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Thursday, May 7, 2020

Department of "Justice" Moves to Drop Case Against Flynn

Talking Points Memo, and I'm sure every other news organization in the country, is reporting the bombshell move by the Bill Barr DOJ to drop the case against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn for lying to FBI investigators, to which Flynn pleaded guilty over two years ago, in December 2017. According to the filing, the DOJ is now alleging that Flynn's statements were not "material even if untrue." It claims there was no legitimate reason for investigating Flynn, despite his making five phone calls to the Russian ambassador and lying about them.

The filing goes on to repeat all the rancid nonsense our so-called President has been making about the investigation, particularly targeting the FBI, then-Director James Comey, and of course FBI agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. Jesus fucking Christ! There really is nothing so low this regime won't do. Barr and his minions have put an exclamation point on the complete perversion of justice I highlighted in February.

As you can tell by the fact that I am breaking my own commenting rules, I am gobsmacked, speechless, and enraged. The would-be dictator continues to trash the rule of law in this country, and there are still 180 days left until the November election.

Judge Emmet Sullivan, who has presided over this case, does not have to accept the DOJ recommendation. I pray that he does not. You know, it might be worthwhile if Special Counsel Robert Mueller said something about the methodical lying about, and undoing of his investigation. That he has been silent this long is disgraceful. He swore to uphold the Constitution and it's being violated in plain sight.

You can see the entire filing at TPM. You can read it if you're a masochist or more detail-oriented than I am. I'm not going to tempt my blood pressure any more than necessary.

I'm sorry I can't be any more coherent than this. This is Saturday Night Massacre level lawlessness now. We're in the fight of our lives to save America.

Friday, May 1, 2020

US has 9th* worst COVID-19 death rate in the world: WTH is Trump thinking? UPDATED

In a press conference on Thursday, April 30, the head of the illegitimate Trump regime said, "Our death totals, our numbers, per million people, are really very, very strong. We're very proud of the job we've done." Okay, we know he lies all the time, but this is ridiculous.

The United States has the 9th* worst COVID-19 death rate in the world! At 199 per million population as of 8:00pm EDT May 1, it is exceeded by only Belgium (665**), Spain (531), Italy (467), the United Kingdom (405), France (377), the Netherlands (286), Sweden (263), Ireland (256), and Switzerland (203). At recent rates, the United States will pass Switzerland to take the 9th worst spot within a week. How is this a record to be proud of?

Meanwhile, conservative darling Sweden (the first time Sweden has been a conservative darling!) is zooming up the list, and is doing far worse than its Nordic neighbors Denmark (79), Norway (39), Finland (39), and Iceland (29).

The global average death rate is 30.7 per million; the U.S. figure is more than six times that. Even if you doubt China's numbers (only 4,633 deaths, 3 per million), the figure when you remove China is still only 37, leaving the United States at more than five times the world average.

With such a wide divergence between the U.S. and world averages, it is not surprising that there are many countries with much lower death rates than the United States. Notable are Canada (90), Brazil (30), Mexico (14), Japan (4), Australia (4), India (0.9), and Taiwan (0.3). Moreover, Vietnam, with a population of 95 million, has had zero deaths. And we're supposed to think the United States is doing well?

Why is Sweden suddenly a conservative darling? Because it has not locked itself down like most of the rest of the world. As shown above, however, not only does it have a substantially worse death rate than the United States (its extra 64 deaths per million would translate to another 21,056 U.S. deaths), but it doing drastically worse than its most similar neighbors. Why Sweden is considered a success by conservatives is beyond me.

Georgia's reopening of the state beginning April 24 has generated substantial controversy. One reason this is surprising is that Georgia has a death rate of 113 per million, sixteenth highest in the country, three times the world average. One leading theory for the end of Georgia's lockdown is that it will force workers to go back to work or lose their unemployment benefits. It is certainly not a medical decision, given the state's low level of testing and inconsistent case decline (click on "daily cases" in the right bottom corner).

Don't be fooled by the goalpost moving, which we're going to see over and over as the death rate rises. The U.S. response to the coronavirus isn't "very, very strong" just because it isn't the worst in the world. No, this is just one more aspect of "winning" to get tired of.

P.S. While I was writing this, Rachel Maddow did a great segment on the sidelining of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is definitely a worrisome development to keep our eyes on.

* Excluding microstates (San Marino, Andorra) and dependencies (Sint Maarten, Isle of Man, Channel Islands, Montserrat).
** Unlike other countries, Belgium likely overcounts deaths rather than undercounting them. As The Independent notes:
According to Belgium’s Federal Public Service for Health, just 46 per cent of the country’s total official deaths were in hospitals where coronavirus cases were confirmed. But 53 per cent of the Belgian tally, or 4,100 people, were from care homes, and of these, 84 per cent are suspected but unconfirmed coronavirus deaths.
A University of Ghent virologist, Steven van Gucht, therefore says that to compare Belgium with other countries, one should "divide by two." Of course, even a 332 per million death rate is a very poor outcome. Moreover, the better other countries do at incorporating non-hospital deaths into their data, the less Belgium's death rate should be cut to be comparable.

