Perverse incentives lead to perverse outcomes: unethical prosecutors edition

What of the great failings of our criminal justice system is that we give prosecutors absolutely massive power over people’s live, but expect virtually no accountability from prosecutors in using that power responsibly.  Put someone away, wrongly, for life, based on malfeasance, and maybe, just maybe you’ll lose your job.  More likely, just some sort of administrative slap on the wrist. 

So, the reality is that we give prosecutors huge incentives to act perversely.  Like it or not, the reality is that they are rewarded for successful convictions, not justice.  Meanwhile, there is very low risk of punishment and very limited punishment for malfeasance in the pursuit of convictions (even of the innocent), over justice.  So, ultimately then, we are relying on the innate goodness of prosecutors in the face of a system of all the wrong incentives.  Rarely does that work out well.  Great NYT Editorial on this significant problem: “How Can You Destroy a Person’s Life and Only Get a Slap on the Wrist?”

Prosecutors are among the most powerful players in the criminal justice system. They can send a defendant off to years in prison, or even to death row. Most wield this power honorably. Yet, when prosecutors don’t, they rarely pay a price, even for repeated and egregious misconduct that puts innocent people behind bars.

Why? Because they are protected by layers of silence and secrecy that are written into local, state and federal policy, shielding them from any real accountability for wrongdoing.

New York City offers a prime example of a problem endemic to the nation. Consider the city’s official reaction to the barrelful of misconduct in Queens that a group of law professors recently brought to light. As The Times reported last month, the professors filed grievances against 21 prosecutors in the borough — for everything from lying in open court to withholding key evidence from the defense — and then posted those grievances to a public website.

These weren’t close calls. In every instance an appeals court had made a finding of prosecutorial misconduct; in many cases the misconduct was so severe that it required overturning a guilty verdict and releasing someone from prison. Three men wrongfully convicted of a 1996 murder were exonerated after 24 years behind bars. But that rectified only the most glaring injustice. To date, none of the prosecutors have faced any public consequences. Some are still working.

How did the city respond to this litany of widespread misconduct by its own agents? It went after the professors who publicized it…

Meanwhile, the few attempts to increase oversight of New York prosecutors have been stymied. A 2018 law established a commission specifically to deal with prosecutorial misconduct in a more independent and transparent way. But the state district attorneys’ association challenged it and a court struck it down as unconstitutional. Lawmakers designed a new commission this year, but it appears that no commissioners have yet been appointed to it.

New York’s prosecutor-protection racket is, alas, far from unique. In Washington, the Justice Department aggressively shields its own prosecutors from outside accountability thanks to a 1988 law that lets the agency essentially police itself. All other federal agencies — and even parts of the Justice Department, like the F.B.I. and the Drug Enforcement Administration — are subject to oversight by independent inspectors general, who conduct thorough investigations and issue lengthy reports with their findings. Federal prosecutors skate by on an internal review process that is run out of the Office of Professional Responsibility, whose head is appointed by, and reports directly to, the attorney general. The office almost never makes its findings public, and when it does it often provides only a brief summary months after the fact. In the words of one legal-ethics expert, it’s a “black hole.” (By contrast, the inspector general’s office of the Justice Department just released its semiannual report, as it is required to do by law, detailing the 52 reports it issued between April and September of this year, as well as the closing of investigations that resulted in 68 convictions or guilty pleas and 66 firings, resignations or disciplinary actions.)…

Prosecutors can work in the interests of fairness and justice, but they can also cheat and destroy people’s lives. They should be held accountable when they do — both to vindicate their victims and to help ensure that they can’t do it again.

Sure, sometimes there really are honest mistakes.  But when you look at case after case of the horrible miscarriages of justice that result in exonerations, so often there’s malfeasance behind it.  And pretty much never does the prosecutor face any genuine accountability for willfully ruining someone’s life.  Welcome to America?

And, as long as we’re on the awfulness of America’s Criminal “Justice” system, great take from David Leonhardt yesterday, “Good morning. Should wrongfully convicted people falsely admit guilt to win parole?”

A terrible Catch-22

Jeffrey Clark and Garr Keith Hardin were the victims of an unjust murder prosecution near Louisville, Ky., during the mid-1990s.

A jailhouse informant made up a story about one of them confessing. The police did not pursue a lead involving an actual confession to the murder. A dishonest detective — Mark Handy, later discovered to have fabricated evidence — testified against Clark and Hardin. And the prosecutor misled the jury about a fingerprint and a hair sample at the crime scene.

The jury convicted the two men, then both in their early 20s, and they were sentenced to life in prison. They would spend more than 20 years there before lawyers for the Innocence Project helped win their release, based on DNA evidence and the exposure of the detective’s dishonesty.

At that point, you might have expected the criminal justice system to apologize to the two men and leave them alone. Instead, prosecutors announced plans to try them again for the murder — and even added a perjury charge against Clark. Why? Partly because, in an attempt to win parole while in prison, Clark had decided to admit to the murder and express remorse.

Parole hearings create a terrible Catch-22 for wrongfully convicted people. If they admit guilt, they can undermine any attempt to overturn their conviction. If they continue to assert their innocence, they can doom their best chance at freedom — parole — because parole applications effectively require statements of remorse.

The sad truth is that so much of criminal justice in America is just a moral abomination.  On the bright side, at least more and more people are increasingly aware of just how much of a problem this is. 

Just how expensive is gas anyway?

One of my frustrations when people freak out about gas prices is that historical comparisons almost always seem to be in nominal dollars.  But in inflation-adjusted dollars, gas is cheap!  I was complaining about this to an Economist friend, who sent me this great post.  Not only does it place gas prices in real dollars, there’s lots of other interesting ways to think about gas prices that show just how affordable it is.  Honestly, too affordable– unpriced externalities, baby!  Anyway, here’s gas in real dollars:

But, also, some other cool ways to think about gas prices:

Anyway, my economist friend and I were discussing the political impact of gas prices and he hypothesized that the negative effects are likely more from rapid increase in nominal price, more than the actual price.  Interesting idea that I suspect is substantially true.  

Viruses don’t mutate to be less deadly; they mutate to be more contagious

So, I read this article, “Omicron possibly more infectious because it shares genetic code with common cold coronavirus, study says”  today, and thought…”interesting…” 

Sure, we shouldn’t expect more than a preprint at this point, but, seems like the journalist could at least find some voices who might bring some reasonable skepticism of the flashy claims.  But… nope. What really pulled me up short was this:

As a virus evolves to become more transmissible, it generally “loses” traits that are likely to cause severe symptoms, Soundararajan said. But he noted that much more data and analysis of omicron was needed before a definitive determination could be made, adding that unequal distribution of vaccines globally could lead to further mutations of the coronavirus.

Was pretty damn sure I definitely had read otherwise on multiple occasions from two of the best epidemiologists on twitter, and indeed…

You should read the whole thread from Bergstrom, but here’s the key part:

As for that Post article, my virologist friend had this to say, “Not impossible, but they are basing their conclusions on 3 amino acids. It gross over interpretation of the data.”

But, anyway, on the larger point.  There is, obviously, huge selection pressure to become more contagious.  That’s absolutely natural selection in action.  But, for the most part, there’s no selection pressure to be more or less deadly.  What happens there, as I understand it, is almost just an unintended side effect one way or the other from evolving to be more contagious.  A super-deadly disease has reason to evolve to be less deadly as it can burn out and lose hosts to spread.  But for a disease with an infection fatality rate in the low single digits at best, there’s just no evolutionary pressure to evolve to be less deadly.  Now, again, it just might happen– and that would be awesome– but there’s no reason to expect that it will.  Though interestingly, a lot of people in the medical field seem to not understand this really key point.  

 

Quick hits (part II)

1) There’s quite the consensus from the public health establishment that travel bans in the face of Omicron are bad.  Thus, interesting for Zeynep to suggest otherwise:

The United States, the European Union and many nations have already announced travel bans on several African countries. Such restrictions can buy time, even if the variant has started to spread, but only if they are implemented in a smart way along with other measures, not as pandemic theatrics.

The travel ban from several southern African countries announced by President Biden on Friday exempts American citizens and permanent residents, other than requiring them to be tested. But containment needs to target the pathogen, not the passports. As a precaution, travel should be restricted for both foreign nationals and U.S. citizens from countries where the variant is known to be spreading more widely until we have more clarity.

We need stricter testing regimens involving several tests over time and even quarantine requirements for all travelers according to the incubation period determined by epidemiological data. We also need more intensive and widespread testing and tracing to cut off the spread of the variant. This means finally getting the sort of mass testing program that the United States has avoided and which has been part of successful responses to Covid in other countries.

If we aren’t willing to do all that, there is little point in a blanket ban on a few nationalities.

The reason we can even discuss such early, vigorous, responsible attacks on Omicron is that South African scientists and medical workers realized it was a danger within three weeks of its detection, and their government acted like a good global citizen by notifying the world. They should not be punished for their honest and impressive actions. The United States and other richer countries should provide them with resources to combat their own outbreak — it’s the least we can do.

The U.S. government should also be clear about when and by which benchmarks these restrictions will be modified. Travel bans can remain in place too long because they become more a matter of political signaling than public health.

2) And a good look at travel bans in this New Yorker article:

In general, Markel said, when testing was available it allowed public-health authorities to follow the medical imperative “Don’t use a bazooka when a BB gun will do.” But, in the first phase of the coronavirus pandemic, many countries opted for the bazooka. Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand all imposed severe travel restrictions, in many cases pairing them with aggressive contact tracing and testing regimes. The economic, social, and political costs of these policies could be extreme: Australia closed its borders to all non-residents, and some Australians living abroad faced fines or prison time if they tried to return home. New Zealand shut out even those foreign nationals married to New Zealand citizens. As a public-health measure, though, these restrictions appear to have been effective. In Taiwan, fewer than nine hundred people have died of covid-19. Japan’s population is thirty-seven per cent that of the United States, yet it has had 2.3 per cent of the deaths. Australia, a vast country of twenty-six million people, has had just over two thousand deaths from covid. In New Zealand, just forty-four people have died.

This week, as many countries began to impose new travel rules in response to Omicron, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, asked them to refrain from the most restrictive versions. “Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread of Omicron, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” he said on Wednesday. But that is at least somewhat contradicted by the experience of the Pacific Rim countries during the pandemic. Peter Baldwin, a historian at U.C.L.A. who last year published a book on the first wave of global response to the pandemic, said, of the W.H.O.’s position, “I just do not get this logic because the travel bans, it seems to me, have proven that they’re quite effective.” Of course, no travel ban, Baldwin added, was airtight. “It doesn’t hermetically seal a country off—some virus will sneak in for sure—but they still managed to get a grip on the problem in a way that the countries that don’t do it, don’t.” The choice about whether to institute travel bans would be easy if they did not ever work—the humanitarian position of maintaining open borders would also be the prudent one. But in this pandemic, that hasn’t seemed exactly the case. Baldwin said, “It’s a political decision on W.H.O.’s part to not advocate travel restrictions, and you can see that because most countries totally ignore it.”

My take: there’s clearly some very real negatives to travel bans which might well outweigh the positives of just buying a few weeks.  But, I don’t love the whole public health community defaulting to a “travel bans are bad and don’t work” when it’s really not that simple.

3) Good free Yglesias post, “Omicron is a reminder of how little we’re doing on pandemic prevention”

“Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics”

I took a class in college called “War” taught by an eccentric right-winger with an old-fashioned affection for pure military history. He liked to say that “amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics.”1

And we’ve seen this again and again during the pandemic.

The creation of the mRNA vaccines on a record timeline was a scientific miracle. But actually manufacturing and distributing these vaccines at a massive scale was an enormous challenge. You hear a lot about patent protection from left-wing types, but I think that’s a case of starting with a general view (patent protections for medications are bad for poor countries) and then strong-arming it to apply to a case where it doesn’t really fit. The signature symptom of an IP-induced deadweight loss is that the product is available, but poor people can’t get it because the market price is too high. That was the situation with AIDS medications in the late-1990s, and it’s a very real issue in the world. But mRNA vaccines are genuinely scarce. It’s not a fake scarcity where if Malawi would just fork over some more cash they’d get more vaccines. Poorer countries ended up at the back of the line because they are poor, but the line exists because there aren’t enough doses.

That’s also the source of the raging controversy in the public health community about booster shots. Because the doses are genuinely scarce, every booster shot that goes into the arms of a non-elderly westerner can be seen as depriving a person in a poor country of their first dose.

We need much more focus on and investment in actually increasing vaccine throughput. Not just to address Covid-19, but to address future illnesses. We want enough infrastructure in place that we can start churning out a billion doses of any new vaccine within a month. There may well be an intellectual property reform component to that, but getting to the good place here involves making the vaccine manufacturing business more profitable rather than less.

We need huge amounts of excess capacity in vaccine manufacturing, and someone has to pay for that. You could do it with explicit subsidy or you could do it with windfall profits when the vaccines are needed. But right now, on both vaccines and antivirals, we just can’t make them quickly enough to unlock the full potential of the underlying science, and it would be worth spending tons of money to be able to do so. For context, Pfizer is anticipating about 36 billion in vaccine revenue in 2021If handing them 10 times that revenue made it possible to triple vaccine production, it would be money well spent…

Build the supervaccine

If you want an even less generous assessment of the CDC, I really recommend Noah Smith’s interview with Dr. Eric Topol in which he puts forward the theory that CDC reluctance to recommend booster shots wasn’t about vaccine equity at all.

Instead, Topol thinks it was just parochialism: the CDC didn’t want to recommend action based on Israeli data, so it waited for American data, which meant waiting for Delta to spread far and wide. I hope he is wrong because that is frankly a very stupid reason.

But in the most important part of the interview, Topol talks about how his lab and several others are working on a candidate vaccine that would offer protection against all coronaviruses. Not just all variants of SARS-Cov-2, but SARS and MERS and HCoV-OC43 and future animal coronaviruses that could make the jump to infect humans. Science did a good overview of this research program back in the spring, including the upsetting fact that the NIAID doomed a 2017 similar grant proposal purely on the grounds that “the significance for developing a pan-coronavirus vaccine may not be high.”

Of course it’s easy to see the significance now, but this ought to be the kind of major research priority that requires congressional legislation, not just smarter NIAID grantmaking. Huge sums of money should be made available through the normal NIAID channel and a whole other DARPA-for-biodefense channel and a third channel that’s just prizes or whatever. It’s a huge deal!

But we ought to be thinking even bigger. While coronaviruses are hot right now, there are only 26 virus families, and we ought to be funding research programs to target the other 25 families as well. We should also claim to believe that over and above the inherent virtues of supervaccines, they are a huge prestige project where success will help us defeat the Chinese. Hopefully, that will inspire the Chinese to invest in their own supervaccine programs. And then maybe Japan and Korea get in the game.

