Words matter– “racist” edition

Current concerns about racism, structural racism, and anti-racism deal with a lot of big important issues and areas of legitimate disagreement.  It is most definitely not just semantics.  That said… words matter!  A lot!  And without a doubt part of the overheated rhetoric of the overly woke is a weaponization of the word “racist” that, ultimately, weakens its importance and impact.  When everything is racist, the symbolic power of racism– which is a lot!– loses its meaning.  Great essay in Persuasion:

“Racist” is one of the most-damning charges that can be leveled at a person, and for good reason. In any society, social penalties for violating norms act like guardrails: They keep people from spinning off the road of acceptability. The charge of racism can be reputation-destroying and have long-term psychological effects. Yet its excessive application dilutes that power—for example, applying the word “racist” to both Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered nine black worshippers at a South Carolina church in 2015, and a local-business promotion in Seattle involving decorative monkeys. The antiracist strategy is not only weakening its own best weapon. It’s backfiring.

For a long time, “racist” meant believing that one’s race defined who a person was, and that races could be categorized as superior and inferior. This belief was linked to falsehoods about different groups being innately dishonest or inscrutable or violent. But in recent years, under the influence of the antiracist movement, some people have begun characterizing a range of situations and infractions as part of a broader system of racial domination. 

One list of “racial migroaggressions” includes the statement “America is a melting pot.” Is that really racist? Other activists have questioned the morality of saying “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe” when making a random choice. A long-inappropriate extended version of this children’s rhyme included the N-word. But, stripped of that indisputably offensive slur, is “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe” immoral, when people don’t have the slightest bigoted thought when uttering it?

[I’ll throw in here absolutely ludicrous matters like trying to ban the word “master” (egregiously so in cases like master bedroom), which has a long history well before history and a substantial history and use outside slavery.  Trying to end the use of “master bedroom” just pisses off people like me, who are otherwise, your allies in trying to achieve racial equality.]

Even an argument like my own—one based in strong support for racial equality, yet that questions the antiracist approach—might be judged an expression of racism under the new definition. The argument of antiracist activists is that, if you stand against their methods, you oppose their ends, no matter how much you insist otherwise. Unsurprisingly, this has narrowed the spectrum of acceptable views on sensitive topics. 

For example, opposition to affirmative action and support for increased border restrictions are two positions labeled racist under the expanded definition. Racial hostility is a possible motivation for those positions. After all, affirmative action was intended to benefit members of under-represented minorities; and much of the immigration to the West in the 21st century involves non-white migrants.

But one might have non-racist motives for such views, including concerns over whether affirmative action is the best way to help the targeted groups. And supporting restrictions on immigration could be rooted in concerns about the economic implications. Even if you dispute those positions, you would be mistaken to label their advocates with one of the most negative terms we have—not only because that would be unjust, but because it’s counterproductive.

Two negative consequences follow from that mistake: desensitization and resentment. Desensitization matters because we must not lose the power of this taboo, as some figures on the far-right suggest has already happened. Consider the YouTube star Lauren Southern, who has not been shy about exhibiting apparently racist views—for instance, shouting at demonstrators in a 2015 sexual-assault protest march, “Go to Africa, and you’ll see a real rape culture!” Three years later, Southern remarked: “The word ‘racist’ just means nothing to me anymore. … It’s been so overused, I just have no respect for the term.’ ” …

Resentment is a second unintended consequence. When people feel unjustly labeled, they may drown out all criticism, and grow more radical. This came up regarding the popularity of Donald Trump, when his opponents suggested that the president’s supporters could only be motivated by bigotry. In an article headlined “We’re All Tired of Being Called Racists,” the journalist Elaina Plott described a 2019 Trump rally in Cincinnati, in which many attendees were nonplussed “not so much that Trump had been roundly condemned in recent days as a racist, or a bigot, but that they, by virtue of association, had been as well. But rather than distancing them from Trump, the accusations have only seemed to strengthen their support of this president.”

To be clear, not everyone who resents being deemed “racist” will spiral into far-right extremism. Nor do desensitization and resentment mean that we can never apply the term, lest it makes someone more racist. Rather, we must define the taboo carefully, and strictly, or someone who started out doubting affirmative action, for instance, could end up embittered and alienated, and find comfort among the real bigots…

At the same time that the application of “racist” has grown, so has the use of the term “white supremacy,” creating an analogous set of problems. As the New York Times reporter Michael Powell wrote of this term, “Now it cuts a swath through the culture, describing an array of subjects: the mortgage lending policies of banks; a university’s reliance on SAT scores as a factor for admissions decisions; programs that teach poor people better nutrition; and a police department’s enforcement policies.”

Not only is this approach counterproductive, it’s a costly distraction. Every hour spent debating shop displays of monkeys that had no racist implication is time taken away from discussing problems that affect people every day, like poverty and bad education.

Anyone who cares about racial animus should try to push back against the wrongheaded expansion of these potent terms. Understandably, people fear the consequences of being cast on the wrong side of this issue, and having their protestations of innocence ignored. But think of it this way: If the discipline strategy you attempted with a child was making her behavior worse, made her not care about your criticisms anymore, made her move closer to precisely those bad influences you wanted her to avoid, would you change your approach?

We need a recalibration to again connect this important taboo to infractions that are recognized by a cross-section of the population, not just by antiracist activists who—passionate about justice though they are—have a view of the world that bewilders many people.

I think myself and the vast majority of my readers genuinely want to see racial equality and more progress towards it.  And directly because of that, I really don’t like the over-use of “racist” and “white supremacy” as I think thus ultimately does more harm than good towards actually achieving racial equality.  

Moms, guns, collaboration, and conferences

My latest research came out this week and I’m pretty happy with it.  As my co-author Melissa Deckman observed on twitter, it’s especially cool to have counter-intuitive findings.  In this case, the fact that moms are not particularly in favor of gun control, “Do moms demand action on guns? Parenthood and gun policy attitudes”

The idea that motherhood primes women to support stronger gun control policy permeates our contemporary politics. Motherhood shapes views on a variety of issues, but the question remains whether mothers hold distinctive views on gun control policies relative to their non-parent peers. We draw on 2017 Pew Research Center data to explore the ways gender, parenthood, and race intersect to shape attitudes on gun policy in the post-Sandy Hook era when gun violence has become prominently linked with schools and children, and during a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has drawn national attention to the relationship of gun violence and racial inequality. Most notably, we find that contemporary depictions of mothers as a distinctively pro-gun control constituency are largely inaccurate. The very real gender gap in gun policy attitudes appears to be falsely attributed to motherhood, rather than gender. We also find very little impact of parenthood for men. Finally, we generally fail to see much relationship between race, parenthood, and gun attitudes. Overall, despite common belief and media reporting to the contrary, the story is very much one where parenthood seems to play little role in gun policy attitudes.

[If for whatever reason you want to read the whole thing, let me know, and I’ll send you the pdf].

Anyway, so, I’m going to take this publication to comment on the value of collaboration and conferences.  As you likely know, I’ve been publishing on parenthood and politics for most of my political science career with my great friend and great co-author, Laurel Elder.  Our combined work is so much better than either of us could do alone.  And, thanks to attending in-person conferences, we now have two great co-authors, Melissa Deckman, and Mary-Kate Lizotte who make our work even stronger thanks to their own unique perspectives and skills, which nicely complement Laurel and me (who were already nicely complementing each other).  I have no doubt this particular publication is stronger because of all of our contributions, rather than if only one or two of us had done it.  So, hooray for co-authoring and collaboration.

And, as Laurel and I are about to participate in a virtual conference next week, and hopefully, we’ll get some good feedback, but this research on moms and guns would not have happened without actual in-person conferences.  We met both Melissa and Mary-Kate by the good fortune of sharing multiple panels at PS conferences over the years and building on those panels to make personal connections (I remember one particularly pleasant post-panel lunch).  It’s far more expensive and time-consuming to attend an in-person conference, but there really are important professional benefits (not just personal ones I so enjoy)

Quick hits

Okay, not at the usual time, but after a very relaxing, enjoyable weekend with my family, here’s some quick hits.

1) Great Pro Publica feature on how the meatpacking industry in Iowa and Republican government in Iowa made Covid so much worse there.  

2) Kangaroos communicate with people:

MELBOURNE, Australia — When they’re hungry, they’ll let you know by coming up to you and looking beseechingly at you and the container of food.

If that doesn’t work, they’ll sniff and paw at your leg.

No, we’re not talking about dogs. We’re talking about kangaroos.

Researchers at the University of Roehampton in Britain and the University of Sydney in Australia say that such behavior led them to a startling discovery: Kangaroos can communicate with humans similar to the way dogs, horses and goats do despite never having been domesticated.

Kangaroos are the first wild animal to exhibit a behavior that is more commonly seen in domesticated species, communicating requests for help from a human, the researchers said. Up until now, researchers had hypothesized that this kind of interspecies communication had existed only in animals that had evolved alongside humans.

