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Monday, April 6, 2020
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Thursday, December 5, 2019 2:55 PM

How’s business? “Wonderful,” is the answer you’ll probably get from those who only know the stock market continues to rise. 

How is business in Indiana or in your sector of the economy? That answer is often hard to find. 

  • INDIANAPOLIS — Fear. That was the name of Bob Woodward’s first book on the Trump presidency. It’s been a theme of Michael Moore documentaries and a proven Madison Avenue marketing device. And fear has become an invasive pandemic element that has seeped into every family, every business, every school, and every circle of friends this spring. Fear has planted itself in our collective psyche. My explicit fear is the Intensive Care Unit. After suffering a subdural hematoma last November, I ended up in the St. Vincent ICU – then one of about 1,400 in the state – for about five days. I was on one of the state’s 1,100 ventilators for about 36 hours. When I came to, I couldn’t talk with the tube going down my gullet. I remember thinking, “How in the hell did I get here?” I had no idea. And the sounds of that ICU – the chimes and what seemed like an animated woodpecker working on a hollow log – haunt me to this day. I never want to go back to the ICU. When this pandemic began, with Gov. Eric Holcomb and President Trump issuing stay-at-home orders early last month, I needed little convincing to remain holed up at our condo. Time in the ICU will do that to you. As Holcomb said on Monday, “It took a month for the United States to record its first 1,000 deaths, and then it took just two days to record the next 1,000. In Indiana we went from one COVID-19 case on March 6 to 1,786 today. Those are the ones we know of. Our first COVID-19 death in Indiana was two weeks ago today and we’re now at 35 Hoosiers who have passed.” By Tuesday, it was 49. By Wednesday it was 65. By Friday it had topped 100.

