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Beyond sustainability and resilience

Sustainability is here to stay, or we may not be.

Niall Ferguson

As a few of you know, Jennifer Adams and I are writing a book (working title: The Connected Community) on systems thinking for community practitioners. The premise of the book is that systems thinking provides community practitioners – emergency managers, economic developers, city planners – with a rich set of tools to strengthen their communities.

Recently I was asked how sustainability and resilience fit into this. My initial knee-jerk answer was “Ultimately I want people to use these tools to make their communities more resilient.” Then I thought a bit, and said, “Well, actually, maybe more sustainable too.” Not satisfied with that answer, I finally said, “Really, it’s both and neither. What I really hope happens as a result of the book is that communities become more future-fit.” In the next few posts, I’m going to take a deep dive into both sustainability and resilience, and compare and contrast them. I’ll close the series with what I mean by a “future-fit” community and why the distinction is so important.

Fear of the apocalypse seems to be driving much of what’s being done in the names of both sustainability and resilience, as the quote above exemplifies. Fear of a future climate catastrophe seems to be the basis for much of what is called sustainability today. The Transition Town movement and several similar resilience initiatives are based on a presumed death of globalization, and a tumbling down Peak Oil to a valley of unknown depth.  Those John-the-Baptists who are proclaiming the coming apocalypse – whichever it might be – go on to preach from the Book of Sustainability as the Path to Resilience in the face of what’s coming. Thus, much of what is called sustainability or resilience are founded on a profound sense of despair.  

I won’t assess any of the actions suggested by the Prophets of Doom – many I find useful, some I find silly, and some are likely counterproductive – but I do want to examine the relationship between resilience and sustainability.  Is a sustainable community resilient?  Is a resilient community sustainable?  Are resilience and sustainability at opposite ends of a continuum, or at right angles to each other?

Right away, we’re confronted by a huge difficulty – both “sustainability” and “resilience” have become fads; both words have become very imprecise concepts.  The dictionary definitions of sustainability are about maintaining a certain level, or, as Wikipedia says, the capacity to endure.  In essence, this means a type of persistence.  However, if we look at the UN’s Brundtland Commission definition, then sustainability is all about balancing use of resources for current needs vs the resources needed in the future.  In what follows, I’m going consider community sustainability as meaning a wise use of resources,

  • Discriminating between wants and needs so that needs are met first, and
  • Using resources efficiently – the least necessary to meet the maximal amount of needs.

Resilience has been tortured nearly as badly.  To some it’s a process, to some an attribute; to some, it means resisting change, to some reverting to normal after a crisis.  However, resilience has one advantage in that almost all of the faddish definitions have this kernel of bouncing back after an external stress is applied.  In what follows, I’m going to consider community resilience as a community’s ability to

  • Anticipate crises,
  • Take action to reduce their impacts,
  • Respond effectively to them, and
  • Recover rapidly.

If we compare these two, we can begin to see a contrast.  In thermodynamic terms, sustainability is about trying to maintain equilibrium while resilience is a kinetic property.  In philosophic terms, sustainability is ontological, resilience is phenomenological.  Or in my terms, resilience is about time and sustainability is timeless. Resilience is aimed at minimizing the time to recovery from an upset; sustainability is focused on the resources the community uses over its lifetime. Thus, to echo those nasty questions I used to hate on the SAT, resilience is to sustainability as weather is to climate.

In the next post, I’ll use the definition of community to further illuminate the sustainability-resilience relationship.

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Gödel’s Theorem and Economic Resilience

Logic is the anatomy of thought.

John Locke

Kurt Gödel was one of the last century’s preeminent mathematicians and philosophers. He is most famous for proving that for any system of logic, there are meaningful questions that can be asked, but that cannot be answered within that logical system.

It is easy to dismiss this as academic navel-gazing, but there are real-world examples of this. One of the over-riding issues of our times is the quest for social “justice.” But what is justice? Some say that government should take from those who have more and give to those who have less, and that is justice. But others (J D Vance and Wendell Berry) point out that this creates dependence and eventually is destructive. I can ask questions about justice, but can’t definitively answer them.

If I killed a man a thousand years ago in England, justice then would demand that I pay a wergild to the person’s family or lord to recompense them for their loss. Today, I would most likely either languish in prison (essentially a ward of the state) or be executed – the family of my victim would be uncompensated. Which “justice” is more just?

If we pass on to a higher plane, perhaps we’ll know. And, generally, that is one way to answer the unanswerable questions – move to a higher level framework. In the physical sciences, one of the great unresolved questions of the 19th century was – is light a particle or a wave? Newtonian physics said light was particulate, but couldn’t explain why light sometimes acted as a wave. It was only when quantum mechanics was developed (with Newtonian physics as a special case) that the question was finally answered with a resounding “Yes. Light is both particle and wave.” Quantum mechanics became that “higher plane” to explain light’s behavior; a new “logic” that subsumed Newtonian physics as a special case.

In the social sciences we have a similar situation – we can ask if a community or a community system (e.g., its economy) is resilient, but we can’t really answer that a priori within the logic of what we know. We have to develop the logic for that “higher plane” if we are to be able to predict resilience.

Shade Shutters, in a recent article,* has given us a glimpse of what that higher plane might be. He and his co-workers developed a quantitative measure for the economic structures of 938 urban areas. Rather than looking at this as a static property, they looked at the change of the economic structure over the period 2001-2017. Their primary interest was in finding a relationship between the evolution of an area’s economy and the economy’s performance during and after the Great Recession (GR). They chose the area’s per capita GDP as their performance measure.

They identified six clusters that were archetypes of an area’s economic evolution:

  • The economies in Cluster 1 were relatively stable prior to the GR, changed rapidly during the Recession, and then stopped changing, i.e., achieved a stable “New Normal.”
  • The economies in Cluster 6 behaved similarly, except that they had been significantly changing even before the GR.
  • The economies in Cluster 2 significantly changed prior to the Recession, and then essentially were stable.
  • The economies in Cluster 3 changed leading up to and in the early part of the Recession and then slowly evolved back to a prior configuration.
  • The economies in Cluster 4 had an almost constant rate of change in structure; there was little discernible influence of the GR on their makeup. I am tempted to think of them as the continuously adapting economies.
  • The economies in Cluster 5 had virtually no change before, during or after the Recession. In response to my query, Shutters indicated that these all seemed to be “micropolitan” – small urban centers.

Looking at the performance of each cluster, the economies in Cluster 4 (continuously adapting) were the only ones to show a net growth from the start of the GR through its recovery. All of the others lost ground in terms of their net change in per capita GCP. Somewhat surprisingly (to me), Cluster 5 – the unchanging one – did not perform the worst; the worst performing were the economies in Cluster 3, which had drifted back into their pre-Recession makeup.

Like all good research, Shutters’ work leads to lots of questions.

  • Besides the structural evolution of their economies, is there any other common thread that seems to key the best-performing archetype, or any of them? Geography, presence or absence of a dominant employer, prevalence of a certain type of industry, or trends. I would anticipate that communities with an “eds and meds” economy would tend to be more a Cluster 5, for example.
  • Cluster 3 is an anomaly to me – a sort of “Back to the Future” evolution. The figure seems to imply either that the Cluster’s evolution prior to the Great Recession was to an unstable state or that there was growth up to and into the Great Recession which was then chopped off. In a subsequent note, Shutters indicated that the evolution of Cluster 3 economies might reflect a temporary condition due to unemployment changing the apparent structure and then a recovery to the Old Normal.
  • A community’s economy is a more-or-less decentralized system. Its structural evolution reflects decisions made independently by scores of entrepreneurs and business owners. If the Invisible Hand was ever at work, it certainly has to be here.  Are these results applicable to other community systems, especially other decentralized ones (e.g., social systems)?
  • We tend to look at internal factors that cause a system to evolve in a certain way. But, in general, systems evolve in response to changes in their environment (everything that’s not a part of the system). The continuously adapting economies may simply be in an environment that is changing slowly enough that they can “keep up.”

Shutters has not yet reached that higher plane that will allow us to truly understand what makes a community resilient. But I believe his work points us toward that higher plane. Several years ago, I told a parable of foresters looking at fallen trees to try to understand the causes of their fall. I concluded the tale

[the foresters] are standing in the midst of a forest in which the trees are each bending to the wind and the other elements and then straightening when the wind or the rain or the snow dies down. And we as foresters are really most interested in what keeps the trees standing, not what makes them fall. So it should be with community recovery and resilience. Resilience does not arise from demonstrated weakness but rather from the exertion of strength. Thus, we need to know and understand the strengths of each community, how those strengths are exerted, and how we can nurture those strengths so that they become even stronger.

Shutters, as a wise forester, is focusing on recovery, not vulnerability. He is honed in on an economy’s dynamic character, not its static attributes. And by doing that, he is pointing to a path that I believe will lead to a greater understanding of what makes a community resilient. And if we achieve that understanding, the next – greater – challenge will be transform our communities so that they can adapt to their changing environments.


* Shutters, Shade T., S. S. Kandala, F. Wei, and A. P. Kinzig. “Resilience of Urban Economic Structures Following the Great Recession.” Sustainability 13, no. 2374 (2021).

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Rising after the fall

Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.

Confucius

In a November post, I talked about a different way for a community to visualize its resilience. It was a functional approach focusing on three aspects of a community – its common functions, the risks it faces, and the resources it has for recovery. Left hanging was how a community can determine the resources needed for recovery from a disaster – and whether it can recover at all.

Recently, my co-worker Jennifer Adams and I were notified that our paper that provides one approach communities can use has been accepted for publication. The approach is based on the stress testing performed by financial institutions, adapted for the community context. I briefly summarize the approach below; if you are interested in more detail, it will be in the published version (in the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management).

In general, the approach is effectively an extended tabletop exercise, focused on a specific event. It is intended to be scalable – applicable to a neighborhood, a community system, or an entire community. Since the focus is on recovery, the time frame for the scenario extends beyond that usually considered in emergency management exercises.

The approach starts with development of a scenario based on a specific extreme event. The extreme event chosen should correspond to one or more of the risks facing the community. Each scenario should be plausible but need not be tremendously detailed. The type and magnitude of the extreme event, its geographic scope if relevant (e.g., areas of flooding or damage) and the time over which the event will occur should be included.

Perhaps in parallel, the scope of testing is also fixed. Again, this may be a neighborhood, a single community system or an entire community. Since it is assumed that testing is conducted by those who know the neighborhood, system or community, the availability of these “subject matter experts” effectively determines the scope of testing.

An important part of the approach is the establishment of success criteria: this forces the community to think about what recovery is, and how long it should take to reach it. This in turn sets the minimum time horizon for testing – the recovery process should be simulated at least this long (and if recovery has not occurred by this time, the test can be extended). For many physical infrastructure systems, success criteria for recovery may already have been set (e.g., Maximum Allowable Outages); for others (e.g., social support systems), a desired time to resume normal operations may be used.

The next step is focused on the impacts of the extreme event. The community’s anticipated losses – especially in terms of the community’s fixed assets – are determined. This includes both the direct losses, and those indirect ones that result either as a cascade because of interdependencies or because of actions taken in response to the extreme event. So, for example, a weather event triggers physical damage, that in turn challenges the community’s human, economic and social capital. A health crisis may cause loss of life; as we have seen with Covid-19, the response to the pandemic may seriously deplete the community’s social and economic capital as well. Social unrest can lead to loss of life as well as tears in the community’s social and cultural fabrics. As a result of this analysis, metrics for measuring progress toward recovery are also developed.

With recovery – the end state – defined, and the losses identified, the next step is to identify the tasks required to achieve recovery. This is the core of the approach – first identifying the tasks and then the resources needed to accomplish each task. If a community has a long-term recovery plan, this is an opportunity to exercise it. Since most communities do not have such plans, this forces them to think beyond their desired endpoint and to detail how they’re going to get there after the extreme event. In effect, it provides an opportunity to develop a recovery plan for the specific extreme event. Most likely, these plans will represent “brute force” approaches.

In this step, the community also goes one step further – looking at the time necessary to accomplish each task with the resources available. It uses the community capitals approach as a means to systematically look at the assets available for recovery (dispatchable capital) and the time required to deploy them successfully. Depending on the expertise available for the test, rather accurate estimates of task duration and sequencing (serial and parallel) can be achieved.

The final step is to analyze the results. First and foremost is to determine whether the success criteria have been met. In other words, determining whether all of the tasks required for recovery can be completed in the expected/desired time frame. If they cannot, then the testing points to possible actions the community can take to recover in time. These may be mitigating actions to limit losses; investments to increase dispatchable assets; better planning to develop more innovative (and probably more elegant) paths to recovery. In practice, it’s likely that a combination of some or all of these would be chosen. This approach to testing also provides a time to recovery (i.e., when the last task is completed).

Stress testing of this type offers some real positives to a community:
• It is based on the risks the community actually faces.
• It uses the community’s own expertise and knowledge of itself.
• It is scalable – a community can look at only one part or the whole community.
• It provides a time to recover based on the resources actually available to the community.
• It indicates opportunities for community action to reduce the time to recovery.

I have briefly summarized the approach and what it can do for a community. In a followup, I will look at a specific scenario based on a health crisis. I’ll do this in two ways: first, just looking at a community health care system, and then looking at the entire community. I’ll do this with much trepidation – the damage from covid is perhaps too fresh; too many are still falling ill and some dying; and, sadly, too many are still playing the Blame Game. But I’ll still do it, because as Confucius indicates, the glory is in rising again – recovering – and stress testing can speed our rise from disaster.

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Covid-19: Disasters Have Direction

You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended. You can ensure the safety of your defense if you only hold positions that cannot be attacked.

Sun Tzu

This is an updating of an old post.  The original did not have any specific examples; I think Covid-19 provides a good one.  I’m sure the concept “Disasters Have Direction” is obvious to many of you, but I’ve never seen it articulated.  As I try to show in the discussion of the pandemic, it can be a useful construct as we think about a community’s resilience.

For a few years, FEMA and DHS have championed the idea of an “All Hazards – Maximum of Maxima” approach to planning.  The basic premise is that if a community plans for the worst of the worst, then it will be prepared for whatever may actually happen. This is a deceptively simple tautology that I think deserves a little more analysis than it usually receives, especially in terms of community resilience.

Let’s start by looking at an idealized community.   A community can be thought of as an ecosystem.  There is a “human layer,” made up of individuals and families.  There is an institutional layer, consisting of private businesses and other economic institutions, and all of the other “human-serving” organizations in the community.  Then there is the physical, environmental, layer – containing the built and natural environment.  All of these are held together by the social capital within the community (some may argue whether the physical layer is bound to the community by its social capital, but that’s a subject for another post!).

Of course, this is an ideal community; real communities may have a strong economy but be weak in the human element.  Some have a decaying infrastructure but a flourishing natural environment.  Thus, we can depict a real community as follows.  This real community would be relatively weak in terms of its community institutions, have a somewhat stressed natural environment, but have a robust built environment.

Now let’s assume the community is hit by a pandemic.  There is no immediate physical damage.  Any that occurs most likely happens because the humans who normally maintain things –infrastructure, for example – are not able to do so.  This disaster has attacked individuals and families, and – because they are closely tied to the human layer – the community organizations that meet social needs.  For a pandemic, hospitals, clinics and the public health department would certainly be included.  Since, in this case, there is relatively little capacity in the community institutions (e.g., a rural community), they will be particularly hard hit – most likely overwhelmed. 

But what happens in a natural disaster?  The initial impact on the community is going to be on the physical layer; buildings are going to be blown down, debris will be strewn about, flooding may occur. The other parts of the community will be impacted because of these physical blows.  In our notional real community depicted above, there would be relatively little damage done to the built environment, but the natural environment would experience much greater damage (at least in relative terms) because it is weaker. 

A severe economic downturn attacks the community from another direction.  Businesses lay off workers; some close.  Many individuals and families experience severe economic hardship.  There is no immediate impact on the other parts of the community ecosystem.  Eventually, however, all will be affected.  In our example community, the economic impacts are less severe than for a community with a weak economy, or already burdened individuals and families.

Thus, disasters have a direction, as shown in the next graphic. It must be stressed that the graphic points out the initial point of attack.  If the magnitude of the initial impact is huge, or other parts of the community are weak, then the disaster is likely to ripple throughout the community with cascading impacts.

This simple concept is consistent with the idea that vulnerability to a threat depends on weakness at the point of attack.  This is shown in the next figure.  Threat X indicates a potential health crisis (e.g., a pandemic), while Threat Y is primarily a threat to the community’s economy.  As depicted, Threat X is more likely to lead to disaster than Threat Y because the greater relative strength of the community to withstand an economic downturn.

This simple picture of a community also has meaning in terms of recovery and community resilience.  If community resilience is measured by how fast – and effectively – resources are deployed to achieve community restoration and recovery, then the social capital within the community plays a crucial role.  Suppose Threat X above actually materializes.  The vulnerable part of the community has few available resources.  It is the community’s social capital – its connectedness – that provides the pathways for resources to be shifted within the community.  It is the community’s social capital that determines whether resources from outside the community are effectively brought to bear.  In a very real sense, it is the community’s social capital that determines whether the community actually recovers from disaster.

If we look at Covid-19 through this lens, clearly the pandemic attacked individuals and families, and community health organizations.  Its magnitude varied from community to community, but – initially – dealing with the pandemic exceeded the resources (e.g., PPE, ventilators) available to most communities, i.e., it was a disaster and it had a direction.  Communities had to rely on their connections (bridging and linking social capital) to others in the region and to the state (and, for the biggest cities, to the federal government) to get the resources they needed.  In a later post, I’ll outline a methodology that, if used, could have reduced the impact of the pandemic at the community level.

Our response to the pandemic triggered an economic disaster.  For those of you who remember my old post “Of Ice Storms, Interdependencies and their Impacts on Running a Bar” I pointed out that the number of businesses which could reopen after a disaster depended on how long they were closed.  In some places, the Covid-19 lockdowns lasted for months – and the economic consequences have been devastating.  I intend to update that post as well and expand upon it a little based on the knowledge we’ve gained from the pandemic.

Dan Alesch once said that we recall a disaster by the name of its triggering event, but remember it because of its impacts.  If that’s the case, Covid-19 will join the Dishonor Roll with Katrina, Deep Water Horizon, the Great Recession and so many others.  Each of these disasters were daggers that first pierced specific parts of the community, i.e., they had a direction.  Their impacts were determined by communities’ strengths at the point of attack and the force of the dagger’s thrust.  A community’s social capital determines how rapidly resources can be brought to bear to heal the wounds.  However, those who are not connected – without significant social capital – have to recover on their own:  resources won’t flow where messages don’t go.  In this way, the community’s social capital plays a crucial role in its recovery – and thus is a key component of the community’s resilience.

