Why We Must Be Optimistic in a Pandemic

I’m trying really hard to force myself to be optimistic. Why? Because it’s the only viable option.

As I type, a train of dump trucks is relentlessly moving dirt excavated from the neighboring bayou to a staging ground across the road as part of flood control project stemming from the disastrous overflows from a federal reservoir in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. This multi-million project was overdue before the 2017 hurricane, which inundated much of southeast Texas, including our neighborhood.

The year before, we had the notorious Tax Day Flood, which came during a heavy spring rain. The Addicks Reservoir at that time held in flood waters for two months. With Harvey, the decision was made to release flood waters to prevent the dam from breaching. Sitting upstream with water up to our home’s weep holes, we watched the temporary lake around us subside as areas downstream became awash with outflows from the dam. We only spent about nine days cooped up in the house with that event. Now, we can drive out and about, but have mostly stayed home for the past two months for fear of catching covid-19. Fear, yes, I said it. It’s a scary gamble. While many more apparently have survived, about 90,000 Americans have succumbed to the ravages of the new virus.

My congressman, Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, offered a risk/reward analysis of sorts in an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal, in which he notes not everyone has the luxury of staying at home to work. In his piece, “Why Does Reopening Polarize Us?”, Rep. Crenshaw suggests that conservatives are more apt to take risks compared to liberals.

Risk management is well known to capitalists on Wall Street, home of the people who create capital markets, invent financial instruments and manage investments. I grew up in that part of the world and can’t help but notice that a lot of Wall Street types are not politically typecast. Some are liberals and some are conservatives. No single ideology or worldview dominates the world of high finance. To borrow the old adage, this is why horse races exist. People bet on risks.

For example, the Harris County Flood Control District won approval of Harris County voters for $2.5 billion in bonds over 10-15 years to pay for flood control projects, including the one to clear debris out of the adjoining bayou. Where is the risk? The risk takers are the investors in the bonds, who are betting the county entity will be able to service the debt, i.e., pay them back.

By the way, the particular flood mitigation project with all the trucks is a joint project with the county and the federal reservoir manager, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; some of the project entails clearing up part of the federal reservoir. Rep. Crenshaw (see above) supported the project and came out to a shovel-turning event on the bayou here last May. I got to thank him in person. I do not agree with every opinion he expresses. I agree with many, but dispense with others. And, that is OK. It’s impossible to be completely aligned on every issue and frankly, we should not be in the free marketplace of ideas.

Dan Crenshaw and other officials at flood control project event
May 31, 2019 shovel-turning event to kick off a joint flood control project on a bayou adjoining Addicks Reservoir, Harris County, Texas.

The flood control bond issue is a great illustration of risk taking in a capitalistic democracy. Voters approved the bond program and investors bought in. Not everyone in the country is required to partake. Self-selecting market participants bought into the risk.

This is not a partisan undertaking. We do, however, have a partisan problem in this country. Even if a cure for covid-19 took hold today, we have a lot of work to do to better understand each other and work better together.

It would be one thing is people calling for a reopening of the economy agreed that masks might play a crucial role in curtailing the spread. Or, if they acknowledged that not every space, including offices, should be at 100% capacity. This might be bad news for commercial real estate investors, but not every company is going to require all the office space they traditionally have used. Not yet. Not soon. Certainly not immediately. So, some leases might not be renewed as they were.

It would also be helpful if the stay-home only advocates would not mock everyone who is trying to support local businesses. I haven’t ventured to a salon, but I gather from news images that barbers, hair stylists and manicurists are limiting how many people come in and they’re wearing masks. Some restaurants here in Houston have patios and are spreading out their customers. I am not going to the gym anytime soon, but I haven’t cancelled my membership. Still, we are a long way from normal business models and profit margins. My point is do not castigate people for trying to keep their businesses afloat.

Spend a few minutes on Twitter or Facebook, and you’ll see that vitriol is alive and well. The tone is set at the top and it would be ideal if we had a courageous, convivial, avuncular type of guy serving as president to set an example and provide unifying leadership. We don’t.

So what are the rest of us left to do, aside from arguing with each other? What if we tried to find answers together? There is an idea that we become what we pray. It’s going to take a lot of mind-bending and open-mindedness. It’s going to take middle ground. It’s going to take compromise. It’s going to require problem-solving and cooperation.

It’s hard to be optimistic that change of such magnitude from our current political discourse is possible. But it’s a matter of survival. United we stand used to mean something and I remain optimistic, that despite the anger and noise, we can get it together soon. We must.

Please, put down the keyboard swords and pick up a shovel to work together.

The Sage Leopard, thesageleopard@gmail.com