That is a sign on many British roads used to indicate a lane ending, a roundabout, or other change in traffic patterns. I have changed my priorities in this column. I intended to skip discussion of the pandemic this week: after all, I first wrote about it when it was just a rumor that the Chinese government was trying to censor, and I've followed it since.
You may recall that at the beginning, I was re-reading Thomas Mann's 1912 novella, "Death in Venice." The parallels were striking, as the Venetian government covered up a cholera epidemic that would negatively affect tourism. I wrote about how the Republican-controlled Senate refused to ratify the treaty that created the League of Nations, and the missed opportunity of a global health organization that might have reduced the era's catastrophic Spanish flu.
Last week I wrote about Donald Trump's germophobia and his repeated denial of science, so I was going to avoid the whole topic this week – but there's just too much that is noteworthy. Because the deadly virus has shown that it does not respect American exceptionalism, the Current Occupant of the White House is a bit less self-aggrandizing in the last few days -- but it's also well worth pointing out that that he continues to earn an F in economics.
Among his very first presidential orders was a build-up of petroleum reserves. His rambling argument asserted that this would make America energy independent again – as if that had anything to do with stopping the spread of deadly disease. I'm not sure that this particular spending priority actually has happened, but it was another example of his proclaim-first, think-later hubris. Or maybe he thought that talking about oil would get people to focus on the Middle East and maybe they would blame Muslims for the virus and economic collapse.
Or maybe the lack of follow-up on buying oil is because someone finally told him that the Obama administration made us energy independent several years ago. I'm sure that he never notices gas prices as he is chauffeured from place to place, but perhaps someone else was smart enough to point out that gas prices are the lowest in a very long time, and there is no demand for increased reserves. Or maybe he did know all of this and simply was pandering to Republican oilmen who want to drive up prices. In any case, it was another confusing example of his lack of understanding of both economic principles and the realities of ordinary life.
KINDS OF ISOLATION
I've been self-isolating since Hubby's hospitalization in early December. His basic problem is his respiratory system, so I'm very careful not to catch a cold or the flu. I cancelled holiday parties and haven't gone anywhere with more than a handful of people all winter. My days are limited to hospital and home, and thus adjustment to public closures has been easy on me.
It does make me aware of how important telephone, e-mail, and social media are to us shut-ins, and that may be the most noteworthy thing about this new quarantine. Unlike the past, we have lots of forms of communication and entertainment even if we are alone. We can watch movies at home instead of risking the theater; we can call for delivered food instead of sitting next to a cougher in a cafe; we even can buy most necessities online. We even can play online games with friends or with robots. Such "isolation" unlike anything the world ever has known.
Another change could be a major commercial reform, as many employers will come to realize that employees may be more productive away from the office than they are at work. This isn't always true -- as moms with kids banned from school well know – but it often is true, especially among men. They have long traditions of "networking" around the water cooler and "team building" with office betting pools. But long before those terms were invented, I noticed this productivity deficit.
In both the teaching and journalistic jobs that I had in my twenties, the guys spent a lot more time socializing at work than we women. Men in the teachers' lounge endlessly replayed games and argued politics; we women used the time to grade papers and prepare lessons, trying to get that out of the way before an evening of cooking, cleaning, and more. In the Massachusetts Catholic milieu where I taught, no man would think of doing such chores. That was even truer of the male executives at the Washington magazine where I worked previously.
I didn't notice this distinction so much at the time, though. It was when I researched my second book, American Women and World War II (1990) that I realized how differently most men and women think about time, especially in industrial settings. In general, men are motivated by the clock; women, by the task. It comes from the nature of housework and child care, which cannot be measured in time. Women in defense factories were task-oriented; they were there to rivet this ship, paint this plane, fill this shell with ammunition, and most simply wanted to win the war and go home. Men wanted to win the war, too, but they knew they would be going to work for the rest of their lives. Women often thought men were lazy, and men often thought that women were too willing to please management.
Being wary of management came, in part, because of "homework." After the development of the factory system in the early 19th century, some industries returned to the past by employing women and children in this exploitive work methodology. I wrote about that in my first book, Foreign and Female: Immigrant Women in America (1986). Often immigrants, they worked at home on many tasks. They did everything from picking nuts for candy makers to sewing buttons on garments to tatting lace.
Working in isolation, without any awareness of unions and labor laws, they put in very long days and nights and earned a pittance. Mandatory school attendance and bans on child labor were factors in ending such exploitation, but public health also was important. Studies showed that outbreaks of tuberculosis and other infectious diseases could be traced to workers, often children, whose hands held germs.
More than a century later, it will be interesting to see the economic effects of the new millions who will be working from home. I'll bet there are thousands of business majors right now accumulating data and trying to predict the impact. I'm betting on the positive: released from the 9-to-5 grind, I expect that many workers will demonstrate at least as much diligence and creativity as at the office.
The social effects should be entirely positive. With more flexibility, we can expect more civic engagement; fewer cars on the road, resulting in cleaner air; even less crime, as criminals avoid occupied homes. We can make use of the 24 hours and seven days a week that we all have, instead using most of our resources in a third of that time frame. But we have to be much more careful about who occupies the White House and the Senate.
"IT'S A TRAP'
To return to the beginning, a second Trump proposal, right after buying up oil, was to cut the payroll tax by 6.2% for the rest of the year. Sounds good, doesn't it? Everyone pays that, so everyone would get a cut. But let's think a minute. I'm going to make it easy on myself and quote directly from Michael Phlelan of Social Security Works, complete with his bolding:
"Instead of paying into our Social Security system on 6.2% of your first $137,700 in wages, and having your employer match that, nothing would go into Social Security and your employer keeps the money that was budgeted for your benefit…
"The savings would not amount to a significant sum for most workers, but it would be a massive handout to corporate employers, who get to keep 6.2% of the salaries of hundreds of employees.
"Worse, this cut would only apply to salaried workers, or hourly workers who are continuing to show up to work despite the pandemic. It wouldn't do anything for tipped workers, employees who lose shifts because of the economic slowdown, or people who lose their jobs entirely. So the most vulnerable people literally would not get one penny.
Not only is this bad policy, it also sets up a trap that endangers our Social Security system… The December 31 expiration of this cut would appear to workers as a steep tax hike after eight months of zero payments. If Trump is reelected in November, he will look to make the cut permanent. Or, alternatively, Republicans will say that the first act of the new president was a 12% tax increase."
Clever, huh? I still believe that he is as dumb as he looks, but he does have some very sneaky advisors. And to my surprise, I still have corona-related topics to cover next week.