Quick hits (part II)

1) Oh man this NYT essay on smell and what we have learned about it thanks to Covid is fantastic.  I actually would’ve missed it, so thanks to BB for making sure I saw it.  

Smell is a startling superpower. You can walk through someone’s front door and instantly know that she recently made popcorn. Drive down the street and somehow sense that the neighbors are barbecuing. Intuit, just as a side effect of breathing a bit of air, that this sweater has been worn but that one hasn’t, that it’s going to start raining soon, that the grass was trimmed a few hours back. If you weren’t used to it, it would seem like witchcraft…

One reason we have discounted smelling is our belief that we’re bad at it. Smell was the province of lesser animals, we told ourselves, of pigs rooting out truffles and sharks scenting blood, while humans were creatures of reason and intellect who managed to stand up and grow huge brains and leave that life far behind — and, literally, below — us. Scientists followed Paul Broca, a 19th-century neuroscientist, in pointing to the relative smallness of our olfactory bulbs as evidence that our brains had triumphed over them, and likewise over the need to pay much attention to smell at all. In the late 1950s, a pioneering ear, nose and throat specialist, Victor Negus, summed up the consensus view in a book about the comparative anatomy of the nose. “The human mind is an inadequate agent with which to study olfaction,” the specialist wrote, “for the reason that in Man the sense of smell is relatively feeble and not of great significance.” For centuries, when scientists studied smell at all, they tended to focus on isolating particular odorants (they thought they could find the odor version of primary colors) and creating elaborate organizational systems that shuffled them into various categories (“History is littered with the wrecks of Universal Classifications of Smell,” the smell scientist Avery Gilbert wrote in his book “What the Nose Knows.”) Questions of how humans smell and how our smelling, in turn, interacts with our bodies, our health and our behavior were of far less interest. The sense, after all, was seen as practically vestigial: an often handy, sometimes pleasant but ultimately unimportant holdover from our distant past.

The notion of smell as vestigial has itself come to seem outmoded. That’s because of a renaissance in smell science. While we have long understood the basic mechanisms of vision and audition, it has been less than 30 years since the neural receptors that allow us to perceive and make sense of the smells around us were even identified. The discoverers — Linda Buck and Richard Axel — were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2004.

2) I enjoyed seeing Zeynep get profiled as Tarheel of the Month in the N&O.  

3) Republican Adam Kitzinger is that rare Republican Evangelical Christian who actually seems to get it on some level:

As a kid growing up in a Baptist church, Kinzinger was “constantly in Sunday school,” and his dad ran ministries that served the hungry and the homeless. Politics was a natural part of this world: Kinzinger attended meetings of the Christian Coalition, the evangelical advocacy group, and learned about the importance of advocating against abortion. But over time, as the tie between Republican politics and evangelical Christianity got tighter, he began to see conservative policies used as a litmus test for whether people were true Christians. Kinzinger believed that Republican ideas were superior to Democratic ones—he first got elected to the county board in McLean County, Illinois, as a 20-year-old local-government advocate. But it bothered him that many Republicans viewed their political opponents as evil enemies, rather than people who might even share their faith. “We get wrapped up in thinking that every little political victory that we do [that] has an impact on an election is actually fighting for God and the truth,” he said….

Kinzinger first got elected to Congress under Barack Obama, and over the past decade, he has watched his party transform. “No longer does policy actually matter. It’s all about: Do you support Donald Trump, or don’t you? Do you want to own the left, or don’t you?” he said. Although hestated publicly that he wouldn’t vote for Trump in 2016, hedid vote for the president in 2020, citing a desire to build on the administration’s policy successes. Unlike some Republicans, he has not spent the past four years on the front lines of the Never Trump resistance; he generally supported Trump’s agenda in Congress, voting in line with the president’s goals roughly 90 percent of the time. But unlike other members of the GOP, Kinzinger was unwilling to keep fighting for Trump after it was clear that he had lost the election. “I’m embarrassed by some of my Republican colleagues on the floor. They have defaulted to political points for fame and have failed to rise to this moment,” hetweeted on January 6. He later joined Democrats to encourage Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the Twenty-Fifth Amendment and remove Trump from office.

4) Greg Sargent, “Marjorie Taylor Greene’s vile new antics highlight a 50-year GOP story”

Republican leaders were shocked, shocked to learn about revelations that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) once approved of calls for the execution of Democrats. They are so troubled by this that they plan to sit her down and give her a slap on the wrist with a little plastic ruler.

