If you missed Last Week Tonight with John Oliver last night, his Main Story was on bankruptcies -- an issue that has grown significantly during the past decade, but has become more critical the last year due to the pandemic. The report is fascinating, looking at the two different kinds of bankruptcies and the many conditions that lead to them, not nearly as often because of bad decisions as people assume. And yet, he and his staff are able to make it all funny and entertaining at the same time.
If you missed Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on Sunday, here's the Main Story which was about the National Debt. And the segment was wonderful, one of my favorites they've done, since he explains such a controversial issue in a clear way -- as I've heard it explained over the years -- that show how debt is not inherently a bad thing in every way, even great debt.
I've spoken to some economic experts, but the best explanation of the benefits of debt came from Pultizer Prize-winning writer David Cay Johnston, who was working for the New York Times at the time. And one of Oliver's clips has someone explaining the issue almost as well, relating to corporations. (Johnston's example was -- someone out of work gets hired for a job two hours away, but doesn't have a car and can't take the job. But he goes into debt to buy a car, takes the job, and earns enough money to pay off his debt and earn a good wage and build from there..)
Plus, Oliver's piece is funny, on top of it all.
Yesterday, 60 Minutes did a show on Boston Dynamics, a research laboratory that develops robotics which the TV show has been trying to get behind-the-scene for years. It was worth the wait. The story is absolutely fascinating, thanks to the remarkable developments by the company. My only two quibbles with the otherwise very good report are are that though the company does a good job explaining away myths about robotics, they don't get into how artificial intelligence works into all this, and also that while the heads of Boston Dynamics are aware of the problem related to job loss, their explanation about it all creating new industries -- while true -- is much to surface to serve as a proper answer.
Still, the story is really worth watching and even fun. But most especially stick with it until you get to the part about the newest discipline they're developing. It's remarkable.
For those who missed Last Week Tonight with John Oliver last night, his Main Story was about plastics. More specifically, it was about how recycling plastics isn't the great and easy panacea it appears to be on the surface. The report is very interesting, and includes some wonderful humor...most notably one joke that relates to the blob fish which they carry out to its wonderful fullness. And I should add that there is a joke at the very end which might pass by most people, who'll think it's about Spring Break -- and while that might be what prompted the joke, it's actually an allusion to the sign-off Jackie Gleason used on his TV variety show in the 1960s. I really admire people who make jokes that they know not everyone will get. Fun Fact: everyone doesn't have to get every single joke.
A couple of weeks ago, my dryer went kablooey, which is the technical term. This is the tale, but there is an addendum at the end about a related matter which is more general for people dealing with such issues. Actually, there are a couple of addendums.
I found an appliance repair shop on Yelp that had an impressive record, 5-stars and almost all the comments were glowing. TJ Appliance Repair is based in West Hollywood, though they service throughout Los Angeles. The owner there, Tony, said that from my description, it sounded like the motor. Also, because I have one of those washer-dryer mini-combos -- and it's set up in a small closet -- they may have to send out two repairmen. And if that's the case and if it's the motor, it might cost about $450. More than ideal, but worth the repair rather than getting a new dryer -- let alone, a new combo, if I decided that. (The units are probably 13 years old or so, they were here when I bought the place.) But he'd send out a single repairman on Monday to checks things out and see what the situation was.
One thing that has been bewildering me ever since I did my dryer went out is that I was missing two socks from two different pairs. I looked and looked, but couldn’t find them. I looked in the dryer bin repeatedly, but it wasn’t there. I’ve kept looking all over, but they’re nowhere to be found. Gone. Perhaps to Cancun.
On Sunday, the day before the repair tech's visit, I still was thinking about those missing socks, and wondered if possibly they could have somehow been sucked into the dryer and caused the problem, as bizarrely unlikely as that seemed, so I checked once again to see if there was any nook or slot or any way they could have been sucked into – but of course there wasn’t.
But on a total whim, since it was the only removable part, I pulled out the lint filter and looked into the compartment. And one of the socks was there!! I have absolutely no idea how it could possibly have gotten into the lint filter, but it did. And I was able to get it out. Still that left one sock that’s missing.
