Of Viruses and Governors

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I have a close correspondent in Europe, with whom I have exchanged ideas for years.  Most recently he shared with me his worries and frustration with how Germany has been responding to the virus that has occupied so much attention these past months.  Here are thoughts from the response I shared with him.  I shall call him Walter.

  

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your note.  The virus lockdown and response situation in Germany sounds worse than I thought.  We don’t hear much about it in our media.  Most of what I pick up from Europe is from British commentators boasting about how glad they are that they got out of the EU just in time.  They claim to be way ahead in vaccine administration, particularly compared with Macron’s record in France.

Here in the U.S. we have been witnessing a general overreaction but we also experience the benefits of a federal system.  The variety of states are following a variety of policies, and people can see what works better (if the news can get through the big media channels).  The general pattern seems to be that the more the lockdown the higher the incidence, which these governors then use to justify even tighter lockdowns.  But even the worst states, like New York and California, are starting to realize that they have gone overboard.  Virginia is starting to ease up, perhaps because they have elections this year for governor and legislature (where Democrats have very thin majorities).  Schools are starting to reopen—despite the teachers unions who want to stay closed—but who also want their teachers first in line for the vaccines.  Children have been hardest hit, not by the virus but by the policies.

Politicians do talk to one another.  The virus gave a good excuse for heads of the executive branches to enjoy making decisions without working with the other branches of government.  The Chinese Government showed how, by engaging in a sharp, heavy lockdown of Wuhan, including control of information.  I don’t claim that they told governors here and leaders around the world what to do, but they did show them what to do and how to use the virus as the excuse. 

In the U.S., most governors with the early heavy-handed policies were Democrats, and the media were by and large in deep sympathy, quickly pitching stories to support what the governors wanted to do, helping to hype the hysteria on which the governors’ decrees were based.  Once the governors issued their first round of decrees they got to like it, but they needed to keep going to keep their legislatures off balance.  A few judges here and there, eventually, ruled that some of the governors had gone too far, rolling back some of the policies.  Many judges found ways to stay out of it, considering these to be policy matters, not judicial issues.

The thorn in the side of these governors has been other governors, who followed more reasonable approaches, such as the governors in Florida, Tennessee, Texas, even South Dakota, among others.  That is the beauty of a federal system.  It has worked imperfectly, but it has been a salvation, particularly as people have seen better results—from the point of view of the virus and of the economy—in these other states.  It has worked to keep the debate somewhat alive, even with media working hard to silence alternative voices.

This all shows the importance of a constitution, with personal freedoms and diffused government.  But it also demonstrates the importance for people to insist on observance of their rights.  Bless those who have had willingness and means to go to court and judges who have been willing to take the cases and support the Constitution.  The biggest tool that people have is perhaps economic, and there have been economic responses that have been penalizing states that have it wrong. 

Another important tool will be elections.  A few states, such as Virginia, have elections this year, and there has been a rising tide of resentment to the policies.  Throwing out of government the officials who have violated rights and pursued destructive policies would send a powerful message to other parts of the nation.  What we hope for now are good candidates, the ability to get their message out through the media opposition, and integrity in the elections (plenty to worry about there).

Anyway, a long answer.  But I understand your frustration.  I am, however, hopeful.

Wayne

Of More Money and Higher Prices

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We have a new occupant of the Oval Office.  I did not hear his inaugural address, uncertain who would forget it more quickly, myself or its deliverer.  Inaugural addresses are highly forgettable literature, Lincoln’s first and second addresses (the second especially) the only ones that anyone can seem to remember, and worthy they are as exceptions to the genre.

I have been remembering the mountains of money that the government has been spending that it does not have, wondering where it is coming from even more than where it is going.  It is hard to find anyone who can tell you much with certainty about either.  The current attention is more focused on plans to spend yet another two trillion dollars that the government does not have on things that are not very clearly explained.  This would be on top of the most recent trillion dollars approved by Congress drawn from an empty well to be spent watering many a hidden garden.