I don’t necessarily want to disparage Build Back Better’s aspiration to spend $150 billion on reducing waiting times for in-home rather than institutional care services for the elderly and disabled. But I’d rather spend $150 billion on supervaccines if I had the choice.

4) Love this from Paul Waldman, “It’s time to say it: The conservatives on the Supreme Court lied to us all”

They lied.

Yes, I’m talking about the conservative justices on the Supreme Court, and the abortion rights those justices have now made clear they will eviscerate.

They weren’t just evasive, or vague, or deceptive. They lied. They lied to Congress and to the country, claiming they either had no opinions at all about abortion, or that their beliefs were simply irrelevant to how they would rule. They would be wise and pure, unsullied by crass policy preferences, offering impeccably objective readings of the Constitution.

It. Was. A. Lie.

We went through the same routine in the confirmation hearings of every one of those justices. When Democrats tried to get them to state plainly their views on Roe v. Wade, they took two approaches. Some tried to convince everyone that they would leave it untouched. Others, those already on record proclaiming opposition to abortion rights, suggested they had undergone a kind of intellectual factory reset enabling them to assess the question anew with an unspoiled mind, one concerned only with the law.

Unfortunately, that lie was and is still enabled by the news media. Even in the face of what we saw at the court on Wednesday — when at least five of the six conservatives made clear their intention to overturn Roe — press accounts continued offering euphemisms and weasel words, about “inconsistencies” or “contradictions.”

But sometimes the right puts its purposes in the open. There was a particularly striking exchange between Laura Ingraham and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) on Fox News, where Ingraham grew inexplicably enraged over the mere possibility that Roe might not be overturned.

“If we have six Republican appointees on this court,” she said, “after all the money that’s been raised, the Federalist Society, all these big fat-cat dinners — I’m sorry, I’m pissed about this — if this court with six justices cannot do the right thing here,” then Republicans should “blow it up” and pass some kind of law limiting the court’s authority.

In other words: We bought this court, and we’d better get what we paid for.

5) Bernstein on the electoral implications of overturning Roe:

As far as the 2022 elections are concerned, the conventional wisdom is that those who would be losing in court — abortion-rights supporters — would be more energized, all else equal. How much will that mitigate the energizing effects of policy loss among Republicans after two years of unified Democratic government? My guess is that the plausible answers range from “some” to “just a little.” As far as voting is concerned, most of those who care strongly about abortion are already sorted to the corresponding parties, so I wouldn’t expect much of a short-run shift.

But that doesn’t mean there will be no effects at all. For one thing, abortion is about to become a much more significant policy issue in state and national elections. Yes, candidates have run on the issue up to now, and state legislatures have acted on it. But even though some of the laws that survived court scrutiny did have significant effects, there was always a sense that the campaign talk amounted to shadow-boxing, since there were severe limits on what any politician could actually accomplish. That will change.

There may also be real possibilities for change within each party’s coalition. On the Republican side, it’s possible that we’ll eventually get some demobilization of single-issue party actors — but it’s also possible that continued fighting at the state and national level could energize those voters further. It’s unknown whether overturning other court decisions on social issues, from contraception to marriage and more, will generate the same politics within the party that abortion has.

On the Democratic side, the effects seem easier to predict. Over the past few years, as women have become more central to the party coalition, so have the policy questions they care about. It sure seems like the demise of abortion rights would only accelerate that trend while providing common ground for various different groups of women within the party. (There are plenty of women who strongly oppose abortion rights or are relatively indifferent, but among Democratic party actors there’s a pretty united front, and if anything the court’s decision should solidify that consensus.)

In the long run, we’ll see how decreased access to abortion will shift public views, as people begin to see stories in the media — and examples within their own lives — of the effects of new restrictions. For 50 years, those stories have mostly dropped out of the national conversation. Meanwhile, I don’t see any particular reason to expect an increase in either media stories or personal experiences sympathizing with the other side — we shouldn’t see an increase, for example, in stories about women who regret abortions, but we could see more women harmed from illegal procedures. Over time that might change things significantly, and could have unpredictable effects on voting coalitions and on the parties themselves. But whether that will actually happen? There’s no real way to know.

6) Humidify, baby!! “Indoor humidity levels and associations with reported symptoms in office buildings”

Abstract

Moderate indoor relative humidity (RH) levels (i.e., 40%–60%) may minimize transmission and viability of some viruses, maximize human immune function, and minimize health risks from mold, yet uncertainties exist about typical RH levels in offices globally and about the potential independent impacts of RH levels on workers’ health. To examine this, we leveraged one year of indoor RH measurements (which study participants could view in real time) in 43 office buildings in China, India, Mexico, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and corresponding self-report symptom data from 227 office workers in a subset of 32 buildings. In the buildings in this study, 42% of measurements during 9:00 – 17:00 on weekdays were less than 40% RH and 7% exceeded 60% RH. Indoor RH levels tended to be lower in less tropical regions, in winter months, when outdoor RH or temperature was low, and late in the workday. Furthermore, we also found statistically significant evidence that higher indoor RH levels across the range of 14%-70% RH were associated with lower odds of reporting dryness or irritation of the throat and skin among females and unusual fatigue among males in models adjusted for indoor temperature, country, and day of year.

7) I saw a poll saying half of Americans are feeling hardship over higher prices.  Complete BS, I thought.  Drum not just thought that, but wrote a post:

The Washington Post summarizes the results of a new Gallup poll today:

As prices creep higher for food, gasoline and other necessities, nearly half of U.S. households say they are feeling the financial strain, according to a Gallup survey released Thursday.

Roughly 45 percent of households are being hurt by price increases, according to a survey of nearly 1,600 people conducted Nov. 3 to Nov. 16. About 1 in 10 said that hardship was severe enough to affect their standard of living, while 35 percent described the hardship as “moderate.”

I don’t want to be in the business of telling other people how to feel, but this is crazy. Here are pay and prices since the beginning of the year:

As a God-fearing liberal, I am always unhappy when pay falls behind inflation. I want to see working and middle-class folks making more money, not less. That said, a net decline in spending power of 2% just isn’t enough to cause very much hardship for anyone who wasn’t feeling it already. These poll results make no sense.

Now, obviously this is a bell curve, and some people are feeling inflation worse than others. It all depends on what you buy a lot of. But the number of families facing any noticeable hardship has still got to be tiny.

This is the kind of thing that should make us question the role of the media in all this. Please note: I’m not saying that no one would notice higher prices if the media didn’t report it. The price of both a pound of hamburger and a gallon of gasoline have gone up 50 cents since May, and that’s something people are going to notice. Nevertheless, the media’s job should be to put highly visible price increases like this into context—and in this case the context is that there are some outliers, but on average prices have gone up only slightly more than wages.

But it’s been just the opposite. If anything, reporting has made inflation look worse than even the outliers suggest. This is why you get people vaguely guessing that prices in the supermarket have gone up 100% or so. And it’s why people report serious hardship from inflation even though the vast majority of us are feeling only a tiny effect.

8) Just let your young kids watch screens and chill! Melinda Wenner Moyer,

There’s another good reason for us to stop berating ourselves about screen time, too: The research really does not back up all the alarmist claims we see in the media. Yesterday I spoke with a psychologist and parent I very much respect who had just finished reading my book, and she said that the chapter that made the biggest impact on her was my chapter on screen time — it was quite reassuring, she said.

So because it’s Friday, and Omicron is stressing us all out again, I’m going to share some of my research on screen time so that you have one less thing to worry about this weekend. (And if you want to read more, including tips on how to help kids develop good relationships with technology and social media, read my book!)…

So What Can We Conclude?

On average, the size of possible screen effects on kids appears quite small — perhaps even too small to be meaningful. In a study published in January 2019, Orben and Przybylski analyzed data involving more than 350,000 adolescents. They found that digital technology use is associated with only 0.4 percent of the overall variation known to exist in adolescent well-being — meaning that kids who use screens a lot are, on average, only very slightly different on measures of well-being compared with kids who rarely use screens.

In fact, when Orben and Przybylski compared the association between screen time and well-being with other things, they got amusing results. They found, for instance, that screens are linked with decreases in well-being that are about the same size as the decreases in well-being associated with eating potatoes, and that wearing glasses is linked with even bigger well-being drops.

In other words, when people argue that screens ruin kids’ brains, they should also know that eating potatoes and wearing glasses are potentially just as dangerous — the size of the possible effect is about the same. Now, importantly, we’re talking about average effects — so screens could be particularly harmful or helpful for certain kids, and again, the impact almost certainly depends on the content and the context.

In a way, from what we know about how different kids can be from one another and how broad and heterogeneous the term “screen time”is, parents, not scientists, are probably the best equipped to assess how screens affect their kids — because the impact largely depends on details that parents know best. Parents are also the best equipped to tell if their kids are becoming anxious or depressed, at which point they can investigate whether screen use or social media might be a cause.

All these same limitations, by the way, apply to research investigating the link between violent video games and aggression. Studies do suggest that kids who play more violent video games are more aggressive — but we don’t really know what that means yet.

9) So, so stupid for Biden to have a plan where you can file for a reimbursement with your health insurance for at-home Covid tests.  What a pain in the ass!  Just make them cheap already!

10) A fascinating issue, where I don’t’ think there’s a clearly easy/correct answer, for our increasingly gender fluid world, “Who belongs at a women’s college in 2021? Students want admissions policies to change”

11) Nice to know these are the people running my state, “As a leading UNC epidemiologist reiterates the benefits of vaccination, conservative legislators push for Ivermectin

12) This was pretty fascinating to me, “The Teenagers Getting Six Figures to Leave Their High Schools for Basketball: The new pro league Overtime Elite is luring young phenoms with hefty salaries, viral success and — perhaps — a better path to the N.B.A.” And let’s be honest, in plenty of other elite sports teenagers forgo a normal childhood and high school life to focus completely on becoming a professional in their sport.  Why not basketball?

13) This is cool, “An AI Finds Superbug-Killing Potential in Human Proteins: A team scoured the human proteome for antimicrobial molecules and found thousands, plus a surprise about how animals evolved to fight infections.”

The team tested 55 of those candidates in tiny vials, and a majority of them eliminated bacteria. Then, Torres tested two of them in lab mice and found that they stopped infections from growing. “The results are compelling,” says Daria Van Tyne, an expert in bacterial evolution at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, who was not involved in the work. “It’s certainly opening a new class of antimicrobial peptides, and finding them in an unexpected place.”

This is the first time anyone has so thoroughly explored the human body for antibiotic candidates. But in using AI to guide the search, the team stumbled upon a mind-bending discovery of something more basic: Many of our proteins that are seemingly unrelated to immunity may have evolved to live double lives as protection against invaders. “The fact that they found so many of them,” Van Tyne says of the peptides, “suggests very strongly that it’s not just coincidence—that they exist for a purpose.”

14) Apparently you can get married to make college loans way more affordable.  Who knew?  Apparently, some college students.

15) The human brain is pretty awesome, “Your Brain Is an Energy-Efficient ‘Prediction Machine’: Results from neural networks support the idea that brains use predictions to create perceptions—and that they work that way to conserve power.” 

HOW OUR BRAIN, a three-pound mass of tissue encased within a bony skull, creates perceptions from sensations is a long-standing mystery. Abundant evidence and decades of sustained research suggest that the brain cannot simply be assembling sensory information, as though it were putting together a jigsaw puzzle, to perceive its surroundings. This is borne out by the fact that the brain can construct a scene based on the light entering our eyes, even when the incoming information is noisy and ambiguous.

Consequently, many neuroscientists are pivoting to a view of the brain as a “prediction machine.” Through predictive processing, the brain uses its prior knowledge of the world to make inferences or generate hypotheses about the causes of incoming sensory information. Those hypotheses—and not the sensory inputs themselves—give rise to perceptions in our mind’s eye. The more ambiguous the input, the greater the reliance on prior knowledge.

“The beauty of the predictive processing framework [is] that it has a really large—sometimes critics might say too large—capacity to explain a lot of different phenomena in many different systems,” said Floris de Lange, a neuroscientist at the Predictive Brain Lab of Radboud University in the Netherlands.

However, the growing neuroscientific evidence for this idea has been mainly circumstantial and is open to alternative explanations. “If you look into cognitive neuroscience and neuro-imaging in humans, [there’s] a lot of evidence—but super-implicit, indirect evidence,” said Tim Kietzmann of Radboud University, whose research lies in the interdisciplinary area of machine learning and neuroscience.

So researchers are turning to computational models to understand and test the idea of the predictive brain. Computational neuroscientists have built artificial neural networks, with designs inspired by the behavior of biological neurons, that learn to make predictions about incoming information. These models show some uncanny abilities that seem to mimic those of real brains. Some experiments with these models even hint that brains had to evolve as prediction machines to satisfy energy constraints.

And as computational models proliferate, neuroscientists studying live animals are also becoming more convinced that brains learn to infer the causes of sensory inputs. While the exact details of how the brain does this remain hazy, the broad brushstrokes are becoming clearer.

16) I don’t read enough books to weigh in on whether these are the 10 best books of 2021.  But, it sure does look on the surface that the picks may be guided by ideology.  The comments from NYT readers– definitely not a conservative bunch, on average– are also fascinating.  

17) Some parts of this country just really, really suck. Like criminal justice, deep South style. “‘A humanitarian crisis’: Why Alabama could lose control of its dangerous prisons
Alabama sends so many people to prison that the state can no longer safely house its inmates, consequences of a tough-on-crime mentality among politicians and the public that keeps aggressive sentencing laws on the books.”

18) Have I mentioned that civil asset forfeiture is the worst? (Yes, I have).  Here’s a disturbing video of it in action. “Watch Cops Seize Combat Vet’s Life Savings”

19) Freddie deBoer, “Racial Disparities in the SATs Are Exactly What Antiracists Should Predict”

The SAT is officially gone from the University of California because they’re desperate to reduce the Asian student population they want greater racial diversity. Many prominent liberals have celebrated this news, largely because they already went to college and don’t mind pulling up that ladder behind them. (Also a lot of them didn’t get the scores they wanted and never got over it.) Unfortunately for them, essentially all educational metrics show the racial and income stratification that the SAT shows. That includes GPA, which the people who complain about the SAT constantly nominate as an alternative to… the racial and income stratification of the SAT!