  • INDIANAPOLIS  — I looked out the window and immediately thought, “I’m not supposed to be here.” It was January 2019, just four days after I returned from a trip to the more opulent parts of the Middle East – Oman and the United Arab Emirates – and I was in Havana, Cuba, passing by a giant poster emblazoned with Fidel Castro’s face and the words “Socialism or Death” written in imposing block letters. I couldn’t help but think each taxi was mandated to drive Americans by this sign as a reminder that while only 90 miles from the border of freedom, we were in a much different place.  What I saw that weekend left an indelible impression on me. I saw with my own eyes the drab and lifeless food rationing outposts where Cubans stand in line to get the small amount of chicken, rice, beans and other staples the government divvies up to them each month. I saw with my own eyes the crumbling and decaying infrastructure along the coast where the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean meet, further torn apart by Hurricane Irma two years prior. And I heard with my own ears how Cubans are practically forbidden to eat beef and seafood, luxury items that are instead sold directly to foreign visitors for mere pennies on the dollar to shape our perceptions of the island nation. All this came back to me in vivid detail as I walked up and down the bare aisles of my local grocery store this week. Gone was the ground beef. There was no chicken to be found. Bread was only available in bun form. And toilet paper? Forget about it.
  • MUNCIE  — The nation’s monthly jobs report published earlier this week was jarring. I write before its publication, but expect the unemployment rate to more than double. Monthly job losses are sure to crush the previous record of September 1945. Despite this, it is worth noting that September 1945 was surely the most welcomed month in all of human history, marking the end of World War II. We would be wise to view the unemployment rate and other short-term economic data as imperfect measures of human flourishing. Last week, Dr. Tony Fauci, a man who no longer requires introduction, predicted 100,000 to 200,000 deaths from COVID-19. This eye-popping figure accounts for the extreme measures now being taken in many parts of the nation. Business as usual would’ve likely resulted in a tenfold loss of life. Faced with these large numbers, we need to place a more personal context on this tragedy, and muse upon the potential change this will lead to in our economic lives.  At the top range, Dr. Fauci’s estimates are more than five times the annual American deaths from automobile accidents. This means that by late April, nearly every adult will know someone who has died of COVID-19, and someone in every neighborhood, school and place of work will have been sick with it. Such suffering cannot fail to have broad effect on the structure of our economy. 
  • KOKOMO  — “What’s a granny worth?” My next door neighbor correctly judged that I was baiting him with the question. This discussion occurred while several neighbors were having a safe social distance happy hour outside of our homes. I’m sure it was an interesting sight as neighbors sat in lawn chairs spread out on both sides of our neighborhood street drinking a glass of wine or a bottle of beer.  After much discussion over the issue of toilet paper and sanitizer stockpiles, the talk gradually turned to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the virtual shutdown of our economy. I turned to my next door neighbor and asked the question about how much we were willing to spend to save a granny, when my neighbor across the street yelled out, “Hey, watch it, I’m a granny too!” The truth be known, we were all of the age to be either grannies or grandpas. Before we could hash out a consensus answer, the heavens opened up on us and drowned out our little neighborhood attempt at maintaining some normalcy. The question still hangs in the air. With the staggering loss of incomes, jobs, market valuations and $2 trillion stimulus bills, just what is the dollar value of a higher risk person?
  • INDIANAPOLIS  — State Senator Barry Ballyhoo called last week. “How ya doin’, boy?” He asked the familiar question during this era of sequestration. “OK,” was my reply. “Well, youngster,” he said. “I was ruminatin’ about this here computer census. We done filled out our online form. ’Twasn’t any problem. But it done left me wonderin’ if anybody really cares.” “Oh, Senator, you can bet they do,” I replied. Then I repeated the many reasons Hoosiers have a stake in the census: The federal and state money distributed by formulas using population data, the drawing of political boundaries, and not incidentally, the issuance of permits by the alcohol and tobacco commission. “Yes, yes, I know all that,” he said impatiently. “But do Hoosiers care? Does it bother them last week’s figures show 55 of our 92 counties shrank in population between the census in 2010 and the estimates for 2019?”
  • INDIANAPOLIS – For more than two centuries, Hoosiers have participated in democracy by going to their local polling place to vote. In normal times they chat with their neighbors as they wait in line. These are not normal times. Republican Chairman Kyle Hupfer and Democratic Chairman John Zody combined in a letter earlier this month calling for expanded absentee balloting in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that signaled what Gov. Eric Holcomb announced last Friday: A delayed primary until June 2. “The coronavirus pandemic is causing all of us to consider precautionary measures related to group gatherings and general interaction with other people, and Election Day is no exception,” Hupfer and Zody wrote. “For their safety, the safety of poll workers, absentee voter board members, and election administrators, and the safety of all Hoosiers, allowing maximum flexibility, while preserving a citizen’s right to vote, is paramount.” Last Wednesday, the Indiana Election Commission voted unanimously to move the primary to June 2. At its April 22 meeting, the discussion will likely turn to how the Nov. 3 election will be conducted. On Monday, the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and the advocacy group Indiana Vote By Mail urged the commission to expand vote by mail for the general election. Specifically, the groups urged the commission to: Extend access to “no-excuse” absentee voting to all voters in the general election, as well as the primary; Send all registered voters an absentee ballot by mail, with the state covering those costs (as opposed to requiring all voters to apply for an absentee ballot); Clarify how the signature match process to verify voter identity will be done; Provide rules for the efficient counting of a significantly larger number of mail-in ballots. It came as media reports revealed that Porter and Hamilton county election officials were seeking to entire high school students to serve as primary poll workers because many poll personnel are self-quarantining. 

  • INDIANAPOLIS — It is becoming apparent that Indiana and the U.S. will not duplicate South Korea’s coronavirus response with widespread testing to determine and isolate vectors and victims, which would then reopen society for business and pleasure. Health experts ranging from the now famous Dr. Tony Fauci to Indiana University’s Prof. Aaron Carroll had been telling us for weeks that testing was the key. Dr. Carroll, writing in The Atlantic with Harvard Unversity’s Dr. Ashish Jha, said, “We can create a third path. We can decide to meet this challenge head-on. It is absolutely within our capacity to do so. We could develop tests that are fast, reliable, and ubiquitous. If we screen everyone, and do so regularly, we can let most people return to a more normal life. We can reopen schools and places where people gather. If we can be assured that the people who congregate aren’t infectious, they can socialize.” While the World Health Organization and epidemiologists from around the globe say that widespread testing is the key to defeating COVID-19 and reopening commerce, Hoosier leaders seem to be saying that’s not going to happen. Of 6.85 million Hoosiers, only 3,356 Hoosiers had been tested by midnight Tuesday, while the death toll rose to 14 and the number of cases spiked to 477.  Now as the U.S. and Indiana populations steeply head up the pandemic curve, Indiana Health Commissioner Kristina Box said Tuesday, “I want to emphasize we’re still in the early parts of this outbreak. We will continue to see more cases. Every state is having to adapt daily as the situation changes. That includes how we investigate cases. Across the country states are finding the traditional approach to investigating cases and tracking every single contact of every person who tests positive is not sustainable." With the state’s capital city poised to join the ranks of American cities under siege from the coronavirus, as supplies from the federal government are coming in at just a fraction of our needs, the Holcomb administration acknowledged Tuesday afternoon it is relying on “homegrown” solutions.