I can understand the first round or two of multi-trillion dollar government expenditures.  Since government caused the collapse of a strongly growing economy by shutting down commerce and locking up the population, a strong argument can be made that paying these victims is not exactly a bailout as it is compensation.  To quote Will Rogers, if Stupidity got us into this mess, then why can’t it get us out? 

A serious problem seems to be that once you get into the game of paying people more to stay at home than they can earn on the job, how do you bring the game to an end.  The plan of the new Oval Office occupant seems to be to go into extra innings but continue serving spiritous refreshments well past the seventh inning.  How will the people get home safely once the game is over?

The classic formula for inflation is to have too much money chasing too few goods and services.  The kindling for a roaring inflation would appear to be carefully set. The Treasury and the Federal Reserve have been dramatically expanding the money supply, with the Federal Reserve supporting the market for the government’s electronic debt (not much money is printed on paper anymore) by purchasing gobs of Treasury securities from banks, paying the banks with electronic credits on their accounts held at the Federal Reserve, which the banks cannot find much to do with.  At the same time, many governors continue to issue orders to suppress the supply of goods and services.  As Elon Musk reportedly said last year, if you don’t make stuff, there is no stuff.

If this worry is well-founded, then why have we not yet seen any inflation, government spending surges and the Great Cessation having been Federal and State policies for nearly a year?  A very good question, the answer to which may be found in the savings rate.  While a lot of electronic money has been going into people’s bank accounts, people have been shy about spending it.  The personal savings rate jumped in 2020 from about 7% to nearly 35%.  Worried people hoard more than toilet paper.  And a lot of things that people might spend money on, such as travel, suddenly were not available.  I was surprised last year when our car insurance company sent us a rebate:  insurance losses were down because people were traveling less.

The roads are a bit more congested these days, and the economy is showing strong signs of trying to recover.  Even the savings rate is coming down, dropping to about 13% as 2020 approached its close.  More activity is good, but what is the Federal Reserve going to do if more people spend more savings faster than more goods and services are provided?  How will the Federal Reserve respond to another couple trillion dollars of deficit spending to stimulate an economy that is already on a recovery trajectory and families continue draining their savings?  They could allow interest rates to rise, to encourage people to keep some of their money in savings accounts that have paid less than a penny a year per dollar saved.  Recent Federal Reserve comments, though, declare that is not on the table.

In the late 1970s, when Jimmy Carter was president, economists invented the term “stagflation,” as inflation was high and the economy was in the doldrums.  Joe Biden was a relatively new Senator back then.  Maybe he will remember those days.  That economic pattern served no one well.

Of Good Banking and the New Year

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A year in retirement can give you perspective, particularly a year fraught with ample opportunity to do some good amidst challenge, risk, and danger of various flavors.  Such was the year behind us.  Does the year ahead offer any less?

Many such thoughts were brought to mind in a recent conversation with the chief financial officer of a community bank.  As you would guess, we discussed the outlook for banking.  I observed that the condition of the industry reminded me of the dot-com bust of 2000.  While the economy was in decline, hit a second time by the terrorist attacks of September 2001, the banking industry was thankfully in strong financial condition.  The dot-com bust had a securities market and Silicon Valley locus.

As in 2001, so also today, the banking industry is strongly capitalized, liquid with financial resources, well positioned to fund economic recovery.  Fortuitously, that position is matched by a host of potential customers, especially entrepreneurs eager to start up new businesses or expand ones that survived the government-led shutdowns.  Among those entrepreneurs are many people whose businesses closed not from bad business plans, but due to the Great Cessation of 2020.  That is to say, there are people who want to start new businesses who know how to run businesses, if government strictures will let them.

Their problem is one of resources exhausted by trying to keep their businesses floating as the tide went out.  As the tide is coming back in, there is a ready supply of people who would like to have a go with a new boat.  Good bankers have always been in the business of finding and funding good risks. 

Banks grow as their customers and communities grow.  Good banking fosters and facilitates the generation, management, preservation, and application of wealth. 

