Are some voters better than others?

No.  My first ever “letter to the editor” was published in the Columbus Dispatch way back in the mid 90’s when I was a grad student at Ohio State and it was on this very topic.  Thus, in the context of Republicans ongoing efforts to shrink the electorate and sometimes explicit “well, some voters are better than others” arguments, I love how Bernstein looks at this through the lens of democratic theory:

Assume for a minute that these are good-faith arguments — that the goal is to eliminate some objectively less-informed voters and not simply to get rid of those who support things that whoever gets to decide these cases opposes. Whatever the motivation, they don’t wash. Let’s be clear: There’s no case against universal suffrage in a democracy, and certainly not for restrictions based on the quality of the voter.

To demonstrate why, consider how they conflict with these four justifications for democracy.

The first is interest-based: Democracy is the preferred system of government because people have policy preferences, and they alone can speak up for those preferences. Therefore, everyone able to express their interests should have the vote and, to the greatest extent possible, equal access to political influence. The only exceptions are for those unable to act for themselves, mainly children, and for people like felons who have forfeited their right to take part in politics.

Yes, there are those who claim that people are not the best judges of their own interests. But if that argument is true, then this case for democracy fails. We’re better off, if we want these interests protected, in an elite, paternalistic government of experts who decide what’s best for all. It makes no sense to have a political system designed to fulfill personal preferences that only allows some citizens to register those preferences, leaving no one to speak for the rest.

A second argument for democracy is that engaging in politics and collective self-government is an inherently valuable human activity, and only in a democracy do we all have access to it. A republic based on this principle would have to be open to the participation of everyone (except for young children and felons). The simple ability to take part in self-government, regardless of political preferences, is the main point of the entire exercise.

Those who support democracy on this basis do so with the understanding that plenty of people are not interested in politics. Rather than create barriers to keep the less-interested out, they should, as I believe James Madison intended, find ways to engage citizens and encourage them to get involved…

This gets to the fourth, and I think by far the weakest, argument: Democracy is best because it produces objectively good public policy. The idea is closely linked to what Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels call the “folk theory” of democracy — that democracy succeeds because informed voters choose wisely from among the alternatives. To the extent that people such as Williamson are arguing in good faith and think they really are supporting some properly understood democracy, this is the theory they appear to be leaning on.

The problem? The folk theory of democracy is bunk. Elections per se don’t — can’t — do what people hope they can. It’s not because voters are not sufficiently sophisticated; it’s because (among other things) the mechanism of choosing candidates or parties isn’t sophisticated enough to give the specific signals needed to do that.

But even if that wasn’t the case, the argument that only sufficiently informed voters should participate is subject to a slippery slope. If eliminating the least-informed 20%, say, of the electorate would improve “democratic” outcomes, then why shouldn’t we eliminate 40% and get even better outcomes — or 60%, 80% or more?

There’s simply no magic line between qualified and unqualified voters — no natural cutoff above which we could say that someone is informed enough to contribute. If the point is to get the best public policy — and better-informed voters produce better policy — then we’re on a one-way road to government by experts.

Of course, people are free to argue for whatever form of government they like, including rule by experts, or rule by some group designated by birth in the right group, or rule by one political party. We just shouldn’t confuse those things with democracy — with the imperfect republic that the United States of America has become over the years.

There’s plenty of problems with democracy (the worst system, except for all the others), but they are most definitely not going to be solved by making it harder to vote.  

Covid Vaccines 2.0

This NYT article on the next generation of Covid vaccines was the most interesting article I’ve read on vaccines in a while.  Fascinating stuff– and very encouraging:

A new vaccine for Covid-19 that is entering clinical trials in Brazil, Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam could change how the world fights the pandemic. The vaccine, called NDV-HXP-S, is the first in clinical trials to use a new molecular design that is widely expected to create more potent antibodies than the current generation of vaccines. And the new vaccine could be far easier to make.

Existing vaccines from companies like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson must be produced in specialized factories using hard-to-acquire ingredients. In contrast, the new vaccine can be mass-produced in chicken eggs — the same eggs that produce billions of influenza vaccines every year in factories around the world.

I remember reading years and years ago about how we were using this old technology– eggs!!– to make vaccines and we were looking to move past that.  And we clearly have.  But, little did I realize that there are huge advantages to this easy to use, low-cost technology when you want to vaccinate the world.

If NDV-HXP-S proves safe and effective, flu vaccine manufacturers could potentially produce well over a billion doses of it a year. Low- and middle-income countries currently struggling to obtain vaccines from wealthier countries may be able to make NDV-HXP-S for themselves or acquire it at low cost from neighbors.

“That’s staggering — it would be a game-changer,” said Andrea Taylor, assistant director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center.

First, however, clinical trials must establish that NDV-HXP-S actually works in people. The first phase of clinical trials will conclude in July, and the final phase will take several months more. But experiments with vaccinated animals have raised hopes for the vaccine’s prospects.

“It’s a home run for protection,” said Dr. Bruce Innis of the PATH Center for Vaccine Innovation and Access, which has coordinated the development of NDV-HXP-S. “I think it’s a world-class vaccine.” …

“It made sense to try to have a better vaccine,” said Dr. McLellan, who is now an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

In March, he joined forces with two fellow University of Texas biologists, Ilya Finkelstein and Jennifer Maynard. Their three labs created 100 new spikes, each with an altered building block. With funding from the Gates Foundation, they tested each one and then combined the promising changes in new spikes. Eventually, they created a single protein that met their aspirations.

The winner contained the two prolines in the 2P spike, plus four additional prolines found elsewhere in the protein. Dr. McLellan called the new spike HexaPro, in honor of its total of six prolines.

The structure of HexaPro was even more stable than 2P, the team found. It was also resilient, better able to withstand heat and damaging chemicals. Dr. McLellan hoped that its rugged design would make it potent in a vaccine.

Dr. McLellan also hoped that HexaPro-based vaccines would reach more of the world — especially low- and middle-income countries, which so far have received only a fraction of the total distribution of first-wave vaccines.

“The share of the vaccines they’ve received so far is terrible,” Dr. McLellan said.

To that end, the University of Texas set up a licensing arrangement for HexaPro that allows companies and labs in 80 low- and middle-income countries to use the protein in their vaccines without paying royalties.

Meanwhile, Dr. Innis and his colleagues at PATH were looking for a way to increase the production of Covid-19 vaccines. They wanted a vaccine that less wealthy nations could make on their own…

The way influenza vaccines are made is a study in contrast. Many countries have huge factories for making cheap flu shots, with influenza viruses injected into chicken eggs. The eggs produce an abundance of new copies of the viruses. Factory workers then extract the viruses, weaken or kill them and then put them into vaccines.

The PATH team wondered if scientists could make a Covid-19 vaccine that could be grown cheaply in chicken eggs. That way, the same factories that make flu shots could make Covid-19 shots as well.

In New York, a team of scientists at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai knew how to make just such a vaccine, using a bird virus called Newcastle disease virus that is harmless in humans.

For years, scientists had been experimenting with Newcastle disease virus to create vaccines for a range of diseases. To develop an Ebola vaccine, for example, researchers added an Ebola gene to the Newcastle disease virus’s own set of genes.

The scientists then inserted the engineered virus into chicken eggs. Because it is a bird virus, it multiplied quickly in the eggs. The researchers ended up with Newcastle disease viruses coated with Ebola proteins.

At Mount Sinai, the researchers set out to do the same thing, using coronavirus spike proteins instead of Ebola proteins. When they learned about Dr. McLellan’s new HexaPro version, they added that to the Newcastle disease viruses. The viruses bristled with spike proteins, many of which had the desired prefusion shape. In a nod to both the Newcastle disease virus and the HexaPro spike, they called it NDV-HXP-S.

PATH arranged for thousands of doses of NDV-HXP-S to be produced in a Vietnamese factory that normally makes influenza vaccines in chicken eggs. In October, the factory sent the vaccines to New York to be tested. The Mount Sinai researchers found that NDV-HXP-S conferred powerful protection in mice and hamsters.

“I can honestly say I can protect every hamster, every mouse in the world against SARS-CoV-2,” Dr. Peter Palese, the leader of the research, said. “But the jury’s still out about what it does in humans.”

The potency of the vaccine brought an extra benefit: The researchers needed fewer viruses for an effective dose. A single egg may yield five to 10 doses of NDV-HXP-S, compared to one or two doses of influenza vaccines.

“We are very excited about this, because we think it’s a way of making a cheap vaccine,” Dr. Palese said.

One of the reasons I remain very optimistic about our long-term fight against Covid-19 is that scientists are continuing to do amazing work on this.  Of course, there may be some rough bumps in the road and tough times, but progress like this NDV-HXP-S vaccine really do mean we almost surely will never be at the  mercy of Covid-19 again like we were in 2020.


Education, income, race, and partisanship

Fascinating analysis from Harry Enten on the shifts of white college and non-college voters:

Hart’s loss is one of the strongest signs of a larger story: educational polarization in our politics dominating even in places it didn’t previously exist, while income has become considerably less important in determining voting patterns…

Democrats represent a mere five seats of the 65 districts (8%) that have a higher proportion of Whites without a college degree in their ranks. All of those Democratic representatives were incumbents heading into the 2020 elections (i.e. no non-incumbents like Hart won in these districts). Going further, a mere two of the top 50 districts with Whites without a college degree have a Democratic representative and none of the top 10 do…

After the 2006 elections, Democrats controlled 44% of the districts with as many or more White non-college graduates as Iowa’s 2nd District. They held 23 of the top 50 districts matching this description, or 21 more than they do now. Additionally, Democrats held five of the top 10 of these districts compared to zero today…

The cultural shift that has allowed education to become a predominant factor in our voting patterns has also shifted the way we think about class in politics.
Today, it’s common to say that Republicans do well among “White working class” voters, which we mean to be a stand-in for them doing well among Whites without a college degree.
Of course, working class can also mean those who are lower on the income ladder. The reason we don’t focus on income is because it simply doesn’t explain as much about our politics.
Take a look at the Cooperative Election Study, which is a large academic survey of voters taken after each election, to better understand how little income matters to White voting patterns.
Non-college White voters wanted no part of voting Democratic in 2020 House races, regardless of their income levels. White voters without a college degree favored Republicans by about a 26-point margin, if their family income was below the median. They voted Republican by a 31-point margin if their family income was above the median.
Among all White respondents, the Democratic margin increased by 39 points when respondents had a college degree. The House margin among all White respondents shifted by 5 points toward the Democrats, when their family income was above the median compared to below.
It’s not that higher income makes White voters more Democratic, but rather that education is such a powerful pull and more educated voters tend to be wealthier. This is why we see wealthier White areas trending Democratic and poorer areas trending Republican in recent years. The latter tend to be filled with less educated voters, while the former tend to have more educated voters.
In other words, income matters very little among White voters. Education means everything.

Political Parties are good. No, really.

Seth Masket and Hans Noel have a new Political Parties textbook out (I need to take a good look at my review copy and decide if I’ll be switching over to it next spring) and in honor of it they’ve got a nice “Five Myths” on parties out in the Post. Every time I teach about political parties I spend a fair amount of time explaining, essentially, “no really, political parties are good for democracy.”  There are some deep pathologies in the American party system, but, nonetheless, parties are a essential in a properly-functioning democracy.  Masket and Noel:

Myth No. 5

Parties are bad for democracy.

Political parties are indeed profoundly frustrating. But democracies around are a lot healthier with parties than without them. Research consistently shows that state and municipal elections without parties feature lower voter turnout and greater voter confusion.  

At every stage of the democratic process, political parties play crucial roles in getting things done. Without the structure parties provide, logrolling, favor-trading and compromise on legislation would have to start from scratch each time a bill is proposed. Party leaders can bargain with one another on behalf of their members and shepherd agreements that individual members could not achieve.

Something similar happens in elections: The party label provides a useful cue to voters, but it’s more than that. Smart parties help ensure that you have a candidate to vote for who also has support from other voters who (roughly) share your perspective. And in our single-member district system, they ensure that only one such candidate is running, so the party does not split its votes and hand the election to its rival.

Then there’s accountability: When leaders do something you don’t like, you can vote them and their allies out.

Quick hits (part II)

1) I think this might be an over-estimate.  Seriously.  “Outdoor transmission accounts for 0.1% of State’s Covid-19 cases”

The HPSC data, provided in response to a query from The Irish Times, was based on “locations which are primarily associated with outdoor activities, ie outdoor sports and construction sites, or outbreaks that specifically mention in comments that an outdoor location or activity was involved”. The HSPC said, however, that it “cannot determine where transmission occurred”.

Sports often use indoor locker rooms and construction workers regularly share automobiles, so, yeah, probably an over-estimate.

2) Thanks to my third-born for sharing this video of a monkey playing pong with just his mind (and a cool neural link).

3) A professor (admittedly a nutty Trump supporter) pushed back with some seemingly reasonable arguments, though unsurprisingly, rudely presented, against white fragility training at her community college.  The college investigated her for 9 months.  I’ll say right here that I think diversity training based on “white fragility” is a bad idea.  Hopefully, NC State will not decide I’m a problem. 

4) Really loved this Yglesias post, “Andrew Yang versus the unrepresentative activists”

The author of the piece, James Walsh, writes that “for many in New York’s Asian communities, his prescription — more police funding — reads like a glib response to a deep-seated societal ill,” and that the NYPD’s Asian Hate Crime Task Force is “contradictory to the nascent defund-the-police movement, which has been gaining momentum since the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.”..

But the whole tone and structure of the article suggest its purpose is to criticize Yang for blowing off these activist groups. However, I think a more important point about Yang versus the activists here is that it reveals — and not for the first time — that progressive identity-oriented activist organizations often have very little connection to the groups they purport to represent. You can listen to these groups if you want to. But if your purpose in listening to them is to understand how certain communities are thinking about specific issues, you’re barking up the wrong tree…

Andrew Yang, similarly, has become the frontrunner in the New York City mayoral election, not despite criticism from activist groups, but precisely because he has adopted normal popular opinions like “groups suffering from rising crime need more police protection.”

He’s not just in first place overall, but he has a commanding lead with Asians and a sizable one with Hispanics as well…

Now is Andrew Yang a good choice for mayor? I have my doubts! He has no public sector experience, doesn’t strike me as having any particularly big ideas for solving New York’s big problems, and I all-around continue to feel comfortable thinking that the lesser-known Kathryn Garcia would be a better choice.

But what’s striking about Yang is how effortlessly the combination of “he’s well-known” and “he avoids toxically unpopular left-wing ideas” has let him leapfrog past people like Scott Stringer and Maya Wiley who’ve spent years (if not decades) trying to climb the greasy pole of progressive niche politics.

And the thing about this is we are talking about a primary election in New York City, not a statewide race in Pennsylvania or North Carolina or Florida. If this style of politics doesn’t have purchase there, where does it have purchase? 

