April 26, 2020

by Steve Stofka

In the name of public safety, our elected officials are picking winners and losers. In the process, they are selectively destroying businesses. Their job is to protect lives, they claim. Faceless legislative staff craft regulations that destroy some lives while they protect others.

In my neighborhood there is a Sprouts grocery store in a strip mall. That’s open. Next to it are several clothing stores, all closed now. A nail salon – closed. A mattress and bedding store is closed. The liquor store is open.

Across the street is a Walmart with a grocery store inside. The parking lot is almost full. Wal-Mart restricts access to the store entrance to safely stagger customers. There are a lot of signs and tape on the floor to remind people to stay six feet back when waiting in line. Most people are wearing masks.

The chiropractor across the boulevard is temporarily closed. We elect state and local politicians who delegate the work of governing to office staff. A committee decided that people with pinched nerves in their necks and backs are not important. Can’t work because you are having muscle spasms? Too bad. Some bureaucrat has decided that your pain is not essential. Stay home and ease the pain with marijuana or alcohol. Those store are essential. It is a slap in the face to those with chronic pain.

A month ago, the mayor’s office of Denver issued a stay-at-home order that did not include liquor stores and pet stores as essential businesses. What will be closed next? By mid-afternoon, just two hours after the edict was issued, cars crowded the streets of Denver and adjoining counties. People lined up inside liquor stores. Two bottles of Seagram 7. A few quarts of vodka. Four cases of Bud. Panic buying or those looking to profit from the coming shutdown. Social media alerted the mayor’s office and they immediately amended the order.

In some office buildings, therapists cannot get into their office because the building is locked. They are non-essential. Where are their patient notes? In the locked building. Got problems? Try Zooming your therapist. Remember – your government committee is trying to keep you safe.

Therapists and chiropractors not essential. Oil and gas extraction is essential because, well, it just is. The drop in demand for gasoline has produced a glut in oil. Companies are storing the extra in super tankers on the world’s oceans. Got back problems? Rub some crude oil on it.  

President Trump suggested that “medical doctors” – not the other kind of doctors like PhD doctors – but medical doctors could inject disinfectant like Lysol into people infected with the coronavirus. It’s OK if medical doctors do it. The maker of Lysol was quick to issue a warning. Do not inject Lysol into your body, they warned.   

Mr. Trump has become the country’s voodoo doctor. The warm weather was going to kill the virus. Then it was a malaria drug. Now it is Lysol. Put on your voodoo doctor headdress, Mr. Trump. Get your cauldron fired up and cook us up one of your special potions. The folks at Fox News will endorse your medicine. 

The President is the visible menace. The folks who work in our state and local offices are the invisible threat. A select few decide which businesses are essential, whose pain gets treated and who is important. They decide who gets unemployment insurance and who does not.  Many small businesses will not recover. It can take ten years or more to build up enough savings to start a small business. A second mortgage on a house is often used to capitalize a business. A faceless committee in a government building says your business is not important. Bye-bye business. Bye-bye savings. You can give up your dream and find work somewhere. Hope you can keep your house. It’s not essential. You are not important.

If – when – businesses reopen, business owners have a lot of questions. Will the state exempt businesses from liability if a customer or employee gets sick? Does the state have that power, the governor asks. The state has the power to issue edicts that crush small businesses but not the power to help business owners recover. You are not important.

After three deaths due to corona virus, the health department shut down a Wal-Mart store in our area (Butzer, 2020). Wal-Mart has deep pockets and legions of lawyers. Will an insurance company insure a small business against a coronavirus lawsuit? How much extra premium will it cost? What is the protocol? Should a business owner hire someone to screen customers before they come into the establishment? Does anyone have an answer?

The supply chain is an invisible river of goods and services that enables local businesses to service their customers. Is that supply chain broken? We will find out. The pandemic has caused a surge in orders for computers, but China has shuttered computer factories (Brandom, 2020).