Bad banking bleeds wealth, which is why failed banks should be allowed to fail, to end the drain on the economy and to make room for the productive work of good banks, new and old.  Good bankers do their work by insightful weighing of opportunities and risks, tailoring terms and conditions to such opportunities and risks.  Bad banking either mistakes opportunities, or it miscalculates or ignores risk, or both.  Which, by the way, is why governments should stay out of the business of banking (other than as prudential supervisors), as the history of government shows an atrocious record of missing opportunities and miscalculating risk, sometimes for the short-term benefit of government’s associates.

The other day I saw a happy video from the chief executive officer of a southwestern bank.  Her timely message was of gratitude to the bank’s customers for constant communication and support.  In return, she offered a reaffirmed invitation apropos to serving in a way tailored to customers’ financial needs.  Reach out to the bank, including its CEO, 24-7 for financial service.  In conclusion, she pledged the bank to “connect you with others in our community who can serve you best.”  Now, that is good banking.

Of Overreaching Concerns and Asset Allegation

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What’s in a word?  That is an old question.  Often what is in the word may not be what the author intended.  The result can be humorous, and sometimes insightful.

Before retiring from the American Bankers Association, I became acquainted with a couple of examples where perhaps the wrong word presented an insightful meaning.  Listening to a seminar broadcast I heard the speaker explain the “overreaching concern” of his particular program.  Since the beginning of the Great Cessation and related lockdowns, I have heard many overreaching concerns expressed.  Perhaps we may learn from them.

On another occasion, in reference to money management, I became acquainted similarly by insightful accident with the term “asset allegation.”  I think that many a loan officer or bank examiner has had to come to terms with cases of asset allegation.

In 1775 the English playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan introduced us to Mrs. Malaprop, who delightfully uses words in unintended ways, at least unintended by whoever created the words.  His play, “The Rivals,” is a classic of English comedy.  In one example, Mrs. Malaprop, trying to convince her niece to give up on a young man of interest, expresses the wish that Lydia, the niece, would “illiterate him” from her memory.  In recent days, I think that we have all come across efforts by some to “illiterate” events from our historical memory.  Much to her happiness, Lydia ignored the advice.

Mrs. Malaprop, quite displeased with Lydia’s response, cautions her niece not to “extirpate” herself from the matter, explaining to the young girl that Malaprop has “proof controvertible” for her case.  Again, in recent days many have indeed been called upon to “extirpate” themselves or their ideas, prodded by noisy voices offering much “proof controvertible.”

In conversation, discussing what she considers proper education, Mrs. Malaprop recommends boarding school, where the student could obtain “a supercilious knowledge in accounts”.  I may admit that considering the CECL financial accounting rule, I have been tempted to wonder to what degree “a supercilious knowledge in accounts” might have had a role in its development.

I would also wonder, as I compare the variety of approaches across the globe to the current virus, whether some policymakers were subjected to Mrs. Malaprop’s advice that youth be “instructed in geometry” that they “might know something of the contagious countries”.

As a final reference, of many wonderful examples in the play, I would call upon Mrs. Malaprop’s advice that proper education of Lydia might lead the dear niece to “reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying.”  I have heard and read many things in recent days by many people and mused whether the time would arrive when these people would come to reprehend the true meaning of what they were saying.

In my days of Civil War reenacting I became familiar with the Union song, “Grafted Into the Army.”  Composed by Henry Clay Work, it pretends to be written in the words of a widow, immigrant to the United States, lamenting her son Jimmy being “grafted” into the army.  Military jargon can be difficult enough for those not in the army, even more so for someone arrived in a new society.  Jimmy’s mother does express pride in her son “Dressed up in his unicorn.”  Intended to provide lighthearted moments in a dark time, the song also tells of the widow mother complaining at “the captain’s fore-quarters” about her son being too young.  Many sons were too young, and too many did not return.  Mixed in the mirth is the sad message that Jimmy’s “brothers fell / Way down in Alabarmy.”

