Monthly Archives: March 2020

Forget Debates


On Wednesday, POLITICO.COM was among the first news outlets to report the Trump administration ignored a “pandemic playbook” (above) created by the National Security Council in 2016 (when you-know-who was a real president).  Excerpts from the document include:

Each section of this playbook includes specific questions that should be asked and decisions that should be made at multiple levels.

The U.S. government will use all powers at its disposal to prevent, slow or mitigate the spread of an emerging infectious disease threat.

Early coordination of risk communications through a single federal spokesperson is critical.

The consequences, in terms of the nation’s health and economic well-being, of this failure to “read the manual” are already evident.  The political impact will be determined on November 3rd.  But it is not too early to learn from the experience.

In previous entries I have made the point presidential debates are a waste of time.  First of all, because debating skills are not a valid prerequisite in the job description (unlike Great Britain where the prime minister must often defend his or her actions in Parliament).  For an American president, critical thinking and problem solving are at the top of the essential abilities list.

Second, debates are hypothetical and speculative by nature.  Imagine a Trump/Biden debate during which the moderator asks, “What would you do differently in the event of the next pandemic?”  Trump, of course, would reply, “Nothing different.  Our response this last time was PERFECT!”  And what would Biden say?  “I would follow the 69 page NSC Playbook.”  Of course, Trump would interrupt and claim that is exactly what he did. [NOTE:  I understand Vegas sports books, lacking real athletic events to bet on, are establishing odds which will be higher at the end of the current administration, Trump lies or U.S. COVID-19 fatalities.  Too soon?]

Okay.  Both candidates claim they would use the playbook.  However, before I turn over the keys to the Oval Office to either candidate, I would like more evidence.  Therefore, instead of a presidential debate, I recommend the following.  Divide the stage in half with a floor to ceiling partition.  Give each candidate the same assemble-it-yourself IKEA product, e.g. an entertainment center.  The winner is the candidate who completes the task in the least amount of time with penalties for unused pieces or personal injuries.  If nothing else, from the current experience, we know we cannot afford four more years of national leadership which looks like:

9 Tips for Buying and Putting Together IKEA Furniture

For what it’s worth.


It’s Time


This morning, the Washington Post is reporting Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders plans to stay in the race for the Democratic Party nomination through the New York primary, scheduled for April 28, but likely to be postponed.  Sanders’ surrogates also say he will participate in the next debate though none is currently planned by the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

Conventional wisdom says Democrats should not be pushing Bernie to drop out of the race.  Give him time to come to his own decision.  Conventional wisdom, as we know, is not always right.  This may be one of those cases.  It is time for Joe Biden, the DNC, Democratic senators, representatives, governors and mayors to inform the INDEPENDENT senator he has a choice.  Endorse Joe Biden so the party can get on with the task of making sure Donald Trump vacates the White House.  Or you are no longer welcome to use the Democratic Party mechanism to promote your revolution.

  • It is time because there is enough empirical evidence, i.e. primary results, to know that an overwhelming majority of Democratic voters do not favor a Bernie-style revolution.
  • It is time because the more desperate his campaign becomes, the more he begins to sound like like a left-wing version of Trump, attacking the party establishment and the media for his lack of success.
  • It is time because, again like Trump, he believes the Twitter-verse and rally size are representative of the nation’s preferences.
  • It is time because, once more like Trump, he has only campaigned for Democratic congressional candidates who agree with his agenda.  To my knowledge, he has not had one joint appearance with the Democratic incumbent in a 2018 flipped district on which Nancy Pelosi’s speakership will again depend in November.
  • It is time because, need I say it again, like Trump, the only reason for staying on the stage is to stroke his ego, not to, as he says, keep alive the debate over the issues.

On this last point, Post columnist Jennifer Rubin writes:

The notion that Sanders is there to “discuss” the issues is preposterous given that the only issue right now is the coronavirus. Moreover, that was his excuse for staying in for the debate on March 15, two days before he was crushed in Illinois, Arizona and Florida. Haven’t we discussed the issues for over a year and through 11 debates.