UPDATE: On May 3, the United States passed Switzerland to move into the 9th-worst spot.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Comparative Responses to the Economic Aspects of the Crisis Show Many Drawbacks in USA

The global COVID-19 pandemic has created an associated economic crisis as many businesses have been forced to close because of lack of demand (travel, for example) or social distancing (too many to list). With predictions of a possible 32% unemployment rate in the United States, how does the response to the economic crisis here compare with those of other countries?

Both the United States and our major European allies have passed economic stimulus laws that exceed 10% of gross domestic product. The $2.2 trillion CARES Act package signed March 27 was 10.1% of 2019 GDP of $21.7 trillion. Spain passed an even larger package, equaling 20% of its GDP.

We can think of the CARES Act as having three main components. First, there are individual safety-net supports, including the $1,200 payments most individual adults will received, more money into the SNAP (formerly named Food Stamp) program, and greatly expanded unemployment insurance. Second, there are $350 billion in forgivable loans for small business, which become grants if the companies don’t lay off their employees (the “Paycheck Protection Plan”). Third, there is a $500 billion bailout fund for large companies. This is poorly designed, most importantly because it doesn’t require companies to maintain staff. Over 20 million people have filed for unemployment benefits in the last four weeks alone.

Besides the catastrophic loss of wages, the biggest problem with allowing bailed-out companies to lay off staff is that such a large percentage of the U.S. workforce gets its health insurance through work, meaning that when they lose their jobs, they also lose their health insurance. As Saez and Zucman point out, people can continue their employer’s insurance under COBRA, but it is extremely expensive since there is no employer contribution. This comes precisely at a time when they may really need it, given the length and ruinous expense of treatment incurred for people with severe cases of COVID-19.

By contrast, in all western European countries (as well as Canada, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, etc.) health insurance is universal. Even in a country with a public/private system like Germany, when you lose your insurance due to job loss, you transition seamlessly to a public health insurance plan with no loss of coverage.

European responses have focused much more on a wage-support approach like the small business program in the United States, except applied economy-wide. The U.K. government has been described as the “payer of last resort,” as it stands to guarantee 80% of workers’ wages indefinitely. For both employees and the self-employed, this would be capped at £ 2,500 (approximately $3,125) per month. Given that the United Kingdom has the National Health Service, a true socialized medicine system completely divorced from employment status, layoffs were never going to mean a loss of health care access for workers in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But by guaranteeing employment, the United Kingdom will have higher levels of job security than U.S. workers will, with jobs to go back to when the crisis ends. Indeed, the problem in the United States is not simply health insurance, but the fact that each of the 50 states has different rules for unemployment insurance, with inter-state variation both in the generosity and length of payments in the different programs.

An important difference between wage support in Europe and for small business in the United States is that the European plans are open-ended, whereas the U.S. plan must be renewed with Congressional legislation every time it runs out of money. This opens the possibility of deadlocks if attempts are made to attach unrelated provisions to an extension bill, something that happens frequently in Congress. And this is no longer a prediction, because the $350 billion ran out on April 16.

Absent federal leadership, we also expect “the economic war among the states” to resume, with each state offering subsidies trying to attract investment, in some cases through job piracy. From our experience during the Great Recession (when there were far more desperate politicians chasing far fewer deals), we can expect to see another surge in expensive megadeals.

Facing high unemployment and relatively few opportunities to attract large numbers of jobs, states will bid more for those opportunities than they would in more prosperous times. States will be tempted to engage in job piracy in many multi-state metropolitan areas, such as New York, Charlotte, and Memphis.

We need to remind states about the first-ever binding anti-piracy agreement, the 2019 accord between Kansas and Missouri, where research by the Hall Family Foundation had documented that the two states wasted $335 million over 10 years moving companies short distances but across the state line within Greater Kansas City.

It is imperative that we support the anti-piracy legislation pending in 13 states this year, sponsored by Chicago-based Progressive Public Affairs, which has amassed lead sponsors from both parties (nine states have Democratic sponsors, while four have Republican sponsors). And we will need to keep the pressure on states to ensure that companies which receive government support fulfill their job and other commitments.

Given the predominance of wage support in European countries, most of this funding will not be subject to EU subsidy (“state aid”) rules. That’s because the money will be available economy-wide in the Member States, not favoring one company over another. In technical terms, this use of the funds is “non-selective,” and therefore not state aid at all, as our contacts at the European Commission have explained. Nevertheless, due to the large amounts of money at stake, each Member State will be responsible to ensure that recipients maintain employment in order to qualify for government paying their wage bills.

