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It’s NOT the Economy, Stupid!

Trump’s Former Chief of Staff Speaks Out

By Shlomo Maital    

Mick Mulvaney, former Trump Chief of Staff

“It’s the economy, stupid” is a phrase coined by James Carville in 1992. Carville was a strategist in Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign against George H. W. Bush. His phrase was aimed at campaign workers. Carville wanted it to be one of three messages for them to focus on. The other two were boring and not worth mentioning.

     Clinton used the 1991/2 recession in the United States to successfully defeat George H. W. Bush.

     Fast forward. President Trump pushes prematurely to open schools and get the economy restarted. A massive second wave of coronavirus occurs. And his former Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, speaks out against him, in a CNBC Op-Ed. Here is what Mulvaney, until very recently privy to the innermost circles of the Trump administration, said today:

   “….lawmakers still see the need to run the [money] presses, they need to realize that the current economic crisis is public-health driven. As such, using ordinary fiscal tools might not be particularly efficacious. Put another way, the fact that people aren’t going on vacation probably has more to do with fear of getting sick than it does with their economic condition. Giving people a check, or some financial incentive to travel, won’t solve their problem. Make people feel safe to go back on an airplane or cruise ship, and they will of their own accord.   Any stimulus should be directed at the root cause of our recession: dealing with Covid. I know it isn’t popular to talk about in some Republican circles, but we still have a testing problem in this country.”

     Yes, you got it. It is NOT the economy, Stupid. (Mulvaney did not say ‘stupid’). If you don’t gain control of the pandemic, you will not be able to restart the economy, schools or no schools. It’s that simple. It is the VIRUS, Stupid!   People won’t spend until you get control of it. And personal consumption is 70% of GDP, or $13 trillion, in 2019 (pre-pandemic).  

     Government programs can spill massive amounts of money into the economy, including IRS checks sent to dead people. But they can’t come close to what people spend, when and if they are comfortable, confident and reassured. So, it is NOT the economy, it is the public health crisis. Tackle that first!  

     It’s that simple. Trump’s inability to understand that will cost him a heavy defeat on Nov. 3 – but it will cost the American people far more, until Biden is inaugurated on Wednesday, January 20, 2021. That’s 190 days away! More than half a year. A lot of people are going to get sick, and some will die, during those six months.

 Very very sad. Very very troubling. Very very angering.





Pooled Testing for COVID-19: Africa Leads!

By Shlomo Maital

One of my favorite quotes is by former Curitiba, Brazil mayor Jaime Levin: “if you want real creativity, known a few zero’s off your budget”.

   COVID-19 testing is very expensive, and African countries have very limited budgets. Solution? Pooling. Pool the samples, say 10 at a time. See if the coronavirus is present. If so, go back and check which sample was positive.   The logic: Infection rates are, say, 1%, 3%, 5% …and in very very hot spots, 25-30%. At worst, 1 in 3. So, in low-infection-rate countries, checking every sample means searching for a 1-in-100 needle in the haystack. Time consuming (and time is of the essence), and very expensive.

     This idea — pooling —  is currently NOT widely used in the US. Even though the top expert, Dr. Fauci, now advocates it, and as US numbers reach record levels, 60,000 cases a day, and as tests are again becoming in short supply:

   “Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently announced that health officials are considering pooled testing for COVID-19 in response to the recent surge.”

   Dr. Fauci:   Ghana is way ahead of you. America can learn from Ghana:

   “When the first batch of specimens came for testing, in early March, the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research (NMIMR) was the only facility capable of testing for COVID-19 in Ghana. Moreover, it had a very limited supply of test kits.   Faced with the harsh reality, scientists decided to exploit a standard testing methodology in which individual specimens are combined into pools and tested. When a pool tests positive, then each individual specimen of that particular pool is tested. The NMIMR started with a pool size of fives, which was later increased to ten as the testing needs and the understanding of test sensitivity parameters improved.”

   So let’s be clear. Ghana has been doing pooling of tests since early March.  Rwanda, too.  The US is now considering it.

   America – open your windows. There are very clever people, outside your borders.  Maybe, the Trump administration should stop trying to keep foreigners out, or kick them out if they’re in, and listen to their ideas…..  and President Trump?  What was that profanity you used, to describe African nations?  Shxxxholes? 

