“Exponential”

 THE WORD VEXING A NATION

I wonder how many people really know what “exponential” means and how it works?

A little sampling among a small group of well-educated friends strongly suggests that the percentage of our population that understands the meaning is tiny.

The standard reply is along the lines of ‘a greatly expanding number.’ That is true, as far as it goes, but when pushed to explain further, there is no further answer.

That is where the big problem lies.

The dictionary is not much help. Merriam Webster offers the self-referential and unhelpful “expressible or approximately expressible by an exponential function,” while another simply says “becoming more and more rapid.”

Ben Franklin explained it simply and brilliantly in the early 1800s. He asked how much money one would have if, starting with a penny, you doubled the amount every day for a month. The correct answer is many millions of dollars. THAT IS EXPONENTIAL!

If you do not believe me, just try it. It should be obvious pretty fast.

Exponential is really a technical term in mathematics and has special relevance in epidemiology.

In this case, the novel coronavirus is so contagious that until it runs out of new customers it can continue to expand exponentially, which is why it is so dangerous and difficult to deal with.

If Ben Franklin resonates with you, you have the answer that has eluded so many citizens. If you’re mathematically inclined, a recent piece in Wired offers a richer explanation.

The exponential element is what takes an ordinary and normally infectious virus and transforms it into powerful scythe that can cut through the whole world very fast –if not dealt with very QUICKLY and effectively.

Lacking a vaccine or antidote, our only defense is to prevent transmission as best as possible UNTIL they become available.

The outliers who do not get the relevance of exponential growth are not doing themselves, or others, a favor by ignoring it and doing their own thing at the expense of all of us!

How Is It Possible?

That 40% of Americans do not see the real Trump?

For those of us reeling from the torrent of false and dangerous pronouncements from the President, and heartbroken by the many failures of his administration’s response to perhaps the greatest crisis of our lifetimes, it is, to say the least, a mystery why the Trump base continues to cling to their leader’s side.

While Trump has shown increasing weakness around the edges (the very edges that will determine his outcome in November), his core group of supporters, steady throughout his term at roughly 40% of the public, haven’t budged.

Buried in that fact must be something significant that needs to be examined, understood and addressed.

I suspect one word is the key to unlocking the mystery: “deplorables.”  That word was uttered by Hilary Clinton late during the 2016 campaign.

It was perhaps the stupidest thing ever said by a Presidential candidate – a single slip up that disclosed a deeper truth about Clinton and overwhelmed the vastly larger pool of stupid things said by her opponent.

Deplorable in what way and to whom? She didn’t say their opinions were deplorable; instead, she defined them as deplorable people. And the term swept up not only the racists, homophobes and their ilk that Clinton directly referred to, but also a broad swath of low-income, high-school educated white voters. If someone called me deplorable (perhaps they have, but I do not know of it—yet), I would be offended. It is a deeply personal attack.

And, that may be a large part of the answer to why 40 percent of Americans have stuck tight with Trump even in his stupidest moments. Emotions are well-known to override judgment (and self-interest), in economics, romance, politics and virtually every other aspect of life. And that emotional process is very sticky. Biden and all Democrats need to address this problem head on, if they want to bring a few of these folks into the fold this fall.

One way to get at that would be to say, “You had every right to feel insulted, and most of us agreed with you, then and now. BUT, today we ask you to try to put that behind you and look at what Clinton did to all of us by insulting you. All of us have paid a price for Clinton’s mistake.”

Many of the Clinton cast-asides now say regularly that they do not like a lot of things about Trump, but at the same time many of them still give him the benefit of the doubt. While we cannot blame Trump for the source of the virus, we can and should objectively judge how he has mismanaged the process from the outset.

That is objectively clear today and it affects all of us exactly the same way.

So, let’s start fresh in November by putting insults aside and joining hands to rebuild our future, together.

