The illogic of pandemic restrictions

We know so much about how Covid is spread now.  If we could, as a society, just follow the science, we’d be so much better off.  It’s one thing for ordinary individuals to not exactly behave rationally.  Not everybody has the time to obsess over epidemiology like certain unnamed bloggers.  But, damn, should our governments being do so much better on thoughtful policy responses to Covid.  Of course, in the end, like pretty much everything in the world, it’s explained by politics.

This was a great article from Amanda Mull, “The Logic of Pandemic Restrictions Is Falling Apart: This is why you can eat in a restaurant but can’t have Thanksgiving. ​​​”

Across America, this type of honest confusion abounds. While a misinformation-gorged segment of the population rejects the expert consensus on virus safety outright, so many other people, like Josh, are trying to do everything right, but run afoul of science without realizing it. Often, safety protocols, of all things, are what’s misleading them. In the country’s new devastating wave of infections, a perilous gap exists between the realities of transmission and the rules implemented to prevent it. “When health authorities present one rule after another without clear, science-based substantiation, their advice ends up seeming arbitrary and capricious,” the science journalist Roxanne Khamsi recently wrote in Wired. “That erodes public trust and makes it harder to implement rules that do make sense.” Experts know what has to be done to keep people safe, but confusing policies and tangled messages from some of the country’s most celebrated local leaders are setting people up to die.

Since my conversation with Josh, the internal logic of New York’s coronavirus protocols has deteriorated further. As more and more New Yorkers have become sick, officials have urged people to skip Thanksgiving, because of the danger of eating indoors with people you don’t live with. Rather than closing indoor dining, however, Cuomo has ordered all restaurants and bars simply to close by 10 p.m. This curfew also applies to gyms, which are not exactly hotbeds of late-night activity even in normal times. Meanwhile, case counts have risen enough to trigger the closure of New York City public schools, but businesses still have full discretion to require employees to come into work. (Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)  

It isn’t just New York; in states across the country, local officials have urged caution and fastidiousness. But those words can seem tenuously connected, at best, to the types of safety measures they’ve put in place. In Rhode Island, for example, residents are prohibited from gathering with even one person outside their household, even in the open air of a public park. But inside a restaurant? Well, 25 people is fine. Hire a caterer? You’re legally cleared to have up to 75 outdoors. The governor’s executive order merely notes: “The lower attendance at such events, the lower the risk.” (The Rhode Island governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)

Why this illogic?  Politics, of course:

As time goes by, you’d think that local governments would get better at setting restrictions fine-tuned to protect people’s safety, not worse. But beneath this contradiction lies a fundamental conflict that state and local leaders have been forced to navigate for the better part of a year. Amid the pandemic, the people they govern would generally be better served if they got to stay home, stay safe, and not worry about their bills. To govern, though, leaders also need to placate the other centers of power in American communities: local business associations, real-estate developers, and industry interest groups. These groups, whose businesses have cratered, have been vocal about their desire to see people go back to their jobs and pay their rent on time and in full. Just as these kinds of groups have developed an outsize influence on how policies are made on a national level, they also have significant sway in state and local politics…

The best way to resolve this conflict would probably be to bail out workers and business owners. But to do that at a state level, governors need cash on hand; currently, most of them don’t have much. The federal government, which could help states in numerous ways, has done little to fill state coffers, and has let many of its most effective direct-aid programs expire without renewal. Those programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits and lump-sum relief checks, were so successful that they briefly prevented the poverty rate from rising at a time when more people than ever were suddenly out of work.

Of course, we’re not getting more of this much-needed federal policy response, because… Republicans.

With people out of work and small businesses set up to fail en masse, America has landed on its current contradiction: Tell people it’s safe to return to bars and restaurants and spend money inside while following some often useless restrictions, but also tell them it’s unsafe to gather in their home, where nothing is for sale. It’s a woefully inadequate stimulus plan, funded by money extracted little by little from the pockets of people who are mostly just confused about what they’re being compelled to do. Service workers—the people at highest risk of contracting the virus in restaurants, bars, and gyms—are rarely part of a union, which would make it easier for them to take collective action to protect themselves. If they were, their situations might be closer to that of teachers in some cities, whose unions have won them strict protections, including the cancellation of in-person classes once local caseloads rise past predetermined rates.

No, it wouldn’t be perfect if the Republican Senate signed off on the trillions in state aid we actually need (we’d still have all these damn anti-maskers, for one), but it would certainly go along way towards helping state and local governments create far more logical, safe, and effective policy regimes.

Quick hits (part II)

1) Chait on Republicans and fossil fuel:

For more than a decade, the GOP has stood alone among major right-of-center parties in industrialized democracies worldwide in its refusal to endorse climate science. But during the Trump era, the party’s rhetorical emphasis shifted. The major Republican point of agreement is now to insist on fossil-fuel use as an inherent good.

The conservative Washington Examiner reported not long ago on what kinds of climate policies, if any, Republicans may support under a Biden administration. Most of the Republicans queried for the story implicitly agree that climate change is a problem but insist that big government is not the solution. Their buzzword is innovation. A spokesperson for Senator John Barrasso, chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, explains, “He believes free-market innovation, not government taxation or regulation, is the best way to address climate change.” Representative Tom Reed says, “You lead with innovation.” And the Chamber of Commerce likewise asserts, “It’s OK to have ambitions, goals, and targets, but our focus is on innovation and technology.”

“Innovation” sounds like promising grounds for cooperation. The green-energy sector has seen an explosion of innovation over the past decade, with the price of solar energy, batteries, and other green technology plummeting rapidly.

But what kind of innovation do Republicans want? Halfway through the Examiner story, we arrive at the bottom line: “Republicans remain opposed to any policies that would reduce fossil-fuel use.”

Well, then, that would rule out any policy. Innovation in this case actually means keeping all the incumbent energy technologies in place permanently. In other words, their actual priority is the opposite of innovation.

A recent Wall Street Journal editorial explains that any policy to curtail climate change poses an inherent threat to American security. Increased oil-and-gas production “has made the U.S. less dependent on foreign producers and the U.S. economy less hostage to the vagaries of the world oil market,” the editorial reasons. “The fall in oil prices, thanks in part to U.S. production, has reduced the clout of dictators in oil-producing countries like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro.”

The Journal’s editorial page doesn’t even seem to understand the basic concept of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Obviously, it’s true that replacing domestic oil and gas with imports of foreign oil and gas would be bad for American security; it would also do nothing to limit climate change. That’s why, of all the plans to limit greenhouse-gas emissions, zero percent involve shifting to more imported oil and gas. Instead, their goal is to reduce the consumption of oil and gas, either through conservation measures (such as more efficient combustion engines) or a switch to renewable energy.

The ultimate objective is carbon neutrality. That wouldn’t make the U.S. dependent upon imported oil and gas! It would, in fact, make the U.S. completely energy-reliant, because that’s how energy from the sun and wind works.

Republicans can backfill any rationale they want. Their bottom-line position will be an opposition to any measures that reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Every factor bearing on their energy position will push in the same direction: the politics of propping up jobs and profits in the fossil-fuel sector; the ideology of opposing new taxes, spending, or regulation to push for decarbonization; and the partisan imperative of demonizing any agenda Joe Biden settles on.

2) Good stuff from Clare Malone from a few weeks ago, “How Trump changed America”

But Trump’s great insight was understanding and accepting that the GOP’s base didn’t care all that much about the party elite’s core ideology: taxes, small government, free trade. Rather, they connected with the cultural signifiers the party had so cleverly carved out: guns, political incorrectness, anti-abortion sentiment, etc. Trump won the GOP primaries by giving the people what they wanted. He blamed Mexicans for woes that were better attributed to the changing nature of the world economy, which left some places in America far behind, the result of complex decisions and electoral choices over decades. The GOP under Trump embraced the conspiracy theory as campaign rhetoric, reversed platform positions and generally abandoned its ideological core.

What was left was that contrarianism. The Democrats had Obamacare; the Republicans had “repeal and replace.” The mainstream press had facts; the GOP had a retort of “fake news.” And scientists had proof of climate change, while the GOP called efforts to reverse it “extremism” without offering an alternative solution.

The contrary impulses of Trump’s GOP revealed its full impotence when COVID-19 struck. As health professionals worked to discover best practices in the midst of a pandemic, Trump and his party succumbed to their default instincts of questioning “the establishment”; Trump’s genius has always been in the PR department, realizing the seductive power of thumbing your nose at authority. The doctors said masks were good, but Trump and other Republicans called them an impingement on liberty. Increasing scientific evidence showed the simple act of wearing a mask is a way to help control the pandemic, but Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows said, “We’re not going to control the pandemic,” just before the election. More than 230,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, but after Trump contracted and beat the novel coronavirus, he told the country that it wasn’t such a bad disease after all.

Contrarianism has real-world effects. Deadly ones. When the crisis finally hit with full force (the president having known about its lethal potential for months despite publicly playing down its potential impact), Pence was charged with heading up the White House’s COVID-19 task force, a group now inextricably linked to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Like the GOP at large, Pence bolstered the fragile self-image of a president, abandoning his responsibilities to the American public in the process. Cromwell had to deal with some unpleasantness too, overseeing the executions of friends and innocents. He did so in the name of king and country, the deaths a necessary cleansing.

3) If any of you want a better understanding of vaccine and immunity, this is literally the best conversation I’ve read (you can read transcript or listen to audio).  

4) This was very true, “What Donald Trump Liked About Being President; He preferred the parts of the job that combined pomp, splendor and a world amenable to his decisions. In other words, he always seemed to genuinely enjoy pardoning turkeys.”

In some ways, Mr. Trump had seemed to imagine his Washington life more closely resembling a rolling turkey pardon — the pomp and splendor, yes, but also a world largely amenable to his boss-man bearing and binary whims: This bird is spared. Those birds are not. He’d have his people call the turkey people and hammer out the fine print later. But through it all, his word would be final.

But for Mr. Trump, the more consistent reality of the presidency, laced with briefings and congressional obstacles and impeachment and criticism, has never quite measured up.

5) Quite the interesting academic controversy, “After scalding critiques of study on gender and mentorship, journal says it is reviewing the work”

That conclusion, and the methods used to reach it, have drawn scalding criticism. On social media, many researchers asserted the data set was misused, arguing that mentorship relationships and senior standing were poorly defined, and that citation rate alone is not an adequate measure of a blossoming scientist’s success. And many pointed out that, even if the findings were valid, there was no justification to jump to discouraging female-female mentorships, especially because the paper gave little consideration to institutionalized biases that might account for the data. All the study accomplished, critics say, is to find evidence of systemic sexism. And it proposed more sexism as a solution, they added, by encouraging female researchers to avoid working with other women. Hundreds of researchers from across the spectrum of scientific disciplines have demanded the paper’s reconsideration and sought to form teams to draft rebuttals.

