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Insight into Why the USA is Struggling with Reopening America

Reopening America: How division and vulnerability hamper our response



This article was originally published by The Brookings Institute.

By Carol Graham, Sergio Pinto COVID-19 is an exponential shock shining a microscope on U.S. society’s deep divisions, the vulnerability of our low-income population, and our woefully inadequate health and social safety net systems. Right now, America leads the world in incidence and deaths, with over 1 million cases and over 90,000 deaths as of May 19. Despite the heroic efforts of first responders, hospitals are overwhelmed in many urban areas, and absent in many rural ones. Essential protective equipment is in short supply, testing rates are far lower than in most other wealthy countries, and inconsistencies in federal guidance and state-level policies leave us vulnerable to a second spike. There were over 20 million unemployment claims in April alone, and estimates of the labor market fallout in the U.S. show the unemployment rate approaching 20 percent.  


Social and economic costs are unevenly shared, with low-income workers more vulnerable to lay-off, to be working a job that exposes them to the virus, and to having inferior access to quality healthcare and health insurance. This falls on top of a pre-existing crisis of deaths of despair (due to alcohol, drugs, or suicide) which have taken over 1 million lives since 1999. While urban deaths have disproportionately fallen on poor minorities— particularly African Americans, in rural areas, where incidence is just beginning to increase, it will likely impact the low-income white population that is most vulnerable to deaths of despair.  Prior to the crisis, a 2017 study estimated that a 1 percent increase in county-level unemployment resulted in a 3 percent increase in drug related deaths. While an employment shock of this magnitude makes it impossible to impose a similar projection, it is hard to imagine any uplifting scenario. Already in March there were reports of increased gun purchases (guns account for the majority of successful suicide attempts) and calls to suicide hot-lines  While tragic, the pandemic is giving these issues visibility and urgency. How to address them is a challenge that stems well beyond the virus. Trust in our institutions is lower than that of most wealthy countries, and certainly than that of those countries that have successfully managed the crisis in Europe. With public confidence in the U.S. running in the high 30s, we score much lower than New Zealand (70 percent), Finland (66 percent), Norway (60 percent), and Germany (high 50s), slightly below France (high 30s) and Spain (high 30s), and above Italy (21 percent).  
One way to frame our efforts to address the crisis and heal our nation is to focus on our society’s well-being rather than solely on the state of our economy.


Most of the countries with higher public trust have much more coherent social welfare systems 65 than we do, and even so many European countries took decisive action to mitigate the increase in unemployment by directly reimbursing firms for the wage costs to keep their workers on the payroll. In contrast, unlike every other high income country, the U.S. has a health insurance system that is tied to employment, making unemployment a dual income and health shock. Our fragmented safety net system, meanwhile, varies widely across states and stigmatizes the most vulnerable that need support such as food stamps or cash assistance  Managing a pandemic that requires coordinated social distancing by millions of people cannot succeed without public trust in the government. In addition to low levels of trust, inconsistencies in the information presented by our federal government, contradicting public health officials and scientists, and the deep political divisions reflected in particular states’ response to closing their economies and premature moves to reopen, have likely lowered public confidence even further—and increased the long-run economic and social costs.  


