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Hug your enemy rather than wrestling the pig

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Brexit has already taken quite a toll on the British economy, and worse may be lying in wait. But the political damage seems graver. Lies, threats and insults have become ubiquitous. So has open contempt both for the opposite side and for once-respected institutions. As for the situation in Northern Ireland, or diplomatic relations between the UK and the rest of the EU, let’s not even think about it. (The English usually don’t.)

It’s tempting to obsess about the tone of politics, but that is a trap. If we spend our time wringing our hands over the form of the political conversation, it leaves little space to think about the content. Remember the lesson of the lie on the bus: a fact-checking dispute about the UK’s contributions to the EU successfully consumed all the oxygen in the 2016 referendum, leaving no breathing space for a discussion of the issues involved. The exact claim didn’t matter: what mattered was that in order to dominate attention it had to be palpably false.

This season’s versions of the lie on the bus are the insult and the threat. Boris Johnson specialises in the insult. A freshly coined one this week was “uncooperative crusties”, although his crass responses to MPs reminding him of Jo Cox’s murder will live longer in the memory. The prime minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings prefers the threat — recall his infamous clash with the MP Karl Turner, who complained, “I’ve had death threats overnight”, to which Mr Cummings retorted, indefensibly, “Get Brexit done”.

Yet it was Mr Turner who started the altercation, with camera in tow. It added to the bitter circus, while distracting from the absurdity of demanding that anyone “get Brexit done” — which makes as much sense as telling a pregnant woman “get the child done”. Mr Cummings will have been pleased enough with that distraction.

A no-deal Brexit would be the beginning of a bitter negotiation about what comes next. Agreeing on a deal would require previously undiscovered capacity for compromise and, again, would begin further discussion. Even revoking Article 50 and calling the whole thing off, presumably after a bitterly fought referendum, would hardly end the matter. There is no “done” here — just a long journey ahead.

Wherever that journey may lead, we need to find a way to get along with each other along the way. So here are three ideas. First, we should do ourselves and each other the favour of engaging with the issues. From the Irish border to the sense of hopelessness in some British towns, there are problems to solve. Next time you’re faced with someone whose politics who dislike, you may get along better if you discuss what can be done to help Blackpool or Merthyr Tydfil rather than which politician is the most despicable.

Second, we should try to avoid scorning people who seem — to us — underinformed. That’s partly because it behoves us to show humility: most of us know less than we think about how the world around us really works. How many of us can honestly say we’d thought through the difference between the single market and the customs union until after the referendum? How many can honestly say we fully understand it now? But it’s also because sneering at someone’s ignorance is a missed opportunity to explore an issue together. Most people we meet have something to teach us, and we have something to teach them.

Third, and most important, we need to remember that the people on the other side of the debate are still people — and usually people who, like us, want the best for themselves and the country. In response to the times we live in, my wife, a portrait photographer, has taken to asking people if they’re willing to be photographed hugging somebody who disagrees with them. Of course, the politicians refuse: Andrew Adonis and Nigel Farage had no interest in cuddling for her camera.

But what has been striking is that nobody else wants to hug across the political divide either. The request is not to hug Messrs Farage or Corbyn or Trump, but to hug an ordinary acquaintance with whom you disagree. As a Remainer, would you be willing to hug a Leaver, or vice versa? People hate the idea. Hugs are nice. But hug one of them? Never.

Fine. Perhaps the hug is too much for we emotionally reserved Brits. But if not a hug, might we at least hope for a handshake and a respectful conversation, rather than ostracism or shouting?

At the moment, everyone seems to agree that half the people in the country are ignorant, wicked or both. The only disagreement is over which half. A few people — some in politics, some in the media — find fertile ground in this outrage. It’s barren for the rest of us. We can do better.

One starting point is the old proverb, “Don’t wrestle with a pig. You get dirty and the pig enjoys it.” There’s truth in that. We just need to find a version that doesn’t dismiss our opponents as pigs.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 11 October 2019.