5) And Noah Smith recently reshared his good take on “defund the police” from December:

Stone concludes that cops have been on a two-decade “riot against the republic”. Watching the hundreds of videos of police brutality from around the country during the George Floyd protests this summer, it’s hard to disagree…

But while the two-decade police riot in America needs to be put down somehow, abolishing the police is not the way to go about it. The reason is that police serve essential functions in society — deterring crime and preserving public order. If we abolished the police, someone else would start performing those functions. And it would probably not be someone we liked…

More generally, every complex society on the planet has some form of cops. Japan has cops. India has cops. Ghana has cops. Venezuela has the Policía Nacional Bolivariana (PNB).

When the PNB was set up, their wages were three times as high as police wages had been before; it was thought that this would help make the police more professional and less brutal.

The U.S. doesn’t have nearly as many cops per person as many European countries, in fact — 238 per 100,000 people in 2018, compared to 429 in France, 388 in Germany, and 295 in the Netherlands (though we do have more than Sweden, Denmark, or Canada!).

The problem is how American cops behave. Despite the fact that we have fewer police per capita than Germany, and a murder rate only about 5 times as high, our cops shoot civilians at a rate 25 times as high as cops in Germany…

To me, though, the most interesting reforms involve changing what functions the police are expected to perform in society. Many of the reforms involve taking cops out of schools. In Berkeley, cops will no longer handle traffic enforcement (an idea partly credited to the excellent activist Darrell Owens). San Francisco is taking police off of 911 calls involving mental health and drug addiction, and replacing them with unarmed responders.

To me, this seems like exactly the right thing to do. Time will tell, of course. But there seems to be no reason why armed police should be the people to issue traffic tickets or help calm down a mentally ill person. And cops in schools are just dystopian. By removing these functions from police departments, we reduce the chance for violent escalation, and thus remove opportunities for police violence. And hopefully police departments, chastened by this reduction in their duties, will work harder to crack down on brutality.

This is real police defunding, since the money that would pay police to perform these functions will now go to pay unarmed responders. It’s not police abolition (sorry anarchist friends!), but it is a partial de-policing of our society. Hopefully these programs will succeed and be emulated throughout the country. Joe Biden already thinks they’re a good idea.

So what should police do?

Police still need to arrest crime suspects. This is part of the essential deterrent function of cops, because people need to know that crime will be punished; there is plenty of evidence that the existence of police officers does deter crime.

But there’s probably another way for police to deter crime more peacefully, while also integrating themselves into the communities they serve — police boxes and foot patrols…

Even in June, while the George Floyd protests were still going strong, only 25% of Americans (and only 42% of Black Americans) favored cutting police budgets by even a little bit…

So police are here to stay. And because police are here to stay, it’s crucial to use a whole lot of different levers to make sure they protect and serve the community instead of beating it down. Defunding — by shifting police functions to unarmed responders — is one important lever. Changing police work from crisis response to foot patrol and community integration is another. Real change is possible.

6) Drum, “Everybody Wants More Police”

What do Black people think about crime and policing? According to a new Vox poll, they think:

  • Violent crime has been increasing.
  • Most police officers can’t be trusted.
  • Police are more likely to use force against African Americans.

And yet, there’s also this:

Everyone wants more police patrols. It’s true that white communities want them most of all, but 65% of Black respondents and 70% of Hispanic respondents want them too. They may think police can’t be trusted and are too quick to use force, but by a very large margin they still want them around.

Perhaps I’m misinterpreting this, but I’d say it speaks loudly for trying to reform the way police interact with the Black community rather than defunding them.

7) Apparently, not everybody actually thinks in words?!  For real.  Drum.

8) I found this from Gallup totally unsurprising, “Few Signs of a Catholic ‘Bump’ for Biden.”  As we’ve well-established here… PID > Jesus.  No reason to expect Catholicism to change that in any meaningful way.  

The answer, I believe, lies in the extraordinary power of partisanship in determining how Americans look at a president. Religious intensity and religious identity are highly correlated with party identification, and it appears that it is the latter variable that is the more powerful in determining views of a president. Trump’s personal religiosity and behavior did not seem to have a negative effect on the support he received from highly religious White Protestants, and Biden’s Catholicism doesn’t appear to be having a positive effect on the support he receives from Catholics. The most important factor is straightforward: Biden is a Democrat and Trump was a Republican, and it is difficult for other presidential characteristics, including religion, to alter the power of this core reality.

9) Kristoff, “How Do We Stop the Parade of Gun Deaths? :A first step: Biden should act urgently against untraceable “ghost guns.””

10) I don’t agree with everything Freddie deBoer writes in here, but it is a thorough and fascinating analysis of (overly) woke politics.  

Here are some basic observations.

  1. Social justice politics, like most political schools, is right about some things and wrong about others. The problem is that social justice politics also militate against criticizing people who express them thanks to ideas like standpoint theory; embedded in this school of politics is the notion that no one outside the movement (and few people inside) have standing to say that the movement is unhealthy. In a very basic sense this means that social justice politics lack the typical correction systems of other ideologies. When criticism becomes forbidden it is impossible to recognize and address serious internal problems. This meta-problem permeates everything that follows.

  2. This prohibition against criticism is enforced with the same instrument that the members of this community use to enforce everything: absolute social destruction. There is no probation in the eyes of the social justice world. The only penalty is the death penalty, the attempt to commit permanent character assassination. I suppose that some will call this claim inflammatory, but it seems to me to be far easier to find examples of people being forever shunned in the social justice world than to find examples of people who were gently educated and allowed to perform penance. This brutality is self-replicating: the executioners know that they could become the condemned with the slightest slipup. The most reliable way to prevent that is to be the most aggressive prosecutor you can. So the cycle actively rewards a never-ending escalation of vindictive punishment. This makes the social justice world, it’s fair to say, a somewhat unpleasant space.

  3. The desire to find fault in everyone and everything damages your basic perception of the world and make it harder to express your moral purpose. There are times when people are targeted for social exclusion because of perceived violation of social justice norms where many people react not with objection but with confusion; the alleged violation is premised on academic theories so complex and inscrutable that it’s hard for ordinary people to sort them out…
  4. An obvious conclusion one must draw from social justice politics is that most people are inherently bigoted, perhaps irredeemably so. It’s hard to see how someone could not derive that from the basic ideology. It is now perfectly common for people within that world to say that all white people are racist, in the interpersonal sense – that is, that all white people harbor animus and fear towards people of color. And those who do not go that far still see all white people as parts of a structurally racist system which they personally benefit from and uphold via their passive behavior at the very least. Similarly all cisgender people are assumed to perpetuate transphobia, again at least through participation in normal transphobic society and usually through active prejudice, patriarchy conditions the thoughts and behavior of all men and many unenlightened women, etc. Simply taking the basic texts and values of this tradition at face value leads you inevitably to the conclusion that almost everyone you encounter in contemporary society is a bad person.

  5. A consequence of the above item is profound fatalism. If these bigotries are so ubiquitous, so inevitable, and so pernicious, it becomes difficult to imagine how the world might ever become fixed. Social justice politics present themselves as revolutionary, but a minimum prerequisite of revolutions is a belief in the capacity for change.

  6. ..
  7. One problem with this fatalistic belief in the universality and inevitability of bigotry is that many or most people find it profoundly unattractive. The progenitors of this school of politics created the social expectation that racism is a uniquely pernicious evil, as it certainly is. But, for one thing, the more you generalize and universalize an accusation, the less it has meaning. Terms like “problematic” have become parodies of themselves because of their relentless application. More importantly, this dynamic makes it really hard to apply social justice politics in mass spaces…
  8. Social justice politics are obsessive about the linguistic, symbolic, cultural, discursive, and academic to the detriment of the material. The reasons for this are pretty plain: the parts of contemporary society that the social justice world controls are media, academia, the arts, nonprofits – in other words, the domains of ideas, the immaterial. The man with only a hammer seeing a world full of nails, etc. But this means that basic aspects of material suffering ultimately receive scant attention. I already mentioned above that Meghan Markle received vastly more press coverage in that news cycle than the Black-white wealth gap that touches the lives of every Black American. From the standpoint of promoting mass racial justice this makes no sense. But the wealth gap is a difficult problem that the cultural industries have no capacity to solve, and they don’t spend a lot of time reporting on poor Black people. Because the British royal family is sensitive to public perception they fixated on that problem which they thought they could change. Sadly for poor Black people the wealth gap does not have a public relations team, nor is entry into wealthy royal families a realistic path for most. The triumph of the linguistic overall the practical can be found all over this world. For example, consider the recent rigid policing of the term “person suffering from homelessness” over “homeless person.” The thinking is that the former stresses that homelessness happens to some people at some point while the latter defines them by that condition. I’m sympathetic to this reasoning; it makes sense to me. I’m also sure that if you polled a thousand homeless people you would not find a single one who would list this among their top ten problems. But when you’re a bookish arts kid language is everything, and anyway, social justice politics does not have anything substantial to offer the homeless in material terms. So language policing it is.

11) Apparently, it’s been deemed “transphobic” for a cis-gendered man to not have sexual interest in transwomen.  I’m quite comfortable with the “transwomen are women” formulation for most general applications, but, when it comes to romantic/sexual partners it does not seem unreasonable to claim “transwomen are transwomen.”  So, apparently, we’re now in this crazy place where some men are arguing that their sexual orientation is “super-straight” (preferring cis-gendered women only) and that we should not criticize them as we don’t criticize people for their orientation.  

12) More good stuff from Noah Smith with Bidenomics explained:

The Biden program is multifaceted — it includes things like support for unions, environmental protection, student debt cancellation, immigration, and a bunch of other stuff. But it would be wrong to characterize his program as merely a grab bag of long-time Democratic policy priorities. Three approaches stand out above the maelstrom:

  1. Cash benefits

  2. Care jobs

  3. Investment

Cash benefits were at the center of the COVID relief bill that already passed. In addition to the standard COVID relief items (quasi-universal $1400 checks, special unemployment benefits, housing and medical assistance, etc.) there was a very big program that is officially temporary but which will probably be made permanent: A child allowance. It’s very big in size — $3000 to $3600 per child. There’s no time limit and no work requirement. It’s basically a pilot universal basic income program for families.

The second pillar of Bidenomics is care jobs. The new “infrastructure” bill includes tens of billions of dollars a year for long-term in-home care for disabled and elderly people. Biden has made it explicit since early on that he intends to make caregiving jobs a pillar of his strategy for mass employment.

The third pillar of Bidenomics is investment — government investment, and measures to encourage private investment. The former includes tens of billions a year in new research spending, massive construction of new green energy infrastructure like electrical grids and charging stations, retrofits of existing infrastructure (e.g. lead removal from pipes), and repair of existing infrastructure like roads and bridges. This will help restore government investment as a fraction of GDP, which has been drifting downward for decades:…

Before I go on to discuss the justification for this new paradigm, I’d like to sum up all these “pillars” into one more-or-less cohesive vision of where I think Bidenomics is taking us. I think it’s aiming to create a two-track economy — a dynamic, internationally competitive innovation sector, and a domestically focused engine of mass employment and distributed prosperity.

I basically get this notion from Japan. In the 1970s and 1980s, Japan cultivated a world-beating export sector, based around all the companies you’ve heard of (Toyota, Panasonic, etc.). But this was only perhaps 20% of its economy, and the rest was a domestic-focused sector. Although some domestic-focused industries were highly productive (health care!), much of the domestic-focused sector — retail, finance, agriculture, utilities, and a few non-competitive manufacturing industries — was not very productive compared to the U.S. But those sectors did manage to employ a huge number of people; Japan has traditionally had very low unemployment, and that has not changed with the mass entry of women into the workforce since 2012. Japan in many ways built the most effective corporate welfare state in the world.

Biden and his people, I’m sure, do not want the domestic-focused sectors of the economy to be unproductive. But they want those sectors to do the heavy lifting in terms of giving most Americans a job, as they did in Japan. Those domestic sectors include the care economy, where Biden’s team believes much of future employment will come from.

13) I appreciate that John McWhorter, a Black Linguist, has taken to writing about the difficult it creates when a word like “racism” means dramatically different things, “Words Have Lost Their Common Meaning: The word racism, among others, has become maddeningly confusing in current usage.”

14) Jamelle Bouie, “The G.O.P. Has Some Voters It Likes and Some It Doesn’t”

This is what it looks like when a political party turns against democracy. It doesn’t just try to restrict the vote; it creates mechanisms to subvert the vote and attempts to purge officials who might stand in the way. Georgia is in the spotlight, for reasons past and present, but it is happening across the country wherever Republicans are in control.

Last Wednesday, for example, Republicans in Michigan introduced bills to limit use of ballot drop boxes, require photo ID for absentee ballots and allow partisan observers to monitor and record all precinct audits. “Senate Republicans are committed to making it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” the State Senate majority leader, Mike Shirkey, said in a statement. Shirkey, you may recall, was one of two Michigan Republican leaders who met with Trump at his behest after the election. He also described the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 as a “hoax.”

Republican lawmakers in Arizona, another swing state, have also introduced bills to limit absentee voting in accordance with the former president’s belief that greater access harmed his campaign. One proposal would require ID for mail-in ballots and shorten the window for mail-in voters to receive and return their ballots. Another bill would purge from the state’s list of those who are automatically sent a mail-in ballot any voter who failed to cast such a ballot in “both the primary election and the general election for two consecutive primary and general elections.”

One Arizona Republican, John Kavanagh, a state representative, gave a sense of the party’s intent when he told CNN, “Not everybody wants to vote, and if somebody is uninterested in voting, that probably means that they’re totally uninformed on the issues.” He continued: “Quantity is important, but we have to look at the quality of votes, as well.”

In other words, Republicans are using the former president’s failed attempt to overturn the election as a guide to how you would change the system to make it possible…

This fact pattern underscores a larger truth: The Republican Party is driving the nation’s democratic decline. A recent paper by Jacob M. Grumbach, a political scientist at the University of Washington, makes this plain. Using a new measure of state-level democratic performance in the United States from 2000 to 2018, Grumbach finds that Republican control of state government “consistently and profoundly reduces state democratic performance during this time period.” The nationalization of American politics and the coordination of parties across states means that “state governments controlled by the same party behave similarly when they take power.” Republican-controlled governments in states as different as Alabama and Wisconsin have “taken similar actions with respect to democratic institutions.”

The Republican Party’s turn against democratic participation and political equality is evident in more than just these bills and proposals. You can see it in how Florida Republicans promptly instituted difficult-to-pay fines and fees akin to a poll tax after a supermajority of the state’s voters approved a constitutional amendment to end the disenfranchisement of most ex-felons. You can see it in how Missouri Republicans simply ignored the results of a ballot initiative on Medicaid expansion.

Where does this all lead? Perhaps it just ends with a few new restrictions and new limits, enough, in conjunction with redistricting, to tilt the field in favor of the Republican Party in the next election cycle but not enough to substantially undermine American democracy. Looking at the 2020 election, however — and in particular at the 147 congressional Republicans who voted not to certify the Electoral College vote — it’s not hard to imagine how this escalates, especially if Trump and his allies are still in control of the party.

If Republicans are building the infrastructure to subvert an election — to make it possible to overturn results or keep Democrats from claiming electoral votes — then we have to expect that given a chance, they’ll use it.

15) Very cool interactive feature.  Also, not good.  “In the Atlantic Ocean, Subtle Shifts Hint at Dramatic Dangers: The warming atmosphere is causing an arm of the powerful Gulf Stream to weaken, some scientists fear.”

Calories IN. Calories out.

As you know, I’m a big fan of the “calories in, calories out” approach to weight control/loss.  It’s definitely worked for me.  And I’ve long understood that, as much as I am committed to exercise, the key really is substantial reduction in the calories in portion of the equation.  Thanks, I think, to DJC who sent me this article that is, even given what I’ve recognized, pretty depressing on the calories out score.  But, also, pretty fascinating on the marvel of evolution that are human bodies are– even if it makes a bad match for modern society:

Every minute, everything the body does—growing, moving, fighting infection, even just existing—”all of it takes energy,” says Pontzer, a professor at Duke University.

In his new book, Burn (Avery, 2021), the evolutionary anthropologist recounts the 10-plus years he and his colleagues have spent measuring the metabolisms of people ranging from ultra-athletes to office workers, as well as those of our closest animal relatives, and some of the surprising insights the research has revealed along the way.

Much of his work takes him to Tanzania, where members of the Hadza tribe still get their food the way our ancestors did—by hunting and gathering. By setting out on foot each day to hunt zebra and antelope or forage for berries and tubers, without guns or electricity or domesticated animals to lighten the load, the Hadza get more physical activity each day than most Westerners get in a week.

So they must burn more calories, right? Wrong.

Pontzer and his colleagues have found that, despite their high activity levels, the Hadza don’t burn more energy per day than sedentary people in the US and Europe.

These and other recent findings are changing the way we understand the links between energy expenditure, exercise, and diet. For example, we’ve all been told that if we want to burn more calories and fight fat, we need to work out to boost our metabolism. But Pontzer says it’s not so simple.

“Our metabolic engines were not crafted by millions of years of evolution to guarantee a beach-ready bikini body,” Pontzer says. But rather, our metabolism has been primed “to pack on more fat than any other ape.” What’s more, our metabolism responds to changes in exercise and diet in ways that thwart our efforts to shed pounds.

What this means, Pontzer says, is you can walk 16,000 steps each day like the Hadza and you won’t lose weight. Sure, if you run a marathon tomorrow you’ll burn more energy than you did today. But over time, metabolism responds to changes in activity to keep the total energy you spend in check.

Here, Pontzer explains his book and some surprising myths about metabolism:


What’s the lesson the Hadza and other hunter-gatherers teach us about managing weight and staying healthy?


The Hadza stay incredibly fit and healthy throughout their lives, even into their older ages (60’s, 70’s, even 80’s). They don’t develop heart disease, diabetes, obesity, or the other diseases that we in the industrialized world are most likely to suffer from. They also have an incredibly active lifestyle, getting more physical activity in a typical day than most Americans get in a week.

My work with the Hadza showed that, surprisingly, even though they are so physically active, Hadza men and women burn the same number of calories each day as men and women in the US and other industrialized countries. Instead of increasing the calories burned per day, the Hadza physical activity was changing the way they spend their calories—more on activity, less on other, unseen tasks in the body.

The takeaway for us here in the industrialized world is that we need to stay active to stay healthy, but we can’t count on exercise to increase our daily calorie burn. Our bodies adjust, keeping energy expenditure in a narrow range regardless of lifestyle. And that means that we need to focus on diet and the calories we consume in order to manage our weight. At the end of the day, our weight is a matter of calories eaten versus calories burned—and it’s really hard to change the calories we burn! …


If we could time travel, what would our hunter-gatherer ancestors make of our industrialized diet today?


We don’t even need to imagine—We are those hunter-gatherers! Biologically, genetically, we are the same species that we were a hundred thousand years ago, when hunting and gathering were the only game in town. When we’re confronted with modern ultra-processed foods, we struggle. They are engineered to be delicious, and we tend to overconsume.

As the article makes clear, there’s still lots of good reason to exercise even if it won’t help you much to lose weight.  But, I really wish some extra exercise meant that extra donut was okay– but it probably doesn’t :-(.  Also, I’m still pretty curious how this balances out at more typical levels.  E.g., If my typical day included moderate exercise and 2500 calories burned, does an atypical day where exercise substantially more than normal yield me no calorie out benefit?  

Quick hits (part I)

1) I’ve been a huge believer in index funds ever since I read John Bogle’s book in grad school and actually started index fund investing way back then.  Safe to say, a big part of my retirement portfolio is in index funds.  But Annie Lowery tells me they may be “worse than Marxism”?

Yet economists, policy makers, and investors are worried that American markets have become inert—the product of a decades-long trend, not a months-long one. For millions of Americans, getting into the market no longer means picking stocks or hiring a portfolio manager to pick them for you. It means pushing money into an index fund, as offered by financial giants such as Vanguard, BlackRock, and State Street, otherwise known as the Big Three.

With index funds, nobody’s behind the scenes, dumping bad investments and selecting good ones. Nobody’s making a bet on shorting Tesla or going long on Apple. Nobody’s hedging Europe and plowing money into Vietnam. Nobody is doing much of anything at all. These funds are “passively managed,” in investor-speak. They generally buy and sell stocks when those stocks enter or exit indices, such as the S&P 500, and size their holdings according to metrics such as market value. Index funds mirror the market, in other words, rather than trying to pick winners and losers within it…

This financial revolution has been unquestionably good for the people lucky enough to have money to invest: They’ve gotten better returns for lower fees, as index funds shunt billions of dollars away from financial middlemen and toward regular families. Yet it has also moved the country toward a peculiar kind of financial oligarchy, one that might not be good for the economy as a whole.

The problem in American finance right now is not that the public markets are overrun with failsons picking up stock tips on Reddit, investors gambling on art tokens, and rich people flooding cash into Special Purpose Acquisition Companies, or SPACs. The problem is that the public markets have been cornered by a group of investment managers small enough to fit at a lunch counter, dedicated to quiescence and inertia.

2) As you know, I’m a big vaccine mandate fan.  The case that, maybe, they could backfire:

A possible solution is a vaccine mandate. Omer and other public-health specialists were working on vaccine-requirement frameworks before the pandemic, particularly in connection with outbreaks of measles. In July, 2019, Omer and two of his collaborators—the social scientists Cornelia Betsch, of the University of Erfurt, in Germany, and Julie Leask, of the University of Sydney, both of whom work on medical communication—published an article in Nature urging caution in introducing compulsory vaccination. The authors warned that overly punitive or restrictive vaccine mandates could backfire. For example, when California eliminated nonmedical exemptions from childhood-vaccination requirements, many parents either secured medical exemptions or opted to homeschool their children. Omer told me that he thinks vaccine mandates should be an option in the fight against covid-19, but only following a concerted campaign for voluntary vaccination. “Mandates don’t get you from fifty-per-cent uptake to a hundred,” he said. “But they can be helpful in getting from seventy to ninety.”

Hotez is vaccine developer (he has a covid-19 vaccine currently in clinical trials) and also a longtime activist against vaccine disinformation. Last year, research to which he contributed showed that two groups without much overlap exhibited the highest levels of vaccine hesitancy: Black Americans and conservative Republicans. (Hesitancy among Black Americans has since lowered.) In response to these findings, Hotez became a regular on radio talk shows that would reach people least likely to trust the vaccines. What he discovered, he told me, was that conservative callers assumed that the government would institute a vaccine mandate—they were already in battle with this straw man. Requiring vaccination, Hotez told me, would be, at this stage, “poking the bear.” “Mandates may become necessary, but now I’d say, ‘Don’t push too hard,’ ” he said. “It may be counterproductive.” A mandate, he believes, would affirm the anti-big-government expectations of some of most vocal vaccine resisters, rather than change their minds.

3) The gender gap in public opinion on issues involving guns, military, etc., is interesting and pervasive.  My sometimes co-author Mary-Kate Lizotte (and some others) with some good stuff:

What factors influence an individual’s concern for personal security and safety? Prior research shows that women exhibit higher levels of fear, anxiety, and perceived threat. These differences in threat perceptions have important policy consequences, including the fact that women display lower support for military interventions, lower support for retaliation against terrorist groups, and lower levels of support for using torture. However, previous research has not fully investigated the origins of these differences in concern for safety and security, which we refer to as “personal security dispositions.” We ask if these differences are the result of lived experience, socialization, or both. Specifically, our analysis explores the extent to which personal security dispositions can be traced to parental warnings about safety and avoiding danger. Our findings indicate that both gender identity and parental socialization have an impact on security dispositions. We conclude the article with a discussion of avenues for further research and the policy implications of our findings, in particular with respect to public opinion on issues such as support for the international use of military force.

4) Yglesias on Georgia’s election law:

One thing is that they’ve made it less likely that people will vote absentee in Georgia — they narrowed the window during which ballots can be requested, they largely banned absentee dropboxes, and they made it illegal for local officials to adopt a policy of mailing ballots to all voters. Then they banned mobile voting centers.

The upshot is to funnel more people to normal in-person voting, which likely means longer lines. Yet they put restrictions on giving people food and water in line to encourage them to stick it out and vote. They made it harder to vote legally if you vote at the wrong polling place (perhaps deterred by long lines). And they made it harder to respond to long lines by extending voting hours.

This is all offset by a provision that expands early voting — but does so in a very particular way. Basically, it raises the floor for early voting rather than raising the ceiling. This means, in practice, that early voting should become more available in rural counties while staying the same in the high population Greater Atlanta counties. They are pretty clearly trying to make voting more burdensome and frustrating in metro Atlanta while keeping things the same or maybe even making it easier in the rural parts of the state. It’s an effort to halt the state’s leftward drift by manipulating the electorate rather than adapting to shifting opinion. It will also just make voting more annoying for the typical person, which is bad, albeit not exactly the return of Jim Crow…

After a lot of words, I think the key context on Georgia’s election changes is the ongoing claims by Donald Trump that the 2020 election was fraudulently stolen from him.

When he pushed these claims in the winter of 2020-21, the key Republicans with decision-making authority generally stood firmly against him. But a healthy minority of Republican senators backed him; most House Republicans backed him; and the general perception is that downballot GOP elected officials who did the right thing damaged their political fortunes. The Georgia restrictions represent a symbolic and practical healing of the intra-GOP divide, and they do so on Trump’s terms.

Making it harder for people to vote is bad per se, but unlikely to swing the 2024 election.

The risk is simply that in the future, GOP officials will do what Trump wanted and steal elections. The spectacular and alarming events of January 6 ended up creating what I think is an overstated sense in some people’s minds that the country is facing some kind of violent terrorist movement that might try to seize power. A much more plausible threat is just that a bunch of boring state legislators who are insulated from electoral accountability by gerrymandering will, through one means or another, assign their state’s electorate votes to the Republican candidate.

Back to Georgia, the election reform package also includes a great deal of centralization of power, further raising the risk that the GOP-dominated state legislature will try to invalidate the election…

Right now, the U.S. House of Representatives and a majority of the state legislatures in the country have badly skewed partisan gerrymanders. We just wrapped up a census last year and redistricting is imminent. Democrats have a once-in-a-decade chance to pass a tough anti-gerrymandering law that sets a partisan fairness standard. If they pass such a law, then if they win future elections 51-49 they will receive narrow governing majorities. If they do not pass such a law, then Republicans will continue to run states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin indefinitely and just laugh off the occasional 55-45 defeat.

Similarly, right now, the geographic skew of the Senate massively overrepresents non-college white voters while underrepresenting Black and Hispanic voters

This means that it is going to be very hard for Democrats to win future Senate majorities. The current 50-50 Senate is based on Democrats having held on to Senate seats in West Virginia, Montana, and Ohio back in 2018 when there was a Republican president, Democratic incumbents in each of those states, and a very favorable national political environment. That majority likely cannot be sustained past the 2022 and 2024 cycles, meaning the chance to enact reforms is slipping away very fast.

These big skews — gerrymandering and the Senate — matter much more than the marginal impact of tinkering with voter ID or absentee ballot rules. And right now, nothing at all other than timidity and paralysis is stopping Democrats from curtailing the filibuster, passing anti-gerrymandering rules, and creating a path for D.C. and U.S. territories to become states. Those would be good, highly effective, pro-democracy reforms with strong public legitimacy that would make it much harder to steal future elections. They deserve much more focus and urgency.

5) “What Bears Can Teach Us About Our Exercise Habits”

Accumulating research suggests that we humans, as a species, are apt to be physically lazy, with a hard-wired inclination to avoid activity. In a telling 2018 neurological study, for example, brain scans indicated that volunteers were far more attracted by images of people in chairs and hammocks than of people in motion.


But the extent to which we share this penchant for physical ease with other species and whether these predilections affect how we and they traverse the world has remained unclear.

So, cue grizzlies, particularly those living at the Washington State University Bear Center, the nation’s primary grizzly bear conservation and research center. University biologists affiliated with the center study how the animals live, eat and interact with humans…

Comparing the data, the scientists found that wild grizzlies, like us, seem born to laze. The researchers had expected the wild bears to move at their most efficient speed whenever possible, Mr. Carnahan says. But in reality, their average pace traveling through Yellowstone was a pokey and physiologically inefficient 1.4 miles per hour.

They also almost invariably chose the least-steep route to get anywhere, even when it required extra time. “They did a lot of side-hilling,” Mr. Carnahan says.

Taken as a whole, the findings suggest that the innate urge to avoid exertion plays a greater role in how all creatures, great and small, typically behave and navigate than we might imagine.

6) I always wash my hands after adding bird food to the feeders.  Going to be extra diligent about that now! “Salmonella Outbreak Is Linked to Wild Birds and Feeders, C.D.C. Says”

7) This is pretty damn good from, “How to achieve self-control without “self-control””

8) Another excellent Ezra column, “Four Ways of Looking at the Radicalism of Joe Biden” in the NYT, well worth reading in full, but here’s the final section:

Biden is a politician, in the truest sense of the word. Biden sees his role, in part, as sensing what the country wants, intuiting what people will and won’t accept, and then working within those boundaries. In America, that’s often treated as a dirty business. We like the aesthetics of conviction, we believe leaders should follow their own counsel, we use “politician” as an epithet.

But Biden’s more traditional understanding of the politician’s job has given him the flexibility to change alongside the country. When the mood was more conservative, when the idea of big government frightened people and the virtues of private enterprise gleamed, Biden reflected those politics, calling for balanced budget amendments and warning of “welfare mothers driving luxury cars.” Then the country changed, and so did he.

A younger generation revived the American left, and Bernie Sanders’s two campaigns proved the potency of its politics. Republicans abandoned any pretense of fiscal conservatism, and Trump raised — but did not follow through on — the fearful possibility of a populist conservatism, one that would combine xenophobia and resentment with popular economic policies. Stagnating wages and a warming world and Hurricane Katrina and a pandemic virus proved that there were scarier words in the English language than “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” as Ronald Reagan famously put it.