How Chinese Kids Return to School

By Shlomo Maital

US President Donald J. Trump wants American schools to open – now! He rejects the CDC guidelines to schools as expensive and burdensome. (For once, CDC refused to rewrite them, as he ordered). He offers no aid to schools, already facing huge deficits, for the costs of safely opening.

   It is unthinkable for the US to learn from other countries – how can the greatest nation in the world learn anything from, say, Canada, Finland, Taiwan, Singapore, and, heaven forbid, China?!   But in the unlikely event anyone in the US is listening – here is how the Chinese re-open their schools: *   And keep in mind:  China’s GDP per capita is $10,000,  one-sixth that of the US ($62,000).

  • Children enter the school one by one. Their hands are disinfected; their bodies; and the soles of their shoes.
  • They have partitions between each desk. They practice social distancing.
  • And they wear masks. Including small children.
  •    They disinfect again when they leave school – completely.    Let’s face it. China is a rule-making society.   Long before the Communist Party, China’s culture focused on ‘the greater good’ — collective responsibility. My friends in Asia simply cannot understand why Americans rebel against wearing masks, as an invasion of freedom.      Schools    should be re-opened. Kids need the social contact, more even than the knowledge. But it has to be done right. Israel did it – wrong. And we are now third in the world for new cases (as % of population).
  •      There is a simple point to be understood. You cannot save jobs, save the economy, restart the economy, while the novel coronavirus is raging. This will kill people. You have to support those who have lost all their income, restart very very cautiously, phase by phase, and first largely conquer the virus before you declare the economy open. IF you don’t, you get a second, third, fourth wave… and if we have a new wave on top of the Fall flu, which in Israel floods hospitals and puts people on beds in corridors – the bad news we have today will seem like a picnic in September. If you open schools stupidly, you will pay a very heavy price.  We in Israel already are.


  •    America is a rule-breaking society. Proof? The gun laws, which allow automatic weapons.   This has proved to be literally fatal, during the pandemic, when one rule-breaker can be a super-spreader. And basically, the POTUS, President of the United States, is metaphorically a super-spreader, denigrating masks, and spreading false optimism.                                            Burdensome? Impractical?   What in the world is so difficult, about making many thousands of plexiglass partitions, between school desks? Burger chain Shake Shack got $10 million in US emergency aid – the furor that resulted made them give it back, because, they did not need it in the least. Why can’t schools get the same deal that Shake Shack gets?

Famine After Virus

By Shlomo Maital

   The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are figures in Christian faith, appearing in the New Testament’s final book, Revelation, an apocalypse written by John of Patmos, as well as in the Old Testament’s prophetic Book of Zechariah, and in the Book of Ezekiel, where they are named as punishments from God. They are Pestilence, Famine, War and Death.

   We are currently confronting Pestilence. And that’s bad enough, right? But now, Oxfam, the global organization that confronts hunger, warns that Famine is on the way and it may be worse.

   Here is the Oxfam report, issued today.

     “More people could die from hunger linked to coronavirus than from the respiratory disease itself, Oxfam has warned.   In a report, entitled The Hunger Virus, the charity cautions an estimated 122 million more people could be pushed to the brink of starvation this year as a result of the social and economic fallout from the pandemic including through mass unemployment, disruption to food production and supplies, and declining aid.   This equates to as many as 12,000 people dying every day, Oxfam warned, 2,000 extra fatalities per day than when the virus was at its peak in April 2020.”

   And shockingly, while this is ongoing, capitalism is pouring fuel on the famine fire:

   “The report also said that eight of the world’s biggest food and beverage companies, including Coca Cola, Unilever and Nestle paid out £14.3 billion ($18 billion) to shareholders as new global epicentres of hunger emerge. The pay-outs by the companies are 10 times more than what was requested in the UN’s Covid-19 appeal to stop people from going hungry, Oxfam said.”

   There HAS to be a plan to confront famine and hunger, at the same time we are working to confront the novel coronavirus. The Oxfam numbers, even if exaggerated, are terrible, and I do not believe they are exaggerated.