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What the Democrats Must Do: Project Syndicate

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What the Democrats Must Do https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/democrats-must-embrace-full-employment-by-j-bradford-delong-2020-06: Although the United States has entered a period of deepening social strife and economic depression, the Republicans who are in charge have neither the ideas nor the competence to do anything about it. The Democrats must start planning to lead, starting with a commitment to full employment…. A federal commitment to full employment is not a new idea. The US Employment Act of 1946 embraced the principle…. The best response to… objections has always been John Maynard Keynes…. “Anything we can do, we can afford.”…

Far from acting as an independent binding constraint on economic activities, the financial system exists precisely to support such activities. Finding useful jobs for willing jobseekers is surely something we are capable of doing.

Adjusting the prevailing payments and financial structure to support full employment would of course have consequences…. Supporting full employment… may… require higher and more progressive taxes… sky-high debt… that we divert demand from elite consumption to labor-intensive sectors like public health. It also may require a large-scale labor-intensive public-works program. So be it. It’s time to make full employment our highest priority. Once we have done that, everything else will fall into place…


Full Column: Although the United States has entered a period of deepening social strife and economic depression, the Republicans who are in charge have neither the ideas nor the competence to do anything about it. The Democrats must start planning to lead, starting with a commitment to full employment.

BERKELEY – Like almost all other countries, the United States has become poorer since the COVID-19 pandemic began, because Americans can no longer engage in valuable activities that require close human contact. Millions of workers now need to find other productive things to do, and many of these new tasks will not be as valuable as the ones they replaced.

But there is no economic reason why the depression triggered by the COVID-19 crisis should be particularly deep or prolonged. The US leads the world in technological and organizational competence and is home to a highly skilled workforce. The problem is that recovery won’t happen by itself.

The fact that it took a decade for the US to recover fully from the 2008 financial crisis should inform today’s thinking. Back then, the US housing-construction sector had already shrunk back to its normal size before the subprime-mortgage crisis erupted, which meant that no sectoral structural adjustment was required. The challenge, rather, was to identify and reallocate resources to previously unproduced goods that would become more valuable in the future.

Moreover, the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing recession did not make American workers less skilled or reduce the effectiveness of existing technologies. In the short term, it destroyed many professional networks and reduced the social trust that underpins the economy’s division of labor. The only long-term effect was a loss of investor confidence in private-sector financial institutions’ ability to create safe, properly-rated financial assets.

But that is why it took a decade for US employment to recover from the subprime crisis. The world was short of safe assets, and governments failed to address that problem in the right way. The US, for its part, should have done more to mobilize extra private-sector risk-bearing capacity, create safe public assets, and support workers, including by printing money and buying stuff to drive effective demand and employment growth.
Although there is no reason why it should take a decade for employment to return to its pre-pandemic level, that is probably what will happen. The same forces that led policymakers to declare victory over the crisis and shift to “austerity” in 2010 are already at work again today. It is clear that the US federal government over the next month will offer no new policy initiatives to mitigate the depression or to improve upon America’s failed public-health response.

It is also clear that the Republican Party has no valid ideas for how to achieve a “V-shaped” recovery. Additional tax cuts for the rich would do as much to boost demand and employment as they did when the GOP rammed through the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in late 2017: absolutely nothing. Similarly, slashing social programs might make workers even more desperate to find jobs; but despair won’t translate into additional employment if the spending isn’t there. Nobody with any authority in President Donald Trump’s White House knows what to do, and no one would be competent enough to implement the right policy if they stumbled on it accidentally.

With the GOP controlling three of the US government’s four veto points (the presidency, the Senate, and the Supreme Court), America will remain without a coherent response to its multiplying crises at least until January 2021. Republicans are already doing everything they can to suppress voter turnout ahead of the election this November. But assuming that those efforts fail and Democrats reclaim the White House and potentially even the Senate, what should they do to rescue America from another lost decade?

First and foremost, the Democratic Party must commit unconditionally to the principle that every American who wants a job should be able to find one. And while that job need not be great, it must pay enough to keep the worker’s family above the poverty line. Every policy under consideration should be judged by whether it accords with this principle.

A federal commitment to full employment is not a new idea. The US Employment Act of 1946 embraced the principle, but has since been watered down, owing to complaints that government support of full employment is unaffordable. The best response to such objections has always been John Maynard Keynes’s quip during a 1942 BBC radio address that, “Anything we can do, we can afford.” What he meant is that, far from acting as an independent binding constraint on economic activities, the financial system exists precisely to support such activities.

Finding useful jobs for willing jobseekers is surely something we are capable of doing. But adjusting the prevailing payments and financial structure to support full employment would of course have consequences. For example, we might discover that, under conditions of full employment, the rich would need to bear substantial risk in order to achieve sustained compound growth on their wealth. As Keynes argued, full employment would “lead to a much lower rate of interest” and thereby function as the “euthanasia of the rentier.” So be it. To maintain their glitzy lifestyles, the rich would either have to draw down their capital or wager it on risky enterprises.

Supporting full employment also may turn out to require higher and more progressive taxes, and it may lead to public-debt levels that would seem unfathomable to those who lived through the 1970s. So be it. If sky-high debt is required to achieve full employment in the medium term, it is justified. The only way that it could become dangerous is if the economy were to shift out of its current secular stagnation, at which point sky-high debt would no longer be necessary.

Finally, restoring and maintaining full employment may require that we divert demand from elite consumption to labor-intensive sectors like public health. It also may require a large-scale labor-intensive public-works program. So be it. It’s time to make full employment our highest priority. Once we have done that, everything else will fall into place.


First Draft: There is no rational reason why the coronavirus depression has to be both deep and long. We have immense social power in terms of our technological and organizational competence and immense reserves of skill and energy in our workforce. We are poor or as a result of coronavirus: a lot of valuable activities that involve sustained close human contact, especially in places at all reminiscent of the batcaves in which the ‘rona evolved, now have costs greater than benefits. That means that many of us need to find different productive things to do, many of us temporarily and some of us permanently, and those different things will be somewhat less valuable to us than the sustained-close-human-contact jobs used to be.

But all of that does not provide a single rational reason why it should take, say, a decade before the share of Americans with jobs gets back to its pre-‘rona sustainable full employment level.

The problem is that there was no rational reason, a decade ago, why it should have taken a decade after the subprime financial crisis before the share of Americans with jobs ggotets back to its sustainable full employment level. Yet it did. The housing construction sector had already shrunk back to its normal size before the subprime crisis hit. There was no sectoral structural adjustment required. There was on need to grope for what previously unproduced commodities it was now to society’s benefit to make. The crisis itself did not make our workers less skilled or our technology less effective and powerful. In the short run, the subprime financial crisis destroyed a great deal of the network of social trust that supports our extremely powerful and fine societal division of labor. But in the long run the only durable effect of the crisis was to destroy investor confidence that private-sector financial institutions could create truly-safe properly AAA-rated financial assets.

And yet it took a decade after the subprime crisis before the share of Americans with jobs gets back to its pre-‘rona sustainable full employment level.

Why? Because the world was short of safe assets in the aftermath of the destruction of the confidence that private-sector financial institutions could create such. And governments failed to properly step in, either to create institutions to mobilize extra private-sector societal risk-bearing capacity to reduce the demand for safe assets, to create public safe assets in sufficient quantity themselves, or to stand up and print money and buy stuff and employ workers themselves to rapidly return the North Atlantic economy to sustainable full employment.

There is not a single rational reason why it should take, say, a decade before the share of Americans with jobs gets back to its pre-‘rona sustainable full employment level. But right now the odds are that it will. For the same forces in the factors that led the great and good of the north Atlantic to declare victory over the economic emergency of unemployment in 2010 and turn it toward “austerity“ are at work today. These forces and factors can be beaten: but they could have been beaten over 2010 to 2014, and they were not.

Over the next month the United States will in all probability do nothing on the policy level— nothing either to prevent the coronavirus depression from being deep and long nor to keep America’s public health response to coronavirus from being among the worst if not the worst in the global north.

America’s Republican Party has no valid ideas for how to create a V-shaped path for the economy. More text cuts for the rich would do exactly as much to boost demand and employment as the McConnell-Ryan-Trump TCJA did to boost demand and employment 2.5 years ago: zero. Cutting social insurance benefits relative to what they ought to be Will make more workers desperate to find jobs, but if the spending is not there workers’ desperation to find jobs has no more effect than does commuters’ desperate wish to go faster in a bumper to bumper traffic jam.

Nobody in the Trump White House with enough authority to make policy has any idea how to figure out what good policy might be, or even how to implement a good policy if they by accident uncovered one.