An anecdote from dining at a restaurant:  I had occasion to visit the restroom.  The following instruction, printed in large letters, was displayed prominently over the sink:  Employees must wash hands.  I waited there some minutes, pondering the appearance lately of many strange requirements, but at last I gained the courage to break the rule and washed my hands myself.

Of Children and Lockdowns

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In the heavy lockdown state in which I reside, the early stages of shutdown closed the outdoor playgrounds.  They closed the outdoor basketball courts.  To drive the point home that children were not welcome, the rims and nets were removed from the backboards—the worry must have been that some child might think of defying the governor’s orders.  I noticed at the time that golf courses remained open and were actively used, but I did not hear that many children frequented the fairways or the greens.

We all can agree that the lockdowns and closures of the Great Cessation are not pleasant.  There is a general wish that they would not have to happen.  There is a variety of views about how necessary this all has been.  I have not, though, heard anyone deny that children have been hurt the most.

Consider this partial catalog of harm to the children among us:

Education was abruptly interrupted.  Schools were closed.

  • In my major suburban county, government efforts to provide “virtual education” were repeatedly tried and failed and eventually abandoned.  The virtue remained elusive.
  • Education that requires group participation, such as music and arts, became unavailable.
  • Field trips were canceled. 
  • All school clubs’ and extracurricular activities—educationally valuable and greatly desired by children—ceased.
  • Personal belongings were quarantined in school lockers for months.
  • Public libraries were closed.
  • For the fall, the local governments repeatedly tried and failed, and eventually abandoned, efforts to reopen schools.  Children will be offered second class education at best.  That may work, to a limited degree, for well motivated children with consistent parental supervision.  Expect much less success for all the rest.

Social and recreational interaction was interrupted.

  • School sports were stopped, including practices, training, games, and facilities.  For many, that can include a whole year of skill development, performing, and advancement, a potential disaster for youth counting on a final year to demonstrate skills to help with college admissions.
  • School sponsored social events, such as dances, proms, plays, and other recreations were dropped.
  • School organized or sponsored service activities have been canceled.
  • Children were ordered to stay at home.  Enjoyment of friendships and development of camaraderie among peers were interrupted.  Usual exchanges with friends and neighbors, and the normal creative interactions, have been stifled.
  • The personal exposure to a variety of views and interests and backgrounds became limited.
  • Summer camps were closed and seasonal outings were taken off the table.
  • Recreational facilities were closed, including parks, sports venues, and pools.
  • Movie theaters and other entertainment offerings, such as concerts and spectator sports, became unavailable for warding off youthful ennui. 
  • Visits to extended family members declined.

Opportunities for character development have been curbed.

  • Churches were closed, including worship services, participation in sacred sacraments, associating in youth groups and instruction, joining in varieties of spiritual development activities, and involvement in service to the needy.
  • Similarly, the activities of service organizations are curbed, limiting youth participation and volunteer experiences.
  • Summer job opportunities became fewer, whether for wages or as summer internships.

Children’s health has been put at risk.

  • Regular doctor visits were for a time banned, and then later merely discouraged.
  • Routine treatments for chronic ailments were missed.
  • Vaccinations and other traditional child medical treatments have been skipped.
  • Dental visits were put off, as have been visits to the optometrist.
  • Medical attention has not been sought except for what was considered serious ailments or until they became serious ailments.
  • “Elective” procedures have been put off.

What do we offer the children in place of what has been closed to them?  As mentioned in this litany of childhood harm, local authorities ordered children to remain at home, but what kind of homes?  Not all children have the safe, comfortable, well provisioned and lovely homes we would wish or that officials envisioned.  Many habitations, rather than a haven and venue for learning, are without parental supervision, are dirty, uncomfortable, and unsafe, exposed to crime, drugs, and gang activity.  Children have looked to schools and other facilities, now closed to them by the lockdown, as places of refuge.  Lockdown policies can quarantine children into zones of hazard.

