The vaccine skeptical and the vaccine not yet

Good stuff from Gallup on the latest on vaccine attitudes:

Seventy-six percent of U.S. adults say they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or plan to be, a number that has been stable over the past three months but is higher than in late 2020 and early 2021.

Line graph. Seventy-six percent of U.S. adults in May 2021 have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or plan to be, similar to the 75% and 74% measured in April and March, respectively. When Gallup first asked the question in July 2020, 65% planned to get vaccinated, which dropped to 50% in September before recovering by December…

Gallup’s data suggest the ceiling on vaccination could be about 80% of U.S. adults. That would include the 76% who are already vaccinated or plan to be plus the 5% who do not plan to get vaccinated but say they are at least somewhat likely to change their mind…

As of the May 18-23 survey, 60% of U.S. adults report they have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, 4% have been partially vaccinated, 12% plan to be vaccinated and 24% do not plan to be vaccinated.

Among those not planning to be vaccinated, 78% say they are unlikely to reconsider their plans, including 51% who say they are “not likely at all” to change their mind and get vaccinated. That leaves one in five vaccine-reluctant adults open to reconsidering, with 2% saying they are very likely and 19% saying they are somewhat likely to change their mind and get vaccinated — equivalent to 5% of all U.S. adults…

The one in four vaccine-reluctant adults are not distributed equally across major demographic groups:

  • About half of Republicans, 46%, compared with 31% of independents and 6% of Democrats, do not plan to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

  • Americans without a college degree are much more likely than college graduates to be vaccine-hesitant, 31% to 12%.

  • Vaccine hesitancy is more common among middle-aged Americans (33% of those between the ages of 35 and 54) than among younger (22%) and older Americans (20%).

Meanwhile, it surely is related to these other demographics, but an important part of the variation is regional:

Experts are concerned that states across the South, where vaccination rates are lagging, could face a surge in coronavirus cases over the summer.

A dozen states — many of them in the Northeast, including Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut — have already reached a benchmark of at least 70 percent of adults with at least one vaccine dose, a goal President Biden has set for the nation to make by July 4. But in the South, that marker is nowhere in sight for several states.

In 15 states — including Arkansas, the Carolinas, Georgia and Louisiana — about half of adults or fewer have received a dose, according to a New York Times analysis. In two states, Alabama and Mississippi, it would take about a year to get one dose to 70 percent of the population at the current pace of distribution.

Public-health experts and officials in states with lower vaccination rates say the president’s benchmark will help reduce cases and deaths but is somewhat arbitrary — even if 70 percent of adults are vaccinated, the virus and its more contagious variants can spread among those who are not.

Ugh, yes, Carolinas, not just our retrograde neighbor to the South.  

One thing I would love to read more about is the people who express a clear intent to get the vaccine, but have not yet.  One thing we should definitely be figuring out is how to get these people vaccinated as soon as possible.  If they were truly low-hanging fruit, they’d already be vaccinated, but, they are presumably at least medium-hanging fruit that we need to figure out why they haven’t been vaccinated yet, despite their intent, and how to make it easier for them.

Quick hits (part I)

1) As a kid I was beyond fascinated by UFO’s and probably read dozens of books on them.  Long forgotten, but damn, if UFO’s aren’t all over the place and regularly in the NYT.  What a world!  “I’m a Physicist Who Searches for Aliens. U.F.O.s Don’t Impress Me.”

2) God I love science, “Sleep Evolved Before Brains. Hydras Are Living Proof: Some of nature’s simplest animals suggest that sleep evolved long before centralized nervous systems.”

THE HYDRA IS a simple creature. Less than half an inch long, its tubular body has a foot at one end and a mouth at the other. The foot clings to a surface underwater—a plant or a rock, perhaps—and the mouth, ringed with tentacles, ensnares passing water fleas. It does not have a brain, or even much of a nervous system.

And yet, new research shows, it sleeps. Studies by a team in South Korea and Japan showed that the hydra periodically drops into a rest state that meets the essential criteria for sleep.

But a counterpoint to this brain-centric view of sleep has emerged. Researchers have noticed that molecules produced by muscles and some other tissues outside the nervous system can regulate sleep. Sleep affects metabolism pervasively in the body, suggesting that its influence is not exclusively neurological. And a body of work that’s been growing quietly but consistently for decades has shown that simple organisms with less and less brain spend significant time doing something that looks a lot like sleep. Sometimes their behavior has been pigeonholed as only “sleeplike,” but as more details are uncovered, it has become less and less clear why that distinction is necessary.

It appears that simple creatures—including, now, the brainless hydra—can sleep. And the intriguing implication of that finding is that sleep’s original role, buried billions of years back in life’s history, may have been very different from the standard human conception of it. If sleep does not require a brain, then it may be a profoundly broader phenomenon than we supposed.

3) This is fascinating and I bet you can guess the answer before reading, “Exercise vs. Diet? What Children of the Amazon Can Teach Us About Weight Gain”

When children gain excess weight, the culprit is more likely to be eating too much than moving too little, according to a fascinating new study of children in Ecuador. The study compared the lifestyles, diets and body compositions of Amazonian children who live in rural, foraging communities with those of other Indigenous children living in nearby towns, and the results have implications for the rising rates of obesity in both children and adults worldwide.

The in-depth study found that the rural children, who run, play and forage for hours, are leaner and more active than their urban counterparts. But they do not burn more calories day-to-day, a surprising finding that implicates the urban children’s modernized diets in their weight gain. The findings also raise provocative questions about the interplay of physical activity and metabolism and why exercise helps so little with weight loss, not only in children but the rest of us, too.

The issue of childhood obesity is of pressing global interest, since the incidence keeps rising, including in communities where it once was uncommon. Researchers variously point to increasing childhood inactivity and junk food diets as drivers of youthful weight gain. But which of those concerns might be more important — inactivity or overeating — remains murky and matters, as obesity researchers point out, because we cannot effectively respond to a health crisis unless we know its causes.

That question drew the interest of Sam Urlacher, an assistant professor of anthropology at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who for some time has been working among and studying the Shuar people. An Indigenous population in Amazonian Ecuador, the traditional Shuar live primarily by foraging, hunting, fishing and subsistence farming. Their days are hardscrabble and physically demanding, their diets heavy on bananas, plantains and similar starches, and their bodies slight. The Shuar, especially the children, are rarely overweight. They also are not often malnourished.

In Dr. Pontzer’s pioneering research with the Hadza, a tribe of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, he found that, although the tribespeople moved frequently during the day, hunting, digging, dragging, carrying and cooking, they burned about the same number of total calories daily as much-more-sedentary Westerners.

Dr. Pontzer concluded that, during evolution, we humans must have developed an innate, unconscious ability to reallocate our body’s energy usage. If we burn lots of calories with, for instance, physical activity, we burn fewer with some other biological system, such as reproduction or immune responses. The result is that our average, daily energy expenditure remains within a narrow band of total calories, helpful for avoiding starvation among active hunter-gatherers, but disheartening for those of us in the modern world who find that more exercise does not equate to much, if any, weight loss. (Dr. Pontzer’s highly readable new book on this topic, “Burn,” will be published on March 2. )

So, exercise because it is great for your health.  But, to lose weight, you’re just going to have to cut the calories.

4) I know BB is a sucker for anything with CA and FL comparisons, “California mandated masks. Florida opened its restaurants. Did any of it matter? Which Covid-19 restrictions really worked — and which ones really didn’t?”

5) Give the often vastly different financial worlds for men’s versus women’s sports I think people sometimes focus to much on differences that can fairly easily be explained away by the finances involved.  But, Leonhardt compares College Softball and College Baseball and compellingly concludes that the NCAA is treating the women in a grossly unfair manner:

The Women’s College World Series, which began yesterday, is one of the most popular events in college sports.

It is an eight-team softball tournament held every year in Oklahoma City, and the games frequently sell out. The television audience on ESPN is substantial, too. In the most recent previous tournament, 1.8 million people watched the final game, substantially more than have watched recent championship games of college soccer, hockey or lacrosse — men’s or women’s.

The popularity of softball makes it a telling study in the different ways that the N.C.A.A. treats female and male athletes. In terms of fan interest, softball ranks near the top of college sports. It is well behind football and basketball, but ahead of almost every other sport.

Yet the N.C.A.A. treats softball as a second-class sport, many athletes and coaches say.

The stadium that hosts the championship tournament has no showers; players and coaches must instead shower at their hotels. Off days between games are rare, and some teams have to play twice on the same day, increasing injury risk. The N.C.A.A. prefers the condensed schedule to hold down hotel and meal costs, coaches have told Jenni Carlson of The Oklahoman.

The men’s version of the College World Series — an eight-team baseball tournament held each year in Omaha — treats the players better. They have off days, as well as a golf outing, a free massage day and a celebratory dinner for coaches, players and dozens of guests, Molly Hensley-Clancy of The Washington Post reported.

The Oklahoma City softball stadium is also too small to hold all the fans who would like to attend, and many games sell out quickly. It has a capacity of about 13,000 (recently expanded from 9,000), compared with 24,000 for the baseball stadium in Omaha. “I think we could easily get 20,000, just like the men,” one longtime coach told The Post. “But we won’t get that chance.”…

Equity in sports can be a complicated topic, because men’s sports often draw larger crowds and television audiences. Officials who defend the differential treatment of female and male athletes — as executives at U.S. Soccer have — cite the revenue differences.

But the softball situation shows how incomplete those explanations are. The average television audience for the most recent softball World Series (1.05 million) was similar to that of the most recent college baseball World Series (1.13 million). And yet one sport’s players get showers, off days, massages and a festive dinner, while the others get doubleheaders and sweaty bus rides back to a hotel.

Personally, I find both baseball and softball boring as hell these days and cannot quite understand why so many people want to watch either, but hard to conclude anything other than rank sexism going on here.

5) And this was a really interesting discussion with the WNBA Commissioner on efforts to grow the sport.

6) Good stuff on the behavioral economics of vaccine lotteries:

But economists who know how to party see lotteries and other inducements in a whole different way. This will sound resoundingly dumb when I say it, but some people need reasons to justify their behaviors and make decisions. That idea is called “reason-based choice.” Vaccines are scarce in most of the world but widely available in the United States. If someone hasn’t gotten one yet, maybe they’re just an anti-vaxxer, in which case, a lottery ain’t gonna help. But different kinds of hesitancy are sensitive to different kinds of interventions. Some people—like in the Black community—have historical reasons to distrust the medical establishment, and that requires a different kind of outreach to fix. And some people, maybe they’re busy, or they procrastinate, or they’re worried about side effects, or they’re anywhere else on the spectrum of hesitancy. Some motivational change might, well, nudge them to get a shot.

So why not just give people a guaranteed reward, instead of one that almost certainly won’t hit? Maybe not a doughnut, but what about, say, $100? That’s a lot.

But it’s not enough. The problem is sort of the inverse of what the economists Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini meant when they wrote the article “A Fine Is a Price.” Their hypothesis says that if you charge people a penalty for bad behavior (for anything from coming late to pick up kids at daycare to, presumably, polluting waterways), that doesn’t deter them—people (and corporations) just factor the fine into their cost of doing business. The flip side is, if you give people a doughnut or $100 or 2,000 frequent-flier miles or a discounted $5 subscription to WIRED, that’s the value they assign to what they’re getting. And if that’s less, to them, than the value of getting vaccinated, it doesn’t work as a nudge. The needling isn’t worth the needle. It’s too low to overcome vaccine hesitancy—in theory.

(This idea is actually hard to study. Thaler says he and Katy Milkman, a behavior researcher at the Wharton School and author of How to Change, once thought about running an experiment to give some people $3 lottery tickets to induce them to get flu vaccines. “It would’ve been a nice thing to have done two years ago,” Thaler says. And proposals to give people $100 to get vaccines have run into trouble with university institutional review boards, the groups that monitor the treatment of human subjects in scientific research. One fundamental ethical tenet is that you’re not supposed to coerce or bribe people to participate.)

But when it comes to Covid vaccines, free beers haven’t moved numbers as well as the irrational but fabulous prizes. “Economists think there’s no such thing as a free beer,” Thaler says. “Real people think free beers are good.” But they think even a scant chance at $1 million is better.

In marketing, this overvaluing of the distant win is called “prospect theory”; in gaming terms, it’s an “extrinsic reward,” something fun or useful that’s not inherent to the act. “A fully rational economist from Chicago can’t figure out why people buy lottery tickets,” Monk says. “It’s the same thing happening here. The expected value that people assign to the potential to win $1 million is far higher than the cost to the state.”

7) Disturbing stuff from Brownstein:

Across these states and others, Republican legislators and governors have operated as if they were programming a prime-time lineup at Fox News. They have focused far less on the small-government, limited-spending, and anti-tax policies that once defined the GOP than on an array of hot-button social issues, such as abortion, guns, and limits on public protest, that reflect the cultural and racial priorities of Trump’s base…

The lurch right in Republican-controlled states extends to some economic issues: Nearly two dozen states, for instance, have rejected the increased unemployment benefits that congressional Democrats approved earlier this year in President Joe Biden’s stimulus plan. But the social and racially tinged issues that Trump moved to the center of GOP messaging have dominated legislative sessions in state after state. Among the issues advancing most broadly:..