And with strongly partisan Republicans in charge of three of the four federal veto points—Presidency, Senate, and Supreme Court—in the U.S.’s antiquated orrery of a system, the Democratic Party can do nothing effective until January, and can operate then only if Republican voter suppression efforts are unsuccessful and if the voters trust the Democrats enough.

So what should the Democratic Party do, should there be a chance in January 2021 to rescue America from another lost decade like the one that followed 2007?

I believe that they should grasp onto one principle, and hold on to it for dear life. Every American who wants a job and is willing to work should be easily able to find one. It may not be a great job. But it will be a job. And it should keep their family above the poverty line. Every policy should be judged first by: is it part of that commitment?

Some will say that such a full-employment commitment—a commitment that Harry S Truman and his wing of the Democratic Party wanted to make back in 1946, when they proposed the “Full Employment Act”—is not something that we can afford. Here I remember what John Maynard Keynes said on the radio in 1942: “What we can do, we can afford”. The financial and payments structure exists to support our activities. It is not an independent binding constraint on them.

And surely finding useful jobs for people willing to work is not something we cannot do?

Now arranging the payments and finance structure to support full employment will have consequences. It may well not be possible for the rich to see their wealth compound without doing their job as substantial risk-bearers. Keynes certainly thought that was the case—that successful attaining full employment meant the euthanization of the rentier, and that the rich who wished to live in high style would be able to do so only by drawing down their capital, or making massive bets on risky enterprise. If so, so be it. Full employment may well turn out to require higher and more progressive taxes as part of its financing. So be it. Full employment may turn out to require levels of national debt the curl the hair of those who live through the 1970s. So be it: if sky-high debt is required for full employment, it is not dangerous; and if it were to be dangerous it would be because the economy will have shifted out of its current secular stagnation into a configuration in which sky-high debt is not necessary. Full employment may require that we divert demand from elite consumption to labor-intensive sectors like public health. So be it. Full employment may require a large-scale labor-intensive public-works program. So be it.

Prioritize full employment. And then all other policies will fall into their natural places around it.


#coronavirus #highighted #macro #orangehairedbaboons #2020-06-02

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The virus picks us off unevenly, and an efficient response must recognise that

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It is the end of the beginning: lockdowns after the first wave of coronavirus are being tentatively lifted. It is not a step we are taking with any great confidence of success. Rather, we’re easing the lockdowns because we can’t bear to wait any longer. That will mean some difficult decisions ahead, in particular about how we look out for each other in a world where our experiences and the risks we face are dramatically diverging.

It is clear enough that the virus could easily rebound: a systematic study conducted by the Office for National Statistics suggested that 100,000 to 200,000 people in England alone were still infected with the virus in early May. The lockdown has merely bought us time.

One hope is that we can now contain the virus through widespread testing, contact tracing and the supported isolation of infected people. One cogent plan for this comes from the Safra Center at Harvard University.

But the UK seems in no position to implement anything like this plan. Boris Johnson, the prime minister, has promised a contact-tracing system by June 1 that will be “world-beating” — an obnoxious synonym for “excellent”. I do not believe him, particularly since his government has repeatedly misrepresented its record on testing.

The Safra Center plan calls for 2 per cent to 6 per cent of the population being tested every day. In the UK, that would be 1.3m to 4m people daily; we are currently testing well under 100,000 a day. For now, then, we are stuck trying to maximise the benefits of reopening while minimising the risk. That suggests drawing bright lines between those who should unlock and those who should not.

We have long accepted that a supermarket is more of a priority than a restaurant, but other dividing lines would be uncomfortable. Would we be happy for London to reopen while Manchester stays closed, or vice versa? There is a powerful moral case that we should all be going through the same sacrifices at the same time, but if we seek to save the greatest number of lives while destroying the fewest livelihoods, we may have to start drawing distinctions that make us squirm.

The most obvious such distinction would be to ease the lockdown only for the young. In the five weeks from late March to the start of May, nearly 29,000 people over the age of 65 died from Covid-19 in England and Wales. Only 375 people aged under 45 died in the same period. Late boomers and Gen-Xers like me, aged 45-64, are in the middle: nearly 3,500 of us died.