   Is anyone listening?

Mission Accomplished? Uh, Whoops, Not Quite!

By Shlomo Maital

Bush’s Mission Accomplished speech

   A small bit of 17-year-old history: In his “Mission Accomplished” speech (named for a banner displayed above the speaker) United States President George W. Bush spoke on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003.   Bush stated it was the end to major combat operations in Iraq.  We won. Yay!  

   Bush’s claim —and the sign itself—became controversial after warfare in Iraq increased during the Iraqi insurgency. The vast majority of casualties, both military and civilian, occurred after the speech. 

   Fast forward. In the Wall Street Journal, Vice-President Mike Pence declares, just two weeks ago: “There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave’. With testing, treatments and vaccine trials ramping up, we are far better off than the media report.”   Meanwhile, the US is among world leaders with some 50,000 new cases daily. And President Trump? CNN reports: in mid June, “ when U.S. health officials reported nearly 27,000 new Covid-19 cases, President Trump said in a television interview that the virus was “dying out.” He brushed off concerns about an upcoming rally in Tulsa, Okla., because the number of cases there is “very miniscule,” despite the state’s surging infection rate.”

     Mission Accomplished? A victory lap?   Not quite. And people are dying as a result.

     My country Israel is no exception. We are among world leaders in new cases per 1,000 population. And the numbers are rising.   A bloated coalition cabinet is like a carving I once saw, a two headed snake, one head trying to eat the other.   This, after our Prime Minister took ‘credit’ for Israel’s astounding success in defeating the coronavirus.

     And it is no second wave. It is the continued first wave, of a sneaky wily piece of ribonucleic acid that is humiliating the vaunted brainpower of humans, 86 billion brain cells for each of the 8 billion or so people on earth. Two to zero, in favor of the virus.

     No, mission not accomplished. And the arrogance of claiming that it is, is itself criminal.

The World is Unstable: Surprise!

By Shlomo Maital

   In my previous blog, I quoted experts who warned that in a globalized world, an epidemic will spread quickly via travelers – quoted in a book published two decades ago by a brilliant science writer Mark Buchanan * and in an article published in the leading science journal NATURE in 1998.

   It is worth another short blog to describe Buchanan’s main message in his book.

     Economics is all wet; beware. The world is inherently unstable, including financial markets; markets are not efficient and no, supply does not always balance demand and no, prices do not always and everywhere reflect true underlying value. The opposite: There are frequent ‘avalanches’, and infrequent but massive huge crashes. Earthquakes are unpredictable; because the plate tectonics that cause them are unstable. So are financial markets. A vast industry, and an army of misguided economists, exist based on an enormous fallacy – prediction is possible. Data prove otherwise. Post hoc explanations of crashes are simply amusing; they are ad hoc, not just post hoc. Both physical and human systems are simply – inherently unstable. It is the way of Nature.

    There is an important personal lesson in Buchanan’s fine book (he has a Ph.D. in theoretical physics). If the world is unstable, then be prepared to adapt to major, sudden crises. Keep a small reserve of resources on hand. Forewarned is forearmed; if you anticipate avalanches, if you are aware they happen, you may be less shocked when they occur. If you are head of a family or a parent, embrace this in your family setting. If you are a junior or senior manager, prepare your organization.

     If you are a political leader, start now – with ‘build back better’, and ‘prepare for an avalanche’ — but, probably, given US, UK, and Brazilian loser-leaders, that is way too much to ask.


  • Mark Buchanan:       Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen.       Three Rivers Press, New York: 2001.      



The Real Culprit of the Pandemic: Globalization

By Shlomo Maital

Nov. 9, 1989. The Berlin Wall falls. The two Germany’s unite quickly. The European Union expands. And the age of globalization begins.

December 2019. Wuhan. A novel coronavirus is identified. It spreads globally.  

   Has the age of globalization ended? And – is globalization the true underlying culprit?

   I’ve been reading a remarkable book, two decades old, by a brilliant science writer Mark Buchanan: Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen. Three Rivers Press, New York: 2001.