In so doing, they will be reminding us of a story about the GOP and conservative movement that goes back at least a half century: Their failure to adequately police the extremists in their midst…

There is a long-running debate among historians and political scientists about the true nature of the far-right fringe’s relationship to the GOP and the conservative movement.

That lapse, according to this thesis, is grounded in a fundamental feature of the post-war right wing, its constant addiction to a “politics of conflict” that lacks any “sense of limits, whether tactical or substantive.”

The result: The GOP and conservative movement have failed at “policing boundaries against extremism,” which defined a “half century of Republican politics.”

Examples include conservative movement leaders flirting with the John Birch Society; allies of 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater refusing to disavow a Ku Klux Klan endorsement; Newt Gingrich’s conversion of GOP politics into nationalized scorched earth warfare; and, of course, the rise of Trump.

5) Dana Milbank, “The ‘civil war’ for the soul of the GOP is over before it began. Trump won — again.”

Yet just three weeks after feebly trying to quit Trump, they have relapsed. It’s as though Abraham Lincoln had offered the Union’s unconditional surrender after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter.

Thanks to the cowardice of McCarthy and the perfidy of McConnell, the GOP now comprises two relatively harmonious factions: those who actively sabotage democracy, and those who tacitly condone the sabotage. Trump is gone; Trumpism reigns…

Republicans think they’ll save their political hides by capitulating to Trump. But, inevitably, that also means capitulating to his violent supporters. And democracy can’t function at the point of a gun.

6) More of this, “Durham County sheriff makes COVID vaccine mandatory for employees.”  And it will be really interesting to see how the policies of employers really shape things once we move beyond vaccine scarcity.

7) Remember when I was so optimistic about therapeutics.  Well, there’s still hope out there, but I honestly don’t get why the trials are taking so long with all this Covid.  Nor, why the only good write-up I can find is from an investment perspective.  I was pretty intrigued to learn of the potential of MK-7110, which I had not heard about before.  

8) Great interview with Moncef Slaoui, head of Operation Warp Speed.

9) Great essay from an historian on political violence in the 1850’s and how it doesn’t feel so far away.  

Scarcely had the violence ebbed on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6 when the Republican calls for healing began. Representative Debbie Lesko of Arizona made an anti-impeachment cease-and-desist plea on Jan. 12 that was typical of many. Addressing Democrats, she warned that impeachment would “further divide our country, further the unrest and possibly incite more violence.” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina concurred, declaring on Fox News that calls for impeachment would “incite more violence” and “divide the country.”

Although couched in calls for unity, these warnings are remarkably one-sided. There is no talk of reconciliation or compromise. No acceptance of responsibility. Lots of blame casting. And little willingness to calm and inform their base. Even now, some Republicans refuse to admit that Joe Biden won the election, and the Senate vote on an impeachment trial on Jan. 26 suggests that most Republicans want no investigation and will place no blame. They want reconciliation without apologies, concessions without sacrifice, power without accountability.

And many of them are using threats of violence to encourage Democrats and the disloyal to fall in line. If you impeach the president there will be violence, they charge. Masked in democratic platitudes like “unity” and “healing,” the inherent menace in such pleas is utterly deniable. But they are threats nonetheless.

Not all Republican threats have been subtle. Consider the words of the newly elected Representative Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina at a Turning Point USA event on Dec. 21. “Call your congressman,” he told attendees, “and feel free — you can lightly threaten them and say, you know what, if you don’t start supporting election integrity, I’m coming after you. Madison Cawthorn is coming after you. Everybody’s coming after you.” Cawthorn later denounced the violence at the Capitol. But his call for “light” threats was part of the roiling rhetoric that paved the way to Jan. 6…

This is bullying as politics, the modus operandi of our departed chief. Hardly a Trumpian innovation, its heyday was in the decades before the Civil War. During the 1840s and 1850s, America was divided over the fate of slavery. Political parties were splintering under the strain. National institutions were struggling — and failing — to contain it. The press sensationalized the struggle to serve a cause and sell papers. And a new technology spread journalistic hot-takes throughout the nation with greater reach and speed than ever before. The telegraph was the social media of its day, and it came into use in the late 1840s as the slavery crisis was rising toward its peak.