3) As you know, while being a proud feminist and very much against racism, I do not consider myself “woke” and I enjoy reading a number of the smarter, more thoughtful anti-woke takes from the center-left.  But, I’ve definitely noticed how many of the prophets of anti-wokeism have basically become just as bad themselves.  Nuance, damnit!  Context, damnit!  Intellectual humility, damnit!  Are these really so hard.  It seems so.  Thus, I quite enjoyed “Is Anti-Woke Becoming the New Woke?”

4) This is damn disturbing, “An Oscar Winner Made a Khashoggi Documentary. Streaming Services Didn’t Want It.: Bryan Fogel’s examination of the killing of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi had trouble finding a home among the companies that can be premier platforms for documentary films.”  While we’re at it, his documentary, Icarus, was terrific.  

“What I observed was that the desire for corporate profits have left the integrity of America’s film culture weakened,” said Thor Halvorssen, the founder and chief executive of the nonprofit Human Rights Foundation, who financed the film and served as a producer.

Documentaries are not normally big box-office draws, so they have traditionally found their audiences in other places. PBS has long been a platform for prominent documentaries, but the rise of streaming has made companies like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu very important to the genre. As those companies have grown, their business needs have changed.

“This is unquestionably political,” said Stephen Galloway, dean of Chapman University’s film school. “It’s disappointing, but these are gigantic companies in a death race for survival.”

He added: “You think Disney would do anything different with Disney+? Would Apple or any of the megacorporations? They have economic imperatives that are hard to ignore, and they have to balance them with issues of free speech.”

5) My parents never pushed Santa.  My wife and I never have.  Santa for me has always been pretty much like the Easter Bunny– just a fun, secular, symbol of the holiday.  But, this makes a lot of sense, “Study: children’s belief in Santa Claus is more nuanced than you think: Santa falls into an ambiguous category between “real” and “nonreal” for many children”

6) Great point from Neil Irwin, “There’s a Way Biden Can Raise More From the Rich Without Higher Taxes: Increased spending to enforce the existing tax code would pay for itself and then some.”

How do you raise more money from the wealthy if you can’t raise tax rates?

One potential answer: do better on enforcing the existing tax laws.

Tax experts have long identified a large “tax gap” between the amount Americans owe and what is actually collected. This is disproportionately a result of underpayment of taxes by high earners, especially in certain types of closely held partnerships and midsize businesses that face little scrutiny from either the Internal Revenue Service or outside investors…

The I.R.S.’s budget has declined in inflation-adjusted terms, and the agency has directed more of its enforcement work toward verifying eligibility of those claiming a tax credit for low-income workers. The rich, as a result, got less attention. In 2018, less than 7 percent of tax returns showing more than $10 million in income were audited, down from about 30 percent in 2011, according to I.R.S. data.

That has made it easier for people to get away with questionable or illegal tax strategies. The Congressional Budget Office, in a report this month on options that Congress might consider for reducing the budget deficit, estimated that by increasing the I.R.S. enforcement budget by $20 billion over the next decade, the government would increase tax collections by $60.6 billion, meaning it would reduce the deficit over that span by about $41 billion.

Some who have closely studied the question believe that more I.R.S. enforcement would generate an even greater payoff to the Treasury. Charles O. Rossotti, a former I.R.S. commissioner; Natasha Sarin, a University of Pennsylvania professor; and Lawrence H. Summers, a former Treasury secretary, have projected that an additional $100 billion in enforcement spending, combined with adjustments to the agency’s tactics and strategy, would generate $1.2 trillion to $1.4 trillion more in taxes collected, primarily from high-income individuals.

“The I.R.S. doesn’t have the resources it needs to go after the big fish,” Professor Sarin said. “That puts undue burden on everyone else.”

7) OMG, number 7 before I get to Covid!  This is the sort of article that a year ago I would not have expected myself to be sharing, but not find fascinating, “Seasonality of Respiratory Viral Infections”

The seasonal cycle of respiratory viral diseases has been widely recognized for thousands of years, as annual epidemics of the common cold and influenza disease hit the human population like clockwork in the winter season in temperate regions. Moreover, epidemics caused by viruses such as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and the newly emerging SARS-CoV-2 occur during the winter months. The mechanisms underlying the seasonal nature of respiratory viral infections have been examined and debated for many years. The two major contributing factors are the changes in environmental parameters and human behavior. Studies have revealed the effect of temperature and humidity on respiratory virus stability and transmission rates. More recent research highlights the importance of the environmental factors, especially temperature and humidity, in modulating host intrinsic, innate, and adaptive immune responses to viral infections in the respiratory tract. Here we review evidence of how outdoor and indoor climates are linked to the seasonality of viral respiratory infections. We further discuss determinants of host response in the seasonality of respiratory viruses by highlighting recent studies in the field.

Make sure your home is at 40% relative humidity!

8) I can’t let Trump’s truly awful pardons go by unmentioned.  Michele Goldberg:

The youngest victim of the 2007 massacre in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, committed by Blackwater mercenaries whom Donald Trump pardoned on Tuesday, was a 9-year-old boy named Ali Kinani.

In a 2010 documentary, the journalist Jeremy Scahill interviewed Ali’s father, Mohammed Hafedh Abdulrazzaq Kinani, who spoke of how he’d welcomed the American invasion of his country and brought along his son to greet U.S. soldiers. “The first day the American Army entered Baghdad, I handed out juice and candy in the street to celebrate our liberation from Saddam,” said Kinani. Scahill called him “that rare personification of the neoconservative narrative about the U.S. invasion.”

On Sept. 16, 2007, Kinani was driving toward the traffic circle at Nisour Square with his sister, her children and Ali when guards from Blackwater opened fire with machine guns and grenade launchers. (Blackwater, a private security company, has since changed its name to Academi.) Ali was one of 17 people killed. According to The Washington Post, a U.S. military report found that there had been no provocation. “It was obviously excessive, it was obviously wrong,” a military official told the paper. An F.B.I. investigator reportedly described it as the “My Lai massacre of Iraq.”

The U.S. Embassy offered Ali’s family a $10,000 condolence payment. After initially refusing the money, they donated half of it to the family of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq. “They wanted to do that to honor and acknowledge the sacrifice of those men and women that had come over to Iraq to fight for them and free them from Saddam Hussein,” Paul Dickinson, a lawyer who represented Kinani and others in a civil suit against Blackwater, told me.

Gen. Raymond Odierno, then the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, wrote to Ali’s mother, “In the face of your family’s own personal tragedy, your act of kindness and compassion for grieving American families is truly remarkable.”

Until Tuesday, the American system worked to give Ali’s family a modicum of justice. Blackwater settled with the family. The guards were prosecuted criminally. The process was torturous, with several roadblocks, but powerful figures in the United States were determined to see it through. After a judge dismissed the charges on procedural grounds, Vice President Joe Biden promised, in a 2010 news conference in Baghdad, that there would be an appeal. “The United States is determined, determined to hold accountable anyone who commits crimes against the Iraqi people,” he said.

Eventually three of the Blackwater guards, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard, were convicted of voluntary manslaughter and other charges. A fourth, Nicholas Slatten, was convicted of murder and last year sentenced to life in prison. Kinani moved to America and became a citizen, though he was back in Iraq when the BBC reached him on Wednesday. Until just days ago, he’d felt that the legal system in the United States had been “very fair with me,” he said.

Then came Tuesday’s pardon spree, which included the Blackwater killers along with some Russiagate felons, corrupt ex-congressmen and others.

9) As a grower of annual spring semester beard, I quite enjoyed this, “Facial Hair Is Biologically Useless. So Why Do Humans Have It?” Also, since a beard is not compatible with an N95, I’m actually going to eschew my beard this coming semester so I can wear an N95 when I teach.

10) The mRNA vaccines really are awesome, but they were first not because they were better, but because of some luck in where they were tested:

Not to take anything away from mRNA vaccines—they’re clearly amazing—but this narrative just doesn’t fit the facts. The reality of what happened here, and how Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna came to win the vaccine race in the US, is both more prosaic and more intriguing than it’s been made to seem. Yes, their mRNA technology was new and different; and it’s true that progress on the Covid vaccines was more rapid than any that we’ve seen before. But those two facts aren’t so tightly linked. In fact, but for the specific ways in which the coronavirus has progressed around the world, we could have ended up with a very different set of options at this point.

Moderna began the first clinical trial of its mRNA vaccine on Mar. 16, just a couple of months after the genome of the target virus had been sequenced. But on the very same day, the Chinese company CanSino Biologics gave the first injection in a trial of its non-mRNA vaccine. Meanwhile, the first dose of Pfizer-BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine wasn’t given in a clinical trial until more than a month later. By that point, two more Chinese biotech companies, Sinopharm and Sinovac, had already started first-in-human trials of old-school, inactivated virus vaccines—ones based on the same approach that has been used since the middle of the 20th century for vaccinating against polio and pertussis. A third vaccine in this supposedly slow and obsolete “one bug, one drug” category, also from Sinopharm, went into clinical trial just a week after Pfizer-BioNTech’s; while another high-profile mRNA vaccine, from Germany’s CureVac, didn’t make it into a clinical trial until months later.