   In Chapter 8, Buchanan recalls the “six degrees of separation” discovery of social psychologist Stanley Milgrom, in 1967 – in which any two people anywhere can be connected, by no more than six direct links, each link comprising someone you know personally. Based on Milgram’s work, Buchanan writes, two scholars, Watts and Strogatz, modeled such ‘networks’ as a tool for modeling the spread of infectious diseases.   [Duncan Watts and Steve Strogatz. “Collective dynamics of small-world networks”, Nature 393, 1998, pp. 440-442.]

     Their finding: (in 1998): “Watts and Strogatz also modeled the spread of infectious diseases on small-world networks, and found that they spread much faster than they would on ordered networks. What’s more, only a very few shortcut links are necessary to make this happen. This has disturbing implications for how dangerous diseases might be able to spread over the world, carried to or from remote places by just a few long-distance travellers”.

     Explanation: “ordered networks” are regular ‘grids’, where your links are your immediate neighbors. Small-world networks are like ‘six degrees of separation’ disorderly ones, like the kind Milgrom discovered – in other words, real networks as they are in the real world.

   Globalization has massively expanded trade and travel. The benefits have been massive. Emerging markets, especially in Asia, have grown wealthy. Western consumers have been flooded with inexpensive goods from Asia.

   But apparently, the price is the current pandemic. When the whole world is interconnected by flows of goods, people and information, it grows wealthy and prosperous (though not everyone of course) – and also becomes highly vulnerable to pandemics.

   I am, and have been, a big fan of the benefits of globalization.  But as often happens, we ignored the attendant risks.  We were told in 1998 and in 2001. I guess we were not listening too closely.




Can an Old Soviet-Era Idea Help Fight this New Virus?

By Shlomo Maital  

Dr. Marina Voroshilova and Dr. Mikhail Chumakov, left

      Sometimes, you battle a new foe, like the novel coronavirus, with an old idea – even one dating from Soviet Russia. Writing in today’s New York Times, Andrew Kramer describes a 60-year-old idea used by two virologists in the USSR, Marina Voroshilova and Mikhail Chumakov, that may be helpful in today’s pandemic.

       It sounds preposterous – use, say, polio vaccine to fight COVID-19? Really?

       Here is the basic idea:

     “We formed a kind of line,” Dr. Peter Chumakov, who was 7 at the time, recalled in an interview. Into each waiting mouth, a parent popped a sugar cube laced with weakened poliovirus — an early vaccine against a dreaded disease. “I was eating it from the hands of my mother.” Today, that same vaccine is gaining renewed attention from researchers — including those brothers, who all grew up to be virologists — as a possible weapon against the new coronavirus, based in part on research done by their mother, Dr. Marina Voroshilova. 

    “Dr. Voroshilova established that the live polio vaccine had an unexpected benefit that, it turns out, could be relevant to the current pandemic: People who got the vaccine did not become sick with other viral illnesses for a month or so afterward. She took to giving the boys polio vaccine each fall, as protection against flu.   Now, some scientists in several countries are taking a keen interest in the idea of repurposing existing vaccines, like the one with live poliovirus and another for tuberculosis, to see if they can provide at least temporary resistance to the coronavirus. Russians are among them, drawing on a long history of vaccine research — and of researchers, unconcerned about being scoffed at as mad scientists, experimenting on themselves.

     “Experts advise that the idea — like many other proposed ways of attacking the pandemic — must be approached with great caution. “We are much better off with a vaccine that induces specific immunity,” Dr. Paul A. Offit, a co-inventor of a vaccine against the rotavirus and professor at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a telephone interview. Any benefits from a repurposed vaccine, he said, are “much shorter lived and incomplete,” compared with a tailored vaccine.   Still, Dr. Robert Gallo, a leading advocate of testing the polio vaccine against coronavirus, said that repurposing vaccines is “one of the hottest areas of immunology.” Dr. Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said that even if the weakened poliovirus confers immunity for only a month or so, “it gets you over the hump, and it would save a lot of lives.”

     The current pandemic has brought a tidal wave of creative ideas. Most fail. A few succeed. Even preposterous ideas, like enlisting polio vaccine, are worth a shot. The novel coronavirus is wily, clever, sneaky and in some places mutating; so we humans need to be at least half as smart as it is.