Congressional bullying was useful in those fraught decades, and its practitioners plied their trade proudly; most of them were Southerners, who tended to be armed and ready to fight. Every Congress had its “bullies” who protected slavery with threats and violence, and more often than not, their constituents liked them that way. Some such bullies wore guns and knives in plain view as a warning to game the give-and-take on the floor. Such was the message of weapons in Congress; they were steel-powered attempts to maintain Southern dominance.

10) This was really good.  There’s some people who were not close friends, but whom I really miss, “The Pandemic Has Erased Entire Categories of Friendship: There’s a reason you miss the people you didn’t even know that well.”

11) There’s a really interesting argument to be made about how the NYT has evolved in the current media environment to lean in to liberalism to gain readers.  But damn if this isn’t so undermined by an author who takes Bill Barr’s opinion of Russia collusion and seems to consider it a matter up for debate as to whether Trump was an honest and competent president.

Yet what looked like journalistic failure was, in fact, an astonishing post-journalistic success. The intent of post-journalism was never to represent reality or inform the public but to arouse enough political fervor in readers that they wished to enter the paywall in support of the cause. This was ideology by the numbers—and the numbers were striking. Digital subscriptions to the New York Times, which had been stagnant, nearly doubled in the first year of Trump’s presidency. By August 2020, the paper had 6 million digital subscribers—six times the number on Election Day 2016 and the most in the world for any newspaper. The Russian collusion story, though refuted objectively, had been validated subjectively, by the growth in the congregation of the paying faithful.

12) More of this please! “SAS’s Jim Goodnight won’t contribute to Republicans who fought election certification”

13) Fascinating story of how the disappearance of human tourists due to Covid had a massive ecosystem impact:

Jonas Hentati-Sundberg, a researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and the lead author of the new paper, has been studying the colony for 19 years. When he and his team started planning the 2020 research season, they expected the pandemic would present logistical hurdles: Without visitors, fewer boats would be operating, and the island’s restaurant would be closed.

However, from their first trips of the year, in late April, they noticed that the murres “were flying off all the time,” with individuals sometimes disappearing for days. That was a change in behavior, he said, and a sign that something was making the birds more nervous than usual.

The island’s white-tailed eagles also changed their behavior. Normally, seven or eight eagles will spend the winter there, and then head out as visiting season picks up in the spring, Dr. Hentati-Sundberg said.

But without the influx of tourists, they stuck around, and more eagles joined them — sometimes dozens at a time. “They will gather in places where there is a lot of food and little disturbance from people,” he said. “This year, this was their hot spot.”

Further observation clarified the new dynamics: The eagles, freed from the bothersome presence of humans, were themselves bothering the murres.

In addition to time, the murre colony lost eggs, kicking them off ridges during panicked takeoffs, or leaving them vulnerable to hungry gulls and crows. Twenty-six percent fewer eggs hatched in 2020 than was typical for the rest of the decade.

14) We actually still don’t have solid evidence for the efficacy of monoclonal antibodies:

At this point, there is no convincing data that designed monoclonal antibodies that target SARS-CoV-2 improve meaningful outcomes in covid-19 patients, either alone or in a “cocktail” of antibodies. As mentioned, the idea of treating established covid-19 patients with monoclonal antibodies may itself be a flawed paradigm as even patients with early disease are likely to have already generated sufficient antibodies (as seen in the REGN-CoV2 study) that adding more to the body intravenously is like adding salt to an ocean. Additionally, we don’t know the effect of monoclonal antibody infusions on vaccine efficacy. Despite emergency authorization for bamlavinimab and the Regeneron cocktail, at this time, these treatments should only be given in the setting of a randomized controlled clinical trial designed to evaluate outcomes that patients would notice. The BLAZE-2 trial currently underway is investigating the use of monoclonal antibodies for prophylaxis. This effort may be more promising, though vaccines are likely to be far more effective in this role.

While clinicians feel the need to do something for patients early in their disease process to prevent progression to more severe illness, this need does not justify giving a treatment with unproven benefits—and with mounting proof that there is little to none to be had.

15) Democrats absolutely need to remove Iowa from its priviledged perch for 2024.  

16) Adam Serwer on Republicans in Congress and Trump:

Every Senate Republican—except for Mitt Romney of Utah, who described Trump’s attempt to rig the election as “the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine”—voted to acquit the president. The rest of the Republican caucus either approved of Trump’s conduct or concluded that the political benefits of allowing him to continue to abuse his authority were greater than the cost of removing him. Tragically, Romney’s remarks turned out to represent a failure of imagination.