Perspectives From Within a Crisis

Three: I, Me, Mine

I feel a need to stipulate at the outset that generalizations like I am about to make are of course subject to a wide arc of inapplicability. Still I believe they can be useful in trying to understand some otherwise hard to grasp realities of today’s world.

From the earliest days of America – even before it became a federation of states—it was a principle maxim of most people’s lives to live and let live and to help those in need. In times of crisis, we banded together.

That spirit of common cause and mutual responsibility may be another victim of the Trump presidency. During a dangerous and still-growing pandemic, certain governors have decided to reopen parts of their economies; gun-bearing protestors have descended on state capitals to demand the premature lifting of stay-at-home orders; and young people in far too many places have displayed a shocking disregard for everyone by ignoring social distancing guidelines to congregate at beaches, parks and anywhere else others are gathered. One can (almost) understand the governors, who face pressure from the White House and their political base; And one can (almost) easily dismiss the militias, who have long fiercely guarded their right to die for no good reason. I am, however, horrified by the youthful partiers, who clearly do not feel they should suffer any inconvenience just because a few old folks might die a bit early because of their actions.

All three groups share the troubling trait of placing their own interests and desires ahead of the common good at the most basic of levels. The ordinary annoyances of every-day life (line cutters, rude drivers, cashiers who text instead of attending to their customers) regularly testify to the primacy of self in our culture, but with much smaller stakes. Now, people with suspect motives and questionable judgement are charging ahead where doctors tread with the utmost of caution: decisions about who lives and dies.

I can see how such thoughts might spring from young minds — the follies of youth are a many-splendored spectacle. It is impossible, however, to accept the decisions of politicians to ignore the advice of virtually every medical expert, along with business leaders and the desires of their own constituents, to pursue a reckless dash to re-open solely for their own political benefit.

That Trump has encouraged them for his own obvious political reasons is shameful, but it’s shocking that, even now, in the face of tens of thousands of fatalities (so far), so many elected officials in his own party are either afraid to challenge him or believe him. Certainly, the protestors and youthful gatherers are taking their cues from our narcissist-in-chief, who cares not a whit about consequences save one: his own reelection.

This clash is an embarrassment and a tragedy — damaging to public health and devastating to our reputation in front of the world.

We might ignore them as simple Igorots and wait for them to either come to their senses or go away. But the damage they’d do in the interim might be extensive.

It would be both reassuring and helpful if the media and sensible leaders from both parties across America called them to task for their un-American behavior!

Remember “UNITED WE STAND—DIVIDED WE FALL!”

Perspectives From Within a Crisis

Two: V-Shaped

The human mind likes shapes. They seem to be an easy shorthand for certain kinds of things.

A square peg in a round hole is one example; the shape of someone’s nose may be a point of reference. The shape of a new model car is often an important factor in consumer choice, despite having little to do with the purpose of the vehicle.

Today the issue of shape is primarily a shorthand way to describe how coronavirus-inspired economic collapse will look in retrospect.

Trump is trumpeting the V-shaped recovery – an upside roughly proportional to the steep decline we are currently experiencing. A lot of people believe that — and virtually all of us hope for it.

Would it be so!

Some small pieces of our economy may bounce nicely. But, the real world is like Humpty Dumpty. It takes one rumble to knock it down, and forever to rebuild it (or in poor Humpty’s case, not). Those old-fashioned wisdoms did not take on eternal validity by accident.

So –if we must have a shape in mind, what might it look like?

It might be a W, swinging wildly up and down, and reacting violently to changes in market or public health conditions. It might be a U with a v_e_r_y wide bottom. It might look and feel like a never-ending L, with a very long bottom and only incremental growth for years.

It is not really necessary to name the right shape — whatever it turns out to be, it will surely have most of the following realities we’ll be forced to contend with in the meanwhile:

  1. It will take quite a long time as all the competing forces in the economy will be struggling for their new place in line.
  2. The inevitable stagflation (stagnant growth combined with high inflation) will take its toll as the contraction slowly rolls into dealing with repaying the massive debt taken on to keep the country alive.
  3. The after-effects will take a serious toll on different parts of our population and safety nets will be stretched to the breaking point for already-broke state and local governments.
  4. Because the United States is well situated globally, as we are rich in resources and have, in the main, a well-educated population, we will recover.