Let’s turn to the faces of those we elected. Congress hurriedly passed an 800-page bill to provide $350 billion in loans and grants to small businesses – the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). 28% of the funds were grabbed up by publicly held companies (Beltran, 2020).  The original provision in the bill was that any business with more than 500 employees was not eligible for the funds. Faceless lobbyists pressured the faceless staffs of lawmakers to make a small change. Just a few words. Change the wording to exclude companies with 500 employees at any one location. Done. No problem. The senator appreciates your support.

Senator Marco Rubio is the chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship. When the Wall St. Journal contacted his staff about large businesses scooping up the funds intended for small business, reporters were told they were mistaken. Mr. Rubio would not allow such language. The staff later admitted their error (The Journal, 2020). Lawmakers routinely vote for legislation without knowing what is in it. Prior to passage of the ACA (Obamacare) bill in 2010, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi replied that legislators wouldn’t know what was in the bill until it passed. Legislative sausage making by faceless staff and anonymous lobby groups. No, we’re not for sale, lawmakers insist. Yes, thank you for your support, they reply to the campaign contributions of the lobbyists.

The pandemic response of government has exposed our vulnerability. With great power and an incomprehension of the effect of their edicts, faceless legislative staff act as the executioners of the French Revolution.  Some small business owners must kneel down at the guillotine and await the fall of the blade.



Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

Beltran, L. (2020, April 23). Restaurant Chains Received Many of the Biggest PPP Loans. Retrieved from https://www.barrons.com/articles/restaurant-chains-received-many-of-the-biggest-ppp-loans-51587573556

Brandom, R. (2020, March 27). Electronics companies are getting gridlocked by coronavirus lockdowns. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2020/3/27/21195953/tech-manufacturing-companies-coronavirus-lockdown-apple-electronics-china

Butzer, S. (2020, April 24). Health department closes Aurora Walmart amid COVID-19 deaths, positive cases connected to store. KMGH. Retrieved from https://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/coronavirus/health-department-closes-aurora-walmart-amid-covid-19-deaths-positive-cases-connected-to-store

The Journal. (2020, April 22). How Big Businesses Got Small Business Relief Money. [Audio, 21 mins]. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/podcasts/the-journal/how-big-businesses-got-small-business-relief-money/7C5DAB5C-71C0-4D50-9D13-9D9633E633AC

Ain’t It Great?!

April 19, 2020

By Steve Stofka

Has this pandemic prompted people to have a greater respect for science? Or has the science of the internet fostered more conspiracy theories and information hoaxes typical of countries with low literacy rates? This week – the rise and fall of science in American politics.

Let’s turn the dial back to World War 2. In the space of thirty years at mid-century, scientific understanding and accomplishment leapt forward. People expected that rate of achievement to continue into this century. Flying cars. Supersonic planes. A cure for cancer and the common cold. Lifetimes of 200 hundred years.

In the health sciences, the development of vaccines and antibiotics allayed the fears of millions of parents. Many who had survived the Depression and World War 2 remembered  when Calvin Coolidge Jr., the President’s son, had died from a simple blister he got while playing lawn tennis (Rhoads, 2014). Thousands of World War 1 soldiers died from simple bacterial infections on their skin. In the course of two decades, antibiotics were developed and saved thousands in the next war.

The polio vaccine, developed in the 1950s, removed the threat of death or lifelong disability from the disease. In 1916, a quarter of the people in New York City who contracted the disease died (Smithsonian, 2005). Cities imposed quarantines on individual homes and public transportation during summer months when the disease was most prevalent.

The development of plastics, vitamins, TVs, personal radios, semi-conductors and many more inventions changed our daily lives. Men (mostly) of learning and business leaders schooled in efficient business practices were recruited to government to help run a world that was increasingly complicated.

During the 1960s President Kennedy hired Robert McNamara, the head of the Ford Motor Company, to run the Defense Department. Yes, that happened. McNamara was one of the Whiz Kids, experts in management and the efficient deployment of technology that would refashion the U.S. military during the Cold War against Communism. McNamara made many mistakes in the first five years of the Vietnam War, but hid them until his autobiography  in 1995 (Biography, 2019).