GOP legislators appear to be operating more out of fear that Trump’s base of non-college-educated, rural, and evangelical white voters will punish them in primaries if they fail to pursue maximum confrontation against Democrats and liberal constituencies, particularly on issues revolving around culture and race. “Very few of the districts are competitive [in a general election], so all they are worried about is being primaried,” says John Geer, a political-science professor at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, one of the states that have advanced the most aggressive conservative agenda this year. Glenn Smith, a longtime Democratic operative in Texas, notes that the state’s militantly conservative Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has pushed legislators toward his priorities this year in part by persuading them that any moderation risks infuriating “an aggrieved Trump base who feels that the election was stolen from them, are fired up, and love the red meat on every issue.”

In earlier generations, when governors of both parties tended to position themselves as less partisan, business-oriented problem-solvers, the GOP chief executives in these states might have restrained their legislators from veering toward the ideological fringe or even forcing votes on polarizing social issues. But today, many governors appear to feel the same pressure of a possible primary challenge—and others, most notably Florida’s DeSantis, seem to be pursuing support from the Trump base for a possible 2024 presidential bid. (As if to spotlight that intention, DeSantis signed the bill barring transgender girls from school sports on June 1, the first day of LGBTQ Pride month, and he did so at a Christian private school.)

8) Really enjoyed Yglesias take on Ezra’s interview with Obama (which, of course, is also well worth your time):

Obama was clearly the more immigration-friendly candidate relative to Romney’s idea of “self-deportation.” But Obama was maintaining considerable distance between himself and immigration activists in order to reduce the distance between himself and Romney. After the failure of the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill, Obama moved toward what became DAPA. But beyond that, activists increasingly persuaded rank-and-file members that all this stuff about border security was a failed effort to bargain with Republicans and not something they should embrace as an idea they actually believed in.

Choices have consequences

In most respects, I think I like the contemporary Democratic Party’s message better than I liked its 2012- or certainly 2008-vintage message.

But I am not a swing voter, and I don’t live in a swing state or even have representation in the United States Senate. What’s changed is that Democrats went from being an urban-based diverse party that nonetheless tried pretty hard to pander to the views of rural white people in hopes of getting the voters of the poorer and less-religious among them, to becoming a party that decided it would be unnecessary or immoral to pander like that.

But the Senate map (and to a lesser extent the Electoral College) makes it absolutely necessary to pander the views of rural white people. There is no other way to win. And I think a politics of “lose your majority forever when West Virginia, Ohio, and Montana go red in 2024” can’t possibly be a moral politics. The fact that the post-Obama Democrats are somewhat less successful with Black and Latino voters than Obama was should further call into question the logic of doctrinaire moralism about these tactical choices.

Mainly, though, even if you think I’m wrong, I think it’s helpful to acknowledge that choices have been made here. That, I think, is what Obama obscures when he talks about meeting people in small town V.F.W. halls and how the media has changed. He makes it sound like either it’s impossible for a Democrat to win in Iowa (the media has changed) or else it’s just a question of hustling more (gotta go to those V.F.W. meetings and talk to folks). But while the media climate and campaign tactics both matter, the fundamental fact is that Obama tried harder to mirror the views of secular rural white midwesterners.

And his campaign, knowing that pandering to low-income rural white people is not what comes most naturally to liberal professionals, imposed ruthless message discipline on the whole party. They decided what every surrogate who went on television was supposed to say, and they’d get really fucking pissed at you if you went off-script and talked about what you thought was important rather than what they thought would help them persuade swing voters in pivotal states. That sounds really tedious in a lot of ways. I bet a bunch of young, college-educated, city-dwelling staffers for the campaigns faced some eye-rolling from their young, college-educated, city-dwelling friends about some of their messaging choices. But while there’s more to politics than winning elections, there’s literally nothing you can achieve unless you win elections first.

9) Good stuff from one of the co-authors of the Emerging Democratic MajorityDemocrats Can’t Rely on Demographics Alone”

There are four lessons here. First, while the effects of rising diversity do indeed favor the Democrats, these effects are fairly modest in any given election and can easily be overwhelmed by shifts in voter preference against the Democrats among unfavorable demographic groups, such as white non-college voters.

Second, even among favorable demographic groups, the electoral benefit to the Democrats can be completely neutralized by shifts against the Democrats within a demographic group. This was the case with the Hispanic vote in Arizona and many other states in 2020.

Third, in states where demographic change is rapid, it is easy to mistake shifts toward the Democrats in a given election as indicators of these underlying demographic changes. But as we saw for Arizona and Texas in 2016 and Arizona and Georgia in 2020 (there are many other examples), their pro-Democrat shifts were, in fact, driven by white voters.

Finally, the long-range effects of rising diversity are also an all-else-equal proposition. While cycle-by-cycle voter preference shifts can be volatile and even out over time, sometimes they result in a long-term shift against a party like the Democrats—think of the move of white non-college voters toward the Republicans in the 2000s. This can cancel or even swamp the pro-Democratic effects of demographic change over a lengthy period. 

In short, demographics set the playing field, but they are not destiny unless all else remains equal. And all else almost never remains equal. Therein lies a challenge for the Democrats that the simple fact of rising racial diversity cannot solve.

10) Greg Sargent on Democrats and the politics of crime:

With crime rising in U.S. cities, Republicans are confident that they can win the midterms by tying it to Democrats and the “defund the police” movement. This, in turn, has prompted a mini-battle among liberals, with some warning against complacency about both the terrible underlying policy problem and the political threat it poses.

But something has been missing from that debate: a look at the strategic response of Democrats themselves. The party is elaborating an approach that defies easy characterization, and could, if successful, defuse GOP attacks and resolve tensions inside the Democratic coalition in a constructive way.

This response demonstrated success this week, when Melanie Stansbury won a special House election in New Mexico by 25 points. Her GOP challenger sought to make the race all about crime and supposed Democratic disdain for law enforcement.

“We believe that Melanie Stansbury created a template for how to respond,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told me. “Respond aggressively, and talk about what you support.”

This template is nuanced. It doesn’t constitute merely denouncing the excesses of “defund,” as some have called for. Instead, it combines a forthright declaration of the facts about what the candidate actually supports on policing with a refusal to retreat on discussing systemic racism…

The key here is that Democrats must forcefully describe what they are for with conviction, but this must entail describing both their actual positions on defunding the police and their continued support for racial justice and police reform.

11) Been hearing for years about a crisis in sperm counts.  Maybe, not so much of a crisis after all?

Now a group of interdisciplinary researchers from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology contend that fears of an impending Spermageddon have been vastly overstated. In a study published in May in the journal Human Fertility, they re-evaluated the 2017 review and found that it relied on flawed assumptions and failed to consider alternate explanations for the apparent decline of sperm.

In an interview, Sarah Richardson, a Harvard scholar on gender and science and the senior author on the new study, called the conclusion of the 2017 review “an astonishing and terrifying claim that, were it to be true, would justify the apocalyptic tenor of some of the writing.” Fortunately, she and her co-authors argue, there is little evidence that this is the case.

Mostly, I’m now looking for opportunities to use the term “Spermageddon” 😉

12) Good stuff from Drum, “Democrats Need to Focus on Election Administration”

Republicans have been passing—or trying to pass—voter suppression laws with stunning frequency over the past few months. Most of the press attention has been focused on the simple stuff that restricts where and when people can vote, but most of these provisions aren’t really that important. The evidence suggests that even when you add them all up they aren’t likely to have a large effect on turnout.

What might have a large effect is the Republican effort to undermine the administration of elections. Donald Trump was hellbent on getting election administrators to recount the 2020 vote until they could figure out a way to declare him the winner, but they unanimously refused to do it. Now, Republicans are working to make sure that they can eject future election administrators who don’t play ball.

Yesterday’s letter from a hundred political scientists is clear about what’s happening:

Statutory changes in large key electoral battleground states are dangerously politicizing the process of electoral administration, with Republican-controlled legislatures giving themselves the power to override electoral outcomes on unproven allegations should Democrats win more votes.

Ron Brownstein writes that the Biden team agrees. They feel that they can overcome minor rules changes here and there without too much trouble, but not wholesale corruption in election administration:

The White House does see a risk in the possibility that Republicans—whether local election officials, GOP-controlled state legislatures, or a potential Republican majority in the U.S. House or Senate—will refuse to certify clear Democratic wins in the 2022 and 2024 elections. The senior Democrat told me, “Given how things have developed since January 6, if the situation is not brought under some control and this isn’t countered effectively, then I think there is a significant risk” that “Republican officials, unlike the ones we saw standing up to pressure in 2020, are going to decline to certify Democratic victories.” If Republicans hold the House, Senate, or both after the 2024 election, that could allow Congress to try to install a GOP president even if clear evidence exists that the Democrat won.

Democrats need to focus all their attention on this. Lots of people hear about the water bottle stuff or the voter ID rules and just shrug. It doesn’t strike them as all that big a deal. But they don’t know about the movement to allow Republican legislatures to remove election administrators and replace them with faithful party operatives. When they do hear about it, even many conservatives are outraged at the idea.

So forget all the other stuff. This is the real threat to democracy, and the public needs to be aware of it clearly.

13) Speaking of voting, Scott Lemieux, “Texas’ voting bill to support Trump’s ‘Big Lie’ will eventually pass. Blame the Supreme Court.: It used to be unconstitutional to target Black and brown communities with voter suppression efforts. Then the court ruled against the Voting Rights Act.”

14) Fun interview with Jordan Ellenberg, “Why So Many Pandemic Predictions Failed: The mathematician Jordan Ellenberg discusses how geometry explains the world.”

15) This is great (and disturbing) “The Endless Trap of American Parole: How can anyone rebuild their lives when they keep getting sent back to jail for the pettiest of reasons?”

Twenty-five years ago, there was a common saying among community supervision officers: “Trail ’em, nail ’em, jail ’em.” In other words, surveillance and apprehension. This has started to evolve, with an increased focus on behavioral change, treatment and services. “Parole has two objectives,” says Rita Shah, an associate professor of criminology at Eastern Michigan University. “To assist in the transition back to society and to ensure that you are no longer committing crimes.” In other words, reentry and supervision.

Community supervision rates fell by nearly a fifth over the past decade. Horowitz is clear: “I don’t want to paint a picture of a system that’s failing.” But America’s approach to parole is still plagued by problems. Horowitz says the number of people on supervision per capita remains historically high, up several hundred percent from 1980. National data also shows that between 30 and 40 percent of state prison admissions are for “technical violations,” i.e., failing to observe the conditions of supervision. In the 2018-2019 fiscal year, 58.8 percent of California’s parole population went to prison for a technical violation. This could be a misdemeanor, like petty theft or a minor drug offense. But it could also include traveling more than 50 miles from one’s home without permission or entering a bar. Parolees have been sanctioned for infractions such as forgetting to return a steak knife to the kitchen after eating dinner in front of the living room TV; outside the kitchen, the knife is considered a weapon.

Horowitz says concerns about the parole system have largely “flown under the radar” but are gaining attention. It’s partly financial: Probation and parole revocations cost states over $9.3 billion annually; technical violations account for a third of that. Reformers are also pushing for change. Since 2010, 35 states have adopted recommendations of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a public-private partnership among Pew, the U.S. Department of Justice and state governments. JRI takes a data-driven approach to reforming sentencing policies; its recommendations have helped to lower both prison populations and supervision revocations in at least a handful of states.

We have to do so much better with helping people actually thrive and rebuild their lives outside prison– not set them up to fail.

16) Given that I follow dozens of journalists on twitter, the Emily Wilder story lit up my feed for a while.  What I hate is any organization giving into bad faith mobs.  And there’s so many bad faith mobs!  Not encouraging that the AP executive responsible is now at the Washington Post:

On May 18, the Associated Press reported on the arrest of an arson suspect over a Los Angeles wildfire: “The man detained Sunday near the fire zone was being treated for smoke inhalation, said Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas. He did not identify the suspect or offer details about the investigation.” At the foot of this classic AP story is a line that reads, “AP journalist Emily Wilder contributed to this report from Phoenix.“

Two days later, AP management dismissed Wilder from her job as a news associate at the AP. Had she botched her contribution to the arson-arrest story? Or had she botched her contribution to a May 7 report about an Idaho school shooting?

Nothing like that, as the media world now knows. The 22-year-old Wilder received her dismissal notice following a successful attempt by conservatives to promote outrage over her activist work while attending Stanford University, where she served as a leader of Students for Justice in Palestine. The episode points to two emerging facts of life in contemporary mainstream media — one, that editors at large news organizations quake when right-wing actors target their colleagues; and two, publishers’ concerns over ethical appearances and perceptions are reaching irrationality.

As part of her work for Students for Justice in Palestine, Wilder, a Jewish woman raised in an Orthodox community, helped organize a 2017 protest against Birthright Israel, a group that funds trips to Israel for young people of Jewish heritage. In a Facebook post promoting the protest, Wilder wrote that the event would coincide with a “fundraising gala with far-right, pro-Trump, naked mole rat-looking billionaire Shel Adelson,” according to the Washington Free Beacon. Adelson was a Birthright benefactor as well as a prominent GOP donor.

The story in the Washington Free Beacon fed off the work of the Stanford College Republicans, a group that found news value in Wilder’s accession to the AP in early May. A May 17 tweet, now pinned to the top of the group’s account, provided screenshots of Wilder’s collegiate activism…

According to Wilder’s dismissal letter, the rumblings from Stanford — and inquiries from the Washington Free Beacon, Fox News and others — prompted a deeper look into the AP rookie’s social media history. “As discussed, over the last few days some of your social media posts made prior to joining AP surfaced,” reads the dismissal letter. “Those posts prompted a review of your social media activity since you began with the AP, May 3, 2021. In that review, it was found that some tweets violated AP’s News Values and Principles.