Could we countenance a plan to allow the under-40s back into pubs and restaurants, while the rest of us stick to Zoom and Ocado? Then if signs of herd immunity emerged, we could send in the reserves — the 40-somethings like me.

Is this really a good idea? I am genuinely unsure. Perhaps the practical objection is insuperable: it might be impossible to protect vulnerable people while allowing the virus to run riot in the young. But I suspect the real objection is not practical, but moral. Something about sending half the population out while the other half stays indoors feels unfair. That is true even if it is not entirely clear which side of the age divide is worse off — the ones enduring boredom and isolation inside, or the ones facing the virus.

And what of people who find themselves able to drink in public one day, then banned from their own 40th birthday party the next? Clear distinctions on a spreadsheet or graph start to seem absurd in everyday life.

And it could be much worse. Ethnic minorities are at greater risk; are we to advocate whites-only restaurants and whites-only public transport on the grounds that it is not safe for those with dark skin? The idea is self-evidently repugnant.

Yet the virus does not care about our moral intuitions. It picks us off un­evenly, and an effective response must recognise that. We are going to have to develop a language of social solidarity even as our individual experiences diverge. Even during the lockdown, many people have continued to experience the freedoms and anxieties of going to work as normal. The very nature of the lockdown means it is easy to forget that other people are leading very different lives. One doctor friend of mine, on a video call a fortnight ago, asked: “So . . . have the rest of you really just been at home, seeing only your families, for the last six weeks?” Yes. We really have.

We must develop new ethical codes. “Stay at home, protect the NHS” was a start, but over the coming months we must look for principles that offer the same moral force but far more practical subtlety. “Grandparents: stay home so that your grandchildren can go back to school.” “Home workers are heroes too,” because they reduce density in the big cities. We are all in this together.

And yet increasingly, we are all in this separately. That is a challenge we have yet fully to confront.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 22 May 2020.

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Dorothy Theresa Sawchak Mankiw

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Above is a picture of my mother as a young woman. I would like to tell you about her.

My mother was born on July 18, 1927, the second child of Nicholas and Catherine Sawchak.

Nicholas and Catherine were immigrants from Ukraine. They came to the United States as teenagers, arriving separately, neither with more than a fourth-grade education. Catherine was from a farming area in western Ukraine. She left because her family wanted her to marry an older man rather than her younger boyfriend, who had been conscripted into the army. Her first job here was as a maid. Nicholas was from Kiev, where he had been trained to be a furrier. In the United States, he worked as a potter, making sinks and toilettes. When Nicholas and Catherine came to the United States, they thought they might return home to Ukraine eventually. But World War I and the Russian Revolution intervened, causing a change of plans. Catherine’s boyfriend died in the war. Nicholas and Catherine met each other, married, and settled in a small row house in Trenton, New Jersey, where they lived the rest of their lives.

Catherine and Nicholas had two children, my uncle Walter and my mother Dorothy. When my mother was born, her parents chose to name her “Dorothy Theresa Sawchak.” But because Catherine spoke with a heavy accent, the clerk preparing the birth certificate did not understand her. So officially, my mother’s middle name was “Tessie” rather than “Theresa.” She never bothered to change it.

Nicholas and Catherine were hardworking and frugal. They saved enough to send Walter to college and medical school. He served as a physician in the army during the Korean war. Once I asked him if he worked at a MASH unit, like in the TV show. He said no, he worked closer to the front. He patched up the wounded soldiers the best he could and then sent them to a MASH unit to recover and receive more treatment. After the war, he became a pathologist in a Trenton-area hospital. He married and had two daughters, my cousins.

My mother attended Trenton High School (the same high school, I learned years later, attended by the economist Robert Solow at about the same time). She danced ballet. She water-skied on the Delaware River. She loved to read and go to the movies.

In part because of limited resources and in part because of the gender bias of the time, my mother was not given the chance to go to college. Years later, her parents would say that not giving her that opportunity was one of their great regrets. Instead, my mother learned to be a hairdresser. She was also pressured to marry the son of some family friends.

The marriage did not work. With my mother pregnant, her new husband started “running around,” my mother’s euphemism for infidelity. They divorced, and she kicked him out of her life. But the marriage did leave her with one blessing—my sister Peg.