Note too that this is before adjustment via the black-box algorithms that elite universities use to adjust for the inherent noise in GPA. (I say again: some big-time publication should absolutely send someone to report that story out for a year. It’s an area of major public interest in which the industry works under remarkable secrecy.) It’s such an audaciously dishonest conversation that we’re having, attacking one quantitative indicator for demonstrating the same dynamics as the quantitative indicator that’s been nominated to replace it. But then, of course GPA and SAT data agree. It would be bizarre and concerning if the SAT did not agree with GPA data, NAEP data, state standardized test data, attendance and behavioral data, data from academic research, and sundry other educational data that shows these racial and income dynamics. The SAT showing racial and income stratification isn’t a mark of the SAT’s weakness but of its strength. That the SAT demonstrates these effects shows that the test is accurately measuring its construct. It can’t assess the broader sociopolitical conditions that created this dynamic, nor their fairness, as it wasn’t designed to do that.

Now, I suppose my saying that the SAT and other metrics show that poorer students and Black and Hispanic students are genuinely less prepared (on average) would inflame the sensibilities of people who identify as antiracists. But I find that strange – such students being held back in the classroom by structural disadvantage would seem to fit perfectly well with the antiracist worldview. Antiracists (an obnoxious term but let’s roll with it) will tell you that many Black students face all manner of disadvantages in life that can depress their academic performance, and they are correct to do so. But then isn’t it profoundly odd that they’re so angry at the SAT for demonstrating the outcome of that disadvantage? If the test shows Black and poor students struggling, it’s only an indicator of precisely the conditions they think are real and meaningful and troubling. Why would they want to silence that indicator? How does it help them? …

And that gets at the essential point that while these disparities are the product of unfairness they are nevertheless real. The average Black student really does struggle more with reading and algebra etc. than the average white student, and the average rich student really does perform better than the average poor student. Again, this is absolutely what you’d expect if you have a progressive outlook on structural disadvantage. But we can’t get anywhere if we pretend that these gaps are the product of measurement error, nor by positing an immense conspiracy among millions of teachers and administrators to pretend that Black and poor students are struggling when they aren’t. In the long run, such denialism hurts precisely the students it ostensibly helps, as it does nothing to fill in the gaps of human capital under which they suffer. I have very few good things to say about old guard education reform types, but they have always been willing to look at such gaps and understand that the gaps themselves, the underlying lack of ability, are the core problem, the core injustice. Disadvantaged students struggling to get into college is a symptom, not the disease. And the SAT are merely a thermometer that diagnoses that disease.

Flogging the SATs for failing to fix disparities that it can’t possibly be blamed for, like insisting that we just need to spend more money when we’ve been trying to spend our way out of our problems for 40 years, says more about the problems we refuse to look at than anything else, our commitment to myopia.

20) When Vox goes full Vox.  And, oh my, the comments on the tweet.

21) And speaking of twitter, your essential Omicron thread of the day.

22) I really enjoyed this ranking of all of R.E.M.’s songs.

23) Yesterday was Beatles documentary part 2 for me.  Enjoyed it much more.  Nothing like some narrative tension. Also, I’m’ pretty obsessed with artists and their creative process lately.  I quite enjoyed the HBO documentary on Alanis and “Jagged Little Pill” and loved listening to Sondheim talking about his songwriting process.  And to round a theme, I’m not even that much of a Foo Fighters fan, but I’m a big Dave Grohl fan and I found his interview with Terry Gross absolutely delightful.

Quick hits (part I)

1) Good stuff on uncertainty around Omicron, “Why It Could Take ‘Two Weeks’ To Learn If Omicron Impacts COVID-19 Vaccines”

Why two weeks? A fortnight is a weirdly specific timeframe?

The main reason behind the wait is that a legion of virologists need this time to tease apart omicron’s attack patterns. This new variant’s large amount of mutations has made this work harder than it typically is. Omicron has about 50 mutations — twice as many mutations overall as delta.

Also contributing to the delay is the lag time between catching the virus and being hospitalized. It typically takes about seven to 12 days. Most of the early omicron cases were spotted in college students who developed mild disease, according to their doctors. But younger adults are way less likely to experience severe COVID, and wave after wave has taught us that these youths also tend to be on the leading edge of surges. So, these early cases do not offer much clarity on omicron’s severity.

2) This is important and the best reason to temper the truly alarmist takes, “A reason for optimism on Omicron: Our immune systems are not blank slates”

The new SARS-2 variant, known as Omicron, may more easily sidestep some of the immunity of some vaccinated and previously infected people. But there’s good reason to think people who already have some immune protections may avoid the worst of what Covid infections can do to immunologically naïve people.

“Dealing with naïve people is never the same as if you have some memory. It’s never like [being back at] square one,” Ali Ellebedy, an associate professor of pathology and immunology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, told STAT. “The virus is going to not find it as easy compared to the situation in January 2020 or December 2019. It’s just completely different now.”…

The new variant may well erode some of the protection induced by vaccines, or by prior Covid infection. If Omicron takes off, there may be larger numbers of breakthrough infections among the vaccinated and more reinfections among the previously infected. But a smaller portion of those infections may develop into cases of serious or severe disease.

“One would think that even if now at the get-go you don’t have a neutralizing antibody response, there might still be a safety net there. And that safety net may be relatively stable when we talk about infection,” said Florian Krammer, a professor of vaccinology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

There are real worries that some of the mutations in the spike protein of Omicron variant viruses will undermine the efficacy of the neutralizing antibodies generated after vaccination. While the correlates of protection for SARS-2 — the types and amounts of immune system weapons needed to be protected against it — aren’t yet fully defined, neutralizing antibodies clearly play an important role in protection. And their waning seems to presage a rise in the risk of breakthrough infection.

Kristian Andersen, an immunologist at the Scripps Research Institute, is among those worried about how big a dent Omicron may put into SARS-2 acquired immunity.

“I think we’ll see very significant degradation of immune protection, whether that be by infection-induced immunity and possibly also via vaccine-derived immunity, especially as it comes to the ability to protect against infection and transmission,” Andersen said.

He acknowledged other immune system weapons — T-cells and other types of antibodies — will recognize and respond to the virus. “But the concern is that we don’t really know the role of T cells. For example, exactly how much are they or are they not protecting against disease, infection, transmission, all these different things? Because it really does seem like our level of neutralizing antibodies correlates really well with the ability to protect,” he said.

Anna Durbin, director of the Center for Immunization Research at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said T cells — which have been trained by vaccine or infection to look for and attack a particular pathogen, in this case SARS-2 — may not be enough to prevent infection with the Omicron variant, but should help shut down the disease it triggers, if infection occurs.

3) Some of the best twitter threads of the whole pandemic have been from Muge Cevik.  This one on Omicron joins the list. 

4) Okay, some non-Covid, “Garry Kasparov on Resisting Authoritarianism” in Persuasion:

Mounk: When I was a grad student at Harvard University, you came to speak there to present one of your books. I think this must have been around the time that Barack Obama ran for reelection, and it was striking because at this point you were in political exile from Russia. You were warning about Putin being a dictator, but also about Russia having expanded ambitions to be a spoiler on the international scene. This was around the time Obama had announced the reset with Russia.

Kasparov: In my book, Winter Is Coming, I talked about all the top American officials who became aware about the threat coming from the KGB and Putin after they left office. It’s amazing. You read their memoirs, whoever—Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Madeleine Albright, a long list. They all knew, but somehow when they were in office, they acted differently. 

From my previous life, I already knew what the KGB was. I read enough books, and I saw the growing threat of Putin to the free world, not only to Russia, but also to neighboring countries, the rest of Europe, and eventually to America. And Putin was not shy in using his resources to bribe politicians. The fact is that he could buy former German Chancellor Schröder and many other politicians, though few of that caliber. Former Prime Minister of Finland Paavo Lipponen and now former French Prime Minister Francois Fillon are on a long list of politicians who decided to sell their souls and principles—if they had any—for Putin’s cash. That was a clear and present danger. Putin attacked the Republic of Georgia—technically Medvedev was in power, but I have no doubt that it was Putin’s push—to punish Saakashvili for his independent politics. It was not rocket science: Any country that tried to escape from the sphere of influence of the Kremlin would be subject to an attack. Thank God the Baltic states were under the NATO umbrella—though, these days, probably even NATO doesn’t offer full protection. But Ukraine was a clear target of Putin’s aggression. I had no doubt that he would look for any opportunity to spread chaos around the world, because that’s what he needed. You can’t blame him with hiding his intentions. You just had to follow what Putin had been saying all along. His speech in Munich in 2007 was a clear message to the world that he was going to depart from the arrangements of the post-Cold War and would restore Russian imperial power. Today, in 2021, we still have people saying that maybe we shouldn’t take these types of words at face value. We must, because with every success they become more emboldened. Dictators never ask “why?” It’s always “why not?”

Mounk: Tell us how you took some of the insights you developed in Russia, seeing the rise of Vladimir Putin, and applied them to the candidacy of somebody like Trump.

Kasparov: I think of Donald Trump’s ascent, and the KGB operations to help him get elected. I saw the Russian propaganda machine fully supporting Trump, and using the newly-built troll factories and fake news industry to help Trump to be elected. And whatever Trump’s relations with the KGB were in the past—I believe there were—it was clear that Putin thought that was a time to go for this final blow to divide America, to create in American democracy a friction it couldn’t heal. Trump was an ideal agent of chaos. It’s like an icebreaker, destroying the American political system. I don’t think Putin expected Trump to win, but I think he thought that Trump could do what he is doing now [sowing division].

Now, the new administration that needed to heal the damage caused by Trump demonstrated its impotence, or some would say incompetence, with the clear and present danger in dealing with Putin. The summit in Geneva was a disaster beyond imagination.

5) Director commentary and featurettes? “Why Do DVDs Still Exist?”

It all begs the question: Why do DVDs and Blu-rays still exist? And why does Technicolor expect to print and ship 750 million discs this year? The answer is simple: Some people still buy them—though not necessarily who you’d think. While pop psychology would suggest that older generations are clinging to their love of the physical disc, those over the age of 60 make up a smaller proportion of the disc-watching population than their share of the total US population. Instead, those aged 25 to 39 are more likely than most to watch DVDs, according to the MPAA. And they’re often collectors, locked into building out their collections. “I think the term ‘legacy format’ plays into this,” says Tony Gunnarsson, principal analyst of TV, video, and advertising at Omdia. “We have people who have been buying and renting DVDs for so long that they continue to do so.”

That includes Jeanne Sager, a social media marketer from New York state, whose DVD and Blu-ray collection covers four shelves in her family home. Many of the discs in the collection were bought for her child when they first got into movies. “We also tended to collect along the way, as we live in the middle of nowhere, so going to the movies is a bit harder when your town has a theater with just one screen,” she says. Now she doesn’t know what to do with the collection. They take up space—but she fears that getting rid of them could make it much harder to watch her favorite movies or TV shows. “I’m wary of getting rid of them because when you do want to watch something, even with 37 different streaming services out there, it seems the one thing you really want to watch isn’t on them,” she says.

Also, they work even when the internet doesn’t.  And, as I’ve mentioned I’m still on the Netflix DVD plan because online rentals are never more than 48 hours, and often, still just 24.

6) Harry Enten, “Why we need to stop with the 2024 predictions”

For those tempted to look at these polls or the current political environment to try to glean something about the next general presidential election, I have only one thing to say: Stop it. Neither the current presidential polling nor the current political environment tells us much about what will happen in the 2024 general election.

Let’s start with the horserace polling (i.e. the matchup between two candidates). There have been seven previous election cycles prior to this one where polling was taken between an incumbent and their eventual challenger at about this point in the cycle.

When you match up the polling and the ultimate margin, the relationship is statistically insignificant.
 

7) Interesting piece from Mark Allan Smith, “The Rise of Do-It-Yourself Religion: Secularization was supposed to make people more rational. Instead, it made us more polarized and superstitious.”

The share of Americans holding no religious affiliation has risen from 6% in 1991 to 28% in 2021, while weekly attendance at worship services has dropped by more than a third.

When we dig more deeply into the data, however, the simple label of “secularization” does not adequately capture these trends. Most Americans unaffiliated with a religion nevertheless believe in some type of a God or universal spirit. Research from the University of Kent in the U.K. indicates that even atheists do not consistently uphold the scientific rationality many intellectuals anticipated as a replacement for religion. Specifically, the research finds that most atheists in the U.S. and several other countries embrace at least one from a set of beliefs encompassing astrology, karma, supernatural beings, and a handful of other supernatural and mystical phenomena.

The other side of the religious spectrum is also internally inconsistent. In a development that would make any fundamentalist preacher want to scream, one-fifth of evangelicals now believe in reincarnation. Other evangelicals draw religious sustenance from online sources with a dubious connection to any historical Christian teaching. Works in political science and sociology show that Christians of all stripes often read their political allegiances into the Bible rather than using the Bible to guide their political stances.

Instead of pure secularization, then, we have seen a shift toward what could be called Do-It-Yourself religion. Some people still attend worship services, but they mix and match their beliefs and practices according to personal taste. It’s not just “cafeteria Catholics”—we have cafeteria evangelicals, Muslims, and Jews. Meanwhile, the people who have abandoned organized religion entirely often explore the paranormal even as they retain a belief in God…

What has changed in modern America is not the existence but rather the prevalence of DIY religion. The twentieth century was a high point for organized religion, which not only structured lives but also wielded cultural influence. Today, with religious adherents attending services at lower rates, and with many Americans claiming no religious affiliation, there are greater possibilities for people to blend ideas from different sources. The remaining churchgoers who seem conventional nevertheless often combine the instruction of their pastors and priests with the endless stream of unorthodox material they encounter online.

This movement is heightened among young people. Many social trends gather steam initially in the young, and that is certainly true with respect to religion. Within Generation Z—generally defined as people born after the mid-to-late 1990s—the percentage who do not affiliate with a religion has reached an all-time high. Among those who do hold a religious identity, attendance at worship services has fallen off a cliff.

Young people are also disproportionately represented among the enthusiasts for astrologyTarot cards, and various forms of New Age mysticism. They frequently pair their excursions into the paranormal with standard religious activities such as prayer. To put it simply, DIY religion has meant for young people a substantial retreat from religious participation in an organized community but no major withdrawal from religious and mystical belief.

8) This school is about a mile from my house. Nice to have my negative priors about local charter schools confirmed, “Cary principal says charter school fired him over diverse hiring, COVID mask mandate”

A principal of a charter school in Cary who was fired after less than two months in charge is suing the school’s parent company in federal court. Brian Bauer was hired by Charter Schools USA to lead Cardinal Charter Academy, a tuition-free, K-8 public charter school in Cary, in mid-July, according to a civil complaint originally filed in Wake County in late October. He was fired around Sept. 2, shortly after the start of the school year. Bauer accuses school officials of firing him “for his hiring of racially diverse staff and/or his insistence on enforcement of the school’s Reopening Plan,” which included a school-wide mask mandate and quarantine requirements for students in certain circumstances.