The Pandemic is NOT Over

By Shlomo Maital

   The Pandemic is NOT over. We are getting farther away from conquering it, not closer. Here are two disturbing reports from Bloomberg News,   a credible source:

   First the United States:

   “By most accounts, the U.S. has failed spectacularly at managing the coronavirus pandemic. American-made tests were first defective, then largely unavailable; misinformation about the virus was broadcast in politicized White House briefings; and lockdowns weren’t enforced quickly enough, all of which likely worsened the spread of a disease that’s already killed 120,000 Americans. Now, with restrictions lifted earlier than advised and infection rates predictably spiking, calamities suffered in the northeast and northwest are re-emerging inland. And come fall, it may get even worse. Federal officials led by Dr. Anthony Fauci warn that this year’s flu season could overburden the health care system. —David E. Rovella”

   And the rest of the world:

   “The number of new Covid-19 cases around the globe is accelerating, fueled by a surge in Latin America. Germany’s infection rate rose for a third day, lifted by local outbreaks, including one in a slaughterhouse. However, Beijing reported only nine new infections, a sign that a recent outbreak may be under control. Infections and deaths reported by Russian officials also flattened. The overall global surge, though, is putting a world economic recovery in greater jeopardy. “

   And to make things worse: There is some evidence the novel coronavirus has mutated, and in some mutations has become more virulent and harder for the body to step.  

   I often hear the claim that the new cases are largely among the young, which are populating bars and restaurants and beaches, and that even though the number of infections rises, the number of deaths remains steady or declines.   The danger is, as the coronavirus spreads among the young, it will mutate and become more dangerous. And we will not be prepared. Moreover, these mutations make it much harder to successfully develop a working vaccine.

Roadmap for Pandemic Resilience

By Shlomo Maital  

   Roadmap for Pandemic Resilience: Massive Scale Testing, Tracing, and Supported Isolation (TTSI) as the Path to Pandemic Resilience for a Free Society. Danielle Allen et al.  Harvard:  Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, April 20, 2020.

   As the world struggles with growing numbers of coronavirus cases, experts are putting their heads together, to try to figure out an effective strategy for pandemic resilience – living with this vicious virus, adapting to it, adjusting to it – and carrying on. This 56 page book provides ten measures for an effective strategy of pandemic resilience in the US. I believe it holds for other nations too. These steps are do-able!   It requires:

  • Innovation in testing methodologies.   (Speed, accuracy, cost are all vital. And scale!)
  • A Pandemic Testing Board established by the federal government with strong but narrow powers that has the job of securing the testing supply and the infrastructure necessary for deployment. One agency to do this – not 50 states competing!
  • Federal and/or state guidance for state testing programs that accord with due process, civil liberties, equal protection, non-discrimination, and privacy standards. (Let’s have uniform standards for Mississippi, Alabama and New York)
  • Readiness frameworks to support local health leaders, mayors, tribal leaders, and other public officials in setting up test administration processes and isolation support resources.
  • Organizational innovation at the local level linking cities, counties, and public health districts, with specifics varying from state to state. (Cities, counties and public health districts need to work together seamlessly).
  • Federal and state investment in contact tracing personnel, starting with an investment in 100,000 personnel (recommendation from JHU Center for Health Security). (The US has far far fewer such personnel today. Other countries have proved that contact tracing is vital).
  • Clear mechanisms and norms of governance and enforcement around the design and use of peer-to-peer warning apps, including maximal privacy protection, availability of open source code for independent and regulatory audit, and prohibitions on the use of any data from these apps for commercial purposes, ideally achieved through preemptive legislation.
  • Support for quarantine and isolation in the form of jobs protections and material support for time in quarantine and isolation as well as access to health care.
  • An expanded U.S. Public Health Service Corps and Medical (or Health) Reserves Corps (paid service roles), and addition of Health Reserves Corps to the National Guard units of each state. (Harvard’s School of Public Health is in a rundown antiquated building; ever seen the gleaming new business school? Can we get our priorities right here, rather than mopping up the money
  • * National Infectious Disease Forecasting Center to modernize disease tracking.

How many of these 10 commonsense ideas are now in place in the US? In your country? In my country. Very very few…..

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital