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  • Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 2/25/21

Happy Thursday! TOO MANY DEAD Earlier this week, we passed 500,000 American deaths from COVID. This is the fourth greatest number of Americans who have died in a single event—the first three were the Civil War, the Spanish Influenza and the AIDS epidemic. Hopefully, these three remain out of range (the Spanish Flu Epidemic claimed 675,000 lives). It is hard to believe that so many people have died—many senselessly. Each had a life and a family. Each loss leaves a scar that will never fully heal. And while we can all see the light at the end of the tunnel, we should never forget those who died. We also should never forget the inadequate response, serial misleading information, unscientific observations and recommendations, and inadequate messaging. We lead the developed world in per capital deaths. We have nearly 5% of the world’s population and approximately 20% of all deaths. Something is wrong. Some of those whose lives were lost are the victims of governmental ineptitude and misinformation, fomented by our former president. Some are the victims of believing in that president, putting their trust in our leadership. Some died because of the government’s ineptitude in distributing vaccines (failures at all levels of government). And some may yet die because they remain ill-informed of the importance and safety of vaccination and/or they are not well equipped to spend hours on computers trying to schedule appointments. There is much tragedy to go around and a great deal to be reviewed and analyzed in the coming months and years—so the next national emergency doesn’t result in a similar disaster of mistruth, ineptitude, unpreparedness, failure of communication, and simple fact-based response. A PRESIDENT WITH EMPATHY I’d almost forgotten what it was like to be able to say that… When President Joe Biden addressed the nation to note the 500,000 deaths, there was the lighting of 500 candles, a moment of silence, the playing of “Amazing Grace” by the Marine Corps Band, and the following words: “We have to resist viewing each life as a statistic, or a blur. We have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow. We often hear people described as ordinary Americans. There's no such thing. There's nothing ordinary about them. The people we lost were extraordinary. They span generations. Born in America, emigrated to America.” THEN THERE’S TEXAS Now that the weather is warming in the Lone Star State, we can start the post-mortem on exactly what happened there. Again, there will be much work ahead for investigative reporters and historians in figuring out how this happened. There are a number of conclusions one can reach, even at this early stage:

  • Going it alone probably wasn’t the best idea. Most of the country is on larger grids that allow for diversion to where it is needed most. The hubris of the Texas state government has led it over the years to maintain a grid all of its own, so when a local problem occurred, only local power sources could be redirected.

  • No one prepared for the “big one.” As we have witnessed again and again, American business and governments no longer prepare for possible major catastrophes. This is something that was predictable, albeit a low-odds possibility. But disruptions of grand scale can come not just from cold weather. The utilities were woefully unprepared. Being motivated primarily by profitability, utilities prepared for “99% case.” This is short-sighted and naïve—the very basis of the insurance industry is that we can’t have to either prepare or purchase insurance to address potential costs.

  • It costs money to prepare. Not only was the system overtaxed, but it was ill-equipped to deal with foreseeable negatives. Much of the system wasn’t weatherized. Many buildings weren’t weatherized. Building codes have been lax for years, with “playing for the middle of the bell curve” being rewarded. But just as we are told families need “emergency kits” in their pantries, our government must prepare—and we must pay for—preparations necessary to address catastrophic events.

  • There is a penalty for short term thinking. A huge problem is that corporate leaders prepare for next quarter’s earnings calls with analysts, while politicians prepare for the next election cycle. What we need—not just in this area but more generally—is a thought process that involves “playing the long game.” The old man planting the carob tree is a great parable. When asked why he does this, since he will never live to see it, he said he did it for his grandchildren—that he found a fruitful world because others had planted it for him.

  • We better learn to be better at this. With rising numbers of major weather events, we all should be better prepared. This will not be the first major outage. It will happen again, with dire consequences again. And huge costs—again. The frequency of these events, and their magnitude, is just one cost of climate change.

  • Infrastructure matters. It isn’t sexy and it isn’t visible, but it’s important. In the real estate business, sellers are told to spend money on visible improvements that will impress a buyer. Latent improvements (to building systems like plumbing, roofing, electrical, HVAC) are arguably more important, but produce less zing to increase the purchase price. So these important matters often are left to build up and produce costly consequences and force costly improvements. This country better get with it. With bridges, dams, water projects, and other elements of our infrastructure judged by engineers not to earn passing grades, there is work to be done. For all the bipartisan talk of an infrastructure bill, there still isn’t one. President Trump promised it (along with a health care bill) and didn’t deliver. Biden must.

THE WOLF IN WOLF’S CLOTHING Many of us know what how bad Donald Trump has been all his life. And we know how he has been enabled by the fearful cadre of invertebrates who will do anything to keep their jobs. Now many are paying fealty through their posts and their visits to Mar-a-Lago. I reread this piece by Ezra Klein, in The New York Times, which nails it: Warmly, Glenn

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