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Community Recovery in the Time of Covid

Sometimes things fall apart so that better things can fall together.

Marilyn Monroe

Our communities are going through tough times right now. All have seen disease and death damage their social fabrics. Some are experiencing physical devastation due to nature’s wrath and men’s anger. Sadly, we know that more death and destruction is inevitable. Our response to this has led to economic and educational chaos, and stunted lives.

But we also know that eventually these will ebb and end. We will stand on the rubble and realize that our communities must now recover – must now reach toward a New and, hopefully, Better Normal. We know that for some, recovery will require more resources than they have to give. Communities will look to state and federal governments to provide them the resources they lack. But what resources will our communities actually need?

Unfortunately, there’s no single answer. The damage done to many of our communities covers the spectrum from their physical environments to their social fabrics and their economies. Just as the damage experienced by communities will vary so to will the resources needed for recovery. Some communities will reach for any funding that they can, and sort of haphazardly aim to rebuild what was lost. But for those with the greatest damage, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” This time the magnitude of the damage is too great. For them, trying to rebuild the past has no future.

Other, more resilient, communities will recognize that the changes wrought by Covid and our response are so great that they require almost a reinvention. They will make the tough decisions to rebuild their communities to be “Future Fit,” ready to face whatever adversities the future may bring. They will take responsibility for their own recovery and develop plans to reach a New and Better Normal. And through their planning most will recover more rapidly than those who don’t plan.

While those plans will vary in detail, on another level they will have in common a focus on functionality, infrastructure and assets. In terms of functionality, they will likely start with an assessment of the damage to the community’s infrastructures. They will then look at how the existing infrastructure and assets will be used to achieve recovery. While these plans are likely to differ in the terms they use, I think it’s useful to look at their common focus through the lens of the Seven Capitals.

Social. In the US, our social fabric (our social infrastructure, if you will) has been badly frayed, especially in many of our major cities. Rioting, aided by masking and lockdowns, have prevented our social networks from the message-passing that is so vital for recovery of our communities – as I’ve said before, “Resources won‘t flow where messages don’t go.” And I’m not just talking about PPE and medical supplies. Although we don’t talk about it enough, most people depend on their networks of friends, neighbors and acquaintances to find out about job opportunities.

Unfortunately, while academia has established the importance of social capital, the damage to it is being ignored by many politicians. Recovery will require opening the places we gather as quickly as possible, so that we can reestablish our personal networks. That means churches, libraries, schools, parks and recreational venues. That also means getting rid of masks as soon as we can – they facilitate anti-social behavior. And most importantly, getting rid of those barriers that are keeping families apart.

Human. Even before Covid-19 reared its gnarly snout, our educational system had some serious problems. Educational “attainment,” especially in our de facto segregated inner city schools was so bad that it would have had to improve to be abysmal. Look at Baltimore – proficiency in reading and math hovering just slightly over 10%, but with a 70% graduation rate. And DC bordering on the criminal – a whopping 20% proficiency in reading and math among eighth graders, while spending twice the national average per pupil.

But just getting back to that “Normal” is proving challenging. While the “hybrid” model (part in-person, part online) sort-of, kind-of works for middle class kids, inevitably the disadvantaged (esp. in rural areas) will fall behind. We need to get the schools fully open now. But that will not absolve us of fixing the damage the lockdowns have already caused. If you can’t read and can’t do basic math, you can’t get a job to support yourself, let alone your family. One way to approach this is to task the federal Senior Corps with providing educational mentors for those who are struggling. This may also be a business opportunity for some of those out of work.

At the same time we’re taking care of our kids, we need to take a hard look at the skills of our out-of workers. These folks, in general, have developed the life skills to hold down a job. Most of those eventually will find similar work. But many won’t – a lot of jobs are gone, especially those in small businesses. We need to beef up our infrastructure for coaching, redirecting and retraining these once-and-future assets to our society.

Economic. Overall, the US now has a “90%” economy – about 10% of our labor force is out of work. Our goal should be careers, not simply jobs. That means businesses aimed at today’s and tomorrow’s needs, and workers with skills to match. Local government has a small role to play (as I discuss below) but ultimately economic recovery will be accomplished through the actions of innovators and entrepreneurs creating careers, and workers willing to learn new skills.

But that’s not to say that businesses, especially small businesses, don’t need help – many do. Professional and business associations should play a major role. First and foremost, small business owners need coaching as they make the tough decisions about whether and how to relaunch. Damage assessment is a skill that they seldom need, yet it is crucial to these decisions. It may indicate that the customer base isn’t there, or that a new business model is needed. Small business owners also often need help with the paperwork for SBA loans. Most professional associations already are providing guidelines for protecting the health of customers and employees, but they can do more.

Cultural. Anyone who watches the news has to be worried about the cultural chasm that seems to be widening in our country. We’ve always had the elitists who believe that government can solve all of our problems. We’ve always had the anarchists who believe that the only answer to our problems is the complete destruction of society as we know it. In past decades, the sensible middle – those who recognized our problems and worked to implement practical solutions – was strong enough to hold us together in this ideological tug-of-war. I’m not so sure that’s true any more.

If we are to recover our culture, we must first once more define it for ourselves. That means rediscovering our common values – freedom (and its homely twin, responsibility), family, the rule of law, equality of opportunity. That means regaining confidence in our own ability – that of each one of us – to make a difference in our world. That means recapturing our history – America the Aspirational – and our ability to dream. That means looking clearly and critically at our world, not through red- or blue-tinted glasses, but through the lens of our common values. And when we see situations not consistent with those values, once more working for the common good.

Doing all of this requires time and starts with small steps: opening churches, museums, art galleries, recreational venues and, yes, even bars. Rebuilding our culture will require that we reestablish our social networks, especially our ability to repair and extend those networks. The task of community rebuilding and recovery, if done well, will strengthen the sensible middle, and thus strengthen our cultural bonds.