One way to frame our efforts to address the crisis and heal our nation is to focus on our society’s well-being rather than solely on the state of our economy. As in the case of public trust, we score much lower than other countries of comparable or even lower levels of income on national average well-being rankings, as assessed by the annual World Happiness Report, coming in at 18th in 2019, down from 11th in 2011. The same data highlights higher levels of trust and stronger social connections in the higher ranked countries.   One reason for our low well-being relative to our income is that we have high levels of inequality in well-being as well as income. There are large gaps in most well-being markers—life satisfaction, hope for the future, and daily enjoyment, and in stress and worry—across the rich and the poor. The latter report significantly lower scores on all these markers. Even reported pain is unequal, with the poor—and particularly the rural poor—reporting more pain than the rich. Respondents in the U.S. report more pain on a daily basis than respondents in 30 other countries, many of which have much lower levels of income.   None of this put us in a good position to manage the coronavirus shock. It hit the most vulnerable disproportionately in job losses and in vulnerability to getting ill due to the kinds of jobs they have or had. And these same people have very limited margin to absorb income shocks and fewer resources to deal with the related mental and physical health spillovers.   A March 2020 Gallup survey of 8,572 respondents in a running nationwide panel (of the same respondents interviewed over the course of two years) highlights the differences in the costs to well-being across the rich and the poor. Low-income respondents (with incomes below $36,000) reported more negative emotions than did high income respondents (with incomes above $90,000). Sixty-four percent of low-income respondents reported worry the day before compared to 60 percent of high-income ones; many of the other differences across the two groups were larger, including sadness (45 percent versus 28 percent), loneliness (48 percent versus 18 percent), and anger (28 versus 23 percent). The one exception was stress: 62 versus 64 percent.  These represent significant increases in negative emotions relative to earlier years. Our comparisons are imperfect, given that they are based on similar but not the same samples: the Gallup panel for March 2020 versus the 2017 daily Gallup Healthways poll (which displays similar trends in well-being for the previous few years). Yet they are for the same income groups. The differences are stark. The average in 2017 for reported stress for the low-income respondents was 47 percent compared to 38 percent for high income ones, and reported worry was 41 percent of the former compared to 28 percent for the latter. There is a clear increase in March 2020 for both groups (64 percent worry for low-income groups versus 41 percent in 2017). The indicators increased more for the rich than for the poor—not surprising as they started at a much lower level—but an income gradient remains.  


Based on that same panel survey, Jonathan Rothwell—of Gallup and Brookings—highlights the different abilities of the poor and the rich to work at home and practice social distancing. He also finds a remarkably deep ideological divide in concerns about the virus. While 59 percent of those in the bottom income quintile report to practice social distancing, 71 percent of those in the top quintile do. And 71 percent of those in the top quintile can work from home, but only 41 and 35 percent of the bottom and second quintile respectively can, an inequity that is exacerbated by differential access to broadband internet.   There are also deep inequities in health and in the pre-existing conditions that are associated with higher levels of COVID-19 mortality. Incidences of diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are 22 percent and 11 percent respectively for those in the bottom quintile versus an average of 7 percent and 2 percent for those in the top quintile. These vulnerabilities created a perfect storm for the havoc that COVID-19 wreaked on the livelihoods—and health—of this population, and that rapidly overwhelmed our frayed and inadequate safety nets.  


Views about the dangers of COVID-19—and associated behaviors—are remarkably different across Democrats and Republicans. Rothwell finds that 52 percent of Democrats versus 37 percent of Republicans say they have practiced social distancing and avoided small gatherings. And the differences in state policies surrounding lockdowns and reopening often reflect this political divide. The same divide appears across races. The New York Times notes that of the lockdown opposers, only 5 percent are minority workers who have lost their jobs, while 70 percent are white workers who have not lost their jobs.   While it is difficult to find anything other than tragedy in this pandemic, perhaps its extremity will force a public conversation about the divisions in our society. Well-being can serve as an organizing frame that does not come with political or ideological undertones and that provides robust metrics to measure the aspects of our lives that are essential to health and welfare but are often left out of our standard economic indicators. As we have written earlier, the metrics allow us to attach relative weights to health (mental and physical), meaningful work, learning and creativity, insecurity, and social connections, among other things, and to compare them in equivalent income terms. These measures may be helpful in beginning a new conversation about how to restore our social coherence and well-being.   In the short-term, they can serve as useful tools to inform current discussions about the appropriate time to reopen economies. Paul Dolan of the London School of Economics calculated the monetary value of a prevented fatality for the “average” person and compared it to the monetary equivalent of the well-being losses associated with unemployment, loneliness, domestic violence and child abuse, and suicide and other mental health problems exacerbated by lockdown. He estimated the value of the approximately 58,000 COVID-19 deaths prevented by lockdown in March (including spillover deaths and adjusted for the lower life expectancy of those most vulnerable to COVID-19 deaths) as 3 percent of GDP. He then used that benchmark as a basis for evaluating the benefits of extending the lockdown versus the gradually increasing well-being costs of extending it. The point here is not to make a conclusive decision about when to reopen, but to highlight how well-being metrics provide a frame for assessing the complex tradeoffs entailed in these decisions.  