Clearly the use of a revolutionary mRNA platform didn’t get Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s vaccines into clinical trials particularly faster than lower-tech methods did for others. So why were Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna the first to reach the finish line, and deliver convincing proof that their vaccines really worked? Three factors came into play. First, these vaccines aren’t just moderately effective at preventing Covid-19—they’re excellent at doing so. When there’s such a dramatic difference between the vaccine and a placebo, it’s quicker and easier to confirm success. The second factor was that these companies managed to run tour-de-force phase 3 (late stage) trials, recruiting many thousands of participants very quickly. That’s very hard to do in a pandemic, as the plentiful hiccups in other companies’ trials have revealed. And finally, those well-run phase 3 trials took place in the US and parts of Latin America, where the new coronavirus was running rampant. In order to show efficacy, vaccine-makers need their clinical trial to include enough “events”—i.e. people who get sick with Covid. Given the high rates of infection in the Americas, these turned up at a rapid pace.

11) I’m so damn glad Trump signed the damn stimulus/Covid relief bill.  This will help so many people so much.  Chait, “The Right and the Left Are Teaming Up to Lie About the Stimulus Bill”

The populist attacks draw upon elements of truth. The economic relief in the bill isn’t as large as it should have been, the bill was cobbled together quickly and in secret, and the horse-trading that allowed it to gain widespread support resulted in several bad provisions, the most notable being a two-year extension of a notorious tax break for corporate meals.

But the populists also rely heavily on a series of misleading or outright false claims about what the bill can do. They assert or imply that the $600 checks are the sole source of economic relief in the bill, obscuring the larger sums contained in its unemployment benefits, the extension of small-business loans, the aid for schools, and other measures. Many of them, especially on the left, falsely assert that other advanced countries have passed generous income-replacement plans — which, as Josh Barro notes, isn’t true. At 4 percent of gross domestic product, the bill is “one of the largest fiscal support packages ever enacted in the U.S.,” he explains.

The populists further exploit the fact that the emergency economic relief was combined with an annual government budget whose imminent expiration helped prod Congress to finalize the deal. That’s why you’re seeing these comparisons between items like foreign aid and economic relief, which are then further distorted by misleading comparisons between aggregate spending for entire countries and per capita spending. Whether or not one agrees with either the general concept or the specific design of the U.S. foreign-aid budget, obviously an entire country is going to get more money than a person. Writing Sudan or Israel a $600 check would not serve any purpose.

12) More research on Covid and schools, “In-person classes don’t contribute to community spread of COVID-19, report shows”

There’s no evidence that in-person classes contribute to community spread of COVID-19 if there are relatively low levels of pre-existing COVID-19 cases in the community, according to a report from Michigan State University researchers.

The team of MSU researchers used county COVID-19 data from two states — Michigan and Washington — to assess the relationship between in-person school and the spread of COVID-19 in communities, according to the report.

Data about the instructional options offered for Michigan students was collected from September through December, according to Katharine Strunk, an MSU professor of education policy. The team then examined the relationship between fully in-person classes or hybrid models of instruction and COVID-19 spread in the surrounding community.

They found that, on average, in-person instruction doesn’t cause higher rates of COVID-19 in a school district’s surrounding community. However, the relationship between community spread and more in-person classes gets stronger if the surrounding community has high numbers of COVID-19 to begin with.
“When you get to very high rates of COVID-19 spread in the surrounding communities — in Michigan, that’s in the 95th percentile over the early fall — you do see that it starts to look like there is a positive relationship between being (in school) in-person fully and COVID-19 spread,” Strunk said.
Notably, this is based on American schools with American relative levels of Covid.   Wear masks!  Ventilate!  But certainly the elementary school kids should be in school in all but the hardest-hit communities.  

Context, damnit, context!

Yeah, obviously, I’ve been enjoying my holidays and not blogging much (sorry quick hits lovers), but this one I could just not let go by unmentioned. So much damn awfulness in this:

LEESBURG, Va. — Jimmy Galligan was in history class last school year when his phone buzzed with a message. Once he clicked on it, he found a three-second video of a white classmate looking into the camera and uttering an anti-Black racial slur.

The slur, he said, was regularly hurled in classrooms and hallways throughout his years in the Loudoun County school district. He had brought the issue up to teachers and administrators but, much to his anger and frustration, his complaints had gone nowhere.

So he held on to the video, which was sent to him by a friend, and made a decision that would ricochet across Leesburg, Va., a town named for an ancestor of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee and whose school system had fought an order to desegregate for more than a decade after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling.

Ms. Groves had originally sent the video, in which she looked into the camera and said, “I can drive,” followed by the slur, to a friend on Snapchat in 2016, when she was a freshman and had just gotten her learner’s permit. It later circulated among some students at Heritage High School, which she and Mr. Galligan attended, but did not cause much of a stir.

Mr. Galligan had not seen the video before receiving it last school year, when he and Ms. Groves were seniors. By then, she was a varsity cheer captain who dreamed of attending the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, whose cheer team was the reigning national champion. When she made the team in May, her parents celebrated with a cake and orange balloons, the university’s official color.

The next month, as protests were sweeping the nation after the police killing of George Floyd, Ms. Groves, in a public Instagram post, urged people to “protest, donate, sign a petition, rally, do something” in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“You have the audacity to post this, after saying the N-word,” responded someone whom Ms. Groves said she did not know.

Her alarm at the stranger’s comment turned to panic as friends began calling, directing her to the source of a brewing social media furor. Mr. Galligan, who had waited until Ms. Groves had chosen a college, had publicly posted the video that afternoon. Within hours, it had been shared to Snapchat, TikTok and Twitter, where furious calls mounted for the University of Tennessee to revoke its admission offer.

By that June evening, about a week after Mr. Floyd’s killing, teenagers across the country had begun leveraging social media to call out their peers for racist behavior. Some students set up anonymous pages on Instagram devoted to holding classmates accountable, including in Loudoun County.

The consequences were swift. Over the next two days, Ms. Groves was removed from the university’s cheer team. She then withdrew from the school under pressure from admissions officials, who told her they had received hundreds of emails and phone calls from outraged alumni, students and the public.

To quote myself from twitter…

The idea that somebody should have their college admission rescinded because of something they said at age 15 (and not even close to an act of actual racial harassment) is insane! Intent matters! Context matters! Age matters! This does not further a more equitable society!

Honestly,  I mean maybe if she had been going Black people when she was 15 and saying, “you N-word” to their face, but, simply for using the word in a non-harassing, non-threatening context in which she surely heard many a Black person use the word.  I mean, what if she had stabbed somebody when she was 15 and truly sorry about it– would we say “no four-year college for you!”?  I suspect not.  But, dumbly using the word in a dumb context (15-year olds do dumb things!!) without any intent to harm others?!  Again, intent matters!  This might be an interesting discussion if she were intentionally insulting and harrassing the Black kids in her school/neighborhood in this manner, but simply using the word in a stupid 15-year old way?  Also, Jimmy Galligan– a kid who literally plots for years on how best to ruin another kid’s life?  Now that‘s a kid I don’t want at my university.  

And, as several comments I saw on twitter made mention… the real shame of this is the adults who need to know better, especially those at Tennessee.  Mob justice is not justice.

Photo of the day

Great NYT retrospective of the year in photos. So many depressing photos. This one was not.

Washington, June 6

Demonstrators during a rally at the Lincoln Memorial, on a day when half a million people turned out to protest systemic racism in nearly 550 places across the United States. Michael A. McCoy for The New York Times

What happened in the House in 2020?

Really excellent retrospective from David Wasserman.  It’s damn scary to think how close the Republicans came to taking the House and that if the polling had been better, they probably would have:

1. Polls that guided both parties’ decision-making missed the mark  with remarkable consistency. 

Public polls underestimated Republicans up and down the ballot. The final FiveThirtyEight average pegged Biden’s lead at 8.4 points; he won the popular vote by 4.5 points. And, FiveThirtyEight had Democrats leading the House ballot by 7.3 points; they won it by 3.1 points

The same was true of private polls. Throughout 2020, both parties’ House campaign committees (the DCCC and NRCC), as well as their affiliated Super PACs (House Majority PAC and Congressional Leadership Fund), invested tens of millions of dollars on hundreds of district-level surveys — and those polls told an even more consistent story of GOP woes than they told in 2018.

Both parties invested accordingly, but the down-ballot anti-Trump “suburban revolt” never materialized on Election Night. With amazing consistency, Republican candidates outperformed private surveys by mid-single digits.

In fact, had Democrats performed exactly five points better on the margin in all 435 districts, every race in our “lean” and “likely” columns would have been correct, Democrats would have won 11 of the 27 Toss Ups, and they would have gained seven seats overall. In other words, polls didn’t garden-spray errors in every direction; errors were systemic and fairly precise.

Why were the polls so consistently biased towards Democrats? The most credible theory might be one articulated by analyst David Shor: that for years, there’s been a rising correlation between low levels of social and institutional trust, higher support for President Trump, and survey non-response. And, COVID-19 likely exacerbated this partisan non-response bias this year…

Overall, the “core four” outside groups — DCCC, HMP, NRCC and CLF — spent $442 million on House races ($226 million by Democrats to $216 million for Republicans). Staggeringly, $196 million of that went to 30 races that didn’t turn out to be very close (within five points), including $42 million the parties spent on races Republicans ultimately won by double digits…

Had Republicans detected the true down-ballot dynamics, they could have won the House back. GOP outside groups failed to make a significant investment in a dozen races Democrats won by less than five points, including two they won anyway (CA-39 and FL-27). For example, neither party spent a dime in South Texas, where Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (TX-15) hung on by just three points.

Also, good stuff on how Trump is a turnout machine:

2. Much as in 2016, President Trump atop the ballot was actually the best of both worlds for congressional Republicans. 

We and other analysts wrote ad nauseum about Trump’s drag on House Republicans, especially in suburban districts. But in some respects, the dynamics driving House races were more similar to four years ago than 2018, when Democrats triumphed.

Trump won 74 million votes, unquestionably driving out millions of low-propensity, right-leaning voters who would otherwise never turn out to vote for a more conventional down-ballot Republican in a midterm or off-year election. This wasn’t just the case in heavily blue-collar districts, but high-college suburbs as well, where Trump’s 2020 vote totals far outpaced his 2016 totals.

But Trump’s presence atop the ballot did something else as well. In 2018, the only opportunity for swing voters (including plenty of suburban women) to vent their displeasure with Trump was to vote against a Republican on the congressional ballot. But this time, these voters could vote directly against Trump but still vote for a more conventional Republican they liked.


Trump’s ongoing awfulness is still the fault of Republican Senators

My high-school-aged son today complained that all my blog is just me pasting in stuff from people smarter than me.  He’s not entirely wrong.  But, I like to think there’s some genuine value-added from figuring out what the smartest people out there are saying and figuring out what bits make the most sense to share. 

Anyway, good stuff from Jonathan Bernstein on Trump’s ongoing horrible behavior and where the fault lies:

The question is what can be done about this. The answer, alas, is not much. I’ve previously argued that President-elect Joe Biden is correct to downplay Trump’s nonsense, and I still think that’s true. Nor is there much for House Democrats to do. Sure, they could return to Washington and hold hearings, but what is there really to say? They could impeach Trump a second time, a fate he richly deserves. But unless Republicans in the Senate were on board, there wouldn’t be much of a point to that either. 

Those Senate Republicans are the ones who could put a stop to it all. They could threaten to remove Trump if he persists. (Yes, there’s not enough time for the House to do a regular impeachment process and for the Senate to hold a full trial, but neither are required by the constitution — if the votes were there, both chambers could get it done in a week.) Such a threat might be enough to ensure they wouldn’t actually have to go through with it. Or they could follow up on what Thune said Monday and make a more public condemnation of the president. Even if that didn’t stop him, it might reduce the damage.

But it’s also not likely to happen, since attacking Trump would risk their own popularity and future re-elections. (Trump is already attacking Senator Mitch McConnell for accepting the election results weeks after they were clear.) It also would put their majority at immediate risk, given that Trump could react by urging his supporters to stay home in the upcoming Georgia runoff elections. But we should be clear: Outside of the people actively plotting with the president, it’s Republican senators who bear the most responsibility for constantly enabling him when they could’ve reined him in. It’s a sorry record.

Is this the personality trait the far left and far right share?

I’ve been saying for a while now that one of the frustratingly commonalities of many of those on the far right and the far left is a sense of aggrievement.  They are the victim, damnit!  There is so much that is asymmetrical in our politics and I hate false equivalencies, but, human psychology is universal and there are clearly plenty on the left as well as the right who take pleasure in seeing themselves as a victim.  And, what’s cool is we now have social science to back this up… sort of:

A new personality construct has been defined that describes people who persistently see themselves as victims within interpersonal conflicts. The research was published in Personality and Individual Differences.

Study authors Rahav Gabay and team describe how the social world is satiated with interpersonal transgressions that are often unpleasant and seemingly unwarranted, such as being interrupted when speaking. While some people can easily brush off these moments of hurt, others tend to ruminate over them and persistently paint themselves as a victim. The authors present this feeling of being the victim as a novel personality construct that influences how people make sense of the world around them.

The researchers call it the Tendency for Interpersonal Victimhood (TIV), which they define as “an ongoing feeling that the self is a victim, which is generalized across many kinds of relationships.”

Through a series of eight studies among Israeli adults, Gabay and associates sought to test the validity of the construct of TIV and explore the behavioral, cognitive, and emotional consequences of such a personality trait.

An initial three studies established the TIV as a consistent and stable trait that involves four dimensions: moral elitism, a lack of empathy, the need for recognition, and rumination. A follow-up study further found that this tendency for victimhood is linked to anxious attachment  — an attachment style characterized by feeling insecure in one’s relationships — suggesting that the personality trait may be rooted in early relationships with caregivers.

Next, two studies offered insight into the cognitive profile of those with TIV. The studies had participants consider scenarios that involved another person treating them unpleasantly — either by having subjects read a vignette describing a partner giving them poor feedback (Study 3) or by having subjects play a game that ended with their opponent taking a larger share of the winnings (Study 4). Interestingly, the two studies found that those who scored higher on the measure of TIV were more likely to desire revenge against the person who wronged them.

In Study 4, this desire for revenge also translated into behavior — those high in TIV were more likely to remove money from their opponent when given the chance, despite being told that this decision wouldn’t increase their own winnings. Participants high in TIV also reported experiencing more intense negative emotions and a higher entitlement to immoral behavior. Mediation analysis offered insight into how this revenge process unfolds. “The higher participants’ TIV, the more they experienced negative emotions and felt entitled to behave immorally. However, only the experience of negative emotions predicted behavioral revenge,” the authors report.

Of course, what they did not do is report any results for how this varies across the political spectrum.  But I’d bet a pretty good chunk of change that, certainly in America, you would see much higher scores on TIV as one moves towards the left and right extremes of the political continuum.  If nobody beats me to this, I’ll be damn sure putting this on a survey next chance I get!

And, just for a fun real-world take, Jesse Singal on the awful white person who had the temerity to name her Korean strip steak and rice dish “bimbambap.”  The appropriation!!  Of course, if she had just originally called it a steak and rice bowl, that would have been an egregious case of cultural erasure.  Any way you cut it– victim!

Quick hits Part II

1) So enormously frustrating that we have the technology for accurate (no, not PCR accurate, but accurate enough to make a huge dent in transmission) $5, home, antigen-based Covid tests, but we’re still not there because the FDA only knows how to regulate tests for disease, not for public health.  $30 tests will not get us out of this mess.  $5 really could.  Best article I’ve seen on it courtesy of Vox.  

Two other challenges with testing at home, especially with a test people buy over the counter, are getting people connected to a medical professional for appropriate care or follow-up testing, and getting test results reported to public health authorities.

First, nuances in an individual’s situation might warrant different responses to a test result than a simple positive or negative might tell them, Baird notes. For example, someone with Covid-19 symptoms who receives a negative antigen test result might still be recommended for follow-up PCR testing to help verify they really don’t have the virus. On the other side, someone who tests positive but doesn’t have any symptoms or known exposures might also need follow-up, especially if they live in an area where there isn’t much virus circulating. These are all considerations a health care provider could walk someone through perhaps better than an app can.

Second, many experts have been advocating for low-tech, simple paper strip-based tests — akin to a pregnancy test — but that might mean that results are off the grid, keeping public health officials in the dark about where and how much the virus was spreading. “This is a concern — how are you going to get accurate counts of positive cases at the same time as giving people access to testing,” Kwik Gronvall says.

Ellume went higher-tech with its new test, ensuring results — transmitted via Bluetooth to the linked smartphone app — would be automatically transferred (with the person’s zip code and date of birth; name and email are optional) to public health officials. But the technology also nudged the price tag up from the $1 to $5 that Mina has proposed to $30. This would make frequent testing unlikely for someone earning, for example, the federal minimum wage ($7.25 per hour) and paying for it out of pocket.

Abbott’s newly greenlit at-home test took a different route. It kept the test itself low-tech, but it requires interaction with a professional “certified guide” through an online medical service, who can advise people on best next steps and also report test results to public health channels. This means the test (which itself costs $5) actually retails for $25 to cover the cost of the professional’s time. Abbott’s test also requires people to meet the criteria of being in the first seven days of having symptoms (which also means not everyone can take it), and it takes extra time for the kit to be shipped.

2) I still love Facebook for sharing great photos of my kids, updates on my Achilles, etc., but, yes, I can appreciate the argument that it is a “doomsday machine.”  

People tend to complain about Facebook as if something recently curdled. There’s a notion that the social web was once useful, or at least that it could have been good, if only we had pulled a few levers: some moderation and fact-checking here, a bit of regulation there, perhaps a federal antitrust lawsuit. But that’s far too sunny and shortsighted a view. Today’s social networks, Facebook chief among them, were built to encourage the things that make them so harmful. It is in their very architecture.

I’ve been thinking for years about what it would take to make the social web magical in all the right ways—less extreme, less toxic, more true—and I realized only recently that I’ve been thinking far too narrowly about the problem. I’ve long wanted Mark Zuckerberg to admit that Facebook is a media company, to take responsibility for the informational environment he created in the same way that the editor of a magazine would. (I pressed him on this once and he laughed.) In recent years, as Facebook’s mistakes have compounded and its reputation has tanked, it has become clear that negligence is only part of the problem. No one, not even Mark Zuckerberg, can control the product he made. I’ve come to realize that Facebook is not a media company. It’s a Doomsday Machine.

The social web is doing exactly what it was built for. Facebook does not exist to seek truth and report it, or to improve civic health, or to hold the powerful to account, or to represent the interests of its users, though these phenomena may be occasional by-products of its existence. The company’s early mission was to “give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” Instead, it took the concept of “community” and sapped it of all moral meaning. The rise of QAnon, for example, is one of the social web’s logical conclusions. That’s because Facebook—along with Google and YouTube—is perfect for amplifying and spreading disinformation at lightning speed to global audiences. Facebook is an agent of government propaganda, targeted harassment, terrorist recruitment, emotional manipulation, and genocide—a world-historic weapon that lives not underground, but in a Disneyland-inspired campus in Menlo Park, California.

3) If the people giving the injections are careful, there’s actually at least one extra dose per 5 dose vial of the Pfizer vaccine.  Hooray, that’s 20% more vaccinations.

4) Great stuff from 538 on the blue shift in the suburbs:

Suburban and exurban counties turned away from Trump and toward Democrat Joe Biden in states across the country, including in key battleground states like Pennsylvania and Georgia. In part, this may be because the suburbs are simply far more diverse than they used to be. But suburbs have also become increasingly well-educated — and that may actually better explain why so many suburbs and exurbs are turning blue than just increased diversity on its own.

According to Ashley Jardina, a political science professor at Duke University who studies white identity politics, it’s not that racial diversity isn’t a factor. Among white people, at least, educational attainment is often a proxy for how open they are to growing racial diversity, with more highly educated white people likely to think increased racial diversity is a good thing. “Education is so important because it’s intertwined with racial attitudes among white people,” Jardina said.

No matter how you slice it, it’s clear that communities that were pretty much uniformly white only a few decades ago are now far more racially diverse, with Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans making up larger shares of suburban and exurban populations than ever before. According to our analysis of data from a “diversity index” developed by USA Today that calculates the chance that any two people chosen at random from a given area are of different races or ethnicities, most suburbs have grown at least somewhat more diverse over the past 10 years. That’s particularly true in some of the states — like Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan — that were pivotal for Biden this year.1 

On the surface, those demographic shifts may seem like good news for Democrats, since nonwhite voters are much more likely to identify as Democratic than white voters. But when we dug into how these diversifying parts of the country have actually voted, we didn’t find a uniform shift toward Democrats.2 Some suburbs that grew more racially diverse over the past decade saw a smaller swing toward Biden than others — or even moved slightly further into Trump’s column. And other suburbs that didn’t diversify much at all still became much bluer in 2020.

Rather, it was education — and particularly how much more educated a place has gotten over the past 10 years3 — that was more closely related to increased support for Biden (especially once accounting for how educated a county was in 2010). Growing racial diversity in an area was still important, since the suburban counties that saw the biggest swing toward Trump were the ones that remained less racially diverse and less educated. But the political swing among diversifying counties was much less uniform than it was in counties that became more educated.

5) Very solid Q&A on vaccines with a long-time friend providing the Q’s and a new friend providing the A’s.  And, yes, I really love that I’m friends with a virologist!

6) Great stuff from Thomas Edsall on the rise of political sectarianism:

Viewing recent events through a Trump prism may be too restrictive to capture the economic, social and cultural turmoil that has grown more corrosive in recent years.

On Oct. 30, a group of 15 eminent scholars (several of whom I also got a chance to talk to) published an essay — “Political Sectarianism in America” — arguing that the antagonism between left and right has become so intense that words and phrases like “affective polarization” and “tribalism” were no longer sufficient to capture the level of partisan hostility.

“The severity of political conflict has grown increasingly divorced from the magnitude of policy disagreement,” the authors write, requiring the development of “a superordinate construct, political sectarianism — the tendency to adopt a moralized identification with one political group and against another.”

Political sectarianism, they argue,

consists of three core ingredients: othering — the tendency to view opposing partisans as essentially different or alien to oneself; aversion — the tendency to dislike and distrust opposing partisans; and moralization — the tendency to view opposing partisans as iniquitous. It is the confluence of these ingredients that makes sectarianism so corrosive in the political sphere.

There are multiple adverse outcomes that result from political sectarianism, according to the authors. It “incentivizes politicians to adopt antidemocratic tactics when pursuing electoral or political victories” since their supporters will justify such norm violation because “the consequences of having the vile opposition win the election are catastrophic.” …

Eli Finkel, a professor of psychology at Northwestern and the first author of the paper on political sectarianism I started with, contended in an email that “if we consider Trump’s efforts in isolation, I am not especially concerned,” because the failure of his attempts to overturn the election so far have “provided a crucial and unprecedented stress test of our electoral system.”

If, however, “we consider the support for Trump’s efforts from officials and the rank-and-file in the Republican Party, I am profoundly concerned,” Finkel continued,

The foremost political story of the Trump era is not that a person like Trump could be so shamelessly self-dealing, but that Republicans have exhibited such fealty along the way, including a willingness to cripple the founding document they claim to view as sacrosanct.

Political sectarianism, Finkel concluded,

has now grown so severe that it functions as the most serious threat to our political system since the Civil War. And although scholars debate whether one party is guiltier than the other, antidemocratic trends are growing stronger on both sides. If we don’t figure out a way to get this sectarianism under control, I fear for the future of our republic.

Some of those I contacted cite changes in mass media as critical to this increasing sectarianism.

Shanto Iyengar, a political scientist at Stanford and another of the paper’s authors, emailed to say:

I would single out the profound transformations in the American media system over the past 50 years. Basically, we’ve moved from an “information commons” in which Americans of all political stripes and walks of life encountered the same news coverage from well-regarded journalists and news organizations to a more fragmented, high choice environment featuring news providers who no longer subscribe to the norms and standards of fact-based journalism. The increased availability of news with a slant coupled with the strengthened motivation to encounter information that depicts opponents as deplorable has led to a complete breakdown in the consensus over facts.

Iyengar noted that research he and Erik Peterson, a political scientist at Texas A&M University, have conducted shows that:

the partisan divide in factual beliefs is genuine, not merely partisans knowingly giving the incorrect answer to factual questions because they realize that to do so is “toeing the party line.”

7) Good stuff from NPR, “Kindness Vs. Cruelty: Helping Kids Hear The Better Angels Of Their Nature”

8) More really interesting stuff on vitamin D and Covid (and respiratory health in general).  I’m convinced enough that I’m taking a vitamin D supplement (after discovering, much to my surprise, that my levels are low).

8) Two of my Covid-times favorites, Zeynep and Michael Mina make the case in an NYT Op-Ed for vaccinating as many people as possible as soon as possible with a single dose.  Personally, I’m totally persuaded by the wisdom of this case (and very smart of Zeynep to get an expert like Mina on board to make the case), but, alas, I think the likelihood is very, very low.  

9) Great, short video in the Post on how the coronavirus attacks.  


Doctor vs MD vs PhD

So, I’ve been tardy on weighing in on the “Dr” Jill Biden controversy given my strong opinions on the topic.  Honestly, I’ve never been a fan of academics being addressed as “Dr Jones” or whatever.  I strongly prefer that my students call me “Professor Greene.”  Sometimes I let the “Dr Greene” go, depending upon the context, but, in general, try and make clear I prefer “Professor.”  In an academic environment, though, I don’t sweat it at all, nor particularly begrudge others going by doctor.

What really bugs me, though, is academics using the “doctor” honorific outside the academic environment.  When I’m visiting my kids’ classrooms or talking to their teachers or hanging with the neighbor kids or whatever, I’m “Mr Greene.”  I have a few friends (including at least one reading this post), who really enjoy calling me “Dr Greene.”  And, after a correction or two, I realize that they enjoy calling me “Dr Greene,” so, fair enough, nothing for me to get worked up about.  But, generally speaking, people who insist on being called “Dr” outside the academic environment rubs me the wrong way.