Even when Biden was running as the moderate in the Democratic primary, his agenda had moved well to the left of anything he’d supported before. But then he did something unusual: Rather than swinging to the center in the general election, he went further left. And the same happened after winning the election. He’s moved away from work requirements and complex targeting in policy design. He’s emphasizing the irresponsibility of allowing social and economic problems to fester, as opposed to the irresponsibility of spending money on social and economic problems. His administration is defined by the fear that the government isn’t doing enough, not that it’s doing too much. As the pseudonymous commentator James Medlock wrote on Twitter, “The era of ‘the era of big government is over’ is over.’”

9) Derek Thompson with a good take on the Georgia law.  It really is bad, but Democrats should be more honest about it.

Political hyperbole is neither sin nor modern invention. But suggesting that the Georgia provisions are a steroidal version of poll taxes, literacy tests, whites-only primaries, armed sheriffs patrolling voting lines, and outright domestic terrorism is not helpful. “There’s no doubt about it: This new law does not make it easier to vote,” Bullock said. “But I hear it being billed as Jim Crow 2.0, and it’s really not anywhere near that. This law does not compare to the cataclysms of the white primary or poll taxes.”…

As Delaware’s former senator, Biden would be on firmer ground excoriating Georgia for “Jim Crow 2.0” if he could hold up his home state as a model for voting rights. But Delaware has been a laggard on early voting, and its legislature is still trying to legalize no-excuse absentee voting, which allows any voter to request a mail-in ballot. Georgia, by contrast, permits many weeks of early voting and has allowed no-excuse absentee voting since 2005. Voting-rights activists may justifiably focus their outrage on a swing state like Georgia that, unlike Delaware, actually determines the balance of power. But “Jim Crow” rhetoric from northeastern politicians and media figures loses some bite when we consider that Georgia’s voting rights have long been more accommodating than those of deep-blue states including not only Delawarebut also Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York

This is what we’ve learned from the Georgia voting-rights fiasco: Corporations are still corporations, the White House’s metaphors are overheated, and the Georgia legislation is far worse. Democrats’ rhetorical embellishments pale in comparison to both the voting-fraud conspiracy theory that inspired Georgia Republicans and the needless provisions of the law itself. Lurking beneath all this confusion and incoherence is a basic partisan difference: GOP activism is about making it harder to vote; Democratic activism is about making it harder to make it harder to vote. If that is the choice before us, I for one know which box I’m prepared to check.

10) Good stuff from Sarah Zhang, “You Probably Have an Asymptomatic Infection Right Now: No, not COVID-19. Many, many viruses can infect humans without making us sick, and how they do that is one of biology’s deepest mysteries.”  I think I’m going to be boring people with anecdotes about human cytomegalovirus in my future.

But for most of human existence, we didn’t know that viruses could infect us asymptomatically. We didn’t know how to look for them, or even that we should. The tools of modern science have slowly made the invisible visible: Antibody surveys that detect past infection, tests that find viral DNA or RNA even in asymptomatic people, and mathematical models all show that viruses are up to much more than making us sick. Scientists now think that for viruses, a wide range of disease severity is the norm rather than the exception.

A virus, after all, does not necessarily wish its host ill. A dead host is a dead end. The viruses best adapted to humans have co-evolved over millions of years to infect but rarely sicken us. Human cytomegalovirus is a prime example, a virus so innocuous that it lives in obscurity despite infecting most of the world’s population. (Odds are that you have it.) Infections with human cytomegalovirus are almost always asymptomatic because it has evolved a suite of tricks to evade the human immune system, which nevertheless tries its best to hunt the virus down. By the time humans reach old age, up to a quarter of our killer T cells are devoted to fighting human cytomegalovirus. Pathogens and immune systems are in constant battle, with one just barely keeping the other in check. In the rare instances when human cytomegalovirus turns deadly—usually in an immunocompromised patient—it’s because this equilibrium did not hold…

T cell responses also weaken with age, which may help explain why COVID-19 is dramatically more deadly for the elderly. Humans have a huge diversity of T cells, some of which are activated each time we encounter a pathogen. But as we age, our supply of unactivated T cells dwindles. Immunosenescence, or the gradual weakening of the immune system over time, is influenced by both age and the system’s previous battles. Human cytomegalovirus—that otherwise innocuous virus that infects much of the world’s population—seems to play a particular role in immunosenescence. So many of our T cells are devoted to suppressing this virus that we may become more vulnerable to new ones.

Unlike human cytomegalovirus, the coronavirus doesn’t seem capable of hiding inside our bodies in the same way for decades. Once it sneaks in, its goal is to replicate as quickly as possible—so that it can find another body before it kills its host, or its host eliminates it.

Now that this coronavirus has found humans, it will have a chance to hone its strategy, probing for more weaknesses in the human immune system. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will become more deadly; the four coronaviruses already circulating among humans cause only common colds, and the virus that causes COVID-19 could one day behave similarly. Variants of the virus are already exhibiting mutations that make them more transmissible and better able to evade existing antibodies. As the virus continues to infect humans over the coming years, decades, and maybe even millenia, it will keep changing—and our immune systems will keep learning new ways to fight back. We’re at the very beginning of our relationship with this coronavirus.

11) I really kind of love how much we don’t know about the world we live in– there’s also so much to learn.  This is fascinating! “A Tiny Particle’s Wobble Could Upend the Known Laws of Physics: Experiments with particles known as muons suggest that there are forms of matter and energy vital to the nature and evolution of the cosmos that are not yet known to science.”

Evidence is mounting that a tiny subatomic particle seems to be disobeying the known laws of physics, scientists announced on Wednesday, a finding that would open a vast and tantalizing hole in our understanding of the universe.

The result, physicists say, suggests that there are forms of matter and energy vital to the nature and evolution of the cosmos that are not yet known to science. The new work, they said, could eventually lead to breakthroughs more dramatic than the heralded discovery in 2012 of the Higgs boson, a particle that imbues other particles with mass.

“This is our Mars rover landing moment,” said Chris Polly, a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, in Batavia, Ill., who has been working toward this finding for most of his career.

The particle célèbre is the muon, which is akin to an electron but far heavier, and is an integral element of the cosmos. Dr. Polly and his colleagues — an international team of 200 physicists from seven countries — found that muons did not behave as predicted when shot through an intense magnetic field at Fermilab.

The aberrant behavior poses a firm challenge to the Standard Model, the suite of equations that enumerates the fundamental particles in the universe (17, at last count) and how they interact.

“This is strong evidence that the muon is sensitive to something that is not in our best theory,” said Renee Fatemi, a physicist at the University of Kentucky.

12) Gallup’s latest PID:

Bottom Line

It is not unprecedented for Democratic Party affiliation to rise after a Democratic candidate wins the presidential election. It is also not unprecedented to see more people shift to independent political status in a nonelection year, as has occurred. With more of the gain in independent identification coming from the Republican side of the ledger, the GOP is facing its smallest share of Republican identifiers since 2018 and its largest deficit to Democrats on party identification and leaning in nearly nine years.

Republicans did recover from their 2012-2013 deficits to make gains in the 2014 midterm elections and are hoping to duplicate that feat in 2022. Like in 2014, their hopes may rest largely on the popularity level of the incumbent Democratic president.

The GOP’s hopes of regaining control of the House and Senate it lost in the past two federal election cycles may also depend on how well the party appeals to independent voters, the largest bloc in the U.S., something the Republican Party struggled to do during the Trump administration.

13) This.  “Stop Freaking Out: You Probably Already Have Some Type Of Vaccine Passport
Schools, international travel, and military service — people in the US already have to prove they are vaccinated against many diseases.”

14) Sargent on Manchin, “Why filibuster reformers aren’t (quite) ready to give up on Joe Manchin”

So where are 10 Republican votes (the amount needed to overcome a GOP filibuster) going to come from to support even a narrow infrastructure bill?

If and when they don’t materialize, that will be strike one on the Joe Manchin test…

At some point, if Republicans keep failing the Joe Manchin test, he’ll have to admit that nothing will achieve the cooperation that can supposedly be achieved by senators simply rediscovering their inner civic virtue. And he’ll either have to revise his arguments, or reconsider his opposition to filibuster reform. You’d think, anyway.

15) G. Elliot Morris on survey response:

In the 1970s, more than 80% of people called by Gallup’s interviewers answered their phones and completed their interviews. In 1997, surveys run by the Pew Research Centre—another large pollster—had a response rate of 36%. By 2018, it was 6%. It is even lower today—around 2% or 3%, according to Pew. As response rates decrease, the chance that the people answering the phone are systematically different than those who aren’t increases. In recent years, the population of respondents has been more Democratic than the population as a whole, leading to large misses in pre-election surveys. What are pollsters doing about this?

Over the past decade, the survey methodologists at Pew have embarked on a full redesign of the way they conduct public-opinion polls. In 2014, they began surveys over the internet, via a panel of respondents who answer questions repeatedly over time. Their American Trends Panel currently has 13,600 people regularly taking surveys online—some on internet-enabled tablets that Pew sent them. Online surveys have higher response rates than phone polls, and have supplanted random-digit dialling as Pew’s primary mode of collecting public-opinion data in America.

But switching to online polling has not completely solved the differential-response problem. In a recent analysis, Pew has detailed a persistent source of partisan bias in their poll: new recruits. The political composition of people who agreed to join their panel, after receiving a call or postcard soliciting their participation, has grown less Republican each year (see chart). Pew is able to fix much of this bias by adjusting the data to match the political composition of the electorate. This increases the uncertainty of the poll, and is an incomplete fix during an election year; there is still a chance that Republicans answering the phone are different from the ones who aren’t. That is what happened in 2020 when Pew’s panel was weighted by party but still understated support for Donald Trump.

In an attempt to solve the problem and provide a high-quality, less biased estimate of how many Democrats and Republicans live in the country, Pew has begun fielding an annual survey via the postal system that asks people their religious and political attitudes, among other metrics. Crucially, the national survey lets respondents answer either online or by paper in a prepaid envelope. The response rate for the mail survey is 29%, harkening back to the high response rates of the 1990s and early 2000s. According to Courtney Kennedy, Pew’s director of survey research, providing this offline response option has made the survey more representative.

Ms Kennedy hopes that using these higher-quality benchmarks to adjust their online polls will make their taking of the pulse of democracy less susceptible to a mass of Republicans refusing to answer their phones. But the methodological fixes do not change the underlying pattern. For some reason, Republicans, especially conservatives, are less likely to feel comfortable telling a pollster how they feel on the issues of the day. Although some biases can be fixed by weighting, Ms Kennedy said, “we really can’t afford to have this get much worse.” The real fix is to convince conservatives that polls are worth taking part in.

16) Watched “The Founder” (the story of Ray Kroc, “founder” of McDonald’s) playing on Netflix this week.  Great job from Michael Keaton and I found the movie very entertaining and was fascinated by the origins of the restaurant and the modern fast-food business.  The movie was really accurate.  

17) Somebody at Gallup had fun with this headline, “Global Warming Attitudes Frozen Since 2016”

18) Yglesias on America’s secularization

Religion is getting more polarized

When I shared that image on Twitter, a lot of secular liberals who don’t like right-wing evangelical politics got excited and dunked on right-wing evangelicals.

But this doesn’t really seem to be the case. Ryan Burge, a religion scholar who makes lots of great charts on Twitter, shows that evangelical or “born again” identity is holding up very well.

The decline in membership instead has two causes. One is that a growing number of people who describe themselves as non-denominational Christians aren’t members of a congregation. The other is that, as documented in Burge’s new book, we’ve seen a big increase in the number of people who say they have no religious affiliation. In the 1972 General Social Survey, the “Nones” are 5% of the population, while today they are nearly a quarter of the population.

We’re essentially looking at a more polarized religious landscape, with normie Protestants and Catholics in decline but evangelicals holding their ground in the face of the Rise of the Nones…

The racial polarization of the American electorate steadily increased for decades until bottoming out in 2012. Then somewhat contrary to what you’d guess based on the tenor of the Trump-era takes, the gap between the white and non-white vote shrunk a bit in 2016 and then shrunk more in 2020.

There are a few different reasons for this.

But a political data person I spoke to says that secularization plays a role. He says that in his firm’s data, they see “a substantial effect of no longer identifying with a religion on change in partisanship,” but the impact varies by race. When a white person goes from Christian to non-affiliated, they are more likely to become a Democrat. But when a Black person makes the same switch, the correlation goes in the other direction.

The causation here, of course, is a bit hard to tease out. Michele Margolis’ book suggests that when people leave the GOP, they tend to leave their church, too, since they see right-wing politics as having become constitutive of the religion. Ismail White and Chryl Laird have a recent book which argues that Black Americans with moderate or even conservative views tend to be Democrats out of a sense of partisan loyalty that is inculcated in Black social institutions — with Black churches very high on that list. So secularization of the Black population leads to higher levels of GOP affiliation as Black conservatives (and some Black moderates) drift right in their voting behavior without the socializing influence of the church.

Burge’s data also sees religious disaffiliation moving Hispanics to the right…

Demographics to watch out for

To me, the most interesting thing about this is that the media and political universes seem to have overreacted to the declining political salience of religion by moving to ignoring it entirely. We used to hear a lot about segmenting the white population based on religious affiliation, and now we’ve shifted almost entirely to discussing educational attainment.

But it’s not like the religious influence on politics went away just because secularization forced Republicans to become a less-overtly Jesus-first kind of political coalition.

As I noted above, the secularization trend seems to be prompting a reduction in the racial polarization of the electorate. But it’s also worth saying that since white voters outnumber non-white ones, it’s not like this is a neutral change — falling religious affiliation helps Democrats. It’s also particularly important because the geographical skew of the Senate is a huge deal in contemporary politics, and that skew is driven in part by the great overrepresentation of white voters in the upper house. So a dynamic through which Democrats gain newly unchurched white voters in exchange for losing newly unchurched non-white ones is actually very unfavorable to the GOP.

19) Radley Balko, “The Chauvin trial underscores two very different approaches to policing”

At Derek Chauvin’s trial this week, the jury heard from Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, the city’s former training commander and expert witnesses, all of whom testified that Chauvin’s treatment of George Floyd violated widely accepted use of force standards as well as Minneapolis Police Department policy, which calls for commensurate force and requires respect for the “sanctity of life.” But despite those standards, Chauvin also had a history of kneeling on suspects’ necks for long periods of time, and none of those incidents resulted in discipline. It’s an apt illustration of how, for about the past 10 years, two contradictory philosophies have been at war in American policing.

On one side are the de-escalationists, a product of the criminal justice reform movement. They accept police brutality, systemic racism and excessive force as real problems in law enforcement, and call for more accountability, as well as training in areas like de-escalation and conflict resolution. De-escalationists believe police serve their communities by apprehending and detaining people who violate the rights and safety of others, but must also do so in a way that protects the rights of the accused.

The other side — let’s call them “no-hesitationists” — asserts that police officers aren’t aggressive enough and are too hesitant to use deadly force, which puts officers and others at risk. They see law enforcement officers as warriors, and American neighborhoods as battlefields, where officers vanquish the bad to protect the good. These are the self-identified “sheepdogs,” the cops who sport Punisher gear.

No-hesitationists are more prominent in sheriff’s offices and police union leadership, and among rank-and-file officers. They’re more populist and have been successful including their policies in union contracts, honing successful legal arguments for cops accused of excessive force and leveraging political power, both to elect police-friendly judges, prosecutors and lawmakers, and to shame and intimidate politicians deemed insufficiently pro-law enforcement.

