What Money Will Buy

Free-market capitalism assumes that money can buy happiness, one way or the other, and that everything is for sale. This explains stunning young(er) Trophy Wives. Donald Trump is on his third. And this explains modern American politics, or maybe not – Michael Bloomberg spent half a billion dollars to discover that few Democrats and not enough independents wanted him to represent them against Donald Trump. But it costs money to run a modern political campaign, money that has to come from somewhere. Almost all of our politicians are purchased by those who want something for their money – even if that might be no more than a better nation. But define “better” – that’s the issue. The Koch brothers’ definition of “better” might not be yours. George Soros’ definition of “better” might not be yours. But you don’t have their money, do you? You lose.

Everything really is for sale, and that might explain this:

The Donald Trump administration offered “large sums of money” to get exclusive access to a coronavirus vaccine being developed by a German company, Die Welt reported Sunday.

According to the article, Trump was trying to get the Tübingen-based CureVac company – which also has sites in Frankfurt and Boston – to move its research wing to the United States and develop the vaccine “for the United States only.”

A spokesperson for Germany’s Health Ministry quoted in the article appeared to acknowledge the U.S. approach and said that Berlin was “very interested in ensuring that vaccines and active substances against the new coronavirus are also developed in Germany and Europe.”

Apparently the offer was for a billion dollars, on the condition that no other nation gets any access to this possible vaccine ever, or maybe they do later, for big bucks, or for siding with us on policy, or both, or something – the details weren’t clear – but something was up:

On Sunday afternoon, Germany’s Health Ministry told Reuters that its spokesperson had been quoted correctly in the newspaper article, confirming that Washington had attempted to take over the biopharmaceutical company. Government sources indicated that Berlin was now offering CureVac financial incentives to remain in Germany.

The idea was to outbid Trump. Richard Grenell, our ambassador to Germany, said on Twitter that the Die Welt report was “wrong” but he’s an odd duck. The Germans have long asked us to withdraw him – he keeps saying Merkel is stupid and he loves the neo-fascists in Hungary and Italy and the Le Pen family in France. And he’s now the acting director of national intelligence in his spare time, working remotely from Germany – with no experience at all in intelligence of any kind. No one much cares what he says.

But this was hot:

The news prompted angry reactions from German politicians who demanded that Berlin do everything possible to prevent the U.S. from controlling access to an eventual coronavirus vaccine.

“The American regime has committed an extremely unfriendly act,” said Social Democrat MP Karl Lauterbach, who said that German health workers on the front lines – as well as people around the world – needed to have access to something developed in Germany, and that no country should be able to purchase exclusive access to the vaccine.

“Capitalism has limits,” he said.

It does? That’s an issue now:

The Trump administration has spoken with more than 25 companies that say they can help with a vaccine, one of the American officials said, and is open to speaking with others. Any solution, he said, would be shared with the world.

Nevertheless, Germany’s interior minister, Horst Seehofer, said that Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has a famously testy relationship with Mr. Trump, will lead a crisis meeting with ministers on Monday that will include discussion of a German defense strategy for the firm.

That’s because this has come up before:

In February, Attorney General William P. Barr suggested in a speech that the United States should find a way to take over two European telecommunications makers, Ericsson and Nokia, which are the main competitors of Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant that is wiring up nations around the world for 5G, or fifth generation, networks.

Mr. Pence later played down that suggestion. But the idea that the Trump administration was seeking to take control of a major European technological asset sent unsettling ripples across Europe.

And the move to secure the intellectual property of CureVac, whether for exclusive or general use, is bound to inflame that debate…

CureVac’s main investor ruled out giving exclusive access to a future vaccine to one country.

“We want to develop a vaccine for the whole world, and not for individual states,” Christof Hettich, chief executive of Dievini Hopp Biotech Holding, told the newspaper Mannheimer Morgen.

German officials sounded unsure about the reassurances that the United States would share a vaccine if it were developed.

But this is what it is:

A spokesman for the German health ministry said that German government officials were in regular contact with CureVac, confirming a quote in the original Die Welt article.

And no one should have been surprised. Assume that everything is for sale and that money can buy safety, in this case immunity from a deadly disease, not just happiness. And assume that Trump was serious about the America First stuff, and that is why he was elected. If this works out, Americans can sneer at the rest of the world. We live! You die! Nothing would excite Trump’s base more.

