Are we the greatest country in the world?

I want to share with you my thoughts on the current state of our country.

I want to, but I’m afraid I can’t quite put my thoughts into words. However, you buy this newspaper or read us online for a reason, and I feel obligated to try and do so. Just bear with me.

To start, I’ll quote from a monologue in the pilot episode of “The Newsroom,” an HBO political drama that aired from 2012-2014. Jeff Daniels plays the lead character, Will McAvoy, who is the anchor of a fictitious nightly news broadcast.

The episode starts with McAvoy addressing a large crowd in an auditorium. He’s asked by an attendee why he thinks America is the greatest country in the world. His response, “It’s not the greatest country in the world,” creates a media firestorm, and much of the first season revolves around the fallout from those remarks.

Of course, those remarks were written for dramatic effect, and they’re certainly controversial. They were a great hook for the beginning of the TV show. Unfortunately, though, the writers of that outstanding monologue were right.

We’re not the greatest country in the world. We’ve fooled ourselves into thinking we are. We like to portray ourselves as an enlightened people, and we love to pretend that we’re much better than we actually are. That smug sense of superiority has caused us to rot from the inside.

Consider the fact that more than 100,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and there’s been no national day of mourning. In fact, many of us have decided the virus is just an inconvenience, and we’ve moved on with our lives. Damn the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions; they’ll have to fend for themselves, right? After all, this world is survival of the fittest, and we care only about ourselves.

Of course, that’s only one problem facing our country. Millions of Americans lack basic access to health care due to high prices and lack of insurance. Poverty remains a huge problem even as we add billions more to the coffers of our nation’s richest citizens. Our political system, the two-party republic, is utterly broken, and politicians seem to do nothing but bicker. The president adds fuel to every fire we have, and local leaders (I’m looking at you, Hal Marx) take their cues from him.

We allow hatred to go unchecked, and discrimination occurs for bafflingly stupid reasons such as sexual orientation, gender identity or other factors. Racism still runs rampant, and our minority populations deal with inequalities at every level. Black Americans are dying at much higher rates from COVID-19, and they’re being murdered in the streets by corrupt police officers.

The saddest thing is that many of us refuse to see these harsh realities. We instead see the government asking us to wear masks in public to prevent the spread of a dangerous virus as oppression, and we cry out in protest over it. We’re a selfish people, and that selfishness has been on full display throughout this pandemic.

I don’t know the solution to our country’s problems, but I think the first step in solving them is at least recognizing them. If we’re all truly patriots like we claim to be, we should acknowledge our faults, come together and resolve to fix them. With the current state of our country, I don’t know if that’s possible, but I don’t see another way forward.

I’m gravely concerned about our country’s future, and all I know is that I want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Will you join me?

The coronavirus relief package: Complicated, expensive and necessary

The federal government recently approved a $3 trillion economic relief package to respond to the coronavirus crisis, and, despite the sticker shock, it seems to be a mostly good and necessary piece of legislation.

Democrats and Republicans alike deserve a round of applause for working together to get the package, officially called the CARES Act, passed. There’s a healthy amount of criticism that can be assigned to either side and to the president for the government’s slow response, but the relief package is a good start.

However, a start is all it is. Other countries are doing more to guarantee lost wages and stabilize their flailing economies, and I believe it’s only a matter of time before our federal government has to inject even more money into American households, especially as unemployment numbers soar and as the economy continues on a nosedive trajectory.

For now, government-issued stimulus checks will be coming to most Americans. The one-time check will depend on income, but single adults who have an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or less can expect $1,200. Married couples without children who earn $150,000 or less will receive $2,400.

Taxpayers who file as head of household and earn $112,500 or less can also expect $1,200. For every qualifying child age 16 or under, there will be additional payments of $500. The total check decreases for higher incomes and stops altogether for single people earning $99,000 or married people who have no children and earn $198,000.

The check will arrive within three weeks, and the amount will be based on 2019 or 2018 tax data. If you haven’t filed a 2019 return yet, it may be a good time to do so, especially if you’ve recently moved, updated other personal information or if your income has changed. The IRS will directly deposit funds to your bank if they have your account information on file.

The check comes with few strings attached, and you won’t be required to pay income taxes on the additional money. People who receive Social Security retirement and disability payments each month will receive a stimulus check, as will eligible unemployed people and veterans. The relief package also temporarily suspends most garnishments except for child support.

The CARES Act greatly expands unemployment insurance coverage. Self-employed and part-time workers are now eligible for benefits. People suffering from COVID-19 – or those caring for someone with the virus – are also eligible for assistance. Also covered under the package are parents who have seen their daycare provider close due to the pandemic.

The package also adds an additional $600 to the maximum unemployment insurance weekly benefit offered by each state. In Mississippi, the maximum weekly benefit is $235, meaning an unemployed worker in the state could receive $835 per week with the addition of the federal cash. The additional $600 weekly benefit can last up to four months.

Most Americans with student loans will benefit from the CARES Act. Loan payments are suspended until October, and interest is also suspended for the six-month period. These rules are for direct loans – or money borrowed from the federal government – and will impact 90 percent of student loans, according to the Institute for College Access & Success.