  • MUNCIE — No individual human life is possessed of infinite value. At least, none of us actually behave as if it does. No matter how fully each of us wish to live, we inevitably take risks. We ride in automobiles, eat food prepared by unknown hands, trust in medicines and home appliances tested by scientists. At some point, nearly all of us take some risks to save another, care for or comfort a loved one, or volunteer for some public service that risks injury or death.  Economists have long worked to place a dollar value on individual human life. We do this so that we can better understand how rational people value their own lives and those of others. Some of that calculation is readily tractable. It is straightforward to estimate lifetime earnings or the contributions someone can make to their care of their family. Estimating the value that others place upon a life is harder. We acknowledge that companionship has value but is much harder to calculate than lifetime earnings. Of course, people don’t do mental mathematics this way anymore than a teenage gymnast on the uneven parallel bars solves differential equations in her head. Instead, we have social norms that help guide us. 
  • INDIANAPOLIS  — Do we live to support the economy or does the economy live to support us? Do we learn new skills to keep the economic engine humming? Or do we learn new skills to advance ourselves and our careers to the betterment of our families and futures? The answers to these questions, being debated in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, are beginning to fracture the Republican Party. On one side sits Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican in the high-risk age demographic, who lamented that he was not consulted before states imposed stay-at-home orders. “No one reached out to me and said, as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren? And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.”  He, like other Republicans, believes the economy is paramount. Public health is no reason to grind to a halt the wheels of economic growth, mobility and vitality. When given the choice, as we are seeing right now, Patrick’s preference would be to allow the market to operate unhindered and for businesses, and Americans, to choose their own adventure.  President Donald J. Trump, according to media reports, is similarly concerned about the stability of the markets and the ability of the economy to weather this storm. 
  • INDIANAPOLIS  —  The virus pandemic has disrupted our lives and, in many cases, done serious harm to our livelihoods. Working from home helps some, but not all workers can benefit. Without such serious disruption, we take commuting for granted. Most Hoosiers work and live in the same county, but there are many who cross county and state lines for work. In doing so, they move a lot of money. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, in 2018, workers in Indiana earned $220.6 billion. But not all of that appeared in their paychecks. They, and their employers, contributed $24.7 billion (11.2%) to federal government insurance programs (Social Security, Disability Insurance, Medicare, etc.) that provide our economic safety net. Thus, working for Hoosier businesses and governments netted $195.9 billion. Yet, as we know, “foreigners” from Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky come into our state and take home money earned here. Fortunately, Hoosiers also cross state lines and bring back money they earn in those “alien” lands.
  • SOUTH BEND  — Bernie Sanders still could win the presidential election. For Donald Trump. He did it before. He could do it again. Perhaps by the time you read this, Sanders will have suspended his campaign and endorsed Joe Biden. He should have if he is concerned about Democratic unity to defeat President Trump. Or is it all about Bernie? With the pandemic, it’s also an ethical imperative for Sanders to put ego aside and admit his race for the Democratic nomination has failed, thus allowing more people to stay away from the polls in remaining presidential primaries and reduce risk of coronavirus spread.
  • NASHVILLE, Ind. — It's been described as "the new normal." COVID-19 cases are exploding across the state, doubling between mid-week and this weekend, and now doubling again. The South Bend Tribune  reported that people are buying guns and ammo, and an Evansville State Police Post spokesman tweeted Sunday that the Indiana National Guard has been activated by Gov. Eric Holcomb for logistical help to get medical supplies to hospitals, and not to secure highways and borders. "The National Guard's mission is to aid our fellow Hoosiers and state agencies during this crisis," said Brig. Gen. R. Dale Lyles. "At Stout Field in Indianapolis, we are actively working with INDOT to assist with the distribution of critical medical equipment and supplies to those hospitals throughout the state with urgent needs. We are citizen soldiers and airmen and we are here to help during these trying times." Hoosiers are facing their greatest physical and economic threat since the Great Depression and on the most crucial aspect of this crisis – the availability of coronavirus testing that would allow health and policy executives to learn of the extent of the spread and contact trace those in a cluster – we are flying blind.