9) Really, really good article on the quest (it really does seem like we’re getting close) for a universal flu vaccine.  A must read for the science-minded among you.

10) Loved this from Graeme Wood  so much, “‘Land Acknowledgments’ Are Just Moral Exhibitionism”

The practice of “land acknowledgment”—preceding a fancy event by naming the Indigenous groups whose slaughter and dispossession cleared the land on which the audience’s canapés are about to be served—is one of the greatest associate-producer credits of all time. A land acknowledgment is what you give when you have no intention of giving land. It is like a receipt provided by a highway robber, noting all the jewels and gold coins he has stolen. Maybe it will be useful for an insurance claim? Anyway, you are not getting your jewels back, but now you have documentation.

Long common in Canada and Australia, land acknowledgment is catching on in the United States and already de rigueur in certain circles. If you have seen enough of these—I have now watched dozens, sometimes more than one at the same event—you learn to spot them before the speaker even begins acknowledging. In many cases the tone turns solemn and moralizing, and the speaker’s posture stiff, as if preparing to read a confession at gunpoint. One might declare before, say, a corporate sales retreat: We would like to respectfully acknowledge that the land on which we gather to discuss the new line of sprinkler systems is in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq. The acknowledgment is almost always a prepared statement, read verbatim, because like all spells it must be spoken precisely for its magic to work. The magic in this case is self-absolution: The acknowledgment relieves the speaker and the audience of the responsibility to think about Indigenous peoples, at least until the next public event.

Maybe it is a victory for Indigeneity to have the name Muckleshoot even mentioned at a Microsoft conference. By far the most common defense of land acknowledgments is that they harm no one, and they educate Americans about a hidden history that took place literally where they stand. Do they not at least do that?

No, not even a little. It is difficult to exaggerate the superficiality of these statements. What do members of the acknowledged group hold sacred? What makes them unique and identifies them to one another? Who are they, where did they come from, and where are they going? The evasion of these fundamental questions is typical. The speaker demonstrates no knowledge of the people whose names he reads carefully off the sheet of paper. Nor does he make any but the most general connection between the event and those people, other than an ancient one, not too different from the speaker’s relationship with the local geology or flora…

Some people argue that land acknowledgments are “gestures of respect.” I’m not sure one can show respect while also being indifferent to a people’s existence. The statements are a counterfeit version of respect. Teen Vogue put it well, if unintentionally: “Land acknowledgment is an easy way to show honor and respect to the indigenous people.” A great deal of nonsense about identity politics could be avoided by studying this line, and realizing that respect shown the “easy way” is just as cheap as it sounds. Real respect occurs only when accompanied by time, work, or something else of value. Learning basic facts about a particular tribe might be a start.

Most of these acknowledgments are considered (by the speakers, anyway) moral acts, because they bear witness to crimes perpetrated against Native peoples and call, usually implicitly, for redress. If you enjoy moral exhibitionism, to say nothing of moral onanism, land acknowledgments in their current form will leave you pleasured for years to come.

Damn that was good. And, oh man, “moral onanism,” I’ll have to use that some time.

11) Lots of reasons (I blame mostly the mumbly actors), but this is really, really interesting, “Here’s Why Movie Dialogue Has Gotten More Difficult To Understand (And Three Ways To Fix It)”

12) Terrific Dahlia Lithwick.  Read it! “SCOTUS Will Gaslight Us Until the End: Oral arguments today made clear that this court will overturn Roe—and that they’ll insist on their own reasonableness the whole time.”

Perhaps it would be refreshing if the conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court no longer felt the need to lie to us. The lying, after all, is becoming nearly untenable—especially for an institution that relies on public confidence. After confirmation hearings in which they promised that stare decisis was a deeply felt value and that Roe v. Wade was a clear “precedent of the court” and “the law of the land.” there’s something sort of soothing about knowing the lying to our faces will soon be over. They were all six of them installed on the Supreme Court to put an end to Roe v. Wade after all, and that is exactly what they intend to do. There will be no more fake solicitude for women making difficult choices, no more pretense that pregnant people really just need better medical advice, and no more phony concerns about “abortion mills” that threaten maternal health. There is truly something to be said for putting an end to decades of false consciousness around the real endgame here, which was to take away a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy—rape, incest, abuse, maternal health no longer being material factors. At least now we might soon be able to call it what it is.

But somehow, even still, only some of the six conservatives seem brave enough to admit to the real project. That became clear as oral arguments progressed this morning in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health. Evaluating the constitutionality of a Mississippi law that prohibits virtually all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, a pre-viability ban on its own terms that quite deliberately violates Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, some of the justices continued to pretend that what was being proposed—the overturning or hollowing out of a precedent on which generations of pregnant people had relied—was a teensy little tweak, a long-overdue tug of the constitutional sheets in the right direction.

13) What a brilliant synthesis of science, journalism, and graphic design.  Here’s a gift link, so make sure you check this out, “The Coronavirus in a Tiny Drop”

14) Catherine Rampell is right with this frame, “Red states are now paying people not to get vaccinated”

Once upon a time, states debated whether to pay people to get vaccinated. Now, some red states are paying people not to get vaccinated, by cutting checks to workers who quit or are fired because they refuse covid-19 shots.

All spring and summer, Republicans cried bloody murder about how too-generous unemployment benefits were supposedly discouraging Americans from returning to work. Expanded jobless benefits were creating welfare queens, they argued, and driving labor shortages and hurting small businesses.

As I wrote at the time, it seemed reasonable to believe that at least for some workers, jobless benefits were a factor weighed when deciding whether to accept or reject available jobs. But lots of other factors mattered, too — including child-care availability, fear of getting ill, transit problems, changing family priorities, the wages offered and burnout.

Ultimately, those other factors seemed to matter more. Expanded pandemic benefits ended, first in a few GOP-controlled states (over the summer) and eventually nationwide (in September). Their lapse appeared to have little impact on job growth.

That didn’t stop some Republican politicians from continuing to blame labor shortages on unemployment benefits even after the offending federal programs had expired nationwide. Their talking point long outlasted its plausible relevance.

Now, Republicans are expanding these laziness-inducing benefits once again — but only for workers who refuse shots.

At least four states — FloridaIowaKansas and Tennessee — have recently extended benefits to workers who are fired or quit over their employers’ vaccine requirements. For context, workers who are fired for cause or who quit voluntarily are usually not eligible to receive unemployment benefits. With limited exceptions, only those laid off through no fault of their own have been able to receive such aid.

15) Definitely don’t agree with all his artistic takes, but this (as usual), was a fun and thought-provoking read from Freddie deBoer, “Nü-Metal and Twilight Are the True Outsider Art, the Only Rebel Poets: you only get to be an outsider artist if everybody hates you, now”

Anyway, the documentary mostly functions in the culture as an excuse for aging millennials to make fun of nü-metal again, which is a thrill for them because they haven’t had an opinion about relevant music since back when they would constantly tweet that Bon Iver is boring. (And then quietly cry in front of their laptops while they watched the “Holocene” video.) It’s interesting to me to see such naked artistic classism at hand in artistic opinion again; the content industry derives an awful lot of clicks from pretending to oppose that sort of thing. I don’t mean classism to say that nü-metal was poor people music, but rather that it was and is perceived to appeal to base and populist tastes – in other words, the kind of tastes that the entire critical edifice has been championing for at least 15 years. This is the era of poptimism, as much as the poptimists like to pretend that isn’t the case, and we are now to understand that any preference for the experimental or challenging or niche is not just the hand of elitism but probably of racism and sexism as well. Yet Limb Bizkit et al were the epitome of a certain kind of shameless populism, and they are again coming up for mockery. I guess rules are meant to be broken.


It’s interesting, to me if to no one else, to consider the collective disdain for nü-metal in light of the stunning dominance of the lowbrow today. That pop culture is superior to whatever tiny avant garde still exists is a matter of holy writ on the internet, these days, and the properties that have spread to the masses from what was once nerd culture are the most protected of all. I’ve written many times about the bizarre place we’re in when it comes to “fandom” and pop culture. You are familiar with the genres and properties that fall under the fandom heading, like super heroes, fantasy, video games, and sci fi. The very weird condition we’re in is that these properties are commercially dominant, suck up the vast majority of critical attention and analysis, and increasingly succeed with awards shows and critics – and yet their fans never stop bitching and moaning about being disrespected. Our culture simply could not have rolled out a red carpet more welcomingly, even grovelingly, for the “fandom” fans than it has, and yet they still spend 80% of their time talking about how they are an oppressed minority struggling under the yoke of marginalization.

Since I’ve been writing about this subject, the reality of nerd domination has become so stark and obvious that the defensive fans have taken to changing their tune. Instead of continuing to claim, ludicrously, that their tastes are marginal, they now claim that there is no alternative, so no one should complain…

This is, in fact, just factually untrue – adult dramas were huge box office successes for decades after Jaws’s release. Philadelphia is a movie about watching a man slowly die from AIDs; it went to number one in the box office in 1994. City of Angels, a turgid romance about Meg Ryan falling in love with an angel played by Nicolas Cage, was the top grossing film for two weeks four years later. That same year, Patch Adams – Patch Fucking Adams – was also the top earner, despite/because it’s about a sad clown failing to save the lives of dying children. Why, this very millennium saw Erin Brockovich, a movie about investigating the health effects of environmental pollutants that mostly takes place in law offices, go to number one. Burn After Reading went to number one just thirteen years ago, and that’s a Coen brothers movie! Schindler’s List, a movie about watching many Jews painfully die, made the equivalent of $620 million in today’s dollars. The Passion of the Christ, a movie about watching one Jew painfully die, made the equivalent of $880 million in today’s dollars.I’m sorry, but the notion that it was ever thus and R-rated films made about adult themes and for adult sensibilities never made money is simply untrue. And dramas didn’t just do big box office on random February weekends when the big movies weren’t competing, either; these films were able to go up against blockbuster movies and hold their own. Now “hit drama” is almost unheard of. Go through the historical lists of number one films and you’ll see movie after movie that today would be put out by A24, get respectful reviews, and earn like $12 million.

You can read reams about this, of course; once studios realized that “children+adults” resulted in a bigger number than “just adults,” it was all over. But I do think that another aspect of this is simply that there was a sense of adult responsibility to consume adult art that used to exist and no longer does. Back then, you could still appeal to people’s sense that you couldn’t eat candy all the time, that everyone needs a little more substance sometimes and that it’s important to balance dumb fun with deeper concerns. But today’s tentpole movies have a shield that their predecessors don’t, which is a culture industry that’s become obsessively concerned with showering lowbrow fare with respect. Nerd culture is a grievance culture; nerds don’t know how to win and don’t enjoy it when they do. So when their beloved properties became economically dominant, they shifted their complaints away from being stuck in a small niche and towards vague but bitter feelings of status anxiety.

For a long while fandom justified their self-righteous grievance culture by insisting that their favorites were commercially successful but critically disdained. (The fear that someone somewhere is looking down their nose at you is one of the most powerful of all human feelings.) The trouble is that this claim simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The Return of the King, part of the granddaddy of all nerd franchises, won Best Picture and a mountain of other Oscars almost 20 years ago. The MCU movies are often discussed as critically derided, which is just objectively untrue – their average Rotten Tomatoes score is like 85%, and by that metric Black Panther and (lol) Avengers Endgame are two of the ten best-reviewed films of all time. If you don’t like Rotten Tomatoes, just read the reviews those movies get in the New York Times and other snooty places. The MCU shows got twenty-eight Emmy nominations this year! The Harry Potter films received very strong reviews, on the whole. So did Rogue OneThe Force Awakens, and The Last Jedi. (The Rise of Skywalkergood lord.) The DC movies have been made fun of a lot, principally because most of them are terrible, but Wonder Woman and Aquaman received a lot of praise, in part because critics get off on writing about “a newfound respect” for what they have made fun of in the past. If you pick a nerd property at random you may not find the universal critical lionization these fans seem to want, but you will almost invariably find an aggressively open critical mind and an effort to find things to praise.

16) Wow, this story, “They trusted a coach with their girls and Ivy League ambitions. Now he’s accused of sex abuse.”  But what really gets me is that well before they knew he was a sexual abuser, they knew he was a complete bully, but nobody seemed to care as long as the girls got college scholarships.

Now, three days after their graduation from Whitman, the seven rowers decided to send a missive to the parent board, a group of mothers and fathers who volunteered to oversee the program. In just a few weeks, one girl was headed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point; at least three others had earned scholarships to row in college. None of them wanted other students to have the same experiences they’d had with Shipley.

The coach, the seven warned in the letter they sent June 15, “has taken advantage of his role on the team and used his position to create a toxic, competitive atmosphere that fosters negativity and tension among the athletes. … He very clearly plays favorites, and when athletes spoke up or criticized his actions, their boat placement was often affected. This could be seen all three years we were on the varsity team.”

An excerpt of a June 2021 letter sent by seven Whitman High School rowers to the parent board about the way Kirk Shipley treated them. (Obtained by The Washington Post)

They detailed the times he’d pitted girls in different boats against each other, called them names, asked probing questions about their boyfriends and delved into their personal lives in ways that felt invasive and inappropriate. After one of their teammates attemptedsuicide, they told the 14-member parent board, Shipley had bluntly asked her, “So, how did you try to do it?”

This wasn’t the first time Shipley, who declined an interview request through his attorney,had been the target of a complaint about the way he operated. He’d been investigated in 2018 after being accused that spring of creating a toxic culture — a claim he denied, arguing in an email to the complaining parent that it was just “the competitive nature of the Women’s program at Whitman.”

A human resources consultant hired by the parent board said in a report that she found “quite a lot of bitterness” over Shipley’s perceived favoritism toward “his chosen rowers” and described a “potentially polarizing, unapologetic style” of coaching. But she didn’t recommend any drastic changes to the program.

17) I’m loving working straight through Seinfeld on Netflix.  More convinced than ever that it is the greatest comedy in the history of television.  It hits its stride so damn strongly in season 3.  I watched “The Boyfriend” parts I and II last night.  Just so many great scenes, but you just can’t beat, “and you wanted to be my latex salesman.”

The irony of “pro life”

Not a particularly new point, but I really loved this from EJ Dionne in light of this week’s events:

On Tuesday, four high school students — ages 14, 16 and 17 — were fatally shot in Oxford, Mich., by a 15-year-old classmate firing a 9mm pistol with 15-round magazines.

Less than 24 hours later, a Supreme Court majority that seems on the verge of weakening the nation’s gun laws heard arguments in a case that could lead to tougher restrictions on abortion.

