Quick hits (part I)

1) This was fun, “How Starship Troopers aligns with our moment of American defeat.”

2) I found this a very interesting take as how social justice is being sold as just one more product by which privileged white women can improve themselves:

This book inspired me to continue on the journey of personal growth that I’ve been on and gave me some fresh new perspectives to consider.

It is a resource and a guide; like having a learned teacher with you in the intimacy of your own home as you confront some of the most troubling and critical truths about yourself.

It wants you to meet your full potential, but YOU have to DO the work.

The journey is hard, but I assure you, it is worth it.

Half of these lines come from five-star reviews of contemporary self-help books. (Titles include Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis and the early-aughts law-of-attraction phenom The Secret.) The other half come from reviews of anti-racist handbooks, all of which rocketed to the top of bestseller lists this month amid a nationwide movement sparked by the May 26 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. (Titles include Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy, and, of course, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility.)

The similarities are eerie, but also unsurprising. Rachel Hollis’ guide to self-help through face hygiene and Robin DiAngelo’s manual for the white and fragile provoke the same sort of starry-eyed praise, using the same highly specific vocabulary (the word “journey” turns up with remarkable frequency), because of the fundamental similarities in what they’re selling—and, more importantly, because the same people are lining up to buy it.

Self-help has always been a woman’s game. Not that men don’t also seek to improve themselves, but the books targeted to them tend to assume an existing state of self-confidence: You’re great as you are, you could just be a little better. Men learn optimization, life hacks, the power of thinking without thinking: four-hour work weeks and other highly effective habits that are meant to help them build upon their innate perfection, like a software upgrade. Women, on the other hand, have faulty wiring that needs ripping out. Our most beloved self-help books are all about fixing something that came broken, delving into the psyche and excavating everything that’s wrong with you: Women are exhorted to work on themselves the way a weekend warrior might work on a vintage TransAm, tinkering endlessly, replacing parts, fixing one flaw only to find that the engine still won’t turn over, the real problem still buried somewhere under the hood. That you might actually get behind the wheel and drive out of the garage someday is a possibility so distant that it’s hardly worth thinking about. What matters is that whatever is wrong—with the engine, your life, the world—it’s definitely all your fault. (“YOU have to DO the work.”)

3a) This is kind of amazing– check it out, “The U.S. Is Lagging Behind Many Rich Countries. These Charts Show Why.”

Government policy and economic forces have combined to make corporations and the wealthy more powerful, and most workers and their families less powerful. These workers receive a smaller share of society’s resources than they once did and often have less control over their lives. Those lives are generally shorter and more likely to be affected by pollution and chronic health problems.

Here, we show you a series of measures — about power, living standards and more — for a variety of countries. Together, they portray the disturbing new version of American exceptionalism.

Lots of great charts, but NYT makes their charts a pain-in-the-butt to paste, really, check it out.

3b) Krugman, “Why Do the Rich Have So Much Power?”

Why do the wealthy have so much influence over politics?

Campaign contributions, historically dominated by the wealthy, are part of the story. A 2015 Times report found that at that point fewer than 400 families accounted for almost half the money raised in the 2016 presidential campaign. This matters both directly — politicians who propose big tax increases on the rich can’t expect to see much of their money — and indirectly: Wealthy donors have access to politicians in a way ordinary Americans don’t and play a disproportionate role in shaping policymakers’ worldview.

However, the influence of money on politics goes far beyond campaign contributions. Outright bribery probably isn’t much of a factor, but there are nonetheless major personal financial rewards for political figures who support the interests of the wealthy. Pro-plutocrat politicians who stumble, like Eric Cantor, the former House whip — who famously celebrated Labor Day by honoring business owners — quickly find lucrative positions in the private sector, jobs in right-wing media or well-paid sinecures at conservative think tanks. Do you think there’s a comparable safety net in place for the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Ilhan Omar?