Add inability to accept reality as one more Trump-like behavior Sanders now exhibits.

Which brings me to my last point.  If Sanders continues on his present course, it is time to tell him to take his ball and go home.  (Yes, I know this is trite, but it is all I could come up with because I know my wife would not have been pleased if I had written, “It is time to tell Bernie to go f*** himself.”)  What’s more, the Democratic leadership has an opportunity to again demonstrate the difference between themselves and the Trumpists in the Senate.  There are consequences for being a jerk. Chuck Schumer should strip Sanders of all his committee assignments.  Let him go to the leader of the Revolution Party to get his assignments.  Sanders should not be allowed to stand along side Democratic senators at press briefings.  The next time Sanders appears at a Democratic event it should be to endorse Biden and talk about how he is going to work for Biden’s election.  [NOTE:  If Mitch McConnell could get his head out of his shell, he would have done the same with Rand Paul.]

And sure, conventional wisdom suggests this approach would depress the youth vote for Biden and guarantee a Trump second term.  Right, the same youth vote that was going to carry Sanders to the nomination.  NOT!  And young Americans need a better reason to vote for Biden than “Bernie told me to.”  I trust Biden, as he did yesterday, can make his own case that the future for anyone under 45 years old will be much brighter under his stewardship than four more years of lies, slogans and gross incompetence.

Enough of the preliminaries.  It’s time for the main event.

For what it’s worth.


War and Piece

The crash is also estimated to knock out about half of all shale producers, according to analysts at Raymond James Inc., if prices remain at between $20 and $30 per barrel. (The price as of midday Monday was $22.73 per barrel by the standard West Texas Intermediate benchmark.) A price at that level would cost thousands of jobs and deal a serious blow to the vision of U.S. energy independence.

~Ben Lefebvre/POLITICO.COM

If not for the more pressing health crisis and its impacts on the U.S. economy, the lead story on every business news outlet would be the collapse of oil prices.  The decline in domestic production reported by Lefebvre comes with some important lessons.  Premiere among these,  American oil independence is an illusion, at the mercy of other players in the market, especially Saudi Arabia.  Economic and political stability in many middle eastern, oil-rich countries depends on a steady flow of revenues to provide public benefits to the general population.  And as long as demand remained high, the Saudis did not need to dominate the market, an opportunity for others to join the market at a price point per barrel which made investment in additional capacity profitable.

But a decrease in demand requires the Saudis to recapture a larger share of the market as evidenced by the announcement they plan to increase production to a record 12.3 billion barrels per day beginning in April, an approximate 33 percent increase over current levels.  Why?  Because they can.  They have both the capacity and the cash reserves to wage a successful price war.

If American oil producers did not see this coming, it is their own fault for failing to learn the same lesson from the 1979 energy crisis.  Triggered by the Iranian Revolution, a decline in global oil production resulted in higher prices and spot shortages around the world.  Consistent with the principle of supply and demand, a barrel of oil, selling at a premium, represented an incentive for new entrants in the markets and made a shift to alternative sources economically feasible for the first time.  It was this factor which nurtured the growth of the shale oil sector with several federally subsidized pilot projects in the Mountain States, especially Colorado and Utah.

That is, until Saudi Arabia decided U.S.-based shale oil production represented a threat to their share of the global energy market.  At which point, the Saudis slashed the price per barrel and flooded the market.  Within five years, almost all of the new drilling companies declared bankruptcy and the shale projects vanished, unable to compete with cheap Saudi oil.

At the time, I had one of the worse jobs in America, deputy director of the Texas Economic Development Community.  The Lone Star State was now the epicenter of a perfect economic storm.  Oil prices had collapsed.   Banks were reeling from the savings and loan scandal.  Housing values were under water.  And commerce with Mexico was at a standstill as the peso went south (pun intended).   [HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE:  On the bright side, these events resulted in a long-overdue diversification of the state economy.  Resources which had always gone to the oil industry were diverted to attract technology companies such as Cypress Semiconductor and Apple.]

Image result for whartonIn 1986, I attended a breakfast with representatives of the Texas oil industry.  The opening presentation was made by Robert Bass of Bass Brothers Enterprises, Inc., the largest independently owned oil company in the state.  In what might have seemed like a satirical commentary on the times, Bass suggested the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania was to blame for the disintegration of the state’s oil industry.  He told us how classrooms were filled with the offspring of Arab oil Sheikhs, where they were introduced to concepts such a price wars and market domination.  Thirty three years later, I can only paraphrase his warning, “Any time the Saudis feel their position in the global market is threatened by newcomers or alternative sources of energy, they will cut the price of oil below ten dollars a barrel for as long as it takes to wipe out the competition.”

So, when Donald Trump, as he surely will, claims that no one saw this precipitous decline in U.S. oil production coming, just remember he was probably sitting in one of those same classrooms.  And while his Arab colleagues focused on how to stage a price WAR, young donny was more concerned with how he might get a PIECE of the action.  Or as a visitor to the Rostov home observed in Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel about the French invasion of Russia, “Everything depends on upbringing.”

For what it’s worth.


Mental Distancing


It has been 12 days since the last post, but it is not for lack of effort.  There are several half-finished drafts of entries ranging from the illusion of U.S. oil independence to the inadequacy of the Hatch Act (restrictions on political activity by federal officials) to loss of another close friend.  The one thing I have made no effort to write about is the current health crisis.  Why?  Because I do not want to waste your time pontificating about something about which I know little or cannot add value to the conversation.  (Donald Trump, are you listening?)  Perhaps it is a corollary to Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer.”

Dr. ESP’s Brevity Prayer

Grant me the time and clarity to opine on topics about which I actually know something,
the humility to step aside to make room when there are others who know more than I do,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Useful, but it did not explain my inability, for almost two weeks, to replicate the routine by which I could previously wake up, grab a mug of coffee, check the news, then sit down at the keyboard and knock out a new post in a couple of hours.  The topics were there.  What I was missing were the metaphors and connections between seemingly unrelated information that provided lucidity and insight or a different perspective on the subject du jour.

The answer came yesterday during a “just checking in” phone call to a cousin.  During the conversation, he mentioned how he had not been able to do crossword puzzles, something he would enjoy while practicing social distancing.  There it was.  Not only was the health crisis depriving us all of things we liked to do in groups, e.g. go to dinner with friends or go to concerts, it also had the capacity to rob us of the things we enjoy doing alone.  My problem was not writer’s block, it was total mental block.

In my book ImagineIt!,  I start the chapter about the physiology of creativity, titled “Your Creative Hardware,” with a quote from the late Erma Bombeck.

I have a theory about the human mind. A brain is a lot like a computer. It will only take so many facts, and then it will go on overload and blow up.

In hindsight, that was the case with my most recent blogging sessions.  Previously, when I was focused on the topic at hand, every keyboard stroke created an untraveled road map with many paths.  Each word or phrase was not an end, but a beginning of the next leg of a journey of discovery.  If I follow that thought, where might it take me?  What if I abide by Robert Frost’s recommendation and take the “road less traveled,” eschewing conventional wisdom for the counter-intuitive option?

It was now clear that even if the coronavirus had not infected my body, it had invaded my mind. To pick up on the road map metaphor, before I had a chance to get back on the highway, I had the urge to pull over and make sure everything else was okay.  Was there enough food in the house?  Had I contacted everyone who needed an update on a postponed activity?  Was my slight cough just the usual pollen allergy or something more serious?  As my brain overloaded, per Erma Bombeck, I stepped away from the car and never completed my quest.

But as we are more than aware from our experience with COVID-19, making the potential victims aware of the danger and expecting them to do everything they can to avoid contamination are two different things. And compared to what it takes to inoculate oneself from the mental effects of this pandemic, physical distancing is a six-feet-apart walk in the park.

On occasion in my Imagination and Entrepreneurship class at Miami University, I would ask my students to close their eyes and think about nothing for five minutes.  The goal was to get the class to leave everything else outside the room.  And as they practiced and became more proficient at the art of not thinking, the realized it was about personal control.  While they could not determine every aspect of their life, the could regulate the extent to which certain responsibilities or obligations invaded their personal time.

So, when you find yourself unable to focus on a task, even if it as inconsequential as reading a trashy novel, finishing a jigsaw puzzle or enjoying a movie, take a few minutes to check the mental distance between yourself and what’s happening around you.  Unlike social (aka physical) distancing, you are not dependent on anyone else’s cooperation.  It is solely between you and your own mind.

For what it’s worth.




I am a member of an organized political party.  I’m a Democrat!

~Dr. ESP

I never thought I would be saying anything like the above.  For months I have criticized, and even mocked, the leadership of the Democratic Party.  And rightfully so.  What I failed to realize, the real leadership of my party is not ensconced in chair Tom Perez or the staff of the Democratic National Committee.  Instead,  when called upon in a national crisis, the leadership resides with elected officials and the registered voters.  All one needs do is look at two events over the past 12 days during which these de facto leaders demonstrated there is a time for political fun and games and there is a time to get serious.

The first was the coalescing  around former vice-president Joe Biden as the presumptive nominee to take on Donald Trump this fall.  In just four days, multiple contenders realized there were two options. Continuing to run for the presidency would distribute votes among several alternatives.  And by doing so, they would deliver the nomination to a candidate who has the support of approximately 35 percent of primary voters.  As soon as the Super Tuesday results came in, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Andrew Yang and Mike Bloomberg, all of whom sought to be the leader of the free world, demonstrated why any one of them is more qualified than the incumbent to hold that title.

If the situation on the Wednesday after Super Tuesday sounds familiar, just imagine if Republican candidates in 2016 had shown half the discipline of their 2020 Democratic counterparts.  Donald Trump would be on the 26th floor of Trump Tower plotting his next scam business venture.  There is still the likelihood Hillary Clinton would not become the first female president.  However, John Kasich or even Ted Cruz would be a quantum improvement over what we have now.  Sadly, there was no adult in the room who said, “We know Donald Trump will destroy the Republican Party.  What is it going to take to make sure that does not happen?”

And once the Democratic candidates set the stage, the voters took over.  Even Bernie Sanders admitted he was losing the electability contest when he related how many potential supporters had told him, “We like your positions on the issues.  But we’re voting for Biden.”  That is a rational and disciplined decision.  The issues will be there in the days and years to come.  There is only one chance to deny Trump four more years in the White House.  Voters understand it and are sending a clear message to Sanders and others who do not.

The second example of competence is another contrast between my party and the Trumpists who dominate the former Republic Party.  Instead of labeling the current health crisis a “media hoax” or shackling experts who understood the potential disaster and what could be done to ameliorate it, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pulled the Democratic congressional leaders together to draft the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.  Last night she unveiled the 124 page document and called for a House vote within 24 hours.

The Trumpists could not draft a coherent 11 minute address to the nation.  And the next 24 hours have been spent clarifying Trump’s words and worrying whether an expansion of Medicaid to cover treatment for poor families might be used for abortions.  I may be wrong, but I would be surprised if those senior citizens most at risk during the pandemic are worried if the government is going to pay for them to terminate a pregnancy.

Winston Churchill is credited as being the first person to declare, “Never waste a good crisis.”  Never were those words more true.  But for what purpose.  Democrats are using the coronavirus pandemic to remind Americans that governing matters.  That compassion and empathy at the highest levels of government matter.  That competence matters.  The Trumpists?  One more opportunity to dog whistle their base and bail out their donors.

Maybe that’s not as unimaginable as it seems.

For what it’s worth.