  • MUNCIE  — This is the third column I’ve written this week. The first two were overcome by fast changing events. So, I will surrender to the deadline and pen a few words about how to think about COVID-19 over the longer term. This should help us formulate and accept the challenges of the coming months.  We are in recession which will be very deep one. Before today, the single largest increase in unemployment came in September 1945, right after V-J Day.  That month we lost 1.9 million jobs. As of March 1, the U.S. had 2.66 million waiters and waitresses. Nearly all of them are now unemployed. The U.S. unemployment rate will double in two weeks, and rise to double digits by May. By June the unemployment rate will be higher than at any point since the Great Depression. From that point forward, things might get worse. It depends mostly on the path of this disease, and how we respond.  Some believe we are overreacting to the coronavirus. They may be right, but for the past several weeks, many epidemiologists across the globe have produced startling research about this disease. These aren’t people who read casually about it, but the men and women in university laboratories who will write the book on this disease. If you argue that we are over reacting, the world wants to see your epidemiological projections and cost estimates. If you don’t have any, follow Abraham Lincoln’s advice and remain silent.  

  • EVANSVILLE — Howey Politics Indiana has received questions from readers about the novel coronavirus. Here, we compile answers to your legal questions. Where does the power to quarantine and close businesses come from? For the most part, states have wide latitude under the 10th Amendment to protect public health. The federal government can make recommendations and offer suggested guidelines, but much more beyond that would be a stretch under the commerce clause. Most power for this rests with the states. Why does the governor have so much authority? All of the governor’s actions must first be approved by the legislature, but in virtually every state the legislature has delegated broad powers to the governor whenever he or she declares an emergency. (Congress has done the same for the president.)

