Go Ahead and Panic

The National Basketball Association has indefinitely suspended the rest of its regular season, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association won’t allow any fans to attend its men’s or women’s “March Madness” post season basketball games, so we’re starting to take this coronavirus pandemic seriously. Universally beloved movie star Tom Hanks and his wife have reportedly tested positive for the disease, so apparently no one is safe.
President Donald Trump went on prime time television from the Oval Office on Wednesday to reassure the public that there’s no need for panic, but he also announced he’s banning any travel from European countries for the next 30 days and is preparing to deficit spend billions propping up a suddenly ailing economy, so you can draw your own conclusions based on how much you trust his self-proclaimed very stable genius. From what we’ve seen of it over the past three years, we’re inclined to panic.
Trump was loudly sniffing at the end of every sentence, but he’d been doing that long before anyone had heard of a coronavirus, so we’re not bothered by that, even if Trump has come in contact with with several people who are self-quarantining themselves after coming into contact with people who have contracted the virus. We’re more bothered that Trump fired all of his National Security Council’s experts on global pandemics when he came into office, spent the first weeks of the pandemic claiming it was yet another hoax concocted by his political opponents to make him look bad, so far failed to deliver on a promise of testing for everybody, and has urged people to keep going to work and coming to his campaign rallies even if they have reason to believe they’ve contracted the virus.
Even before anyone ever heard of a coronavirus Trump was eager to restrict any interaction between America and the rest of the world, and the travel restrictions he’s imposed in the wake of the pandemic might well prove sound public policy, but it’s not good for either the global nor the intertwined American economies. Trump has declared himself pleased that Americans will stay in America and spend their dollars here, but as a luxury hotel mogul he should know that America gets more from international travel it spends, and that when basketball games and music festivals and intrastate business meetings and domestic airline flights and cruise ship bookings are being cancelled and supply chains are being interrupted there will be serious economic repercussions.
All the smart money is already panicked about it, with all the major stock exchanges down by 20 points over the last weeks into what is now officially Bear Market territory, after a remarkable 11-year run of Bull Markets, which any Republican will have to admit is eight years longer than Trump has been in office. Trump is urging the Federal Reserve Board to further lower interest rates, which are already pretty much zero, and to keep up the “quantitative easing” of freshly printed money that Republican used to decry, which now have the 2- and 10- and 20- and even the 100-year bond yields at pretty much zero, and is promising to add a few few puny billions of dollars to the nation’s latest $1 trillion dollar deficit to offset all the economic carnage. We’ll find out today and in the coming days how the smart money reacts to that.
Shortly before Trump’s address to the nation, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci, who seems to know even more about this coronavirus thing than than Trump, warned a House oversight committee that “Things will get worse.”

In any case we’ll hope for the best. We won’t being showing up at anyone’s campaign rallies, as no one seems to know what to do about this, but we will try to show up at the West Douglas Church of Christ and Kirby’s Beer Store, and maybe even watch all the great basketball on our computer or some local tavern’s television. If we’re lucky, life will go on.