Also, words, their usage, and how they evolve is complicated.  And I hate how much of the discussion has elided this fact.  Yes, “doctor” was originally a title for academics, not physicians.  But, indisputably, in common American usage, referring to “a doctor” means referring to a physician.  And, as such, referring to a physician as “Dr Jones” makes a lot more sense than referring to an English professor as “Dr Jones.”  I’ve long said a variation on “you can call me ‘doctor’ when I raise my hand when the pilot asks if there is a doctor on the plane.”  Also, I hadn’t really thought about it much before, but the pulmonologist who visits his kids’ classroom should probably not being hung up on being called Dr Jones instead of Mr Jones.  

Last point, there really is a big gendered component here.  The simple fact is that women often get less respect for their accomplishments and credentials than men.  I have absolutely no problem at all with women on twitter using “Dr” or “PhD” in their twitter name or in any environment to make sure their credentials/expertise are respected (though, I really hope they don’t insist on being called Dr when they drop their dog off at the vet).  

I imagine being Joe Biden’s wife has all sorts of components that make this all very complicated so I will not judge Jill Biden for insisting on “Dr.”  But, the reality is that if I knew a community college professor– male or female– who insisted on going by “Dr” in all their regular life, not just the academic environment– yeah, I would judge.  

Anyway, so that’s probably more than you wanted to know on the Dr debate.

Quick hits (part I)

1) Sure looks like our measures against Covid have killed off the flu, thanks to flu’s notably lower R0:

Why is this happening? The push to get more people vaccinated against the flu this fall to avert the feared twindemic may have had some impact, but that doesn’t explain why flu incidence plummeted last spring. The obvious explanation is simply that the things that individuals and governments have been doing to slow the spread of Covid-19 have brought the spread of influenza, a respiratory disease that is transmitted in similar,  if not identical fashion, to a screeching halt.

These measures have likely been more effective against influenza than against Covid because influenza is so much less contagious than Covid. A rough measure of contagiousness is the basic reproduction number — the number of people each person with the disease can be expected to infect if everyone behaves normally. For seasonal influenza it’s about 1.3, in flu pandemics it’s been higher than that but still below 2. For Covid-19 it’s probably somewhere between 2 and 4.

Mask-wearing, working from home, banning large gatherings and other social distancing measures — together with more people acquiring immunity by contracting Covid-19 — seem to have brought Covid’s effective reproduction number in the U.S. down to not much more than 1. (When last I checked the estimates on rt.live, Tennessee had the highest rate at 1.22 and Wyoming the lowest at 0.85.) By all appearances, that’s also pushed the effective reproduction number for the flu down well below 1.  

One lesson from this is that the oft-heard lament that U.S. and many European countries have failed in battling the pandemic is wrong. Sure, a quick glance at East Asia makes clear that the West could have done much, much better. But given how successful we’ve been at halting the flu, it seems clear that we’ve also been successful at slowing down Covid. The resurgence of the disease this fall has been bad, but it could have been much, much worse.

Another lesson is that “non-pharmaceutical interventions,” the term of art for all the things we’ve been doing to slow Covid’s spread while waiting for vaccines, ought to be a bigger part of the toolkit for battling the flu. That’s not to say we should close all the borders and restaurants every winter, but lower-cost measures such as taking hand-washing seriously, wearing a mask when you don’t feel well, working from home if you’ve been exposed and keeping sick visitors and workers away from nursing homes could save thousands of lives every year. And if a new pandemic flu strain comes along that’s as deadly as, say, the 1918 variety (which was much deadlier than Covid-19, especially for young people), costlier interventions would almost certainly be worth the price.

2) Craig Stirling on the shocking fact that tax cuts for the rich don’t actually trickle down:

Tax cuts for rich people breed inequality without providing much of a boon to anyone else, according to a study of the advanced world that could add to the case for the wealthy to bear more of the cost of the coronavirus pandemic.

The paper, by David Hope of the London School of Economics and Julian Limberg of King’s College London, found that such measures over the last 50 years only really benefited the individuals who were directly affected, and did little to promote jobs or growth.

“Policy makers shouldn’t worry that raising taxes on the rich to fund the financial costs of the pandemic will harm their economies,” Hope said in an interview.

That will be comforting news to U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, whose hopes of repairing the country’s virus-battered public finances may rest on his ability to increase taxes, possibly on capital gains — a levy that might disproportionately impact higher-earning individuals.

It would also suggest the economy could weather a one-off 5% tax on wealth suggested for Britain last week by the Wealth Tax Commission, which would affect about 8 million residents.

The authors applied an analysis amalgamating a range of levies on income, capital and assets in 18 OECD countries, including the U.S. and U.K., over the past half century.

Their findings published Wednesday counter arguments, often made in the U.S., that policies which appear to disproportionately aid richer individuals eventually feed through to the rest of the economy. The timespan of the paper ends in 2015, but Hope says such an analysis would also apply to President Donald Trump’s tax cut enacted in 2017.

3) I finally get HBO Max for my Roku, and, apparently, Wonder Woman to thank.  Also, so much damn good content today, but, alas, for the simpler times of cable television and that was it:

To be fair, though, the issue of not having every streaming service on every device wasn’t a HBO-Max-and-Roku-specific problem. It’s more like one particular beachhead in the ongoing streaming wars. A couple years ago, the worry was that every media company would start its own streaming service and everyone would get nickel-and-dimed paying for monthly subscription fees. In the last 13 months, with the launch of Disney+, HBO Max, Apple TV+, and Peacock, that’s pretty much come to pass. But those launches were also accompanied by an ever growing prevalence of connected TVs and streaming devices, from Fire TV sticks to Chromecasts. Because each gadget and each platform has its own set of partners, it might not even be possible to have one single configuration that provides all the vitamins and minerals any one person needs to satisfy their media diet. (Peacock had similar issues with Amazon and Roku when it launched over the summer.) So we’re left improvising and compromising. Oh, and that doesn’t even factor in any one person’s gaming consoles of choice, which is a whole other nightmare.

4) My favorite thing about Brian Beutler is how he relentlessly calls out the bad faith (read the thread).

5) Amazing and heartbreaking story of a Mexican woman single-handedly seeking justice against her daughter’s kidnappers and killers.  I feel like the fact that we border a disastrously murderous, near failed state is something we should care about more.  A lot more, for example, than the Middle East.  

6) So, once Yglesias offered the educator rate for his substack, I ponied up and subscribed.  And, so far, it’s totally worth it.  Loved this piece, for example on Trump’s gains with Latino voters.  Especially this portion on the misguidedness of identitarian politics:

There’s a kind of tedious debate that goes on endlessly in progressive circles between, on the one hand, those who urge us to “listen to Black women!” or otherwise defer to the lived experience of people in marginalized groups, and on the other, people like Matt Bruenig and Jonathan Chait who denounce what’s known academically as standpoint epistemology and what Bruenig has popularized among anti-woke leftists as identitarian deference. Here, the critics pound the table in favor of objective truth, while the proponents insist on the situated nature of knowledge.

I think a smarter critique and ultimately a better path forward comes from the Georgetown philosopher Olúfémi O. Táíwò who calls on us to pay more attention to who is actually being deferred to (emphasis added):

I think it’s less about the core ideas and more about the prevailing norms that convert them into practice. The call to “listen to the most affected” or “centre the most marginalized” is ubiquitous in many academic and activist circles. But it’s never sat well with me. In my experience, when people say they need to “listen to the most affected”, it isn’t because they intend to set up Skype calls to refugee camps or to collaborate with houseless people. Instead, it has more often meant handing conversational authority and attentional goods to those who most snugly fit into the social categories associated with these ills – regardless of what they actually do or do not know, or what they have or have not personally experienced. In the case of my conversation with Helen, my racial category tied me more “authentically” to an experience that neither of us had had. She was called to defer to me by the rules of the game as we understood it. Even where stakes are high – where potential researchers are discussing how to understand a social phenomenon, where activists are deciding what to target – these rules often prevail.

But the piece is more complicated than the simple observation that the members of marginalized groups that we are exhorted to listen to are often a relatively elite sub-set of the groups. You should really read the whole thing (it’s not long) but I’ll just excerpt one more paragraph that I think is relevant:

Deference epistemology marks itself as a solution to an epistemic and political problem. But not only does it fail to solve these problems, it adds new ones. One might think questions of justice ought to be primarily concerned with fixing disparities around health care, working conditions, and basic material and interpersonal security. Yet conversations about justice have come to be shaped by people who have ever more specific practical advice about fixing the distribution of attention and conversational power. Deference practices that serve attention-focused campaigns (e.g. we’ve read too many white men, let’s now read some people of colour) can fail on their own highly questionable terms: attention to spokespeople from marginalized groups could, for example, direct attention away from the need to change the social system that marginalizes them.