“The conclusions … are based on flawed assumptions and flawed analysis,” wrote Rockefeller University neurobiologist Leslie Vosshall in an open letter to Nature Communications calling for the paper’s retraction. “I find it deeply discouraging that this message—avoid a female mentor or your career will suffer—is being amplified by your journal.”

I’m totally with Nicholas Christakis’ take:

And, as long as I’ve got Christakis here, I am so tired of the social justice left weaponiing “harm” in the case everyone they disagree with.  So wrong and I think, quite often, bad faith.  Check out this case:


6) I knew RCP was a right-wing website, but I never used them for anything other than poll average’s and Sean Trende’s trenchant analysis.  Apparently, they’ve gone way more right-wing under Trump.  Reader beware.  

7) And here’s another terrific interactive NYT feature.  If you enjoy art history at all or colonial American history at all, you must check this out.  So, so cool.  “The Myth of North America, in One Painting”

8) This sounds about right, “Boeing’s 737 Max Is a Saga of Capitalism Gone Awry: A corporate culture that privileged profits over safety had terrible consequences.”

Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration cleared the Max to fly again, bringing to an end the longest grounding of a commercial jet. But the saga has shattered Boeing’s once-sterling reputation. As an avalanche of investigations and reporting over the past 20 months made clear, the true cause of the crashes wasn’t faulty software. It was a corporate culture gone horribly wrong.

“The Boeing Company for a good part of a century was the foremost and best airplane manufacturer in the world, but they got infected,” Representative Peter DeFazio, chairman of the House transportation committee, which led an investigation into the crashes, told me. “They started watching Wall Street. They started tying executive bonuses to stock performance. It was greedy executives doing shortsighted things to pad their pockets.”

What made the crashes so vexing is that it was impossible to pin the blame on one central villain. Instead, the whole company seemed to be at fault. Time and again, Boeing executives and engineers didn’t take warning signs seriously enough, opted against adopting additional precautions and made decisions for the sake of saving money or raising profits.

The new software, which had the power to repeatedly push down the plane’s nose, relied on only one sensor. That gave the Max a single point of failure, a cardinal sin in aviation engineering, an area where safety redundancy is usually built into every system. In both crashes, that single sensor failed, causing the software to go haywire…

How could something like this happen at Boeing?

The company is an American icon. It helped usher in the age of commercial aviation and produced planes like the 747. Boeing’s World War II-era bombers were built in the factory where the Max was born. Boeing engineers helped NASA put men on the moon. The company builds Air Force One, the F-15 fighter jet, the Apache attack helicopter and more.

Yet in recent decades, Boeing — like so many American corporations — began shoveling money to investors and executives, while shortchanging its employees and cutting costs.

9) Always good to read Larry Brilliant on Covid:

So what is the unexpected bad news?

First the biological bad news. This virus creates a disease that is godawful. There are long-haul effects. Everybody who has gotten Covid is likely to have a preexisting condition in the sense of insurance, and we don’t know what that means yet in terms of our health care system. There will be people who will never return to who they were before. We still don’t understand the pathogenesis of this disease. And one really sad thing for me as an epidemiologist is we’ve now got rabbits and minks and cats and nonhuman primates who are able to get the disease, carry the disease, spread the disease, and in some cases spread it to humans. In other words, there may be animal reservoirs that make it theoretically impossible to eradicate this disease.

Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.

But here’s really the worst thing. Back in March, every epidemiologist would have agreed that if we got a coronavirus spillover into humans, this is about what would have happened. But no one could have predicted such incompetence in the government of the United States of America. Nobody would have expected the manipulation of science for political aims. And, worse than all of that, ignoring the pandemic as if it didn’t exist. It’s frustrating to the docs working in emergency rooms and ICUs to watch patients die in front of their eyes and then have to go out and listen to the politicians. You have the governor of North Dakota saying that if you’re a nurse and tested positive for Covid [without symptoms] you have to go to work anyway. And what about Trump, who hasn’t even thought of a way to deal with the pain and sorrow? …

With the rise in cases now, should we be having more lockdowns?

Ah, the lockdown question. No. If you eliminated the politics and if you were mindful of the economics, a decision could be made that was based on epidemiology or medicine rationally. But you can’t eliminate the politics or the economics, can you? One of the few things Trump says I like is that the treatment can’t be worse than the disease. He is saying that as an excuse, but there is an element of truth to that. Since I’m quoting people, let me quote the wonderful Tony Fauci, who said the cavalry is coming.

The cavalry might be coming, but they’re like a couple hundred miles away and we’re surrounded now. That didn’t help the people in the Alamo.

No, no. It’s three to six months away. So the question is, what do we do for three to six months? You ask yourself, where are these superspreader events, where are the clusters? You can’t see them because there’s so much disease, you can’t penetrate through that cloudy mist. But we do know in general that people standing at bars, romancing each other with no mask on and a glass of wine in their hands, are superspreader events about to happen. We do know the danger of small gatherings in homes around Thanksgiving time, when people let down their mask and let down their guard. So we could say that any face-to-face activity indoors that lasts more than 15 minutes, that that’s got to be postponed until the cavalry—the vaccines—actually arrives. But there’s a lot more things we can do now too. We now have protocols. You can have Hollywood productions go on and no disease transmitted on those production sites. We were able to have a Democratic convention that went on with no disease transmitted because people wore masks, they socially distanced, they closed every other stall in the bathrooms, they installed MERV-13 or 14 filters. So you don’t have to use a shotgun and close the whole economy, which you had to do back in March, April, and May. You can do a series of rifle shots, do more pinpoint closings and mandates. We need to arrive at a point where 85 or 90 percent of people are wearing face masks all the time. That’s the single most important thing that we can do, and they have to be the right face masks.

10) Steven Levy on the substack craze:

Can paid newsletters scale to be an important part of journalism, as Substack hopes? Newton is right that only a few thousand readers can get him a star salary—even after Substack’s 10 percent fee, 3,000 readers at $100 a year would put him in the top tier of industry pay, and if he gets to five or six thousand readers, he’s definitely well into the penthouse region of journalistic paychecks. But getting those readers is hard, especially if the Substack model proves successful and hundreds of other writers are tempting readers to pay for their unique and glorious content. How many can people afford? Even in these nascent days, there’s a term for the problem:“subscription fatigue.” Substack’s Best says that having that problem would mean that the model is working, but he admits that it might affect his company’s growth. “How much people are going to want to spend on stuff is obviously not unlimited,” he admits. One thing is certain—to keep readers coming back, these newsletter writers must keep delivering tangible value. Otherwise they might wonder why they are paying more than half the standard subscription price of the New York Times for the musings of a single writer.

I suspect that in the long run, star writers like Newton or the former Rolling Stone scribe Matt Taibbi, another Substack luminary, will eventually rejoin bigger publications, just as orbiting objects in space are inevitably sucked in by Earth’s gravity. Among other things, it’s simply more fun to communicate with potentially millions of readers as opposed to a few thousand paying customers. And when Covid fades, there will be newsroom culture once more, with all its exhilirating intrigues and distractions.

Nonetheless, the Substack model has a future. It is perfect for enterprising reporters—ambitious newcomers, disgruntled mid-termers, and post-buyout veterans—to pick an unfilled niche that serves the obsessions or business needs of small groups of people with some cash to spend. Think of it as edge journalism: covering the hell out of beats that traditional publications haven’t even thought of, or if they did, wouldn’t assign a full-time reporter to obsessively research.

11) Good news/research on masks and exercise, “Wearing a Mask During Workouts Really Isn’t So Bad: Two new studies found little downside to donning masks during vigorous exercise. And wearing a mask may do much good.”

The first of the groups to release their findings, which were published in September in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, concentrated on surgical and N95 respiratory masks during exercise. The researchers, most of them affiliated with the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa, Israel, invited 16 healthy, active adult men to come into the lab, where they checked heart rates, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, respiratory rates and current carbon dioxide levels. Then they fitted the men with thin, nasal tubes that would collect their expired breaths for testing and, on three separate visits to the lab, asked them to ride a stationary bicycle.

At each visit, the men, in fact, completed a pedal-to-exhaustion test, during which the researchers gradually increased the resistance on the stationary bike, as if on a long, relentless hill climb, until the men could barely turn the pedals. Throughout, the researchers monitored the riders’ heart rates, breathing and other physiological measures and asked them repeatedly how hard the riding felt.

During one ride, the men’s faces were uncovered. But for the two other sessions, they donned either a disposable paper surgical mask or a tightfitting N95 respirator mask.

Afterward, the scientists compared the riders’ physiological and subjective responses during each ride and found few variations. Masking had not made the cycling feel or be more draining and had not tired riders sooner. The only substantial effect was from N95 masks, which slightly increased levels of carbon dioxide in riders’ breaths, probably because the masks fit so tightly. But none of the riders complained of chest tightness, headaches or other breathing issues.

12) Emily Oster, “Schools are not spreading covid-19. This new data makes the case.”

But as the country grapples with how to educate kids while also curbing the coronavirus, the emphasis on transmission in schools may be misplaced. The best available data suggests that infection rates in schools simply mirror the prevalence of covid-19 in the surrounding community — and that addressing community spread is where our efforts should be focused…

To determine whether schools are superspreader locations, we need to be able to calculate the infection rates in those schools and evaluate them side-by-side with infection rates in the community. Unfortunately, this is difficult, for several reasons related to limited data-keeping. But New York state has recently started publishing comprehensive data for all schools that allows for this comparative analysis. What it shows should make us optimistic that schools are not sources of superspreading.

This side-by-side comparison of the New York data focuses on the period between Oct. 12 and Nov. 6. For clarity, I’ve divided all Zip codes in the state — 1,071 total — into six “buckets,” based on the prevalence of covid-19 in those communities. The lowest bucket includes all Zip codes with fewer than three covid cases per 100,000 people; the highest includes Zip codes with 20 or more cases per 100,000 people; the rest are distributed in between.

I then looked at all schools within the Zip codes that constitute each bucket. For these schools, I calculated the prevalence of covid-19 among three different populations: elementary and middle school students; high school students; and faculty and staff at all schools. The average infection rates among these populations determine those points’ placement on the y-axis.

Once these figures are plotted, we can see that, for high-school students and staff, the rates are similar to population case rates. For elementary and middle school students, they are lower — which we would expect, given the generally lower disease rate in younger children…

Other countries have managed to keep schools open even while locking everything else down. They see the essential need for in-person schooling and have been willing to invest the resources necessary to make sure this continues safely. In the United States, especially as infection rates continue to rise, it’s not surprising that teachers are afraid to return to the classroom. They understandably want and deserve better personal protective equipment, testing, contact tracing and ventilation.

But what the data increasingly shows is that the best way to protect teachers and students isn’t to shut down schools. It’s to focus on all the measures that will keep them — and their families, friends and neighbors — safe outside the classroom.

I’m an independent-minded conformist

Enjoyed this essay from Paul Graham that has a typology of conformism and ideas on how to cultivate more independent thinking.  It was thought-provoking, in part, because I don’t actually feel like I fit into this typology.  In some ways I’m very much an independent thinker, and, in others, quite the conformist.  Anyway:

There are some kinds of work that you can’t do well without thinking differently from your peers. To be a successful scientist, for example, it’s not enough just to be correct. Your ideas have to be both correct and novel. You can’t publish papers saying things other people already know. You need to say things no one else has realized yet.

The same is true for investors. It’s not enough for a public market investor to predict correctly how a company will do. If a lot of other people make the same prediction, the stock price will already reflect it, and there’s no room to make money. The only valuable insights are the ones most other investors don’t share.

You see this pattern with startup founders too. You don’t want to start a startup to do something that everyone agrees is a good idea, or there will already be other companies doing it. You have to do something that sounds to most other people like a bad idea, but that you know isn’t — like writing software for a tiny computer used by a few thousand hobbyists, or starting a site to let people rent airbeds on strangers’ floors.

Ditto for essayists. An essay that told people things they already knew would be boring. You have to tell them something new.

But this pattern isn’t universal. In fact, it doesn’t hold for most kinds of work. In most kinds of work — to be an administrator, for example — all you need is the first half. All you need is to be right. It’s not essential that everyone else be wrong.

There’s room for a little novelty in most kinds of work, but in practice there’s a fairly sharp distinction between the kinds of work where it’s essential to be independent-minded, and the kinds where it’s not.

Interesting… and yet.  I’m many things, among them a reasonably successful academic social scientist.  What I’m pretty sure I’m not, though, is much of a novel thinker.  I definitely get some good ideas, but I’m really not sure how novel they are.  Mostly, they are modest extensions of truly novel ideas from more novel thinkers.

I’m also very much against mindless conformism, but, also think that, much of the time, there’s real value in just going along.  All that said, I think Graham’s ideas for cultivating more independent-minded thinking are good:

Can you make yourself more independent-minded? I think so. This quality may be largely inborn, but there seem to be ways to magnify it, or at least not to suppress it.

One of the most effective techniques is one practiced unintentionally by most nerds: simply to be less aware what conventional beliefs are. It’s hard to be a conformist if you don’t know what you’re supposed to conform to. Though again, it may be that such people already are independent-minded. A conventional-minded person would probably feel anxious not knowing what other people thought, and make more effort to find out.

It matters a lot who you surround yourself with. If you’re surrounded by conventional-minded people, it will constrain which ideas you can express, and that in turn will constrain which ideas you have. But if you surround yourself with independent-minded people, you’ll have the opposite experience: hearing other people say surprising things will encourage you to, and to think of more.

I actually feel like I’m a conventional-minded person that really enjoys surrouding myself with creative, independent-minded thinker.  I’ve always felt like I’m hopelessly inside the box and really appreciated being exposed to people who see the world differently.  But, in this formulation, conventional people probably don’t actually like doing this.

And I found this part about habits of mind, quite interesting:

The second component of independent-mindedness, resistance to being told what to think, is the most visible of the three. But even this is often misunderstood. The big mistake people make about it is to think of it as a merely negative quality. The language we use reinforces that idea. You’re unconventional. You don’t care what other people think. But it’s not just a kind of immunity. In the most independent-minded people, the desire not to be told what to think is a positive force. It’s not mere skepticism, but an active delight in ideas that subvert the conventional wisdom, the more counterintuitive the better.

Some of the most novel ideas seemed at the time almost like practical jokes. Think how often your reaction to a novel idea is to laugh. I don’t think it’s because novel ideas are funny per se, but because novelty and humor share a certain kind of surprisingness. But while not identical, the two are close enough that there is a definite correlation between having a sense of humor and being independent-minded — just as there is between being humorless and being conventional-minded. [9]

I don’t think we can significantly increase our resistance to being told what to think. It seems the most innate of the three components of independent-mindedness; people who have this quality as adults usually showed all too visible signs of it as children. But if we can’t increase our resistance to being told what to think, we can at least shore it up, by surrounding ourselves with other independent-minded people.

The third component of independent-mindedness, curiosity, may be the most interesting. To the extent that we can give a brief answer to the question of where novel ideas come from, it’s curiosity. That’s what people are usually feeling before having them.

In my experience, independent-mindedness and curiosity predict one another perfectly. Everyone I know who’s independent-minded is deeply curious, and everyone I know who’s conventional-minded isn’t. Except, curiously, children. All small children are curious. Perhaps the reason is that even the conventional-minded have to be curious in the beginning, in order to learn what the conventions are. Whereas the independent-minded are the gluttons of curiosity, who keep eating even after they’re full.

Firstly, there’s pretty much no independent concepts that actually predict each other perfectly.  Curiosity and independent-mindedness really are different things.  Anyway, out of all this, speculation on the topic, one think I know for sure about myself (and you probably know about me from just reading my blog) is that I am deeply curious.  I don’t think that alone does make me independent-minded, but it does probably counteract my more innate conformist nature.  I sure do love being deeply curious and I recommend it!

Anyway, like I said, definitely a thought-provoking essay for me.  Would love to hear how it struck any of you.

(Not so) Quick hits (part I)

0) Got some real-life feedback yesterday that there’s nothing “quick” about quick hits.  My idea is that each numbered hit is a pretty quick summary/link of some cool/interesting information.  Yeah, the whole thing might be a bit much (but DJC is counting on me!), but “quick hits” it is.

1) I enjoyed (liked, didn’t love) Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions are Made.  Nice Op-Ed, “your brain is not for thinking,” from her new book, 

Your brain runs your body using something like a budget. A financial budget tracks money as it’s earned and spent. The budget for your body tracks resources like water, salt and glucose as you gain and lose them. Each action that spends resources, such as standing up, running, and learning, is like a withdrawal from your account. Actions that replenish your resources, such as eating and sleeping, are like deposits.

The scientific name for body budgeting is allostasis. It means automatically predicting and preparing to meet the body’s needs before they arise. Consider what happens when you’re thirsty and drink a glass of water. The water takes about 20 minutes to reach your bloodstream, but you feel less thirsty within mere seconds. What relieves your thirst so quickly? Your brain does. It has learned from past experience that water is a deposit to your body budget that will hydrate you, so your brain quenches your thirst long before the water has any direct effect on your blood.

This budgetary account of how the brain works may seem plausible when it comes to your bodily functions. It may seem less natural to view your mental life as a series of deposits and withdrawals. But your own experience is rarely a guide to your brain’s inner workings. Every thought you have, every feeling of happiness or anger or awe you experience, every kindness you extend and every insult you bear or sling is part of your brain’s calculations as it anticipates and budgets your metabolic needs…

We’re all living in challenging times, and we’re all at high risk for disrupted body budgets. If you feel weary from the pandemic and you’re battling a lack of motivation, consider your situation from a body-budgeting perspective. Your burden may feel lighter if you understand your discomfort as something physical. When an unpleasant thought pops into your head, like “I can’t take this craziness anymore,” ask yourself body-budgeting questions. “Did I get enough sleep last night? Am I dehydrated? Should I take a walk? Call a friend? Because I could use a deposit or two in my body budget.”

This is not a semantic game. It’s about making new meaning from your physical sensations to guide your actions.

I’m not saying you can snap your fingers and dissolve deep misery, or sweep away depression with a change of perspective. I’m suggesting that it’s possible to acknowledge what your brain is actually doing and take some comfort from it. Your brain is not for thinking. Everything that it conjures, from thoughts to emotions to dreams, is in the service of body budgeting. This perspective, adopted judiciously, can be a source of resilience in challenging times.

2) Now here’s an article title I didn’t expect in a prestigious journal, “Narrative structure of A Song of Ice and Fire creates a fictional world with realistic measures of social complexity”

We use mathematical and statistical methods to probe how a sprawling, dynamic, complex narrative of massive scale achieved broad accessibility and acclaim without surrendering to the need for reductionist simplifications. Subtle narrational tricks such as how natural social networks are mirrored and how significant events are scheduled are unveiled. The narrative network matches evolved cognitive abilities to enable complex messages be conveyed in accessible ways while story time and discourse time are carefully distinguished in ways matching theories of narratology. This marriage of science and humanities opens avenues to comparative literary studies. It provides quantitative support, for example, for the widespread view that deaths appear to be randomly distributed throughout the narrative even though, in fact, they are not.

3) If you take melatonin, you are almost surely taking too much (more than .3).  

4) Very interesting piece from Katie Herzog.  Are yesterday’s “lesbians” today’s “non-binary”?  Maybe.  

The flight from “lesbian” has accelerated since. An academic in the Southeast, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that when she mentioned to a colleague that she’s a lesbian, the colleague “reacted like I’d confessed to being a Confederate Lost-Causer. She told me that the term is outdated and problematic, and I shouldn’t use it.” So the lesbian keeps quiet about her identity: “It’s like living in a second closet.” 

Not long ago, it would have been the Christian right stigmatizing homosexual women. Today, it’s also from people who call themselves queer.

As “lesbian” has waned, countless variations have emerged: not just hetero, homo, or bi, but pansexual, omnisexual, sapiosexual, asexual, autosexual, and many more, each with their own little flag. The same is true of genders — now counted in the dozens — with “nonbinary” being the most popular. Asia Kate Dillon, the nonbinary TV star who goes by the pronouns “they/them,” described the term as including those “who feel that their gender identity falls outside the traditional boxes of man or woman.” (Dillon is one of many formerly gay-identified celebrities who have come out as nonbinary, including Sam Smith, Judith Butler, Masha Gessen, and Jonathan Van Ness — who prefers “he/him” but is okay with “she/her” or “they/them.” Why be confined to just one?)

Where did this come from? As a term, “nonbinary” doesn’t appear in the academic literature until the year 2000. For the next decade it was largely limited to queer studies, then it leapt to the Internet — spreading from Tumblr and queer blogs to the mainstream media and the general public. A 2017 survey from GLAAD found that 12 percent of Millennials identify as gender non-conforming or transgender. In 2019, Pew Research found that one in three members of Gen Z knows someone who goes by gender-neutral pronouns. That same year, Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year was “They.”

While there’s some overlap between transgender and non-binary identities, they’re not the same thing, and for some trans people, particularly older ones, the notion of “nonbinary” directly conflicts with what it means to be trans. And this makes sense: If your deepest desire is to live as, and be seen as, the opposite sex, why would you want to dismantle the binary concept of sex? According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, most trans people identify as either male or female, period. That’s the whole point of transitioning. (Intersex, I should note, is a separate category as well, and shouldn’t be conflated with either transgender or nonbinary.)

5) One thing is for sure about the recent SC decision in favor of keeping NY churches open– Gorsuch absolutely embarrasses himself in his concurring opinion.  I mean, seriously, using reasoning that your average middle-schooler could see through has to lead to some sort of lasting negative impact on his reputation.  