The de-escalationists successfully worked their preferred practices into official policy. But the no-hesitationists prevented meaningful enforcement of those policies. One example played out in Los Angeles in 2015. After LAPD chief Charlie Beck announced a new “Preservation of Life” award, for officers who held their fire and peacefully resolved confrontations with potentially dangerous suspects, the police union objected, claiming the award valued the lives of suspected criminals over the lives of police officers.

Yes, I am vaccinated with J&J. And it works better than you think

So, more than a month after the J&J vaccine EUA, I finally got unblinded this week.  Instead of that fancy little CDC vaccination card like everybody else, all I’ve got is this letter from the research sub-contractor to show for it :-).  As I strongly suspected based on my significant side effects, yes, I did get the actual vaccine back in September.  Interestingly, the medical assistant who unblinded me told me that, in his experience, everyone who had thought they actually had the vaccine based on side effects really had.  

With my unblinding this week and my firstborn getting the J&J courtesy of NC State on the same day, I’ve really been thinking about relative efficacy.  Among other things, I kept thinking about this chart:

After about day 31-32, infections in the treatment arm drop off a cliff while there’s still robust increase in the placebo arm up through day 53 or so (pretty curious as to this dramatic drop-off then).  In short, as has been reported, the efficacy of J&J continues to increase fairly dramatically even after the official 28-day endpoint (and, you really do need to stick to a pre-registered endpoint to prevent statistical shenanigans of the “oh, the data on day 34 is really good!” variety).  

Anyway, this got me to thinking, hey, now, maybe the biggest difference between Pfizer and Moderna is that we don’t measure efficacy till 35 and 42 days after the first shot (two weeks after 2nd dose). 

So, not only did I bounce this idea off of BB, but an actual virus expert, NCSU professor Matt Koci.  Nothing to further my hubris as an amateur epidemiologist like bouncing an idea off an actual one and seeing that my intuition about the timing was important.  Really good vaccine Q&A here with Matt (and my friend Matt Shipman asking the questions) and I’ve highlighted the key part:

1) Which one is better at protecting me from death?

All three vaccines being used in the U.S. (as of April 2021) are 100% effective at preventing death from COVID-19.

2) Which one is better at keeping me out of the hospital?

Again, all the vaccines currently being used are 100% effective at keeping you out of the hospital from COVID-19. [Note: in the Moderna trial one person in the vaccine group was hospitalized, but they weren’t confirmed to have COVID-19 positive.]

3) Which one is better at preventing mild to moderate symptoms?

Again, believe it or not, they are all about the same here. When the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was first announced, the media made a lot of noise about how the two mRNA vaccines had 94-95% effectiveness and J&J was 72% effective at preventing mild to moderate disease. But as we’ve continued to follow people who’ve gotten the J&J vaccine we’re learning that the level of protection goes up with time, and maybe we weren’t comparing apples to apples.

TA: Time out — can you explain that last part for me a little more?

Koci: For all the vaccine trials, the companies focused on assessing effectiveness starting two weeks after the last shot. The J&J is just one shot, so the clock starts two weeks after that shot. However, the clock doesn’t start for the mRNA vaccines (Moderna and Pfizer) until two weeks after the second shot. That’s 5-6 weeks after you received your first mRNA shot. If you line up the comparisons based on the first shot instead of the last shot the J&J vaccine looks to be about as effective as the mRNA vaccines.

Maybe the immunity will not last as long without the booster.  Maybe.  But for now, if you can get yourself a shot and its J&J you should definitely, happily do so.  (Alas, just as I was finishing this post, news about them falling way short on their production).  

Race, education, and Covid

Wow– this chart from Drum is something else:

A few more details:

We all know that COVID-19 mortality is higher in Black communities than in white communities. But this study, which examines 400,000 death certificates and stratifies them by education, presents a different picture. Race continues to have an impact, but once you account for education it turns out that mortality rates are pretty similar among both Black and white people.¹

More generally, the authors conclude that education has a huge impact on COVID-19 mortality rates, as the chart above makes clear. Roughly speaking, high school grads die at a rate 3x higher than college grads, and this is true for every racial group.

This is purely an observational study. It presents the data but doesn’t attempt to ascertain why low education levels are so deadly. There are some obvious possibilities—poor access to health care, crowded neighborhoods, inability to work from home, etc.—but concrete answers will have to wait for further research.

At least with Covid-19, the health gap is very much a education gap, moreso than a race gap.  The problem is that, in America, we have a huge gap in educational attainment by race and we should be working hard as hell to figure out how to shrink and then eliminate that gap moving forward.  That would do a lot of good in so many ways.  And, recognizing how much this is an education/class gap, rather than race, per se, can probably help us figure out the best strategies to minimize the disparate racial impact of Covid.

When the adults are vaccinated, but the kids aren’t

Emily Oster had a really good article a few weeks ago that she took a ton of heat for.  She made an effort to seriously address a very odd, liminal state we will soon be in– parents/adults fully vaccinated and kids not yet approved to receive vaccines.  What the hell to do with your general approach to life then is a massive question that will be weighing upon millions of American families.  

Oster made the eminently reasonable (from my perspective) argument that on a health level, the threat to your unvaccinated kids from Covid-19 is roughly the same as the threat to vaccinated grandparents.  And given what we know, mathematically this is the case.  Severe cases are so rare in kids that it is probably roughly equivalent to what we can expect in vaccinated seniors.  That would seem to be, undoubtedly, the type of information we use in making risk/benefit decisions in how we live our lives:

But the best available research indicates that families with young children don’t, in fact, have to live like it’s 2020 until 2022. Parents can go ahead and plan on barbecues and even vacations. The explanation for why lies in the resilience of kids to COVID-19, and in herd immunity.

Children are not at high risk for COVID-19. We’ve known since early in the pandemic that they are much less likely to fall ill, especially seriously ill. Although scientists don’t quite understand why, kids seem to be naturally protected. As a result, you can think of your son or daughter as an already vaccinated grandparent.


Think about a grandmother who’s received, say, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Trial research indicates that the second shot reduces her risk of serious illness by about 95 percent. Her risk of death goes way down too, although the trials were not geared toward reaching a conclusion on that point. (The Pfizer control group recorded zero deaths.)

Different vaccines yield different results, but all of the vaccines approved by the FDA (Pfizer-BioNTech’s, Moderna’s, and Johnson & Johnson’s) are very effective, which is why the CDC has indicated that vaccinated individuals can interact unmasked with other vaccinated individuals. It hasn’t yet commented on flying, but I’m guessing the CDC will relax its flying advisories for vaccinated individuals in the next few weeks. It will continue to recommend masks, for the sake of protecting the unvaccinated population, because the science on transmission by the vaccinated is still hazy.

Now think about your child. The CDC has published some risk assessments by age. For comparison’s sake, I’ll phrase the findings the way I would the results of a vaccine trial: Being a child aged 5 to 17 is 99.9 percent protective against the risk of death and 98 percent protective against hospitalization. For children 0 to 4, these numbers are 99.9 percent (death) and 96 percent (hospitalization).  

The central goal of vaccination is preventing serious illness and death. From this standpoint, being a child is a really great vaccine. Your unvaccinated first grader appears to have about as much protection from serious illness as a vaccinated grandmother.

She’s not wrong.  And though Oster has been massively dragged by the epidemiological folks (“stay in your lane, Economist!”), I haven’t actually seen anybody dispute this basic analysis.  This criticism from Tara Haelle (who writes a lot of good stuff) was pretty typical:

And then, literally, the next sentence:

Regardless, typical children have extraordinarily low rates of hospitalization and death from Covid, and that’s reassuring.

That’s the key premise of the argument Oster is making!  Anyway, all sorts of stuff about how unvaccinated kids can still spread the virus!  But, again, that’s not the point.  Oster’s focus is on understanding the risk to your family from various activities.  And, maybe you are a monster for not considering the role of kids in transmission at a future point in time when all adults have access to a vaccine, but sure doesn’t seem that way to me.  

Oh, and of course this all makes Oster a racist and ableist, too:

Did you see what Haelle did there with that “up to 17%” (worthy of a political attack ad).  This is a great example of confounding absolute risk and relative risk.  Even if the risk to Black kids were 3x the risk to white kids the absolute risk would still be super low.  Call me racist, but, yes, Black and Latino (yes, because I don’t choose to insist on labeling a group by a name that the vast majority of the member of that group reject because I know better than them) parents who are vaccinated, but with unvaccinated kids, should be making roughly similar risk calculations to middle-class white parents.  

Yeah, sorry to get so worked up about a single critique, but it just pressed so many of my buttons.  Anyway, what we’re going to do in this uncertain middle ground is really important and we need solid advice and information for parents– not alarmism.   

For example, this NYT article was horrible: “Family Travel Gets Complicated Without a Covid Vaccine for Kids.  It was very much about those families who might not be able to engage in international travel with their unvaccinated kids (because of rules regarding vaccinated travelers, etc., not actual health risk).  Definitely not the decisions faced by your typical parents.  But then when it got to domestic travel, it was all alarmism with no mention at all of kids’ much lower risk of serious cases:

After a year of road tripsR.V.s and rental cottages, many Americans are now ready to fly again: Online searches for late-summer flights are up as much as 75 percent, and hotels on both coasts are reporting that they are sold out through October. But families, more than any other travel sector, continue to play it safe…

Montoya and Phil Hudson, who showcase their travels as a Black family on their popular blog, The Spring Break Family, are among them. “Most years we go pretty far — Spain, Italy, France, as far as we can go. This year it was about what’s reachable by car,” Ms. Hudson said. She and Mr. Hudson, who both work in the health care industry, are vaccinated, but admit they probably won’t be willing to fly with their two daughters, Leilah, 11, and Layla, 8, for several more months.

That’s because they want to wait for herd immunity to help keep their daughters safe. “The goal is to wait until the majority of the population is vaccinated, or has at least had the opportunity to become vaccinated,” Ms. Hudson said.

Waiting for a herd immunity before letting your 11-year old on an airplane with vaccinated adults is just not something that makes a lot of sense in protecting your 11-year old.  

In addition to preferring driving over flying this summer, travel analysts say families with children will also continue to opt for rental homes over hotel rooms.

In fact, when it comes to the vacation cottage market, parents are booking faster than anyone else. “Families are the number one group expected to travel in 2021,” said Vered Schwarz, the president and chief operating officer of Guesty, a short-term property management platform which reports that its summer reservations are already 110 percent higher than 2020, with families comprising more than 30 percent of those booking. “For families with unvaccinated children, private rentals are appealing — they are comfortable and they avoid hotels chock-full of crowded common areas,” she said.

Again… come on!  Stop worrying about whether your kid is going to be hospitalized from Covid she caught in a hotel corridor when it’s almost certainly more likely that she gets hospitalized from an automobile accident on your road trip.

We’re just so bad at risk assessment.  Especially when kids are involved.  And, yes, there’s all sorts of considerations to be considered with family travel, role of vaccinated versus unvaccinated versus kids in transmission, etc.  But an important part in how we deal with very confusing times ahead is being clear and honest about what the risks to children really are.  And, if they really do prove to be dramatically worse with one of the variants, that should certainly be a consideration as well.  But, in an incredibly fortunate quirk of this virus, kids are very rarely seriously affected and that needs to affect our decision-making.

Oh, and let’s get these damn vaccines approved for kids ASAP, too.  Glad to see we’re finally getting some good progress on that. 

Quick hits (part II)

1) Eric Topol and Abraham Verghese (who also wrote a helluva novel) with a great interview of Roberto Burioni :

The Future Is Up in the Air

Verghese: What do you see in the future? Looking into your crystal ball, what is the next year going to look like in Italy, the United States, and globally?

Burioni: It’s very difficult to make predictions in general when you talk about something that appeared in the world just 1 year ago. In this case, it’s even more difficult because the virus that appeared 1 year ago is changing. Today we have a virus that is different from the virus we had 6 months ago. We also see some differences in COVID symptoms. Viruses change, which is expected. The measles virus that appeared in the 11th century probably also developed many variants in the beginning, and then one variant, the best one, took over, and now we see only that variant.

Personally, I believe it will depend very much on vaccinations and whether we will be able to vaccinate the majority of people. At that point, we will need to see what happens to vaccinated people. There are two possibilities: The first is that some variant will cause a clinically relevant disease. This is not certain; we’ll have to see. I personally think it is unlikely because it’s not easy for a virus to escape such strong immunity. We don’t see any signs at the moment, but viruses can be unpredictable, so we have to be cautious.

Then we have to see what the current variants lead to in the vaccinated patients. If the majority of them will be almost asymptomatic, and if transmission is reduced, it’s likely that we will live in a world where, once everyone is vaccinated, this would be the fifth coronavirus causing a nondangerous respiratory disease. We’ll have COVID in a very mild form, children will get this very contagious virus as they get other respiratory viruses, and they will develop immunity or they will be vaccinated against it. I hope that this will become a mild respiratory disease, as it already appears to be in vaccinated people.

Topol: We share that optimism for sure. Now here’s a difficult question. The UK B.1.1.7 variant has spread throughout Europe, but the patterns are quite heterogeneous. Italy, the Netherlands, and now Germany and France are showing the signs of marked spread, whereas other countries, such as Denmark and Spain, show few signs of spread, even though this is dominant in all of these European countries. How would you explain this disparity in the pattern?

Burioni: One of the features of this virus, which is uncommon and is not shared by other viruses, is the deep heterogeneity of the infectivity between one person and another. Some patients are not infectious at all whereas others are extremely infectious, and if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time, then that particular virus can spread extremely well. Unfortunately, we have learned from experience that when something happens in Europe, no more than 4-8 weeks later, it’s everywhere. The initial virus was in Italy at the beginning of March 2020, and then it spread through all of Europe. This was also the case for the wave that followed during the summer in France and Spain.

Here in Italy, we were seeing the Spanish strain, because many young people from Italy went on vacation in Spain and brought it back here. So this should not be a surprise given the fact that there are patients who are extremely infectious and others who are not infectious at all.

You can see family units where one person got infected and the infection did not spread to other members of the family. On the other hand, you also can see instances where one person was infectious, and that person went to a church or a theater and caused an outbreak. This disparity in infectiousness may be one reason for this difference between one country and another, or between states in the United States…

Right now, two numbers are the most important. The first is the efficacy against severe COVID-19 infection. That’s important because mild infection is not a problem. It’s a discomfort, but I wouldn’t say it is a medical problem. Severe infection is a medical problem, not only for the patient but also for the health system. So these are very important numbers.

The other important issue, which is more complicated, is the vaccine’s effect on transmission. We need to know if any given vaccine is able to stop transmission, because if a vaccine is preventing the disease but is not preventing the transmission, then it only protects the single person who is vaccinated. If another vaccine prevents the disease and also stops the transmission, with that one, we can protect the community.