On January 6, Trump incited a mob to assault the Capitol, hoping that it could coerce federal lawmakers engaged in the ceremonial counting of Electoral College votes to overturn the results and install Trump as president. A police officer was killed, and the incident came very close to being a bloodbath—several of the rioters entered the Capitol intent on killing Pelosi and Trump’s own vice president, Mike Pence. (Trump had castigated Pence for disloyalty, after Pence acknowledged that he could not use his authority as vice president to overturn Trump’s defeat.) The House swiftly impeached Trump again, making the Manhattan real-estate mogul the only president ever to be impeached twice.

Republicans now face a choice between their long-term interests and short-term self-preservation. It takes two-thirds of the Senate to convict a president, a threshold so high that it has never been reached. Convicting Trump and barring him from federal office would earn senators the wrath of the Trump faithful, upon whom the current composition of the Republican Party is dependent to win elections. Failing to convict him would leave open the possibility of a Trump restoration, which might offer some political advantages but would also exacerbate the ideological extremism that turned Arizona and Georgia into states with two Democratic senators.

The reason to convict Trump and bar him from office forever is rather simple: No sitting president has ever incited a violent attack on Congress. Allowing Trump to do so without sanction would invite a future president with autocratic ambitions and greater competence to execute a successful overthrow of the federal government, rather than the soft echo of post-Reconstruction violence the nation endured in early January. The political incentives for the Republican Party in convicting Trump may be unclear, but the stakes for democracy are not. The Senate must make clear that attempted coups, no matter how clumsy or ineffective, are the type of crime that is answered with swift and permanent exile from American political life.

That Trump is responsible for the assault on the Capitol is clear far beyond a reasonable doubt. Trump informed the assembled crowd on January 6 that “if Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election,” and that “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” He then directed the mob at the Capitol, falsely telling the rioters he would accompany them, retreating to the White House instead. Those arrested after the attack have themselves told the authorities they were acting on the president’s admonitions. Behind the scenes, Trump was attempting to orchestrate an autogolpe using the Justice Department to force states to overturn their vote tallies; he was foiled only by the threat of mass resignations. The mob was his last resort.

17) Noah Smith with a terrific assessment of Bernie and his movement.  I especially appreciate his calling attention to just how far left Bernie’s M4A proposal was, among other things.

In early 2016, I was walking around Berkeley at night, when I passed three college girls. One of them swerved toward me and screamed in my face: “BERNIE SANDERS!!!”, then veered off and went on her way. That was really the first time that I realized that the Bernie movement was something unusual and special — not just the latest in a long line of progressive candidates who attracted a burst of attention and fizzled out.

Five years later, the progressive movement in America is unrecognizable, and it sure seems like Bernie Sanders is a big part of the reason. “Socialism” isn’t a dirty word anymore — instead, edgy online lefties are calling themselves Marxist-Leninists again. Politics occupies a cultural space among the youth once reserved for rock bands; Chapo is the new Nirvana. The DSA’s membership is swelling, and it has some people in Congress now. Though Biden’s economic plans aren’t quite what leftists would hope for, they’re certainly more boldly progressive than anything we’ve seen since LBJ; COVID probably had a lot to do with that, and it was generally just time for a leftward shift, but Bernie’s relentless tugging of the Overton Window probably made a difference. It’s now generally recognized among Democrats that Obamacare, regarded as a generational achievement just a few years ago, needs to be replaced with some sort of national health insurance system; that was definitely Bernie’s doing…

You often see Bernie supporters say that he wasn’t really radical at all — that in Europe he’d be considered a centrist, or even on the right. This line always felt a bit disingenuous — a calculated bit of soothing to reassure normie Dems that Bernie wasn’t a wild-eyed commie, while at the same time they were telling their fired-up foot soldiers that Bernie was The Revolution. But also, it happens not to be true. Bernie’s 2016 platform might have been pretty incrementalist stuff, but by the time he got to 2020 he was proposing some ideas that would be pretty far left even by European standards. For example:

  1. Bernie’s Medicare for All plan was substantially more lavish than European national health insurance systems. Effectively banning private insurance, eliminating copays, offering more generous benefits, etc. are all things that European systems just don’t do. Only Britain’s NHS, which actually provides health services in addition to insuring the populace, is to the left of M4A.