— Bud Norman

Chinese Torture

China has been feuding with the rest of the world for a while, and for now it seems to be winning. The economic powerhouse shows no sign of retreating from its trade war with the United States, is successfully pushing around such major American businesses as the National Basketball Association, and continues to crack down on dissent in Hong Kong and its Uighur and Kazakh and Uzbek regions with unabashed ruthlessness.
President Donald Trump has famously proclaimed that “trade wars are good and easy to win,” but so far that’s not how the one he started with China has turned out. The tariffs that Trump has imposed on Chinese imports have done harm to the country’s economy, but the American companies and consumers who pay them have also taken a hit, and the retaliatory tariffs the Chinese imposed have hurt the farmers and ranchers and manufacturing workers and service workers even worse.
The American manufacturing sector that Trump promised to restore to its blue-collar glory is now in recession, the white collar guys are cutting back on investment, and farm bankruptcies and suicides are up despite the billions of dollars Trump has doled out in subsidies. The overall economy has slowed, and although we’re still adding jobs it’s at a slower pace, and there’s no consolation in China’s woes or the slowing global economy.
All of which comes at a time when Trump is preoccupied with an impeachment inquiry and an already perilous reelection campaign, while Chinese dictator-for-life Xi Jinping can more easily withstand the economic pain of his people. Trump is the self-proclaimed master of “The Art of the Deal,” as well as a “very stable genius” with a “very big brain” and “unmatched wisdom,” but he finds himself in a disadvantaged position when negotiating with China. He’ll be tempted to surrender to China’s extortionist demands and sell it as the best deal ever, knowing that most of his die-hard fans will believe it, while XI will patiently await either that outcome or the results of the next presidential election, and the smart money seems to be digging in for a prolonged trade war with no happy outcome for anyone.
Meanwhile, the smart money in several major American industries seems willing to accede to China’s extortionist demands. One of the strongest arguments for a trade war with China is its extortionist demand that foreign companies doing business there agree to share their high-tech intellectual property with the country’s competing businesses, but many billions of dollars worth of American companies both big and small have figured it’s worth it to gain access to the market of more than a billion increasingly affluent Chinese.
The increasingly affluent Chinese consumers have a taste for America’s decadent popular culture, which is one of our country’s biggest export industries, and many of the big movie studios and recording companies and comic book publishers and internet streaming services have so far agreed to China’s strict censorship of what they sell to that vast Chinese audience, and have too often altered what they present to American audiences. The current glut of action-adventure movies that have degraded the America is largely because they’re mostly dialogue-free, and easily translated to a larger foreign market that is equally blood-thirsty in its cinematic tastes, but the studios are also steering away from anything politically offensive to the Chinese dictatorship that controls access to the increasingly affluent Chinese market.
The latest example is China’s feud with the National Basketball Association, of all people, which is hard to explain. Back during the Cultural Revolution the Chinese dictatorship tried to erase any western influence from the motherland, including classical music and impressionist art and the western literary canon and the Judeo-Christian tradition, but Chairman Mao Tse Tung was as avid a hoops fan as any Kansas boy and somehow the great American game of basketball was given a pass. Playgrounds and club teams flourished, the Chinese developed an appreciation of the game, and when the freakishly tall and talented Yao Ming started at center for the NBA’s Houston Rockets the increasingly affluent fans got to see him play against the most talented players in the world. It was a hit show in China, even after Yao’s remarkable career was ended by the injuries that usually affect 7’5″ guys, and the NBA has been raking in big bucks in the increasingly affluent Chinese market ever since.
The general manager of the aforementioned Houston Rockets issued a “tweet” that he stood with those Hong Kong protestors, though, and after that China announced it wouldn’t be televising the two NBA exhibition games that had been scheduled, and that the rest of the NBA season was also in doubt. That led the NBA’s commissioner to apologize for the “tweet,” and the enormously talented but entirely self-interested shooting guard of the Rockets to opine that he’d been treated very well by the Chinese during his exhibition game there, and it looked like a sellout of American free speech values to the even more lucrative Chinese basketball market. At this point the NBA commissioner is making clear that he apologizes for the “tweet” but not the American free speech values that allowed it, and he’s on the plane to China for those exhibition games even if they aren’t being televised, and some deal might yet be worked out. By coincidence Yao is now the commissioner of the Chinese Basketball Association, and we assume he has some sway with the Chinese dictatorship.
Those democracy-demanding Hong Kong protestors that the general manager “tweeted” about won’t find any succor, on the other hand, and the Trump administration doesn’t seem to care much about them during ongoing trade negotiations. Some high Chinese officials have been banned due to the crackdowns on the Uighurs and Kazakhs and Uzbekis, but those are all restive Muslim populations, so they shouldn’t count on Trump’s continued support as he pursues the greatest trade deal ever.
China’s a major world power, with economic and military and diplomatic strength to challenge the United States, and it doesn’t have to play by the rules of democratic western world, and it seems to understand that Trump’s self-proclaimed powers seem puny by comparison. China is also a foe of pretty much the rest of the modern world, though, and against its combined might they look puny. If some first world superpower were to give up its petty feuds with its erstwhile allies and lead a united front the Chinese would be at a negotiating disadvantage, and might be forced to allow free trade as well freedom to its people, but for now and the foreseeable future the Chinese are winning.

