told not to touch our faces.  But who doesn't touch their face?  Do you wear glasses?  Does your cheek have a little itch?  Do you have to brush back the hair that fell over your eyes? 

Oddly, we aren't told to wash our faces.  But do it anyway, especially if you touched your face with a potentially tainted hand.  It won't provide absolute protection.  If you rub your eyes, the virus could get inside the eye and take root.  Same if you touch your lip and then run your tongue over it to keep it moist.  But if the virus is sitting on the surface of your skin after you adjusted your glasses, then face washing might get rid of it the same way hand washing gets the virus off the skin of your hand.  Give it a try.  Not washing your face is no solution.

Monday, March 9, 2020

The Coronavirus Crisis: How the Trump Administration is Pushing Stock Prices Down


The financial markets hate uncertainty.  When the picture isn't clear, stock prices get wobbly.  Before today, the coronavirus epidemic had already pushed stocks into a correction (i.e., a drop of 10% or more).  To make things worse, the Trump Administration has been trying to downplay the scope, risks and impact of the epidemic while federal health officials have endeavored to be realistic.  (See https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/09/politics/cdc-policy-test-kits-coronavirus/index.html.)  This informational squabble cast doubt where doubt could do the most harm.

The coronavirus epidemic is the largest driving force in the stock market today.  The disease has slowed the world economy and sharply reduced demand for petroleum, which has hit oil prices hard.  Major oil producing nations, including the members of OPEC and Russia, tried to work out a way to prop up oil prices this past weekend but failed.  This morning, oil prices plummeted into the $30 to $35 range for West Texas Intermediate.  That implies gas prices around $1.50 to $1.60 per gallon, compared to current retail prices around $2.20 to $2.50 in many parts of the country. 

The cratering oil prices exerted fresh downward pressure on stock prices today, so much so that a stock market circuit breaker was triggered for the first time after the S&P 500 fell 7%.  Trading was halted for 15 minutes and then resumed, with stock prices remaining moribund. 

When the markets don't have adequate information, investors are cautious about the prices they'll pay.  When a flood of selling takes place because of inadequate information, buyers will be reluctant to step forward and invest, even when prices drop significantly.  Holders of stocks, faced with uncertainty over the future, will be inclined to sell even more rather than run the risk of additional losses.  Fear spreads and selling increases.  Had the Trump Administration been forthright about the coronavirus epidemic, stock prices would have been impacted, but investors would have been more confident about stepping in and buying.  By creating an informational fog, the Trump Administration exacerbated selling pressure and dampened buying interest.  This is no way to restore confidence in the market.

The Trump Administration is certainly not the only government that has been economical with candor concerning the coronavirus epidemic.  The combined governmental obfuscation has been precisely what stock prices don't need.  But there are few signs of unvarnished governmental veracity on the horizon.  Expect more nausea in the markets.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Donald Trump's Very Bad Day in the Stock Market


Today, March 4, President Trump had a very bad day in the stock market.  Yesterday, Super Tuesday for the Presidential primaries, Joe Biden won a series of contests among the Democrats and took the lead in delegates over his principal rival, Bernie Sanders.  Today, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose almost 1,200 points in celebration. 

Since before his inauguration, Trump has touted a buoyant stock market as one of the hallmarks of his Presidency.  To him, it signaled approval, achievement and prosperity.  Whenever the market showed signs of queasiness, Trump was quick to pummel the Federal Reserve Board for interest rate cuts to prop up stocks.  Trump equated stocks with himself, and stocks seemed to reciprocate.

But not today.  Today, the market loved Joe Biden.  And Trump could only watch the love fest. The market no longer needs him.  It can bounce up with Biden in the White House.  The contest for the Democratic Presidential nomination is far from over.  Biden's lead over Sanders is modest, with close to two-thirds of the delegates yet to be chosen.  Many of the remaining primaries are in Western and Midwestern states, where the demographics may be more favorable to Sanders.  But if Biden can maintain his momentum and secure the nomination, Trump won't be able to count on the stock market for support.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Coronavirus and the Federal Reserve's Political Policy


It's when times are tough that you see what's really going on.  Last week, the stock market fell 11% because of fears over the economic impact of the coronavirus epidemic, dropping into a correction in a matter of days.  President Trump called loudly for a Fed interest rate cut.  Always ready for another government handout, Wall Streeters also chimed in for a rate cut.  Yesterday, rumors that the Fed and other central banks would act together pushed the Dow Jones Industrial Average up over 1200 points.

Early this morning, the Fed indicated it was considering accommodative action, but signaled that nothing was imminent.  https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/03/economy/federal-reserve-rate-cut/index.html.  However, a few hours later, the Fed announced a surprise 0.5% cut in short term interest rates.  The Dow, instead of responding positively, promptly fell almost 800 points.

What gives?  It's hard not to think the Fed gave in to political pressure.  A rate cut won't cure coronavirus.  Nor will it vaccinate humans against the disease.  It won't quarantine the virus or establish barriers to its spread.  People who are avoiding traveling, large gatherings, restaurants, concerts, sporting events, and other potential infection venues won't start spending and exposing themselves to the illness just because of a rate cut.  Even if stocks had risen, people wouldn't have started to engage in risky behavior.  Of course, things were only made worse because the market fell after the rate cut.  The market wanted a bigger welfare check.  The President, perhaps too lazy to do the work needed for a fiscal stimulus, promptly called for another immediate Fed rate cut.

But another immediate cut would only tell us that the epidemic is far worse than we thought, and that we'd best hunker down and isolate ourselves for a long time.  No travel, no restaurant meals, no public gatherings, no socializing, no contact with anyone we don't know and trust.  Romance would halt abruptly, as who'd want to meet new people in a time of epidemic?  Dating websites would collapse and singles bars would shutter. The President would be much better off committing billions of federal dollars to emergency medical research.  But he seems to have a problem with science, like he doesn't believe in it because it sometimes contradicts his political views.  So maybe the Fed will be bullied into another rate cut that will only instill even more alarm and panic.

There are powerful reasons for the historic independence of the Federal Reserve.  Most important among them is that an independent Fed can serve the public interest, not the short term scheming of politicians.  This means, among other things, that the long term vigor of the stock market is served by a rigorously independent Fed (see the story of Paul Volcker's career for further information).  Today's surprise rate cut gave the market and us discouraging news:  that the coronavirus crisis is much worse than we thought, that the Fed is becoming the sous chef of monetary policy, and that instead of focusing on medicine, the White House is focused on the political aspects of the coronavirus epidemic.  Now that the Fed is politicized, expect more poor policy and national distress.