I ran the dryer to see if maybe removing this sock fixed things, but no, it didn’t. But the scraping, rumbling sound it made didn’t sound completely unlike what a sound might be if a sock was caught somewhere.
To be clear, I can’t imagine that a sock was inside the machine. For starters, I don’t see how it would be even remotely possible. Any holes are tiny, and any slots are paper thin. But then, I don’t see how it’s remotely possible that a sock did get into the lint filter compartment.
Anyway, the repairman came on Monday. And it was…the socks!!!!
There had been, as I noted, that one sock that got sucked into the lint filter compartment. But still one other sock that was missing. But without having to call in a second repairman (which would have been expensive), he was able to pull the washer-dryer out by himself, which was impressive ("Oh, this isn't bad, I do this all the time, I've seen worse"), unscrewed things…and found the missing sock. And the dryer ran perfectly after that.
He said it was one of the cleanest dryers he’s seen, and appeared to be in good shape. He also said it was one of his favorite models, an LG Tromme, which would run for 25 years. And said that even if the motor does go out, it’s worth replacing because the model is that good. The whole cost was not $450 to repair the motor. (Or $2,000 to get a new combo). But $180. Much better.
And better, too, because when he first turned on the dryer, it made an awful sound, to which he said, “Not good.” But then I told him the tale of the missing sock. And he thought that that could indeed be the cause.
What’s weird is that he says he has absolutely no idea how socks get sucked into a dryer. “It happens. It’s a design flaw.” But there’s no space for a sock to get sucked through, so how??? “I have no idea. It happens.” I asked what one could do so that this doesn't happen again, and the options are to ball up thin socks when drying them, letting them air-dry, or getting a bag to put your socks in for drying. But totally weird. But hey, if a repairman has no idea at all how it happens, I'm not going to figure it out.
Anyway, it’s resolved. For a whole lot less. And for what it’s worth, the repairman Alex great. As I said, the company TJ Appliance Repair has a 5-star rating on Yelp, and I can see why. I called the owner Tony to let him know how good Alex was – and he was also praising the owner behind his back. (Including that if a customer is clearly struggling financially and in obvious bad shape, the owner won’t charge them but pay for it out of his pocket.) Good customer service may lose you money in the short run, but in the long run it builds loyalty and word-of-mouth and success
Now, for the two addendums.
The first is that when talking with the repairman Alex, it turned out that he was from Uzbekistan, worked in Moscow for a while, knew Odessa pretty well where one of my grandfathers was from, and came to the United States in 2016. (Fun fact: his brother was playing basketball at UCLA -- my grad school,) Alex was able to get fast-tracked for citizenship because he enlisted in the U.S. Army, and served in Afghanistan, though not in combat. (Among other things, they taught him various skills, including how to repair appliances!) The point of this all is that he applied for citizenship in 2016, and the program that he was able to get in under was shut down by Trump a few months later. If there had been just a few months delay, he wouldn't have been able to get into the United States. And serve in the army. And because a terrific addition to the country.
The other addendum concerns those home warranty contract many people have. I had one that comes with the deal when I bought I bought my place a couple years ago. I renewed it the next year, and had some benefit from it, though it may not have covered the cost. But it did cover replacing a disposal unit (which would have been a few hundred dollars) and some small plumbing fixes, and was good piece of mind.
It also covered one other notable expense when my refrigerator went out. However -- that experience was a mess. The short version is that it took three months, and I was out a refrigerator for that long, and had to get one of those small refrigerator-freezer devices so that I could at least keep some food. (The home warranty company did pay $75 towards that, which was about $220 overall.)
The main reason for the three-month delay is that the repair shops they kept sending weren't working out. Either they didn't do the kind of work that was needed, or they didn't deal with those kinds of part, or they had to wait for red-tape approvals to order parts or -- in the most significant case, one of the vendors tried to scam. They explained what part was needed, and that it would cost $250, which would have to come out of my own pocket since it wouldn't be covered by the home warranty company. And I know it was a scam -- not only because I asked some friends who know these things better -- because when the work was done, it did not entail the part the scammers insisted on, but just the basic $40 part my friends said was needed and was covered.