Institutional. It is clear that many (most?) of our communities are going to need rebuilding (if not reinvention). That effort is going to require planning and resources. Since entire communities have been impacted, the whole of these communities needs to be a part of recovery planning, not just government. Further, all must recognize that while there likely will be more federal and state aid, ultimately recovery of the community will depend on how well the community can mobilize its own resources – financial, human and social.

For some communities, some sort of long-term recovery committee will move the community to a New Normal. Ideally, the committee will include all of those who can mobilize resources to get things done. Its most important job will be to “define victory” – determine what a successful recovery is for the community. It will integrate local (not just government!), state and federal resources. A part of this will be finding “patient capital.” It will act as an information hub, letting the public know what businesses are open, and where there are job openings. It will act as an economic gardener, focusing its attention on new and existing businesses looking to grow. Working with both local business and local government, it will flatten some of the regulatory barriers (e.g., licensing/permitting, unnecessary zoning restrictions, environmental reviews) to the birth of new businesses. The committee will also report on progress to the public. After a disaster of this magnitude, recovery will take years not weeks, so keeping the public informed is essential.

Built. Some locations have experienced significant damage to their infrastructures (e.g., from wildfires in the western US and tropical storms in the southeast). We know the drill for recovery – sort of. But if the New Normal is to be better than the old, then we may need to rethink the physical infrastructure, particularly in our bigger cities. I’m not a big fan of Governor Cuomo, but his ideas for making New York City both more livable and “socially distance-able” make sense. But what the events of the last few months have really highlighted are the infrastructure needs of our rural communities. Many of our responses to the pandemic have greatly stressed our – already fragile – rural health care infrastructure. And as I’ve noted above, we need to expand our internet coverage to include everyone, especially those in our rural areas.

This post is much longer than normal (I apologize!) but I could have written even more for each of these. Recovery from the pandemic will be a long slog. We cannot claim to have recovered until we’ve rebuilt all of our infrastructures (the assets of our community capitals) and have them functioning again. While government has a role to play, our communities’ recoveries won’t depend on government’s actions (although failure to recover may). Ultimately the recovery of my community, or your community, will depend on whether you and I – all of us – work together to achieve a New Normal. Our goal must be “Future Fit” communities, ready to face whatever adversities and to seize whatever opportunities the future may present.

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Economic recovery – sort of

These are the times that try men’s souls.

Thomas Paine

The pandemic and protests and civil disorder continue to assail both the social fabrics and the economies of our cities, states and nation. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been following an interesting set of maps and graphs detailing the ongoing evolution of the US economy.*

The graphs and maps are focused on consumer spending, and based on private sector data (e.g., credit card transactions). Thus, they do not directly reflect business activity (although the team has separately analyzed some data relating to business activity). They also are significantly distorted by government initiatives designed to mitigate the economic impacts (more on that below). The data is broken down into seven economic sectors** – by state and county, and also includes data for 50+ metro areas. Data are also reported on a national level for consumers living in high, medium and low income areas. In the following, let me give you a sort of high-level early-stage summary on the recovery of consumer spending (based on data up 6/26/20).

Total consumer spending is still down by about 7% since the group’s January baseline. However, that total is misleading – spending on Arts, entertainment and recreation and Transportation is still only abut half of the baseline, with a very slow trajectory toward recovery. It may take years for these sectors related to tourism to recover, especially Transportation. Spending on Restaurants and hotels is also still down by a third nation-wide, but with a better trajectory. Health care spending is down 12%, but seems to be recovering well. Spending on Apparel and merchandise has essentially recovered, though the data does not reflect shifts from storefronts to online suppliers. The biggest surprise is Grocery spending – up 12%, probably reflecting eating at home vs dining out. This is highlighted by data from March: Grocery spending spiked at +73%!

Another surprise is in who’s not spending – consumers in affluent areas are spending 12% less than in January. Middle income areas are seeing a drop of only about 6% in spending; while there is a negligible drop in less affluent areas. Other data collected by the group indicate that small businesses in the more affluent areas are also being harder hit than in other areas.

Looking at the data at a state level, mid-America is doing the best, with generally increased consumer spending; Tennessee having the largest increase (5%). West Virginia, New Hampshire, Idaho, Hawaii and Maine are also seeing somewhat increased consumer spending compared to January. Both coasts are doing more poorly, especially the West Coast. Consumer spending in Rhode Island and California has lagged the worst among the states.

Looking at the metro areas, there are two surprises: Jacksonville and Nashville. Jacksonville’s consumer spending is up over 5% compared to January; Nashville’s is off 33%(!). Nashville is particularly surprising given that Tennessee in general is doing rather well. San Francisco is also lagging badly, as are the other California metro areas as well as DC.

A few other observations about the data:

  • Iowa is the only state which has seen a decline on spending for groceries (11%).
  • Nashville saw the biggest drop in Transportation spending – 80%, and it’s staying flat.
  • In terms of Health care spending, the southern tier of states has recovered more than the northern tier; poorest performing is Vermont, off 52%.
  • In general, spending in rural areas is recovering more rapidly than in urban areas; and several rural counties actually saw increased consumer spending.
  • There is one aspect of the data that I find fascinating, but can’t explain: almost everyone one of the curves bottomed out in the period 3/28-4/17. However, in each case, there were two dips – one around 3/30 and another around 4/15, with slightly increased spending in between.

Here’s my takeaways:

  • The data shows great disparities in terms of geography, economic sector and income group. When I add in the data not included here (e.g., unemployment, housing, bankruptcies, small businesses closing) I come to the conclusion that recovery policies are going to have to be carefully crafted if they are to work. One size won’t fit all. Given the continuing dysfunction in Washington, I have to wonder whether my prediction of a four to five year recovery wasn’t overly optimistic. If Congress can’t come together on something as relatively simple as policing reform, how are they going to deal with the knottier (and naughtier!) issues surrounding recovery? As one example, increasing taxes on higher income groups will penalize already suffering small businesses in their areas – is this what we really want to do?
  • These data necessarily paint a much more positive picture than reality. They reflect the positive impacts on spending due to stimulus and unemployment payments (which eventually have to expire), but hide the looming problems associated with housing. Throughout the country, there have effectively been rent and mortgage “holidays” – most often three to six month moratoria on evictions and foreclosures. As these expire, the pressures on the consumer are going to increase. Governments will be forced to choose between landlords and renters, banks and homeowners. In general, my sympathies are always with the underdog, but the choice between landlords and renters is actually between two little guys – over half of the nation’s landlords manage only one or a very few units.
  • The prognosis for many metro areas is not very good. People are leaving NYC, San Francisco (in fact, all of California) and other big cities in droves. Conversely, the suburbs and near-urban rural areas are already seeing signs of growth. If this de-urbanizing trend continues (and I think it will) it will constitute a watershed period in American history, testing urban resilience as never before.
  • Still, the data could have been worse; even with the caveats above, rebounding consumer spending is a necessity for our consumer-driven economy. And recovery is actually happening in some places. We aren’t seeing a V-shaped recovery, but progress is being made.