As summed up by a recent opinion piece from the American Institute for Economic Research, “Shockingly, it now appears that suicide rates among the young are on the increase, which is concerning since suicide is the leading cause of death for those under the age of 25.” (“CDC Has Become Centers for the Destruction of Childhood,” June 25, 2020)

What do we offer the children in place of what has been closed to them?

Children are the age group least vulnerable to the virus, the fewest to contract it, the quickest to heal, with by far the lowest mortality rate, and the tiniest record for contagion.  They have been covered in masks and fed on a daily feast of fear.  The irony is that the age group least affected by the virus is the group most deeply harmed by the lockdowns—against which they can do little to protect themselves.

Of Religion and Liberty

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In recent days the Supreme Court of the United States, in two related decisions, gave a welcome reaffirmation of the constitutional protection of the free exercise of religion.  The cases involved practical application of the principle First Amendment right.  One case, Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania, involved the Obamacare Act and contraceptive insurance coverage.  The other, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, concerned religious schools and their employment policies.  Both cases were decided by strong 7-2 votes. 

Readers will look to other forums and formats for the specifics of these interesting decisions.  I raise them as noteworthy inasmuch as governments in the last few months have acted unkindly toward religion and its exercise, much to the harm of people and the  jeopardy of their other rights protected in the First Amendment.

Not only is freedom of religion and the exercise thereof found in the First Amendment to the Constitution, it is the first freedom mentioned.  Free speech, freedom of the press, freedom peaceably to assemble, and the right to petition the government follow next, in that order.  This is not necessarily a ranking of importance of these five freedoms.  All are essential, but I would suggest that the latter four are strengthened by freedom of religion and will be put at risk without a vigorous regard for that freedom.

This is not hypothetical.  As an experiment to deal with the unknown effects of the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) many state governments (and the federal government to a lesser degree) engaged in an abrupt and progressive impairment of the constitutional rights of nearly all within their jurisdiction.  Of the five freedoms of the First Amendment, governments applied or tolerated the harshest limitations on religion and its practice.  Churches were closed, its members forbidden to meet together, even in small groups.  Administrations of religious rites considered sacred were blocked, even in application to the dying as well as the living.

In my congregation, in my church, we gather, we fellowship with one another, we sing together, we pray together, we teach each other, we provide service to one another, we follow the pattern of what Jesus Christ did and calls upon us to do in the practice of becoming kinder, more loving people.  Government restrictions have made that very hard to do, and are unable to replace it with anything.

One of the leaders of the church, David A. Bednar, an Apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, lately said this in remarks on the importance of religious practice:

Latter-day Saints are hardly alone in this need to gather. . . Our Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Evangelical friends gather for mass, baptisms, confirmations, sermons, and myriad other religious purposes.  Our Jewish friends gather for worship in their synagogues.  Our Muslim friends gather in their mosques.  Our friends in the Buddhist, Sikh, and other faith traditions likewise have sacred places to gather and worship together. And because gathering lies at the very heart of religion, the right to gather lies at the very heart of religious freedom.

In the United States and elsewhere, in this experiment into which we were rapidly immersed, people “throughout the free world,” as David Bednar reminded, “learned firsthand what it means for government to directly prohibit the free exercise of religion.”

Science, including the science of self government, requires us to learn from our experiments.  What have we seen in the social laboratory within which we have been living?  While freedom of religion has been curtailed, other liberties have eroded.  Freedom of speech has been restricted; people have become very careful about speaking their minds, avoiding certain words, even limiting their associations with neighbors, and they do not like it.  Communication even on social media has been censored. 

Press freedom is no longer robust.  Media broadcasters are careful to avoid use of newly minted proscriptions of this or that phrase or word, with correspondents and announcers disappearing from their jobs almost overnight for violation of some new taboo.  People have become increasingly mistrustful of “the news.”

Many assemblies are prohibited.  Where allowed, numerical limits have been imposed on how many people can assemble in the same place.  More nettlesome, as is the usual case with the violation of rights, restrictions are applied and enforced unevenly, some favored and others not.