— Bud Norman

Placing a Bet on Sports Gambling

The sports pages offered no refuge from politics on Monday, as the big story of the day was a Supreme Court decision overturning the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, a federal law that prohibited states other than Nevada from legalizing and regulating and benefitting from betting on athletic contests. All the sports scribes expect it will have a significant effect on their beats, and we’d wager they’re right.
The Supreme Court’s decision is sound, at least from our political and jurisprudential perspective. Dealing with sports betting strikes us as one of those powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, and the tenth amendment specifically “reserves those powers to the states respectively, or to the people.” This has long proved wise, as these sorts of things are generally better handled by the states, or better yet by the people.
Still, we hope that most of the states will refrain from legalizing and regulating and cashing in  on the sports bookmaking racket. So far the only state already set to do so is New Jersey, which brought the lawsuit to the courts, but Delaware, Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are expected to soon follow, and there are bound to be a lot more later on. It’s going to take a lot of lobbying to make it happen here in Kansas, which long resisted the few small Indian casinos that have recently popped up outside the most populous cities, but it could happen eventually.
Opposed to New Jersey in its protracted lawsuit were the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball, all of whom regard sports gambling as a threat to their businesses. Although the friendly side bet between fans probably enhances interest in their offerings, and all those office pools have made the NCAA’s annual basketball championship tournaments something of a national mania every March, the sports moguls rightly worry that with bigger bucks on the seedier elements on the sporting scene’s fringes will have an incentive to pay off players and fix the games. Except for Vince McMahon’s pro wrestling freak show all the big-time sports depend on a perception that their games are fair contests between teams trying their best to win, and the occasional point-shaving and game-fixing scandals that have afflicted all of them at one time or another have always found it bad for business.
Which is not the only way we’ve noticed that betting takes some of the fun out of sports. Many’s the time we’ve seen a die-hard fan watch his beloved team win a big game, but instead of exulting in the victory he fumes that they only won by 19 points and didn’t cover the 20-point spread. Their teams are less beloved when on a losing streak, too, and they seem not to notice the aesthetic beauty of a winning streak. Sport is supposed to be a a welcome break from serious matters, and it inevitably loses that appeal when your baby’s new pair of shoes are on the line.
Gambling is one of the few vices we’ve never been susceptible to, so we’ll not cast the first stone against anyone who puts a few bucks down on the hometown heroes, but its increasing ubiquity does seem to contribute our general cultural rot. It’s a sucker’s game in the long run, like so much of our increasingly coarse culture, and it holds out the same impossible promise of something for nothing that permeates our increasingly corrupt politics. We’re willing to let the people decide for themselves how to deal with sports betting, but we’re always uncomfortable with governments getting involved.
Governments are established as a monopoly on the protection racket, after all, and that should suffice to fund their many good works, so we can’t see why they should move in on the gambling rackets. There’s a strong short term argument that some people are going to gamble in any event, what with human beings being such suckers, and that the money should be going to the government’s many good works rather than your local bookie and kneecapping collector, but in the longer run gamblers always lose. Some people are going patronize prostitutes in any case, and ingest all sorts of dangerous drugs in any case, and indulge in all sorts of other socially unhealthy behavior in any case, and there’s same short term argument to be made in every case that the government’s good works might as well get their cut of the action.
In the longer term, governments tend to be just as as greedy as your local bookmaker and as ruthless as his kneecapping collector, or your neighbor pimp or dangerous drug dealer or newfangled cult leader, but they still somehow have the ability to give not only the imprimatur of respectability but well-funded advertising campaigns to activities that previous generations of democracy considered socially unhealthy, and the odds are always against that working out. A few decades ago the state of New Jersey laid down a huge bet on now-President Donald Trump’s now-defunct garish casinos and strip clubs, and it proved as prescient as a bet on Trump’s now-defunct New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League, which was not a party to the recent Supreme Court-settled lawsuit because it is also now-defunct. If the feds or the states or any government tries to hone in on the prostitution and drug and other assorted rackets, they’ll eventually wind up with the same problems.
Still, we think the Supreme Court was wise to decide that according to the Constitution the states and the people are free to make their own mistakes about these matters, and we only hope that most of the states and most of the people choose as wisely.
If you do place a sports bet at your local state-funding bookmaker, though, we’d advise that you don’t bet on college kids, take the spread on the pro underdog that’s facing a heavy favorite at the end of a long road trip, and by all means take the spread on an any underdog that’s still fighting for a playoff spot against a team that’s already clinched a high seed. Over many years we’ve taken a purely intellectual interest in the sports lines, and have long noticed that we could have made a fortune on these insights.
By the way, the Boston Red Sox lost by a mere run to the plucky Oakland Athletics on Monday, putting our beloved New York Yankees temporarily in sole possession of the American League East lead and baseball’s record by half-a-game. That should have been the biggest sports story of the day, and we didn’t even have any money riding on it.