* Developed by a group consisting of Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, Nathaniel Hendren, Michael Stepner, and the Opportunity Insights Team.

** Apparel and general merchandise; Arts, entertainment and recreation; Grocery; Health care; Restaurant and hotel; and Transportation.

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Finding a Better Path

I’ve learned that the safest path is not always the best path and I’ve learned that the voice of fear is not always to be trusted.

Steve Goodier

If COVID-19 returns in the fall, do we really want to go down the same path we’ve been taking? In the US, we have focused on “flattening the curve” – not reducing the total number of deaths directly due to COVID-19, but rather spacing them out so that “indirect” deaths due to insufficient health care system capacity have been minimized. We took this path because our models initially predicted tens of millions of cases – and millions of deaths – that would have overwhelmed our emergency rooms. In taking this approach, all of us were faced with a situation for which we were unprepared – we had never been faced with this kind of crisis. Our stocks of many critical resources had been depleted but never replenished. The “Triple Header” of hurricanes almost three years ago had hinted at what we now know – our EM doctrines are clearly inadequate to handle disasters that go beyond the regional. We acted largely out of caution and a fear of the unknown.

Things will be different the next time. We know that the approach we’ve taken to the pandemic is fraught with unintended consequences – impacting our economy, our social compact and our mental health. We will have much greater testing capability and probably sufficient PPE, and capable supply chains for each, the next time. With luck, we may also have more effective treatments available for those infected.

The problem we face in crafting a new approach is simply that too much conflicting “information” is being fire-hosed at us; it’s damned difficult to find the nuggets of truth in the rushing torrent so that we can plot a better path for the future. I strongly believe we should empanel a national Board of Inquiry for the coronavirus chartered to develop a better approach for nationwide disasters such as this. It is important that we do this for next fall, but also because this crisis may impact our ability to manage severe weather events starting this summer.

Rather than bipartisan, the Board should be non-partisan – focused on policy and planning rather than personalities and politics; lasered in on developing a better approach rather than playing the Blame Game. Such a Board needs a strong chair, versed in both the strategic and operational aspects of dealing with crises; Craig Fugate, Honore Russell or Thad Allen come to mind. The Board should be independent of both the Executive and Legislative Branches, perhaps under the National Academies. The Board should include expertise in economics; health and health care; law; and federal, state and local decision-making.

Such a Board should pursue lines of inquiry such as:

Situational awareness. Whatever plan we develop, we can be sure that it will have to be modified once case numbers start to rise. Those changes will be informed by the data at hand. I’m sure I’m not the only one who can’t figure out whether we’re severely undercounting or overcounting cases and deaths (My guess is undercounting cases and overcounting deaths, but who knows?). The federal government should provide useful guidance in terms of how to count and report, esp. considering that both the pub;lic and private sectors are likely to be involved.

Federal, state, community and private sector roles. There seem to be as many opinions about who should lead and how, who should follow, and who should get out of the way as there are politicians and pundits, i.e., way too many. We need simple efficient processes at all levels, minimizing paperwork, and clear on what they are and how to follow them. We really began to have success when we let the private sector get involved. Our processes need to stop stymieing and start encouraging private sector participation.

Urban areas. Most importantly, we need to understand why urban areas such as NYC were hit so hard. Less than 3% of US counties – all urban and accounting for half of our nation’s GDP – have had 60% of US cases. If NYC was a separate country, its mortality rate would exceed Italy’s! Over one-third of US deaths occurred within a 30 mile radius of NYC. We have to understand what happened in these urban areas to perform better next time.

Foreign experience. The Board should consider successful responses from other countries. As of today, Taiwan has had only six deaths and less than 450 cases out of a population of 23+M. They learned some hard lessons from SARS – and acted on what they learned; we apparently haven’t.

Lockdowns. Singapore, South Korea and Sweden all have approached the “Wu Flu” very differently than we have in the US, with arguably better results. One element these have in common is aggressive contact tracking; it seems that we can learn from what they have done. In these countries, the elderly and those potentially at greatest risk were urged to quarantine, but schools weren’t closed; restaurants weren’t closed; retailers weren’t closed. If we look at the responses across our states, lockdowns don’t seem to have had a quantifiable impact on health outcomes; population density does. Conversely, we will likely pay a terrible price later in deaths of those who didn’t go for their cancer treatments, who couldn’t afford to pay for their medications, who didn’t get the proper exercise. This doesn’t begin to address the incalculable impacts on our kids’ educations and future employability, or the millions of children worldwide who the UN estimates are going to die of starvation.

Next points of attack. We now know that urban centers were the hardest hit in this first round. We need to determine whether this has resulted in “herd immunity.” The potential vulnerability of more rural populations also needs to be addressed.

There are other issues (e.g., border security and immigration) that also should be considered. What we need most now, however, is the wisdom to find those nuggets of truth, the wisdom to use them as signposts toward a better path, and the courage to follow those signs onto that path. Given our highly partisan polity, wisdom, will and courage will all be needed. The GOP and the Dems have both contributed to the problems; the best ideas from both are needed to solve them.

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Once the pale horseman fades away

It’s not how far you fall, but how high you bounce that counts.

Zig Ziglar

As I threatened promised a few weeks ago, over the next few posts I’m going to float some ideas intended to make the New Normal we’re groping for a better place for all of us to live. Each of the things I’m going to propose are going to make at least some of you uncomfortable (Some of the concepts will make all of us uncomfortable!). But these uncomfortable times demand that each of us break out of our bubbles if we’re going to “Build Back Better.”