Governments, especially local governments, turn deaf ears to constituents raising concerns with the application of restrictions.  Arrangements for schools run by local governments are in confusion. 

Overall, people feel isolated, alone, helpless, and, for too many, hopeless.  They look for and find temporary relief in acts of rebellion, minor or otherwise.

This is where freedom of religion can be seen as important to the other freedoms.  Churches have often in western societies been a counterweight to government tyranny, which is why the governments of Europe tried for centuries to control them.  As the Red Army imposed its Iron Curtain across Eastern Europe, persecution and control of religion were a priority. 

The first amendment prohibits government control of religion, specifically to preserve freedom of the churches, which in America has also worked to accommodate variety of religious practice.  All of the churches, together, need the first amendment to thrive, as do their members.  No other human organizations are as organized, enduring, and meaningful to people.  Without vigorous, free religions, people are left alone to defend their other rights, with alternative organizations that at best are anemic by comparison.

In the words of David Bednar, “With goodwill and a little creativity, ways can almost always be found to fulfill both society’s needs and the imperative to protect religious freedom. . . . Never again can we allow government officials to treat the exercise of religion as simply nonessential.”

Of Models and Living

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My sons and I are modelers.  We love to build models.  We have spent many a pleasant time, creating very pleasant memories, building models together.  I prefer constructing models of buildings, houses, and bridges.  My sons make those, too, but their preference is for vehicles, especially airplanes.

Building models is beautiful and satisfying.  Models and making them stimulate creativity.  Modeling is a bridge between fantasy and reality.  With enough abstraction, you can model just about anything, real or imagined.

Models are not reality, though.  They are a thin representation of elements of reality, on a scale reduced from reality.

Modeling, by intent and purpose, is always a tremendous simplification from actual things, a focus on certain characteristics.  If we want the fullness of reality, we go to reality itself.  You cannot model life, for example, only aspects of it.  Doing so can help with our understanding of a particular aspect, which new idea we can take back to life to see how it fits.

The model itself, though, is not reality.  You cannot live there.  I am reminded of a story from The Twilight Zone.  As I recall, it goes something like this.  A man finds himself trapped inside of a child’s model village.  At first it looks quite real, until examined more closely.  He looks about him, and with increasing anxiety finds that things do not work, discovering an artificiality in all about him.  In despair he discovers how thin a replication of reality the model village is.  He struggles to make sense of it all, until he hears above him the laughing voice of the child who built the model.  He abandons hope as he finds no way out.

Sometimes we build model environments for fish or other pets or creatures to live in.  They never seem to be quite convinced, always trying to get out.  Even the ants in the ant farm work to get beyond the limits of the glass.

In recent months we have all been placed by our governments—especially by our state and local governments—in a model and forced to live there.  We are assured that, according to the models guiding them and us, this will all be for our own good, or at least for the good of someone even when we can see that it is for our direct harm (such as farmers and business owners and their employees, all put out of work).

With each day we see how far from reality these models are.  They are growing increasingly thin in meeting our social, economic, and health needs.  In this model we are separated from family, friends, and neighbors.  Virtual reality turns out to be very little reality at all, highly artificial and daily less satisfying, the virtue going out of it.  Economic buffers like savings erode.  Government relief plans, based on economic models, do not seem to work anywhere near as well as the real economy did.  Educational substitutes are a joke to the students and frustration to their teachers.  Many valuable healthcare treatments are put aside, postponed to some indefinitely promised day, governed by those who control the model in which we are living.

Back to reality, as a cause for rejoicing, which should be embraced and celebrated by all, the horrific models of the future used as justifications for the models imposed upon us by our governors, are turning out to be very thin, indeed wrong.  That is great!  That means that fewer than predicted are dying, fewer are getting sick.  We are thankfully learning each day that the actual numbers used to measure the extent and effect of the flu disease have been and remain a small portion of the overall population.

Policymakers need to make policy based on facts, with a view of and concern for the whole population.  The gap between the models and reality yawns wide.  Time to let us out.