— Bud Norman

How to Begin a Stormy Monday

Although the rest of the world seemed to continue right along on its downward trajectory, judging by the snippets of news we found time to peruse, at least the rest of the weekend here on the prairie provided some much needed distractions.
Our retreat from reality began Friday evening, when we noticed that Netflix had at long last come through with a fourth season of “Orange is the New Black,” its very popular and oh-so-critically acclaimed women-in-prison saga. Despite our usual aversion to anything popular or acclaimed by the current batch of critics we’ve always been suckers for a women-in-prison saga, so we devoted an embarrassing amount of the next 24 hours to binge-watching that. To avoid the risk of any plot spoilers we’ll just say we found it pleasantly distracting, despite a disappointing paucity of the nude shower scenes and lesbian frisson that makes the women-in-prison genre so compelling, and we’re pleased that this previously very feminist take on the genre seemed very sympathetic to some of the male characters, and it even takes the side of the flawed but mostly idealistic warden over his obnoxious girlfriend, even if it blames that on her corporate job at a for-profit prison company, and we’ll eagerly be awaiting for who knows how many months to find out how the season-ending and racially-charged cliff-hanging prison riot turns out. Oops, sorry for that plot spoiler.
Saturday involved a funeral for the very fine and most interesting fellow who always sat just one pew in front of us at church, and an overdue haircut with our neighborhood barber, who is so good at his job and charges such reasonable prices that you have to book an appointment a week in advance, and in between these choirs and throughout the evening there were the thunderstorms that often pop up around this time of year. The recent torrential rains have made the grass throw thick and tall, but provided us with an excuse for not cutting it, and for finishing an entire season of a women-in-prison saga, and on the whole they were another pleasant and slightly cooling distraction.
Sunday was Father’s Day, and our Mom and Pop have moved back to town from Back East after a few decades so following church we had a pleasant lunch with the both of them, with the conversation only slightly touching on the news as we all agreed it’s too unpleasant to talk about on such a nice sunny day. Of course Father’s Day always comes during the final round of the United States Open Golf Championship, and our Pop was an avid golfer who once hit a much-bragged about hole-in-one, so there was some talk about that, as well as ancient horse racing history, due to some movies they’d recently watched, as well as the evening’s deciding seventh game in the National Basketball Association’s championship. Our Mom’s a rather astute sports fan as well, and was able to correct our Pop that the NBA finals were indeed that night, but we wound up not missing it all while at the Wichita Music Theater’s production of “Nice Work If You Can Get It” at downtown’s Century II building.
As former theater critics for the local newspaper, back when it had the money and staffing to review local theater, we can tell you it was such as great show that we didn’t mind missing the games at all. A guy we always liked named Dustin Johnson won his first major championship at the U.S. Open, the Cleveland Cavaliers won that city its first major professional championship in 52 years, upsetting the defending Golden State Warriors and depriving San Francisco of yet another trophy, and we had Gershwin music happily in our eyes as we read the results. We took a peek at the rest of it, and will get around to that during a dreary week that includes dentistry and other unhappy chores, but for now we’re savoring the respite from reality.