The final vendor did do the work well -- though the had a small screw-up which delayed things another week -- but the reality is that I was without my refrigerator for three months.
Which brings me to the point. When my home warranty contract was up in December, I didn't renew it. I knew there was a risk, though extrapolated over 10 years, it would probably work out well in my favor, even if there were big expenses along the way. But after that three-month debacle with repair shops I didn't know, I just decided that I'd rather pay more money (possibly) for a good repair shop whose goal is the please the customer, not to please the home warranty company and save them money, so they could continue to get referrals.
I have no idea how this will turn out over time. But it worked very well here. When my dryer went out, my first reaction was, "Agghhh, I wish I'd waited before cancelling m home warranty contract." A big repair only two months after cancelling it!!! Of course. But even then, my next thought was -- that's fine, that was my decision. I get to choose the repair shop I want, and they'll fix it fast. And that's what happened. It was a 5-star shop, they did excellent work, and it was repaired in two weeks.
And while I hope I never have to use TJ Appliance Repair again, I'm sure I will -- and I'm glad to have the piece of mind knowing that they're there. Hopefully Alex will be, too.
On last night's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, his Main Story about about the meatpacking industry. Not about the conditions in processing the food, but the awful conditions for people working there, most especially under the reality of the pandemic. Some of the piece is impressively funny, but what stands out is how it builds steam and angry he gets by the end.
The text of this tweet says all that is necessary to describe the video and the woman who is its subject.
OK, yes, it's just an ad. But still... I mean, the wonderful Rick Moranis has been in self-imposed semi-retirement and off the big screen for 24 years! That's 24 years. He made the Ghostbuster films, all the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids movies, Parenthood, Spaceballs, The Flintstones movies, the Little Shop of Horrors musical, SCTV and more, But he chose to raise his family, and it just went on from there. He's done a bit of voiceover work during that period on TV and for games, though that's pretty much it. He also reported to be finally making a movie with Josh Gad that brings back the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids franchise, but the pandemic has put that on hold. He's basically been off the big screen for a quarter of a century just because he chose to. And no, this is not the big screen. And yes, it's just an ad. But...but still...
I guess it helps when a fellow-Canadian is a big star and a really huge fan. And owns the company.
Plus it's charming and funny. They did it right.
Yesterday, there was an article in Politico that got a great deal of attention, titled "The general election scenario that Democrats are dreading." The piece concerned comments made by Jason Furman, who was a major economist in the Obama administration, serving at one point as Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors. During a Zoom conference of economists and former Cabinet secretaries, he said -- "We are about to see the best economic data we’ve seen in the history of this country." As Furman said later in an interview, "Everyone looked puzzled and thought I had misspoken”
The article here by Ryan Lizza and Daniel Lippman notes that "Instead of forecasting a prolonged Depression-level economic catastrophe, Furman laid out a detailed case for why the months preceding the November election could offer Trump the chance to brag — truthfully — about the most explosive monthly employment numbers and gross domestic product growth ever."
A friend sent me the article, understandable concerned, especially since the article asks Furman about the level of concern among top party officials, and he replied, “It’s high — high, high, high, high.”
As I told him, first and foremost, I think it's good for Democrats to take nothing for granted, and to be concerned by everything when it comes to the election. Not only including this, but especially this.
I'm also not an economist, so zero of my opinions have any substantive meaning..
I know too that accomplished as Jason Furman is, he is only one economist, and the article points out that all the other economists on the Zoom discussion were stunned by what he said.
And it's notable too that the only people agreeing with him in the article are those in the Trump administration, including Happy Talk economic adviser Kevin Hassett (who on Sunday referred to the public as "Human capital stock," along with Larry "We have the coronavirus contained" Kudlow and trade adviser Peter Navarro, about whom Mother Jones wrote --
"Dubbed 'Trump’s looniest economic adviser' by the Wall Street–focused Dealbreaker, Navarro is an academic who famously made up a fake expert to quote in his books. A five-time failed political candidate in San Diego, Navarro is widely known there 'as a nut,' says one veteran California GOP political consultant. Navarro’s views on trade are considered so fringy that, for years, reporters covering him have been trying unsuccessfully to find a credible source who may agree with him."