Thus, looking at the future, it is fair to say that we will ultimately emerge again strong, healthy and in a leadership position, if we do everything right.

But, as happened about 100 years ago, this economic catastrophe (though for different reasons) has unleashed forces we do not yet have a firm grip on and which will take time to sort out.

So, we should put aside shapes of recovery and put all our attention on the right political and economic processes needed to get the next phase right and as soon as possible.

Wild dreams, wishes and fantasies will only slow and deflect the goal of recovery.

Perspectives From Within a Crisis

One: Amazon

Amazon was amazingly named after the biggest flowing river on earth. It took most of us a long time to catch up with Bezos’ magnificent foresight. He not only saw the future with incredible prevision, he was right in many ways he could not have anticipated. But, as he saw those other ways, he also had the operating skills to finance and execute most of those new opportunities.

Bezos had his skeptics along the way (including me) because what he was achieving was so extraordinary it seemed to defy the basic laws of business gravity.

So, now we arrive at a point where some people are beginning to say, “He must be cheating. It isn’t fair. The federal government must reign him in to save the little guys whom he appears to be annihilating.”

To date I have not seen anything that Amazon has done to be harmful to America and Americans. The malls and big box stores ensured the demise of “romanticized” retail well before Amazon came along. I do feel for the many people who, despite their efforts, have fallen to his superior business skills. But, I also know from long experience that this kind of change is inevitable in our American system. Competition is what makes us grow.

A true story I know directly from the person involved explains: A small hardware store in a very small town in Maine was slowly and quietly in the process of shutting down because of the competition from a big box store an hour away, which was able to outcompete them on both price and inventory. A man came into that small store one day and asked for a dozen medium size nails the cost of which was about $1. It turned out they had none. The customer asked why they did not stock them. The shopkeeper then asked where the customer bought his electric skill saw. The answer was in the big new box store an hour away because of the better price. Then the shop keeper asked her question. “How do you expect me to stay in business, if you take that business an hour away? You have not taken into consideration the cost of the gas back and forth and the value of your time back and forth. If people like you keep making that mistake, there will be very few local stores anywhere.”

That is the Amazon story and thank God for it! Today as we are all shut in, we can readily imagine how much worse things would be if Amazon did not exist.

The cries to rein in Amazon are old-fashioned, backward-looking answers to problems that anyone like Bezos would have found and exploited. 

This is simply the nature of our capitalist system – every success consumes a thousand victims.

And those of us not named Bezos are left with the solace that we might have done it, too, if we had simply put our minds to it.

I Am No Seer

Though I Still Can See and Hear

The certainty of the moment is that we are all experiencing something unprecedented in public health, safety and the global economy.  That includes the great influenza pandemic of 100 years ago.

The biggest current uncertainty is when and how to relax the mitigation rules, intended to prevent spikes of infections, to be able to rush to revive the almost dormant economy.

Some among our population, gathering — even now, too closely — at state capitols and public beaches, seem either unaware of the risks of reopening too soon OR simply do not care about the likelihood of deaths among people they do not know.

Trump seems to be inciting those people for his own political reasons though, based on recent polls, most Americans are disinclined to follow.

What I ‘see and hear’ from my own, so far snug, roost in DC is that the scientists and doctors have hit it dead on: We can’t (shouldn’t) open the economy to recover until there is widespread testing available.

I also see an economy that has virtually been shut down. 22 million people unemployed; people holed up at home, spending mainly through Amazon and local food markets; virtually no travel; no restaurants, movie theaters, sports events and all the other things Americans thrive on.

Many millions of people, despite enormous financial support from the Treasury, are at risk of being unable to feed or house themselves, and it appears to be getting worse by the week.