My mother continued life as a single mother. Some years later, she met my father, also named Nicholas, through social functions run by local Ukrainian churches. They both loved to dance. He wanted to marry her, but having been burned once, she was reluctant at first. Only when she realized that he had become her best friend did she finally accept.

In 1958, nine months after I was born, Mom, Dad, Peg, and I left Trenton for a newly built split-level house in Cranford, New Jersey. My father was working for Western Electric, an arm of AT&T, first as a draftsman and then as an electrical engineer. He worked there until his retirement. One of his specialties was battery design. When I was growing up, I thought it sounded incredibly boring. Now I realize how important it is.

My mother then stopped working as a hairdresser to become a full-time mom. But she kept all the hairdresser equipment from her shop—chair, mirrors, scissors, razors, and so on—in our basement. She would cut the hair of her friends on a part-time basis. When I was a small boy, she cut my hair as well.

I attended the Brookside School, the public grade school which was a short walk from our house. When I was in the second or third grade, my mother was called in to see the teacher. The class had been given some standardized aptitude test. “Greg did well,” the teacher said. “We were very surprised.”

At that moment, my mother decided the school was not working out for me. I was talkative and inquisitive at home but shy and lackluster at school. I needed a change.

She started looking around for the best school she could find for me. She decided it was The Pingry School, an independent day school about a dozen miles from our house. She had me apply, and I was accepted.

The question then became, how to pay for it? Pingry was expensive, and we did not have a lot of extra money. My mother decided that she needed to return to work.

She started looking for a job, and an extraordinary opportunity presented itself. Union County, where we lived, was opening a public vocational school, and they were looking for teachers. She applied to be the cosmetology teacher and was hired.

There was, however, a glitch. The teachers, even though teaching trades like hairdressing, needed teacher certification. That required a certain number of college courses, and my mother had not taken any. So she got a temporary reprieve from the requirement. While teaching at the vocational school during the day, she started taking college courses at night to earn her certification, all while raising two children.

My mother taught at the vocational school until her retirement. During that time, she also co-authored a couple of books, called Beauty Culture I and II, which were teacher’s guides. From the summary of the first volume: “The syllabus is divided into six sections and includes the following areas of instruction: shop, school, and the cosmetologist; sterilization practices in the beauty salon; scalp and hair applications and shampooing; hair styling; manicuring; and hairpressing and iron curling.” I suppose one might view this project as a harbinger of my career as a textbook author.

When my parents both retired, they were still the best of friends. They traveled together, exploring the world in ways that were impossible when they were younger and poorer. During my third year as an economics professor, I was visiting the LSE for about a month. I encouraged my parents to come over to London for a week or so. They had a grand time. I believe it was the first time they had ever visited Europe. When I was growing up, vacations were usually at the Jersey shore.

My father died a few years later. My mother spent the next three decades living alone. She was then living full-time at the Jersey shore in Brant Beach on Long Beach Island. The house was close to the ocean and large enough to encourage her growing family to come for extended visits. Two children, five grandchildren, four great-grandchildren. The more, the merrier. Nothing made her happier than being surrounded by family.

My mother loved to cook, especially the Ukrainian dishes she learned in her childhood. Holubtsi (stuffed cabbage) was a specialty. Another was kapusta (cabbage) soup. One time, the local newspaper offered to publish her kapusta soup recipe. They did so, but with an error. Every seasoning that was supposed to be measured in teaspoons was printed as tablespoons. The paper later ran a correction but probably to no avail. I am not sure if anyone ever tried the misprinted recipe and, if so, to what end.

During her free time in her later years, my mother read extensively, played FreeCell on her computer, and watched TV. A few years ago, when she was about 90 years old, I was visiting her, and I happened to mention the show “Breaking Bad.” She had not heard of it. She suggested we watch the first episode. And then another. And another. After I left, she binge-watched all five seasons.

As she aged, living alone became harder. When she had trouble going up and down the stairs, an elevator was added to her house. But slowly her balance faltered, and she fell several times. She started having small strokes, and then a more significant one. She moved into a nursing home. Whenever I visited, I brought her new books to read. Her love of reading never diminished.

This is, I am afraid, where the story ends. Last week, Dorothy Theresa Sawchak Mankiw tested positive for Covid-19. Yesterday, she died. I will miss her.



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