Of the Spring of Relief and Re-Awakening

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We began this month with fasting and prayer “that the present pandemic may be controlled, caregivers protected, the economy strengthened, and life normalized.”  I see our prayers in the process of being received and answered, and I feel to rejoice that there is a God who hears and who receives our prayers of faith.  I have long known, from much personal experience, that He does.  I am seeing it yet again, as I believed that I would.  I expect that you, too, are seeing the signs of the Spring of Relief.

With each new set of hard data of what is really happening, the dire predictions from so many, that frightened so many, are revealing themselves to be well beyond the mark.  That is cause for general celebration (I do not understand why some are angered by it).  Sickness rates and mortality rates continue to decline, approaching levels consistent with seasonal experiences.  Those most vulnerable are becoming easier to identify and protect.

The realized effects of the pattern of the disease offer growing cause for relief and hope for the many, even while we join in sympathy for those most afflicted by this flu strain, just as our hearts sympathize for all who suffer from the numerous ailments and sicknesses that are part of mortality.  No one of us is left unaffected by sickness for ourselves and loved ones.

The reality of the epidemic has wonderfully been falling far short of the dire predictions, for which we are grateful.  On the other hand, the economic experience has been as bad or worse than predicted.  Here the real numbers are also coming in.  I recall one estimate from the first of the month, considered then by some to be high and exaggerated.  The anticipated dark cloud was that by May there would be 27 million Americans unemployed by the Great Cessation and other effects of the state-ordered shutdowns.  By Thursday, April 23, the number of Americans applying for unemployment had reached 26 million, a number that does not include those who remain employed but whose business and income are fractions of normal.  Of those who had work just a few weeks ago, today one in six do not.

No government in known history has ever done this to its own people.  As the Great Cessation was put in place by government action—not by the disease itself—it is an encouraging sign that government leaders are increasingly taking action to restrengthen the economy and to allow the most powerful engines of economic strength, the business operators and employees themselves, to begin the steps to return to the normal processes of enterprise.  This is only just beginning, and it needs to be encouraged.

Will Rogers is credited with saying, “If stupidity got us in this mess, how come it can’t get us out.”  Governments can block economic activity; they are poor at generating economic growth.  They lack expertise and incentives for it.  But they can repair some damage, and they can remove the barriers they erected, to which more government leaders—at local, state, and federal levels—are turning their attention.

These are all trends to celebrate, replacing anger and despair with gladness and hope, a Great Awakening for us in which to be engaged.  Bring it on.

Of Fasting and Relief

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To a physically empty room, but to a crowd of millions gathered electronically around the world, a prophet of God spoke reassuringly about times of turmoil.  Russell M. Nelson, Prophet and President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was conducting a worldwide conference with the more than 16 million members of the Church.  Fewer than 10 people, presumably including the cameraman, were in the room, and all were practicing social distancing as urged by government officials.

President Nelson has refused, however, to engage in spiritual distancing.  Quite the contrary, his work is aimed at bringing the hearts of people together.  In keeping with the great commandments to love God and love our neighbor, President Nelson called for a worldwide fast this coming Friday, Good Friday.  “Good Friday would be the perfect day to have our Heavenly Father and His Son hear us!”  As part of the fast, he counseled that we pray “that the present pandemic may be controlled, caregivers protected, the economy strengthened, and life normalized.”

This call was extended not just to members of the Church.  President Nelson invited all to join in.  Who would not be in accord with the focus of these petitions?

This fast is well timed and well targeted.  Well timed, because during the Easter season, Christians from around the world are focused on the most important miracles that Jesus Christ performed on our behalf, His suffering and atonement for our sins—which no one else could do—and His resurrection from the grave, which no one had done before and because of which all of us will experience.  A worldwide devotional petition to the God of miracles for His help will at this Easter time give many, shut out from their houses of worship, a way to focus their faith on a very traditional Christian act, temporary self-denial of physical nourishment to emphasize spiritual nourishment and commitment to God and His work.  People may wish to do as latter-day saints normally do when fasting, take the money that would have been spent on the skipped meals and donate it to those in need, of which there are a lot more than there were a few weeks ago.