Not being an economist myself, my reaction is that this scenario postulated by Mr. Furman is ridiculous and the article only slightest touches on the counter-argument and leaves out some massive points that go far beyond economy as deal with other aspects of the real world.
Most notable is that the article focuses only on money and leaves out -- 100,000 Americans are dead. Right now. That we know of. And that it will probably go to at least 150,000 dead Americans. And even if the economy comes back, they aren't.
It also quotes Mr. Furman saying emphatically, though it seems awfully glibly that the economic bounce back “can be very very fast, because people go back to their original job, they get called back from furlough, you put the lights back on in your business" -- while only later in the article does it eventually note that many businesses actually went bankrupt, and there won't be jobs to go back to. And moreover that many businesses will be downsizing, so no jobs there either. And it doesn't ever mention a critical point -- you can give someone a job, and turn the lights on, and open the doors...but that doesn't mean customers will come rushing back. And according to numerous polls, between 60-70% of the public says that they won't until there is a vaccine distributed to everyone -- which at the very best won't be for a year.
Also, the article buries near the end that Jason Furman off-handedly says, "If there’s a second wave of the virus and a really serious set of lockdowns, I wouldn’t expect to see this. But I think the most likely case is the one I just laid out.” But the thing is, he's an economist, not is a scientist -- so saying, "But I think the most likely case is the one I just laid out" is as totally meaningless as me not being an economist. Less so perhaps because most every actual science expert says that there pretty much ALWAYS is a second wave, and that it can be more virulent than the first. And we're already seeing numbers go up from the recent small-numbers of business openings. It's hard for me to imagine based on all these experts and the numbers we've already seen that there won't be a second wave -- which even Furman says would not allow the recovery he's predicting.
So, the reporters wrote a very long article about the one economist who says it will be a great turnaround, but bury even deeper Austin Goolsbee -- who was Furman's predecessor as President Obama's Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors -- saying, "I view it as Trump left the door open and five rats came into the kitchen and you’re going to brag, ‘Look I got two of the rats out?’ There’s a high risk you look completely out of touch if you still have double-digit unemployment rates.”
And it leaves out one other huge thing.
Last night on MSNBC, they had a well-regarded journalist who has written extensively about pandemics. She said that life won't begin returning to something like normal for at least THREE YEARS at a minimum. And Jason Furman thinks everything will be great for Republicans because the economy will be booming in a few months.
Forget for a moment viewing Trump's re-election from purely an economic analytic model. Let's take a step back and look at real world that model exists in.
There will likely be at least 150,000 Americans dead that we know of. Each of those people are mourned by immediate family, relatives, friends and associates. We already know of 1.7 million Americans who were infected, so far. Business went bankrupt and aren't returning. Companies are cutting back. About 60-70% of people say they won't go back to stores and restaurants until there is a vaccine for everyone and it's safe. And life will not be anything even remotely close to normal. Sports arenas aren't going to be packed with 60,000 fans by October. Even if teams begin playing, it will be in empty stadiums. And the related concessionaire industries will suffer. People won't be crowding into movie houses or stageplay theaters. Who knows when they've even be ready to again start making movies and TV shows. The crushed travel and hospitality industry that lost $800 billion is not going to pack airplanes, fill up hotels and load up cruise ships. Seriously?? Even putting fear of the virus aside, most people pummeled by job loss will likely be saving their money rather than take leisure trips. Businesses will use teleconferencing platforms rather than send executives around the country -- let alone to conventions. Further, the public knows Trump still recommended taking bleach and disinfectant, still said COVID-19 would be gone like a "miracle" in February, still shut down the Pandemic Response Unit two years ago, still cut $8.5 billion from the CDC, still ignored the Obama Transition pandemic playbook, still fired the CDC expert on infectious disease IN CHINA last June, and his level of trust is in the mid-30s. And all that's even if there isn't a second wave, which according to science experts, there's no reason to believe that there won't be. And Jason Furman is saying Trump and Republicans will be in great shape because stores will be opening very fast, very fast. Because apparently that's all it's about. The human capital stock.