Another benefit is the more than $370 billion in government-backed bank loans that are now available for small businesses through the U.S. Small Business Administration. The loans are meant to help cover monthly expenses like payroll, rent and utilities, and businesses will not have to repay portions of loans used for these purposes.

The CARES Act also pushes $140 billion to the U.S. health system, including $100 billion directly to hospitals. The cash is meant to provide personal protective equipment to health care workers and also boost the supply of COVID-19 testing kits. Under the legislation, virus testing – and any potential vaccines – are to be covered at no cost for patients.

Additionally, evictions are temporarily suspended for renters whose landlords have mortgages backed or owned by federal entities. These landlords are also prohibited from charging any late fees for nonpayment of rent. Homeowners with mortgages backed by federal entities are protected from foreclosures for as long as 180 days.

If cash is needed to recover from the pandemic, the package temporarily suspends the 10 percent penalty on withdrawals from individual retirement accounts or workplace retirement plans and spreads any income taxes owed on withdrawn money over three years. Americans can also borrow up to $100,000 from their 401(k) or other workplace retirement plan.

The legislation has many other interesting – and impactful – provisions, including increased cash for the agricultural bailout program, a year-long extension of the REAL ID program, new rules for charitable deductions and billions of dollars for state, local and tribal governments. This money is to be used for local disaster relief funds, election security grants and even transit improvements. 

Of course, getting this piece of legislation passed was a politically charged process, and the final bill also includes a $454 billion emergency lending fund for businesses, states and cities. Within this provision is nearly $60 billion for airlines and $17 billion for companies “critical to maintaining national security,” such as Boeing and perhaps even the oil industry.

These payments do come with strings attached. Bailed-out corporations must keep most of their workforce, stop buying back shares of their own stock, cap the pay of their executives and end dividend payments to shareholders while receiving aid.

Like I said, the CARES Act is mostly good, but I could have done without billion-dollar corporate bailouts. I’m hopeful, though, that the aid provided to average Americans and to small businesses will prove that this relief package was necessary, and I hope the government will take additional steps if they need to do so.

Americans need to be financially empowered during this crisis, and our leaders must be ready to act before the crisis worsens – and not react, as they did this time.

Trump has failed the country with pandemic response

The COVID-19 pandemic should be the end of the road for the Trump presidency.

The federal government has failed in its initial response, and that responsibility falls squarely on the president’s shoulders. He was elected to lead, and he has proven he is unable to do so.

Of course, what was anyone really expecting from Trump? This is the president who has tried – multiple times – to cut funding for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He also fired the U.S. pandemic response team, and he didn’t replace them. This is also the president who said, just a few weeks ago, that the virus was a new “Democratic hoax.”

I don’t know what changed his tune this past week when he finally declared a national state of emergency. It may have been his own close call with COVID-19 – after all, he was supposedly tested after being exposed to it at Mar-a-Lago – or it may have been the fact that thousands of Americans have now fallen ill with the virus. I guess it’s hard to persist with the “hoax” talk when your own people are dying.

Whatever the case may be, I’m afraid our government’s response is “too little, too late,” especially as other countries have implemented strong testing measures and even started quarantines. In South Korea, for example, residents can go through drive-thru testing sites and get results texted directly to their cellphones within 10 minutes. By the way, did I mention the test is free, paid for by the government?

Hong Kong is another example. After the first cases were detected, the government quickly developed diagnostic tests and deployed them to every major hospital. More than 12,000 people were placed in quarantine, and government leaders called for calm. With a unified response, Hong Kong is seeing a limited number of cases instead of explosive impacts.

A similar situation can be found in Singapore and in several other countries. The countries hit the hardest, such as Italy and Iran, all failed to respond quickly to the pandemic and downplayed its enormous impact. Those countries have casualty numbers in the thousands.

The U.S. response should have been immediate and decisive. Instead, as one article put it, we are acting like a “failed state” with no idea how to handle such a crisis. Our leaders don’t have consistent messaging, and Trump has even tried to control public health notices issued from the CDC. As Ashish Jha, who runs the Harvard Global Health Institute, put it, our government’s response has been a “fiasco.”

The U.S. is currently reporting thousands of cases, but that number is probably extremely low due to a weeks-long delay in deploying tests, said Jha. He expects the number to be probably “five to 10 times as many cases out in the community as have actually been detected,” according to an NPR report.

“Without testing, you have no idea how extensive the infection is. You can’t isolate people. You can’t do anything,” he said. “And so then we’re left with a completely different set of choices. We have to shut schools, events and everything down, because that’s the only tool available to us until we get testing back up. It’s been stunning to me how bad the federal response has been.”

The responsibility for the “fiasco” of the federal response goes back to Trump. This hasn’t been a hoax, Mr. President, and you and your administration will go down in history as extremely ineffective and weak in a time of crisis.

When Trump took office, his inaugural address was about stopping the “American carnage,” but as our casualty numbers mount, I wonder what the carnage will look like over the next few months. It’s a terrifying proposition.

We can’t afford another crisis with Trump at the helm (literally … I mean, take a look at the stock market), and we certainly can’t afford four more years of potential disaster because we have such an irresponsible leader.

Trump must be voted out in November. It’s no longer a game of politics. It’s a game of our survival.