  • KOKOMO – This column is dedicated to my Facebook friends and their friends. I’m writing it in response to the many ridiculous, clueless, heartless and just plain stupid posts that many of my friends have written over the past week. I call them Facebook friends, but in a real sense, they are merely acquaintances or friends of friends of friends. I have nearly 1,600 “friends” on Facebook but in reality, I’ve never met most of them.  Because of my political work and work as a columnist on, I receive a lot of friend requests. Normally, these “friends” are a good source for stories and scoops in the making. They are always interesting for entertainment purposes. They have great memes and funny jokes. But then along came the COVID-19 virus. I’m now giving strong consideration to pruning my Facebook tree way back because many of these people have turned just downright loony. The number of wild and wacky conspiracy theories, attacks on government officials and callous disregard for their fellow man has moved from just irritating to alarming. 
  • INDIANAPOLIS  — I didn’t title this column “Women at Work” because it suggests only women who are employed are working. At the same time, I don’t do what the Bureau of the Census has done in a recent graphic release: Provide you with only the most recent differentials between the earnings of men and women. Truth requires context. And the truth is, as it has been for ages, women earn less than men. In 2018, the most recent year available, the median earnings of women employed in all types of jobs, full-time, year-round, was 81.2% of men with the same employment profile. This figure is the most recent measure of the economic disparity between men and women employees. What we aren’t told is about a  two-point improvement in the relative earnings of women from 79.2% in the preceding five years. Nor do we see the deterioration of the relative earnings of African-American and Hispanic women vis-à-vis men of the same description
  • INDIANAPOLIS  — It’s inevitable.  Flu season comes around, and so do the standard recommendations: Wash your hands, and stay home if you develop symptoms. This year, health officials are doubling down on this advice as coronavirus cases emerge in the United States, including here in Indiana. That advice is much easier to follow if you have paid sick days. The United States is an outlier when it comes to paid leave. Nationally, policymakers have set no baseline standards for what employers should offer. And while some employers recognize that it is not to their benefit for sick employees to come to work for a variety of reasons – including that they are less productive and could infect fellow employees and clients – far too many still do not. According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data (2019), about one in four workers nationally, and as many as one in three workers in Indiana, do not earn paid sick days. Digging deeper, the statistics on who does and does not earn paid sick days becomes even more problematic. Fewer than half of workers in the lowest wage quartile – often, the people who care for children and the elderly, prepare food, or handle transactions at a cash register – lack the ability to earn paid sick days. When workers lack paid sick days, they are far more likely to go to work sick. In one Center for Disease Control study, nearly 60% of workers who prepare food reported going to work sick.
  • INDIANAPOLIS — This has become the whiplash era of American politics. The punditry class was chastened in 2016. Howey Politics Indiana put out a “blue tsunami warning” that June, only to see it swing wildly the other way resulting in Donald Trump’s stunning upset of Hillary Clinton. But Political Science 101 teaches us that no two election cycles are the same, particularly in consecutive fashion. Now think about where the 2020 presidential race was a month ago: President Trump was acquitted in the Senate impeachment trial and his approval approached the 50% mark that had eluded him for most of his first term. His reelection chances were greatly enhanced. Pete Buttigieg won the Iowa delegate battle, and came within a whisker of upsetting Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire. But Bernie’s win there ignited the notion that Trump’s risk of impeachment to slime Joe Biden had handsomely paid off, setting up his dream November showdown with an avowed Socialist. With Joe Biden’s apparent demise, Trump v. Sanders appeared to be a fait accompli. Since then, we’ve watched the coronavirus swarm across the globe and into the American psyche, shutting our society down for what looks to be a month or two. President Trump’s response has been abysmal, crystalized in his visit late last week to the Center for Disease Control where he asked, “Who would have thought? Who would have thought we would even be having the subject?” Ask Indiana Health Commissioner Kristina Box or Gov. Eric Holcomb if they had ever pondered a microbe-induced pandemic here.
  • MUNCIE  — The unfolding response to the Covid-19 disease is helpful in clarifying both the limits to government and the wisdom of our federal system. What most of us are now learning is that our most useful governments are local. The farther away government gets from us, the less useful it becomes in matters that directly affect our lives. This is not only a good lesson, but a fine fact of governance. Many of us look to the federal government for guidance in all matters of policy. In reality, the federal government is responsible for very little of the public sector’s influence on our lives. The events of the day should make it clear that this is a fortunate truth. While it is true there is a Center for Disease Control, most of the world’s experts on communicable diseases work in universities around the country. There are economists in the federal government who can help design policy responses, but most of the new ideas come from universities and think tanks dispersed around the nation. Our expertise on these critical issues is broad and diffuse. 
  • SOUTH BEND – Super Monday, not Super Tuesday, was when Pete Buttigieg had real impact on the presidential race. Mayor Pete’s eloquent endorsement of Joe Biden on the eve of crucial voting in 14 states was an important factor in helping to build momentum and to clear a winning path for what was indeed a super Tuesday for Biden. The former vice president won in 10 of those states, in some by landslides. And Biden’s highest of praise for Buttigieg on Monday, likening him to Biden’s late son Beau in terms of character, courage and intellect, enabled Buttigieg to end his candidacy in a super rather than disheartening way. That high praise also signaled bright future possibilities; Mayor Pete could become Secretary Pete, holding a key Cabinet post, if Biden wins the presidency. Monday was indeed a super day for Buttigieg as he closed out his improbable but impressive campaign at the right time.

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  • Pence says U.S. pandemic is 'comparable' to Italy
    “We think Italy may be the most comparable area to the United States at this point.” - Vice President Pence, to CNN on Wednesday, after he was asked how severe the COVID-19 pandemic will get in the United States. The pandemic has hit Italy the hardest to date.
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  • President Trump, Gov. Holcomb address the pandemic in their own words
    The COVID-19 pandemic is becoming the story of our time. As Sen. Todd Young explained, unlike the Great Recession of 2008-09 and the Oil Shock recession of 1979-82, what we are experiencing today is a double hammer: A pandemic and a severe economic panic. The Hoosier State is poised to go from a historic low 3.1% unemployment rate to double digits in the span of a month. At least one pandemic model says 2,400 Hoosiers will die.

    Tough times shift our attention to leadership. Here are quotes from President Trump and Gov. Eric Holcomb as the pandemic approached the U.S. and then impacted our nation and state.

    President Trump

    Jan. 22: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” – CNBC interview.

    Feb. 10: “Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” – New Hampshire rally.

    Feb. 24: “The coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. … Stock market starting to look very good to me!” – On Twitter.

    Feb. 25: “China is working very, very hard. I have spoken to President Xi, and they are working very hard. If you know anything about him, I think he will be in pretty good shape. I think that is a problem that is going to go away.”

    Feb. 26: “We’re going to be pretty soon at only five people. And we could be at just one or two people over the next short period of time. So we’ve had very good luck.” – At a White House news conference.
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