Did the AP receive independent objections to Wilder’s tweets, or did it decide to scrutinize those tweets only after the Stanford College Republicans raised hell about her college days? (We asked the AP to clarify this point; Wilder tells the Erik Wemple Blog that she didn’t know whether “someone else raised concerns.”) AP managers found stuff like this when they ventured into Wilder’s feed:

17) Scott Alexander with a helluva post about Depression.  Well worth reading and thinking about.  

18) This is really, really upsetting and deserving of more coverage:

Just now (Friday night) the images are back, courtesy of news stories reporting on this.  

19) This is a terrific thread on the awesomeness of the vaccines and how they work.

Bipartisan nihilism

Michele Goldberg’s column today was great, damn do I love her term, “Nihilistic Bipartisanship” in describing Manchin and Sinema:

Two Democratic senators, Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, could save us by joining their colleagues in breaking the filibuster and passing new voting rights legislation. But they prefer not to.

On Tuesday, Sinema, touring migrant facilities with her Texas Republican colleague John Cornyn, defended the filibuster by spouting an alternative history nearly as delusional as Trump’s claims to have actually won the election. “The idea of the filibuster was created by those who came before us in the United States Senate to create comity and to encourage senators to find bipartisanship and work together,” she said.

This is nonsense. The filibuster was created by mistake when the Senate, cleaning up its rule book in 1806, failed to include a provision to cut off debate. (A so-called cloture rule allowing two-thirds of senators to end a filibuster was adopted in 1917; the proportion was reduced to three-fifths in 1975.) The filibuster encouraged extremism, not comity: It was a favorite tool of pro-slavery senators before the Civil War and segregationists after it.

More than any other type of legislation, the filibuster was used in the 20th century to derail civil rights bills, from anti-lynching measures to bans on housing discrimination. During Barack Obama’s administration, Republicans began using it to an unprecedented degree to block his nominations. According to a 2013 Congressional Research Service report, “Out of the 168 cloture motions ever filed (or reconsidered) on nominations, 82 (49 percent) were cloture motions on nominations made since 2009.” The filibuster’s history is both ignominious and ever-changing.

It is impossible to know whether Sinema believes what she said, or whether she simply doesn’t care. Both she and Manchin are committed to bipartisanship as a supreme good, which in practice means bowing to the wishes of a party that doesn’t believe Joe Biden is a legitimate president and wants above all to see him fail. (“One hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration,” the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, said last month.)

When you have a system that’s not working effectively, said Sinema, “the way to fix that is to change your behavior,” not the rules. This is a bizarre stance for a legislator, whose work is all about changing rules. But it also ignores the fact that the system is working perfectly well for Republicans.

Democrats hope that Manchin, who has said Democrats should have faith that there are “10 good people” in the Republican caucus, will lessen his opposition to filibuster reform when Senate Republicans repeatedly prove him wrong. It’s harder to know what Sinema actually believes and thus what could sway her; she seems above all dedicated to a view of herself as a quirky maverick, and delights in trolling the Democrats who elected her. In April, after infuriating progressives by voting against including a federal minimum wage increase in the coronavirus relief package, she posted an Instagram photo of herself wearing a ring spelling out a dismissive obscene phrase that begins with “F” and ends with “off.”

This gap between the scale of the catastrophe bearing down on us and the blithe refusal of Manchin and Sinema to help is enough to leave one frozen with despair. Democrats have no discernible leverage over Manchin and little over Sinema, though they ought to consider primarying her. (Unlike Manchin, she’s not the only Democrat who could win a Senate seat in her state.) Those who want our democracy to endure have no choice but to keep asking, imploring and cajoling these two lawmakers to value it above the false idol of bipartisanship, but so far there’s little sign they will.

So we’re stuck.

Likewise, good stuff from Brian Beutler:

Before Republicans filibustered the January 6 commission last week, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema issued a statement basically pleading with them not to. I don’t think they wrote it imagining they’d change any minds, but rather in recognition of the fact that the filibuster itself—coming after Democrats negotiated the bill with a Republican leadership proxy, and conceded to all GOP demands—would make the two of them look ridiculous. They’ve both justified their commitment to the filibuster on the false grounds that it’s a tool that forces the parties to reach consensus, and here were Republicans mocking their naïveté. 

If Manchin and Sinema were open to being proven wrong, though, the statement wouldn’t have been necessary. Or it would have been worded as an ultimatum: We gave you the benefit of the doubt, now you’re putting us in an impossible position, reconsider your actions or we’ll reconsider ours. Instead the filibuster came and went, and there were no consequences for it. ‘Please don’t humiliate us,’ they begged, ‘or we’ll be forced let you.’ Manchin groused in disappointment; Sinema just mindlessly repeated her defense of the filibuster at a press event with Republican Senator John Cornyn.

What a broken system we have when on the one hand we’ve got one party that is increasingly showing that it doesn’t actually believe in democracy and another one that is basically being held to the completely nonsensical whims of two individual who worship at a fantastical altar of “bipartisanship!”  Not good.

Easy guns –> Police brutality

Here’s just an everyday story in America— thank God the sheriff’s deputy wasn’t killed:

A veteran Wake County sheriff’s deputy was shot with an AK-47 assault rifle Wednesday morning while serving an eviction notice at a Raleigh apartment complex, Sheriff Gerald Baker said.

Sgt. Ronald Waller underwent surgery Wednesday afternoon at WakeMed, Baker said at a news conference at the hospital. Waller, who was starting the “long road of recovery” Wednesday night, has worked for the sheriff’s office for over 20 years, agency spokesman Eric Curry said in an email update…

The shooting occurred on Torquay Crossing in the River Birch at Town Center Apartments on Old Wake Forest Road.

A suspect, Eddie Dewain Craig, 32, was taken into custody, Baker said. Craig was charged with two counts of assault with a dangerous weapon with intent to kill, three counts of attempted murder, three counts of assault on a law enforcement officer with a firearm and assault With a dangerous weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury, according to Raleigh police…

Waller approached a door at the apartment complex around 10:13 a.m. Wednesday to serve civil papers, according to Baker and Curry. Civil papers can include eviction notices or summonses to court.

“It is perhaps one of the most dangerous jobs that you are going to find in law enforcement,” Baker said. “You never know what’s going to be on the other side of that door when it opens.”

So, you are the police and one of your officers was just shot with a military assault rifle delivering a run-of-the-mill eviction notice.  That’s got to increase the incentive for the “dynamic entry” SWAT style assaults which lower the risk to officers while raising the risk to innocent bystanders and completely non-violent targets of warrants, notices, etc.  As long as we think it is completely fine in America for mentally ill people to own extremely dangerous weapons of war we’ll continue to have police officers needlessly maimed and killed in the line of duty and policing agencies over-reacting to this in ways that hurt communities and innocent people.  Want to ameliorate the cycle?  Let’s start with the damn guns.  

Listen to this (podcast)

I just yesterday finished listening to what is easily the best limited series podcast I’ve ever listened to (and you know I listen to a lot of podcasts).  It’s ostensibly about Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher who maybe killed an Iraq prisoner and was a conservative cause célèbre, but was about so much more, especially the line between right/wrong/good/evil and what we expect special forces soldiers to do in service to America.  And the costs they bear.  So, so good.  If you listen to podcasts at all, it’s an absolute must-listen.  And if you don’t, this is as good a reason as any to start.  From the NPR review where I learned about it:

The title of the new investigative podcast from Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions, “The Line,” refers to the precarious moral boundaries that are distorted over and over in the heat of battle. And as host Dan Taberski explores throughout a six-part series, that constant warping morality often leaves lasting destructive effects on the psyches of soldiers sent into war. At the center of “The Line” is the case of one such soldier, Eddie Gallagher, the Navy SEAL who, in 2018, was accused of committing war crimes during the battle of Mosul in Iraq. The most prominent of these accusations involves the killing of a teenage ISIS fighter who was captured as a prisoner of war. Gallagher was the subject of a highly publicized trial, sparked when a group of fellow SEALs broke ranks over concerns of Gallagher’s erratic conduct in the field. He was ultimately acquitted of all charges except one – posing for a photo of himself with the body.

Much of “The Line” takes the form of a courtroom drama. It’s a reliable framework to tell the story, the narrative parsing through the accusations levied against Gallagher, as well as the details of the defense. Through trial recordings and extensive interviews, including with Gallagher himself, Taberski takes on the role of outside investigator, piecing together what actually happened in Mosul and working through the question of Gallagher’s guilt or innocence. But “The Line” is also interested in the bigger picture, in particular the tensions between what soldiers are made to understand about their role and what they’re ultimately made to do. The concept of moral injury plays a heavy role into Taberski’s examination. How do repeated forays into murky gray areas impact a soldier’s sense of themselves as moral actors?

Just listen.

Why does college cost so much?

Terrific post from Paul Campos on college costs.  First, he goes through a lot of myths (well-worth reading) before getting to what’s really driving things– administrative bloat and the perverse incentives involved therein:

Nevertheless some major factors include:

(1) A huge increase in the amount of money that’s being spent on administration. While over the past 40 years the size of university faculties has increased more slowly than student enrollment, the sheer number of university administrators has increased far faster than the student population. On top of this, while compensation for faculty has stagnated or declined, as salaries for full time faculty have barely kept pace with inflation, and more and more formerly full time positions have been filled by low-paid adjuncts, compensation for upper administration has exploded.

Consider that a survey of the salaries of more than 700 American college and university presidents for the 1983-84 academic year found that the mean salary for this group was $63,501 — equivalent to about $157,000 35 years later. The single highest-paid university president at the time was making $118,000 in salary, that is, a little under $300,000 in constant dollars.

Today several dozen university presidents have seven figure annual compensation packages. (In 2017 the 20 highest-paid American university presidents had annual compensation packages that averaged $2.5 million). Overall, mean salaries of American university presidents have more than tripled in real terms over the past 35 years. And of course the salaries of presidents set the benchmark for the rest of the upper administrators at universities: there are now literally thousands of administrators at American universities making more, in constant dollars, than the highest-paid university president was making a generation ago.

(2) Closely related to (1), the upper administration of universities has become its own world, increasingly cut off from if not actively hostile to the faculties it is overseeing. As a rough generalization, prior to the 1980s or so, American universities were run by their own faculties: the top administrators were typically drawn from an institution’s faculty, and they would usually rotate back into regular faculty positions after a time.

Today, as an LGM commenter noted recently, universities are run by a class of professional university administrators, who move from school to school, very much as top corporate managers are always searching for the next promotion at the next company that will appear on their resumes. These are people who have abandoned academic life to become managers of massive bureaucracies, and their orientation toward their faculties is very much a severely hierarchical one, with all the latent and often overt hostility such relationships entails.

The career path of professional university administrators creates all sorts of perverse incentives from an institutional perspective, because the path to lateral advancement is always to spend more money: to “grow” the institution with more programs, more initiatives, more centers, more splashy hires of one kind or another, and in particular more shiny new buildings — the dreaded edifice complex — until the PUA moves on in a few years to the next institution, where the process can be repeated. [emphases mine]

(3) All this, of course, means that the people running American universities have to be positively obsessed with increasing revenue, in order to pay for all this resume-enhancing growth. For example, the annual expendable endowment income of my alma mater, the University of Michigan, is now equivalent, in constant inflation-adjusted dollars, to what was the combined total annual expendable endowment income of all the nation’s 1,497 public colleges and universities when I was an undergraduate 40 years ago. (During this time Michigan’s endowment has grown from $115 million to $12.5 billion).

Spending levels at elite universities have become mind-boggling: in real dollars, the operating budgets of these places have nearly tripled over the past 30 years. Example: in 1989 Princeton had a total operating budget of $848 million in 2020 dollars: a sum which included a six million dollar operating deficit. In fiscal 2020 the school’s operating budget was $2.3 billion, which included an enormous operating surplus — the school had pulled in more than three billion dollars in total revenue during the previous fiscal year.

And all of this has a perverse trickle down effect, as schools further down the hierarchy spend sums that would have been considered absurdly profligate at HYPS a generation ago, but which are now considered the minimum necessary to maintain and enhance institutional “excellence” — a term which, like the other MBA buzzwords used compulsively now by top university administrators, is never actually defined in any concrete way, beyond spending more money this year than you spent last.

(4) It’s difficult to overstate the insidious effect that the creation and popularization of various ranking systems, that purport to formalize the American university hierarchy, has had on higher education in this country. It’s hard to remember now, but 40 years ago these things basically didn’t exist. Today, US News and the rest of its bastard progeny perform a very important practical function, which is to give university administrators a pseudo-empirical frame for constantly pursing an insanely negative sum competition for institutional status. Thus the competition to become a top X university — or more terrifyingly, to not cease to be one — requires ever-higher levels of spending: not least of all because these ranking systems actually use spending as a direct proxy for, um, “excellence.” (In other words, if two institutions are identical in all other respects, the one that spends more money to generate exactly the same results as the other will be higher ranked as between the two.)

Just for example here’s all the Vice Provosts at my very own institution.  There’s a lot!  And I’m not going to call any of the out by name or job title and I suspect if you dove in, most all of them would seem justifiable, but, in the totality, it’s a lot of administration.  It’s also a lot of very expensive administration.  My guess is you could find lots of highly-competent people to do these jobs at substantially less salary, but, as Campos said, it’s an insulated world. 

So, how do we make this better? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.  Not much from Campos on that other than 

But one thing we should not be doing is shoveling ever-larger sums of money, via cash tuition payments, $1.6 trillion in loans, $200 billion per year in public subsidies, and so on and so forth, into the hands of self-dealing university administrators, on the basis of what are increasingly preposterous claims about how under-funded their institutions are.

It is certainly arguable that American higher education should be funded at even higher levels than it is today. What is not defensible is the idea that we should give the people who have constructed the current system even more money, without also creating some better system of accountability in regard to how they are choosing to spend that money.

But, yeah, something needs to change.  

Are we drinking too much?

Yglesias had a really nice post on how increasing alcohol taxes is a very smart way to try and cut crime that I was planning to paste extensively from.  But, before I got the chance, Kate Julian with just the best piece I have ever read on alcohol in the latest issue of the Atlantic.  It tackles the relationship between humans and alcohol evolutionary, psychologically, sociologically, etc.  So much good stuff.  You totally should just read it. 

As somebody who is basically a non-drinker I found it particularly interesting on many levels.  As for the non-drinker part, as you know, I’m picky and more than anything I pretty much hate the taste of all but some mixed drinks.  And those are expensive (and I’m cheap– that’s why a substantial part of my lifetime drinking is open bars at weddings).  Also, on my personal cost/benefit, I’m already pretty uninhibited and rarely in need of additional social lubrication (my wife would surely argue I generally need more inhibition even when sober), so the benefits seem much smaller for me than the average person.  That said, full disclosure is that my wife and I started dating in significant part due to alcohol lowering inhibitions.  

Anyway, onto some of the good stuff:

What’s distinctly American about this story is not alcohol’s prominent place in our history (that’s true of many societies), but the zeal with which we’ve swung between extremes. Americans tend to drink in more dysfunctional ways than people in other societies, only to become judgmental about nearly any drinking at all. Again and again, an era of overindulgence begets an era of renunciation: Binge, abstain. Binge, abstain…

Right now we are lurching into another of our periodic crises over drinking, and both tendencies are on display at once. Since the turn of the millennium, alcohol consumption has risen steadily, in a reversal of its long decline throughout the 1980s and ’90s. Before the pandemic, some aspects of this shift seemed sort of fun, as long as you didn’t think about them too hard. In the 20th century, you might have been able to buy wine at the supermarket, but you couldn’t drink it in the supermarket. Now some grocery stores have wine bars, beer on tap, signs inviting you to “shop ’n’ sip,” and carts with cup holders.

And here’s the evolution part I found super-fascinating:

Why do we drink in the first place? By we, I mean Americans in 2021, but I also mean human beings for the past several millennia.

Let’s get this out of the way: Part of the answer is “Because it is fun.” Drinking releases endorphins, the natural opiates that are also triggered by, among other things, eating and sex. Another part of the answer is “Because we can.” Natural selection has endowed humans with the ability to drink most other mammals under the table. Many species have enzymes that break alcohol down and allow the body to excrete it, avoiding death by poisoning. But about 10 million years ago, a genetic mutation left our ancestors with a souped-up enzyme that increased alcohol metabolism 40-fold.

This mutation occurred around the time that a major climate disruption transformed the landscape of eastern Africa, eventually leading to widespread extinction. In the intervening scramble for food, the leading theory goes, our predecessors resorted to eating fermented fruit off the rain-forest floor. Those animals that liked the smell and taste of alcohol, and were good at metabolizing it, were rewarded with calories. In the evolutionary hunger games, the drunk apes beat the sober ones.

But even presuming that this story of natural selection is right, it doesn’t explain why, 10 million years later, I like wine so much. “It should puzzle us more than it does,” Edward Slingerland writes in his wide-ranging and provocative new book, Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization, “that one of the greatest foci of human ingenuity and concentrated effort over the past millennia has been the problem of how to get drunk.” The damage done by alcohol is profound: impaired cognition and motor skills, belligerence, injury, and vulnerability to all sorts of predation in the short run; damaged livers and brains, dysfunction, addiction, and early death as years of heavy drinking pile up. As the importance of alcohol as a caloric stopgap diminished, why didn’t evolution eventually lead us away from drinking—say, by favoring genotypes associated with hating alcohol’s taste? That it didn’t suggests that alcohol’s harms were, over the long haul, outweighed by some serious advantages.

Versions of this idea have recently bubbled up at academic conferences and in scholarly journals and anthologies (largely to the credit of the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar). Drunk helpfully synthesizes the literature, then underlines its most radical implication: Humans aren’t merely built to get buzzed—getting buzzed helped humans build civilization. Slingerland is not unmindful of alcohol’s dark side, and his exploration of when and why its harms outweigh its benefits will unsettle some American drinkers. Still, he describes the book as “a holistic defense of alcohol.” And he announces, early on, that “it might actually be good for us to tie one on now and then.”

Alcohol is basically beneficial as a social drug.  As an individual drug… not so much:

But this rosy story about how alcohol made more friendships and advanced civilization comes with two enormous asterisks: All of that was before the advent of liquor, and before humans started regularly drinking alone…

Just as people were learning to love their gin and whiskey, more of them (especially in parts of Europe and North America) started drinking outside of family meals and social gatherings. As the Industrial Revolution raged, alcohol use became less leisurely. Drinking establishments suddenly started to feature the long counters that we associate with the word bar today, enabling people to drink on the go, rather than around a table with other drinkers. This short move across the barroom reflects a fairly dramatic break from tradition: According to anthropologists, in nearly every era and society, solitary drinking had been almost unheard‑of among humans.

The social context of drinking turns out to matter quite a lot to how alcohol affects us psychologically. Although we tend to think of alcohol as reducing anxiety, it doesn’t do so uniformly. As Michael Sayette, a leading alcohol researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, recently told me, if you packaged alcohol as an anti-anxiety serum and submitted it to the FDA, it would never be approved. He and his onetime graduate student Kasey Creswell, a Carnegie Mellon professor who studies solitary drinking, have come to believe that one key to understanding drinking’s uneven effects may be the presence of other people. Having combed through decades’ worth of literature, Creswell reports that in the rare experiments that have compared social and solitary alcohol use, drinking with others tends to spark joy and even euphoria, while drinking alone elicits neither—if anything, solo drinkers get more depressed as they drink.[emphasis mine]

Anyway, lots more good stuff.  Short version… if you are drinking reasonable amounts and you are doing so with other people, you’re fine.  If otherwise… maybe not.

And, as for the maybe not.  Alcohol is a huge contributor to crime.  My favorite criminologist–the late, great Mark Kleiman–wrote about this a lot and one of the reasons I love Yglesias on crime is that he’s heavily influenced by Kleiman, too.  One way to have less alcohol-influenced crime is higher alcohol taxes.  Yes, it’s really that simple.  Sure, easy for me the non-drinker to say, but if you told me that doubling the cost of my beloved Diet Dr Pepper would save lives and substantially reduce human suffering, I’d gladly pay up.  Anyway, onto Yglesias:

This is not particularly in the news, but I think one of the most underrated basic public policy points around is that the consumption of alcoholic beverages is a pretty serious public health problem.

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a drink now and then, and I enjoyed more drinks more frequently when I was younger. A lot of people derive immense satisfaction out of alcohol as a complement to socializing or find winding down with a glass of wine at the end of the day to be incredibly relaxing.

But I don’t think we really have any kind of clear consensus on how to weigh everyday pleasures against public health concerns. About 40,000 people die each year from injuries inflicted by firearms, of which more than half are suicides. In some social circles in the United States, that’s seen as an acute crisis worthy of drastic political action to curtail the tide of violence. CDC stats say about 95,000 excess deaths each year can be attributed to alcohol abuse, of which about 10,000 are drunk driving fatalities. So looked at one way, booze is deadlier than guns. Looked at another way, gun murder is a more serious problem than drunk driving. Either way, to the extent that you’re inclined to see the gun situation as worth major legislative action, I think it’s certainly worth looking at alcohol as well. Indeed, scholars think that something like 40% of murders involves the use of alcohol, so the issues really are fairly comparable…

We tax alcohol in the United States, of course, but we’ve chosen to do it in a slightly odd way that treats beer, wine, and liquor differently.

As a side note, the favorable tax treatment of beer relative to liquor helps explain the rise of “hard seltzer.” You could combine vodka and carbonated water in a can, but that would be taxed as liquor. Eventually, people figured out a process for creating a flavorless malt liquor — “hard seltzer” — that is taxed like beer. But as you can see here courtesy of David Roodman, the big picture is that inflation has eroded the value of all of these taxes.

This is particularly significant because household income has also risen a lot since 1960. So the real value of the tax on beer and spirits has not only fallen considerably, but the affordability of paying the booze tax has surged over the generations…

When German Lopez made the case for a higher alcohol tax at Vox a few years ago, he noted that “if you care about gun violence, or car crashes, or the current drug overdose crisis, or HIV/AIDS, you should care about alcohol — because alcohol’s annual death toll is higher than deaths due to guns, cars, drug overdoses, or HIV/AIDS ever have been in a single year in America.”

With crime on the rise, I think it’s particularly important to note the role of alcohol in perpetuating violence.

“Take any dimension of the problem you like, except for source country violence,” the late crime scholar Mark Kleiman told the Washington Post in 2013. “All illegal drugs combined are to alcohol as the Mediterranean is to the Pacific.”

He explained that surveys of incarcerated people reveal that half the people in prison were drunk at the time they committed their offense. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they wouldn’t have committed the crime if they’d been sober. But we all know that drunkenness reduces inhibitions and time-horizons (that’s why it’s fun, right?), and uninhibited people who don’t think about long-term consequences commit more crimes…

A lot of people seem to be skeptical that higher alcohol taxes would have a meaningful impact on any alcohol-related problems.

Conveniently, not only is there a lot of research out there about this, but David Roodman reviewed it for the Open Philanthropy Project and, in many cases, did replications of the underlying studies. And the evidence is pretty clear that higher taxes mean less drinking…

Roodman’s view is that looking only at alcohol-related disease, “a 10 percent price increase would cut the death rate 9-25 percent,” saving several thousand lives per year.

Anyway, lots of interesting stuff all-around.  Short version: don’t drink alone and tax alcohol more.  

Photo of the day

OMG I think this “Winners of the 2021 BigPicture Natural World Photography Competition” may be about my favorite photo gallery ever.  So many great images. This one really sticks with me:A leopard seal swims with its mouth open, toward a penguin, underwater.

Facing Reality. Aquatic Life Finalist. With their silky coats, big, dark eyes, and perpetual grins, leopard seals can look downright cuddly lounging on Antarctic ice floes. It’s safe to say, though, that penguins have a different perspective of these powerful apex predators. Weighing up to 1,320 pounds (600 kilograms), with powerful jaws lined with sharp teeth, leopard seals are capable of catching and subduing a wide range of prey. Studies have shown that leopard seals feed on everything from krill, fish, octopuses, and crabs to penguins and other seals. A recent study conducted on the Antarctic Peninsula, not far from where photographer Amos Nachoum captured this image of a leopard seal preying on a young Gentoo penguin, found that penguins make up about a quarter of the leopard seal’s diet throughout the year. 

Amos Nachoum / BigPicture Natural World Photography Competition

Abortion is going to be big in 2021

It’s not been my main focus, but I’ve been studying public opinion on and the politics of abortion for a long time.  I’ve gotten back into it and feel pretty good about my upcoming APSA paper for this year on the surprising stability of abortion attitudes.  I feel like some expertise on public opinion on abortion is going to really matter for the next few years.  I really loved David Leonhardt’s recent newsletter that did a great job summing up the complexity of abortion attitudes.  My short version: we overwhelmingly treat this as a false “pro-life vs. pro-choice” binary, but attitudes are far more complex, and, often not nearly as strong as media coverage would have you think.  If I had to sum up the median American abortion attitude it would be, “it’s complicated (but should probably be mostly legal).”  Anyway, Leonhardt’s lengthier summary:

Americans’ views on abortion are sufficiently complex that both sides in the debate are able to point to survey data that suggests majority opinion is on their side — and then to argue that the data friendly to their own side is the “right” data. These competing claims can be confusing. But when you dig into the data, you discover there are some clear patterns and objective truths.

Here are five.

Polls consistently show that a majority of Americans — 60 percent to 70 percent, in recent polls by both Gallup and Pew — say they do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe. Similarly, close to 60 percent of Americans say they favor abortion access in either all or most circumstances, according to Pew.

These are the numbers that abortion rights advocates often emphasize.

The most confounding aspect of public opinion is a contradiction between Americans’ views on Roe itself and their views on specific abortion policies: Even as most people say they support the ruling, most also say they favor restrictions that Roe does not permit.

Roe, for example, allows only limited restrictions on abortion during the second trimester, mostly involving a mother’s health. But less than 30 percent of Americans say that abortion should “generally be legal” in the second trimester, according to Gallup. Many people also oppose abortion in specific circumstances — because a fetus has Down syndrome, for example — even during the first trimester.

One sign that many Americans favor significant restrictions is in the Gallup data. Gallup uses slightly different wording from Pew, creating an option that allows people to say that abortion should be legal “in only a few” circumstances. And that is the most popular answer — with 35 percent of respondents giving it (in addition to the 20 percent who say abortion should be illegal in all circumstances).

