A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 51

Lost in a masquerade.

Tuesday, April 28

The pandemic face masks are really a pain. I can’t stand to wear one for more than a short while, but some people seem to have them on all day long.

Up until now, I’ve worn only what 3M calls a “home dust mask,” appropriate for use against “non-harmful dusts encountered during household activities such as sweeping, dusting, gardening and yardwork.” These are “not for use at work in a hospital.” They seem to be made out of some kind of lightweight foam, but the label doesn’t reveal much. Dispose of mask “when breathing becomes difficult,” says the label—which to me means never wear this mask.

For a while, this kind was all we had. They are what I see most workers wearing, including the cable guys who came to equip the next-door house with HBO and other necessities of the quarantine.

Then, a few days back, we received via eBay a package of “disposable medical masks.” These fit me better, with elastic straps that hook behind the ears rather than stretching behind the head. But they still make it difficult to breathe. After only a few minutes of wearing one, I began to feel dizzy. So I took it off and only put it back on when I went into the town recycling center.

This label says they are “double-layer non-woven with melt-blown non-woven filter layer.” (Again, they appear to be made of some synthetic stuff.) They originated in the Chendian Industrial Zone, Chaonan District, Shantou, Guangdong, China.

All of these masks seem most appropriate for attending a COVID-19 costume party or a bank robbery. They suggest that the wearer is making an effort, but I suspect that they do little else, other than fog up one’s glasses.

We are still supposed to receive some cloth masks, shipped from California ten days ago. I hope they work better. At least they will be more decorative.

Thousands of masks in a wide array of styles and patterns are available via the internet.  Maybe this is good. Emily says she thinks we will be wearing masks for the rest of our lives…which, you know, might not be too long.

Apropos of my recent jottings on the National Debt Clock, economist Paul Krugman has an op-ed in today’s times asserting that “while we will run very big budget deficits over the next couple of years, they will do little if any harm.” Those who fulminate about deficits and the federal debt are largely intent upon cutting social programs in the name of financial responsibility, he suggests. Republicans never seem to worry about red ink when they push for tax cuts—only when spending on safety-net initiatives goes up. 

At 11:02 a.m., I am still reading the paper, and Emily is also reading news reports on her Android phone. I’ve eaten my oatmeal, but she seems to put breakfast off as long as possible, often eating only two meals a day. Then, somehow, she is able to focus on reading legal treatises on federalism. I’m only on page 144 of a 1,089-page e-book version of Crime and Punishment

This afternoon is sunny and somewhat warmer, so we go for a short walk in nearby Maidstone Park, which abuts Three Mile Harbor. There are a good many people, several walking dogs, oblivious to others. After our walk, we go for a short drive over to Amagansett. Again, plenty of people are out walking or biking. Altogether, I’d say about half of the people we see are wearing some kind of mask and half have no masks. Very few bikers wear any. Emily and I have on our “disposable medical masks.”

I can tell you that dinner tonight will be an innovation: Progresso canned onion soup with croutons of melted cheese on homemade bread. Also baked spuds and green salad.

Entertainment: Enough with flawed Euro-thrillers such as Hinterland or Bordertown. A futuristic Norwegian political thriller, Occupied, is pretty good.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 48

The bill for your family’s share is in the mail.

Saturday, April 25

I’ve been wondering about the National Debt Clock. Is it keeping up?

You may have seen the clock. It’s a billboard-size dingus, with spinning, electric-lit numbers. It sits along Sixth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Streets in Manhattan. Wikipedia says that it first appeared in 1989, and that the idea came from real estate developer Seymour Durst, who worried that future generations would be crippled by the U.S. debt burden. (Yes, you may have heard the name, thanks to a recent, sensational HBO program.)

But I suspect that the true inspiration for the clock came from the professional worriers over the debt.  

One of the all-time great worrywarts in this line was President Herbert Hoover, who warned during the Great Depression that “prosperity cannot be restored by raids on the national treasury.” Hoover—and Franklin D. Roosevelt, for that matter—campaigned in 1932 on a platform of balancing the federal budget.  (Nearly 24% of the population, or over 12 million people, were unemployed at the time.) As the New Deal, with its deficit financing and many government programs, progressed, Hoover’s warnings became ever more frenzied.

But of course, neither Hoover nor FDR are around today. 

As recently as 2008, rich guy and onetime Presidential candidate Ross Perot raised alarms about the debt, saying “not since the Great Depression have we seen an economic crisis of the magnitude that we are facing today.”

And in 2010, a “bipartisan” commission headed by former Republican Senator Alan Simpson and former Democratic Senator Erskine Bowles looked to reduce the federal debt by implementing tax hikes and a number of cuts in federal spending. These included lowering federal spending on health care—hah!—and trimming social security benefits for some recipients. Congress regarded the Simpson-Bowles report with the same enthusiasm it might have shown for mandatory junkets to Chernobyl. Only 11 of the commission’s own 18 members endorsed the recommendations. One who did endorse the commission report: then-Vice-President Joe Biden.

Now, with the federal government throwing money hand-over-fist at pandemic-hammered businesses, health care facilities, and taxpayers, you might think some of these debt-obsessed types would have been agitating to reign in spending. (One organ that is: conservative magazine National Review, which warns that Congress’ massive spending packages “put us farther down the road to fiscal ruin.”) At the moment, though, no one is really paying attention to such voices so far as I can tell.

In any case, you can go to an online version of the National Debt Clock at https://usdebtclock.org

There, you will see the numbers spinning wildly. As of right now, the moment when I am writing this, the clock says the national debt stands at $24,715,691,000,000. Check back in 30 seconds for a much-inflated update. Most ominously of all, the clock has a second figure: Your family’s share of this debt!!!

Expect a bill in the mail any day now!!!

The national debt, it should be said, is just an estimate of how much the federal government is owing to government bondholders and to itself, including to such accounts as the Social Security Trust Fund. And it has seldom been cheaper for the government to borrow money. The wisdom of spending our way back to economic health has seldom been more evident. Yes—throw money at all of our problems! Please!

Today’s dinner: Yay, more leftovers—chicken paprikash and noodles, green salad, and potatoes maybe.

Entertainment: Two episodes of murky Finnish thriller Bordertown and one episode of The Hunters.