Column: A confluence of crises

Column: A confluence of crises

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Don Wooten

We are caught in a perfect storm, a confluence of crises. A pandemic sweeps the country even as we are in the middle of the most consequential national election since the Civil War. That’s not an overstatement. The future of our democracy is on the line; the economy is in free fall, while our lives are at risk from a disease we don’t completely understand. And, looming behind it all, a climate crisis almost out of control, which makes everything else trivial.

By now, you have heard all the news you can handle on the coronavirus pandemic. The death rate varies across the world, but in Italy, it has resulted in the deaths of 5% of known cases. That is a fearsome number. Who knows where we will land?

President Trump’s stunning turnaround from dismissing or downplaying the epidemic to a full-out rush to deal with it comes two months too late, but at least we will finally respond as a nation instead of relying on the state-by-state response we have had from several governors.

We are throwing money at it, and I only hope it is properly and quickly directed to those in real need. The House took action first and their bill finally got past the Senate and the president. Now lawmakers are shaping a monster appropriation bill, which is to further help and, I fear, slide a lot of cash to a favored few who are lobbying for the lion’s share. That, unfortunately, is the way politics works.

What is frustrating is that we have behaved improvidently over the past three years. The huge tax cut that is the major trophy of Trump’s administration was a waste. Corporations used the windfall to buy back stock, driving up its value, thus enriching executives and investors. It made barely a blip in the job market, although it was touted as a job creator.

What it accomplished was to increase the debt by $1 trillion. The new appropriations will double that debt, but we have no other option. Fortunately, the interest rate now hovers just above zero, so the risk is worth taking.

The focus should be relentlessly on wage earners, primarily those who are barely getting by in the gig economy (waitresses, fast food employees, etc.). I can understand gifts to hotels: Trump’s have suffered steady declines in guests over the past two years. (It always pays to give the boss "a taste.")

Airlines squandered their windfalls during a time of incredible earnings. Give them only loans and condition them on reductions in baggage charges and increases in leg room. As if. In these large, fast-moving appropriation bills, things can quickly go from virtuous to sordid.

It’s interesting to look ahead, not only to our prospects of getting through the pandemic without massive loss of life and considerable suffering, but how it plays out politically.

When Trump appointed Vice President Mike Pence to head up a cobbled coalition to deal with covid-19, I had the uncharitable thought that it was to set him up. It gave the president someone to blame if it went badly — and up until last week, that was the case. Trump would like to have a reasonable excuse for dumping Pence in favor on Nikki Haley, someone who might help him woo suburban women and counter Joe Biden’s pledge to pick a female vice president. Let’s keep an eye on this.

By suddenly taking over, invoking the Defense Production Act, and declaring himself "a wartime president," Trump not only did the right thing but something also politically shrewd. This may enable him to belie his lack of attention and action for the first two months of the developing pandemic. Also, his dismantling of the White House’s National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, which was Obama’s move to get a head start on a  threat anywhere in the world.

This turnaround and the checks that are going in the mail may help blot out Trump’s many mistakes and his ineffectiveness in office. Advertisers will tell you that the public’s memory is only six months old. And the election is seven months away.

Meanwhile, global warming continues unabated.

Don Wooten, of Rock Island, is a longtime broadcaster and former Illinois state senator; donwooten29@gmail.com

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