In the U.S., the risks will almost certainly be states opening too early rather than too late. An additional risk is caused by the high costs of healthcare and limited insurance. A new Gallup poll found that 14 percent of U.S. adults said they would avoid seeking care if they or someone in their household had symptoms of COVID-19 due to concerns about the cost  The same low public trust and limited support for people in need that heightened the impact of the virus will be a constraint in managing reopenings that require public cooperation. The burden of the virus on our low-income population has exacerbated existing inequities across income and race, and likely decreased public trust even further. The best strategy for the U.S. today would be to avoid rushing the opening and instead increase our efforts to mitigate the high costs to our society’s well-being with better strategies for protecting our low-income populations. It is not a coincidence that the same countries that best dealt with the crisis had higher levels of public trust and well-being, as well as stronger welfare systems, backed up by further state action to preempt unemployment from skyrocketing.   Framing the policies and associated public messages around society’s well-being and increasing inequities in it could be a first step toward healing the deep divisions in America today. And, as noted above, the metrics give policymakers a tool to attach relative values to things like lost jobs, lack of health insurance, and insecurity. Many countries have adopted a well-being approach in their policies, most notably New Zealand, also one of the world’s leaders in virtually eliminating COVID-19. That would surely leave us better prepared for the next crisis—or even for the potential second wave of this one.

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Why so sad?

Over the past few years, consumer sentiment has increasingly run far below the level predicted by models based on economic data. The Economist illustrates…



Over the past few years, consumer sentiment has increasingly run far below the level predicted by models based on economic data. The Economist illustrates the issue with a graph:

The Economist attributes the gloomy outlook to the lingering effects of Covid.  I suspect the actual explanation is growing political polarization.  Consider the growing partisan gap in how voters evaluate the economy:

Back in the 1990s, there wasn’t much partisan difference in how voters evaluated the condition of the economy.  This was before the public had come to view people with different points of view as the enemy.  I suspect that the responses to polls were more honest back then.  After 9/11, opinion became more polarized.  After Trump was elected, polarization increased even further.  Today, voters in the two major parties live in completely separate worlds, consuming media that is tailored to fit their prejudices.  Thus it’s not surprising that they have radically divergent views of the world.

Voters seem to rate the economy much more highly when their preferred candidate is in power, perhaps partly due to the mistaken assumption that presidents somehow control inflation and the business cycle.  (A myth that is encouraged by our media.)

Until 2021, the biases of the two parties roughly offset, leaving the overall rating roughly equal to the rating one would expect based solely on the economic data.  This changed after Joe Biden became president.  Unlike with President Obama (who inherited a weak economy), Democratic voters are only lukewarm on the current president. 

In contrast, Republican voters have an extremely negative view of President Biden.  With only lukewarm sentiment from Democrats, there is nothing to offset the extremely low economic rating of Republicans.  This leaves the overall rating for the economy far below the level you’d expect with rising real wages, 3.8% unemployment, and 3.7% inflation.  At one point in 2022, consumer sentiment fell below the lowest reading of the early 1980s, when the economy was in far worse shape.

I don’t believe these consumer sentiment figures represent the actual views of the public.  Consumer spending is still very strong, an indication that people feel pretty good about the economy.  Actions speak louder than words.  I suspect the low reported sentiment is mostly a reflection of GOP voters expressing anger at the current political situation.

My own view is that recent economic policy (since 2017) is quite bad, but the negative effects will show up in future years, at a point where we will need to confront the effects of an out of control federal budget.  If people think the current economy is bad, wait until they see what’s coming down the road in a few years!

PS.  Note to commenters:  If you think the economic model is wrong, you need to explain why it fit the data for the 40-year period from 1980 to 2020.


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Menendez indictment looks bad, but there are defenses he can make

The indictment of Sen. Bob Menendez is full of lurid details – hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash stuffed into clothes among them. Will they tank…




Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., right, and his wife Nadine Arslanian. AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File

Reactions came quickly to the federal indictment on Sept. 22, 2023 of New Jersey’s senior U.S. senator, Democrat Bob Menendez. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy joined other state Democrats in urging Menendez to resign, saying “The alleged facts are so serious that they compromise the ability of Senator Menendez to effectively represent the people of our state.”

The indictment charged Menendez, “his wife NADINE MENENDEZ, a/k/a ‘Nadine Arslanian,’ and three New Jersey businessmen, WAEL HANA, a/k/a ‘Will Hana,’ JOSE URIBE, and FRED DAIBES, with participating in a years-long bribery scheme…in exchange for MENENDEZ’s agreement to use his official position to protect and enrich them and to benefit the Government of Egypt.” Menendez said he believed the case would be “successfully resolved once all of the facts are presented,” but he stepped down temporarily as the chairman of the Senate’s influential Committee on Foreign Relations.

The Conversation’s senior politics and democracy editor, Naomi Schalit, interviewed longtime Washington, D.C. lawyer and Penn State Dickinson Law professor Stanley M. Brand, who has served as general counsel for the House of Representatives and is a prominent white-collar defense attorney, and asked him to explain the indictment – and the outlook for Menendez both legally and politically.

What did you think when you first read this indictment?

As an old seafaring pal once told me, “even a thin pancake has two sides.”

Reading the criminal indictment in a case for the first time often produces a startled reaction to the government’s case. But as my over 40 years of experience defending public corruption cases and teaching criminal law has taught me, there are usually issues presented by an indictment that can be challenged by the defense.

In addition, as judges routinely instruct juries in these cases, the indictment is not evidence and the jury may not rely on it to draw any conclusions.

A man in a suit pointing at a poster board with various photos on it.
Damian Williams, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, speaks during a press conference on Sept. 22, 2023 after announcing the Menendez indictment. Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images

The average reader will look at the indictment and say “These guys are toast.” But are there ways Menendez can defend himself?

There are a number of complex issues presented by these charges that could be argued by the defense in court.

First, while the indictment charges a conspiracy to commit bribery, it does not charge the substantive crime of bribery itself. This may suggest that the government lacks what it believes is direct evidence of a quid pro quo – “this for that” – between Menendez and the alleged bribers.

There is evidence of conversations and texts that coyly and perhaps purposely avoid explicit acknowledgment of a corrupt agreement, for instance, “On or about January 24, 2022, DAIBES’s Driver exchanged two brief calls with NADINE MENENDEZ. NADINE MENENDEZ then texted DAIBES, writing, ‘Thank you. Christmas in January.’”

The government will argue that this reflects acknowledgment of a connection between official action and delivery of cash to Sen. Menendez, even though it is a less than express statement of the connection.

Speaking in this kind of code may not fully absolve the defendants, but the government must prove the defendants’ intent to carry out a corrupt agreement beyond a reasonable doubt – and juries sometimes want to see more than innuendo before convicting.

The government has also charged a crime calledhonest services fraud” – essentially, a crime involving a public official putting their own financial interest above the public interest in their otherwise honest and faithful performance of their duties.

The alleged failure of Sen. Menendez to list the gifts, as required, on his Senate financial disclosure forms will be cited by prosecutors as evidence of “consciousness of guilt” – an attempt to conceal the transactions.

However, under a recent Supreme Court case involving former Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia for similar crimes, the definition of “official acts” under the bribery statute has been narrowly defined to mean only formal decisions or proceedings. That definition does not include less-formal actions like those performed by Sen. Menendez, such as meetings with Egyptian military officials.

The Supreme Court rejected an interpretation of official acts that included arranging meetings with state officials and hosting events at the Governor’s mansion or promoting a private businessman’s products at such events.

When it comes time for the judge to instruct the jury at the end of the trial, Sen. Menendez may well be able to argue that much of what he did not constitute “official acts” and therefore are not illegal under the bribery statute.

This case involves alleged favors done for a foreign country in exchange for money. Does that change this case from simple bribery to something more serious?

The issue of foreign military sales to Egypt may also present a constitutional obstacle to the government.

The indictment specifically cites Sen. Menendez’s role as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and actions he took in that role in releasing holds on certain military sales to Egypt and letters to his colleagues on that issue. The Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause protects members from liability or questioning when undertaking actions within the “legitimate legislative sphere” – which undoubtedly includes these functions.

While this will not likely be a defense to all the allegations, it could require paring the allegations related to this conduct. That would whittle away at a pillar of the government’s attempt to show Sen. Mendendez had committed abuse of office.

In fact, when the government has charged members of Congress with various forms of corruption, courts have rejected any reference to their membership on congressional committees as evidence against them.