And even the issues that the news media discuss often reflect a rich person’s agenda. Advertising dollars explain some of this bias, but a lot of it probably reflects subtler factors, like the (often false) belief that people who’ve made a lot of money have special insight into how the nation as a whole can achieve prosperity.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the fixation on cutting benefits in the early 2010s was the extent to which it was treated not as a controversial position but as the undeniably right thing to do. As Ezra Klein pointed out in The Washington Post at the time: “For reasons I’ve never quite understood, the rules of reportorial neutrality don’t apply when it comes to the deficit. On this one issue, reporters are permitted to openly cheer a particular set of highly controversial policy solutions.”

In a variety of ways, then, America’s wealthy exert huge political influence. Our ideals say that all men are created equal, but in practice a small minority is far more equal than the rest of us.

You don’t want to be too cynical about this. No, America isn’t simply an oligarchy in which the rich always get what they want. In the end, President Barack Obama presided over both the Affordable Care Act, the biggest expansion in government benefits since the 1960s, and a substantial increase in federal taxes on the top 1 percent, to 34 percent from 28 percent.

But while you shouldn’t be too much of a cynic, it remains true that America is less of a democracy and more of an oligarchy than we like to think. And to tackle inequality, we’ll have to confront unequal political power as well as unequal income and wealth.

4) So this was really different and interesting, “Alain de Botton on Existential Maturity and What Emotional Intelligence Really Means”

De Botton considers the type of learning with which the road to emotional maturity is paved:

The knack of our species lies in our capacity to transmit our accumulated knowledge down the generations. The slowest among us can, in a few hours, pick up ideas that it took a few rare geniuses a lifetime to acquire.

Yet what is distinctive is just how selective we are about the topics we deem it possible to educate ourselves in. Our energies are overwhelmingly directed toward material, scientific, and technical subjects and away from psychological and emotional ones. Much anxiety surrounds the question of how good the next generation will be at math; very little around their abilities at marriage or kindness. We devote inordinate hours to learning about tectonic plates and cloud formations, and relatively few fathoming shame and rage.

The assumption is that emotional insight might be either unnecessary or in essence unteachable, lying beyond reason or method, an unreproducible phenomenon best abandoned to individual instinct and intuition. We are left to find our own path around our unfeasibly complicated minds — a move as striking (and as wise) as suggesting that each generation should rediscover the laws of physics by themselves.

This irrational orientation to our emotional lives, De Botton argues, is our inheritance from the Romantics, who crowned the untrained intuition the supreme governing body of human conduct. (And yet the Romantics contained multitudes — for all their belief in the unalterable givenness of emotional reality and the fidelity of feeling, they had a glimmering recognition that reason must be consciously applied to reining in the wildness of the emotions. Mary Shelley, offspring of the greatest power couple of political philosophy, placed at the heart of Frankenstein — one of the most prescient and psychologically insightful works of literature ever composed, triply so for being the work of an eighteen-year-old girl — an admonition against the unbridled reign of the ego’s emotional cravings unchecked by reason and forethought of consequence.) Exception aside, De Botton’s broader point is excellent:

The results of a Romantic philosophy are everywhere to see: exponential progress in the material and technological fields combined with perplexing stasis in the psychological one. We are as clever with our machines and technologies as we are simple-minded in the management of our emotions. We are, in terms of wisdom, little more advanced than the ancient Sumerians or the Picts. We have the technology of an advanced civilization balancing precariously on an emotional base that has not developed much since we dwelt in caves. We have the appetites and destructive furies of primitive primates who have come into possession of thermonuclear warheads.

5) This headline, “We Have to Focus on Opening Schools, Not Bars.”  Bail them all out, but stop trying to open locations so clearly amenable to Covid spread, damnit!

6) This is a great post.  As I wrote a while back, Biden really needs to come out in favor of marijuana legalization.  Would be a huge political win, “The Marijuana Superweapon Biden Refuses to Use
Legalizing marijuana is extremely popular. So why won’t Joe Biden embrace the idea?”

Joe Biden won’t inhale.