Whiz kids headed by economist Paul Samuelson transformed monetary and economic policy with a precise mathematical approach that modeled human economic behavior as well as the movement of money, goods and services. Inspired by the work of John Maynard Keynes, who advocated strong government intervention, the new economic thinking promised to transform fiscal policy into an efficient tool that would benefit all ranks of society.

Big government spending during the 1960s spurred higher inflation. The economic Whiz Kids could not head off a recession at the end of the decade. When the Arab oil embargo caused gasoline prices to jump, inflation bit hard, and President Nixon instituted wage and price controls to curb inflation. After he left office in ignominy, his successor President Ford, fought inflation by wearing a button on his lapel that said “WIN.” Yes, that happened. The acronym stood for Whip Inflation Now (Smithsonian, n.d.). The experts were not as knowledgeable as they thought. They had tried, they had failed and their ascendancy was at an end.

Enter Ronald Reagan. He had developed a folksy manner as a host for a TV western series. He led California during its oil boom heyday in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His tenure ended just as California’s economy hit the skids. Exit the experts. Enter charisma and myth. Mr. Reagan touted Star Wars defense ideas that were products of an illustrator’s imagination. He believed in a form of wishful thinking called supply side economics. He dismissed the evidence from his own scientists when a mysterious disease began to ravage young men in the gay community. He flaunted a simplistic campaign of “Just Say No” to drug use while he backed insurgents in Central America who used American communities to build a drug empire based on crack cocaine. Mr. Reagan was a pragmatic politician who believed that facts should bend to the will of political leaders. He led the country through the most severe recession since the 1930s Depression. His two terms in office were marked by tax reform, strong economic gains, a resurgence of conservative political ideas and repeated scandals. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the conservative myth machine concocted a narrative that Reagan was responsible for the downfall of the empire. Like the iconic sheriff in a western movie, Reagan had strode out onto the dusty street of the global town and faced down the bad guy, the USSR.

Charisma left the stage when Reagan’s Vice-President, George H.W. Bush, won the election in 1988. Bush was the compromise between charisma and expertise. He had vast experience in many corners of civilian and military government. In the 1991 Gulf War, he and his Secretary of Defense, Colin Powell, demonstrated a technical prowess and efficiency that lifted the reputation of experts once again. Mr. Bush made a bargain with Congressional Democrats to raise taxes to help balance the budget. Conservatives were angry and disaffected and an expert businessman waited in the wings.

Ross Perot was the billionaire founder of a tech company. As a hard-nosed third-party candidate, he promised to bring honesty and efficiency to government finances. He took a whopping 19% of votes from Bush and gave Clinton the election by default. A contentious three-way race had given another Democrat, President Wilson, a default victory in 1912. Clinton’s vote percentage was 43% (Wikipedia, n.d.). Wilson’s was 42%. President Lincoln holds the record with the lowest vote percentage for a winning Presidential race – less than 40%.

President Clinton was the folksy governor of a backwater state called Arkansas, home to the Walton family, the owners of Wal-Mart. He was also a Rhodes scholar. Clinton promised to join expertise and charm. As with Lincoln and Wilson, those on the other side of the political aisle regarded Clinton as an illegitimate President and were determined to remove him from office. After five years of investigation, Republicans successfully impeached him on a charge of lying to Congress about an affair – a dalliance might be a more accurate description – with a White House intern. The leader of the Republican effort, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, was himself having a long affair with a young Congressional aide. Yes, that happened.

It was the 1990s. Mr. Clinton presided over an explosion in computer technology. From its early development in research labs, government and universities, the internet became public in 1993. A different group of Whiz Kids were in charge. Dot com this. Dot com that. Too much money chasing too few opportunities in the burgeoning field of online commerce led to a bust.

After 9-11, the invasion of Iraq demonstrated the power of science. The subsequent campaign demonstrated the even greater power of human hubris and folly. In 2007-2009, technological folly and greed produced the greatest recession since the 1930s Depression. Americans split into two factions: those who believed in expertise and  those who mistrusted it.

President Obama was elected by those who were confident in experts. Policy experts would soon get the country out of the financial mess that the bankers and fast fingers on Wall Street had made of the lives of ordinary Americans on Main Street.