Political “work” is overwhelmingly done by college graduates, most of them younger than the median voter. That’s true on formal political campaigns, but also inside activist and policy organizations and the foundations that fund them. Nobody would be so foolhardy as to believe that listening to the young whiter staffers at a progressive nonprofit constitutes listening to white people in a sense that would help you appeal to the marginal white voter.

But a lot of progressive spaces have, as Táíwò suggests, adopted norms that essential do this with young, college-educated non-white staffers.

And this happens even though young, left-wing, college-educated Black, Latin, and Asian people are as aware as anyone else — if not much more so! — that their older, more working-class relatives do not, in fact, share the values and language of young activists or junior faculty. But not only do progressives fail to “center” the perspectives of working-class people of color, efforts to note their cross-pressured political views are often actively stigmatized.

So let’s be clear about this. You can see in Pew data that Black people are less likely than white ones to say that “homosexuality should be accepted by society.” And in the GSS they are more likely to say that it is “wrong for same-sex adults to have sexual relations.” This is not about blaming anybody for anything. But it is factually true that anti-LGBT views are more prevalent among African-Americans. And since anti-LGBT white people are very likely to just be Republicans, this is particularly true when you’re looking at the dynamics inside something like a Democratic Party primary. If you can’t acknowledge this as a factual matter, then you are going to struggle to do politics effectively and end up with the kind of trends Democrats saw in 2020.

At the end of the day, all the stuff progressives point to in order to paint Trump as racist is not wrong. And in electoral terms, that’s exactly the problem. It’s very easy to imagine taking the exact same policy views, pairing them with a less offensive person, and doing way better than Trump. To stop that from happening, Democrats need to pay closer attention to the actual views of the non-white population and not just “listen to” the idiosyncratic subset that does progressive politics professionally.

7) Also, learned a new term (new to me that is).  Identitarian deference.  

8) Zeynep’s got a substack now, too.  All free, so far, at least.  Good stuff on the case for prioritizing vaccinations almost exclusively by age:

But this simple fact is also true: the severity and death track one key variable more than anything else, and it’s age. The impact of age is not only huge, it’s exponential. As I wrote in my piece:

The risk profile of this disease is strikingly exponential: The risk of death for those ages 65 to 69 is a staggering two and a half times that of those just a decade younger. Those just a few years older, ages 75 to 79, face six times the risk of death compared with that same age group (ages 55 to 59). The steepness of this age curve really matters, because it means that protecting the most vulnerable groups with a highly efficacious vaccine will both quickly change our experience of the pandemic and relieve the strain on our hospitals.

It varies a little by country, but the numbers, everywhere, are staggering. In nearly all countries, almost all the deaths are from older people. In the United States, about 90% of the deaths are from people 55 and older. In Canada, it was about 95% of deaths from those above 65. In Italy, about 85 percent were 70 and older. And the gradations within those age groups are steep as well—hence the word, exponential. Unsurprisingly, severe disease and hospitalizations also track age.

When vaccinating under conditions of shortage, there are inescapable trade-offs. Obviously, vaccinating those most at risk is crucial. Transmission is always a consideration, so vaccinating people who either have a lot of contacts or have a lot of vulnerable contacts, is important. Often, as in this case, those groups do not overlap. There are also questions of equity: why should people who can work from home get the same priority as essential workers who have to work in person, and who take much higher risks? Shouldn’t those who have taken the most risk get priority?

In the end, though, we want to minimize human suffering and death. Overall, there seems to be a consensus that healthcare workers are going to be vaccinated first, along with long-term care residents, where a great majority of deaths have occurred. After that, the next question is whether to first vaccinate older people, starting with the oldest and working one’s way down the age range, or to start with essential workers, which are estimated around 80 million in this country.

It looks like the United States may first vaccinate essential workers—a category that will get defined somewhat subjectively, and according to the political power of these groups. A preliminary committee has already recommended vaccinating 80+ essential workers before vaccinating those 65 and older, and those with other conditions that put them at risk.The CDC will likely adopt this recommendation when they take up this issue on Sunday. After that, it will be up to each state to determine how they do this. Here’s what it may look like, with 85 million people being vaccinated ahead of those 65 and older.

But I’m already hearing that, for example, in Utah, a 30-year-old teacher may be vaccinated long before someone over 70 or even 80—even though the latter are at so much great risk if infected. In fact, it looks like teachers, police and food and agriculture workers will all precede adults over 65 and people with high-risk medical conditions.The predictable lobbying blitz has begun.

That is not what other countries rolling out the same vaccine are doing. For comparison, here’s the UK-wide vaccination prioritization, which sensibly ranks by risk, which corresponds to age.

9) Obviously William Barr is awful and odious.  But it is honestly difficult to know what exactly to make of his last couple months and his resignation.  David Rohde’s take is my favorite so far:

Former Justice Departments officials and legal experts were unequivocal in their assessment of Barr’s legacy. They credited him for breaking with Trump in the prelude to and aftermath of the election. But they predicted that he would go down in history as one of the country’s most destructive Attorneys General. “The few times Barr put the nation ahead of the President will not atone for the many times he chose the opposite. He leaves a wounded department,” Stephen Gillers, an expert in legal ethics at New York University School of Law, told me. “His tenure as Attorney General will be akin to the plague years at the Justice Department,” David Laufman, a former Justice Department official, said. “I think his tenure has been an indefensible and disgraceful betrayal of long-established norms,” Donald Ayer, a former Deputy Attorney General, noted. (The senior law-enforcement official was more magnanimous, calling Barr’s legacy a “mixed bag.”) A spokesperson for Barr did not respond to a request for comment…

Barr deserves credit for refusing to go along with Trump’s post-election de-facto coup attempt. But he also exacerbated the explosion of “alternative facts” in the Trump era. At a time when division and confusion regarding basic facts were already rampant among Americans, Barr used his position as a fact-finder to increase discord, not ease it. He decried the special-counsel probe and other investigations of Trump as politically motivated inquisitions. Whatever his intentions, his legacy will be that he then unleashed those same demons. Barr has extended the cycle of politically motivated investigations that increasingly plague American politics.

10) People getting rich (or in my case, a few extra dollars) with how dumb the Trump lovers are in the betting markets.  

11) Interesting case here “”A Black Student’s Mother Complained About ‘Fences.’ He Was Expelled. A dispute about the reading of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play in an English class escalated at the mostly white Providence Day School in Charlotte, N.C.”  I recently saw Fences for the first time last year.  It was really good.  I appreciate the mother’s particular concerns, but, ummm, play about a Black family by a Black playwright was added to the curriculum for very good reasons.  

12) If you can all avoid it and you want the restaurant you are ordering from to thrive, you should avoid the third-party apps:

Under pressure to pay rent and retain workers, some restaurants turned more of their attention to delivery, particularly from app-based companies like DoorDash, UberEats and Grubhub. Few restaurants that hadn’t done delivery in the past had the time or money to create their own delivery service, which typically brings in less money than dining rooms, where customers are more apt to order more profitable items like appetizers, desserts or a second round of drinks.

These restaurants have quickly found that the apps, with their high fees and strong-arm tactics, may be a temporary lifeline, but not a savior. Fees of 30 percent or higher per order cut eateries’ razor-thin margins to the bone. And a stimulus package that would bolster the industry has stalled in Congress, even as states and municipalities enact new limits on both indoor and outdoor dining.

Restaurants are entering a critical stage as a new coronavirus surge takes hold and outdoor dining becomes less appealing during the colder months. Lawmakers can help by extending federal grants to independent restaurants that will help them close the gap in lost sales and cover payroll and other expenses. But legislators also should consider caps on the fees the apps can charge, particularly amid the pandemic, as places like New York City, San Francisco, New Jersey and Washington State have done, or risk seeing additional restaurant casualties. Officials in Colorado and Santa Clara County in California are considering similar fee limits, though app firms are pushing back by imposing $1.50 to $2 per-order charges on customers in some cities.

13) Jesse Wegman on majority rule:

First, and most fundamental: Majority rule is the only rule that treats all people as political equals. “That’s actually enormously important,” said Richard Primus, a professor at the University of Michigan law school. Any other rule inevitably treats certain votes as worth more than others. Sometimes that’s what we want, as when we require criminal juries to be unanimous in voting to convict. In that case, “there is one error that we prefer to the other error,” Mr. Primus said. “We want to make false convictions very difficult, much more rare than false acquittals.”

But in an election for the president, he said, there is no “morally relevant criterion” for departing from majority rule. Voters in one part of the country are no wiser or more worthy than voters in another. And yet the votes of those in certain states always matter more. “What could possibly justify that?” Mr. Primus asked.

This is not just an abstract numerical concern. When people’s votes are treated as unequal, it’s a short jump to treating people as unequal. Put another way, it’s not enough to say that we’re all equal before the law; we also must be able to have an equal say in the choice of the representatives who make and enforce the laws.

