By Kumar David –
I arrived in the US yesterday 15 Dec 2020 from Hong Kong to a very different scenario from the latter and of course from Sri Lanka where I had been up to October under full or partial lockdown. No denying the pandemic is ravaging the US; tens of thousands are infected every day, thousands dying. New cases last week averaged about 250,000 a day, and each day nearly 3000 die. The light at the end of the tunnel is mass vaccination and it is thought that by the end of March 2021 it will be possible to administer up to 50 million people both doses and half the population by the middle of next year.
These rates sound terrifying for Sri Lanka with only (!) 35,000 cases and 160 deaths now (total cases to date per head of population, 30 times lower than US) but people here are gaming the system in preposterous ways. Amazon and other mail-order sellers are breaking all records; UPS, the US Post Office and FedEx are struggling to cope with delivery, there is a consumer splurge and home improvements and additions are in full swing. What’s the secret? Unemployment benefits and covid-relief funds have put a lot of money in some pockets, many are confined are at least technically confined to their homes; bars and restaurants are shuttered or closed restricted; domestic conflict is not enough diversion though assaults on elders, women and children is on the rise. Here are some examples of easier fund flows. Unemployment benefits for those who have lost their jobs – and they are many – is 70% of previous pay. If this benefit is say $500 per person per week then a household of two working people will be eligible for $4000 per month and this has been going on for months. Although at one point covid drove nearly 40,000 million Americans away from their jobs cash payed out fell by a mere 30% and people had little to do but sit at home, drink, fight and watch TV. Why not shop online?
Billions of dollars in addition went to businesses that could make out a case that they had fallen on hard times and promised not to fire employees. Don’t laugh but the LA Lakers a basketball team won a $4.6 million loan. Here is how the networks reported it “The Lakers, one of the NBA’s most profitable franchises, applied for relief through the Small Business Pay-check Protection Program, and were among companies and non-profits granted loans. But after a public outcry and reports that several large or highly capitalized entities were securing aid from the programme’s initial $349 billion pool, while hundreds of thousands of smaller businesses had to shut, the Lakers said they returned the money”. Very noble! Shake Shack a specialty burger chain with a market capitalization of $2 billion received a $10 million. AutoNation, a Fortune 500 auto retailer received $77 million. These hand-outs were first designated as loans but later completely forgiven. Actually most the money went to medium, big and bigger businesses not American workers or the middleclass.
California paid $21,000 in fraudulent claims filed under the name of Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The woman who filed the claim filed more than 100 fraudulent claims for $2 million. A former State worker was charged with conspiring with her boyfriend who is in prison for murder to obtain hundreds of thousands of dollars in unemployment benefits. A woman on parole from state prison filed fraudulent claims for more than $200,000. Bank of America estimated it had paid at least $2 billion in fraudulent claims while 700,000 claims remain backlogged. This is only a savouring, the list is long.
School reopening has become California’s biggest political battle between two allies, teachers unions Democratic politicians; Unions opposed a bill by Democratic lawmakers to force schools to reopen in March 2021. They say. “We ask that science and community safety, not political pressure, be the guiding force in discussions about reopening our schools to in-person instruction.” Several recent court rulings have called into question California’s “shelter-in-place” restrictions, raising the possibility that limitations on outdoor dining and other businesses may not survive while other people are demanding stricter shutdowns, pointing to a sustained surge in hospitalisations and a record number of deaths.
I have also observed that respect for covid protection common-sense is very lax. Nothing can be mandated because this is the land of the free – Hallelujah! Some people wear masks and maintain social distancing but most or about half don’t. That looney Trump made defiance of masks, social distancing and mocking scientists warning of the consequences, a fashion among his supporters. I have neighbours on both sides who are convinced that corona is a hoax, that there is no unnatural spike in the death rate and the whole story is manufactured by the pharmaceutical industry. The Trump, a motley section of the Republican Party beholden to him and irrational populist goons are milling for a showdown to stop the induction of Biden as president on 20 January 2021. There will be more drama in the next 30 days but to abort Biden’s swearing in is now impossible. What is the fate of the Republican Party after that? What will be its internal dynamics?
Don’t overlook that the Republican Party won the elections. It increased its representation in the House, added a few Senators and did well in State Governorships and Legislatures. It was at the presidential hurdle that it stumbled and that to not all that badly – its candidate polled over 74 million votes. The GOP still retains considerable trouble making punch. The Trump Base may hold a trump-hand (sic!) in the choice of Republican candidates for the next (2022) elections for the House of Representatives and nominations for the one-third of Senate slots coming up for election. Will these disruptors, on the boss’s instructions, defeat non-Trump loyalists at the Primaries? Will there be two categories of GOP candidates at the hustings? Will that play into the hands of the Democrats? The bottom line is this; does the Trump phenomenon signal an open and irreconcilable split in the Republican Party? I do not see how elitist upper-classes, traditional, religious and educated Republicans plus big business can share a bed with rabble from the gutter. Formal leadership of the party will have to go to one or the other. Be sure the Base will not move over and hand leadership back to the “swamp”, so traditional may have to split and create a new mouthpiece?
Liberalism has lost its gloss. If neo-liberalism saw off European Communism, now neo-fascist right-wing populism is nailing down liberalism’s coffin. I say this with trepidation because populist neo-fascism is the far worse option. The basic values of liberalism such as equality before the law, freedom of speech and democratic and human rights are worthy principles. However, much prized liberty and equality before the law came, since the time of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) liberalism’s most influential thinker, bundled with free-markets and with capitalism as the best of all possible systems. This bundle has broken asunder and the surge in neo-fascist populism, the Trump phenomenon included, is evidence that it has come unstuck. Biden has put together a progressive liberal team representing all shades of America but unless the team is prepared to go well beyond classical liberal mantras and take on radical measures it will not succeed in stemming a second stage of neo-fascism. If democracy were to fall in America, as sure as night follows day in short-order it will fall all over the world.
Complicating this is Trump’s money raising. In the guise of a fund to fight Biden’s “electoral fraud” he has launched a fighting fund. More than $200 million has been amassed so far. He is not accountable to anyone how he uses the money. Knowing the man, we can be sure that most of it will be stolen by the recipient who has never declared his tax returns and has been all but convicted of felonies – he made settlements and paid off opponents – several times. Politics aside therefore there Trump has a strong financial incentive for dragging on conflict. Hitler and Mussolini were out for power clear and simple. This man has no ideology, he is a mentally disturbed narcissistic incubus, but he is also a crook. Given his hold on Party and Base and fear he has instilled in chicken-livered Senators and Congressmen, it won’t be easy for the Republicans to thwart a split.