At the same time, the Governor has chosen to impose no capacity restrictions on certain businesses he considers “essential.” And it turns out the businesses the Governor considers essential include hardware stores, acupuncturists, and liquor stores. Bicycle repair shops, certain signage companies, accountants, lawyers, and insurance agents are all essential too. So, at least according to the Governor, it may be unsafe to go to church, but it is always fine to pick up another bottle of wine, shop for a new bike, or spend the afternoon exploring your distal points and meridians. Who knew public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience?

6) Always enjoy Will Wilkinson’s takes, “Why Did So Many Americans Vote for Trump?”

How could a president responsible for one of the gravest failures of governance in American history nevertheless maintain such rock-solid support? Democracy’s throw-the-bums-out feedback mechanism gets gummed up when the electorate disagrees about the identity of the bums, what did and didn’t occur on their watch and who deserves what share of the credit or blame.

When party affiliation becomes a central source of meaning and self-definition, reality itself becomes contested and verifiable facts turn into hot-button controversies. Elections can’t render an authoritative verdict on the performance of incumbents when partisans in a closely divided electorate tell wildly inconsistent stories about one another and the world they share.

Mr. Trump has a knack for leveraging the animosities of polarized partisanship to cleave his supporters from sources of credible information and inflame them with vilifying lies. This time, it wasn’t enough to save his bacon, which suggests that polarization hasn’t completely wrecked our democracy’s capacity for self-correction: Sweeping a medium-size city’s worth of dead Americans under the rug turned out to be too tall an order.

However, Mr. Trump’s relentless campaign to goose the economy by cutting taxes, running up enormous deficits and debt, and hectoring the Fed into not raising rates was working for millions of Americans. We tend to notice when we’re personally more prosperous than we were a few years before…

Mr. Trump abdicated responsibility, shifting the burden onto states and municipalities with busted budgets. He then waged a war of words against governors and mayors — especially Democrats — who refused to risk their citizens’ lives by allowing economic and social activity to resume.

He spurred his supporters to make light of the danger of infection, made the churlish refusal to wear masks into an emblem of emancipation from the despotism of experts and turned public health restrictions on businesses, schools and social gatherings into a tyrannical conspiracy to steal power by damaging the economy and his re-election prospects.

He succeeded in putting Democrats on the defensive about economic restrictions and school closures. As months passed and with no new relief coming from Washington, financially straitened Democratic states and cities had little choice but to ease restrictions on businesses just to keep the lights on. That seemed to concede the economic wisdom of the more permissive approach in majority-Republican states and fed into Mr. Trump’s false narrative of victory over the virus and a triumphant return to normalcy.

But Democrats weren’t destined to get quite as tangled in Mr. Trump’s trap as they did. They had no way to avoid it, but they could have been hurt less by it. They allowed Republicans to define the contrast between the parties’ approaches to the pandemic in terms of freedom versus exhausting, indefinite shutdowns.

Democrats needed to present a competing, compelling strategy to counter Republican messaging. Struggling workers and businesses never clearly heard exactly what they’d get if Democrats ran the show, and Democrats never came together to scream bloody murder that Republicans were refusing to give it to them. Democrats needed to underscore the depth of Republican failure by forcefully communicating what other countries had done to successfully control the virus. And they needed to promise to do the same through something like an Operation Warp Speed for testing and P.P.E. to get America safely back in business.

Instead, they whined that Mr. Trump’s negligence and incompetence were to blame for America’s economic woes and complained that Mitch McConnell wouldn’t even consider the House’s big relief bill. They weren’t wrong, but correctly assigning culpability did nothing to help working-class breadwinners who can’t bus tables, process chickens, sell smoothies or clean hotel rooms over Zoom.

7) I’m grateful to you for reading this.  In all seriousness, though, we just keep finding more and more evidence that gratitude is good for you.  I do some daily gratitudes with my kids and it’s really nice to take just a minute and think about what I’m grateful for that day.  

8) Somebody just shared this 2017 piece on twitter and damn is it good, “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People”

I don’t know how to explain to someone why they should care about other people.

Personally, I’m happy to pay an extra 4.3 percent for my fast food burger if it means the person making it for me can afford to feed their own family. If you aren’t willing to fork over an extra 17 cents for a Big Mac, you’re a fundamentally different person than I am.

I’m perfectly content to pay taxes that go toward public schools, even though I’m childless and intend to stay that way, because all children deserve a quality, free education. If this seems unfair or unreasonable to you, we are never going to see eye to eye.

If I have to pay a little more with each paycheck to ensure my fellow Americans can access health care? SIGN ME UP. Poverty should not be a death sentence in the richest country in the world. If you’re okay with thousands of people dying of treatable diseases just so the wealthiest among us can hoard still more wealth, there is a divide between our worldviews that can never be bridged.

I don’t know how to convince someone how to experience the basic human emotion of empathy. I cannot have one more conversation with someone who is content to see millions of people suffer needlessly in exchange for a tax cut that statistically they’ll never see (do you make anywhere close to the median American salary? Less? Congrats, this tax break is not for you).

I cannot have political debates with these people. Our disagreement is not merely political, but a fundamental divide on what it means to live in a society, how to be a good person, and why any of that matters.

There are all kinds of practical, self-serving reasons to raise the minimum wage (fairly compensated workers typically do better work), fund public schools (everyone’s safer when the general public can read and use critical thinking), and make sure every American can access health care (outbreaks of preventable diseases being generally undesirable).

But if making sure your fellow citizens can afford to eat, get an education, and go to the doctor isn’t enough of a reason to fund those things, I have nothing left to say to you.

9) Tim Miller’s leaving the GOP piece is so good:

But while Donald Trump and John McCain are polar opposites as men, the forces driving the illiberal and nativist elements of the Republican party were there the whole time. McCain did eventually tape this danged ad, after-all. The thing is, in 2008 I had convinced myself these forces were just the nuts out on the margins while I was one of the good ones.

What I didn’t realize—but probably should have—was that these forces weren’t as marginal as I thought. That I was enabling them. And that they were increasing in power within the party throughout the entire time I was a professional operative. Stuart Stevens covered what it’s like coming to this disturbing realization much better than I could here in his recent book, It Was All A Lie. I highly recommend it.

Anyway, when Donald Trump rode those forces to victory in 2016, it put me into a transitional period and made me rethink some things. It woke me to some pretty gnarly stuff I was wrapped up in.

In fact I can’t really relate to people for whom Trump didn’t change anything. I find it kind of incomprehensible when people say that their views of our democracy and our political parties and the nature of our country weren’t impacted when an overtly bigoted and farcically ill-prepared buffoon with authoritarian aspirations was voted into the White House. 

If that changed nothing for you then you either already had a pretty debased view of your fellow man or your thinking is so monkish as to be downright Bendectine

It made me prioritize a bunch of issues that I never really saw as being up for debate between the parties—free and fair elections, pluralism, freedom of religion, the rule of law, welcoming immigrants, basic competence, governing for all Americans regardless of whether they voted for you. As it turns out, my old party was on the wrong side of basically all of those. Meanwhile I deprioritized a bunch of things I used to really care about.

I’m just being real here: Who gives a fuck about the top marginal tax rate and WOTUS regulations when our actual democracy is under threat by a sitting president who is simultaneously trying to overturn an election and actively exacerbating a pandemic that has killed 250,000 Americans on his watch by holding insane superspreader rallies and peddling anti-science nonsense? Not me.

10) This! “What Makes Trump’s Subversion Efforts So Alarming? His Collaborators”

American democracy is an information system, in which the information isn’t bits and bytes but citizens’ beliefs. When peoples’ faith in the democratic system is undermined, democracy stops working. But as information security specialists know, outsider attacks are hard. Russian trolls, who don’t really understand how American politics works, have actually had a difficult time subverting it.

When you really need to worry is when insiders go bad. And that is precisely what is happening in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. In traditional information systems, the insiders are the people who have both detailed knowledge and high level access, allowing them to bypass security measures and more effectively subvert systems. In democracy, the insiders aren’t just the officials who manage voting but also the politicians who shape what people believe about politics. For four years, Donald Trump has been trying to dismantle our shared beliefs about democracy. And now, his fellow Republicans are helping him…

The fundamental problem, however, is Republican insiders who have convinced themselves that to keep and hold power, they need to trash the shared beliefs that hold American democracy together.

They may have long-term worries about the consequences, but they’re unlikely to do anything about those worries in the near-term unless voters, wealthy donors or others whom they depend on make them pay short-term costs.

11) Great Covid summary I had missed last month, “COVID-19—Lessons Learned and Questions Remaining”

12) Ryan Streeter, “Trumpism Is More About Culture Than Economics”

If we look a bit deeper at Trumpian populism, it becomes clear it is mostly a bundle of cultural sentiments. It is rooted in anti-elitism, which does not necessarily mean support for industrial policy, protectionism, or restrictive immigration. Large national surveys conducted by the American Enterprise Institute suggest Trump’s supporters are actually quite content with American economic life but highly reactive to elite dominance of American cultural life.

For instance, working-class Americans are more bullish on economic matters than conventional wisdom suggests: 71 percent of them believe they have either achieved the American Dream or are on their way to doing so, in line with the national average of 70 percent. Fifty-nine percent of the working class believe that anyone can start a business in America, compared to the national average of 56 percent. Working-class Americans who live in small towns and rural areas have been more optimistic about the economy during the pandemic than college-educated people in the same areas. Forty-two percent of working-class people in the heartland are confident in the economy during the pandemic versus 41 percent among heartlanders with college degrees and 38 percent nationally. In other words the reality of frustration in the heartland is a bit different than the narrative we hear so much about.

The “anger” that has been endlessly analyzed since 2016 has always been more of a cultural phenomenon than an expression of economic anxiety. Donald Trump antagonized the elite classes of American society from the beginning of his campaign in 2015, and his supporters loved him for it—and no one more than his non-working-class, college-educated supporters. It turns out that Trump voters with a college degree are more anti-elitist and ideological than the working class. Six in 10 Americans think journalists have a political agenda, but this jumps to nine in 10 among Trump supporters with college degrees and eight in 10 working-class Trump supporters. When asked how much influence liberals and conservatives have on American culture, 56 percent of college-educated Trump supporters think liberals have more influence, compared with 33 percent of the Trump working class. 

When it comes to political discourse, educated Trump voters are more likely than working-class Trump supporters to view politics as a zero-sum game and to have less tolerance for disagreement with political opponents. Trump supporters with college degrees are also considerably more distrusting of experts than people with college degrees who live in small towns and rural areas, so there really is something about Trumpism that is more powerful than geography and demographics. 

13) Way back in 2008, one of my students asked my opinion on whether he should take time off from NC State to work for Obama.  I said that he should– definitely the right call as he ended up working in the White House (to be clear, mine was just one of many opinions he solicited).  In 2018 he asked if I thought he should work for Biden.  In what is empirically the worst advice I ever gave, I suggested he work for another candidate he was considering, who never even received a primary vote.  Fortunately for him, he obviously listened to wiser people and served as Biden’s rapid response director and will soon have a great WH job.  And even a profile at  

14) This NYT feature on AI faces is so cool!  If you have some very limited number of NYT articles per month (really, just subscribe) you need  use one on this.  