There is a second reason majority rule is critical: It bestows legitimacy on the system. A representative government only works when its citizens see the electoral process as fair. When that legitimacy is absent, when people perceive — often accurately — that their vote doesn’t matter, they will eventually reject the system.

“If we’re going to rule ourselves, we’re going to be ruled by majorities,” said Astra Taylor, an author and democracy activist. “There’s a stability in that idea. There’s a sense of the people deciding for themselves and buying in. That stability is incredibly valuable. The alternative is one in which we’re being ruled by something which is outside of us, whether a dictator or a technocracy or an algorithm.”

Finally,majority rule ensures electoral accountability. As the economist Amartya Sen put it, democracies don’t have famines. A government that doesn’t have to earn the support of a majority of its citizens, or at least a plurality, is not truly accountable to them, and has no incentive to represent their interests or provide for their needs. This opens the door to neglect, corruption and abuse of power. (Talk to the millions of Californians ignored by President Trump during wildfire season.) “If someone has to run for re-election, they have to put attention into running things well,” Mr. Amar said. “If they don’t, they will lose elections.”

14) Beethoven was born 250 years ago.  Talk about standing the test of time.  For my money, his symphonies are the single greatest musical accomplishment.  And here’s, “5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Beethoven

15) Always read Eric Foner, “We Are Not Done With Abolition: The framers of the 13th Amendment did not intend to establish an empire of prison labor.”

16) Also, seriously, people are always giving the NYT such a hard time, but deeply-reported essays like this on two teenagers of very different social classes dealing with the poisonous air are just amazing.  If you only read a few NYT stories a month, make this one of them.

17) And if you want to learn more about air pollution (you should), this is a great article on PM 2.5, the key particulate matter we worry about for human health.  I had never heard of Undark before (why not?), but seems like great science journalism.

18) It’s long past time for the face masks we rely upon to have clear standards for filtration efficiency.  Looks like it may finally be coming.  

19) This is really interesting– all the news websites with more than 100,000 digital subscribers.  I subscribe to 5 of the 24.  

20) Great stuff on Raphael Warnock’s ads, dogs, and racial stereotypes from Michael Tesler:

These ads have been praised as cutehumorous and clever. And the two spots have gone viral, generating almost nine million views while Warnock’s dogoriented tweets accumulated over half a million likes on Twitter in November. The campaign has even profited off the pooch by selling “Puppies for Warnock” merchandise.

But some close observers of race and politics have noted that there is much more here than just an adorable electoral campaign. These ads, they argue, are carefully crafted attempts to neutralize racial stereotypes that work against Warnock in his bid to become Georgia’s first African American senator.

Hakeem Jefferson, a Stanford professor and FiveThirtyEight contributor, tweeted, “This ad is doing a lot. It’s obv[iously] cute, but it is also meant to deracialize Warnock with this cute ‘white people friendly’ doggy.” Fordham University political scientist and MSNBC contributor Christina Greer similarly tweeted, “This ad will be taught in Race Politics classes for years to come…it is doing A LOT of silent heavy lifting.” And The New York Times’s Jamelle Bouie concurred, tweeting in response to Greer’s comments, “Yep. The setting, Warnock’s outfit, even the dog breed all are sending a specific message.”

But why is Warnock’s pet beagle viewed as a “white people doggy”? And could his choice of pet have an effect on his electoral strategy?

Well, for starters, there’s a large racial divide in dog ownership. A 2006 Pew Research poll found that 45 percent of white Americans owned a dog compared to only 20 percent of African Americans. And the way pet ownership is portrayed in popular culture further exacerbates that divide in the minds of the public. In their classic study of media and race in the 1990s, “Black Image in the White Mind,” Robert Entman and Andrew Rojecki found no prime-time commercials containing African American pet owners. “According to the world of TV advertising,” Entman and Rojecki surmised, “Whites are the ones who occupy the realm of ideal humanity, of human warmth and connection, as symbolized occasionally by their love for their pets.” That is one reason Warnock’s ads are so effective: They directly push back against this stereotype, showing an affectionate Black dog owner who explicitly says he loves puppies.

Yet, as the tweets above suggest, the breed of Warnock’s dog is also doing a lot of work to counteract negative racial stereotypes of dog ownership. Take what my University of California Irvine colleague Mary McThomas and I’ve found in our research on dog ownership: When we asked people which dog breeds they thought white and Black people were more likely to own, the majority guessed that Black people owned rottweilers and pit bulls while white people owned golden retrievers, collies, Labradors and Dalmatians.

21) Bill Gates loved David Epstein’s Range.  So did I.  You should read it.  

22) In his occasional newsletter, Epstein relies on his brother’s experience to take a look at the joke that is so much forensic science.  In this case, how the ways in which forensic science methods are validated are basically junk.  And, of course, we lock people up with this all the time:

We want to highlight one final study that Dror and Scurich cite in their paper. This study included 2,178 comparisons in which shell cartridge casings were not produced by the firearm in question. Forensic experts accurately assessed 1,421 of those and made 22 false-positive identifications. The remaining 735 responses were “inconclusive.” How big a factor should those inconclusives be when we think about the results of this study? (And since the Range Report promotes opportunities to use simple calculation for B.S. detection, think about this one for a minute before reading on.)

Those inconclusives are a really big deal. In this case, the study counted “inconclusive” as a correct answer, and so reported a 1 percent error rate in identifying different-source cartridges. (That is, 22/2,178.) Had the study left the inconclusive responses out, the reported error rate wouldn’t be much different: 22/(2,178 – 735), or 1.5 percent. But let’s say instead that “inconclusive” was counted as an error. Then the calculation is (735 + 22)/2,178, or a 35 percent error rate. So how accurate were those experts in identifying non-matches? Their error rate was somewhere between 1 percent and 35 percent, depending on how you deal with inconclusives. How accurate would they have been if they hadn’t been allowed to choose inconclusive at all? We have no idea—and that’s a huge problem. Ultimately, these tests are constructed so that forensic examiners can choose the questions on which they will be scored. In this example, one in five examiners answered “inconclusive” for every single comparison, giving them perfect scores. Again, if only the tests you took in school had worked that way.

23) Apparently, just a few decades behind the science, the US Army has figured out that sufficient sleep is important for optimum human performance (which you’d think matters when you’re fighting a war).  

24) What science can tell you about how to choose a gift.  

Big government works (with big business)

Great Leonhardt newsletter earlier this week on how big government and big business working effectively together can be super-productive in a way nothing else can be.  And you need look no further than the amazing Covid vaccine development:

Before Covid-19, the record for the fastest vaccine development — for mumps — was four years. Most vaccines have required more than a decade of research and experimentation.

Yet yesterday morning, less than a year after the discovery of Covid, a critical care nurse in Queens named Sandra Lindsay became the first American to participate in the mass vaccination program for the coronavirus. “I feel like healing is coming,” she said afterward.

It is a stunning story of scientific success.

It also fits a pattern that stretches back decades: Many of the biggest technological breakthroughs in American history have not sprung from the private sector. They have instead been the result of collaboration between private companies and the federal government.

The Defense Department, after all, built the internet. Government research and development also led to transistors, silicon chips, radar, jet airplanes, satellites, artificial limbs, cortisone, flat screens and much more, as the M.I.T. economists Jonathan Gruber and Simon Johnson point out in their recent book, “Jump-Starting America.”

“Almost everything about your computer today — and the way you use it — stems from government funding at the early stages,” Gruber and Johnson write.

Why? Because basic research is usually too uncertain and expensive for any one company to afford. Often, it isn’t even clear which future products the research may create. No kitchen appliance company ever would have thought to do the military research that led to the microwave oven.

With Covid, the vaccines from both Pfizer and Moderna rely on years of government-funded (and sometimes government-conducted) research into viral proteins and genetics. That research, Kaiser Health News explains, is “the essential ingredient in the rapid development of vaccines in response to Covid-19.”

The federal help accelerated this year. The government funded Moderna’s work in recent months, as part of the billions of dollars it spent to make possible a record-breaking vaccine, The Atlantic’s Ed Yong writes. And while Pfizer turned down direct federal funding, it asked for the government’s help in procuring supplies and also signed a $1.95 billion “advance purchase” agreement with Washington.

As my colleague Neil Irwin has written: “The nine months of the pandemic have shown that in a modern state, capitalism can save the day — but only when the government exercises its power to guide the economy and act as the ultimate absorber of risk. The lesson of Covid capitalism is that big business needs big government, and vice versa.”

What are the lessons for the post-Covid world? Solving the biggest challenges, like climate change, will almost certainly depend on a combination of public-sector funding and private-sector ingenuity.

Yet as Gruber and Johnson note, federal funding of science has become a smaller part of the U.S. economy than it used to be. Which means the Covid vaccine is both an inspiring success and something of an exception. “On its current course,” the economists write, “America seems unlikely to continue its dominance of invention.”

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