This helps explain why many abortion rights advocates are worried that the Supreme Court will gut Roe without officially overturning it. Yes, the justices are often influenced by public opinion.

Opinion on some major political issues has changed substantially over the last half-century. On taxes and regulation, people’s views have ebbed and flowed. On some cultural issues — like same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization — views have moved sharply in one direction.

But opinion on abortion has barely budged. Here is Gallup’s four-category breakdown, going back to 1994:

 
 
Image
Credit…By The New York Times | Source: Gallup

Other survey questions show a similar pattern, with the stability stretching back to the 1970s, just after the Roe ruling.

A key reason is that abortion opinion differs only modestly by age group. Americans under 30 support abortion rights more strongly than Americans over 50, but the gap is not huge. The age gaps on marijuana legalizationsame-sex marriage and climate change are all larger.

Abortion remains a vexing issue for large numbers of Americans in every generation — which suggests the debate is not likely to be resolved anytime soon.

Gender plays a major role in American politics. Most women voted for Joe Biden, while most men voted for Donald Trump. On many issues, like gun control and the minimum wage, there is a large gender gap.

But the gap on abortion is not so large. If anything, it seems to be smaller than the partisan gap. That suggests, perhaps surprisingly, that there are more Democratic-voting women who favor significant abortion restrictions than Republican-voting women who favor almost universal access — while the opposite is true for men.

(One note: When people are asked whether they identify as “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” both the gender and age gaps grow. Those terms appear to prime people to think as Democrats or Republicans, rather than thinking through the details of their own policy views.)

 
 
Image

Credit…By The New York Times | Source: Pew Research Center

One of the strongest predictors of a person’s view on abortion is educational attainment, as you can see in the chart above. Working-class Americans often favor restrictions. Many religiously observant people also favor restrictions.

It’s yet another way in which the Democratic coalition is becoming tilted toward college graduates and the Republican coalition is going in the other direction.

As mentioned, the research that I’m working on is all about explaining #3.  Short version: countervailing trends of partisan polarization almost perfectly counter-acted by greater education and secularization.  

And good stuff from Ron Brownstein on the politics of all this:

Public opinion over abortion today is much more polarized along party lines than it was in the first decades after the Supreme Court established a nationwide right to it in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Reflecting those divisions, red and blue states are poised to hurtle in radically different directions if the court grants them more leeway to regulate abortion by retrenching, or even reversing, the Roe decision through its ruling in the Mississippi case.

A new Supreme Court ruling providing states greater freedom to restrict abortion access, which could come before the 2022 elections, would dramatically change that equation by making the debate far more tangible.
 
“It’s one thing to say it’s a symbolic issue that signals what team you play for,” says Robert P. Jones, founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan group that studies Americans’ attitudes about cultural issues. “But it’s another thing to say this is something that is actually going to affect people’s lives on the ground, their health, their ability to plan their families. All of these are very concrete ways in which this issue could come out of the abstract intellectual debate into the streets in a way we haven’t seen” for decades.
 
Put another way, while many of today’s most volatile social issue disputes involve statements of values that will touch vanishingly few Americans in their daily lives — very few people, for instance, will ever have to decide whether to bake a cake or take the photos for a same-sex wedding — the potential for significant new restrictions, or even bans, on abortion would amount to a culture war with more widely felt consequences.

Over the succeeding decades, and especially in this century, cultural and racial attitudes have increasingly displaced class interests as the central glue of the parties. That current widened the differences between the parties on abortion. By the time a closely divided Supreme Court reaffirmed the nationwide right to abortion in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, a gap had opened between Republican and Democratic views. In 1991 Gallup results, Democrats were 8 percentage points more likely than Republicans to say abortion should be legal in all circumstances; in the 1992 election, according to the American National Election Studies data, Democrat Bill Clinton ran about 25 points better among those who said abortion should always be legal than with those who said it should never be available.

But even so, in both his 1992 and 1996 elections, Clinton (who famously declared that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare”) won nearly half the voters who wanted abortion available either never or rarely, the National Election Studies found. Since then, as the electorate’s re-sorting along cultural lines has proceeded, the distance between the parties on abortion has exploded.

While the share of Republicans who believed abortion should always be legal rose from the 1970s through the 1990s, Gallup found that by 2020, it had fallen to just 13%. By contrast, the share of Democrats who said abortion should be legal in all circumstances soared to 49% in 2020, well over double its level in the 1970s and early 1980s. In the 2020 presidential race, according to the National Election Studies data, Joe Biden won more than four-fifths of voters who said abortion should always be legal, but only one-fifth of those who said it should always be illegal and fewer than 3 in 10 of those who wanted it only “rarely” available.

The same polarization was evident when congressional Republicans, during Donald Trump’s presidency, advanced legislation to ban abortion after 20 weeks. In contrast to the extensive partisan defections in 1983, just two Senate Republicans in 2020 opposed that bill (Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine) and only two Senate Democrats (Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin of West Virginia) backed it. The ban fell well short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a Senate filibuster.

In all these ways, a Supreme Court decision eliminating or further restricting abortion rights would land in a country where the issue divides the parties far more starkly than it did at the time of Roe. The separation extends beyond Washington through the states. If the Supreme Court gives states more freedom to limit abortion, nearly two dozen states have laws on the books that would either ban abortion entirely or cut off access much earlier in pregnancy, according to a tabulation by the Guttmacher Institute, a research and advocacy group that studies reproductive issues. Almost all of those states were won by Trump.

So, a lot of what happens politically is in the hands of the Supreme Court.  But despite the overall stability, the patterns of public opinion are starkly different from the last time the Court ruled on abortion and there really could be substantial political ramifications.  

Just pay teachers (a lot) more

Back in 2014 when I was really into education policy, I wrote a long-ish post on all the things we should do to improve education policy.  The sine qua non is, undoubtedly, pay teachers more.  A lot more.  So much else flows from that.  And here’s my post on teacher pay from 2018.

And for 2021, I really, really loved this “guest essay” (no longer an Op-Ed, mind you) by Collete Coleman, “The Case for Paying All Teachers Six Figures.”  Hell yeah.  I’ve often felt like one of those billionaires who wants to improve schools instead of trying all sorts of fancy interventions should just pick some small state and say something like, “I’m going to see to it that every teacher in Rhode Island makes it least $100,000.”  I’m quite confident good things would happen.  Why?  Coleman explains:

The RAND Corporation, a research organization, noted in a recent report that several factors influence student performance, including “individual characteristics and family and neighborhood experiences.” Its analysts concluded that “among school-related factors, teachers matter most.” High-quality teachers, they said, can boost student performance on reading and math tests twofold or threefold…

Research collected by the Center for American Progress found that “the teacher labor market is responsive to changes in pay just like other occupations” and that “changes in pay can affect not only teacher attrition, but also the pool of candidates choosing to enroll in teacher preparation programs.” Even the former secretary of education Betsy DeVos — a staunch conservative — recognized that “great teachers” should earn a minimum of $250,000 a year in many cases.

Years ago, when I quit my Wall Street job to teach in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I thought — as the culture has taught us all — that a pay cut was just the cost of following a calling, a reduction taken to do meaningful work. I soon learned I was wrong…

Here’s the key, I think:

A 2019 report revealed that fewer college students are studying to become teachers and that because of “low salaries, difficult working conditions and a lack of career pathway opportunities,” teaching generally cannot compete “with other high-status professions such as medicine and law.”

It may be awkward to acknowledge, but it needs to be permissible in polite society to admit that the interplay between money and status — which we all are pressured to navigate — has a role in the teacher pipeline issue.With the cost of living and the price of raising a family higher than ever and rising, who wouldn’t be tempted to find not just your calling but also a higher-paying career? But that’s a choice American society doesn’t have to push educators to make…

There’s a social factor to consider in this teacher-administrator pay differential. The majority of K-12 teachers, nearly 80 percent, are women. Over 75 percent of superintendents, however, are men. Would we be OK with paying teachers so little if they were mostly male?

Of course, even if we were to raise teachers’ salaries to match those of their district leaders, it’s not the case that all of K-12 education’s problems would disappear. My dissatisfaction and that of many other former teachers extended beyond compensation. Attracting and retaining highly qualified educators will also require, for instance, improvements in working conditions. Meaningful raises are a strong start, though. Competitive salaries would lower attrition rates and attract fresh talent that would push everyone to do better. (Making the market for teaching more attractive may, yes, put job pressure on low-performing teachers, but that’s a good thing for students.)

Pay teachers like valued, highly-competent professionals and you know what?  You’ll end up with a lot more highly-competent professionals as teachers.  A lot of other countries have figured this out.  

Quick hits (part II)

1) As someone who thinks demographics are a very big deal in explaining American politics, I found this quite interesting, “Is Demographic and Geographic Polarization Overstated?”

Are Americans substantially more divided based on where they live and their social identities? Or are stories of voters sorted into neat social and geographic enclaves overstated? Seo-young Silvia Kim finds that it is not so easy to predict how Americans will vote based on their demographic groups—and it hasn’t gotten any easier over time. David Darmofal finds that demographics are a bit more predictive of geographic voting patterns, but spatial polarization has not increased markedly over time. They both take the long view, finding that we are not as divided by social groups and geographies as we seem…

Matt Grossmann: Demographic and geographic polarization is overstated this week on the Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.

Are Americans substantially more divided based on where they live and their social identities? It certainly seems that way, with our urban/rural divides and our increasing divisions on race and education. It seems like it should now be easy to predict how an individual or a geographic area voted based on a handful of variables, but taking a longer view makes the story more complicated, with the trends much less pronounced.

This week, I talked to Seo-young Silvia Kim of American University about her new working paper with [Yon Zelinsky 00:00:45], The Divided but Not More Predictable Electorate. She finds that it’s not so easy to predict how Americans will vote based on their demographic groups, and it hasn’t gotten any easier over time. Instead, voters are increasingly divided by partisanship.

I also talked to David Darmofal of the University of South Carolina about his [Springer 00:01:04] book with Ryan Strickler, Demography Politics and Partisan Polarization in the United States. He finds that demographics are a bit more predictive of geographic voting patterns, but spatial polarization has not increased markedly over time. They both find the conventional stories of voters sorted into neat social and geographic enclaves to be overstated. Kim says demographics aren’t destiny when it comes to Americans voting and have not become more important over time.

Seo-young Silvia Kim: Try as we might, demographic labels do not give much information about vote choice throughout the last 70 years. We quantify how a well-performing machine learning algorithm does with just five variables: age, gender, race, education, and income, the big five that the people think is demographics. And we find that, on average, you can only predict about 63.5% of the two party vote choices correctly on average, throughout these years.

It also does not increase over the period of 1952 to 2020. So I think this goes against a lot of people’s intuition that the demographic group identities do really determine political behavior such as vote choice. There’s a lot of punditry built around such notions. And also academics, we believe that demographics is a strong and important predictor that we must pay attention to. And given that we believe that demographic sorting has taken place, and that party line voting has increased, it must have been a natural conclusion to say that, based on demographics, we can predict vote choices better. But it’s not really that case.

2) Interesting stuff on abortion, “The Abortion Fight Has Never Been About Just Roe v. Wade: Anti-abortion-rights activists have turned their arguments away from protecting democracy and toward maximizing protection for fetal life.”

Ever since Roe, abortion-rights foes and their Republican allies have been asking the Court to reverse course—to acknowledge that the Constitution has nothing whatsoever to say about abortion, either in favor of or against it. Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court justice arguably most beloved by conservatives, routinely stated that the Constitution is silent on abortion. Republicans have railed against the Court’s judicial activism in Roe, insisting that the justices robbed the American people of the opportunity to decide the abortion issue for themselves. In this account, Roe did not just destroy valuable opportunities for compromise on abortion; the decision did fundamental damage to America’s democratic principles, removing one of the most controversial issues from representative legislatures and resolving it by judicial fiat.

Finnis’s article has provoked debate across the ideological spectrum. The conservative attorney Ed Whelan has taken issue with the substance of Finnis’s claim, suggesting that unless the anti-abortion-rights movement first wins over public opinion, Finnis’s approach will backfire. Progressives have been far harsher, unsurprisingly. Writing in The New York Times, the columnist Michelle Goldberg denounced what she calls an authoritarian turn in anti-abortion-rights advocacy—one more sign that the GOP has changed fundamentally in the post-Trump era.

The abortion debate has never been about just Roe—and it’s never been about letting a popular majority have a say. What’s new is that this argument now meets a receptive Supreme Court for the first time in more than a generation.

3) Not your everyday poll, just, found this notable as it’s me, “A third of hosts who always take off their own shoes never ask their guests to”

4) When I was a teenager and Paulina Porizkova first came to prominence in the SI Swimsuit issue, suffice it to say I was a big fan (pretty sure her SI photos were the first decorations I ever had in a locker).  Pretty fascinating reading about her life nearly 40 years later and in the wake of the death of her rock-star husband, Ric Ocasek.  

5) It’s been so long since I’ve been through the crazy intersection in Breezewood, PA, but reading about it was a great trip down memory lane as well as an explanation of photography and crazy highway policy:

relates to What Internet Memes Get Wrong About Breezewood, Pennsylvania

It’s summer, and for hundreds of thousands of Americans, that means at least one burger-and-bathroom break in Breezewood, Pennsylvania. This half-mile gauntlet of gas stations, fast-food outlets, and motels, its oversized signs towering above the surrounding countryside, is familiar to anyone who has to drive regularly from the East Coast to the Midwest or vice versa.