But money cannot fix this:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Sunday that no gatherings with 50 people or more – including weddings, festivals, parades, concerts, sporting events or conferences – be held in the United States for the next eight weeks in one of the federal government’s most sweeping efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The CDC said that its recommendation, which would drastically change life in the United States for the next two months, does not apply to “the day to day operation of organizations such as schools, institutes of higher learning, or businesses” and added that it was not intended to supersede the advice of local health officials.

But money could fix this:

The Federal Reserve slashed interest rates to near-zero and unveiled a sweeping set of programs – including plans to snap up huge amounts of government and mortgage-backed debt – in an effort to backstop the United States economy as the spread of coronavirus poses a dire threat to economic growth.

“The coronavirus outbreak has harmed communities and disrupted economic activity in many countries, including the United States,” the central bank said in a statement on Sunday. “The Federal Reserve is prepared to use its full range of tools to support the flow of credit to households and businesses.”

At a news conference on Sunday afternoon, President Trump congratulated the Federal Reserve for its slashing rates to nearly zero.

“It makes me very happy,” he said…

But he wasn’t happy for long:

Stock futures plunged Sunday night even after the Federal Reserve embarked on a massive monetary stimulus campaign to curb slower economic growth amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Stock market futures hit “limit down” levels of 5% lower, a move made by the CME futures exchange to reduce panic in markets. No prices can trade below that threshold, only at higher prices than that down 5% limit.

Dow Jones Industrial average futures were off by more than 1,000 points, triggering the limit down level. S&P 500 and Nasdaq 100 futures were also at their downside limits.

It seems that money cannot buy happiness, or in this case, safety:

While the central bank’s actions may help ease the functioning of markets, many investors said they would ultimately want to see coronavirus cases peaking and falling in the U.S. before it was safe to take on risk and buy equities again.

“The Fed blasted its monetary bazooka for sure,” said Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer at Bleakley Advisory Group. “This better work because I don’t know what they have left and no amount of money raining from the sky will cure this virus. Only time and medicine will.”

Or maybe this will help:

The Trump administration is weighing “all options” to curb the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., including an outright halt to domestic air travel, a senior official said Sunday.

Such a drastic step hasn’t been taken since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and it would raise questions about U.S. airlines’ chances for survival without government support.

“We continue to look at all options and all options remain on the table,” said Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in a press briefing when asked about the possibility. He said the administration is following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But the airlines’ chances for survival without government support would be zero. Everything costs money, and everything was shutting down:

New York City’s public school system will begin to shut down this week to help combat the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected 700 people throughout the state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Sunday.

All public schools in Westchester, Long Island and NYC will close this week, according to Cuomo. The governor called for NYC school officials to have a plan in the next 24 hours on how to provide childcare for essential workers and provide food to students who will need meals.

NYC’s school district is the largest school system in the country, with over 1.1 million students in more than 1,800 schools. The decision to close public schools came after mounting pressure from teachers and parents calling for the suspension of classes.

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio said during a Sunday press conference that schools will close as of Monday and will be suspended until late April. However, he said there’s also a strong chance that schools won’t re-open this school year.

Remote learning is set to start March 23, and some campuses will open as “enrichment centers” to provide teaching to vulnerable students.

That was something money could never fix, just like this:

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio will sign an executive order that effectively closes restaurants, bars and cafes in the nation’s largest city to the public, limiting these establishments to takeout and delivery only in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Night clubs, movie theaters, small theater houses and concert venues will also close, according to de Blasio. The order goes into effect Tuesday at 9 a.m. ET.

“This is not a decision I make lightly,” the mayor said. “These places are part of the heart and soul of our city. They are part of what it means to be a New Yorker. But our city is facing an unprecedented threat, and we must respond with a wartime mentality.”

That’s shutting down the local economy, by choice, and out here it was this:

California Governor Gavin Newsom on Sunday directed all “non-essential” businesses such as “bars, nightclubs, wineries and brewpubs and the like” be closed in the state.

“We believe this is a non-essential function. And we believe this is appropriate under the circumstances,” Newsom said during a press conference.

Newsom did not ask all restaurants in the state to close down as Ohio and Illinois have done.

“We have more concerns and considerations. We don’t believe ultimately we need to shut them down,” Newsom said.

Newsom called for restaurants to socially distance patrons within establishments. “We’re directing we reduce current occupancy by half and require social distancing,” he said.