The fast is well targeted, because the call highlights the four most urgent areas in which we need divine help:  controlling the virus, blessing the caregivers, strengthening the economy, and returning life to normal.  I know of no one not acutely in need of one or more of these petitions.

The New Testament tells of when Jesus Christ was asked by a lawyer which commandment was greatest.  The ancient lawyer was hoping for an argument.  Instead, he received inspired teaching.  The Savior replied, love of God and love of our neighbors, explaining that from these two commandments come all of the others (Matthew 22:35-39).  In essence, all of the rest are commentary on these two.  This fast is all about those two commandments.

Consider joining us in this fast this Good Friday, to the extent that you can.  Let God our Father, who reminded us that He acts in accordance with the faith of His children, hear our prayers and witness our devotion.  He will surely welcome such a global expression on behalf of His children and their welfare.

Of the Great Cessation and Accountability

Photo by Remy Baudouin on Unsplash

The first Friday of the month is “Jobs Day” in the United States, when employment numbers for the previous month are released by the Labor Department.  A bit out of date for events moving quickly, the report—really for the first part of March when the data were collected—is that there was a net loss of 701,000 jobs.  More recent information from the Labor Department, gathered in the last two weeks of March, was that 9.9 million people filed unemployment insurance claims.

Those are firm, real, and disturbing numbers.  Perhaps you personally know someone tested positive for the virus or even made sick by it.  I feel more confident that you know someone who has lost his job, or whose business has closed, or one way or another is out of work.

Those people were not put out of work by the virus.  Up to this point the virus has reached but a small portion, some 240 thousand, of the 330 million Americans.  Those 9.9 million job losses were caused by government order and the fear spawned by government pronouncements and predictions of what may yet happen.

This unemployment is actual, not a forecast.  Each person of the 9.9 million has a very real story to tell, and it is not a happy one.  Many are tragic.  There are careers that have been disrupted, some only just started and some now ended.  There are businesses closed that will not reopen.  There are painful ongoing worries for people and families over what to do to cope.  None of us dismisses the sorrows involved with those who die, from whatever the cause.  I fear that the real, here and now unemployment wounds are too flippantly disregarded.

At some point, reasonable questions will need to be answered in a calm and deliberative way.  The actions taken and their consequences must be weighed, aside from professed intentions.  And the policies of policymakers will need to be evaluated in light of what they in practice wrought.  Among such questions might be these:

  • Did the realities of the Great Cessation—the sudden orders to stop activity and association, the practicalities of work lost, earnings gone, closed businesses, disrupted human interaction—caused by government decree, do more harm than good?
  • How many of those lost jobs are coming back?  How many of them are career-ending?  How many businesses are closed not to reopen?
  • Which actions ordered are unrelated to the health emergency but rather take opportunistic advantage of public fear and disruption?
  • What scars will remain on the body of our freedoms?

No doubt you also have important questions, calling for some explaining.

Involved officials might respond that the forecasts should not be unnoticed in the review.  Which forecasts?  Certainly good policymaking would rely upon future expectations.  Was a broad picture evaluated of what might likely occur?  How closely did policies applied align with appropriate and realistic forecasts (taken together)?  Which forecasts turned out nearest to what indeed happened?

Shall we go to the current forecasts?  Oxford Economics visualizes the loss of 27.9 million jobs in the U.S.  The most recent government estimates of U.S. virus deaths are between 100 thousand and 240 thousand.  For the full picture, we should include predictions of the fallout from prolonged social disruption and human isolation.  How much harm and how many deaths might those policies cause?  When we tally up the score to see whether it all is worth it, include all of that in the tally.

A deep recession caused by government order has never happened in our history.  Now it has and is part of our story.  Those who ordered it should, with due deference and full fairness, be called upon to justify it.

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