Some EU spending will qualify as state aid, such as the Danish’s government’s plan to partially compensate organizers of conferences and other events that were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. That is, it is selective, for being available to one industry. To spell out such distinctions, the European Commission published on March 19th its “Temporary Framework” notifying Member States about likely scenarios and whether or not it was likely to approve subsidies the Member States might propose. (Note that the Commission has exclusive power to approve, modify, or deny proposed state aid projects or programs by the 27 Member States, subject to court review.) As I have shown previously, the European Union has shown itself much better than the United States at controlling economic development subsidies.

As we can see, there are major drawbacks to the U.S. response to the economic crisis. By letting people become unemployed rather than making an open-ended wage guarantee, workers lose their health insurance and have no assurance of a job to go back to when the health crisis ends. High unemployment will also pressure state and local governments to return to worst practices in economic development. There is still time to change course, but it will take constant and high levels of political pressure to make it happen.

Cross-posted with Good Jobs First.

Friday, April 3, 2020

6.6 million new unemployment claims April 2nd

As the saying goes, "Records are made to be broken." But I don't think it's too often the case that it happens at the very next opportunity. Nevertheless, one week after the United States smashed its previous record for first-time unemployment claims with just under 3.3 million, it doubled the record on April 2, with over 6.6 million new unemployment claims, adding another 4 percentage points to the unemployment rate.

After that news dropped, the Congressional Budget Office (via TPM) updated its economic projections for the nation's economy. Among other things, it expects the unemployment rate to exceed 10% in the second quarter. If you remember, the peak monthly unemployment rate during the Great Recession was 10.0%, so exceeding that figure represents yet another win for Trump. So much winning!

In fact, University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers, writing in The New York Times, estimates the current unemployment rate to be about 13%. This would be the highest rate reached since the Great Depression, he points out.

The CBO report also expects that gross domestic product will fall by over 7% in the second quarter, an annualized rate of over 28%. "Those declines could be much larger, however," it adds. In fact, Wells Fargo economists are much more pessimistic and suggest a second-quarter GDP contraction of 14.3%, topping the current record for quarterly GDP drop, the 10% fall during the Eisenhower administration in 1958 Q1. So much winning!

Of course, these impacts would have been much smaller except for the illegitimate Trump regime's failed preparations and response to the COVID-19 pandemic. After two months of minimizing the outbreak and assuring us everything was under control, the federal government is still not doing anything to ensure that supplies goes to the places most in need at a fair price. Indeed, the evidence from the April 2 nightly pandemic briefing/campaign rally suggests just the opposite. The federal government is flying in large amounts of needed equipment from abroad, then putting it in the hands of private companies which then force the states into bidding wars for the products! Unfortunately, my commenting rules prohibiting me from saying more; just imagine a string of obscenities.

In related pandemic news, as of 7:45am EST, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Dashboard shows the United States not just with the most cases in the world, but more than twice as many (245,573) as second-place Spain (117,710). The number of new daily cases continues to increase, as shown in this screenshot from the dashboard:

(Click on US at the top of the country list on the left, then select daily increase in the lower right.)

Yes, on April 1, the United States topped 30,000 new cases in a day for the first time, which was just shy of 3/8 of all new cases in the world.

And the most morbid statistic for last: With over 6,000 deaths so far, doubling every 3 days, the United States is set to pass both Spain and Italy in the next six days to reach the top spot for the most deaths of any country in the world.

Yes, I'm tired of all this winning. And scared, too.

Friday, March 27, 2020

3.3 Million!! and other dubious records for the USA

I for one am getting tired of all the "winning" under the illegitimate Trump regime. Today (March 26) we hit two milestones, neither of which is cause to celebrate.

The first biggie is 3.28 million people filed first-time claims for unemployment in the last week. To put this in perspective, with a labor force of 164.6 million, it means that the unemployment rate rose 2.0% in one week. To look at it another way, the previous record for most unemployment claims in a week came in 1982, during the Reagan administration, and that record was 695,000. So this week we surpassed the previous high by a factor of 4.7. For a visual representation, see the tweet below by Heidi Shierholz, the director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute:

This leaves me pretty speechless. So I'll just move on to the second milestone.

On Thursday, the United States moved into the #1 position on the total number of COVID-19 cases of any country in the world, passing both Italy in China in the last 24 hours. In another record, the number of new cases on March 25 was 18,100, breaking China's one-day new case record of 15,100 from February 12. (For those of you keeping score at home, that's six weeks ago!) And unfortunately, the generally rising pattern of new daily cases is continuing, per the Johns Hopkins website.

(Click on "US" at the top of the list of countries at the left, then click on "Daily Increase" on the chart in the lower right-hand corner.)

For good measure, the number of new cases globally hit a record of 61,900 on March 25, also with a continuing upward trend.

This is a disaster in the making if these trends don't improve soon. I don't have a crystal ball, so all I can say is listen to the scientists.