Please tell me: What can the words “pro-life” possibly mean when the same people who want to constrain abortion are eager to make it easier for Americans to obtain and carry deadly weapons?

How is it “pro-life” for a nation to accept school shootings as a routine part of our daily news feeds? Can it possibly be “pro-life” to pretend that because no law will ever end all such shootings, it’s not worth trying to pass anything that might at least make them less likely?

We take for granted a conservative ideology rooted not in intellectual consistency but in the politics of culture wars that hold abortion rights as an abomination but gun rights as inviolable. And we wonder why the shootings continue… [emphases mine]

The disconnect between warm, life-embracing rhetoric about abortion and indifference toward the loss of innocent life furthered by our nation’s uniquely permissive gun laws moved Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) to call out this moral scandal on Tuesday night.

“I listened to my Republican colleagues come down here one after another today and talk about the sanctity of life at the very moment that moms and dads in Michigan were being told that their kids weren’t coming home because they were shot at school, due to a country that has accepted gun violence, due to Republicans’ fealty to the gun lobby,” Murphy declared on the Senate floor. “Do not lecture us about the sanctity, the importance of life when 100 people every single day are losing their lives to guns, when kids go to school fearful that they won’t return home because a classmate will turn a gun on them.”

Murphy’s point is amply justified by Republican blockades in the Senate against even modest gun laws, including bills on background checks passed by the House in March…

The Michigan shootings are another reminder of the lethality of our political deadlock on guns — a powerlessness the Supreme Court majority seems eager to aggravate.

Here’s what we’re facing: conservative jurists ready to expand states’ rights when it comes to limiting or banning abortion but equally prepared to block states from enacting gun laws aimed at protecting the right of their people to live beyond their teenage years.

Or this.

“Pro-life” is, apparently, great when you are controlling women’s fertility, but not so much when already born humans are getting mowed down by guns at rates far past any other modern democracy and dying of the pandemic at rates past most all other modern democracies.  

 

Everything you ever wanted to know about vaccines

I honestly think this latest from Katherine Wu is the best article I’ve yet read on vaccines.  It is ostensibly about the potential for J&J to be a bit of a darkhorse success (it may provide more durable immunity), but it hits pretty much everything we know and don’t know about vaccine types, number of doses, spacing of doses and the all-important concept of vaccine durability.  So good.  Also, I must say, it does have me feeling great about my combination off J&J plus Moderna.  If you have even a modest interest in vaccine science and human immunity, it’s a must read.  And if you don’t, here’s what I found to be the most interesting points to foist upon you:

This incessant ragging has been all too easy—and maybe shortsighted. According to some experts, the haters are overlooking a trait that could rescue J&J’s reputation, and possibly even keep it in scientific contention. “I think there is a silver lining to this vaccine that a lot of people don’t see,” David Martinez, an immunologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who is studying immune responses to COVID-19 shots, told me. It’s a trait called durability—the ability of a vaccine’s protection to persist, despite the ravages of time. Several researchers, including representatives of the company that designed the J&J vaccinesay they’re seeing early hints of this with the shot. “It’s unequivocal,” Mathai Mammen, the global head of research and development for Janssen, the vaccine-manufacturing pharmaceutical company owned by Johnson & Johnson, told me. In tracking the vaccine’s effectiveness, “there is no change, month over month over month.” The shot’s initial magnitude of protection against sickness might not match Moderna’s or Pfizer’s. But after they’re built, J&J’s defenses seem to stick around in a way that their mRNA-driven counterparts might not, like a low-wattage bulb that keeps burning, long after all the other lights in the room have flickered and died…

As the pandemic heads into its third year, durability underpins some of the biggest open questions in COVID immunology—the long-term outlook for our current shots, the number we’ll ultimately need, and the possibility of engineering an even sturdier vaccine. A lack of durability might mean we’ll be getting COVID shots often, maybe even annually. Or, if we can figure out a clever way to give out shots now, we may not have to administer them again. A vaccine’s value isn’t just in its peak performance; also essential to know is when, and how quickly, protection might start to decline…

But the quest for durability has long been thorny. Several experts I spoke with described it as one of the most elusive concepts in vaccinology, an immunological white whale that researchers frequently chase but almost never catch. “We don’t have one right answer” for what makes a vaccine’s protection stick, Padmini Pillai, an immunologist at MIT, told me. “It’s always it depends.” …

Establishing durability starts with first impressions. To offer truly long-lasting protection, a vaccine has to persuade the body to study its offering, then stably store that intel away. “The bottom line is, you have to convince the immune system that this is scary,” Mark Slifka, an immunologist and vaccine expert at Oregon Health & Science University, told me. When the process works well, it can work really well. Every time a microbe returns to trouble us, the defenses we mount against it get stronger, faster, more precise; the response becomes a reflex, built on the memories of immune cells that have thwarted the same threat before.

The major players in immune memory fall into two main camps, headlined by B cells and T cells. B cells are weapons manufacturers, tasked with pumping out microbe-trouncing antibodies; T cells are single-combat assassins that home in on infected cells and force them to self-destruct. Both Bs and Ts will show up to fight most infections of note, cloning themselves into complementary armies. As the danger passes, their numbers contract, leaving behind only a so-called memory contingent—dormant Bs and Ts that holster the capacity for protection, like sleeper agents waiting to hear a trigger phrase. And finding relatively sturdy levels of these cells and the molecules they make is a decent proxy for judging immunity’s longevity. High levels of antibodies and B cells that recognize the viruses responsible for smallpox and measles, for instance, have been found in people decades after they received those two very potent vaccines.

When investing resources, though, our immune systems must be stingy. Not every potential threat they encounter gets locked in the body’s defensive memory. Generally speaking, they’ll devote more storage space to bugs they deem dangerous repeat offenders. Many durable vaccines, then, are really annoying ones, pestering cells so much that they have little choice but to remember what’s up…

When defenses drop, though, they tend to do so stepwise: The strongholds against infection fall first, then transmission, then serious disease, and finally death. Pfizer’s effectiveness against milder COVID cases, and probably transmission, gradually but notably ebbs in the months after people are inoculated. Some of that dip is probably attributable to fast-spreading, slightly immune-evasive Delta, and the world’s growing ennui with distancing and masks; if a new variant like Omicron rises, we could be due for yet another trough in protection. But decreasing effectiveness could also reflect our bodies’ reaction to the shots. Antibodies seem to be tied tightly to protection thresholds, and “we’re quickly seeing antibody levels fall” in the months after people get their Pfizer and Moderna shots, Ai-ris Yonekura Collier, a physician and immunologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston, who’s been studying immune responses to COVID-19 shots, told me.

That in and of itself isn’t catastrophic—antibodies always contract after the first flush of infection or vaccination—but the slope is steeper than some researchers would like. In a small, recent study, Collier and her colleagues showed that about eight months post-vaccination, virus-blocking antibodies are down roughly 40-fold from their peak, and it’s not clear when or where the downslope will flatten into a plateau. Perhaps the molecules have already settled at a stable level, with safeguards against severe disease strong, and defenses against milder outcomes middling. Or maybe they’ve still got a ways to fall. “It’s normal to see rapid decay,” Slifka told me. “The question is, how high above the protective threshold do you land?”

Okay, that’s a lot.  And there’s a lot more really good stuff in there.  Like the fact that the HPV vaccine is an absolute durability champ.

I also appreciated how this was a nice thorough article which fit so well with what my virologist friend has been trying to explain to me in online conversations.  Anyway, it certainly makes clear the benefit of being boosted.  And if you are reading this, you almost certainly are.

 

(More than) a few abortion thoughts

1) I think if it were up to Roberts, the Supreme Court would basically completely undermine Roe v. Wade, but nominally leave it in place.  Roberts is good at this stuff and that’s the smart political play.  Instead of headlines like “Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade!” you get, “Court issues complex ruling, allowing for more restrictions on abortion.”  For your average citizen, obviously, that first headline and approach to media coverage has way more of an impact.

2) But, it’s not up to Roberts.  There’s five committed ideologues with minimal concern for the legitimacy of the court.  Scott Lemieux:

Two things have made Roberts’s fake-minimalist approach untenable. First, younger FedSoc drones like Kavanaugh and Barrett really hate Roe and just don’t care about the backlash the way Roberts does. And, second, states are moving so aggressively that a “reinterpretation” of Casey that moved the line at which bans are unconstitutional back to an earlier stage of the pregnancy wouldn’t survive for more than a year or two; the Court would have to face a total ban within a year or two and decide the Roe question anyway.

3) Get used to some version of what’s going on this map:

What this means in practice? Middle class women and above still have a right to abortion due to the financial ability to travel to the purple states. Women without means in those orange states (and, in time, many of the white ones) do not.

4) Contemporary attitudes about abortion are really not just about racism.  I’ve looked at the data (and will be working hard doing a lot more research on this next semester).  That said, when you look at the history of right-wing political response to abortion? It’s the racism.  Seriously. The evidence is pretty overwhelming.  Omar Wasow with a great thread:

5) Policy and practice wise I’m really curious to see what happens as we start seeing medical abortions becoming super common in all these orange states.  My understanding is that a medical abortion presents pretty much the same as a spontaneous miscarriage.  Do we get some law in Texas where we search the internet history or require an interrogation of every women who has a miscarriage to make sure it’s not a medical abortion?  What are the penalties and enforcement for keeping mifepristone and misoprostol out of Texas and other states? This could get really, really interesting.

6) The politics.  Its conventional wisdom that this benefits Democrats.  I think the conventional wisdom is probably right, but I’m not completely sold.  Certainly, the magnitude of the effects and just how much impact this has on swing voters and party coalitions is very much an open question.  And one I’ll be watching damn closely, of course.

 

 

How perverse incentives broke the Republican Party

Really good stuff from Bernstein on Republican responses to Omicron.  Short version… they’re insane!

Is anyone surprised that it took only a couple of days for Republicans to spread obviously nonsensical conspiracy theories about the omicron coronavirus variant? U.S. Representative Ronny Jackson, a Texas Republican and former White House physician, took to Twitter on Sunday to claim: “Here comes the MEV — the Midterm Election Variant! They NEED a reason to push unsolicited nationwide mail-in ballots. Democrats will do anything to CHEAT during an election — but we’re not going to let them!”

I suppose I should point out how unlikely it is, to put it mildly, that Democrats would be capable of getting the entire world to pretend there’s a new, potentially dangerous variant of the virus that causes Covid-19, which would then serve as a pretext for absentee voting, which somehow Democrats would supposedly be able to use to cheat, even though no such cheating was detected by a series of Republican states in 2020 — and even though those all-powerful, devious Democrats also, for this to make sense, wouldn’t be able to find any other way of cheating. Oh, and that’s not to mention that the timing is all wrong. And that surely more devastation from the pandemic would be, you know, actually really bad for the incumbent party…

First, we should be careful. Over the long run, there doesn’t seem to be any difference in either production of or belief in misinformation and conspiracy theories by ideology or party. What’s different now is that numerous highly visible figures in one party — the Republican Party — are repeating or even inventing this kind of garbage. [emphases mine]

But is that hard to understand? I don’t think so. In fact, I think conventional wisdom among scholars of U.S. political institutions is sufficient for seeing what’s happening. All we need to know is that incentives matter to politicians, political parties structure incentives for political actors, and, right now, the Republican Party has built in a series of perverse incentives that dissuade serious people from running for office and reward cranks and people willing to pretend to be cranks.

Normal political parties are dominated by the electoral incentive. Politicians want to win and then retain office; campaign professionals want to win to improve their reputations and, perhaps, to reap financial rewards; governing professionals want to win so that they can govern; activists and donors want to win so that they can influence policy, and in some cases because they, too, want jobs when their party is in office. With almost all individual incentives running that way, the party collectively comes to place a high priority on winning.

But party-aligned media do not necessarily share that incentive. Being out of office is good for business because negative partisanship means more viewers and more clicks when there’s an opposite-party president to dislike…

However, as we’ve seen lately with the Republican Party, the more central party-aligned media become within the overall party, the less important winning becomes. And then second-order problems kick in. As Fox News and conservative talk radio become more popular and more profitable, Republican politicians and other party actors are more likely to think of them as a viable career goal — and therefore replace their own electoral incentives with reasons to act as outrageous as possible. And by now we’re at a point where many Republicans seem to have convinced themselves that elections are simply about which party is best at rigging rules and administration.

Democrats are not immune from these perverse incentives. But they don’t dominate the party the way that they increasingly have in the Republican Party over the last 20 years. And I should also be clear that, in an era of strong party polarization among voters, having less interest in winning elections probably doesn’t hurt the chances of out-parties, whose success has always depended more on what happens to the incumbents. It does, probably, make it harder for Republicans to govern successfully when they’re in office.

I mean, for example, I presume Rony Jackson is not actually an idiot (though he does a damn good impression).  But, rather, he’s a deeply cynical, unprincipled man who simply recognizes that his political power benefits by saying utterly outrageous things and undermining citizen confidence in public health and science.  That’s awful!  But, that’s also literally what he is clearly incentivized to do in the present environment.  And, clearly there’s no shortage of deeply cynical, unprincipled people in today’s Republican party.  And our democracy suffers greatly for it.  

Boost, boost, boost!

Omicron is definitely worrisome.  Best thing we can do is probably get 3 doses of vaccine in as many people as possible (honestly, even if Omicron turns out not to be so bad– best case, it’s actually out-competed by Delta– we need to get doses in people).  So many vaccinations require 3 doses for lasting immunity and, thus far, the best evidence suggests that if we want lasting immunity (and we still don’t know how long) against symptomatic Covid, we should consider this a 3 dose vaccination.  On the bright side, the CDC today finally said all adults should get the vaccine (previously, it was “may” for those 18-49).  Eric Topol had a great Op-Ed last week on the case for getting these thirds shots in everybody:

Public health officials have always expected that mRNA coronavirus vaccines (Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech) to be a three-shot regimen. The only question was when the third shot would be necessary. Originally, the hope was that it would be after one or two years. It turns out, it is necessary at about six months.

More than 10 large reports have shown that the reduced protection from infections, including symptomatic infections, across all age groups, wanes from 90 to 95 percent at two months down to about 60 percent for Pfizer and 70 percent for Moderna after five to six months. There is further substantial waning after six months.

The good news is that a booster dose can restore that initial efficacy, as data makes abundantly clear. One randomized trial of Pfizer’s vaccine involving more than 10,000 participants — half receiving a third shot and the other half receiving a placebo booster — showed a remarkably high 95-percent efficacy. In that trial, people aged 18 to 55 benefited just as much as those older than 55. There were no safety issues raised, such as myocarditis.