The sounds everywhere are of confusion, uncertainty and even fantasy.

Among the most fantastical are the simplistic expectations that ‘when the wheel turns’ things will easily bounce back to normal very quickly.

This is where the value of simply seeing and hearing appears to evaporate.

The world is changing radically under our noses and trying to be a ‘seer’ becomes essential for survival in the new world that follows.

Many things may never be the same as they were.

In business, supply chains will look very different and office space is likely to shrink; parts of the education process may move permanently online; much travel previously deemed essential will become much less so; and telemedicine will replace some portion of previous in-person visits – even over the objections of a public that has been otherwise slow to embrace that concept.

I could go on and on—but use your own imagination. Whatever your list looks like, the consequence of the inevitable changes ahead is that a quick and easy V-shaped economic recovery is wildly optimistic.

Instead, we are looking at an extended period of economic lethargy like the 1930s as changes, and the people they impact, sort out how that new world works.

It is simply too soon to know anything for sure.

And, lastly from the point of view of managing investable assets, what Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger warn about, and foresee, is an extended period of economic and financial uncertainty – months certainly, years probably –during which liquidity and flexibility will be the cornerstones of a successful passage into the new world.

They publicly recommend NOT playing in the current game.

I agree completely!

Leadership

MAYBE WE NEED AN EXPLANATION OF WHAT THAT IS

The country has been looking to Washington and the White House for leadership in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic consequences.

Sadly, the President seems preoccupied with blaming others for everything and episodically ‘commanding’ things that may or may not help – despite doctors, business leaders, governors and most rational people preaching prudence.

The massive failures of the federal response, particularly on testing (which remains elusive even now) raise the question ‘what is political leadership?’

During the Carter administration – admittedly in far less serious ways and days – I was troubled by the same question. I had heard Carter describe how he had addressed joint sessions of the Georgia legislature and explained to them what he thought needed to be done. Beyond that, though, he did little to advance his aims, leaving his executive arm to its own (many worthwhile, but not his) devices. And he wondered aloud what he was doing wrong.

That led me then to think about how to describe Presidential leadership, particularly in a crisis.

Although far from conclusive (the subject regularly fills entire books), at the time I came up with the following:

  • Define your goals, and a strategy to achieve them, and make the responsibilities of each member of your team – and your expectations –clear.
  • Muster the necessary resources – principally the money necessary to implement the plan.
  • Mobilize a team of senior officials to ensure that under-managers are doing what they need to do, and ensure you are continuously and thoroughly informed.
  • Know that a lot of people who work for you – up and down the ranks — cannot/do not see the world the way the you do.
  • Finally, recognize your blind spots. A leader needs to bear in mind that the people he is managing/leading are in the most part invisible to him — and he to them. And you’re dependent on each other for your mutual successes.

This process boils down to a leader/manager driving /inspiring people he does not know or see to want to achieve what he, the leader, believes needs to be done, with them, in turn, able to inspire the next level down, etc., etc.

It will surprise no one that this is, incidentally, basically the same way CEOs of large companies lead their companies. The basic trick is to have key people with experience, let them know what is expected of them, and impose consequences for failing to deliver.

Trump seems to view leadership solely as an exercise in self-aggrandizement. “Leader” is a role to be played, one that is entirely decoupled from the truth on the ground (much like he played a “successful businessman” on his TV show) and especially decoupled from any need to take specific action.

The script relies on generalities, obfuscation, and outright lies to advance the myth that “leadership” is happening.  It’s said that real leaders lead by example. When the CDC recommended people start wearing face masks in public, Trump quickly undercut it, saying “Somehow I don’t see it for myself.”

 Why would anyone take him seriously as a leader? A single picture of Trump wearing a mask would have signaled to millions of his supporters that the pandemic is serious and personal protection is an effective tool in stopping its relentless advance across the country.

As we head into the Presidential election, our nation would benefit from a clear idea of what kind of leadership the country needs from its next President.