15) Nice to see Eric Boehlert also write about the interesting development of Rupert Murdoch basically doing the right thing post-election:

Using all three of his American properties, Fox News, the New York Post, and the Wall Street Journal, Murdoch clearly sent a top-down message that he did not support Trump’s move to denigrate free and fair elections. Without those unified voices on the right cheering his every move, Trump’s road to securing even a rhetorical victory became nearly impossible…

GOP propaganda works best, and has proven to be so effective over the years years, when there’s a united media front pushing the same lies and distortions. It creates a powerful feedback loop, with outrage talking points being hit over and over. With Murdoch properties often refusing to play along since Election Day, that messaging war fell apart, just like Trump’s legal debacle.

It’s clear that it was Murdoch who sent out the dictate and who for weeks has enforced the company line. None of this stuff happens by chance in the world of Murdoch media. There’s no way those media outlets simultaneously decided to oppose Trump in his moment of misinformation need. Murdoch properties don’t work when it comes to partisan politics — he decides. That’s why he massively overpaid to buy the Journal, and that’s why he keeps the money-losing Post in business, so he can use those outposts as personal megaphones. For the last three weeks he’s been using them to send a message to Trump, ‘Move on,’ especially the hard-right pages of the Journal:  

16) In the ever-interesting world of cool stuff animals do, “This Rat Covers Itself With Poison That Can Take Out an Elephant: The African crested rat gnaws on poisonous tree branches, then grooms its noxious spittle into its fur.”

17) Terrific first-draft of history from Tim Alberta, “The Inside Story of Michigan’s Fake Voter Fraud Scandal: How a state that was never in doubt became a “national embarrassment” and a symbol of the Republican Party’s fealty to Donald Trump.”

18) I finished FX’s “The Americans” on Thanksgiving and I’m so thankful for it.  Just a damn, damn good show (and big thanks to MY for insisting to me that I really need to watch it at a lunch a couple years ago).  

What Europe is doing better

Good stuff from Andy Slavitt.  He’s got 7 things.  Here’s a few:

Financial support:Financial support: In Germany, bar owners are paid to stay closed. Artists are paid a fee. Social support is much better everywhere. These aren’t all wealthy countries. Much less so than the U.S. “We’re all in this together and we have your backs” is the general message in Europe. Ours is “Hey, good luck.” And “P.S. You’re sick, you work. Dead or alive, we’re collecting debts: rent, college loans, etc., so tick-fucking-tock.”

Coordination: Not only are the European counties supporting their people, but the EU is providing stimulus and relief. I know we have a “federalist” system. But they’re not even a country! Why coordinate policies and help one another? Meanwhile I live next to North and South Dakovid and I expect refugees to start spilling over the border any time now. I realize getting elected governor of South Dakota doesn’t sound like a lot. But turns out, it’s an easy way as any to kill people

Budget garbage: I’ve been hearing for 40 years that the greatest threat to our country is THE BUDGET DEFICIT. And high taxes could kill us. And too small a military. So we must stop SPENDING SO MUCH MONEY DOMESTICALLY! Turns out? No. Not our biggest threat after all. Lo and behold massive corporate and estate tax cuts couldn’t prevent the pandemic. But cutting 55,000 public health workers was a problem. Cutting our strategic stockpile of PPE, which the GOPAnon Congress did, and not giving people health care — BIGGER PROBLEM. And NOW — we had to spend $3 trillion in a matter of months because of everything we didn’t do. See in Europe they have health care and a public health care system. And somehow we let people demonize it. Rich people pay taxes there.

Of course, what these have in common it the uniquely pernicious effect of our conservative political party as compared to European nations.

So what happened with the House anyway?

Terrific conversation between Greg Sargent and Dave Wasserman that touches on so much good stuff.  If my PS 302 class wasn’t done (though, still grading for me), I would definitely be sending this out to them and having class discussion on it.

Sargent: The big story that everybody missed was the amount of low-propensity Trump base turnout that Trump would inspire, and how that would impact House races?

Wasserman: Right — even in highly college-educated suburbs.

Sargent: The whole explanation then becomes a lot more structural. The big story is that incredibly juiced-up Trump-base turnout allowed down-ballot Republicans to get lifted by that tide, and pocket all those votes, and then just add Republican-leaning swing voters who voted against Trump but for their Republican congressional candidate.

Wasserman: I couldn’t have said it better…

Sargent: How does this translate back to the down-ballot losses? The voters we’re talking about that cost Democrats House seats — slightly Republican-leaning, couldn’t stomach Trump, wanted to vote for a conventional Republican down-ballot — those are likely not in the main blue-collar Whites, are they?

Wasserman: I think they’re predominantly suburban. Remember when Trump settled on the message that Biden is a Trojan Horse for the radical left? In retrospect, the message those voters might have taken away was that Biden doesn’t sound that bad, but congressional Democrats are about to drive the country off a socialist cliff…

I think the conversation about what this all portends for 2022 is particularly notable, especially how changes in the parties’ coalitions may affect the recent patterns of turnout surge/decline in midterms:

Sargent: What does this all tell us about what’s next for Democrats in the 2022 midterms?

Wasserman: The traditional rules might not apply to 2022. Midterm electorates tend to draw out a more college-educated electorate. This current alignment may offset the expected advantage for the out-party in a first-term midterm.

Sargent: If I understand you correctly, the college-educated White shift to Democrats could play to their advantage in the midterms, creating a situation not like 2010.

Back in 2010, the tea party wave, there were probably a lot of college-educated Whites who were more Republican. Whereas in 2018, Trump had alienated them, and now we saw in 2020 the advantage for Democrats among educated Whites had solidified, that could end up helping Democrats in 2022.

Wasserman: That could mitigate the typical backlash to first-term presidents. It’s also not clear the backlash will be as large, because Democrats do not have unified control of Congress.

Sargent: In 2018 and 2010, there was unified control.

Wasserman: And in 1994.

Sargent: So what’s the upshot?

Wasserman: It’s going to be a very unique midterm. And we’re probably going to be in the dark for quite a while about what it will look like.

“Fox News Republicans” are the worst Republicans

Great stuff from PRRI:

Who Are Fox News Republicans?

Fox News Republicans are the 40% of Republicans who trust Fox News most among television news sources. Compared to the nation as a whole, Fox News Republicans are whiter (81% vs. 63% for all Americans), more likely to be male (57% vs. 48% of all Americans), and older (32% are over age 65 vs. 21% of all Americans). Fox News Republicans are more likely than all Americans to identify as white evangelical Protestants (36% vs. 13%), much less likely to identify as religiously unaffiliated (5% vs. 25%), and more likely to say they attend religious services at least once a week (46% vs. 27%).

Fox News Republicans are also distinct from the other 60% of Republicans in several ways. Fox News Republicans are more likely than non–Fox News Republicans to identify as politically conservative (77% vs. 59% of non–Fox News Republicans) and are older (32% are over age 65, vs. 20% of non–Fox News Republicans). Fox News Republicans are more likely than non-–Fox News Republicans to identify as white evangelical Protestants (36% vs. 26%) and to attend religious services at least once a week (46% vs. 35%), and are less likely to identify as religiously unaffiliated (5% vs. 15%).

There are also some key economic differences between all Americans, Fox News Republicans, and non–Fox News Republicans. Fox News Republicans (29%) are about as likely as all Americans (34%) and non–Fox News Republicans (32%) to have a college degree. However, Fox News Republicans (56%) are more likely than non–Fox News Republicans (46%) and all Americans (45%) to consider themselves middle-class…

To some degree, there’s an interesting question of causality.  Those with the more negative attitudes toward Democrats and more racially retrograde attitudes surely self-select towards Fox.  But, undoubtedly, the hyper-partisan, BLM is evil and white people are victims programming of Fox, surely has an impact.

America is exceptional– in how divided we are

Good stuff from Pew:

The U.S. is hardly the only country wrestling with deepening political fissures. Brexit has polarized British politics, the rise of populist parties has disrupted party systems across Europe, and cultural conflict and economic anxieties have intensified old cleavages and created new ones in many advanced democracies. America and other advanced economies face many common strains over how opportunity is distributed in a global economy and how our culture adapts to growing diversity in an interconnected world.

But the 2020 pandemic has revealed how pervasive the divide in American politics is relative to other nations. Over the summer, 76% of Republicans (including independents who lean to the party) felt the U.S. had done a good job dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, compared with just 29% of those who do not identify with the Republican Party. This 47 percentage point gap was the largest gap found between those who support the governing party and those who do not across 14 nations surveyed. Moreover, 77% of Americans said the country was now more divided than before the outbreak, as compared with a median of 47% in the 13 other nations surveyed.

Majorities of governing party supporters say their country has dealt with coronavirus outbreak well

Of course, a big part of this problem is that our “governing coalition” has done objectively poorly and among the worst in the world at dealing with Covid.  And Republicans– like their leader, President Trump– choose largely to be in denial about this fact.


Harm Reduction for Covid-19

So, I’ve been thinking for a while now that we really need to embrace a harm reduction approach to Covid.  Harm Reduction is a popular model in public health that accepts the fact that humans are very imperfect creatures in how we behave and thus how do we deal with that to reduce harms.  E.g., abstinence will prevent a lot of STDs, but people are going to have sex with strangers, so… condoms; it would be great if people could stop injecting heroin, but they won’t so… clean needles.  When it comes to Covid, the same principles are definitely involved.  People really should not hang out indoors with non-household members.  But they will anyway, so… masks and ventilation.  We need the people who are going to hang out anyway to not just ignore all public health advice– “they don’t want me doing anything!”– and, instead, at least get the harm reduction message.

Okay, hanging out indoors is not great, but here’s some stuff I can do to make it better.  I’ve honestly been surprised not to see anything arguing for this approach (I even googled Covid and “harm reduction” a couple weeks ago and basically came up with nothing).  Well, count on Zeynep Tufekci to be on the case:

Nonetheless, the reality is that millions are traveling. Remember: one really cannot meet with other people at zero risk. But there are methods to reduce risk. And if we’re already taking risks, it’s better to reduce those risks as much as possible, rather than assuming that once we’re disregarding CDC advice, we may as well throw all caution to the wind. (It’s still better to take CDC’s advice!)

With that in mind, what are some precautions you can take if you do decide to travel or meet with people not ordinarily in your household? Or what can you tell people in your family or social networks who are doing so and you cannot persuade otherwise?

Remember that all mitigations layer and add up. I love virologist Ian Mackay’s conceptualization of the swiss cheese defense against the pandemic. The more layers, the better. Some layers are shared responsibilities, some are personal. The more we can all do, the better everyone—not just ourselves—will be protected.

Once you have arrived at your destination, remember: ventilation and distance reduce the risk related to Covid-19. Even within a household, virus transmission is not inevitable. There are examples where people in the same household as a symptomatic person never get infected. Wear masks, especially indoors. Consider wearing them outdoors as well—especially if there is anyone high-risk in the group. Sit outside as much as possible. Hang out around a fire pit. Open windows as much as possible. Use a HEPA filter and run it at its highest setting. Continue to socially distance, especially indoors. Sanitize high-touch surfaces, especially if they are non-porous, like stainless steel fridge doors and door knobs.