Three men in suits, standing in front of a fire engine.
NJ Gov. Phil Murphy, left, seen here in 2018 with fellow Democrats Sens. Robert Menendez and Cory Booker, has called on Menendez to resign. AP Photo/Wayne Parry

How likely is Sen. Mendendez’ ouster from the Senate?

Generally, neither the House nor Senate will move to expel an indicted member before conviction.

There have been rare exceptions, such as when Sen. Harrison “Pete” Williams was indicted in the FBI ABSCAM sting operation from the late 1970s and early 1980s against members of Congress. He resigned in 1982 shortly before an expulsion vote. With current Democratic control of the Senate by a margin of just one seat, Sen. Menendez’ ouster seems unlikely even though the Democratic governor of New Jersey would assuredly appoint a Democrat to fill the vacancy.

“In the history of the United States Congress, it is doubtful there has ever been a corruption allegation of this depth and seriousness,” former New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli said. True?

That seems hyperbolic. The Menendez case is just the latest in a long line of corruption cases involving members of Congress.

In the ABSCAM case, seven members of the House and one Senator were all convicted in a bribery scheme. That scheme involved undercover FBI agents dressed up as wealthy Arabs, offering cash to Congressmembers in return for a variety of political favors.

In the Korean Influence Investigation in 1978 – when I served as House Counsel – the House and Department of Justice conducted an extensive investigation of influence peddling by Tongsun Park, a Korean national in which questionnaires were sent to every member of the House relating to acceptance of gifts from Park.

Going all the way back to 1872, there was the Credit Mobilier scandal that involved prominent members of the House and Vice President Schuyler Colfax in a scheme to reward these government officials with shares in the transcontinental railroad company in exchange for their support of funding for the project.

Stanley M. Brand does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Von Der Leyen Speech Suggests Russia Dropped Nuke On Hiroshima 

Von Der Leyen Speech Suggests Russia Dropped Nuke On Hiroshima 

Von der Leyen just said what?…

This past Wednesday, President of the European…



Von Der Leyen Speech Suggests Russia Dropped Nuke On Hiroshima 

Von der Leyen just said what?...

This past Wednesday, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen delivered a speech before the 2023 Atlantic Council Awards in New York, where she sounded the alarm over the specter of nuclear war centered on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. But while invoking remembrance of the some 78,000 civilians killed instantly by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima at the end of WWII, she said her warning comes "especially at a time when Russia threatens to use nuclear weapons once again". She  actually framed the atomic atrocity in a way that made it sound like the Russians did it. Watch:

There was not one single acknowledgement in Von der Leyen's speech that it was in fact the United States which incinerated and maimed hundreds of thousands when it dropped no less that two atomic bombs on Japanese cities.

Here were her precise words, according to an Atlantic Council transcript...

You, dear Prime Minister, showed me the meaning of this proverb during the G7 summit in Japan last year. You brought us to your hometown of Hiroshima, the place where you have your roots and which has deeply shaped your life and leadership. Many of your relatives lost their life when the atomic bomb razed Hiroshima to the ground. You have grown up with the stories of the survivors. And you wanted us to listen to the same stories, to face the past, and learn something about the future.

It was a sobering start to the G7, and one that I will not forget, especially at a time when Russia threatens to use nuclear weapons once again. It is heinous. It is dangerous. And in the shadow of Hiroshima, it is unforgivable

The above video of that segment of the speech gives a better idea of the subtle way she closely associated in her rhetoric the words "once again" with the phrase "shadow of Hiroshima" while focusing on what Russia is doing, to make it sound like it was Moscow behind the past atrocities.

Via dpa

Russian media not only picked up on the woefully misleading comments, but the Kremlin issued a formal rebuke of Von der Leyen's speech as well:

In response to von der Leynen's remarks, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused the European Commission president of making "no mention whatsoever of the US and its executioners who dropped the bombs on populated Japanese cities."

Zakharova responded on social media, arguing that von der Leyen's assertions on Moscow's supposed intentions to employ nuclear weapons "is despicable and dangerous" and "lies."

Some Russian embassies in various parts of the globe also highlighted the speech on social media, denouncing the "empire of lies" and those Western leaders issuing 'shameful' propaganda and historical revisionism.

Tyler Durden Sun, 09/24/2023 - 13:15

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