From my experience as a virologist, I’ve never heard of a vaccine having a 95% effect on preventing disease that doesn’t have a profound effect on transmission. Not a single one that hasn’t been a huge obstacle to transmission. The latest data from Israel are showing that the Rt [rate of transmission] went down to 0.5, even in the presence of this terrible variant, which is almost too good to be true because this means that transmission is affected. Without a relevant animal reservoir, and if transmission is affected by the vaccination, we can get rid of this virus. That is the end of the story.

2) Really liked this from Yglesias:

Here’s a headline in The New York Times: “Can Vaccinated People Spread the Virus? We Don’t Know, Scientists Say.”

This sort of thing has been driving me crazy all pandemic. Back months before Pfizer and Moderna submitted their paperwork to the FDA, I asked some virologists and public health people some general questions about vaccines and they were all very clear — clinical trials are designed to test specific endpoints but in general, vaccines that are effective at blocking the development of serious symptoms also provide some “sterilizing immunity” against asymptomatic transmission. That’s a general attribute of human immune systems and disease transmission.

What’s also true is that in general, this usually isn’t perfect, so it’s still generally pro-social for a vaccinated person to behave somewhat cautiously.

Then once the vaccines were in hand, this very clear message — we don’t know exactly how much sterilizing immunity these vaccines provide but it would be bizarre if there wasn’t a significant impact — collapsed into a mush of fake ignorance and “we don’t know.” But again, delve into the text of the article and it’s clear that they actually do know:

“If Dr. Walensky had said most vaccinated people do not carry virus, we would not be having this discussion,” said John Moore, a virologist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York.

“What we know is the vaccines are very substantially effective against infection — there’s more and more data on that — but nothing is 100 percent,” he added. “It is an important public health message that needs to be gotten right.”

But I mean of course being vaccinated is not a 100% absolutely positive guarantee that you can’t transmit the virus; we already know that from the fact that the vaccines don’t prevent the development of symptoms in all cases. The vaccines are really good. Even really good vaccines aren’t perfect. We know this. The actual issue here is not a disagreement about vaccine science but a disagreement about social psychology. One group of people seems to think it’s important to try to encourage pro-social caution by discussing the risks that still exist post-vaccination, while another group thinks it’s important to try to encourage the pro-social behavior of getting vaccinated by emphasizing the positive. This is an interesting dispute. But it’s not a dispute about immunology at all, and it requires some other kind of evidence and probably a completely different body of scholarship.

3) Chait on bad conservative defenses of Georgia’s new voting law:

The right-wing defenses of these measures almost universally ignore the main dynamic that inspires them. Voting is not an activity that confers a direct benefit; it is something people do out of civic obligation. Increasing the hassle required to carry it out obviously deters people from doing it. And people with less money, more chaotic or stressful lives, and less education are systematically less equipped to overcome the hassle of acquiring the proper paperwork, finding the correct polling location, and arriving at the polls within the allotted time.

“Voter suppression doesn’t involve long lines, any more than long lines at Disneyland are ride suppression,” argues Shapiro. This is a bizarre comparison. If you’ve ever visited a theme park, you know that long lines actually are ride suppressors. When my kids were young, I took them to Disney World; if the lines were too long when they asked to go on certain rides, sometimes we wouldn’t go.

I don’t think I’m the only person who has made that calculation. And when the reward for your wait is not a roller-coaster ride your kids are begging to take but an “I voted” sticker and the statistically indistinguishable-from-zero chance of casting a deciding vote, then standing in a long line to vote is a fairly imposing deterrent. That’s all the more true when you’re not on holiday and you may be getting home from a long shift or rushing to make it to work or to pick up your kids from day care.

National Review editor Rich Lowry, parroting the official line from Georgia Republicans, insists, “It’s hard to believe that one real voter is going to be kept from voting by the new rules.” Really? Not one? In the 2020 election, nearly half of the 11,000 provisional ballots in Georgia were cast in the wrong precincts. (And that was with unusually high levels of mail voting, which the new law also curtails.) Presumably, at least some of those voters will be deterred by the requirement that, after waiting in line to vote and being told they have visited the wrong precinct, they go to find another precinct and stand in line again.

What makes the pious argument by the likes of Shapiro and Lowry so odd is that conservatives historically support the notion of using restrictive voting laws to winnow the electorate. This view dates back at least to the early 1960s, when William F. Buckley famously quipped, “What is wrong in Mississippi, sir, is not that not enough Negroes are voting but that too many white people are.” …

The Republican Party’s enthusiasm for vote suppression predates Trump, and it has become a core tenet of the party’s post-Trump-presidency identity. Vote suppression is an issue that brings together the Trump-adoring base and the elites who tolerated him as a necessary evil — if they don’t agree that Joe Biden stole the last election, they do agree on passing laws that will make it harder for Democrats to win the next one.

The fight over vote suppression also brings to the fore the party Establishment’s belief that whatever bad odor they acquired during the Trump years should immediately be dispelled. It was intolerable enough that large sectors of respectable corporate opinion shunned them over their support for a racist, authoritarian president. Now they expect to be treated as respectable again, not as a party still teeming with racist, authoritarian elements.

The problem is, this is exactly what they are.

4) Conor Friedersdorf with a fascinating interview, “‘The Narrative Is, “You Can’t Get Ahead”’ In Evanston, Illinois, a Black parent and school-board candidate takes on a curriculum meant to combat racism.”

Ndona Muboyayi wants to improve the education that public-school children, including her son and daughter, receive in Evanston, Illinois, where her mother’s family history goes back five generations.

As a candidate for the school board in District 65, which educates children up until eighth grade, she wants to close the academic-achievement gap separating Black and brown students from white ones, help children who need special education, and address what she sees as a lack of support for students whose first language isn’t English. That agenda would be ultra-progressive in many communities. In Evanston, however, Muboyayi is challenging not the right, but the left…

Muboyayi, 44, a member of the NAACP Evanston/North Shore Branch and the Congolese Community of Chicago, shares their concerns about the curriculum and is now among its most outspoken critics. She attributes her willingness to talk openly to the fact that she is self-employed. A business consultant and translator, Muboyayi attended public schools in Evanston as a child and then moved away. When she returned with children of her own in 2018, she anticipated that they would receive the empowering, racially inclusive education she remembered. Instead she was confronted with a curriculum she deems disempowering, divisive, and ill-suited to helping students of color succeed in school…

Ndona Muboyayi: I grew up in the Fifth Ward, a predominantly Black neighborhood. My mom is African-American and very Afrocentric. We had Black dolls. We had books about Africa. We had all of this imagery that was positive reinforcement for who we were. We did have white friends. But to be honest, our life didn’t revolve around white people. We had a kind of cushion of Black comfort, so to speak, where we were allowed to be children and whatever prejudices that might have existed, we weren’t aware of them.

So I had a very good childhood. One teacher, who was not white, thought in first grade that I needed to be in special education, because I was active and talked a lot. In third grade, my teacher couldn’t pronounce my name. But those are the only issues I remember. Evanston to me was almost a utopia. Which is why I told my children, while we were living outside Toronto, “When we move back to the States, let’s move to Evanston.” I gave my children and my husband, who grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, this idea that it would be a place of both Black unity and people working together across color lines. But when we got here in 2018, within the first year, my children were being taught about white supremacy and white privilege and that all white people were rich and racist. My son and daughter came home like, What is this?

Friedersdorf: What was the problem with those lessons, beyond your children not liking them?

Mboyayi: My children have always been so proud of who they are. Then all of a sudden they started to question themselves because of what they were taught after arriving here. My son has wanted to be a lawyer since he was 11. Then one day he came home and told me, “But Mommy, there are these systems put in place that prevent Black people from accomplishing anything.” That’s what they’re teaching Black kids: that all of this time for the past 400 years, this is what [white people have] done to you and your people. The narrative is, “You can’t get ahead.”

Of course I want my children to know about slavery and Jim Crow. But I want it to be balanced out with the rest of the truth. They’re not taught about Black people who accomplished things in spite of white supremacy; or about the Black people today who got ahead, built things, achieved things; and those who had opportunities that their ancestors fought for.

5) Hey, I’m no psychiatrist, but the guy who just killed the Capitol police officer seems like an absolutely classic case of paranoid schizophrenia.  Bizarre to me that this article about his complete mental collapse and break with reality would make no mention of that possibility and be just as likely to pin it on drug problems.  

6) I don’t have a problem at all with Nate Cohn doing an analysis and summarizing literature that Georgia’s new laws, actually, probably won’t have that dramatic an effect on turnout.  But G. Elliott Morris has a great rejoinder to taking this approach without proper contextualization, “Electoral math obscures the bigger story on voting rights: Attempts to restrict the franchise are normatively bad, regardless of their effects. Coverage should reflect that.”

This is a fair representation of the orthodoxy in political science, as far as I can tell. I have written similar pieces on the subject over the past couple of years, and covered the Stanford study Cohn refers to. He also posits some theories as to why a decrease in the convenience of voting might not decrease turnout, on average. They are worth reading.

In my view, Cohn’s factual discussion is all fine and unobjectionable on empirical grounds, except for one caveat. The study of absentee voters in Texas has actually caused a bit of grumbling among political scientists. The study worked by comparing absentee voting among treatment and a control groups — voters on either side of the 65-year age cutoff for eligibility in Texas. But, as Charlotte Hill, a PhD candidate in voting and elections at Berkeley points out, the control group is already made up of high-propensity voters. This creates a ceiling on the turnout effect you’d find among those voters, compared to the residual effects of increasing turnout that you might find with lower propensity voters. Charlotte goes into a few other examples of contrary evidence that doesn’t get mentioned in the piece here.

Aside from this, there are two broader issues that I want to raise. First, I think it is improper (or at least very messy) to project these conclusions onto the voting restrictions in Georgia. And second, I think the context, in this case, matters more than the factual debate over voting mechanisms. Republicans, after losing an election in Georgia due in large part to the mobilization of black voters, are now passing voting restrictions that could plausibly have a disproportionate impact on their ability to vote in the future. The fact that a discussion of this context is missing from Cohn’s piece is a rather error of journalism.

7) I know my wife would laugh out loud at the idea that I really try to have intellectual humility, but I do.  Not quite sure why I had this tab open on the matter from 2019, but it’s good:

Humility is a relative newcomer to social and personality psychology, at least as a trait or behavior to be studied on its own. It arrived as part of the effort, beginning in the 1990s, to build a “positive” psychology: a more complete understanding of sustaining qualities such as pride, forgiveness, grit and contentment. More recently, humility has found a foothold in the most widely used measure of personality traits, the five- factor questionnaire. The wallflower is attracting some attention, and so far appears to be absorbing it well.

In one series of experiments, Elizabeth Krumrei Mancuso of Pepperdine University scored volunteers on a measure of what she called intellectual humility — an awareness of how incomplete and fallible their views on political and social issues were. This kind of humility was not related to I.Q. measures or political affiliation, she found; it was strongly linked to curiosity, reflection and open-mindedness.

In another, ongoing study, Dr. Krumrei Mancuso had 587 American adults complete questionnaires intended to measure levels of intellectual humility. The participants rated how much they agreed with various statements, including “I feel small when others disagree with me on topics that are close to my heart,” and “For the most part, others have more to learn from me than I have to learn from them.” [Okay– sorry, for me to say yes to this one would just be false modesty.  But, part of me knowing a helluva lot is actually recognizing how much I don’t know– but, yeah, definitely more than your average bear] Those who scored highly on humility — not that they’d boast about it — also scored lower on measures of political and ideological polarization, whether conservative or liberal.

Other research has found that people who score high for humility are less aggressive and less judgmental toward members of other religious groups than are less-humble people, even and especially after being challenged about their own religious views.

“These kinds of findings may account for the fact that people high in intellectual humility are not easily manipulated with regard to their views,” Dr. Krumrei Mancuso said. The findings, she added, may also “help us understand how humility can be associated with holding convictions.”

In the new review paper, Dr. Van Tongeren and his colleagues proposed several explanations for why humility, intellectual or otherwise, is such a valuable facet of personality. A humble disposition can be critical to sustaining a committed relationship. It may also nourish mental health more broadly, providing a psychological resource to shake off grudges, suffer fools patiently and forgive oneself.

8) I remember the good old days when I thought monoclonal antibodies were going to be our ticket out of this well before vaccines (though, I still think there’s a non trivial chance that Molnupiravir/EIDD 2801 ultimately proves amazing).  But, damn, even though the monoclonal antibodies do work, if not game-changer level, turns out we’re doing a horrible job at getting them to the patients who most stand to benefit.    

On Monday, one of my patients called me to say she had tested positive for the coronavirus. The patient, who has sickle cell anemia and has had a bone-marrow transplant, lives several hours away from the hospital where I work in New York City. Because she is at extreme risk for complications from Covid-19, I began trying to secure the best medicine for preventing severe disease: monoclonal antibodies.

Monoclonal antibodies are made in the laboratory and are designed to mimic the immune system’s ability to fight off invaders like viruses. Different monoclonal antibodies are used to treat numerous illnesses. They have been found effective in treating people at a high risk of complications from Covid-19, and last fall the Food and Drug Administration approved their emergency use to treat the disease. But right now it’s too hard for patients to obtain this treatment.

After calls to several hospitals near my patient’s home, I found one that could administer monoclonal antibodies. She went to the hospital and remained in the emergency room for more than 24 hours, untreated because the doctors did not feel her condition warranted the medication. While she waited, she developed a sickle cell pain crisis that was doubtlessly provoked by her panic over the test result and the uncertainty about whether she would receive the treatment I recommended. By Tuesday night, she had a fever and a cough, and her treatment finally began.

As a clinical hematologist caring for people with compromised immune systems, I have watched in horror as Covid-19 has ravaged my patients. I have lost three colleagues and more than 20 patients to the disease. I contracted Covid-19 last March, before any useful treatment had been identified. Despite progress in vaccinations, the coronavirus remains a persistent and even growing problem in New York City, where about 4,000 new cases of Covid-19 are being identified every day, and thousands of people remain hospitalized.
9) Happy Easter!

Quick hits (part I)

1) Ariel Edwards-Levy, “More And More Americans Say They’ll Get Vaccinated — But It’s Still Unclear Just How Many Will”

Five different pollsters asked Americans how willing they are to get vaccinated in December, and again in March, while giving people some option to say they were undecided or in the middle. And the topline takeaway is that the share who’d gotten vaccinated or definitively intended to rose by an average of 23 percentage points.1

Meanwhile, the average share who expressed little intention of getting vaccinated dipped a relatively modest 5 points,2while the undecided share fell an average of 18 points.3 If a politician or issue saw a similar rise over that period of time, it’d be reported — defensibly — as a shocking surge of support.

The shift isn’t entirely unexpected, though. For most of last year, the question of getting vaccinated was wholly hypothetical, as vaccines were still under development and their eventual efficacy remained unknown. Many Americans also worried about a vaccine rushed out under political pressure. But in December, the Food and Drug Administration authorized the first COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use, marking the start of the nation’s vaccination campaign. Now, over one-quarter of Americans have received at least one dose of a vaccine and most know at least one person who’s been vaccinated, making the question of whether to get vaccinated increasingly tangible.