It is important to underscore that for all coronavirus vaccine trials, symptomatic infection has been the primary endpoint, and has tracked well with hospitalizations and deaths. Large, randomized trials are rightly considered the gold standard form of evidence. There are no other randomized trials of booster shots underway.

Israel offers more evidence of the booster’s benefits. Its largest health system tracked more than 700,000 people who had received a booster shot and found that the third shot had a striking 91 percent effectiveness against symptomatic infection. It also had a 93 percent effectiveness against hospitalization and 81 percent effectiveness against covid-related deaths.

But the CDC’s advisory committee didn’t review this important observational study and many other relevant data sources. If it had, perhaps it would have more forcefully advocated boosters for all adults. Our recommendation is fully consistent with messaging from the White House and President Biden that all vaccinated adults should get boosters.

Its failure to do so has substantial implications. Only 59 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, meaning the United States ranks below the top 50 most-vaccinated countries. Countries throughout Europe, such as Denmark and Belgium, have vaccination rates of around 75 percent, and even they are experiencing record-setting surges in cases.

Like Britain and Israel, the United States was a first mover with early vaccination campaigns, so it has a much higher proportion of people with waning immunity. Forty percent of Americans (more than 120 million people) were fully vaccinated by June 1 and have diminished protection. Each day in the United States, the number of people with waning immunity greatly exceeds those who are getting newly vaccinated. Accordingly, rather than building our wall of population immunity, the United States is suffering attrition.

It has been estimated that more than 90 percent of Americans need to be fully vaccinated to contain the hyper-contagious delta variant. Not only are we far from that goal, but also we are moving in the wrong direction. While we continue to press ahead to reach unvaccinated Americans, we must concurrently maintain protection for those who have received the shot.

Yes, we need to ramp up all we can and get as many shots around the world as we can, but pretending that there’s not now strong need for Americans to have 3rd doses ignores the clear evidence.  

In fact, the Post ran an Op-Ed today with the case for no boosters.  It was so poorly argued I suspect my 10th grader could’ve knocked it down (to be fair, he’s really smart).

The data does not show that every healthy adult should get a booster. Indeed, the push for boosters for all could actually prolong the pandemic. First, such a campaign diverts focus away from the goal of persuading the unvaccinated to get their shots (and persuading parents to get their eligible children shots). Second, and relatedly, exaggerated descriptions of the waning efficacy of the vaccines undermine public confidence in them, and some people may be less likely to accept vaccines that they regard as less effective than originally advertised.

These are prestigious public health officials making this case and they are so wrong.  At this point there’s not a shred of evidence that getting boosters in arms has prevented any of the unvaccinated from getting a first shot.  Really we just haven’t had enough “focus” on the unvaccinated?  Give me a break!!  We’re trying all we can.  It’s hard.  And people getting their boosts is not stopping people like my neighbor (“I’m just not putting anything artificial in my body. I trust my immune system”) from deciding to get vaccinated after all.  And, OMG, enough with the completely awful mass psychology!  There’s just no evidence that there’s people out there on the vaccine fence who are now thinking, “hmm, maybe I was going to get a vaccine, but, I guess they don’t work because all these people need boosters.”  Now, sure, are there some people who think that way?  Yes, just like many people believe in alien abductions, but there’s just no evidence at all that this is a widespread feature of vaccine skepticism/hesitancy that can be overcome.

Or this:

Our views aren’t changed by the data available so far about the potentially dangerous new omicron variant. To the contrary, the possible need for a booster shot targeting a potentially vaccine-resistant variant is a reason to hold off on a booster targeting the original variant.

Virtually every other vaccine expert I’ve read has strongly suggested that 3 doses almost surely offers additional protection against omicron.  Or this:

What’s wrong with continual boosting? For one thing, a variant may emerge that requires a new vaccine formulation. (Boosting with a Moderna beta variant vaccine yielded higher neutralizing titers against the beta variant than did boosting with Moderna’s original mRNA-1273 vaccine.) We don’t know yet if omicron will require a new formulation, although public health officials are worried it might. In that case, “training” the immune system repeatedly on the original variant — as the current boosters do — may prove to be counterproductive. It could, for instance, diminish the effectiveness of a reformulated booster. In other words, for those not in immediate need of a boost, there may be an advantage to waiting until a booster more closely aligned with circulating variants becomes available.

I have seen literally zero other people make this assertion (and I follow at least a dozen people on twitter who are genuine vaccine/virus experts) and my own in-house vaccine expert said this is “possible” but a bs “fear tactic.”  

Anyway, if you are more than 6 months out and haven’t been boosted (and I bet the vast majority of my readers are), do it!  And don’t feel like you are taking a dose away from some poor African, but, rather than you are getting a needed third dose of a three dose vaccine.  [Of course, who knows what the story is for us J&Jer’s on just two doses]

Quick hits (part II)

1) Some impressive science and some real hope for those with Type I diabetes, “A Cure for Type 1 Diabetes? For One Man, It Seems to Have Worked. A new treatment using stem cells that produce insulin has surprised experts and given them hope for the 1.5 million Americans living with the disease.”

Mr. Shelton, now 64, may be the first person cured of the disease with a new treatment that has experts daring to hope that help may be coming for many of the 1.5 million Americans suffering from Type 1 diabetes.

“It’s a whole new life,” Mr. Shelton said. “It’s like a miracle.”

Diabetes experts were astonished but urged caution. The study is continuing and will take five years, involving 17 people with severe cases of Type 1 diabetes. It is not intended as a treatment for the more common Type 2 diabetes.

“We’ve been looking for something like this to happen literally for decades,” said Dr. Irl Hirsch, a diabetes expert at the University of Washington who was not involved in the research. He wants to see the result, not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal, replicated in many more people. He also wants to know if there will be unanticipated adverse effects and if the cells will last for a lifetime or if the treatment would have to be repeated.

But, he said, “bottom line, it is an amazing result.”

Dr. Peter Butler, a diabetes expert at U.C.L.A. who also was not involved with the research, agreed while offering the same caveats.

“It is a remarkable result,” Dr. Butler said. “To be able to reverse diabetes by giving them back the cells they are missing is comparable to the miracle when insulin was first available 100 years ago.”

2) Interesting story on how a single NC Republican legislator, Danny Britt, has been instrumental in bringing needed criminal justice reform to NC’s laws.  It’s also more than a little sad to realize that there’s no way Republicans would have agreed to these changes if not for the efforts of Britt (a prosecutor turned defense attorney). Better CJ policy for the state should not have to depend on the arbitrariness of one good man being a Republican legislator.  

Legislators on both sides of the aisle agree that while activists, advocates and some lawmakers have worked for years to reform the state’s criminal justice system, some bills Britt has sponsored would not have passed under the Republican-controlled legislature without him.

3) Focus group report on Virginia elections that may or may not be worth your time.  I found it interesting.

4) Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana is just a complete fraud.  What’s so sad about his completely affected, cornpone style (the man is Vanderbilt, UVA, and Oxford educated) is that this is what works for the Republican base.

The 70-year-old Kennedy is so committed to this persona that a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune challenged readers in 2019 to guess the author of a series of eccentric statements: Foghorn Leghorn or Kennedy? It was a difficult quiz.

Whenever Kennedy appears on Fox News or launches an attention-getting stunt, those of us in Louisiana who know him well roll our eyes and reflect on the Kennedy we knew before his Senate election.
 
We recall the brainy graduate of Vanderbilt University, the University of Virginia Law School and Oxford University’s Magdalen College; the relatively progressive Democrat who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004; the man who, despite his 2007 party switch, served capably as state treasurer from 2000 to 2017; the official who, although in the same Republican Party as then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, was a fierce critic of Jindal’s reckless fiscal policies…
 
But what stood out in that 2004 interview was the absence of the homey sayings, abusive zingers and character assassinations that have become Kennedy trademarks. He was nothing like the man you see these days insulting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — “It must suck to be that dumb” — or vilifying then-Interior secretary nominee Deb Haaland as “a neo-socialist, left-of-Lenin whack job.”…
 
What troubles me about Kennedy’s latest stunt is not just what it revealed about a politician doing what some unprincipled, opportunistic politicians have always done. What bothers me more is what it says about Louisiana politics, and today’s Republican Party, that Kennedy could expose himself as a xenophobic demagogue and pay no price for it.

5) This NYT “where should you live” quiz is really fun.  Looks like Irvine, California is the place for me (I like a nice climate and political and racial diversity).

6) From Stat, “Covid antivirals could be pandemic game-changers. But Americans might struggle to access them”

Antiviral drugs for treating Covid-19 have been hailed as a pandemic “game-changer” — a tool that could, perhaps, finally help life return to normal. But basic gaps in the U.S. health system could mean that two new treatments from Pfizer and Merck won’t make much of a difference after all.

The companies’ treatments, which haven’t yet received emergency authorization, could make a Covid diagnosis dramatically less threatening. But in practice, before receiving the pills, patients may need to jump through a series of hoops that often prevent Americans from accessing care: Recognizing their symptoms, taking a test, getting a prescription from a clinician, and filling the prescription at a pharmacy.

“Our routine medical systems are not really set up for this,” said Céline Gounder, a physician and NYU professor who served on President Biden’s Covid advisory board in the months before his inauguration. “These are medications that need to be started within three days of developing symptoms. It can take you longer than three days to get an appointment.”…

But it might be difficult to get the drugs outside a clinical trial setting. Depending on the particular patient, it could involve four individual steps: recognizing symptoms, receiving a positive Covid-19 test result, being prescribed an antiviral by a doctor, and picking up the pills at a nearby pharmacy.

Each step could prove difficult, Gaffney said, beginning with the challenge of recognizing symptoms during winter, when early signs of Covid-19 might be easily written off as a cold, flu, or allergies. Even if patients do quickly suspect they have Covid, diagnostic tests are still sometimes hard to come by. Many of the patients who test positive won’t have primary care physicians. And perhaps worst: The antivirals are ideally taken just three days after symptom onset, meaning the four-step process can’t face any setbacks.

7) “Are scientists less prone to motivated reasoning?” Yes.

A new study lays out a bit of a conundrum in its opening paragraphs. It notes that scientific progress depends on the ability to update what ideas are considered acceptable in light of new evidence. But science itself has produced no shortage of evidence that people are terrible at updating their beliefs and suffer from issues like confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. Since scientists are, in fact, people, the problems with updating beliefs should severely limit science’s ability to progress.

And there’s some indication that it does. Max Planck, for example, wrote that “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up.”

But a new study suggests it may not be much of a problem after all. Taking advantage of a planned replication study, some scientists polled their peers before and after the results of the replication study came out. And most scientists seemed to update their beliefs without much trouble.

8) More roundabouts, please! And good for the climate, too.

But there’s also a climate benefit.

Because modern roundabouts don’t have red lights where cars sit and idle, they don’t burn as much gasoline. While there are few studies, the former city engineer for Carmel, Mike McBride, estimates that each roundabout saves about 20,000 gallons of fuel annually, which means the cars of Carmel emit many fewer tons of planet-heating carbon emissions each year. And U.S. highway officials broadly agree that roundabouts reduce tailpipe emissions.

They also don’t need electricity, and, unlike stoplights, keep functioning after bad storms — a bonus in these meteorologically turbulent times.

“Modern roundabouts are the most sustainable and resilient intersections around,” said Ken Sides, chairman of the roundabout committee at the Institute of Transportation Engineers.

9) If Omicron is bad as some of the worst fears, we’ll really need the new antivirals ASAP.  FDA-skeptic Scott Alexander writing before the Omicron news, “When Will The FDA Approve Paxlovid?”

For context: a recent study by Pfizer, the pharma company backing the drug, found Paxlovid decreased hospitalizations and deaths from COVID by a factor of ten, with no detectable side effects. It was so good that Pfizer, “in consultation with” the FDA, stopped the trial early because it would be unethical to continue denying Paxlovid to the control group. And on November 16, Pfizer officially submitted an approval request to the FDA, which the FDA is still considering.

As many people including ZviAlex, and Kelsey have noted, it’s pretty weird that the FDA agrees Paxlovid is so great that it’s unethical to study it further because it would be unconscionable to design a study with a no-Paxlovid control group – but also, the FDA has not approved Paxlovid, it remains illegal, and nobody is allowed to use it.

One would hope this is because the FDA plans to approve Paxlovid immediately. But the prediction market expects it to take six weeks – during which time we expect about 50,000 more Americans to die of COVID.

Perhaps there’s not enough evidence for the FDA to be sure Paxlovid works yet? But then why did they agree to stop the trial that was gathering the evidence? Or perhaps there’s enough evidence, but it takes a long time to process it? But then how come the prediction markets are already 90% sure what decision they’ll make?

Perhaps that 10% chance of it not getting approved is very important, because that’s a world in which it’s discovered to have terrible side effects? But discovered how? There was one trial, it found no side effects at all, and Pfizer stopped it early. And it’s hard to imagine what rare side effect could turn up in poring over the trial data again and again that’s serious enough to mean we should reject a drug with a 90% COVID cure rate.

Perhaps it doesn’t have any sufficiently serious side effects, but that 10% chance is important because it might not work? Come on, just legalize the drug! If it doesn’t work, then you can report that it didn’t work in January or March or whenever you figure it out, and un-approve it. Nobody will have been hurt except your pride, and in the 90% of cases where it does work, you’d be saving thousands of lives.

Let’s give the FDA its due: this time they’re probably only going to wait a few weeks or months. Much better than their usual MO, when they can delay drugs for months arguing about the wording of the warning label. I honestly believe they’re operating on Fast Mode, well aware that the entire country is watching them and yelling at them to move faster.

Still, move faster.

10) This is so important and under-appreciated, “Most state lawmakers earn low salaries. It impacts who can afford to be one.”

A report released Monday by New American Leaders on low salaries in statehouses highlights the financial realities for policymakers such as Joiner, and the ways that pay impacts who is able to run and stay in office. But the political backlash in raising salaries for lawmakers also carries pitfalls.

The report analyzed salaries in several legislatures around the country and concluded that most lawmakers are paid wages that do not allow them to focus solely on the job of legislating. Many work in legislatures that are considered hybrid or part-time. They meet for shorter periods of time, often at the beginning of the year and into the spring. But it’s a role that has morphed in recent years into one with increasing year-round demands and expectations from constituents, many of whom may not realize their lawmakers are being paid little to no money to be that accessible…

The low pay effectively creates barriers to more diverse representation and trickles down to what kind of policy is created, said Ghida Dagher, president of New American Leaders, which recruits and trains first- and second-generation Americans to run for office. It estimates that just 3.5 percent of America’s 7,383 state legislative seats are held by new Americans. Women make up just 31 percent of statehouse seats, and 26.6 percent of that figure are women of color.