There’s increasing evidence that humidity helps lower transmission. Keeping the house at 40-60% relative humidity is great, not just for this coronavirus but other viruses as well. Also, too much humidity can encourage mold growth.This virus may also survive better at high-humidity, as its reaction appears to be U-shaped. Purchase a humidity reader (available for less than $10) and keep the house at mid-range humidity levels.

Finally, give the best masks to high-risk people: the elderly, those with pre-existing conditions, and the immuno-compromised…

In other words, even if you test negative, take all the precautions that you can: stay home and don’t travel for Thanksgiving, or, if you decide to do so, quarantine and take all the harm-reduction steps you can anyway.

Quick hits (part II)

1) Enjoyed reading Drum on the substack revolution going on.  I’m fine with paying individual writers for their writing, but the business model of paying $50 to $80 or more for a single journalist seems insane to me.  You can have an Atlantic subscription– chock full of amazing journalists for $50.  New York magazine is great and around there.  For the price of two substacks, you could probably buy a New Yorker subscription and the New Yorker is amazing.  Anyway…

Now, with Substack, the same is going to be true of an increasing number of writers. I’m not really willing to rack up a whole bunch of $60-per-year subscription fees for individual writers, which means I’ll never know what they’re saying. And even if I did, you’d never know what they’re saying unless you’re coincidentally a subscriber too. This means we have a growing circle of writers who are influencing the political conversation but doing it semi-privately. The rest of us will only get hints here and there, the way you might have heard snatches of gossip from acquaintances who had been invited to an 18th century salon.

There is, obviously, lots of political gossiping that already happens over lunch tables or cocktail parties. Still, I’m not thrilled to see political writing begin to head behind a paywall where only a select few can read it. I may be overreacting to this, and I very much understand the business problem it solves. Still, it’s a trend I’m not very happy to see.

2) Forget the fancy software, honor codes can be surprisingly effective in limiting on-line cheating.  In political science and similar disciplines, I’d argue that the key is simply well-designed assignments.

3) Fascinating stuff on how our brains tell time:

In a new study, a research team based in Dallas reported the first strong evidence to date of so-called “time cells” in the human brain. The finding, posted by the journal PNAS, was not unexpected: In recent years, several research groups have isolated neurons in rodents that track time intervals. It’s where the scientists look for these cells, and how they identified them, that provide some insight into the subjective experiences of time.

“The first thing to say is that, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as ‘time cells’ in the brain,” said Gyorgy Buzsaki, a neuroscientist at New York University who was not involved in the new research. “There is no neural clock. What happens in the brain is neurons change in response to other neurons.”…

He added, “Having said that, it’s a useful concept to talk about how this neural substrate represents the passage of what we call time.”

In effect, Dr. Lega said, the cells representing time fired to support an activity, in this case to track the passage of the 30-second interval. There is no constant rhythm or background beat; the time signal is conjured as needed. “There’s no internal metronome, or clock,” he said. The time cells are “firing to support what you’re doing.”

That is, time cells adjust to the demands being made on the brain, in real time, moment to moment. Another group of nearby neurons, called ramping cells, accelerates its firing as a task begins and decelerates or decays as the job winds down, marking off chunks of time. “As these cells are sensitive to contextual changes during experience, they could represent the slowly evolving nature of contextual information,” the authors write.

4) A fair characterization, “Judge Brutally Dismisses Rudy Giuliani’s Suit To ‘Disenfranchise’ Pa. Voters”

A federal judge dismissed President Donald Trump’s campaign’s lawsuit to overturn the election in Pennsylvania on Saturday, calling out Rudy Giuliani’s attempt to “disenfranchise almost 7 million voters” based on zero actual evidence of voter fraud.

U.S. District Court Judge Matthew W. Brann, who heard Giuliani’s argument on the case earlier this week, said the court “has been presented with strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations” that weren’t tied to the actual complaint nor supported by evidence.

“In the United States of America, this cannot justify the disenfranchisement of a single voter, let alone all the voters of its sixth-most-populated state. Our people, laws and institutions demand more,” Brann wrote.

5) This is a terrific essay.  If you read one quick hit in full, this one, “‘People of Color’ Do Not Belong to the Democratic Party: It’s past time to start seeing voters the way they see themselves.”

Democrats must find a similarly broad platform that focuses on the needs of working-class immigrants for health care, access to quality education and other universal programs. If Democrats want to continue winning elections in states with sizable immigrant populations, which now include swing states like Georgia, North Carolina and Arizona, they must find some coherent message that goes beyond “the other side is racist.” If such a message, immersed in the idea of immigrant debt, did not work after the Muslim ban, “China virus” and the inhumane treatment of families at the border, what hope does it have in the future? …

While a term like “people of color” might ring hollow or even confused, immigrants across generations share — at the very least — the experience of building a life in a foreign country. They must, in other words, disaggregate and then reorganize into an even broader movement that could build on existing, like-minded grass-roots organizations, such as those that emerged from the Bernie Sanders campaign in Nevada or immigrant labor organizations throughout New York and California, and develop a spirit of solidarity that puts less weight on questions of belonging and citizenship for these nebulously and conditionally defined groups — and more on the experiences, as working-class immigrants, they share both in America and their homelands.

Too much of the messaging toward these groups is aimed at the upwardly ascendant second- and third-generation immigrants who worry about questions of representation within elite institutions. If Democrats want to combat charges of “socialism,” which are perhaps especially effective on immigrants who fled Communist or socialist countries, they must stop believing that an immigrant shows up in Americaand immediately begins worrying, say, about how many Asian or Latino actors have been cast in the latest comic book movie.

This, of course, does not mean that the Democratic Party should entirely abandon its anti-racist message. Part of the effort must include a much-needed clarification between the needs of Black Americans and Latino and Asian immigrants; that would end the confusing and harmful conflation between two groups whose interests and actions are often at odds with one another.

Nor should we succumb to the temptation to wipe away all distinctions. Some part of every immigrant will still identify with their home country, through language, food and culture. The path forward is to create coalitions that make sense, not only for the immigrants themselves but also in their relationships with both working-class Black and white Americans.

Such a strategy would require the upwardly mobile second-generation immigrants — the people most likely to be tasked with broadcasting this message out toward the public — to do something that might feel counterintuitive or even contradictory. But we must abandon the broad style of diversity politics that designates us as “people of color.” Those categories might help us navigate the academy and the workplace, but they only resonate with a small, generally wealthy portion of our population.

6) I think the reality is that most universities cannot afford to do what Duke did this semester to make things work.  But there are surely, nonetheless, important lessons to be learned:

If the nation’s universities want to learn what Duke did right, they can turn to a detailed report published this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The university developed and fielded a smartphone app that monitored students for symptoms and communicated their test schedules and results. It organized teams of contact tracers and trackers who got infected students into quarantine, found exposed students and instructed them to self-isolate, investigated worrisome clusters, and identified certain students for extra monitoring and testing.

There was “the Duke Compact,” a pandemic version of an honor code entered into by every student who came to campus. Students promised to wear a mask when in public, wash hands frequently and socially distance, of course. They also agreed to avoid large gatherings, to self-isolate for the prescribed period of time if instructed, to get a flu shot, and to allow the use of some personal data for purposes of finding and testing potentially exposed contacts.

“We are, more than ever before, individually and collectively responsible for the health and safety of our fellow students, faculty, staff, families and neighbors,” the compact read.

Testing was a crucial element of the school’s success. Duke established 15 on-campus test sites and a central laboratory based in its medical school’s Human Vaccine Institute. It implemented the pooled testing program, which relayed highly accurate results in 18 to 30 hours. By pooling samples, Duke’s program extended the reach of its testing effort without sacrificing speed or accuracy.

By mid-September, Duke’s lab was working three shifts a day and processing 11,390 samples a week. Students who didn’t feel well had their samples tested immediately and got their results in less than a day. But with or without symptoms, every Duke student who was living on campus was being tested at least twice a week.

Off-campus students were tested once or twice weekly. And graduate students averaged one test a week.

The pooling scheme was first devised to test U.S. soldiers for syphilis during World War II, when the numbers of servicemen deployed to Europe and exposed to the sexually transmitted disease threatened to overwhelm available labs.

At Duke, lab technicians first consolidated a portion of five students’ specimens into a single sample and tested it. If the pooled sample came up negative, all five students were pronounced well — on the strength of a single test.

In the rare cases where a trace of coronavirus was found, lab technicians immediately returned to the five students’ specimens and tested each individually to find out which of the five belonged to an infected donor. In populations in which infections remain rare, pooling can help economize on tests and reagents and stretch limited supplies further. But keeping some backup specimen from each student on ice also sped the process of follow-up testing. Students didn’t need to be called back to provide another sample.

7) Good stuff on Georgia turning blue:

But overall, the story is clear: Biden won Georgia because he did really well in the Atlanta area, far better than Obama eight years ago and significantly better than Clinton, too. Biden won about 65 percent of the two-party share of the votes in these 10 Atlanta-area counties, up from Clinton’s 59 percent. He also gained in the other 149 Georgia counties in Georgia, but it was smaller: Clinton received about 34 percent of the vote outside the Atlanta area, while Biden received about 37 percent.

The more complicated question then is not how Georgia went from light red to blue, but why Democrats gained so much ground in the Atlanta area. Here are four theories, ranked in order of importance in my view:..

It’s hard to answer this question, because the Democratic lean in the Atlanta area that made Georgia really competitive for Democrats happened when Trump was the defining figure in American politics. So it’s possible that, without Trump in the White House, Democrats will once again be stuck earning 46 to 48 percent of the vote in Georgia. Take the U.S. Senate runoff elections.

Are there some voters there who didn’t back Trump but were comfortable with a more traditional Republican like Sen. David Perdue. Does that hold true in the runoff? It’s the same question in the state’s Senate special election. The Democrats narrowly lost the popular vote there, so are there some Georgia voters who are willing to support Republicans like Rep. Doug Collins and Sen. Kelly Loeffler (the leading Republicans in that race) but not Trump?

Remember, the Democrats are losing badly in most areas of Georgia outside of Atlanta — and the state is only competitive if the Atlanta area stays as blue as it has been during the Trump era. If some Atlanta-area voters no longer view Trump as the defining figure of the GOP, do they go back to the GOP in the Senate runoffs and in subsequent elections?

We don’t know the answer to this question now and may not for a few election cycles. For now, it’s not clear if Georgia is a swing state, a state that swung once or something in between.

8) Thanks to massive ventilation efforts and masks, air flights have proven remarkably safe.  But here’s a flight that did lead to a cluster while seemingly doing everything right.  It may well be, though, that even with these measures, an 18 hour flight is a long time to share with somebody shedding Covid.

9) From conservative Kevin Williamson, this is great:

his raises some uncomfortable questions for conservatives. One of those questions is: How long are we going to keep pretending that this madness isn’t madness? Another is: How long will we continue to pretend that what’s being broadcast by Fox News and talk radio is political commentary rather than the most shameful, irresponsible, and unpatriotic kind of sycophantic for-profit propaganda? A third is: What exactly is the benefit — for our ideas, and for the country — of making common cause with these lunatics and hucksters?

Ronald Reagan spoke of “a time for choosing.” It’s that time again.

10) Very relatedly, a disturbing interview, “This GOP Lawmaker Denounced QAnon—and Fears for His Party”

Q: What do you think the core attraction is for QAnon believers?

I think, first of all, if you have a feeling of powerlessness, it gives you a feeling of power, that you have access to knowledge other people don’t. You’re special. I think the second thing is, a lot of it has to do with people thinking that “everything happens for a reason.” Well, that is unqualified bullshit. Trust me, I was raised Mormon and Southern Baptist. People who think there’s something greater out there than themselves—and I think that’s great, I think people do great things because of that—sometimes get caught up in the idea that bad things don’t just happen, it has to be for a reason. There has to be something bigger behind it. And I try to tell people that you can use Occam’s Razor, you can use any type of theory you want to use, but what it comes down to is the simplest explanation is usually the one that’s correct…

Q: Why does that belief have so much appeal?

I don’t know. But with the “Save Our Children” thing, if you look at a lot of cults, the entry point is usually something innocuous or something everybody can agree on. And I can give you an example: Wouldn’t you want this beautiful world or this multicultural community where everybody helps each other, and you can build your community with every race and ethnicity, and there’s never any suffering? It’s always fantastic. And we could do this in our own area away from the prying eyes of government, where we live in harmony. That sounds beautiful. And that was also the message of Jim Jones. And that’s the issue with cultlike behavior or belief systems. There’s usually an entryway that seems innocuous or harmless or seems like a consensus that everybody can agree on…

Q: Do you see any way out of this for the Republican Party?

If they think they’re going to win elections [this way], no. I would honestly say the Republican Party, on the fringes, has become stronger. I think, with the advent of Parler, you’re going to see more and more social network engines created to monetize the grift and the fantasy of many of these conspiracy theories.

Q: How sure can we be that it’s all a grift? Some elected Republicans seem to believe, on some level, that Democrats really did steal the election. Is it possible that it’s not just voters who believe the crazy stuff they read online, but it’s also elected officials?

Yes, absolutely. There are elected officials who believe this. And that should just blow people’s minds.

I’m not going to say names, but I’ll tell you there’s a lot larger percentage in the Republican Party who believe there’s a deep state coup or cabal than people might think. And that’s why it’s very hard for me to be a member of that at this point, because as somebody who self-identifies, if I had to, based on our two-party system and where we’re stuck, as a constitutional Republican, live-and-let-live kind of guy—I don’t fit anywhere in the party system.

11) Just learned that this is coming to Raleigh– so cool! “Perhaps the best dinosaur fossil ever discovered. So why has hardly anyone seen it?  A Montana rancher found two skeletons in combat – the Dueling Dinosaurs. But who do they belong to, and will the public ever see them?”

The excavated Dueling Dinosaurs.

12) Your mRNA vaccine dose is going to have to be kept super cold.  So, “The Physics of Materials at Minus 80 Degrees Celsius”

13) One of those only in 2020 headlines, “The culling of minks in Denmark prompts a political crisis.”  They’ve got Covid.

14) This is a really terrific article– you should read it, “The Strange and Twisted Tale of Hydroxychloroquine: The much-hyped drug sparked a battle between power and knowledge. Let’s not repeat it.”  Short of that, read this thread.

15) My youngest child is 10 today.  That definitely makes me feel old.  Of course, my oldest being 21 does that, too.  But I sure don’t have any little kids any more.

Quick hits (part I)

1) Eric Levitz on what Democrats should do:

But I can offer a few ill-considered intuitions: Progressives should redouble their efforts at making change at the state-level – and, at leveraging state-level power for national change. Democrats are underrepresented in the Senate. But they are overrepresented in the centers of American economic power. California’s authority to set its own emission standards helped nudge national carmakers towards cleaner vehicles, lest they lose access to the Golden State’s massive market. This seems like it could serve as a potential model for more audacious assertions of state level regulatory authority. Republican administrations will doubtlessly challenge such assertions, as they have challenged California’s power to regulate emissions. But given that multiple states nullified the federal prohibition of marijuana for years with little consequence, embracing a defiant, “state’s rights” progressivism may be the best of the left’s bad options.

Meanwhile, Democrats must put serious time, energy, and resources into discerning whether there are any low-harm concessions to rural opinion and sensibilities that could staunch the party’s bleeding outside of metro areas. To the extent that Democrats can win elections by running candidates in red areas who are “anti-gun control” in the same sense that Susan Collins is “pro-choice” – loudly proclaiming the ideological stance on the campaign trail, while effectively abetting the cause one purports to oppose while in power – progressives might be wise to give such heretics some latitude. Separately, something must be done to counter the benefits that the GOP derives from Fox News, rightwing talk radio, and crypto-conservative news broadcasters like Sinclair. Bleeding-heart billionaires like George Soros and Tom Steyer might be well-advised to bankroll newspapers in swing state capitals, with hefty budgets for investigating Republicans. They could also attempt to emulate Sinclair’s strategy, and buy up local news stations, or even sports channels, and lightly season their programming with progressive propaganda.

2) Brian Beutler in his latest newsletter:

Meanwhile, down in Georgia, Democratic Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock face runoff elections against the Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, both of whom traded stock based on inside information about the severity of the coronavirus threat, while publicly echoing Trump’s lies about how well he had the situation under control. 

Democrats were unable to topple these incumbents outright during the general election, when the party ran principally on kitchen-table appeals, behind Biden, who ran principally against Trump. Perhaps sensing that they can’t replay the exact same campaign over again and expect different results, or that they need to pull down Loeffler’s and Perdue’s poll numbers, Ossoff and Warnock have made greater issue in recent days of their opponents’ appalling corruption

I think this is a good strategic development: If Democrats point out that Perdue and Loeffler oppose pre-existing conditions protections, Perdue and Loeffler will lie and say they support those protections, then pivot to picking a fight over court packing. If Democrats talk relentlessly about the fact that these are two huge crooks, all they can do is pretend to be offended (because they are, in fact, huge crooks) which will entice reporters to dig deeper in their closets.

This would cut against the advice the party receives from its pollsters and data analysts, who say the ads and messages that test best center on issues like health care. But the ad testing that underlies their strategic guidance often doesn’t measure the demobilizing effect negative information has on opposition voters, and it can’t measure the so-called earned-media effect that hard-hitting anti-corruption ads (scandal, basically) can have on how the press frames what particular races are “about.”

(Think an anticorruption message can’t be effective? Tell that to these losing Democrats)

I think the disconnect here helps explain why anti-Trump Republican groups like The Lincoln Project had so much traction with grassroots Democrats during the general election. The founders of those groups might have been enriching themselves by producing web-native ads that barely ran anywhere, but the ads themselves channeled both desperation among Democratic activists for someone to make issue of Republican corruption, and excitement over the gut appeal of the content—people don’t need pollsters to tell them when a punch has landed. It makes sense that grassroots Dems had some faith that Republicans who play shameless hardball for a living know how to throw effective punches. Democrats can take that instinct, and use it to fuel real campaigning, rather than leave it to rich consultant types working a side hustle. 

On narrow strategic grounds, that’s a risk I think Ossoff and Warnock should take.

But more importantly, I think running and winning an anti-corruption campaign is the only thing that might shake the national party out of its defensive crouch and convince it not just to confront the abysmal corruption of the Republican Party, but to capitalize on it.

There’s a lot of frustration in Democratic ranks over down-ballot results right now (though not enough, apparently, to defrock the congressional leadership). It stems in part from a realization that the party’s relentless focus on normie politics wasn’t enough to deliver the GOP the landslide defeat it deserved. If Georgia Dems make Republican corruption the story of the runoffs, and it works, the national leadership might finally accept that the Republican Party being chockablock with crooks and liars is a huge liability for the Republican Party. That’s the only way we get the housecleaning we so desperately need, and the only way to discourage Republicans from trying to steal everything, from tax dollars to elections, all over again next time they have a chance.

3) The latest Michael Mina case for frequent, rapid testing., “Frequent, rapid testing could turn national COVID-19 tide within weeks.” I’m honestly surprised how little progress there’s been on this.  I have to wonder if it would’ve been different under Biden.  As slow as the vaccine roll-out will be, we may well find out.  

4) Planet Money on how we have too many political appointees.  Just one more way we are a bad outlier compared to other democracies:

The last Plum Book was published in December 2016 and it listed around 4,000 positions appointed by the president. Some of the jobs it lists everyone has heard of: like White House Chief of Staff, Secretary of Defense, and Chair of the Federal Reserve. For those interested in someday becoming Fed Chair, the book says it’s Level I on the federal executive pay scale. That’s about $219,200 a year. Not bad.

But the book also lists thousands of jobs most people haven’t heard of — like Deputy Scheduler at the Department of Energy (at least $37,000 a year), Commissioner at the American Battle Monuments Commission (doesn’t disclose pay), and Chair of the Railroad Retirement Board. That chair is Level III on the federal pay scale, or about $181,500 a year.

The first Plum Book was published in 1960, though the groundwork for it began in the 1950s with the election of Dwight Eisenhower. He was the first Republican president after two decades of Democratic control of the White House. The federal bureaucracy had ballooned with the New Deal, and congressional Republicans were like, ummm, guys, where can we put our people? So they got the agencies to produce a list of government jobs. Back when they first started publishing the book, there were about 2,000 positions up for appointment — or about half of the number there are today — says David E. Lewis, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University.

Lewis studies presidents and the federal bureaucracy and is the author of The Politics of Presidential Appointments: Political Control and Bureaucratic Performance. “Most people who study this — including me — believe there are too many political appointees,” Lewis says. Sure, he says, political appointees help the president get control of the federal bureaucracy and keep it accountable to voters. They help presidents get stuff done. But, he says, there are way too many. “We can get the same amount of accountability with dramatically fewer politically appointed positions.”

Fewer appointed positions would probably be better for governing. The main problem with so many political appointees, Lewis points out, is the exodus of professionals after each president leaves office is followed by a prolonged period of vacancies. A full year into the Trump Administration, Lewis says, about two-thirds of all political positions that required Senate approval remained vacant. Two years into the Trump Administration, over a third remained vacant. It takes a while to nominate and confirm political appointees. Then they have to learn what they’re doing. This lack of continuity, Lewis says, hurts government performance. He believes we’d all be better off if more of these jobs were filled by civil servants who don’t have to leave every time there’s a new president.