It’s a mistake to think of the public as divided between a faction of enthusiastic vaccine advocates and a smaller bloc of equally adamant anti-vaccination crusaders. Polling last winter found many Americans who were undecided but potentially swayable, and in the months since, that group has increasingly made up their minds in favor of the vaccine, from an average of 40 percent to 58 percent, as the chart above shows. The share of vaccine refusers, meanwhile, has slightly decreased. 

2) Drum on “reasonable Republicans” (there aren’t any in national politics!) and the Georgia voting law:

Second, the detailed voting stuff isn’t the biggest problem with the Georgia law. The biggest problems are the provisions that (1) remove authority from the Secretary of State and give it to a politico appointed by the legislature, and (2) allow the legislature to take control of local election boards that are “underperforming.”

The first provision is plainly nothing more than revenge against Brad Raffensperger, who refused to knuckle under to Donald Trump’s desire to “find” a few thousand additional votes in 2020. It’s pretty obvious that Georgia Republicans never want that to happen again and are planning to appoint a chairman of the State Election Board who will slavishly do whatever Republicans want him to do.

The second provision is designed to allow the legislature to take over Democratic election boards in urban areas if they feel like it. Republicans have a long, long history of insisting that urban areas with large Black and Hispanic populations are rife with fraud, and this is just the latest continuation of that fabrication. There’s no evidence for it, but it appeals to the GOP’s white constituency so it’s useful to keep it going. It’s disgraceful.

In the end, the question is this: Do “reasonable” Republicans agree that our current election laws—which are already insanely partisan—should become even more partisan? This is pure Trumpism, which they claim to oppose. So why defend it when someone is so clearly following Trump’s lead? Instead, why not support something that makes voting less partisan? Shouldn’t that be a goal that everyone aims for?

3) Brian Beutler on Obama vs Biden and, my favorite thing that is so often overlooked in life and political analysis… context

Obama was a candidate for president and a senator when the last huge crisis hit, and as such had direct responsibilities over the federal response to it. He signed off on the bill that gave rise to the TARP program, which the Bush administration hashed out with congressional leadership, then entered a historically smooth transition of power, which ended at the trough of a deep recession. The actions he took that he owned free and clear, particularly the recovery act, became knotted up in the much messier politics of bank bailouts and homeownership amid a tidal wave of foreclosures. He indulged a lot of nonsense about transcending partisanship that got him mired in a mostly useless pursuit of GOP votes, but in 2009 most congressional Democrats were at least as misguided. The prevailing wisdom at the time held that presidents were standard-bearers for unwieldy parties, whose individual members had appropriate license to differentiate themselves, in conforming to the politics of their states and districts. The thought of doing whatever was necessary to circumvent filibusters and pass clean, big, partisan bills was alien to the whole party at the time, and it left progressive critics endlessly frustrated. Republicans exploited that frustration, but they did so having been thoroughly wiped out in two consecutive elections, allowing them to elevate new figureheads and feign a religion of austerity the same day George W. Bush skipped town.

There are things Obama did within that context that wore poorly over time, but the context was real. 

Biden’s presidency looks nothing like this. Donald Trump wrecked the country many long, hard months before the election, then presided over a violent and uncooperative transition. Biden campaigned on many of the same platitudes to bipartisanship that Obama took to heart, but has governed with a fool-me-once sense of realism about them. More importantly, congressional Democrats from all wings of the party seem to be similarly snakebit by the experience of 2009-2020. Luckily for them, Obama cleared out a lot of the underbrush that might’ve mired them in the thicket of state building. A combination of path dependency and coalitional pressures drove Obama to prioritize health-care and financial-regulatory reform over other issues, which meant achieving partisan consensus over complex policy regimes where both winners and losers were sympathetic characters. He left Democrats the seedbed of a health-coverage guarantee, and they’ve fought vigorously over what to plant in it, but the hellish work of creating the taxes and mandates and marketplaces that laid the foundation for the thing is done. We’re closer to the end of history of the liberal state now, which means Biden has the easier task of directing resources at popular things that already exist, while Republicans struggle to articulate any core belief other than that they and people who look like them should be in charge.

Obama won his presidential primary at a time when the sharpest divisions in the party were over questions of war and peace. He thus became identified as a representative of the progressive wing, but he was actually pretty moderate, and that scrambled expectations about what uniting the party required. Biden embraced his centrist identity during the 2020 primary, then used his lifetime of legislative experience and the urgent demands of the coronavirus pandemic to bring the left in closer. Also: Barack Obama was a black man named Barack Hussein Obama; Joe Biden is an old white guy whose middle name is technically “Robinette” but we don’t talk about that for some reason. 

4) Derek Chauvin undoubtedly needs to be held to account and severely punished for killing George Floyd.  But I’m not convinced that Chauvin might not have done the same thing to a white person.  McWhorter with a really good post, “Is Derek Chauvin a racist murderer of just a murderer?”

In my experience, however, the idea that to be black is to live under threat from state-sponsored racist murder by the cops runs so deep, is held so fiercely, and elicits such unreachable contempt when denied, that more than a few are simply impervious to hearing anything else.

It doesn’t help to note that there is indeed evidence that cops are racist in other ways, such as in deciding who to pull over on drug searches. To propose that this racism does not lead to casual murder is to depart from qualification for interaction with polite society. I learned when I started writing about race 20 years ago that the cops are the reason so many think of racism as the foundational experience of blackness in America. The issue does not lend itself to statistics, what-ifs, and standing at a distance, and it won’t for a long time.

I consider just allowing that history proceeds in messy ways. I am thinking about this recently as I finish War and Peace (unfortunately in Pevear and Volkhonsky’s utterly execrable translation – another hoax our republic lives under is that they are master translators, but I’ll leave that aside for now!).  [Steve– what do I know about translations, but I loved their version of Anna Karenina!]

Tolstoy muses on the difference between how humans process history and how it really happens. Say Chauvin gets what he deserves, and it is part of a gradual reform of the cops’ getting away with the murder of just people, as opposed to black people. If it took a misperception of cop murders as racist to make that happen, then maybe that’s how making an omelette requires cracking some eggs.

We may leave it to the historians of the future to see that the idea that people like Floyd died because of their skin color doesn’t hold up, but that it was the catalyst for something more important than whether we people down here on the ground were processing things with complete accuracy.

* * *

But I know – in the meantime I just look like I am in some kind of denial. Of course George Floyd died because he was black. Because, well, Chauvin looks like such a cold-hearted son of a bitch; just look at him. Because, well, look at the video … (but look also at the Timpa video). Because, well … because under our current sociopolitical assumptions, our paramount ethical job is to identify racism’s role in society, and think of black people’s essence as suffering under its degradations. To stray from this is to Not Do the Work.

I get it. But to me, the tragedy of George Floyd may be redeemed by pointing us past a problem with the cops’ murdering too many human beings. If what puts the wind beneath our society’s wings on that point is thinking of the cops as blithely dedicated to shattering black bodies, then I may just have to go along for the ride.

5) From what I’ve seen, I’m not entirely convinced by this, “The Vaccine Line Is an Illusion: People are stretching the truth to get the vaccine faster, but experts say I shouldn’t. Here’s why.”  Virtually everybody I know who has stretched the truth has gotten their vaccine in an outlying area where there were plenty of appointments, not exactly taking away slots from people who qualified but just couldn’t get an appointment.  

6) Would’ve missed the “failure of the elites” interview in Vox if not for DJC:

Sean Illing

I’m starting to hate the phrase “post-truth” because it implies there was some period in which we lived in truth or in which truth was predominant. But that’s misleading. The difference is that elite gatekeeping institutions can’t place borders on the public conversation and that means they’ve lost the ability to determine what passes as truth, so now we’re in the Wild West.

Martin Gurri

That’s a very good way to put it. I would say, though, that there was a shining moment when we all had truth. They are correct about that. If truth is really a function of authority, and if in the 20th century these institutions really had authority, then we did have something like truth. But if we had the information back then that we have today, if we had all the noise that we have today, nothing would’ve seemed quite as true because we would’ve lacked faith in the institutions that tried to tell us.

Sean Illing

What does it mean for our society if an “official narrative” isn’t possible? Because that’s where we’re at, right? Millions of people will never believe any story or account that comes from the government or a mainstream institution.

Martin Gurri

As long as our institutions remain as they are, nothing much will change. What that means is more of the same — more instability, more turbulence, more conspiracy theories, more distrust of authorities. But there’s no iron law of history that says we have to keep these institutions the way they are. Many of our institutions were built around the turn of the 20th century. They weren’t that egalitarian or democratic. They were like great, big pyramids.

But we can take our constitutional framework and reconfigure it. We’ve done it once already, and we could do it again with the digital realm in mind, understanding the distance we once had between those in power and ordinary citizens is gone forever. It’s just gone. So we need people in power who are comfortable in proximity to the public, which many of our elites are not.

7) I honestly have such fond memories of figuring out, along with my teenage friends, inventive ways to use South Carolina fireworks on Brood X cicadas in their Northern Virginia appearance two cycles ago in 1987.  It really is just an amazing feature of nature to see so damn many bugs— I’m sorry my kids won’t see it.  

8) I’ve been very intrigued by the potential benefits of vaccination mix-and-match, that is, heterologous prime-boost , since I learned about it on twitter.  Nice to see a full Carl Zimmer NYT story on it:

Mixing vaccines might do more than just help overcome supply bottlenecks. Some researchers suspect that a pair of different vaccines might work better than two doses of the same one.

“I think we’re on the cusp of some interesting data,” said Adam Wheatley, an immunologist at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

The concept of mixing vaccines — sometimes called a heterologous prime-boost — is not new to our pandemic era. For decades, researchers have investigated the approach, hoping to find potent combinations against a range of viruses, such as influenza, H.I.V. and Ebola.

But scientists had little to show for all that research. It was easy enough to demonstrate that two vaccines may work well together in a mouse. But running full-blown clinical trials on a combination of vaccines is a tall order.

“For a single company to develop two parallel arms of a vaccine is twice the work and twice the cost,” Dr. Wheatley said…

Dr. Jakob Cramer, the head of clinical development at CEPI, a vaccine development organization, said that vaccines using viral vectors were not the only kind that might benefit from mixing. In fact, certain combinations might provoke a different, more effective immune response than a single type of vaccine. “Immunologically, there are several arguments in favor of exploring heterologous priming,” Dr. Kramer said.

Another kind of Covid-19 vaccine being tested contains the actual spike protein, rather than genetic instructions for it. Some of the vaccines contain the entire protein; others contain just a fragment of it. Currently, there are 29 protein-based vaccines for Covid-19 in clinical trials, although none have been authorized yet.

Dr. Wheatley and his colleagues have been testing protein-based vaccines in mice. They injected the full spike protein into the animals as a first dose. For the second dose, they injected only the tip of the spike, a region known as the receptor-binding domain, or R.B.D.

Dr. Wheatley and his colleagues found that the mixture worked better than two doses of the spike or of the R.B.D.

The researchers suspect that the first dose produces a broad range of antibodies that can stick to spots along the length of the spike protein, and that the second dose delivers a big supply of particularly potent antibodies to the tip of the spike. Together, the assortment of antibodies does a better job of stopping the coronavirus.

“You’re able to basically take that initial immunity that was elicited to that spike vaccine, and then really focus it down onto that R.B.D.,” Dr. Wheatley said.

Other combinations of vaccines may bring benefits of their own. Some vaccines, especially protein-based ones, do a good job of generating antibodies. Others, such as viral vectors, are better at training immune cells. A viral vector followed by a protein boost might offer the best of both worlds.

Hmmm.  If not that it would mess up my J&J trial participation, I’d be awfully tempted.

9) Really enjoyed this from Ezra, “Are We Much Too Timid in the Way We Fight Covid-19?”  Yes!!!  Sorry, I get the “we should go with what we tested in the trial,” I do, but sometimes our broader body of knowledge just cannot be ignored and we should do things like spread out doses to vaccinate more people more quickly and almost surely save lives in the process.  I’m unpersuaded by the “if we don’t exactly follow the trials, this will ruin confidence and people will die!” takes.  

But as best as I can tell, Tabarrok has repeatedly been proved right, and ideas that sounded radical when he first argued for them command broader support now. What I’ve come to think of as the Tabarrok agenda has come closest to being adopted in Britain, which delayed second doses, approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine despite its data issues, is pushing at-home testing and permitted human challenge trials, in which volunteers are exposed to the coronavirus to speed the testing of treatments. And for now it’s working: Britain has vaccinated a larger percentage of its population than the rest of Europe and the United States have and is seeing lower daily case rates and deaths.

Many of these policies could still help America and the world — particularly with the more contagious, and more lethal, B.1.1.7 variant spreading. Just this week, Atul Gawande, who served on President Biden’s Coronavirus Task Force, endorsed delaying second doses in order to accelerate initial vaccinations and slow the rise in cases. But there’s no evidence that the F.D.A., the Biden administration or global health authorities are any closer to doing so. At this point, it’s worth asking why.

At the core of this debate sit two questions: How much information do regulators need to act? And how should regulators balance the harms of action against the harms of inaction? The F.D.A.’s critics feel the agency demands too much information before it moves and is too comfortable with the costs of not making decisions, even in an emergency. “Not doing something is a choice,” said Emily Oster, a health economist at Brown. “It’s not a safe harbor.”

Daniel Carpenter is a professor of government at Harvard and an expert on the F.D.A., and he thinks its critics underestimate the costs of a mistake. “Effective therapies depend upon credible regulation,” he told me. Mass vaccination campaigns work only if the masses take the vaccines. “In this way, it’s a deeply social technology, and so the credibility is everything.”

To Carpenter, the F.D.A.’s critics miss the consequences of regulators losing public trust. President Donald Trump publicly pressured the agency to authorize unproven drugs, like hydroxychloroquine, that proved useless and tweeted that the “deep state” in the agency was trying to delay a vaccine to hurt him politically. Stephen Hahn, then the F.D.A. commissioner, joined Trump at a briefing to tout an emergency-use authorization for convalescent plasma — and Hahn then had to apologize, and fire two staff members, after misstating the evidence. It looked to many as though the F.D.A.’s process was collapsing under Trump’s attacks…

The same tensions have held up efforts to alter vaccine dosing in ways that would increase supply. There’s good evidence that the first doses of Pfizer and Moderna provide significant protection, and so delaying second doses — as Britain is doing — could allow us to vaccinate more of the population and get to herd immunity faster. There’s also research suggesting that half-doses, or some other fraction, might be plenty to trigger an immune response.

Biden said he will “follow the science,” but that often means following the existing evidence, which is not the same thing. It’s wrong to assume that the dosing protocols that pharmaceutical companies proposed in their rush for authorization are optimal for society’s goals. “They wanted to get this going as soon as possible, so they didn’t explore other doses, and it’s very likely they overdosed the vaccine,” Topol said. There is, of course, a risk in attempting a dosing protocol that didn’t go through Phase 3 trials; perhaps immunity will fade faster, for instance. But holding to the current dosing schedules means a slower vaccination program and more deaths…

In all of this, the same issue recurs: What should regulators do when there’s an idea that might work to save a large number of lives and appears to be safe in early testing but there isn’t time to run large studies? “People say things like, ‘You shouldn’t cut corners,’” Tabarrok told me. “But that’s stupid. Of course you should cut corners when you need to get somewhere fast. Ambulances go through red lights!”