“State legislators have this enormous power to decide the future of immigrants, BIPOC communities and just constituents at large,” said Dagher. “But due to low legislative salaries, many people who are most impacted by the policies that legislators make are shut out of positions of power.”

In Georgia, where lawmakers this year debated restrictive voting bills, lawmakers are paid a little over $17,000 a year plus a per diem. Republicans in control of the legislature led an effort last year to cut that pay due to a reduced budget tied to the pandemic, arguing that the public had also faced hardship

Dagher said the potential political blowback to increasing pay does not offset the reality, which is that as long as statehouses are financially out of reach as jobs for everyday people, they will not reflect the needs of a demographically diverse population.

“Any time there is discussion of tax dollars and people’s dollars being used toward a salary, there is some frustration,” Dagher said. “But the reality is, this is a full-time job. Community and constituent needs are year-round, they’re not part-time. So our legislatures should be set up at a full-time basis to really serve the needs of their communities.”

The New American Leaders’ report has several recommendations, including that lawmakers switch their statehouses to full time. While several have fixed end dates during session, lawmakers sometimes go weeks or months over those allotted times. Some rely on special sessions to meet later into the year. The report highlights research that shows statehouses that meet longer and pay higher salaries pass more bills, including per legislative day.

11) Yascha Mounk interviews Michael Powell on free speech:

Yascha Mounk: Every time we get a story about an attack on liberalism, in part from the right but also from the left, it is dismissed by partisans as just some crazy story, an extreme example — “this really isn’t a broad phenomenon going on in the country”, etc. Do you think all of the stories that you’ve been writing about add up to a bigger picture?

Michael Powell: I think the answer is almost certainly yes. About seven months ago, I did a story on a particular racial incident at Smith College, an elite liberal arts school in Massachusetts. I spoke to at least 15 faculty members, all of them tenured. As I recall, three of them went on the record. With perhaps one exception, none disputed that there was an illiberal stream running through liberal higher education these days, and specifically at their school. Almost all had particular tales to tell—not all hair-curling. But it was quite striking that I’m talking to—in almost all cases—senior tenured faculty, and none were willing to go on the record. Untenured people, I very much understood. I thought to myself, “This is a fine liberal institution, an elite liberal institution, and this isn’t good.” After the piece appeared, the president, as I expected might happen, denounced the piece, denounced me, and went to the faculty meeting. One of the faculty members called me a few hours afterwards, and she was chuckling. She named a number of people who stood up and denounced the piece and several of those were people who had given me chapter and verse on the problems that the university was running into on these very issues. I took that as a bad sign on the state of many of these institutions.

Mounk: Being back in Europe for a few months, I haven’t had anybody say to me, “But of course, I would never say this publicly.” And I suddenly realized that this is a phrase that I would hear more or less every day in the United States, often from people who are very much on the left, who are very progressive, who supported Bernie Sanders, who are deeply engaged in the fight against discrimination and so on. Their position is perfectly reasonable, but they would be afraid to speak publicly. When did you first sense that cultural transition?

Powell: I’ve only really started writing on this in the last year and a half. I was writing a sports column, actually, for about four or five years before this. I bounced all over the place. The Times being the Times, it’s sports column in which you can write about all sorts of social issues as well. And I started to come across this when I was looking at Title IX abuses which were, frankly, in some cases quite problematic from a civil liberties point of view. And doing that reporting—this is casting back four or five years—I was running into the same problem: that lawyers handling the cases were perfectly willing to talk to me, but when I would try to talk with professors and others on college campuses, people were wary of it. Feminists were leery of it—with, I should say, some spectacular exceptions. There are people who’ve been very forthright on this question from the liberal feminist community. But it just feels to me this is a stream that runs quite strong through our culture right now. And not simply universities and colleges.

12) A year old, but… interesting! “Serial killings are waning, leading to speculation about the cause”

The number of serial killings surged in the 1980s and has been dropping ever since.

In 1987, there were 198 separate serial killers active in the United States, compared to only 43 in 2015 and two in 2019, according to a database run by the Radford University and the Florida Gulf Coast University. The database defines a serial killing as the “unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.”

When a serial killing is defined as the killing of three or more victims, the number drops to 138 serial killers operating in 1987 and 26 in 2015. The number remains at two for 2019.

Discover magazine noted the downward trend and talked to experts about reasons for the possible decline.

The uptick can partly be explained by improved police work and data collection that made it possible to link murders more effectively, leading to an increased count. But other factors are also likely at play, experts told Discover.

One factor: DNA evidence is making it possible to track and find the offenders.

“Serial murder has become a more dangerous pursuit,” said Thomas Hargrove, founder of the Murder Accountability Project, in an interview with Discover.

James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at the Northeastern University, pointed to another factor: People are less vulnerable than in the past.

“People don’t hitchhike anymore,” he told Discover. “They have means of reaching out in an emergency situation using cellphones. There are cameras everywhere.”

13) This is a good story.  Racial desegregation in schools is… complicated.  “In Minneapolis Schools, White Families Are Asked to Help Do the Integrating
In a citywide overhaul, a beloved Black high school was rezoned to include white students from a richer neighborhood. It has been hard for everyone.”

14) So, this kind of annoyed me, “Hanukkah isn’t ‘Jewish Christmas.’ Stop treating it that way” because, Christmas (the religious holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus) is not Christmas (the completely secular holiday of gift-giving demarcated by elves, Santa, reindeer, etc.).  

15) That famous study you’ve probably heard about where hungry judges hand out harsher sentences is based on unrealistically large effect sizes that this post (from 4 years ago, but, new to me) nicely contextualizes.  

16) One thing I really like about Scott Alexander is that after writing a post on the need to more rapidly approve Covid antivirals, he publishes another post with the strongest pushback against his case.

17) Criminal Justice is tough.  Yes, we incarcerate too many people for too long.  And give too many people too high bail.  But the maniac who ran over a bunch of innocent people in a Wisconsin parade should never have been on the streets, 

18) I love that Drum refuses to just accept the consensus, digs into data, and pushes back.  Plus, I can worry less about my daughter using Instagram.

A while ago I asked if there were any academic types who had written a good summary of all the research about the impact of social media on teenage users. At least, I think I did. Maybe I only thought about doing it, because I can’t find it now. [Ah, here it is.]

In any case, it turns out that Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge have been compiling a list of research papers on this subject for the past couple of years. This prompted Haidt to write a piece for the Atlantic titled “The Dangerous Experiment on Teen Girls.” This article is very specifically about Instagram, not social media in general, and his argument goes approximately like this:

  1. Gen Z teen girls have been reporting increasingly high rates of anxiety and depression.
  2. This started happening between 2010-14, exactly the time that Instagram use became nearly universal among teens.
  3. In a 2017 survey by British researchers, teens rated Instagram as the most harmful of all social media platforms on measures of anxiety, loneliness, body image, and sleep.
  4. No other explanation for the rise in teen mental health problems makes sense.

By itself, this is not the most persuasive argument I’ve ever read. However, we can learn more by looking at the Haidt/Twenge list of research papers.

First off, they found 29 studies that showed an association between social media use and teen mental problems. They also found 11 studies showing no association.

This is moderately persuasive, though a 72% hit rate isn’t conclusive. A bigger problem is that the studies almost all found that effects kicked in only among teens who used social media a lot (4-5 hours per day or more). This immediately raises the question of whether (a) social media causes mental health problems or (b) teens with mental health problems seek out social media more obsessively.

This is an obvious question, and in a separate section Haidt and Twenge highlight studies designed to test causality. Most of them are experiments where teens are asked to eliminate (or cut back) social media use for a few weeks. At the end of the experiment their mood was compared with that of a control group that made no changes. Of the 13 “true experiments” they found, eight showed a causal effect and five showed no causal effect. This is suggestive, but even less conclusive than the association studies.

Overall, I’d call this moderately weak evidence…

My other problem was Haidt’s reference to the recently leaked Facebook documents as support for his thesis. But as I’ve pointed out before, there’s no there there:

Among teen girls, Instagram has a net negative effect on one thing (body image) and a net positive effect on everything else. This simply doesn’t support the argument that Instagram is an overall problem for teen girls.

All this said, there’s enough evidence here that it certainly suggests some caution is probably in order. And as it turns out, Haidt makes three proposals that are suitably cautious in turn. First, he wants social media companies to allow academic researchers access to their data. Second, he wants the age of “internet adulthood” to be raised from 13 to 16. Finally, he wants to encourage a norm among parents and schools of delaying use of social media until high school. None of these strike me as objectionable given the suggestive evidence we have.

Obviously research on social media and mental health is difficult to do well. Nevertheless, if we’re going to act responsibly instead of moving straight to our usual panic phase, we need something better than what we have now. In particular, we need a more thorough explanation of what happened in the 24 months between 2011 and 2013. Beyond that, we need higher quality studies of how social media affects teens, ideally using something better than self-reported hours of internet use (which is highly unreliable) and self-reported survey questions of mental health (also not terribly reliable). Let’s get cracking, researchers!

19) A nice take on Rittenhouse and guns from Michael Cohen:

In short, the usual political lines have been drawn. However, what’s missing from the post-trial coverage is what is seemingly always missing from the debates about gun violence in America — the gun…

Chekhov’s Gun

The weapon pictured above is a Smith & Wesson M&P 15. It’s the gun that Rittenhouse strapped on his body and displayed in public as he sought to “protect” local Kenosha businesses from demonstrators. It’s the sole reason why what happened that August night turned deadly.

Without a gun, Rittenhouse likely never travels to Wisconsin.

Without a gun, he doesn’t shoot his first victim, Joseph Rosenbaum.

Without a gun, Rittenhouse might have fled the scene once Rosenbaum, a man with a history of mental illness just released from the hospital following a suicide attempt, threatened his life.

Without a gun, he wouldn’t have needed to escape the scene and then been attacked by Joseph Huber, who hit him with a skateboard before Rittenhouse killed him.

Without a gun, Rittenhouse doesn’t shoot Gaige Grosskreutz, permanently maiming him.

Without a gun in his hand, Gaige Grosskreutz likely doesn’t get shot at all.

Without the proverbial Chekhov’s gun, would Rittenhouse — at the age of 17 — have been emboldened to walk the streets of Kenosha at night amidst a violent and tense situation?

If Rittenhouse hadn’t been carrying a semi-automatic rifle that night, there would be no murder, trial, and national debate. The presence of a gun — introduced, if you will, in the first act — is what led to tragedy.

Even if Rittenhouse still traveled to Kenosha, even if he still participated in the demonstrations that night, and even if Joseph Rosenbaum still threatened him, no one would have been shot — if not for the presence of a gun.

Rittenhouse would still have had the right to defend himself. But when individuals are permitted to carry guns and protect themselves with deadly force, people will die needlessly. And that’s precisely what happened in Kenosha. Even if one believes that the actions of Rosenbaum, Huber, and Grosskreutz were dangerous and provocative, none of them deserved to die.

Every act of gun violence; every mass shooting; every accidental discharge of a weapon; every suicide attempt that is a cry for help but turns deadly; every racially-tinged murder has its roots in the fact that we, as a society, have made the choice that ordinary Americans should be allowed near-unfettered access to guns.

Even police shootings, like the one of Jacob Blake, which sparked the demonstrations in Kenosha, have their roots in American gun laws. Why do American police officers kill so many Americans? They are trained to believe that every interaction with the public could become deadly, and for good reason: America is one of the most heavily armed countries in the world. Do police need better training and less permissive rules of engagement? Absolutely. But as long as guns are ubiquitous in our society, police will continue to kill innocent civilians they believe might have a gun. [emphasis mine]

20) Just discovered the new Showtime series “Yellowjackets” and really liked the first two episodes.

Quick hits (part I)

1) This is really good from deBoer, “The Failure of Occupy is Almost Complete”

The moneyed and the powerful have the money and the power. All the left has is people power, the potential of great masses to come together and, despite their demographic and cultural and lifestyle differences, recognize their shared self-interest and demand change.

And, well… how’s that going now? All contemporary liberals and leftists want to do is to chop that 99% up into smaller and smaller chunks, insisting to many of them that their problems aren’t really problems, setting up a hierarchy of suffering that is as inhospitable to real solidarity as I can imagine. There’s almost zero interest in a politics oriented around opposition to the kleptocracy that runs our system and steadily takes from those with too little and gives to those with too much. Yet that’s the biggest source of real human suffering in this country, need, unnecessary economic need that could be ameliorated by more equitably spreading the wealth. This is deeply related to the identity-based injustices that liberals are now fixated on seemingly to the exclusion of all others. I promise you, as desperately as we need policing and criminal justice reform in this country, poverty hurts more Black people more deeply every day than police do, by a country mile. And yet even the racial justice conversation has little time for questioning the basic distribution of money and power in our society. It’s far more invested in what I’ve called the Rainbow Oligarchy, diversifying our autocratic elite rather than tearing it down.

2) Emily Oster, “Should We Be Counting COVID Cases?”

Pulling this together

  • If our goal is to reduce serious outcomes, we should prioritize three things: vaccinations (lowers conversion from case to serious outcomes; lowers case rates); approving therapeutics and making them widely available (lowers conversion); and making rapid testing widely available and easy, and providing guidance about use (lowers case rates). 

    Together, these have the potential to somewhat impact case rates and to hugely impact conversion rates, and as a result dramatically limit serious outcomes. Prioritizing these things doesn’t mean ignoring the others. It doesn’t mean saying masks do not matter at all. But it’s about where we put our resources and what we emphasize in public messaging.

  • If our goal is to seriously target lower case rates, we need to move on effectively all of our case-reduction policy levers. We will need more continued and enforced mask mandates, more vaccines (and more boosters), probably more lockdowns or movement restrictions, and also better testing access. Even with more restrictions, we may be unable to shift case rates very much, although it seems likely it could have some impact.

These are statements about what is possible. Where does it leave us on how we might think about crafting policy?

Most importantly, it should make clear that the first step in making policy is to say what our goal is. Our current policy discussion is muddled because we haven’t said what we are aiming for. For public-health officials, municipalities, states, and even the federal government, the first step is to state what you are trying to do.

If the goal is to lower serious illness and death, we should pivot our focus away from marginally effective policies that target case rates and focus all in on the smaller set of highly effective policies that can achieve the goal. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t count case rates (data is good!), but it would mean that we shouldn’t make policy based on these rates. The focus should be on hospitalization, on tracking breakthrough hospitalizations in particular, on targeting therapeutics to areas with less vaccination, etc. The booster shot focus in this case should be on older adults or those who are immune compromised.