— Bud Norman

Contretemps on the Court

The best players in the world are showcasing their skills in the National Basketball Association’s playoffs, but all the sports world can talk about is a spat between one of the team owners and his girlfriend.
For unknown reasons the spat between Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and paramour V. Stiviano was recorded on audio tape, for unknown reasons the tape wound up in the hands of the widely-read TMZ.com celebrity gossip internet site, and for obvious reasons it has since become the biggest basketball brouhaha in a while. Any argument between a married and fabulously wealthy white 81-year-old sports mogul and his 26-year-old half-black, half-Mexican girlfriend will provoke a certain amount of prurient interest in the readers of celebrity gossip sites, but this argument concerned his objections to her publicizing her friendships with blacks and Hispanics on social media. Add the element of race to such a salacious story and the media coverage goes into the full-press mode usually reserved for missing Malaysian airliners, other celebrities weigh in with their indignation, major figures in the sport call for the offender’s banishment, and even the President of the United States feels obliged to interrupt a trade mission to Asia to add his disapproving comment.
This all seems rather inordinate, although there’s certainly no defending the comments Sterling can be heard making. We listened to the entirety of his telephoned confrontation with his girlfriend, despite the creepy voyeuristic feelings it induced, and could not escape the consensus conclusion that he’s a racist as well as an all-around jerk. The world is rife with racists of all colors, however, and if the media intend to occupy themselves with chastising all the all-around jerks there won’t be time left cover any of the issues of real significance. When the controversy starts to overshadow the scores, some perspective is required.
Having duly acknowledged the repugnant racism of Sterling’s side of the conversation, we’d like to note a few other issues that will be largely overlooked among the mass harrumphing. There’s a troubling matter of how we wound up listening to what an American citizen had every right to expect was a private conversation, for one thing. We are as ardent defenders of freedom of the press as any of the big media that are piling scorn on Sterling, but we also believe in a sufficient sphere of privacy to allow for contentious conversations with girlfriends. Our suspicion is that all of Sterling’s critics, right up to the President, would also prefer some privacy regarding such matters.
Also worth noting is how very odd Sterling’s views seem. Aside from the oddity of a octogenarian white man spouting racist opinions to his 20-something mixed-race girlfriend, and the irony of a registered Democrat who routinely signs multi-million paychecks to the black employees who have lately made his business successful objecting to any association with minorities, Sterling’s rant is strikingly archaic. At one point in the conversation he tells his girlfriend that he objects her being seen in the company of other minorities because “I live in a culture,” and he insists that culture will bring its opprobrium down on any inter-ethnic friendships. Apparently being an 81-year-old multi-billionaire can leave one so very disassociated with modern society that Sterling did not realize that now society brings its opprobrium down on anyone who doesn’t conscientiously seek out such relationships, but we assume he has by now been brought up to date. Some critics have seized the opportunity to lament how very common Sterling’s views are, but they’d be hard-pressed to explain why they’re still newsworthy.
Calls for Sterling’s banishment from the NBA further raise the question of whether someone’s property rights should be voided as a result of his opinions, no matter how repulsive those opinions might be. The owner of the Dallas Mavericks franchise has endorsed the “911 truther” conspiracy theories, which we find highly offensive, and professional sports team owners in general are a sleazy lot ever-eager to reach into the taxpayers’ wallets and gorge their most loyal customers, but purging the business of all but the righteous will leave us with an insufficient amount of sports.
There’s something uncomfortable, too, about the way that contemporary society so severely punishes any deviation from its latest orthodoxy on race. The same scorn that is heaped on the likes of outright racists such as Sterling also falls on the likes of Charles Murray, the brilliant sociologist who inspired the welfare reform that did so much to benefit black America, or Clarence Thomas, the black Supreme Court Justice who bravely works for a truly color-blind legal system, or countless others who criticize the policies that have lately brought high unemployment and declining wealth to the minorities of America.
Then again, we never did care for Sterling. Old-time basketball fans will recall the decades when the Clippers were the laughingstocks of professional American sports, with Sterling’s tightfistedness and propensity to overrule the basketball experts in his employ the obvious causes of their ineptitude, and we’re disinclined to root for any team located in Los Angeles. We have an admiration for the play of former University of Oklahoma Sooner Blake Griffin and the unabashedly nerdish Chris Paul, and like that they have supplanted the hated Los Angeles Lakers as the city’s top team, but even before the latest revelations we were never Clippers fans. The Clippers’ owner is apparently a racist and an all-around jerk, but we’ll just keep hoping the Boston Celtics can get another Bill Russell or Larry Bird and turn our attention to more consequential stories.

–Bud Norman