Newsom also called for the home isolation of all seniors in California as well as those with chronic health conditions.

For those of us out here who are both seniors and with chronic health conditions, well, home isolation for two months or so seems dreadful, but getting out and about might kill us. That too is a problem that money cannot solve, but it may be best to just relax:

President Donald Trump urged Americans not to hoard food on Sunday during a White House press conference that came just minutes after the Federal Reserve announced new steps to shield the U.S. economy from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

“You don’t have to buy so much,” Trump said. “Take it easy. Relax.”

That’s easy for him to say, but the New York Times ran one of those anecdote-heavy features:

A week ago, Mark Canlis’s restaurant in Seattle was offering a $135 tasting menu to a bustling dining room every night. Eileen Hornor’s inn on the Maine coast was booking rooms for the busy spring graduation season. And Kalena Masching, a real estate agent in California, was fielding multiple offers on a $1.2 million home.

Then the coronavirus outbreak changed everything.

Today, Mr. Canlis’s restaurant is preparing to become a drive-through operation serving burgers. Ms. Hornor is bleeding cash as she refunds deposits for scores of canceled reservations. And Ms. Masching is scrambling to save her sale after one offer after another fell through.

“Last week, I would have told you nothing had changed,” she said. “This week, it has all gone to hell.”

And there has not been a coronavirus outbreak in Maine, at least not yet, and that doesn’t matter:

Not since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has a crisis enveloped so much of the economy so quickly. Broadway is dark. The college basketball tournaments are canceled and professional sports are on indefinite hold. Conferences, concerts and St. Patrick’s Day parades have been called off or postponed. Even Disneyland – which stayed open through a recession a decade ago that wiped out millions of American jobs and trillions of dollars in wealth – is shuttered.

“This hits the heart of the economy, and it hits the economy on all sides,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton. “It’s not just that we’re slowing down things. We’re actually hitting the pause button, and there is no precedent, there is no mold for that.”

Disneyland has always called itself the Happiest Place on Earth. No one can go there now. Ah, but we’ll always have Paris. Nope. James McAuley reports this:

It’s neither an overstatement nor a cliché to say that the cafes of the French capital are its beating heart: A place to read the papers in morning, to sit with a friend in the afternoon or to sip a Bordeaux in the evening. A place to work, talk, think. It doesn’t matter what you drink, or whether you drink at all. The cafe is chatter, chaos, community. And they never close – at least not until now.

Parisian cafes remained open throughout virtually every historic challenge that has come their way: They didn’t go dark during the Nazi occupation in World War II or even after the terrorist attacks of November 2015, which targeted precisely the joie de vivre they represent. At the time, it became an act of defiance to keep having your coffee en terrasse: This was Paris as the “moveable feast” of Ernest Hemingway’s imagination, where the cafe is a place to “be alone and be together.” Parisians have never surrendered that stronghold.

But then came the coronavirus, an invisible enemy that’s strengthened by precisely the kind of communal solidarity that has defeated the existential threats of the past. On Saturday, France’s exasperated Prime Minister, Édouard Philippe, told the French public that all nonessential businesses, including cafes, would be shut at midnight until further notice. Social distancing is now the unofficial law of the land, and Sunday felt less like a new day and more like a new era.

And that was that:

Sunday was a perfect spring day, the kind that heralds the end of the gloomy gray skies that descend on Paris for most of autumn and winter and the beginning of sunshine. If cafes were closed, people still flocked to the parks. They played football with their children and sat by the Seine, drinking from bottles among friends.

Hemingway’s old house, at 74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, right in the heart of the Latin Quarter, normally bustles with students, tourists and passerby.

Two doors down is the Place de la Contrescarpe, a fixture of his memoir “A Moveable Feast,” the book Parisians bought in droves after the November 2015 attacks, and which became a kind of battle cry at the time.

On Sunday, the Place de la Contrescarpe was quiet. The moveable feast had moved somewhere else. And in all likelihood it won’t be back for quite some time.

Money won’t fix that either. We have a president who believes in the power of money, the power of wealth, but Robert Samuelson remembers another president:

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

When Franklin Roosevelt uttered these famous words, the nation was grappling with more than fear. For all intents and purposes, the economy had shut down. Roughly a quarter of the labor force was out of work. Thousands of the nation’s banks were shut after repeated panics. Hardly anyone knew which were solvent and which weren’t. Roosevelt had to convince Americans that he could restore confidence in a way that would revive the economy.