There is a quip about economists. It's that an economist is someone who sees something happen in reality but doubts that it can happen in theory.
I don't know. I'm not an economist. Of course an expert like Jason Furman could be right. And it's good for Democrats to be wary about everything. Good that their concern over this is "high -- high, high, high, high." Concern about everything when it comes to Trump should be high. High, high.
But Austan Goolsby is an expert, too. And was Jason's Furman's predecessor. And all the other experts on the conference call were shocked by his statement.
Furthermore, an article in yesterday's Raw Story addresses reaction to the article and explains --
"A report from Politico caused a stir on Tuesday morning, as it quoted Democratic economists and operatives who were nervous that President Donald Trump could benefit from a rapid economic recovery in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"However, polling experts Nate Silver and Harry Enten both poured cold water on the notion that a V-shaped recovery would be sufficient enough to lift the president above former Vice President Joe Biden, who has consistently led him in polls throughout the year.
"Enten pointed out that Trump has for the entire year led Biden in polling on who is more trusted to handle the economy — but it hasn’t mattered, as voters in polls still said they preferred the former vice president to the incumbent overall."
And that's a critical point overlooked by Jason Furman's analysis -- perhaps the most-critical point: that Joe Biden has been leading Trump ever since he got into the race, and that's with the economy rolling along okay and with the public saying they trust him more on the economy! Now add in the 150,000 dead, bankrupt businesses and still not vaccine to return life to normal...which likely won't happen for at least three years.
Additionally, the article also references Nate Silver's observation that even if the current unemployment rate is cut by by six percentage points by the election, it would still Trump with a poor economy.
“It’s true that a partial recovery to 9% would be better for Trump than getting stuck at 15%,” Silver wrote. “But 9% is still quite high, and voters could also compare to 3.5% or wherever it had been before… The best strategy is therefore to use a broad basket of economic indicators over a broad range of time horizons. By that measure, voters’ assessments of the economy would likely still be fairly negative on balance by November even with a halfway recovery.”
(You can read the full article here.)
Honestly, of course I don't know how any of this will work out. I could be totally wrong. I'm not an economist. And it's not only good but critically important that people are concerned about this and about everything with the election.
And by the way, I hope the economy comes roaring back in full by the election. And that everyone gets their jobs back, all 42 million. And that there's a vaccine available in months. And that all the deaths stop as soon as humanly possible. This is a ghoulish real world we are living in -- not just in the United States, but all over the entire globe. I want the disaster over and resolved. I want the real world back to to normal.
But even if there is no second wave, which is considered probable to near-certain -- until it's pointed out why all these other reasons of real life I've mentioned and what all the other economic experts and science experts are saying is wrong and without meaning, and recognizing that Biden was ahead of Trump before the pandemic, then I think it's best to pay attention to Jason Furman, be wary of his analysis, and understand that the real world situation for Trump is truly horrific.
Economic theory and even economic reality are only a part of the real world. And the fullness of the real world plays a profound role in how human beings respond to pretty much everything.
And even if there is no second wave and many of the 42 million jobs lost come back, the real world where people live -- that "human capital stock" as Trump economic adviser quaintly put it -- will still be a deeply troubled place. Caused by Trump repeatedly cutting all manner of pandemic response and ignoring all warnings, certain instead that it would be gone like a "miracle." Helped by taking bleach and disinfectants.
And all the while, Trump played golf on Memorial Day as deaths neared 100,000, while Rome burned. Because even little things like that not only actually matter to "human capital stock" in the real world, but they remember them for what such little things signifies..
I could be wrong. So could all the other economic and science experts. I'm not an expert in any of those fields. So, I could be totally wrong. And them, too.
The thing is, the real world, where we all live -- it's a funny old place.