Democrats eager for Biden to support legalization have theories about why he won’t. His aides insist they’re all wrong. It’s not, they say, because he’s from a generation scared by Reefer Madness. It’s not, they say, because he spent a career in Washington pushing for mandatory minimum sentencing and other changes to drug laws. It’s definitely not, according to people who have discussed the policy with him, because he’s a teetotaler whose father battled alcoholism and whose son has fought addiction, and who’s had gateway-drug anxieties drilled into him.

With legalization seeming such an obvious political win, all that’s stopping Biden, current and former aides say, is public health. He’s read the studies, or at least, summaries of the studies (campaign aides pointed me to this one). He wants to see more. He’s looking for something definitive to assure him that legalizing won’t lead to serious mental or physical problems, in teens or adults.

America appears to be moving on without him, and so are the future leaders of his party.

If Biden really has his eyes on public health, he should think about how many Black people end up in jail for marijuana sale and possession, argues Jackson, Mississippi, Mayor Chokwe Lumumba—a young Black progressive who oversaw local decriminalization in his city in 2018. Biden should also think about how an illicit, unregulated market is leading to the drug being laced with other chemicals, and the health effects of that, Lumumba told me. If Biden thinks marijuana is addictive, he said, then he should explain what makes it worse than alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine. Legalization is a necessary part of criminal-justice reform, Lumumba said. “I would encourage him and his campaign more broadly to do more research on some of the finer points,” he added.

Alternatively, John Fetterman, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, says Biden should think about how legalization could raise tax revenue in the post-pandemic economy of state budget deficits. “What better time than now to have that conversation?” Fetterman told me. Before the coronavirus outbreak, Fetterman spent a year traveling his state, including areas that mostly voted for Trump in 2016, proselytizing “commonsense” legalization. There’s even more reason to agree with him now, he said. “It’s the ultimate policy and financial low-hanging fruit,” he said. “If you’re not moved by the gross racial disparities, what state doesn’t need a couple hundred million more in revenue at this point?”

7) Good stuff from Megan McArdle, “Three steps to consider for a more pre-pandemic normal”

Here are three suggestions that deserve more attention.

First, move everything outdoors — as much as possible and much more than has been done already. Many buildings in this country are oversupplied with parking lots, so let’s use that stockpile. With the addition of a simple high roof, you’ve got a farmers market, a sidewalk cafe or an open-air cathedral.

Obviously, no one will sit down for a four-course meal in a Minnesota parking lot in January, no matter how many propane heaters are deployed. But most of the country is not Minnesota, and if the alternative is getting sick, some surprising things become tolerable. While staying with my covid-positive father in April, I kept all the windows in my bedroom open to a steady, damp, 35-degree wind and managed to put in a full workday. I’m not saying that’s ideal, but we’re long past searching for ideal solutions. We’re now hunting for adequate.

It’s urgent to mass-produce masks that better protect the wearer: ideally, N95 masks or the closest substitute available technology and materials allow. Moreover, these masks have to be produced here so our supply doesn’t get interrupted by the export bans that wreaked havoc with U.S. supply chains in February and March. The federal government should be prepared to fund literally any amount of capital investment in the necessary space and equipment. Even if those investments become worthless the day a vaccine rolls out, they will pay for themselves by helping to steady the economy over the coming months or years.

Third, we need not just freely available mass testing but also a reliable process for certifying a recent test result — and a lack of shame about demanding to see a very recent certificate before letting someone into your home or place of business. Before I left my dad in Massachusetts and returned to my covid-free husband and mother, I took an Abbott Labs rapid test at a drive-through CVS clinic that returned results in less than an hour. Such options need to be within walking or driving distance of everyone in the country, and we need to create a social norm about getting tested often, possibly weekly, if you want to be out and about.
These are big, ambitious adaptations. They will be costly. They will be annoying. They will be very, very hard for governments and businesses to execute competently. In fact, the only thing that can be said for them is that they aren’t the two failed solutions we’ve already tried: ignoring the virus in the hope that it won’t be so bad or huddling in our houses and waiting for a medical breakthrough that may be years away.

8) I can see why Jojo Rabbit might not be for everybody, but damn did I love that movie.  I thought I would modestly enjoy it, but just loved it.