To this end, he invented fireside radio chats. “My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking,” he began on March 12, 1933.

And then he, a man far richer than Donald Trump, did with the right words what money couldn’t do:

He rebuilt trust between the governed and the governors. Roosevelt could close worthless banks, in part because he was ruthlessly honest about the outlook. “Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment,” he said.

But his success was greater than simply reopening shuttered banks. Roosevelt won the gratitude of desperate Americans, which gave him the flexibility to try different remedies – many of which failed – for overcoming the Great Depression.

Americans cut him some slack, but not because he was rich and ruthless, which Trump should consider:

President Trump’s job, like Roosevelt’s, is political. It was (and is) to create sufficient political trust to give government’s health-care professionals the time and the flexibility to discover how to assert control over the coronavirus.

But instead of rising to the occasion, Trump has slumped. He has only belatedly – and apparently reluctantly – concluded that the virus can’t be fooled and that the effort to do so has made matters worse, not better. Initially, he played down the threat posed by the virus, and when that seemed contradicted by the facts, he sought to shift blame to former president Barack Obama.

Trump’s “truths” are all politically expedient, undermining confidence.

So we are where we are:

People stay home and don’t shop. Businesses lay off workers because demand has declined or supply chains are unreliable. The contrast between Roosevelt and Trump contains a larger lesson, involving public trust. It must be earned, not simply assumed when it is convenient and ignored when it isn’t. Trump shows no signs of grasping that.

He has other ideas. He wants to buy that vaccine-maker in Germany so we can all sneer at the rest of the world as they die and we don’t. Forget trust. That’s the raw power of money.

That power may be waning. E. J. Dionne suggests this:

A pandemic makes all of us a little bit more socialist.

That’s because a virus does not respond to market incentives. It threatens absolutely everyone and is by definition a collective threat, as the term “community spread” reminds us. Containing it requires all of us to focus on the common good and respond to calls to altruism.

Those who can survive the coronavirus, especially the young, are thus asked to take genuinely inconvenient steps, less to protect themselves than to mitigate the damage it could do to others, especially the old.

And everyone understands that now, which makes us all socialists:

People who feel they might have coronavirus have a responsibility to get tested, right? But guess what? Those tests cost money. Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) did a whiteboard exercise at a congressional hearing last week when questioning Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services.

First, she used her board to show that when emergency room costs were included, the price of a battery of tests would come to $1,331. Then, she got Redfield to acknowledge that he would like, in his words, “all of America” to be tested. Finally, she pressed him to “commit to the CDC, right now, using [its] existing authority, to pay for diagnostic testing, free to every American, regardless of insurance.”

He was forced to give in to her logic. “I think you’re an excellent questioner,” he said, “so my answer is yes.”

And that was that:

There you have it: In at least the one sphere of coronavirus testing, sheer common sense got a Trump administration official to agree to a smidgen of socialized medicine.

And there’s this:

Another way to contain the virus and the deaths it can cause is for sick people to get the care they need. Broad health insurance coverage and an excellent public health system are vital to this end. You don’t have to agree with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Medicare-for-all to acknowledge he had a point Thursday when he said: “Our country is at a severe disadvantage compared to every other major country on earth because we do not guarantee health care to all people as a right.”

No, I don’t expect this emergency to get members of the Business Roundtable to start singing “Solidarity Forever.” But you would like to hope it would encourage a bit of rethinking among those who regularly hate on government bureaucrats, denounce experts as useless elitists, claim the market can solve every problem, and lament what a terrible imposition it is when workers’ rights and benefits are imposed on our “job creators.”

Might they now acknowledge that some problems can only be dealt with collectively through public action?

Dionne notes that more and more people are thinking that way now:

In their book The Cost of Rights, the scholars Stephen Holmes and Cass R. Sunstein spoke a truth we are too quick to deny: that “government is still the most effective instrument available by which a politically organized society can pursue its common objectives, including the shared aim of securing the protection of legal rights for all.”

Yes, and also the shared aim of securing protection against a silent and invisible killer.

Trump may be able to buy that vaccine manufacturer for us and for no one else in the world, but there are some things money cannot buy – trust and a sense of community. They’re worth more than anything else now.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Coronavirus Crisis, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s