For all the stories about businesses opening, the ones that have seemed to get the most attention are about restaurants. And I understand that. Their impact on both the economy and our culture are profound, arguably more than any industry -- not just for the food and all the people and related-businesses they support financially, but also the sheer social aspect of the dining experience. So, I get it. And I'm pleased that, unlike most businesses that are closed, restaurants at least have the option of continuing to operate by developing take-out business. It doesn't compensate for the loss of sit-down customers, but it's something, which is more than most can say.
This all came to mind yesterday when I got an email from IHOP. (Yes, I'm on their mailing list because I get free pancake offers from them a couple times a year -- on my birthday and the anniversary of then I signed up with them). It explained all the measures they're taking to make sure their restaurants are clean and safe.
And the efforts they're taking seem to be the same that stories all explain the lengths that other restaurants are taking to make their places safe.
Still, as much as I admire the efforts and as much as I hope restaurants can open and swarm with business, because I love restaurants (One of my first jobs was working for a Burger King, which my mother would generally call, "King Burger." I used to be a very teensy investor in a restaurant in Los Angeles. I've written lovingly three or four times about a restaurant, Charlie Beinlich's, near where I grew up outside Chicago. I still have fond memories as a very little kid being excited to take occasional family trips about 20 minutes to Des Plaines to go to this new, little place which turned out to be the very first franchise ever for McDonalds.)
But as much as I love restaurants and hope they survive and thrive -- and as much as they're making great efforts to keep their places clean and safe -- I wouldn't even consider going to one until there is a vaccine, and most people have been inoculated.
And from stories I've read, I get the sense that most customers feel the same.
I appreciate that they'll be disinfecting the chairs after each customer. And be extra special cleaving the plates and silverware. And only have single-serve ketchup and mustard packs. And that they'll keep patrons separated at their tables to reduce capacity. And waiters will wear masks. And there will be hand sanitizer on tables. And many restaurants will have single-use plastic utensils. And single use paper menus. And...
Seriously, knowing all these efforts being taken to keep a restaurant safe, does that give you the idea that maybe restaurants have a safety issue that requires all of these steps? And isn't there just a gnawing thought in the back of your mind that every restaurant is not going to all these steps every time without slipping up? (We all expect slip-ups in life, including in restaurants. When the the result of that mistake is the possibility of death, they're a little less acceptable.)
But let's even say that every restaurants takes all these safety measures and even more, and handle them all perfectly, ever time.
There are still other problems with a restaurant that are just inherently built into the experience.
Like -- will people be wearing face masks? If yes, which I'd think would be the case, that would seem to make it incredibly difficult to eat. And if no, to facilitate the eating process...isn't that a huge danger-warning light glaring on-and-off??! After all, if "no," they'd be taking all these many steps for safety -- but leaving out the one requirement that has become pretty standard. So, neither option makes much sense. Or the fact that a large part of the dining experience is relaxing and socializing -- but the longer you're in an enclosed place, socializing, the greater the chance of viruses being spread through the air. And you're sitting at a table, just a few feet away from your dining companion, everyone talking, talking and talking. (Which brings up again the previous question of wearing face masks.)
And the thing is, the problems are just as great from the restaurant side of the coin. To open up your restaurant, there are costs involved with that -- staff, electricity, gas, maintenance, security, insurance and more. But even at best, it would seem likely that business will be down 70%. On the positive side, if you're doing take-out, then some of those costs are already being paid. But not all, or most. It might well be much more cost-effective to stay closed until you know for absolutely certain it's safe.
Which brings up probably the biggest caveat. If your staff screws up just once, and a customer gets sick, but worse, dies -- that's not only a tragedy, but a disaster for your business. Most restaurants probably couldn't come back from that. And if that one person gets sick...it seems likely that it won't be limited to just one. So, the question for restaurant owners is whether to risk opening as they no doubt desperately want, or play it safe for yourself, your staff, your customers and your future.
I love restaurants. I can't wait for them to open. I can't wait for it to be safe enough for them to open where all those safety requirements aren't needed.
But until that latter happens, I have a hard time seeing going out to dine. And I suspect that's the case for most people.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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