As the New York Times explained in 2017, Pennsylvania’s “Gas Vegas” sprang up because of an obsolete law. Breezewood is a deliberately awkward transition between Interstate 70 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where they (almost) meet. Back in the 1950s, as I-70 was being built, a law prohibited spending federal funds to channel drivers directly from a free road to a toll road. The law was later overturned, but to comply with it, highway planners designed a looping interchange that lets drivers avoid the turnpike if they (hypothetically) want to. From this constant stream of slow-moving traffic, a mega-rest-stop was born.

It’s true that it would be hard to find a purer distillation of American car culture in one image. A gas station occupies the whole foreground of the photo and seems to merge into the diner behind it, a blurring of our hunger for food with our appetite for fossil fuels. There are plenty of cars in the picture and several semi-trailers, but no humans that the eye can make out…

Nor is the photo’s composition a lucky accident. Edward Burtynsky is a famous photographer, the subject of a New Yorker profile whose work is in the Guggenheim. He took the picture in 2008, as part of a project called Oil that became a book of the same name

Getting such a striking image of the place took a lot more work than most meme-sharers might realize. Burtynsky told me he spent three days in town scouting vantage points and setting up the shot. He often shoots from helicopters, but here he relied on an earthbound rig.

6) Good stuff from Frank Bruni on Joe Biden, 

President Biden was talking about Israel the other day, and I almost had to strain to hear his voice. It was that soft, and it complemented the languid pace of his words.

The subject was bloody, agonizing, unsolvable: the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, which had taken an especially violent turn and killed many people over the previous days. Biden had reason to scream, cause to cry.

But his timbre and cadence brought to mind a lullaby.

There’s something to that.

We live in polarized, adrenalized times that hardly need the turbocharging of a president who foams at the mouth. Wasn’t Donald Trump’s presidency proof of that?

Most Democrats certainly thought so, and several of their party’s candidates for president in 2020 promised a post-Trump slump on the unbridled-passion front. I remember in particular Senator Michael Bennet’s pledge to be a president whom you didn’t have to think about for days on end.

Well, Biden is that president — sort of. I’m qualifying my assessment because the magnitude of the challenges facing the United States and the ambition of his prescriptions are certainly front of mind. But he himself as a player and a potentate isn’t, and that’s partly intentional.

For the sake of national healing, in the interests of governing, he has turned down the emotional temperature in his administration. My Times colleague Annie Karni noted one aspect of that in an incisive recent article about “the overall culture of the Biden White House,” which includes “the least personality-driven West Wing in decades.”

“President Biden is undoing a longstanding Washington tradition in which staff members enjoy their own refracted fame,” she wrote. Such celebrity is a distraction. It’s grist for social-media tempests that compromise the mission at hand.

Biden sets the retiring, reticent example. He leads by stepping back. The big political story last week was Kevin McCarthy v. Liz Cheney, and Biden for the most part didn’t touch it. He doesn’t need to be in the first or even second paragraph of every news story. He doesn’t want to.

That’s a striking change for him, as I’ve written before. It’s an even more striking change for the country. In terms of presidential bearing, we’ve gone from a screech to a whisper. I for one am relishing the hush.

7) I really appreciate Drum’s contrarianism on Covid, like this post, “US Bungling Is Not Why the COVID-19 Pandemic Was So Bad.”  As much fun as it is to blame Trump and as awful as he was at Covid-related matters, we really don’t look too different from most of Western Europe:

Why did the United States suffer such high fatalities from COVID-19? Was it:

  1. CDC incompetence
  2. FDA sluggishness
  3. Donald Trump’s mismanagement
  4. Poor preparedness planning left over from the Obama administration

Now let’s rephrase the question. Why did the the United States and all of Europe suffer such high fatalities from COVID-19? Was it:

  1. CDC incompetence
  2. FDA sluggishness
  3. Donald Trump’s mismanagement
  4. Poor preparedness planning left over from the Obama administration

This rephrasing should make it evident that none of these answers—or anything else unique to the United States—makes sense. Europe had good quality tests earlier than us, but it did them no good. Europe responded sooner than we did, but it did them no good. Europe had shortages of PPE etc. just like we did. Europe had the opportunity to establish travel restrictions before the US, but didn’t. European health agencies provided roughly the same masking advice we did. Etc.

In other words, everyone needs to stop the CDC/FDA/Trump blame game because it’s wrong. It’s obvious that the United States isn’t unique among Western nations, and by definition that means the primary cause of our high mortality rate is also not something unique to the US. Our premature reopening in May of last year was responsible for a higher summer death rate, and Donald Trump can certainly be blamed for that, but that’s about all.

This is the question you should ask anyone who insists on blaming the virulence of the pandemic on some specifically American screwup: “But what about Europe?” If their theory doesn’t explain Europe too, you can just toss it out immediately.

8) Just came across this post from JFresh (definitely one of my favorite hockey writers) on one of my favorite subjects– the difficulty of assessing the quality of NHL goaltenders.  Easily one of the most important positions in all of sports, and yet, “Why Goaltending is Basically Random and Will Always Make You Look Stupid (In 5 Graphs): Expecting consistency from year to year will probably leave you disappointed.”

9) This is such a fun and fascinating article.  You should read it, “How to Survive a Killer Asteroid”

The day the Chicxulub asteroid slammed into what is now a small town on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula that bears its name is the most consequential moment in the history of life on our planet. In a prehistoric nanosecond, the reign of the dinosaurs ended and the rise of mammals began. Not only did the impact exterminate every dinosaur save for a few ground-nesting birds, it killed every land mammal larger than a raccoon. In a flash, Earth began one of the most apocalyptical periods in its history. Could you survive it? Maybe.

If you make camp on the right continent, in the right environment, and you seek out the right kind of shelter, at the right altitudes, at the right times, you might stand a chance, says Charles Bardeen, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research who recently modeled the asteroid’s fallout for the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences. Of course, even if you are on the opposite side of the world at the time of impact—which is the only way you can hope to make it out alive—he recommends you act quickly. As soon as you hear its sonic boom (don’t worry—you’ll be able to hear it from the other side of the world), get yourself to high ground and find underground shelter. Immediately…

The impact triggers tsunamis—plural—as high as skyscrapers. The first of them hit gulf coastlines within the hour. Waves ranging from 600 feet to perhaps as tall as a 1,000 feet smash into what is now Mexico and the southern United States and flood tens of miles inland. The waves temporarily reverse the flow of rivers, rushing up river beds like 30-foot tidal bores…

Tsunamis wrap up the eastern seaboard, smash into the eastern coast of the United States, and, six hours after impact, crest as 600-foot-high walls of water in Europe, Africa, and the Mediterranean coasts. Within 15 hours of impact, waves arrive on every coastline on the planet. Depending on local topography, the ocean sweeps away anything in its path and sucks it back to the sea when the waters finally retreat.

These tsunamis deeply complicate your survival strategy, because proximity to the coastline is otherwise a good idea in super-large asteroid strikes. The ocean serves as Earth’s great insulator, moderating the severe temperature swings that massive asteroids induce. In the case of Chicxulub, the swing starts with heat.

Data visualization of the Chicxulub fallout blast.

When the big rock strikes, its splash constitutes 25 trillion tons of earth that it launches on ballistic trajectories, some at speeds that exceed Earth’s escape velocity. These rocks exit Earth’s gravitational pull to either orbit the sun or embed themselves on other moons or planets as meteors themselves. But the majority of ejected debris returns back to Earth within the hour. These glass-like chunks, called tektites—some as large as school buses, but most the size of marbles—pelt the earth at speeds ranging from 100 to 200 mph in lethal quantities. Regardless of where you are on Earth, you’ll need to find protection from this fiery hailstorm.

Bardeen suggests a cave.

But these glass bullets don’t need to hit you to kill you. As they fall, their friction with the atmosphere collectively emits enough thermal radiation to set fires across the world…

In a final piece of terrible luck for the dinosaurs (and you), Chicxulub happens to strike an area rich in oil and sulfur. The impact ejects 100 billion tons of vaporized sulfur and 10,000 Lake Superiors worth of water into the atmosphere, which then condenses into massive storm clouds and falls back as torrents of acid rain. In the higher latitudes, continental-wide snow storms deposit tens of feet per day. But the global inundation doesn’t last long, because in addition to water, Chicxulub vaporizes and forcefully ejects 150 football stadiums worth of oil in the Yucatán bedrock. This oil then condenses in the stratosphere as a black sooty layer, covering Earth like a coat of black paint. Unlike the sulfur and wildfire smoke, the carbon circulates high above the cloud layer so it doesn’t rain back down. And that’s the problem. The soot layer persists, reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches Earth’s surface by 90 percent for at least three years, so the initial ovenlike heat brought on by the returning tektites is followed by a deep, prolonged freeze. Global temperatures drop by an average of almost 50 degrees. The only places on Earth to avoid frost are tropical islands like Madagascar, India (at the time an island), and Indonesia. Not only are these places where you have the best chance of finding plants and the animals that eat them, but according to climate models these tropical islands are some of the few places on Earth that continue to receive fresh water. In the global chill, evaporation almost ceases, which drops rainfall by 80 percent. Nearly every spot on earth outside of these tropical islands dries into a desert.

 

Quick hits (part I)

1) Excellent stuff from Yglesias on capitalism, China, and free speech:

That being said, it seems really clear at this point that the original premise of U.S.-Chinese economic integration got one important point backward. Rather than trade and development allowing for some spread of American liberal norms into China, it is doing the reverse, and western multinationals’ commercial interests in China are inducing them to impose Chinese speech norms on the West. And we ought to try to do something about it…

But here’s what’s worst of all: not only is the internet failing to smuggle free speech into China, Western companies’ desire to make money is smuggling unfree speech out of China.

There are no Chinese movie villains

International intrigue is a common cinematic plot device. There are lots of movies about spies and assassins and terrorists attacking the White House and all sorts of other things. One would expect that just in the ordinary course of such matters, someone would make a movie where the bad guy is an agent of the Chinese government. After all, I assume that in the real world, the U.S. and Chinese intelligence agencies tussle here and there doing whatever the boring real-world equivalent of cool movie spying is.

For a while, the general understanding about this was basically that the PRC would not let you show your movie in China if it made them mad, so film studios told the stewards of big tentpole films and franchises to not do stuff that would cut them off from the China market.

That’s kind of lame, but it also seems to fall within the scope of pretty normal business operations. But last year, Ben Smith reported that Apple’s formal guidelines for original Apple TV+ content include that you cannot portray China in a negative light:

Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president for internet software and services, who has been at the company since 1989, has told partners that “the two things we will never do are hard-core nudity and China,” one creative figure who has worked with Apple told me. (BuzzFeed News first reported last year that Mr. Cue had instructed creators to “avoid portraying China in a poor light.”)

And Smith says that Disney+ has essentially the same policy:

So far, Apple TV+ is the only streaming studio to bluntly explain its corporate red lines to creators — though Disney, with its giant theme park business in China, shares Apple’s allergy to antagonizing China’s leader, Xi Jinping.

What’s disturbing about this is that while “you can’t sell this particular movie in China” certainly hurts that movie’s marketing prospects, it’s not like it’s impossible to make a profitable film or TV series without selling it to China. It’s one thing to say “look, we’re so invested in the James Bond franchise that we don’t want to lose any opportunities to market it.” It’s another thing entirely to say “we are categorically going to refuse to make anything that antagonizes the Chinese government.”

The implication is that Chinese pressure has stepped up. That they’re not just telling Disney that if they make a movie the PRC disapproves of then that movie won’t air in China, but that they will retaliate against Disney’s overall business interests. Of course on some level, we can’t really know what’s going on inside these companies or in their conversations with Chinese leaders. But some things that we can see are disturbing.

2) Not dead yet by any means, but what is going on now with the Republican Party (and too many Democrats who don’t seem to realize the stakes) is exactly what it looks like when democracies die.

Before leaving town for their Memorial Day recess, in fact, Senate Republicans successfully used the legislative filibuster for the first time this session to block the proposed bipartisan panel. Their stated arguments against a commission range from the implausible to the insulting; the real explanation is political cynicism in the extreme. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is so far delivering on his pledge to focus a “hundred per cent” on blocking Biden’s agenda, even claimed that an investigation was pointless because it would result in “no new fact.” John Cornyn, a close McConnell ally, from Texas, was more honest, at least, in admitting, to Politico, that the vote was all about denying Democrats “a political platform” from which to make the 2022 midterm elections a “referendum on President Trump.” For his part, Trump has been putting out the word that he plans to run for reëlection in 2024—and exulting in polls showing that a majority of Republicans continue to believe both his false claims of a fraudulent election and that nothing untoward happened on January 6th. Needless to say, these are not the signs of a healthy democracy ready to combat the autocratic tyrants of the world.

“Turns out, things are much worse than we expected,” Daniel Ziblatt, one of the “How Democracies Die” authors, told me this week. He said he had never envisioned a scenario like the one that has played itself out among Republicans on Capitol Hill during the past few months. How could he have? It’s hard to imagine anyone in America, even when “How Democracies Die” was published, a year into Trump’s term, seriously contemplating an American President who would unleash an insurrection in order to steal an election that he clearly lost—and then still commanding the support of his party after doing so…

In contemporary Germany, he pointed out, an incitement to violence of the kind deployed by Trump and some of his backers might be enough to get a political party banned. But, in America’s two-party system, you can’t just ban one of the two parties, even if it takes a terrifying detour into anti-democratic extremism.