One problem is no one, on either side of this debate, really knows what will and won’t destroy public trust. Britain, which has been one of the most flexible in its approach to vaccines, has less vaccine hesitancy than Germany or the United States. But is that because of regulatory decisions, policy decisions, population characteristics, history, political leadership or some other factor? Scientists and politicians are jointly managing public psychology, and they’re just guessing. If a faster, looser F.D.A. would lose public trust, that’s a good reason not to have a faster, looser F.D.A. But that’s a possibility, not a fact.

10) Damn this excerpt from John Boehner’s new memoir is really, really good.

Besides the homegrown “talent” at Fox, with their choice of guests they were making people who used to be fringe characters into powerful media stars. One of the first prototypes out of their laboratory was a woman named Michele Bachmann.

There was no way she was going to get on Ways and Means, the most prestigious committee in Congress, and jump ahead of everyone else in line. Not while I was Speaker. In earlier days, a member of Congress in her position wouldn’t even have dared ask for something like this. Sam Rayburn would have laughed her out of the city.

So I told her no—diplomatically, of course. But as she kept on talking, it dawned on me. This wasn’t a request of the Speaker of the House. This was a demand.

Her response to me was calm and matter-of-fact. “Well, then I’ll just have to go talk to Sean Hannity and everybody at Fox,” she said, “and Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and everybody else on the radio, and tell them that this is how John Boehner is treating the people who made it possible for the Republicans to take back the House.”

I wasn’t the one with the power, she was saying. I just thought I was. She had the power now.

She was right, of course.

11) One thing I find really interesting, but don’t quite understand, is that viruses don’t just readily evolve to defeat vaccines in the same way that bacteria so readily evolve to defeat antibiotics.  But, that fact is pretty clear.  Not that viruses cannot “escape” vaccines, but it is clearly more difficult and rare than antibiotic resistance.  But so many people just want to default to the antibiotic model.  So, this, “Concerns about SARS-CoV-2 evolution should not hold back efforts to expand vaccination”

When vaccines are in limited supply, expanding the number of people who receive some vaccine, such as by halving doses or increasing the interval between doses, can reduce disease and mortality compared with concentrating available vaccine doses in a subset of the population. A corollary of such dose-sparing strategies is that the vaccinated individuals may have less protective immunity. Concerns have been raised that expanding the fraction of the population with partial immunity to SARS-CoV-2 could increase selection for vaccine-escape variants, ultimately undermining vaccine effectiveness. We argue that, although this is possible, preliminary evidence instead suggests such strategies should slow the rate of viral escape from vaccine or naturally induced immunity. As long as vaccination provides some protection against escape variants, the corresponding reduction in prevalence and incidence should reduce the rate at which new variants are generated and the speed of adaptation. Because there is little evidence of efficient immune selection of SARS-CoV-2 during typical infections, these population-level effects are likely to dominate vaccine-induced evolution.

12) Our over-criminalization of drugs is just a massive, massive policy failure that has destroyed so many lives.  But, that does not mean we want our teenagers taking them, “Teenage Brains May Be Especially Vulnerable to Marijuana and Other Drugs: Teenagers are more likely to get hooked on marijuana, stimulants and other recreational drugs than college-aged or older adults.”

13) I don’t quite understand the policy failure behind our internet prices, but it clearly is a policy failure:

Internet Costs Amongst OECD Countries

14) I thought Larry Brilliant was too negative in parts of this interview, but, lots of interesting takes:

If you have half the population vaccinated, can we still have an incredibly destructive spike?

Of course. We’re all customers for the virus. There’s no wall that will keep the virus out. Think about the pandemic in year three or four. There will still be billions of people unvaccinated. Billions of people will harbor billions of viruses. Each one will be replicating. A certain percentage will mutate. A certain percent will become variants of those variants—some will be of high concern, and a percentage will be fucking nightmarish.

See, that “incredibly destructive” and “nightmarish” just doesn’t comport with my broader reading.  But, like I said, lots of good stuff:

Well, I’m listening to you, Larry, and I’m thinking I might never see a Broadway show again. And if I go to a baseball game in five years, I’ll be wearing a mask.

That’s an overreaction. I’m saying that, because it’s a probability that we will never reach herd immunity, there will be places in the world and in the animal population that could produce variants that could continually reinfect us. Let’s plan for it and put aside enough vaccine, and enough money, so that we can find outbreaks quickly, respond to them just in time with the right vaccine, and keep outbreaks contained. I’m very optimistic about that. In the Cares Act, there’s money to pay people to be vaccinated, to be isolated, to give them food and to give them shelter. I think you’ll be able to go to a Broadway show. And I think baseball will happen again, not so much because people are vaccinated, although that’s critically important. Point-of-care diagnostics is also part of that. A year from now there will be $5, five-minute, at-home spit tests that are 100 percent accurate, and you can do one in the morning before you brush your teeth…

And we will be able to deliver specialized versions of the vaccine optimized to fight specific strains?

Our ability to do viral sequencing at low cost, speed, and scale is as astounding as our ability to deliver a brand-new-technology vaccine in a year. It’s the public health equivalent of personalized medicine, and we could do that. We have the just-in-time vaccine manufacturing now, and we have the just-in-time vaccine delivery. Now we need a just-in-time way to find the cases of tomorrow. We have to vaccinate where the virus will go. Also, let’s get a vaccine that works faster. And by the way, give it to me in a nasal spray. Because we’re Americans and we’re shitty at public health, we have to do things in a frictionless way.

15) Thoughtful stuff from Alex Tabarrok on new research showing that misdemeanor prosecutions lead to more crime:

Misdemeanor Prosecution (NBER) (ungated) is a new, blockbuster paper by Agan, Doleac and Harvey (ADH). Misdemeanor crimes are lesser crimes than felonies and typically carry a potential jail term of less than one year. Examples of  misdemeanors include petty theft/shoplifting, prostitution, public intoxication, simple assault, disorderly conduct, trespass, vandalism, reckless driving, indecent exposure, and various drug crimes such as possession. Eighty percent of all criminal justice cases, some 13 million cases a year, are misdemeanors. ADH look at what happens to subsequent criminal behavior when misdemeanor cases are prosecuted versus non-prosecuted. Of course, the prosecuted differ from the non-prosecuted so we need to find situations where for random reasons comparable people are prosecuted and non-prosecuted. Not surprisingly some Assistant District Attorneys (ADAs) are more lenient than others when it comes to prosecuting misdemeanors. ADH use the random assignment of ADAs to a case to tease out the impact of prosecution–essentially finding two similar individuals one of whom got lucky and was assigned a lenient ADA and the other of whom got unlucky and was assigned a less lenient ADA.

We leverage the as-if random assignment of nonviolent misdemeanor cases to Assistant District Attorneys (ADAs) who decide whether a case should move forward with prosecution in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts.These ADAs vary in the average leniency of their prosecution decisions. We find that,for the marginal defendant, nonprosecution of a nonviolent misdemeanor offense leads to large reductions in the likelihood of a new criminal complaint over the next two years.These local average treatment effects are largest for first-time defendants, suggesting that averting initial entry into the criminal justice system has the greatest benefits.

… We find that the marginal nonprosecuted misdemeanor defendant is 33 percentage points less likely to be issued a new criminal complaint within two years post-arraignment (58% less than the mean for complier” defendants who are prosecuted; p 0.01). We find that nonprosecution reduces the likelihood of a new misdemeanor complaint by 24 percentage points (60%; p 0.01), and reduces the likelihood of a new felony complaint by 8 percentage points (47%; not significant). Nonprosecution reduces the number of subsequent criminal complaints by 2.1 complaints (69%; p .01); the number of subsequent misdemeanor complaints by 1.2 complaints (67%; p .01), and the number of subsequent felony complaints by 0.7 complaints (75%; p .05). We see significant reductions in subsequent criminal complaints for violent, disorderly conduct/theft, and motor vehicle offenses.

Did you get that? On a wide variety of margins, prosecution leads to more subsequent criminal behavior. How can this be? [emphases mine]

We consider possible causal mechanisms that could be generating our findings. Cases that are not prosecuted by definition are closed on the day of arraignment. By contrast, the average time to disposition for prosecuted nonviolent misdemeanor cases in our sample is 185 days. This time spent in the criminal justice system may disrupt defendants’ work and family lives. Cases that are not prosecuted also by definition do not result in convictions, but 26% of prosecuted nonviolent misdemeanor cases in our sample result in a conviction. Criminal records of misdemeanor convictions may decrease defendants’ labor market prospects and increase their likelihoods of future prosecution and criminal record acquisition, conditional on future arrest. Finally, cases that are not prosecuted are at much lower risk of resulting in a criminal record of the complaint in the statewide criminal records system. We find that nonprosecution reduces the probability that a defendant will receive a criminal record of that nonviolent misdemeanor complaint by 55 percentage points (56%, p .01). Criminal records of misdemeanor arrests may also damage defendants’ labor market prospects and increase their likelihoods of future prosecution and criminal record acquisition, conditional on future arrest. All three of these mechanisms may be contributing to the large reductions in subsequent criminal justice involvement following nonprosecution…

The policy study is a short-term study so we don’t know what happens if the rule is changed permanently but nevertheless this is good evidence that punishment can be criminogenic. I am uncomfortable, however, with thinking about non-prosecution as the choice variable, even on the margin. Crime should be punished. Becker wasn’t wrong about that. We need to ask more deeply, what is it about prosecution that increases subsequent criminal behavior? Could we do better by speeding up trials (a constitutional right that is often ignored!)–i.e. short, sharp punishment such as community service on the weekend? Is it time to to think about punishments that don’t require time off work? What about more diversion to programs that do not result in a criminal record? More generally, people accused and convicted of crimes ought to find help and acceptance in re-assimilating to civilized society. It’s crazy–not just wrong but counter-productive–that we make it difficult for people with a criminal record to get a job and access various medical and housing benefits.

The authors are too sophisticated to advocate for non-prosecution as a policy but it fits with the “defund the police,” and “end cash bail” movements. I worry, however, that after the tremendous gains of the 1990s we will let the pendulum swing back too far. A lot of what counts as cutting-edge crime policy today is simply the mood affiliation of a group of people who have no recollection of crime in the 1970s and 1980s. The great forgetting. It’s welcome news that we might be on the wrong side of the punishment Laffer curve and so can reduce punishment and crime at the same time. But it’s a huge mistake to think that the low levels of crime in the last two decades are a permanent features of the American landscape. We could lose it all in a mistaken fit of moralistic naivete.

16) Jamelle Bouie, “The G.O.P. Has Some Voters It Likes and Some It Doesn’t: This is what happens when a political party turns against democracy.”

Looming in the background of this “reform” is Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s conflict with Donald Trump, who pressured him to subvert the election and deliver Trump a victory. What won Raffensperger praise and admiration from Democrats and mainstream observers has apparently doomed his prospects within the Republican Party, where “stop the steal” is dogma and Trump is still the rightful president to many. It is not even clear that Raffensperger will hold office after his term ends in 2023; he must fight off a primary challenge next year from Representative Jody Hice of Georgia’s 10th Congressional District, an outspoken defender of Trump’s attempt to overturn the election.

In other words, Republicans are using the former president’s failed attempt to overturn the election as a guide to how you would change the system to make it possible. In Georgia, as we’ve seen, that means stripping power from an unreliable partisan and giving it, in effect, to the party itself. In Pennsylvania, where a state Supreme Court with a Democratic majority unanimously rejected a Republican lawsuit claiming that universal mail-in balloting was unconstitutional, it means working to end statewide election of justices, essentially gerrymandering the court. In Nebraska, which Republicans won, it means changing the way the state distributes its electoral votes, from a district-based system in which Democrats have a chance to win one potentially critical vote, as Joe Biden and Barack Obama did, to winner-take-all…
This fact pattern underscores a larger truth: The Republican Party is driving the nation’s democratic decline. A recent paper by Jacob M. Grumbach, a political scientist at the University of Washington, makes this plain. Using a new measure of state-level democratic performance in the United States from 2000 to 2018, Grumbach finds that Republican control of state government “consistently and profoundly reduces state democratic performance during this time period.” The nationalization of American politics and the coordination of parties across states means that “state governments controlled by the same party behave similarly when they take power.” Republican-controlled governments in states as different as Alabama and Wisconsin have “taken similar actions with respect to democratic institutions.”

17) N&O on the local edition of this madness, “The GOP’s feverish hunt for NC election fraud uncovers a shocking result – clean elections”

The Republican Party’s hysteria about alleged voter fraud was on full display in North Carolina last week.

It was as baseless as ever, but this time it had the added dimensions of wasted tax dollars and the browbeating of an elections official who has served the state and democracy well.

The first display was the outcome of a voter fraud investigation led by Robert Higdon when he was U.S attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Higdon, a President Trump appointee, went hunting for the GOP’s great white whale of voter fraud and returned years later with a basket of minnows. He resigned in February after President Joe Biden asked Trump-appointed U.S. attorneys to step down as part of the switch in administrations.

The probe, which focused on voting by noncitizens, became public just before the 2018 election. It was easy to notice. The U.S. Attorney’s Office served subpoenas on the State Board of Elections, county election boards and the Department of Motor Vehicles, effectively seeking records on every registered voter in the state.

The State Board of Elections – then controlled by Republican appointees, no less – objected to the vast and invasive request. State attorneys representing the board told the court in a 2019 filing that, “The all-encompassing, ‘dragnet’ nature of the subpoenas would impose extraordinary burdens on the state and county boards.” Cost of compliance, they said, would mean producing more than 15 million documents and cost the state millions of dollars…

In response, the subpoenas were narrowed to records relating to more than 700 voters the State Board of Elections had flagged earlier as potential noncitizen voters. The court struggle went back and forth between the state and the U.S. attorney.

In the end, little was uncovered, and most of the wrongful voting was done inadvertently by immigrants who didn’t know they were barred from voting. The news report on the probe’s findings, written jointly by The News & Observer’s Tyler Dukes and WRAL’s Travis Fain, said the effort initiated by the U.S. Attorney “resulted in a range of charges related to immigration, registration and election rules against about 70 people. More than 40 of them were accused of casting ballots illegally.”

That’s out of more than 4.7 million votes cast in 2016.

Pat Gannon, spokesman for the State Board of Elections, gave the proper epitaph for the years-long hunt for North Carolina’s share of what former President Trump had said were “millions” of votes cast by illegal immigrants in 2016. Gannon said Friday, “There is no evidence whatsoever of any type of widespread election fraud in North Carolina.”

18) Good chance you haven’t heard of Alex Berenson, but, damn is this guy one grade A quality conservative grifter.  So successfully played his “former NYT reporter” credential into being a Fox/right-wing blusterer, but he’s just so full of BS.  Derek Thompson takes down his Covid misinformation campaign.

19) Nice Guardian feature on how the Ever Given was ultimately freed.  The key?  Seagoing tugs far more powerful than the regular canal tugs.  

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