9) Good interview with Larry Brilliant on Covid:

OK, we know to wear a mask. But should we still be swabbing everything with Clorox?

The virus does not exist very long in fomites. I mean you’re talking about a very small percentage of cases that are caused by the pencil, the toilet seat—asterisks on toilet seats, because if you don’t have a cover on the toilet seat, and somebody who’s got Covid takes a poop, you create an aerosol so that can spread. But if you look at the things that we worried about, like the Amazon box that comes to the door, the fact that the virus can do that doesn’t mean it does do that. I don’t scrub my groceries at all. If an Amazon box comes, I open it right away. I’m mostly worried about face-to-face transmission by somebody you have had a conversation with, or you’re stuck in an elevator with, or you’re seated next to somebody at a rock show or at a bar. I don’t go do any of those things. I don’t go to lectures, I don’t go out…

Speaking of ending the curse, how do we get out of this mess?

We can still get to that inverted V, but we have to do three different things. First, we have to develop a way to deal with the clusters—nursing homes, refugee settlements, immigrant workershomeless encampments. We should look to Japan, which had similar problems, and they created a team which called the Cluster Busters. In an act of humility, we should be inviting the Japanese epidemiologists to come and teach us their techniques for being Cluster Busters.

The second thing that we should be doing is basic epidemiology 101. We should be finding every active case. You find someone who has symptoms of the disease, and a human being talks to them and identifies all the people they’ve been in contact with, looking backwards to try to find where the disease came from, what was their source of the disease. Those who test positive, you either treat them or you quarantine them for 14 days. Those who test negative, you isolate them for 14 days. You do whatever the hell you need to do, because you’ve got to stop the virus from walking into a bar. It’s not a joke. You’ve got to stop the virus from walking into a super-spreader event.

Some people say you can do that in a culture like South Korea or Japan, but that’s not how Americans behave.

We have to do this in a particularly American way—we have to pay them money! I am a cosigner of a bipartisan bit of prospective legislation. Our proposal is $50 billion out of a $2 trillion set of stimulus packages—$50 billion that will pay people who are contact-traced and who test positive or are suspected of having the disease. Pay them $50 a day for 14 days to quarantine, so they don’t spread the disease. We want to pay for their hotel lodgings. And we want to hire 150,000 contact tracers and pay for the software that does contact tracing.

Maybe we should have done that months ago. Isn’t it too late for that?

It’s less effective, obviously, when you have 3 million cases and 130,000 deaths in the US than when you had 15. But it’s never too late to stop a virus from spreading.

What’s the third thing?

A sensible, nationwide requirement for those places where there are clearly going to be super-spreader events to stay closed: bars, indoor restaurants, churches, megachurches, the kinds of places that we know will spread the disease. Those places can’t be reopened.

10) Great piece from Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern on John Roberts:

There will be much discussion in the coming weeks about the revelations of the Supreme Court’s COVID-19 term. But perhaps more than anything, we should focus on the battle of the titans that has played out this year between Chief Justice John Roberts and President Donald Trump. It certainly has been a years-in-the-making enterprise: Roberts was showing signs of Trump fatigue by the end of last term, and his frustration with the Trump administration’s shoddy lawyering and outright fabrication was evident by the time he thwarted the administration’s effort to put a citizenship question on the census. It’s fair to say that, by this time last year, it was clear that Roberts, a lifelong conservative, was—unlike many other lifelong conservatives—not prepared to give up on every institutional and ideological principle he’d ever held in order to cater to Trump’s tempestuous whims. It was also clear that Roberts would prioritize public respect for the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary over short-term gains for the president and his party.

This was evident not just in his judicial writing. It was clear when he punched back at Trump’s claims that there were “Trump judges and Obama judges” and again when he defended judges (including Merrick Garland) in his annual state of the judiciary report this past winter. It was also why we didn’t think Roberts would rush to intervene dramatically in the impeachment process. Whereas almost everyone in Trump’s ambit has proved to be almost fanatically transactional in their dealings with the president, credit Roberts with being principled. He has signaled, time and again, that he cares more about keeping the court above reproach, and above partisan politics, particularly in an election year.