Mr. Obama’s two terms in office proved the inefficacy and arrogance of policy experts. The experts joined forces with vain politicians and created havoc in the lives of many Americans. A stimulus program was mismanaged, ill-timed and weighed down by burdensome regulation. An embarrassed President Obama admitted that there weren’t as many “shovel-ready” projects as he had hoped. Each agency protected its kingdom of regulatory power. Programs to help people stay in their homes floundered. A Cash for Clunkers auto buying program gave a temporary boost but its effect vanished within a few months. The promise of an efficient health care system that allowed Americans their choice of doctor was a fiasco. When the health care exchange web site debuted in 2013, it looked like the weekend effort of incompetent programmers. More embarrassment. Washington experts couldn’t be trusted to change the oil on someone’s car.

In 2016, almost half of voters rejected so-called experience, expertise and a posture of stately reserve in their President. After eight years of President Obama, they had had enough. They wanted the bluster of a pro wrestler and the charisma of a reality show star. Send in the clown!

America is home to the world’s best universities and most innovative companies and attract the best minds and the most capital from around the world. Blah, blah, blah. Americans were tired of best. They wanted great. They wanted insanely crazy great. They got crazy instead. Welcome to America.



Photo by humberto chavez on Unsplash

Biography. (2019, October 3). Robert S. McNamara. Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/political-figure/robert-s-mcnamara

Rhoads, J. N. (2014, July 7). The Medical Context of Calvin Jr.’s Untimely Death. Retrieved from https://www.coolidgefoundation.org/blog/the-medical-context-of-calvin-jr-s-untimely-death/

Smithsonian Institution. (2005, February 1). Individual Rights versus the Public’s Health. Retrieved from https://amhistory.si.edu/polio/americanepi/communities.htm

Smithsonian Institution. (n.d.). Knowing the Presidents: Gerald R. Ford. Retrieved from https://www.si.edu/spotlight/knowing-the-presidents-gerald-r-ford

Wikipedia. (n.d.) 1992 United States Presidential Election. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1992_United_States_presidential_election

You Don’t Count

April 12, 2020

by Steve Stofka

Wisconsin voters held their state’s primary this past week. At stake was an important state Supreme Court seat. The long lines at the few polling places open in urban areas highlighted the distinction in voting power between urban and rural communities. Voters in urban areas that are largely Democratic must wait for hours to vote while those in rural Republican leaning districts experience short wait times when they vote (NCSL, 2014).

Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi advocates a federal law requiring states to have a mail in ballot as an option in federal elections. Republicans from low population states want to protect the enormous power that their rural communities have over those in urban areas. They continue to resist mail in ballots.

The map below from the Census Bureau shows the population density per county (US Census Bureau, 2018). The light green and yellow areas have populations below the U.S. average, which is only 88 people per square mile. Western European countries have an average of 468 people per square mile, more than 5 times the density of the U.S.

I have numbered the 7 states that had not implemented stay at home orders as of April 6th (Silverstein, 2020). Each state is one of 21 states that have less than 1% of the nation’s population (List, 2020).

Twelve of those states have majority rural populations (HAC, 2011).  25 states have only 20% of the country’s population but each state gets two Senators, regardless of population. The Senate does not have proportional representation.  20% of voters control half of the Senate.

This outrageous discrepancy in voting power grew out of – stop reading and guess. Did you guess slavery? That’s right. At this country’s founding, the slave states in the south did not want the more populous states in the north to make slavery illegal in the southern states. In an age when most people grew their own food, the northern states guessed that the population of the southern states would grow more quickly because of the longer growing season. The Senate and the Electoral College were a compromise between slave and free states at the country’s founding.

Many of the plains and Rocky Mountain states have little population but have the same power in the Senate as states with twenty times their population. Why are there so many states with so few people? Stop reading and guess again. Did you guess slavery? Right again. There were 37 states in 1870, five years after the Civil War, but the western territories had already been formed during or just prior to the Civil War. So how did slavery lead to the formation of states?