This is the worrisome essence of the matter. In one alarming survey released this week, nearly thirty per cent of Republicans endorsed the idea that the country is so far “off track” that “American patriots may have to resort to violence” against their political opponents. You don’t need two Harvard professors to tell you that sort of reasoning is just what could lead to the death of a democracy. The implications? Consider the blunt words of Judge Amy Berman Jackson, in a ruling on a case involving one of the January 6th rioters at the Capitol, issued even as it became clear that Republican senators would move to block the January 6th commission from investigating what had caused the riot:

The steady drumbeat that inspired defendant to take up arms has not faded away; six months later, the canard that the election was stolen is being repeated daily on major news outlets and from the corridors of power in state and federal government, not to mention in the near daily fulminations of the former President.

It’s worth noting that Jackson released this ruling this week, the same week that Trump issued statements calling the 2020 vote “the most corrupt Election in the history of our Country,” touting himself as “the true President,” and warning that American elections are “rigged, corrupt, and stolen.”

3) Good interview here, “Are Democrats sleepwalking toward democratic collapse?”

Sean Illing

You said we were “at a very dangerous moment in American history” back in 2018. I have to say, the situation seems worse now. Trump is gone, but over the last year or so the Republican Party has taken an explicit turn against democracy itself. So what’s your current level of concern?

David Faris

My current level of concern is exploring countries to move to after 2024. I’m deeply concerned about the direction that the Republican Party has taken, especially over the last year or so. Things were bad in 2018, but the basic problem in 2018 was that we had structural factors working against the Democrats and you had a Republican Party that was fundamentally trying to keep people from voting.

So 2020 felt like a test run. The plot to overturn the 2020 election never had a real chance of working without some external intervention like a military coup or something like that, which I never thought was particularly likely. But the institutional path that they pursued to steal the election failed because they didn’t control Congress and they didn’t control the right governorships in the right places.

So I worry complacency has set in on the Democratic side and people are lulled into thinking things are normal and fine just because Biden’s approval ratings are good.

Sean Illing

2020 was a “test run” for what, exactly?

David Faris

It was a test run for a way to overturn an election with the veneer of legality. You have to give Trump and Republicans some kind of dark credit for figuring out that this is really conceivable. I think they now know that, even though it would cause a court battle and possibly a civil war, that if they can’t win by suppressing the vote and the election is close enough, they can do this if they control enough state legislatures and the Congress.

If Democrats don’t make some changes to our election laws and if they lose some races that they really need to win in 2022 and 2024, then we’re in real trouble.

4) College are moving away from relying on standardized tests in admissions, but they may mean more reliance on essays.  Which have even more of a socio-economic bias (and really interesting to read in which ways).

5) Kind of nuts that twitter will literally ban people because it’s AI is entirely lacking a sense of humor and that twitter doesn’t seem to care to much about wrongly banning people unless they have a ton of followers.

It took a single tweet about autism for Twitter to suspend me for life. The tweet, part of my “life with #autism” series, quoted a clumsy joke from my autistic son. It contained the words “smash your head.”

The fate of those who accidentally post the wrong words on social media should set off alarm bells for anyone concerned about due process and free speech.

Shortly after posting what turned out to be my last tweet about life with autism, I discovered I had been permanently suspended for violating Twitter’s rules against violent threats. I also discovered that Twitter won’t tell you what your offending tweet was. But when, stunned, I scrolled through my history, I found that one tweet—and one only—had been expunged.

It is highly unlikely that a human would mistake the quotation of a joke threat for an actual threat. But artificial intelligence has no sense of humor. And most artificial intelligence looks only for keywords and phrases, not for whether they are embedded within a quoted dialogue.

I am a computational linguist and have long known about the limitations of AI. But only after becoming a Twitter outcast did I learn the dirty secret of moderation on social media. While Twitter’s policy for reviewing tweets is ambiguous (likely purposefully so), prominent figures, like the former president, are almost certainly monitored by real humans who examine their every utterance. But regular people are more frequently relegated to AI—an AI that not only erases tweets, but indefinitely suspends entire accounts. And though Twitter claims not to ban accounts solely based on AI, my own experience and many similar anecdotes make me incredibly skeptical of that claim.

A scroll through tweets directed at @TwitterSupport, Twitter’s customer support account, shows scores of people using alternative accounts, along with their supporters, protesting that no Twitter rules were violated. Some report making joke threats like “I’ll kill you”; others have no idea what went wrong.

But this problem has flown under the radar. Most people writing about free speech and social media are focused on partisan politics, not on artificial intelligence. They appear to be unaware of, or unconcerned about, the thousands of ordinary folks who are suspended indefinitely because a clumsy and indifferent AI flagged a perfectly legitimate tweet.

6) And, back to a theme, “If American Democracy collapsed, you probably wouldn’t notice it”

Let’s warm up with a question. Why don’t powerful people just seize the reins of authority in American politics? You may think that the answer is because our system of laws says that they may not. We have a Constitution, after all, that says that presidents and members of Congress are elected. The rules say that powerful people cannot just seize power. If you want to have the authority to make laws, you have to win elections.

But that answer is wrong. What constrains the powerful is not the Constitution, nor the system of laws, regulations, and bureaucracies that govern political competition. What constrains them is the practice that American politicians seek power through elections and that everyone agrees to accept that method.

That difference is subtle. It may even seem tautological—didn’t I just say that powerful people don’t seize power because they don’t? But it is essential for understanding what sustains democracy, and what undermines it. Democracy is a political regime, which O’Donnell and Schmitter define as

the ensemble of patterns, explicit or not, that determines and channels of access to principal governmental positions, the characteristics of the actors who are admitted and excluded from such access, and the resources or strategies that they can use to gain access.

Democracy is nothing other than a particular pattern of behavior that reveals how, within some community, people access positions of political authority.

Constitutions and laws, like other so-called “parchment institutions,” help to provide a structure for politics. Given that there are many ways to have elections, our Constitution generates public, common expectations about how they might be conducted (see Carey [PDF]). But laws do not constrain on their own. They constrain—and this is the essential bit—if people behave as if they are constrained by them.

Working from these two points—democracy is a pattern of behavior, and laws only constrain if people behave as if they are constrained—it follows that we would be correct to say that democracy has collapsed if the explicit or implicit patterns of behavior that govern access to political authority no longer operated. And we would not look to the passage of a law, or necessarily even the outcome of an election, to determine if democracy had collapsed.

Democracy, in fact, makes it particularly challenging to know if democracy has collapsed. That is because when democracy functions, challenges to it are usually hidden, and when they emerge in the open, they are processed through a system that presumes that challenges can be handled democratically. Political actors invoke laws and Constitutions as if they were binding constraints. Stresses that pose questions about the stability of the regime over time, therefore, are fundamentally ambiguous. They may be regime-altering, or not. And the responses to them by those who hold power may be regime-altering. Or not.

And that is why, if American democracy were to collapse, you almost certainly wouldn’t notice it. Not right away, at least…

That is an unsettling conclusion, but it is an important one, because it lays out the stakes for defending democracy. Indeed, there aren’t very many differences between everyday life under most forms of authoritarianism and everyday life under democracy. For most people, in most cases, life is basically the same. And because most people, in most cases, are not motivated primarily by their politics in going about their everyday life, the functioning of national politics is not a first-order concern for them.* Democracies usually do not go out with a bang. They just cease to be.**

7) OMG I hate articles about “myths” that aren’t myths at all, or that actually a thing and they pretend its not.  The reality is that NPR should just not being producing this kind of ideological journalism, “6 Charts That Dismantle The Trope Of Asian Americans As A Model Minority”  For starters, “Myth: Asian Americans are a single monolithic group.”  Seriously?!  Does even your average 8-year old believe this.  What a ridiculous low bar of a “myth” to debunk.  Meanwhile “myth” number 2 got dragged, rightly, all over twitter because “Myth: Asian Americans are high earning and well educated” in this case the underlying data shows, that, on average, yes.  The fact that there are large disparities within Asian-Americans (really– not a monolith?!) does not undermine this at all.

8) I loved this guest post at Zeynep’s substack about the key to the novel coronavirus being the novelty.

Novelty Means Severity

by Dylan. H. Morris, PhD

SARS-CoV-2 is new to our immune systems. That makes it very dangerous. Viruses that are new to us spread faster and are more lethal than old familiar ones.

Some scientists are tempted to chalk this up to evolution. The argument is that a virus that leaves its host alive will outcompete one that kills its host. Viruses do sometimes become less deadly as they adapt to a new host species (like us), but they also sometimes become more deadly. But whether wrong or right for a given virus, this tempting just-so story can be a distraction.

Novelty is bad regardless of virus evolution.

When a virus is new, nobody possesses acquired immune protection against it. Acquired immune protection is a different kind of adaptation: not virus evolution, but our own learned—adaptive—immunity. We build over our lifetimes as we encounter new pathogens and learn how to fend them off.

If nobody has adaptive immune protection, a virus spreads faster. Even a few immune individuals in a population can meaningfully slow the rate of virus spread, since they are less likely to become infectious and infect others. If there are enough immune individuals, the virus may not be able to spread at all. This is the logic of population immunity and herd immunity. It is important. We talk about it a lot.

If nobody has adaptive immune protection, a virus causes severe disease in more of the people it infects. This is also important. We don’t talk about it enough…

One of the first observations people made about COVID was that it was frighteningly lethal in the elderly, but by and large, children were not getting too sick. Some people were surprised. Conventional wisdom was that influenza hit children and the elderly hardest, while sparing younger adults. Why was SARS-CoV-2 different?

But we need to look a little more closely, because it’s hard to reach adulthood without having had the flu. Look at virus severity not by age but by age of first infection, and a pattern emerges: see something for the first time as a kid, and you’ll most likely be okay (but only most likely). See it for the first time as an adult, and it can be nasty. The older you get, the worse it becomes to be infected with a virus you’ve never seen.

Children encounter many viruses to which they have no prior immunity. They compensate with robust innate immune responses that allow them to handle novel infections fairly well.

Robust doesn’t equal invincible. Without widespread childhood vaccination, infectious diseases kill many children, particularly children under five. A first encounter between the immune system and a virus can end tragically, even for a child.1

As you age, you get less good at handling novel viruses. And eventually you get less good at handling any virus, novel or familiar—your immune system ages (“immunosenescence”). The flu, for example, can be very severe in the elderly. But adults, even elderly adults, usually have at least some adaptive immunity to the viruses they face.

Things can get bad if they don’t…

In an article on OC43, Anthony King writes: “If OC43 was the culprit in the 1889/90 pandemic, it has clearly lost its sting in the past 130 years”. Has it? Or do we (almost) all now see it in childhood?

The “almost” may be important. I often wonder about the strong similarity between myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS)—a rare but severe chronic health condition—and many cases of Long COVID. ME/CFS is more common in adults than in children; it often takes hold in adults after a viral infection. What if it is a rare but dangerous consequence of first seeing in your 30s a virus most people first saw in childhood? Evade OC43 or another common virus as a kid, and it could give you post-viral sequelae when it finally hits you in adulthood.

And so while we don’t yet have hard data on the efficacy of the vaccines in preventing Long COVID if they fail to prevent infection, the severity-is-novelty principle makes me hopeful. The virus might get you sick, but it won’t be new to you. That could matter a lot.2

9) Thank your T-cells.  Monica Gandhi, “Relax: If you’re vaccinated, you won’t need a booster any time soon”

As coronavirus vaccines begin to steer the United States back to normalcy after a long and nerve-racking year, Americans’ optimism is mixed with anxiety about the pandemic hurdles that lay ahead. Among those worries is boosters — extra shots that might be needed to shore up immunity among the vaccinated. But emerging research is showing that vaccines and even infections by the virus actually confer long-term immunity and that most vaccinated people won’t need booster shots — at least, not any time soon.

A short primer on the immune system will help explain why. There are two major arms of the immune system: B cells, which produce antibodies, and T cells, which form to attack parts of a pathogen called epitopes. Part of the reason booster shots are under discussion is that antibodies in the bloodstream produced by B cells wane over time. Your blood cannot hold high levels of antibodies to all of the infections you have seen over your lifetime or it would be as thick as paste.

But when you get an infection or vaccine, both parts of your immune system also typically make what are known as memory cells. These long-lasting cells are designed to protect you from a disease you might have encountered a long time ago. For instance, a 2008 study found memory B cells in the blood of people who had been exposed to the influenza pandemic of 1918 and were over 90 years old. Those memory B cells could produce strong neutralizing antibodies against the virus or its variants decades later. The immunity conferred by memory T cells can also last decades.

10) Edsall rounds up a variety of opinions on how the “woke” debate may (or may not) be hurting Democrats:

At one level, it is a dispute over ground rules. Can a professor quote literature or historic documents that use taboo words? What rights should be granted to a person accused of sexual harassment? Are there issues or subjects that should not be explored in an academic setting?

On another level, though, it is a conflict over practical politics. Do specific policies governing speech and sexual behavior win or lose voter support? Are there policies that attract criticism from the opposition party that will stick? Are certain policies so controversial that they divert attention from the opposition’s liabilities?