My focus throughout all of these essays on COVID-19 recovery is on something called “Main Street.” I trust Wall Street will take care of itself, but our Main Streets are going to need help to recover. I use the phrase “Main Street” to evoke a sense of community; a belief in neighbors helping neighbors; a trust in our inherent ability to synthesize a New – and better – Normal from our differing perspectives. And while that may seem overly idealistic, I believe that this is a time for radical pragmatism: real solutions to our real problems that we can all fight for. In this post, I’m going to focus on building a better economy for our communities.

As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, small businesses – the mainstay of our Main Streets – are the ones who have been hardest hit by the pandemic. Last Friday, John Mauldin wrote about an 80% economy in our future – with the lost 20% primarily small businesses. More importantly, the most economically fragile are the ones most likely to lose their jobs and, sadly, the ones least likely to be able catch on somewhere else due to location, education and lack of marketable skills. Many of their jobs – especially in retail and restaurants – are unlikely to come back soon. For decades our “service economy” was lauded; but I do not believe that it can lead us back to something better in its former shape.

There are going to be new job opportunities for those who can stretch to meet them – our entrepreneurs. In the service sector people will be needed to deploy and service the new tools that entrepreneurs are developing for telework and teleschool. Workers will be needed to meet health care needs with new high-tech and low-tech solutions. For example, I foresee a major role for thermal imaging at entrances of any building open to the public – preventing those with fevers from exposing others (and, ideally, at border and customers and immigration checkpoints as well). Initially this will be crudely done by hand-held instruments, requiring workers to “point and shoot” the devices. Workers are being added to support warehousing and delivery of our essentials (and not so essentials) as well.

But I see a greater opportunity for new businesses and jobs in manufacturing. Major companies are already taking a much closer look at their supply chains. Part of our recovery plan should include policies to encourage shortening our supply chains whenever possible, and encouraging our manufacturers to buy American first. But not just shorten but fundamentally change the way we think about our supply chains. For too long, our manufacturers have aimed to make their supply chains as efficient as possible – going for the cheapest source with “Just in Time” delivery. But now we’re seeing “Just-in-time” turning into “Almost never” (e.g., China preventing American factories in China from shipping medical supplies back to the US). The pandemic should teach us that resilience is not the same as efficiency; redundancy (e.g., multiple suppliers) must be built in to avoid loss and for quick recovery (or as we physical scientists say – “Entropy rules!”).

An important part of this rethinking of our supply chains is reducing our dependence on a single source: China, Inc. Our pharmaceutical industry is dependent on Chinese sources of raw materials for about four-fifths of our medicines. China is a primary source of cheap finished medical supplies (e.g., surgical masks). What hasn’t been mentioned enough is that with their Belt and Road initiative, our electronics industry has also become critically dependent on Chinese-controlled sources of precious and rare earth metals. We need to address this in our national recovery strategy – looking at the economics of recovery of critical metals from electronic and other wastes would be an intriguing place to start.

But while entrepreneurial efforts will undoubtedly create new jobs, it is also likely that they won’t be nearly enough for all of the workers displaced by the pandemic. Upgrading our nation’s infrastructure has to play a prime role in putting people back to work. We need to make existing public spaces as pandemic proof as possible. Governor Cuomo’s vision for a New York City that is both more livable and more socially distance-able is a good example. But there are a host of other actions that should be taken to ensure that our infrastructure not only meets present needs but is ready to support our New Normal. For example, rapidly building out and extending the G5 internet throughout the country, especially to rural areas. Hardening existing infrastructure while reimagining how infrastructure can support – perhaps even guide – safer and better living patterns in the future; solving the conundrum of affordable housing; recognizing the value offered by our suburbs in this time of the pandemic. Upgrading our infrastructure will be a tremendous undertaking, with the potential to put all of America back to work. Undoubtedly it will be expensive, costing trillions of dollars, but the return on that investment can be a lasting monument to our resilience.

But just giving people jobs and an income is not enough – the enduring problem that the pandemic has pointed out is that so many of us do not have any savings to tide us over in emergencies, i.e., it’s not so much lack of income, but lack of wealth. We need to find a way to help even the least skilled begin to build a grubstake for emergencies, and to seize opportunities to have a better life. I would suggest that if – as we are being told – we’re in a war, that we harken back to one of the best ideas of the World Wars – bonds, call them Rebuilding America Bonds. If we have to go into debt to repair our economy and reinvigorate our infrastructure, then let’s owe that debt to ourselves, and have that debt aimed at helping the least of us. Give us our income tax refunds in Rebuilding America Bonds. Nudge employers to include Rebuilding America Bonds as part of their pension portfolios. Encourage parents, grandparents, extended family and friends to give Rebuilding America Bonds for birthdays and holidays. Encourage states and communities to float their own version of these bonds to pay for their own infrastructure refurbishment programs, and backstop those programs at the federal level.

For not only our physical infrastructure needs repair; while we say we’re all in this together the words and actions of some are evidence that their “all” is not everyone. We also need to rebuild our trust in each other and our recognition of our common humanity.

Finally, we must – MUST – begin to seriously address the impacts of the pandemic on those just entering or just about to enter the workforce. During the Great Depression, FDR used the WPA and the CCC (enough initialisms there to satisfy even the fussiest of bureaucrats!) as a way to give meaningful work to the jobless. The Civilian Conservation Corps, in particular, gave jobs to about 300,000 youths at a time. Even before the pandemic, about 13% of those 16-25 years of age weren’t in school and didn’t have jobs. Let’s craft programs similar to those implemented 80+ years ago for today’s young people. Have them work at the community level to do needed jobs which will also help them become more employable.

Similarly, we need to think seriously about the minimum wage. While it is kind to consider raising it, it is not wise – here, wisdom is kindness through a telescopic lens, looking at the future impacts of an action. One of those impacts is that raising the minimum wage effectively lowers the boom on young people trying to get the skills necessary for employment. Whatever we decide as a nation to do about the minimum wage, we need to maintain a lower “youth minimum wage” so that there are entry points for even unskilled young people into the workforce. They need to learn the discipline of working at a job; even as they gain the experience and the satisfaction of doing the things to make their jobs a success.

We need to break out of the cocoon of fear fostered by the media – too often minor league politicians-without-portfolios playing “Gotcha Games.” We need to Go Big in our thinking and in our recovery: unleashing our entrepreneurs, rebuilding our infrastructure so that it is both more robust and better sited – and suited – to a changing world; providing our kids with the tools they’re going to need to live – and thrive – in this changing world; supporting the least among us so that they can survive – and lift themselves up – in the world as it changes. This is a different message too often unheard – borne of optimism in our ability to shape a better future for ourselves and our communities.