To that end, the term-ending financial documents decisions are a masterwork. Both Mazars and Vance read as resounding victories for centuries-old principles about the limits of presidential immunity and Congress’ legitimate authority to conduct executive oversight. Both were interpreted as blistering losses for Donald Trump by Donald Trump. Yet they will compel the lower courts to dither and squabble in ways that will keep the financial documents away from the public eye for months if not years. You can’t help but admire the deftness of Roberts’ ability to simultaneously split the baby, persuade both sides that they won, and score indisputable points for judicial supremacy, all while also achieving nothing immediate.

11) One of the reasons I’m such a big fan of nuclear power is that I think the innovations in nuclear power technology are pretty amazing and truly can give us safe, carbon-free, power at an affordable cost.  Nuclear power balls seem pretty awesome.  Nuclear ‘Power Balls’ May Make Meltdowns a Thing of the Past: Triso particles are an alien-looking fuel with built-in safety features that will power a new generation of high-temperature reactors.”

12) This is a pretty cool study on how likely a false negative Covid PCR test is by day:

Over the 4 days of infection before the typical time of symptom onset (day 5), the probability of a false-negative result in an infected person decreases from 100% (95% CI, 100% to 100%) on day 1 to 67% (CI, 27% to 94%) on day 4. On the day of symptom onset, the median false-negative rate was 38% (CI, 18% to 65%). This decreased to 20% (CI, 12% to 30%) on day 8 (3 days after symptom onset) then began to increase again, from 21% (CI, 13% to 31%) on day 9 to 66% (CI, 54% to 77%) on day 21.

Notice, even on the “best” day, you are looking at 21% false negative.

13) EJ Dionne, “A vicious culture war is all Trump has left”

14) Frum on Supreme Court decisions on Trump’s taxes:

The Supreme Court rebuked Donald Trump, the arrogant president. The Supreme Court has prepared a world of trouble for Donald Trump, the dirty businessman. But the Supreme Court has done a tremendous favor to Donald Trump, the candidate for reelection.

Trump’s legal arguments to protect his business records from subpoena were always miserably flimsy, when not actively crazy. On Trump’s behalf, the Department of Justice urged the Supreme Court to junk precedents dating back to the 1880s. Government lawyers proposed that the Court invent a fantastical new system of judicial oversight of subpoenas of the president. Those arguments were always bound to lose, and in a pair of decisions on Thursday, the Court rejected them.

But Trump’s legal strategy was cannier than his legal arguments. The strategy was to play for time, to push the day of reckoning beyond November 2020. That strategy has now paid off…

Trump has lived his whole life one jump ahead of the law. As The New York Timesreported in 2018, relying on documents provided by the president’s own niece, Trump “participated in dubious tax schemes during the 1990s, including instances of outright fraud,” that enlarged the fortune he inherited. In 2019, ProPublicapresented evidence that Trump might have committed bank fraud. Completing this presidential term with the cops breathing down his neck may not be comfortable for Trump, but it will not be unfamiliar or unmanageable for him.

What Trump has never before faced—and what, thanks to the Supreme Court, he will not face before November—is a public reckoning for his acts. He has lived a lie, presenting himself as a great American businessman. In the eyes of much of the American electorate, that lie will continue past Election Day.

15) This headline sounds really scary, “Research is coalescing around the idea that coronavirus antibodies may last just a few months” but when you actually read the whole article it is not nearly so dire.  The human immune system is complicated and it does seem pretty clear that the vast majority of people will not be able to be re-infected with Covid-19 in a matter of months (among other things, we’d actually be seeing that already, and we’re not).

16) I really don’t think NC Park authorities need to be limiting the number of visitors to our outdoor parks.  I know they can get crowded, but there’s just so little outdoor transmission.  I’ll take my chance in a crowded state park for two hours over 45 minutes in a 50% capacity restaurant any day.

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