In an article in March, “Why Attacking ‘Cancel Culture’ And ‘Woke’ People Is Becoming the G.O.P.’s New Political Strategy,” Perry Bacon Jr., formerly a senior writer at FiveThirtyEight and now a Washington Post columnist, described the ways that policies the Democratic left argued for provided political opportunities to the Republican Party:

First and perhaps most important, focusing on cancel culture and woke people is a fairly easy strategy for the G.O.P. to execute, because in many ways it’s just a repackaging of the party’s long-standing backlash approach. For decades, Republicans have used somewhat vague terms (“dog whistles”) to tap into and foment resentment against traditionally marginalized groups like Black Americans who are pushing for more rights and freedoms. This resentment is then used to woo voters (mostly white) wary of cultural, demographic and racial change.

Among the reasons Republicans will continue to adopt an “anti-woke posture,” Bacon writes, is that it

gives conservative activists and Republican officials a way to excuse extreme behavior in the past and potentially rationalize such behavior in the future. Republicans are trying to recast the removal of Trump’s accounts from Facebook and Twitter as a narrative of liberal tech companies silencing a prominent conservative, instead of those platforms punishing Trump for using them to “incite violence and encourage overturning the election results.”

Insofar as Republicans suppress Democratic votes, Bacon continued,

or try to overturn election results in future elections, as seems entirely possible, the party is likely to justify that behavior in part by suggesting the Democrats are just too extreme and woke to be allowed to control the government. The argument would be that Democrats would eliminate police departments and allow crime to surge if they have more power, so they must be stopped at all costs. Polls suggest a huge bloc of G.O.P. voters is already open to such apocalyptic rhetoric.

Bacon’s views are widely shared among Democratic Party strategists, whether or not they will say so publicly. And Bacon is hardly alone.

In a piece in New York magazine, “Is ‘Anti-Wokeness’ the New Ideology of the Republican Party?” Ed Kilgore makes the case that for Republicans

Casting a really wide range of ideas and policies as too woke and anyone who is critical of them as being canceled by out-of-control liberals is becoming an important strategy and tool on the right — in fact, this cancel culture/woke discourse could become the organizing idea of the post-Trump-presidency Republican Party.

This approach is particularly attractive to conservative politicians and strategists, Kilgore continued, because

It allows them and their supporters to pose as innocent victims of persecution rather than as aggressive culture warriors seeking to defend their privileges and reverse social change.

Really not a fan of casting everything in the language of harm, so I really appreciated the pushback from Randall Kennedy:

Randall Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard and the author of the forthcoming book “Say It Loud! On Race, Law, History and Culture,” cited in an email a similar set “of reasons for the deficient response to threats against freedom of thought, expression and learning emanating from the left.”

His list:

“Woke” folk making wrongful demands march under the banner of “EQUALITY” which is a powerful and attractive emblem, especially in this George Floyd/Covid-19 moment when the scandalous inequities of our society are so heartbreakingly evident. On the campuses, many of the most vocal woke folk are students whom teachers and administrators want to mollify, comfort and impress. Many teachers and administrators seek desperately to be liked by students.

At the same time, Kennedy continued, many of the people demanding the diminution of what he sees as essential freedoms have learned how to package their insistence in effective ways. They have learned, Kennedy wrote, to deploy skillfully the language of “hurt” — as in “I don’t care what the speaker’s intentions were, what the speaker said has hurt my feelings and ought therefore to be prohibited.”

Authorities, particularly those at educational institutions, need to become much more skeptical and tough-minded when encountering the language of “hurt.” Otherwise, they will continue to offer incentives to those who deploy the specters of bigotry, privilege and trauma to further diminish vital academic, intellectual and aesthetic freedoms.

11) Good stuff in Reason on the NHJ tenure case:

The question is who ought to decide whether particular individuals should be hired for available faculty positions. The board at UNC has apparently taken the view that it should not rubber stamp such offers but should feel free to override the determination of the faculty and administration on individual personnel decisions. Nothing good can come of this.

Members of the boards of trustees of universities have no expertise to assess the quality of an individual’s work and the potential contribution that a faculty member might make to the campus. They have no basis on which to assess whether the faculty have made a good or bad choice in a hiring or promotion decision from a scholarly perspective. What board members do have are political opinions and personal interests. If boards can block faculty hiring and promotion decisions, the inevitable result will be to shrink the range of acceptable ideas that can be expressed, taught and investigated on the university campus. Faculty hiring and promotion decisions will turn not just on peer review but also on the vagaries of political lobbying campaigns by activists. Peer review is hardly perfect, but it does not get better if a political body gets to second-guess the results…

Even so, those who seek to promote academic freedom, campus free speech, and greater intellectual diversity in academia should be seeking to expand and not to shrink the range of ideas expressed on college campuses. Free speech is not only for those with whom we agree. The principle requires tolerating those with whom we disagree. We do not improve the state of higher education by further politicizing the process of hiring and promoting faculty.

The Hannah-Jones situation is not the most egregious sin against freedom of thought in American higher education. She was still offered a five-year contract. She apparently accepted that offer. She will remain a loud voice in American political discourse, and she will be regularly feted on university campuses. Far more troubling and career-damaging decisions are made every day on university campuses across the country.

But the principle that trustees should not interfere in faculty hiring decisions was hard won and essential to establishing academic freedom in the United States. It would be all too easy for that principle to be eroded in our current polarized political environment. Setting aside that principle whenever we happen to disagree with what the faculty has done will only encourage the belief that faculty appointments should be treated as political spoils and that the scope of acceptable teaching and scholarship should be determined by politicians and mass public opinion.

12) This is so true, “Americans, It’s Time to Get Comfortable With Platonic Touch.”  I remember that being a big issue when I went off to college and no longer got daily hugs from my mom and dad.  My two youngest kids, especially, really just love snuggling up, so I sure get plenty these days, but, as a society, we should do better.

The isolation of the pandemic has highlighted how much we need — and miss — the many forms of nonsexual contact that once permeated daily life. Returning to normal offers not just a chance to resume hugs and handshakes, but also to ask if we should engage in more forms of touch with our friends and colleagues.

As I learned from 17 months of travel abroad before the pandemic, America has a narrow approach to touch. (I’d witnessed the difference on previous travel abroad, but a trip of this duration allowed me to also experience the difference firsthand.) As adults, our opportunities to touch each other are generally limited to a handshake when we meet someone for the first time, a quick hug greeting of a friend, and all the forms of touch two people in a romantic relationship exchange.

In other countries, touch is far freer. I interviewed Christian singles around the world, talking to more than 300 people in nearly 40 countries — all but a handful in person. In several of those places, I saw public touch between same-sex pairs that has almost no corollary in the United States.

13) Good stuff from Zeynep on the media and the lab leak:

Essentially, in early 2020, Trump and Senator Tom Cotton weighed in on the issue, after which it exploded in the fever swamps, with undeniable racism at play, advocating increasingly weird and unlikely scenarios. All that made it kind of became harder to talk about the topic at all.

At the same time, a small but vocal group of scientists, some of whom had fairly active profiles on social media, provided a lot of content, quotes and viewpoints to the media,  generally making themselves very accessible but with a particular point of view on this question. They also wrote strongly-worded opinion pieces for a few high-profile scientific outlets, essentially dismissing a version of what’s getting called the “lab leak” hypothesis—which is fine, as is their right.

By itself, there isn’t anything wrong with what I just outlined. That small vocal group of critics were not even entirely wrong, in my view, and they are certainly entitled to their opinions and to being loud about them.

But the response to that reality from traditional journalism/media is where things went awry.

Many top media outlets took this group of critics’ dismissal of a version of the lab leak hypothesis and then acted like that dismissal was universal and a scientific consensus, which it wasn’t, or was conclusive, which it couldn’t be simply because we… don’t know. We certainly didn’t have the evidence we need to be so conclusive, especially not at the time.

In addition, press reports suggested that everything that fell under the umbrella of the term ‘lab leak,’ which has been a conceptual mess, had also been dismissed, although it hadn’t been, even by some of the original opponents of that particular version.

Then, for a whole year, the coverage implied that any question or statement skeptical of the lab leak critics, broadly defined, was essentially unscientific and could only be motivated by racism. Social media sites took down posts, and even news articles that made such claims.

In the meantime, the reporters did not do the leg work to separate the pieces of the question or seek a broad range of experts. If they had, they might have realized that many experts were quiet on the topic partly because they didn’t want to die on this hill last year, and partly because many were actually eminent experts very very busy doing work on the pandemic itself. Unfortunately, many media outlets failed to do the work necessary to pull themselves out of the tight Twitter/media feedback loop that dominates so much of our media coverage.

Next came the scolding “fact-checks,” painting all discussion of the lab leak as a possibility in any version as mere racism or just a conspiracy theory, suggesting that any attempt to have a sane conversation about a really important topic was, at best, aiding and abetting racists if not outright racist. Of course, these knee-jerk dismissals just makes the problem worse, because when the mainstream media ignores vital, debatable topics, the ones left speaking about the issue most vocally become the racists in the fever swamps.

In any case, just looking at the names on that letter itself would make it obvious to someone who was familiar with the field why it was such a big deal, but it seemed not to get the media attention it would get in that context, probably because most the signatories, while leaders in the filed, are not on social media much, if at all and not that active — and there are many others in this and related fields who aren’t involved openly at all, but would maybe talk to reporters if contacted. However, media keeps quoting the same few very accessible people, to the detriment of the story.

Plus, the coverage has been weird in terms of logical analysis and causal inference. Once something does happen in the real world, we cannot go directly from considering the abstract odds of it happening before to understanding what actually happened after it already happened. It’s one thing to understand how pandemics happen, in general and in the past. It’s an entirely different process to try to answer the question as how did this one happen…

I believe that working to answer key questions that otherwise would be monopolized by racists is core to practicing antiracism. I also believe that equating criticism of the Chinese government with racism against Chinese people is, to put it bluntly, is, indeed, racist. The government is not the people, and like all authoritarian countries, China has great many dissidents.Some dissidents we know of, and there are many others who cannot speak out freely, including some who risked everything to warn us about the pandemic early on and were punished by their government. We should honor and highlight their work, not bury them by acting like criticizing a government — any government, to be honest, but especially unelected, authoritarian ones — means we’re somehow being racist against a billion of people who just happen to live there, or people of that descent. These people are not puppets of a singular government, and criticizing a government is not racism; rather, it’s often a requirement of antiracism.

14) For a while, I was pretty annoyed that we were not going to get a vaccine mandate for NC State.  But, pretty soon I realized this is just politics and our university system is under control of the Republican legislature.  Here’s the sad reality, “For Colleges, Vaccine Mandates Often Depend on Which Party Is in Power: Hoping for a return to normal, more than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated for Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.”

15) There’s good arguments for banning ransomware payments.  And there’s good arguments against banning ransomware payments.  And this Post article nicely rounds them up.  That said, I’m not sure there are not good arguments for failing to step up investment and policies that make life much tougher for the ransomware malefactors.

16) This was good from Linda Greenhouse, “The Free Ride May Soon Be Over for Anti-Abortion Politicians”

Do I think the court will use this case to permit states to ban abortion entirely? No, not directly and not this soon; there’s no need for the new majority, handpicked for that very purpose, to go that far this fast. The question the court has agreed to answer, as framed by the state’s petition, “Whether all previability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional,” suggests but doesn’t require an all-or-nothing response.

However, as President Biden might say, here’s the deal: Viability has been the essential firewall protecting the right to abortion. As the law of abortion currently stands, states can require onerous waiting periods, misleading “informed consent” scripts, needless ultrasound exams — anything to make abortion as burdensome, expensive and stigmatizing as possible. But what a state can’t do at the end of the day is actually prevent a woman with the resources and will to get to one of the diminishing number of providers (the clinic that sued to block the Mississippi law is the only one in that state) from terminating her pregnancy.

Once the viability firewall is breached, it’s hard to see what limiting principle the new majority might invoke even if so inclined. Ninety percent of abortions take place in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy. What’s the difference between 15 weeks and 13, or 11, or 10? Mississippi offers as a limiting principle the claim that at 15 weeks a fetus is “likely capable of conscious pain perception.” But as a compilation of peer-reviewed medical articles published in 2015 by FactCheck.org concluded, scientific evidence is lacking even for the more common assertion that fetuses are capable of feeling pain at 20 weeks…

If there is any good news to salvage from the court’s announcement this week, it is this: the free ride that anti-abortion politicians have enjoyed may be coming to a crashing end.

Ever since the 2010 election ushered new Republican majorities into state legislatures, politicians there have been able to impose increasingly severe abortion restrictions without consequence, knowing that the lower courts would enjoin the laws before they took effect and save the people’s representatives from having to own their actions.

The question as the polls’ respondents processed it was most likely “Do you want to keep the right to abortion?” And no wonder the answer was yes: nearly one American woman in four will have an abortion. (Catholic women get about one-quarter of all abortions, roughly in proportion to the Catholic share of the American population.) Decades of effort to drive abortion to the margins of medical practice have failed to dislodge it from the mainstream of women’s lives.

For the cynical game they have played with those lives, politicians have not paid a price. Now perhaps they will. Of course, women themselves will pay a heavy price as this new reality sorts itself out, particularly women with low incomes who now make up the majority of abortion patients.

And there’s another price to be paid as justices in the new majority turn to the mission they were selected for. The currency isn’t votes, but something even more important and harder to win back: the institutional legitimacy of the Supreme Court of the United States.

There’s no free ride for the court either.

17) I cannot remember the last time I watched a Friends episode.  And I don’t even remember if I was still watching at the end of their run.  But I quite enjoyed the Friends Reunion special on HBO.  Truly some excellent writing and gifted comic actors on that show.

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