Other nations, Lewis says, have nowhere near the same percentage of political appointees working in their governments. “There are countries like Denmark where there’s an election and maybe 12 administrative jobs change,” he says. “In ours, it’s multiple thousands.”

5) The case for three feet of social distancing in schools (masks and ventilation).

The requirement for six feet of distancing has forced many schools to limit the number of students attending in person due to space constraints and thus has become a key factor keeping millions of kids home. That’s a mistake.

Six feet should be the default minimum for adults, but it’s past time we recognize that kids are different and the importance of schools is different, especially for the youngest learners. Three feet should be the default distance for schools.

First, decisions about physical distancing must factor in risks beyond covid-19. The severe harms of keeping kids out of school have been known for some time, such as loss in literacy, missed meals (including more than a billion this spring), virtual dropouts and increasing inequity — all of which hit low-income children the hardest because their parents often lack flexible work schedules to care for them at home.
Second, strict six-foot distancing rules that force schools into “hybrid” models, in which students rotate days at school, might actually increase community risk, as our colleague William Hanage warned in August. The reason is that kids are not always fully isolated at home; instead, they are likely to have an even wider network of contacts, increasing the chances of the virus entering schools.

Third, six feet is not a magical cutoff. It has a weak scientific basis, coming from a fundamental misunderstanding going back decades that the tiny droplets we exhale when we breathe and talk will fall to the ground within six feet. The reality is that while some large droplets do fall out of the air, most are tiny and will stay aloft for an hour or more — traveling well beyond six feet. There is no bright-line cutoff.

Fourth, without such cutoffs, we have to turn to the science to understand risk in context. A recent evaluation of 172 studies from 16 countries found a significant reduction in risk with distancing of at least three feet, but no additional benefit at six feet so long as baseline risk is low enough. There is no question risk is higher at close range, but where community spread is low, three feet of physical distancing should suffice.

6) Get us some more damn tests so we can do stuff like this.  “New Science Suggests How to Shorten Quarantine: Testing upon exit of quarantine — ideally around day six or seven — is more effective than upon entry, and testing twice could make an eight-day quarantine as effective as a 14-day one”

7) Jay Rosen on two paths for the future of the press:

This post describes two paths forward for the professionals who report on politics for the “mainstream” media (I refer here to its national wing: ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, PBS, NPR, the AP, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Reuters, Bloomberg, Politico, The Atlantic, Time magazine…) The first path is a restoration of order as a more normal president takes office. A recent dispatch from that world: Biden is bringing back the daily briefing. Yay! The second path is a democratic breakthrough in journalism after what Masha Gessen calls an “autocratic attempt,” which failed in the 2020 elections. 

Powerful forces favor a restoration. It is by far the most likely outcome. After coping with an avalanche of news, an excess of controversy, and a hate campaign against them for five years, journalists would no doubt welcome a return to regular order, and a more human pace. 

In Washington the setting will feel excessively familiar. A Democratic president trying to enact an ambitious agenda against Republicans in Congress who would rather do nothing, unless it involves tax cuts. All the old cliches will be within easy reach. Divided government. Partisan warfare. Gridlock in Washington. The extremes on both sides. Democrats in disarray. Republicans being mean again. Why can’t they compromise? Plus a new one: Dueling realities…

Which brings me to a second path forward for the American press. 

Many presidents have tried to remove restraints on executive power. The restraint Trump tried to remove was reality itself. This was part of what Masha Gessen (following Bálint Magyar) calls an “autocratic attempt,” the stage in the process of a country’s takeover by an autocrat when things in motion are still reversible by democratic means. Many dangers remain, but two weeks out from the election, it is fair to say that a majority of Americans put a stop to Trump’s attempted subversion of their democracy. 

And they were assisted by American journalists. Now in saying that, I don’t mean to suggest that people in the news media did as much as, say, the poll workers, or the public officials who ran the elections in 50 states, or the police who kept order and prevented michief, or the voters themselves, who turned out in record numbers. 

Americans overcame Trump’s autocratic attempt, preventing it from advancing to the second stage, the autocratic breakthrough, “when it is no longer possible to reverse autocracy peacefully,” as Gessen writes, “because the very structures of government have been transformed and can no longer protect themselves.” 

It was a narrow escape. Journalists assisted. Again, I say that not to inflate their role, but to recognize that at some point in the final weeks before the vote, and especially after Trump declared that the election had been stolen from him, a critical masss in the press finally acted on what so many Americans had been trying to tell them for years: That this was a civic emergency, and American democracy really was endangered by Trump. That describing it as a propaganda presidency wasn’t campaign rhetoric or partisan reflex. That we really could lose the Republic in the sense Benjamin Franklin meant when, according to legend, he emerged from the Constitutional Convention and was asked by the citizens of Philadelphia what kind of government we have. “A Republic, if you can keep it.” …

Listen to the words once more. When democracy is under threat, objective reporters protect it as the basis upon which they can continue to discharge their professional obligations. That is the breakthrough American journalists had during the 2020 election. And it wasn’t the crew at any one network or newsroom…

So here is what I mean by another way forward: 

Trump’s attempt on the Republic was defeated by a coalition of the American people, mostly Democrats, some disaffected Republicans, and a majority of independents. The press helped to prevent an autocratic breakthrough, especially in the tense days after the voting stopped and before the victor emerged with clarity. As Ian Dunt said, “journalism was ready.” 

This was a powerful moment for the people who report on politics. It did not destroy them. It made them stronger, and restored some pride. It also illuminated a different path for political journalism after Trump leaves office. Instead of lapsing back into routines and enjoying the restoration of an old order, the press could continue with its democratic breakthrough. 

8) This is great, “”Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women.”

9) More good stuff on the vaccines:

And perhaps even more monumental is the kind of vaccine that Pfizer and BioNTech are bringing across the finish line. The active ingredient inside their shot is mRNA—mobile strings of genetic code that contain the blueprints for proteins. Cells use mRNA to get those specs out of hard DNA storage and into their protein-making factories. The mRNA inside Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine directs any cells it reaches to run a coronavirus spike-building program. The viral proteins these cells produce can’t infect any other cells, but they are foreign enough to trip the body’s defense systems. They also look enough like the real virus to train the immune system to recognize SARS-CoV-2, should its owner encounter the infectious virus in the future. Up until now, this technology has never been approved for use in people. A successful mRNA vaccine won’t just be a triumph over the new coronavirus, it’ll be a huge leap forward for the science of vaccine making.

Edward Jenner and Jonas Salk weren’t just pioneers, they were cowboys. They used coarse methods (like sticking children with pus scraped from a milkmaid’s cowpox blister) that only let them see the results at the end of their research, not the mechanism by which the inoculation worked. Over the centuries, the methods got slightly more refined, but vaccinology largely maintained this culture of empirical gunslinging.

Effective immunizations are all about exposing the immune system to a harmless version of a pathogen so it can respond faster in the event of a future invasion. Vaccines have to look enough like the real thing to produce a robust immune response. But too close a resemblance and the vaccine might wind up making people sick. To strike the balance, scientists have tried inactivating and crippling viruses with heat and chemicals. They’ve engineered yeast to produce bits and pieces of viral proteins. And they’ve Frankensteined those bits and pieces into more innocuous viral relatives, like sheep in wolves’ clothing. These substitutes for a working virus weren’t exact—scientists couldn’t precisely predict how the immune system would respond—but they were close enough that they sometimes worked.

But in the last decade, the field has started to move away from this see-what-sticks approach toward something pharma folks call “rational drug design.” It involves understanding the structure and function of the target—like say, the spiky protein SARS-CoV-2 uses to get into human cells—and building molecules that can either bind to that target directly, or produce other molecules that can. Genetic vaccines represent an important step in this scientific evolution. Engineers can now design strands of mRNA on computers, guided by algorithms that predict which combination of genetic letters will yield a viral protein with just the right shape to prod the human body into producing protective antibodies. In the last few years, it’s gotten much easier and cheaper to make mRNA and DNA at scale, which means that as soon as scientists have access to a new pathogen’s genome, they can start whipping up hundreds or thousands of mRNA snippets to test—each one a potential vaccine. The Chinese government released the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 in mid-January. By the end of February, BioNTech had identified 20 vaccine candidates, of which four were then selected for human trials in Germany.

10) The weirdness that is the platypus grows, “Platypuses Glow Under Blacklight. We Have No Idea Why.”

11) Great stuff on polling from Pew, “Understanding how 2020 election polls performed and what it might mean for other kinds of survey work”




So, I was in a meeting with various NC State faculty/staff today and a couple of professors made comments to Latinx students.  As you might imagine, this caught my attention and I’m not a fan, but I’ve accepted that this is the way a lot of people in academia think they should talk.  I was heartened, though, when a colleague, referred to the fact that people should be careful with the term as it was largely how educated white people like to refer to Latinos than how they actually like to refer to themselves.  The reality of identity politics is that it would have been nearly taboo for me to make that statement, but my Black colleague (with whom I seem to share very similar political views) was on much safer ground in doing so.

Yglesias had an extensive take on the issue in one of his last Vox posts:

For the past several years, the term “Latinx” has been gaining momentum in progressive circles, even though only 3 percent of US Hispanics actually use it themselves.

The word originates in academic and activist circles, having been coined in 2004 and only gaining popularity about 10 years later. The term is meant to solve two problems. One is that the Spanish language uses the masculine term “Latino” to refer not just to men but also to mixed-gender groups, implying a kind of problematic privileging of the male gender. The other is that the binary nature of grammatical gender — Latino men and Latina women — is a poor fit for the needs and lives of nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people. In academic and activist circles, “Latinx” suggests itself as an elegant gender-neutral solution.

The message of the term, however, is that the entire grammatical system of the Spanish language is problematic, which in any other context progressives would recognize as an alienating and insensitive message. As Terry Blas has written for Vox, in actual Latin American countries, the term “Latine” has gained some currency as a gender-neutral grammatical form. Using a word like that would mark you out as unusual in any Spanish-speaking community. But it’s a formulation that at least respects the basic way the Spanish language works, instead of trying to foist a series of unpronounceable words on it.

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), who represents a heavily working-class, heavily Hispanic area in and around Phoenix, advises Democrats to “start by not using the term Latinx.”

It surely goes too far to suggest the use of this one word plays a large — or even a small — role in Democrats’ struggles with Hispanic voters. But it is, if nothing else, a symptom of the problem, which is a tendency to privilege academic concepts and linguistic innovations in addressing social justice concerns.

And here’s some compelling charts from the Pew study:

A chart showing most Latino adults have not heard of the term Latinx; few use it

A chart showing that one-third who have heard of the term Latinx say it should be used to describe the U.S. Hispanic or Latino population, but among

Also, I realize I’ve mostly been saying Latino of late (presumably, because that’s what most of my media sources do), but given the clear preference for Hispanic, I’ll be going with that.

And no I’m not pretending that saying Hispanic or Latino instead of Latinx is going to solve our culture war problems, but I will say it is problematic for one group to decide what a different group should be called when the vast majority of that group reject the term for self-description.

%d bloggers like this: