Tag Archives: COVID economics

Diner Revisited 2020

Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” Art Institute of Chicago

“A poet could write volumes about diners because they’re so beautiful. They’re brightly lit, with chrome and booths and Naugahyde and great waitresses.” David Lynch (Interview with Brian Hiatt in “Food and Wine,” March 2015)

Josef Stalin once said that a single death is a tragedy, while a million are a statistic. I thought of that this week when I read that New York City restaurants are suing the city for two billion dollars due to the losses incurred by the COVID restrictions and shutdowns. Estimates are that forty-five to fifty percent of restaurants here on Aquidneck Island will not be able to reopen when the dust settles over the corona demolition explosion imposed, necessarily or excessively, by a flourishing bureaucracy. Months, maybe years, and much analysis may determine eventually the wisdom of all the moves. Lives and businesses are holed and many shipwrecked by the torpedoing; some will recover and heal over time. Some will not.

We also heard recently that Reidy’s Family Restaurant in Portsmouth, which closed temporarily in March when the state shut down restaurant dining, will not reopen. Two years ago I posted on this blog a piece titled simply “Diner” on our first visit to Reidy’s and our affection for all good diners. We enjoyed quite a few breakfasts there, especially after Mass on Sunday, so their demise is a bit personal, as it is even more to many others. Crowded, hectic, friendly with a special regard for military veterans and with a crew of regular servers and customers.

While not a ‘regular’ daily visitor as some were for morning coffee and muffin and reading the Newport Daily News, a closed restaurant leaves a hole, especially for the owners, but also for the customers who frequent them and build a stop into their routine. Conversations with other first name regulars, sharing intimacies sometimes not even shared with family. Some of the NYC restaurants signed on for the lawsuit are large corporate affairs, but many are not. However, a place like a fifty something year old local diner has neither the resources nor wherewithal for such legal strategies.

Each such enterprise has an ambiance, carefully designed, or evolved; a vision, someone’s dream and fruit of long, exhausting days and nights. A neighborhood gathering place. Exhilarating days with a collapse into bed afterwards. Hopes rewarded. Years of challenges, disappointments and recoveries, victories, anxiety, and obstacles overcome; persistence rewarded. Friends made with familiar faces. The nearby Dunkin Donuts has a group of its own regulars, who while they cannot yet go inside to their accustomed booth, still gather every morning for an hour or so outside in the parking lot sitting in lawn chairs they haul over in their cars. Reidy’s familiars do not have that option. There is no facility or room for a drive through to sell their great coffee to go. So, what was a large part of a schedule, for some a lonely schedule living alone, is no longer.

As ol’ Joe said, each death is someone’s tragedy, and I wonder today, if with more prudent management and attention to some of the collateral damage from a state bureaucracy and progressive governor,[i] how many of these little deaths were essential to public safety.

“I just feel like the most important conversations I’ve had in my life have been at a diner counter.” Ramy Youssef

[i] The state of Rhode Island despite hour upon hour of public relations daily press conferences is fifth in COVID mortality in the country and worst in the country with over 80% of COVID deaths taking place in nursing homes or assisted living facilities among its most vulnerable when 94% of COVID deaths occur with those having one or more comorbidity factors. All the sanctimonious posturing notwithstanding, the state remains the only state in the northeast still on other area state’s mandatory quarantine list. Meanwhile, so many local businesses are shuttered. It seems the governor paid attention to the wrong vulnerabilities, both among its businesses and citizens.

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Dueling Populisms

“What do I mean by “democratic capitalism”? I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all. Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism [i]

We rightly have been obsessed with COVID 19 to the exclusion of almost all other topics, but there are other viruses which infect our blood and brains, some of which may have more lasting ramifications.

In a podcast[ii] with Dr. Arthur Brooks, who was featured in a past post here[iii], journalist Jay Nordlinger discussed with him a research paper published out of the University of Berlin. Well referenced, it concluded that financial crises precipitate populist movements of all stripes, but mostly of the radical left. Populism does not inevitably lead to tyranny, but when it does, it is horrific from the National Socialists of the Third Reich and Stalinist slaughters to the “Liberte, egalite, fraternite” gory excesses in France in the late eighteenth century. Dr. Brooks quipped that they sometimes go “real Frenchy” when the economic and political leaders who were once envied and imitated end up in the tumbrils on a public ride to a sharp end dispossessing them of their heads.

The financial crisis does not have to be as dire as that which afflicted the French peasantry[iv] prior to setting up the guillotines. A collapse of the housing and mortgage markets in 2008 and a decade or so of wage stagnation, shrunken opportunity, burdensome personal debt and high unemployment led to the much less bloody “Make America Great” Trump phenomenon and “Feel the Bern” Social Democracy movement here and their analogous movements in many Western countries. Dueling populisms[v], rooted in the fertile soil of discontent, are both feeding on a gnawing sense of helplessness, fear, and a sense that injustice is being done. Both propose solutions that are incompatible with one another[vi], and both perceive the other to be their mortal enemy. For both, most of their proponents believe most sincerely that they offer relief to the oppressed and the best opportunity to right the wrongs in the culture.

We find it difficult even settling on the meanings of the terms we use to describe our disagreements.  Nor do we help ourselves when all sides use the same hackneyed phrases and accusations in social media posts to describe their opponents. [vii] How do we begin to rebuild the trust necessary to hack away the thorny briars with our brush hooks[viii] and clear the path forward?

“The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’ The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.”  George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.” (First published: Horizon. — GB, London. — April 1946.) [ix]

Nearing the fifth month of the unprecedented and politically completely unpredictable COVID 19 financial crisis, the question is what form will the next or prevailing populism take? Have our dueling populisms changed through all of this? Have they distilled and hardened? After a hiatus of a quarter or two, or year or two, will the domestic economy resume its decade long period of relative economic improvement? Will we absorb over 100,000 deaths, keep ourselves angry and entertained with futile social media political posts and continue our untidy path to the unknown? Or has there been a tectonic shift that will not resolve without more earthquakes?

That is the unanswerable question, not whether the Trump administration or the Cuomo administration in NY succeeded or failed in managing the pandemic. Swedish model? Florida model? New York model? Hard lessons we must learn, but not the most important ones. COVID 19 will slow down, perhaps recur periodically like the flu or SARS on cruise ships. But inevitably, another crisis of greater or lesser moment will eventually overtake us. How long will we remain in our trenches lobbing mortar shells at each other and calling each other “Fascists?” And what will our new reality look like when we emerge through the smoke and stink into the light and charge over the top of the trenches?

“The future meant nothing to me until it stuck.”  John le Carré, “Legacy of Spies”

[i] The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, by Michael Novak, 1982, Simon & Schuster

[ii] Podcast on Ricochet with Jay Nordlinger and Dr. Arthur Brooks. https://ricochet.com/podcast/q-and-a/the-essential-arthur-brooks/

[iii] ‘Lead Kindly Light’ in a Culture of Contempt

[iv] The French peasants of 1785 spent 90% of their income on just bread to keep their families just above starvation. Their queen’s famous (and perhaps apocryphal) response when told her people had no bread was “Let them eat cake.” Not without sympathy, perhaps she thought the lack of bread was due to bad bakery inventory control.

[v] Clear description comparing the two populisms: Dueling Populisms, Victor Davis Hanson, Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

[vi] Probably nowhere else is the conflict between these movements so stark and irreconcilable as with abortion. One side view it as a necessary component of the reproductive rights of women to end the life of their child for their own necessary benefit: physical health, psychologically, emotionally, economically or socially. The other side sees the intrinsic evil of taking the lives of the most innocent and vulnerable of human beings. Irreconcilable and impossible to compromise those different understandings of the same act.  The child either lives or doesn’t. Solomon settled that one centuries ago.

[vii] As fellow social media posters, can we resolve to never use the following words, which no longer have any coherent meaning: Fascist, moron, despicable, fool… Please feel free to add your own contribution to this list.

[viii] Brush hooks are  much better tools  than chainsaws for briars. Brush Hooks and Plumb Bobs

[ix] “Politics and the English Language.”

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