Let’s look at the example of Colorado. The discovery of gold near Pikes Peak attracted a large influx of people into the region in 1859. In December 1860, a month after Lincoln was elected President, South Carolina seceded from the Union. In February 1861, two months before the formal secession of the other states, an act was introduced into the Congress to make Colorado a territory. Why? To secure mineral rights for the coming war. 15 years later, Colorado finally became a state.

In January 1862, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, recognized Arizona as a Territory. The population was sympathetic to slavery and Davis hoped to use Arizona as a launching point to capture California and it’s gold. Imagine the Confederate Army camped out on the Colorado River, in present day Lake Havasu, prepared to invade – yes, hundreds of miles of godforsaken desert. This was not a well thought out plan by Mr. Davis.

Tit for tat. A month later, the U.S. Congress, composed of only delegates from Union states, recognized Arizona as a territory along different borders to block the recognition of the Territory under the borders established by the Confederacy.  Because of its low population, the territories of Arizona and neighboring New Mexico did not become states until 1912, when progressives of both parties overcame persistent opposition in the Senate to pass the 17th Amendment (NCC, n.d.). That amendment gave voters in each state the power to elect their state’s two Senators.

 Wyoming used to have more sheep than people (USDA, 2018). People in the state now outnumber sheep almost 2-to-1. It was part of the Nebraska Territory that was created along with the Kansas Territory prior to the Civil War as part of the Kansas-Nebraska act. A month after S. Carolina’s secession in response to Lincoln’s election, Kansas entered the union as a free state in 1861. Both the Union and the Confederacy engaged in a concerted effort to secure territory and its resources in anticipation of war.  Nebraska became a state after the Civil War. The Union states wanted power in the Senate to secure the Civil War Amendments and other legislation passed after the war. Nebraska voters get 20 times more clout in the Senate than voters in New York. Why? Don’t pause. The answer is slavery again.

As part of the effort to secure the Civil War Amendments, Nevada was made a state a month after the 13th Amendment passed out of the Senate on its way to the states in 1864. As it is today, there were few people living in the territory. Congress wanted access to the silver mines in the territory and it mandated that Nevada outlaw slavery as a precondition to statehood.

The territories of Utah and New Mexico were created as part of the Compromise of 1850 to keep a balance between the slave holding states and the free states. Antipathy to Mormons delayed admission of the Utah Territory into the Union until 1896.

Will the Civil War continue to influence our everyday lives? During the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s we would read about animosities between Albanians and Serbs that dated back to the 14th Century (Geldenhuys, 2014). Shi’a and Sunni Muslims are still killing each other over a controversy about Mohammed’s successor following his death in the 7th century (McLean, n.d.). If America lasts a few more centuries, the Civil War’s legacy of injustice and bitterness will infect our descendants because it is baked into our institutions.

For a hundred years after the Civil War, Democrats fought to limit access to the vote and punished or killed those who fought for the rights of black voters in southern states. For the past fifty years, the baton of injustice has passed to the Republicans who deny people this fundamental right. Voting is a blood sport. Those who want greater access to voting will have to fight for it.



Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Geldenhuys, D. (2014). Contested States In World Politics. New York. Palgrave MacMillan. (p. 107-8)

Housing Assistance Council (HAC). (2011, November). Rurality in the United States. [PDF]. Retrieved from http://www.ruralhome.org/storage/research_notes/Rural_Research_Note_Rurality_web.pdf (p.4).

List of U.S. states by population (List). (2020, April 2). Retrieved from https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_by_population

McLean, J. (n.d.). World Civilization. Retrieved from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-hccc-worldcivilization/chapter/muhammads-successors/

National Constitution Center (NCC). (n.d.). The Seventeenth Amendment. Retrieved from https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/interpretation/amendment-xvii/interps/147

NCSL. (2014, October). States and Election Reform. The Canvass (Issue 52). [PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.ncsl.org/Documents/legismgt/elect/Canvass_Oct_2014_No_52.pdf

Silverstein, J. (2020, April 6). 43 states now have stay-at-home orders for coronavirus. These are the 7 that don’t. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/stay-at-home-orders-states/

US Census Bureau. (2018, May 7). Population Density by County: 2010. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/library/visualizations/2010/geo/population-density-county-2010.html

All Together Now

April 5, 2020

by Steve Stofka

We’re all in this together. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York State, tells us that in his daily conference. N.Y. State reported its first case of Coronavirus on March 1. In a month, the emergency rooms of some hospitals in New York City look like a war zone. President Trump says those photos are fake news. Deaths in red states are real. Deaths in blue states are not?