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Starting to Bring Back Main Street

The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.

Confucius

The one thing we know for sure about our recovery from the coronavirus pandemic is that things will be different. Like Yeats’ rough beast, we will slowly slouch toward a New Normal. There are things that we can reasonably predict will happen along the way, but for now we do not know what’s at path’s end. In the next few posts I’m going to look at recovery. As the title implies, I see recovery as bringing back the Main Streets in our communities; regaining some stability and control in our lives in more resilient communities.

Recently I stumbled across a definition of resilience as purposeful action to achieve positive change. When I define victory as more resilient communities, what I’m saying is that the goal should be to rebuild communities so that they are better able to make good things happen for their members. “Building back better” shouldn’t only apply to buildings and bridges but to all of the tangibles and intangibles that are a part of our communities. To do this, we will have to reestablish community capital; all kinds of community capital.

Central to rebuilding community capital is rebuilding the capital of individuals, families and neighborhoods. Over the last decade we’ve heard a lot about income inequality, but too little about wealth. It’s estimated that about 39% of Americans have sufficient savings to deal with an $1,000 emergency. When these emergencies inevitably occur, those affected must rely on others to help them make it through: they must have social capital to cope. The question becomes “how do we help them build their capital accounts so that they can better cope with emergencies?”

Because recovery means looking at all types of community capital, I’m breaking this into several parts. In this first part, like the Confucian mechanic, I’m doing my due diligence – sharpening my tools (and wits – both of them) for what’s to come: defining the goal, and trying to see where we’ll be when the fog of our war with the virus clears.

• First, time. We can’t know when this first wave will end, but my best guess – and hope that I’m too pessimistic – is that we’ll be able to really begin on the recovery by the 4th of July. If we accept the rule of thumb that full recovery will take ten times as long as the period of loss, that means five years! There is likely to be a second wave come fall; we should be much better prepared to contain the damage to our communities than we were for this first round.

• Next, the economy. Unfortunately, the recently passed “Stimulus” bill won’t stimulate the economy very much; at best, it will allow many working people to stabilize their living arrangements – mortgages or rents, keeping food on the table. Small businesses and their employees will be the most likely to suffer. A study by the JP Morgan Chase Institute found that the 50% of small businesses had only enough cash to last 27 days. The picture was even grimmer for labor-intensive, low-wage sectors of the economy (restaurants, retail, repair and maintenance, and personal services): the financial buffer of 50% of these businesses was two-three weeks. In my small city, most of the local restaurants have tried to make a go of it via take-out only service. Today’s paper headlined that two of the most popular couldn’t make a go of it. More will follow their lead.

The most fragile businesses were the ones that with the most minority- and woman-ownership. Conversely, capital-intensive, higher-wage sectors (e.g., high tech manufacturing) had over one month of cash buffer. I’m afraid that much of the money allocated for small business loans won’t be accessed – what small business-person will want to take on more debt in a very volatile economic environment? If you’re a restaurant owner, reopening while people are remembering social distancing is risky business.

And, sadly, we’re likely going to see 8-digit unemployment figures. About 20% of restaurant workers already live below the poverty line. About one-third of our workers were barely getting by as part of the gig economy. Undoubtedly the number of cost-burdened and severely cost-burdened renters – and the number of the homeless – will spike.

• Social capital. In a recent column, George Friedman wrote that Canceling social life … cuts against not only the economy but, even more, what it means to be human. Several years ago, a group supported by CARRI* walked through a Whole Community pandemic exercise. One of the things that struck us was the potentially drastic social changes that might occur. Even before the appearance of the virus, we were seeing fewer family networks and, often, almost no contact even between next door neighbors. While many families are soldiering on in this world of social distancing, the bonding and bridging ties that hold our communities together are being further stretched and unraveled; . This is coming at a time of great distrust in our institutions: see the anti-social antics of the Spring Breakers. Once the crisis is over, I foresee something like the social upheaval of the early 1920’s after the Spanish flu pandemic. I also anticipate that both births and divorces will spike! And the elites will segregate themselves further from the rest of us.

• Human capital. The impacts of the crisis on our young people may be the greatest price we will pay, in the long-term. I’ve written before about the problems of youth unemployment; automation and increases in the minimum wage are conspiring to make many of them (esp. young men of color) unemployable. The closing of schools only adds to this. While we are seeing an uptick in online education particularly for colleges and universities, the teachers unions in Pennsylvania and Oregon have used their political power to prevent cyber charter schools from accepting new students. In spite of this, “teleschool” is probably an idea whose time has come.

• Institutional capital. Many of our government institutions have been conspicuous in their incompetence. Closing our borders undoubtedly bought us some time to prepare but – without doubt – we frittered that away in bureaucratic failures. But the rot goes beyond that – our responses to so many of the crises we’ve faced in recent years demonstrates our perverse inability to take action in the absence of a crisis.

Thus, I believe that the national recovery effort will trigger one of the seminal battles in our nation’s history: pitting those who still believe in our federal system of government against those who believe that we must fundamentally change our expand federal power while limiting state and local autonomy. While I want to remain nonpolitical in this essay, our response to COVID-19 indicates that – wherever we are between these two poles – our nation needs to find an approach to crisis management that is faster and more effective.

Once we get through this initial stage of the virus, the real work will begin: rebuilding our economy and reknitting our social fabric. Undoubtedly, some – many? – of the details surrounding my projections of where we’ll be when we begin recovery planning will be proven wrong. However, I strongly believe that the goal is right: building more resilient communities; communities better able to take action to improve our lives. Whether right or wrong, the most important thing is to have a goal in mind for recovery and then to plan and above all ACT to achieve it.


* Jane Kushma, Andy Felts, Susan Kammeraad-Campbell, Charlene Milliken and I.

Pretty heavy stuff! On the lighter side, I recently stumbled across an apocryphal letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald on his approach to social isolation during the Spanish flu pandemic.

The officials have alerted us to ensure we have a month’s worth of necessities. Zelda and I have stocked up on red wine, whiskey, rum, vermouth, absinthe, white wine, sherry, gin, and lord, if we need it, brandy. Please pray for us.