3) David Frum on what we might call the Russia Hoax hoax…

The usual suspects in the pro-Trump media ecosystem will of course endorse and repeat everything Trump says, no matter how outlandish. But it’s not pro-Trumpers who are leading the latest round of Trump-Russia denialism. This newest round of excuse-making is being sounded from more respectable quarters, in many cases by people distinguished as Trump critics. With Trump out of office—at least for the time being—they now feel free to subordinate their past concerns about him to other private quarrels with the FBI or mainstream media institutions. On high-subscription Substacks, on popular podcasts, even from within prestige media institutions, people with scant illusions about Trump the man and president are nonetheless volunteering to help him execute one of his Big Lies…

The Steele dossier undertook to answer the question “What the hell is going on with Trump and Russia?” The Senate Intelligence Committee found that the FBI investigation gave the Steele dossier “unjustified credence.” But the disintegration of the dossier’s answers has not silenced the power of its question.

It was to silence that question that the outgoing Trump administration appointed a special counsel of its own to investigate its investigators. John Durham has now issued three indictments, all for lying to the FBI about various aspects of the Steele dossier. None of these indictments vindicate Trump’s claims in any way. It remains fact that Russian hackers and spies helped his campaign. It remains fact that the Trump campaign welcomed the help. It remains fact that Trump’s campaign chairman sought to share proprietary campaign information with a person whom the Senate report identified as a “Russian intelligence officer.” It remains fact that Trump hoped to score a huge payday in Russia even as he ran for president. It remains fact that Trump and those around him lied, and lied, and lied again about their connections to Russia…

Anti-anti-Trump journalists want to use the Steele controversy to score points off politicians and media institutions that they dislike. But as media malpractice goes, credulous reliance upon the Steele dossier is just a speck compared with—for example—the willingness of the top-rated shows on Fox News to promote the fantasy that the Democratic Party hacked itself, then murdered a staffer named Seth Rich to cover up the self-hack. (Some versions of this false claim include suggesting that Rich himself committed the crime.) Fox News ultimately settled with Rich’s family for an undisclosed sum even as the Fox host who had done most to promote the false story insisted on his radio show that he had retracted nothing. The story was crazy and cruel. But the story protected Trump, and that was proof enough for a media organization much more powerful than any of those that accepted the Steele dossier…

So by all means, follow the trail on Steele. But be mindful that much of that trail was prepared by people who want to misdirect and mislead. Take care how far you step along that trail. Be alert to how the twists of the trail block your view of the surrounding landscape. Otherwise, you may discover too late that you have also been misdirected and misled, and that in setting out to explore a small truth, you have become a participant in the selling of a greater lie.

4) A big deal that got very little attention and good on Biden. Dylan Matthews, “Biden made one of the best decisions of his presidency this week: America is still 6 million jobs short compared to before Covid-19. Reappointing Jerome Powell as Fed chair could help with that.”

5) It was almost more fun reading the comments to this than the book summaries as the NYT asks readers to vote for the best book of the past 125 years from among 25 finalists.  Of course, I could not resist voting.  I went with 1984, Lolita, and the Great Gatsby.  

6) I spent a few hours yesterday watching most of the first episode of Peter Jackson’s new Beatles documentary.  Edit already!  A good documentary tells a compelling story.  There were super-compelling moments in here, but almost buried in so much unnecessary footage.  Loved the Guardian review.  I’ll watch the whole thing, but probably while writing blog posts and grading at the same time.

But the moments of inspiration and interest are marooned amid acres of desultory chit-chat (“aimless rambling”, as Lennon rightly puts it) and repetition. There is a point, about five hours in, when the prospect of hearing another ramshackle version of Don’t Let Me Down becomes an active threat to the viewer’s sanity. That is doubtless what recording an album is like, but for an onlooker it is – to use the language of 1969 – a real drag. Much opprobrium has been cast at Yoko Ono for her constant presence at Beatles’ recording sessions, but, after this, you marvel at her fortitude for sitting through them.

Also, seriously… John and Yoko?!  You’ve got four guys in a band sitting there working out songs and Yoko just sitting there next to John the whole damn time.  So weird.

7) This is really good. “How a Prosecutor Addressed a Mostly White Jury and Won a Conviction in the Arbery Case: Linda Dunikoski, a prosecutor brought in from the Atlanta area, struck a careful tone in a case that many saw as an obvious act of racial violence.”  As much as liberal id may have wanted a prosecutor to go all-in on the racism angle, the prosecutor just stuck with the damning facts to persuade an almost all white, south Georgia jury.  Smart!

8) When it comes to sports, the question that may just fascinate me most is “how much difference does coaching make?” from kids rec soccer to elite professional sports.  Rory Smith addresses this with regards to the Premier League:

The news media’s apparently insatiable obsession with condiments does, though, hint at a greater truth, one that generally goes unspoken, one that flirts with breaking the fourth wall: that managers, as a rule, do not matter as much as we think they do. For the most part, they are tinkering around the edges, their decisions and their choices and their approaches largely irrelevant to how their tenures will play out, their power limited not to their own destiny but to what players can have with their main courses.

That, certainly, is what almost every academic study on the influence of soccer managers has concluded. Some have entered popular discourse: the research in “Soccernomics” that estimated that a manager is responsible for only 8 percent of a team’s results; the work in “The Numbers Game” that placed the figure at around double that.

Some have remained adrift in academia — one, in 2013, found that interim managers tended to have more direct impact on results than permanent ones — but reached the same broad conclusion.

Only the true greats, people like Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger, had a tangible, discernible impact. Everyone else was at the mercy of factors not entirely within their control: a club’s financial potency, the quality of player on the books, the strength of their opponents. It is only necessary to glance at Paris St.-Germain to know that, even with a high-caliber manager and a high-quality squad, sometimes the mix is not right; something has to spark, something between chemistry and alchemy, to make things work.

That conclusion, though, is not quite as straightforward as it appears. Eight percent, to use the lowest available estimate, may not sound like a lot, but in the context of elite soccer, in particular, it is a huge and unwieldy variable.

This is a sport, after all, of fine margins: a brief loss of concentration, a slight tactical distinction, a single decision made instinctively by a brilliant player can all decide a game. That the identity of a single staff member can be directly responsible for almost a tenth of the outcome is proof not of a manager’s irrelevance, but of the opposite.

9) Good stuff from David Brooks, “The Terrifying Future of the American Right: What I saw at the National Conservatism Conference”

My old friend Rod Dreher of The American Conservative argued that because the left controls the commanding heights of the culture and the economy, the only institution the right has a shot at influencing is the state. In these circumstances the right has to use state power to promote its values. “We need to quit being satisfied with owning the libs, and save our country,” Dreher said. “We need to unapologetically embrace the use of state power.”

This is where Viktor Orbán comes in. It was Dreher who prompted Carlson’s controversial trip to Hungary last summer, and Hungarians were a strong presence at the National Conservatism Conference. Orbán, in Dreher’s view, understands the civilizational stakes of the culture war; he has, for instance, used the power of the state to limit how much transgenderism can be taught to children in schools. “Our team talks incessantly about how horrible wokeness is,” Dreher said at the conference. “Orbán actually does something about it.”…

The NatCons are wrong to think there is a unified thing called “the left” that hates America. This is just the apocalyptic menace many of them had to invent in order to justify their decision to vote for Donald Trump.

They are wrong, too, to think there is a wokeist Anschluss taking over all the institutions of American life. For people who spend so much time railing about the evils of social media, they sure seem to spend an awful lot of their lives on Twitter. Ninety percent of their discourse is about the discourse. Anecdotalism was also rampant at the conference—generalizing from three anecdotes about people who got canceled to conclude that all of American life is a woke hellscape. They need to get out more…

Finally, there is something extremely off-putting about the NatCon public pose. In person, as I say, I find many of them charming, warm, and friendly. But their public posture is dominated by the psychology of threat and menace. If there was one expression of sympathy, kindness, or grace uttered from the podium in Orlando, I did not hear it. But I did hear callousness, invocations of combat, and whiffs of brutality.

10) Apparently at home, 1-hour, PCR test are on the horizon.  Cool! But… expensive.

11) Missed this from Scott Alexander this summer.  Really, really interesting book review on How Asia Works

What was the best thing that ever happened? From a very zoomed-out, by-the-numbers perspective, it has to be China’s sudden lurch from Third World basketcase to dynamic modern economy. A billion people went from starving peasants to the middle class. In the 1960s, sixty million people died of famine in the Chinese countryside; by the 2010s, that same countryside was criss-crossed with the world’s most advanced high-speed rail network, and dotted with high-tech factories.

And the best thing that ever happened kept happening, again and again. First it was Japan during the Meiji Restoration. Then it was Korea and Taiwan in the 1960s. Then China in the 90s. Now Vietnam and others seem poised to follow.

(fun trivia question: ignoring sudden oil windfalls, what country has had the highest percent GDP growth over the past 30 years? Answer, as far as I can tell: the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos.)

There was nothing predetermined about this. These countries started with nothing. In 1950, South Korea and Taiwan were poorer than Honduras or the Congo. But they managed to break into the ranks of the First World even while dozens of similar countries stayed poor. Why?

Joe Studwell claims this isn’t mysterious at all. You don’t have to bring in culture, genetics, or anything complicated like that. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, etc, just practiced good economic policy. Any country that tries the same economic policy will get equally rich, as China and Vietnam are discovering. Unfortunately, most countries practice bad economic policy, partly because the IMF / World Bank / rich country economic advisors got things really wrong. They recommended free markets and open borders, which are good for rich countries, but bad for developing ones. Developing countries need to start with planned economies, then phase in free market policies gradually and in the right order. Since rich country economists kept leading everyone astray, the only countries that developed properly were weird nationalist dictatorships and communist states that ignored the Western establishment out of spite. But now the economic establishment is starting to admit its mistakes, giving other countries a chance to catch up.

How Asia Works is Studwell’s guide to good economic policy. He gives a three-part plan for national development. First, land reform. Second, industrial subsidies plus export discipline. Third, financial policy in service of the first two goals.

12) This article is a depressing reminder that while the online discourse may be about microagressions and cultural appropriation, real-live, disgusting, blatant racism still happens– and in a county and high schools not that far from me.

13) Also depressing here in NC, “31 NC, SC lawmakers join in letter laying out a path to overturn 2020 election, reinstate Trump”  The Republican party is so damn broken!

14) Good stuff from Waldman, “Biden does not have a messaging problem. And there’s no messaging solution.”

The pundits are in agreement: President Biden and his party have a messaging problem, which is why Biden’s approval ratings have sagged and Democrats look to be headed for defeat in the 2022 midterms.

Somewhere out there, this story goes, there is a powerful set of words that when uttered will alter this political trajectory and revive Biden’s fortunes, convincing Americans to appreciate the complicated legislation Democrats have passed and give Biden credit for what is, despite the presence of inflation, an incredibly successful economic recovery.

It’s nonsense. Yet smart and experienced people continue to believe it.

Biden needs to be reminded “how to use the bully pulpit,” says veteran reporter Joe Klein. “The Democratic Party’s entire brand was a wreck,” says Politico breathlessly, reporting on focus groups revealing that many voters can’t say exactly what the party stands for or what they’ve accomplished in Washington…

Here’s the truth: Biden isn’t getting credit for passing legislation because presidents almost never get credit for passing legislation. It just doesn’t register with the average person, whose understanding of Congress seldom goes beyond “Folks are fussing and fighting up there.”

Furthermore, the idea that Democrats suddenly have a brand identity problem is bizarre, since they haven’t had a crisply defined identity for the past 70 years or so. And that has been the case through both success and failure.

I once wrote a book arguing that Democrats should emulate the GOP’s success at distilling their ideology down to simple ideas that they repeat so everyone understands them, and that this was something Democrats had been unable to do. That book came out fifteen years ago.

15) This is not great (also, fascinating), “Humans Have Broken a Fundamental Law of the Ocean: The size of undersea creatures seemed to follow a strange but stable pattern—until industrial fishing came along.”

Life in the ocean, they discovered, followed a simple mathematical rule: The abundance of an organism is closely linked to its body size. To put it another way, the smaller the organism, the more of them you find in the ocean. Krill are a billion times smaller than tuna, for example, but they are also a billion times more abundant.

What was more surprising was how precisely this rule seemed to play out. When Sheldon and his colleagues organized their plankton samples by orders of magnitude, they found that each size bracket contained exactly the same mass of creatures. In a bucket of seawater, one third of the mass of plankton would be between 1 and 10 micrometers, another third would be between 10 and 100 micrometers, and the final third would be between 100 micrometers and 1 millimeter. Each time they would move up a size group, the number of individuals in that group dropped by a factor of 10. The total mass stayed the same, while the size of the populations changed.

Sheldon thought this rule might govern all life in the ocean, from the smallest bacterium to the largest whales. This hunch turned out to be true. The Sheldon spectrum, as it became known, has been observed in plankton, fish, and in freshwater ecosystems, too. (In fact, a Russian zoologist had observed the same pattern in soil three decades before Sheldon, but his discovery went mostly unnoticed). “It kind of suggests that no size is better than any other size,” says Eric Galbraith, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at McGill University in Montreal. “Everybody has the same size cells. And basically, for a cell, it doesn’t really matter what body size you’re in, you just kind of tend to do the same thing.”

16) The latest in the McDonald’s ice cream machine saga.  Personally, I’m just so glad I learned about McBroken from this. 

17) Also fascinating and disturbing in Wired, “It’s Time to Fear the Fungi: Humans have long been protected from fungal infections, thanks to our nice, warm blood. Climate change could ruin that.”

HUMANS SHOULD CONSIDER ourselves lucky that they don’t have to constantly worry about fungal infections. “If you were a tree, you’d be terrified of fungi,” says Dr. Arturo Casadevall, a microbiologist at Johns Hopkins university who studies fungal diseases. And if you happened to be a fish, a reptile, or an amphibian, fungus would also be quite high on your list of fears, were you able to enumerate them. (Fungal infections are known to wipe out snakes, fish, corals, insects, and more.) In recent years, a fungal infection called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (chytrid) has decimated amphibian populations around the world, with some scientists estimating that chytrid is responsible for population decline in over 500 amphibian species. To put that into context, that’s around one out of every 16 amphibian species known to science.

One of the reasons fungal infections are so common in so many creatures is that fungi themselves are ubiquitous. “This is dating myself, but you know the Sting song “Every Breath You Take”? Well, every breath you take you inhale somewhere between 100 and 700,000 spores,” says Andrej Spec, a medical mycologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “They’ve made it to the space station. They are absolutely everywhere.”

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