We’re all in this together proclaims Phil Murphy, the governor of the neighboring state of New Jersey. The zombies are already in his state but, as he looks across the Hudson River at NYC, he knows that vast hordes of zombies are coming. They are microscopic and invisible. They are not the Kaiju of Pacific Rim or the burrowing monsters of Tremors. They are the invisible demons of Poltergeist. Patients come into New York hospitals frantically gasping for air (NBC New York, 2020).

During this pandemic, we are discovering who is in this together. The maintenance man at the local school has just discovered that he is not essential now that the school has closed for the semester. This is the week when lawn maintenance companies begin mowing grass in much of the U.S. That maintenance man could be weeding and mowing grass, but the school district gave that job away to an outside lawn maintenance contractor to save money on employee pension and health benefits. Public private partnerships reduce the burden of local government on taxpayers.

He could be doing a hundred different fixups around the school now that it is empty. Patching and touch up painting, plumbing, the loose stalls in the bathroom, reglue those cove base tile that he hasn’t had time to get to during the school year. Upgrade those light bulbs. Something he’s been meaning to get to. Empty hallways is a good time for that. The school district says that he is not essential. Preventive maintenance is not essential. Someone at headquarters decided to wait until it’s broke. Then it’s essential.

The people who are essential are the policymakers and their minions who spend hours crafting memos that explain to employees why they are not essential.  Explaining the loss of health and pension benefits to employees is a delicate topic and requires a lot of training. We’re in this together but we’re not in this together. You do understand, don’t you?

Many teachers have discovered that they are not essential. Knowing their students well would be an asset in redesigning classes for an online format. But that job is done by instructional designers who have little experience in a classroom. They are experts in the design of education content. They are essential. Teachers are not.

Nurses are essential. Well, now they are. There is a shortage of nurses across the country because nursing schools have not been expanded to meet the needs of the population (Moore, 2019). Nurses have demonstrated for better patient care, for more investment in nursing, and in a safer patient nurse ratio (Lardieri, 2019). Sorry, nurses. Put down your signs. You’re not essential. Well, that was last year and the year before that and the year before that. This year is different.

Here, we have protective clothing for you, our essential workers. Here’s a 39-gallon lawn and leaf garbage bag. Yep, they’re the big ones with lots of room. One size fits all! Take these scissors and cut out a hole for your head in the bottom of the bag, then cut out armholes in each side. See, isn’t that good? It comes almost to your knees. Yes, it is a little bit hot because garbage bags don’t breathe very well. But it will keep you protected from nasty Covid-19 air thingees.

What about face masks? Oh sure, they are coming. President Trump told us so a few weeks ago. Here, just spray some bleach on the face mask you are wearing, then take a hair dryer and dry it out. See, good as new! I told you. We are all in this together.



Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash

Lardieri, A. (2019, September 20). Thousands of Nurses Strike for More Staffing, Better Patient Ratios. U.S. News & World Report. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/health-news/articles/2019-09-20/thousands-of-nurses-strike-for-more-staffing-better-patient-ratios

Moore, D. (2019, March 29). A rush for nurses strains colleges and hospitals as health care booms in Pittsburgh. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.post-gazette.com/business/career-workplace/2019/04/22/Nurses-hospitals-Allegheny-Health-Network-UPMC-Pittsburgh-jobs/stories/201903110158

NBC New York. (2020, March 30). ‘Yes It’s Real’: Doctors Describe ‘Eerie’ Way COVID-19 Sickens Random People. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/yes-its-real-doctors-describe-eerie-way-covid-19-sickens-random-people/2350645/