Information—Understanding–Coping

Are best advanced by TESTING!

When I left law school in 1956, I thought and hoped I had taken my last real test.

Little did I know then! Dozens of all sorts of new and different tests lay ahead.

Now in my 90th year I am for the first time learning what epidemiological testing is all about. It’s a fascinating subject with a lot of its unique rules, which must be learned to be understood! It helps to have leaders who are able and willing to learn.

Viruses know no borders or barriers. And it also appears that they know no rules—even their own. And this virus so far, of course, has no vaccine. Thus, the ONLY way to deal with the virus is to learn where it is, where it has been and where it may be going. And the only way to do THAT is to test virtually everybody completely, consistently and comprehensively.

Trump said in early March that ANYBODY who wanted a test could get one. That isn’t any truer today than it was when he said it. It’s almost as if he was simply wishing it would happen. Six weeks later only about 2 million people (less than 1% of our population) have so far been tested. Now tens of millions of people are desperately trying to get tested.

Meanwhile, Trump already wants to lift the country wide isolation quarantines that, absent very widespread testing, are the only thing that have prevented hundreds of thousands of deaths.

If we cannot overcome Trump’s inability to grasp science, we will be destined to see a return of the virus and more deaths – and almost certainly another or more shutdowns.

Obviously, it has not been helpful to have a President who simply is incapable of understanding the questions. The political polls are beginning to indicate the public finally grasps this reality and that Trump, as the bungling leader/manager of an inept response, carries the burden responsibility virtually alone.

Thank God the election is only several months away. Let’s hope that the time passes quickly, as the country looks more and more to Biden’s experience and wisdom.

THERE IS ONE THING MANY OF US CAN DO

Find a neighborhood kid and give him a job!

We have a 26-year-old neighborhood kid who was laid off from his hotel kitchen cooking job. He hates having nothing to do but watching TV and sleeping.

I do not know about you guys out there, but there are always things that need to get done. Clean out the basement; organize storage better; help with food preparation etc.

The words were barely out of my wife’s mouth before our kid jumped into action. We are going to pay about $20/hour and will keep him busy a few hours a day, we hope and think.

We do not think of this as charity but as an opportunity to help in a crisis and ourselves at the same time.

I decided to go public with this idea, perhaps prematurely because I have no results to report.

But, if enough fortunate people across the country try it out, we can all contribute to getting the country back on its feet.

And such people can feel good about proactively doing something besides paying their taxes?

GOD, NATURE, THE INVISIBLE HAND

Whatever the source, something big is happening!

One of the most intractable issues consuming public attention over the last two years is the threat of climate change.

We have a President and his political party who have rejected that it is a real problem — despite overwhelming evidence and the virtually unanimous opinion of the scientific world.

It is very difficult to get a lot of people to focus on an issue that may be decades from becoming evident in everyday life. A lot of good people have been swinging axes at this deathly problem for years, sadly to little effect.

Now, in a mere two months, we’ve bought some breathing room (pun intended). How?

I am not much of a believer in religion. But I do believe in some sort of invisible hand.

Whatever, whichever, the invisible virus pandemic has done more in two months to stave off the disaster of global warming than anything else.

The global consumption of oil is one of the biggest drivers (along with coal) of the carbon emissions that cause climate change. The price of oil has declined by about 2/3rds in the last few months. While other factors sparked the decline, it has become clear with the effects of virus pandemic that the demand for oil may be decades away from again reaching its previous highs. That is, obviously, terrible news for the energy industry – and especially U.S. producers. But it is GREAT NEWS for mother earth and every living creature that inhabits it.

Nature has its way with evolution in anticipating things that threaten us and providing us with new ways to combat those threats.

The toll of the coronavirus pandemic is too great to call its impact on climate change a “silver lining”. It is, however, a welcome respite at a moment when we have plenty else to worry about. For that we all owe big thanks to all of God, Nature and helping invisible hands!