  2. Bernie proposed a wealth tax that would start at 1% and go up to 8% for the biggest fortunes. The base level is higher than almost any wealth tax currently used in Europe, with the exception of Spain’s 3.75% top bracket (The Netherlands has something similar to a wealth tax that would be about 1.2%). So Bernie was considerably to the left of Europe here as well, especially because it was on top of a bunch of other very large tax hike proposals.

  3. Bernie proposed mandatory 20% worker ownership of large corporations. This is very different from co-determination, in which workers elect a portion of the company’s board (Bernie also proposed that). Mandatory worker ownership doesn’t currently exist in European countries. Bernie’s plan was similar to a part of the Meidner Plan that was discussed but never implemented in Sweden.

  4. Bernie’s Green New Deal was much more transformational than anything any European country is doing to fight climate change.

In other words, Bernie was not simply a European centrist or center-leftist; he would be a true leftist in Europe too. As American politics goes, that makes him quite a radical! That’s not a negative judgement, just an observation concerning what Bernie was trying to do.

Radical plans don’t tend to get implemented in democracies (with a few exceptions, like Clement Attlee’s program of nationalizations in postwar Britain). Status quo bias is strong, which is just a way of saying that people tend to be cautious. If you come seeking political revolution, you should expect to get political evolution instead.

Which is exactly what Bernie got.

18) Nick Kristof asks, “Is an Innocent Man Still Languishing on Death Row? We’ve seen the DNA evidence in the Kevin Cooper case. It points elsewhere.”  This is America and Cooper is Black, so I think we can be reasonably confident of what the answer is to Kristof’s question.  At a minimum, some reasonable doubt.

19) Super-interesting twitter thread on the variants, vaccines, and what we might expect.

19) I think the Flynn effect is so fascinating.  Some good reading about it in James Flynn’s obituary.  

Like most researchers in his field, Dr. Jensen had assumed that intelligence was constant across generations, pointing to the relative stability of I.Q. tests over time as evidence. But Dr. Flynn noticed something that no one else had: Those tests were recalibrated every decade or so. When he looked at the raw, uncalibrated data over nearly 100 years, he found that I.Q. scores had gone up, dramatically.

“If you scored people 100 years ago against our norms, they would score a 70,” or borderline mentally disabled, he said later. “If you scored us against their norms, we would score 130” — borderline gifted.

Just as groundbreaking was his explanation for why. The rise was too fast to be genetic, nor could it be that our recent ancestors were less intelligent than we are. Rather, he argued, the last century has seen a revolution in abstract thinking, what he called “scientific spectacles,” brought on by the demands of a technologically robust industrial society. This new order, he maintained, required greater educational attainment and an ability to think in terms of symbols, analogies and complex logic — exactly what many I.Q. tests measure.

“He surprised everyone, despite the fact that the field of intelligence research is intensely data-centric,” the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker said in an interview. “This philosopher discovered a major phenomenon that everyone had missed.”

Obviously our basic cognitive capabilities were identical 100 and more years ago, so this really is quite interesting.  I think part of what’s going on is that the great thinkers from earlier times very much thought in abstract terms with complex logic, just like we’re used to, and they are the great thinkers so their thoughts made it down to us.  Whereas, the ordinary person of 1880 or whenever would have been much more likely to struggle in the highly abstract world of today.  Anyway, I think I need to read more about this.

A few thoughts on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine

As you know, I’ve in the J&J vaccine trial and yesterday we finally got to find out how effective the vaccine is.  Actually… very good.  The problem is we are comparing it to mRNA vaccines where the answer is… great.  Handy summary in chart form:


Sorry, not near the 95% prevention from infection, but after 49 days complete protection from hospitalization and death.  That’s great.  (And, yeah, let’s not even get into the serious concerns now about the SA variant, as that pretty clearly affects all the spike protein-based vaccines).  

Four months ago if these were the results, people would have been ecstatic.  But, of course, we’ve had the amazing mRNA results in the interim.  It would be nice to see the full data (i.e., how many in placebo had severe cases after 49 days– and we’ll see it soon), but this is an important success.  Especially because these vaccine is cheap to produce, hugely scalable, and only requires refrigeration.  I.e., we can really get this into a helluva lot of arms.  

It’s going to be very interesting to see the efficacy results from the two-dose J&J regimen, a protocol they started right after the tremendous mRNA results came out.  

I’m also going to be really fascinated to see how this all plays out in a vaccine marketplace.  Which vaccine should you get?  Whichever one you can and this may well be much more available in a few months.  But, clearly lots of people are going to want that 95% efficacy.  I really wish the baseline was 80%+ as I just think the psychology of that would be notably different.  It also will probably make a lot of sense to be somewhat strategic in how vaccines of different efficacy are deployed, even beyond cold chain issues.  

And, yeah, to not ignore the SA variant issue, probably even by Fall we are going to need reformulated vaccines.  I’m cautiously optimistic that kn owing this, we have a competent federal administration that can help build the infrastructure to make this work.  And, actually, if we’re going to do that non-mRNA, refrigerated vaccines will need to play a major role going forward.

Oh, and as for me, I’m personally feeling pretty confident in the level of protection I have.  And, presumably, I’ll be unblinded shortly after EUA approval.  For now, I have no plans on boosting with a more effective vaccine as that would take me out of the trial and I think the longer-term data is important.  That said, if we’re looking at this Fall with significant presence of SA variant and vaccines available for that, yeah, then it’s time to leave the trial.  

A couple good articles if you want to

Quick hits (part I)

1) Great stuff from Jamelle Bouie, “I’m Not Actually Interested in Mitch McConnell’s Hypocrisy: To make his case for the filibuster, he has essentially rewritten the history of the Senate.”

On Tuesday, Mitch McConnell, now the Senate minority leader, spoke in defense of the legislative filibuster.

“When it comes to lawmaking, the framers’ vision and our history are clear. The Senate exists to require deliberation and cooperation,” McConnell declared. “James Madison said the Senate’s job was to provide a ‘complicated check’ against ‘improper acts of legislation.’ We ensure that laws earn enough buy-in to receive the lasting consent of the governed. We stop bad ideas, improve good ideas and keep laws from swinging wildly with every election.”

He went on: “More than any other feature, it is the Senate’s 60-vote threshold to end debate on legislation that achieves this.”

It’s hard to take any of this seriously. None of McConnell’s stated concern for the “lasting consent of the governed” was on display when Senate Republicans, under his leadership, tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act by majority vote. Nor was there any interest in “deliberation and cooperation” when Republicans wanted a new round of corporate and upper-income tax cuts.

If anything, the filibuster stymies that deliberation and cooperation by destroying the will to legislate at all. It makes bipartisanship less likely by erasing any incentive to build novel coalitions for particular issues. If, under the filibuster, there’s no difference between 51 votes for immigration reform and 56 votes (or even 59), then what’s the point of even trying? Why reach out to the other side if there’s almost no way you’ll reach the threshold to take action? And on the other side, why tinker with legislation if you know it’s not going to pass? When there’s no reason to do otherwise, why not act as a rigid, unyielding partisan?

It’s obvious that McConnell’s commitment to the filibuster is instrumental…

The truth is that the filibuster was an accident; an extra-constitutional innovation that lay dormant for a generation after its unintentional creation during the Jefferson administration. For most of the Senate’s history after the Civil War, filibusters were rare, deployed as the Southern weapon of choice against civil rights legislation, and an occasional tool of partisan obstruction.

Far from necessary, the filibuster is extraneous. Everything it is said to encourage — debate, deliberation, consensus building — is already accomplished by the structure of the chamber itself, insofar as it happens at all.

In the form it takes today, the filibuster doesn’t make the Senate work the way the framers intended. Instead, it makes the Senate a nearly insurmountable obstacle to most legislative business. And that, in turn, has made Congress inert and dysfunctional to the point of disrupting the constitutional balance of power. Legislation that deserves a debate never reaches the floor; coalitions that could form never get off the ground.

2) This is fabulous.  Such a little-appreciated but important issue.  The police can brazenly lie to suspects to coerce false confessions.  And the Supreme Court is good with that.  

Most Americans don’t know this, but police officers in the United States are permitted by law to outright lie about evidence to suspects they interrogate in pursuit of a confession. Of all forms of subterfuge they deploy — like feigning sympathy and suggesting that a suspect’s confession might bring leniency — this one is particularly dangerous.

In Frazier v. Cupp (1969), the Supreme Court made it lawful for the police to present false evidence. “The victim’s blood was found on your pillow,” “You failed the polygraph,” “Your fingerprints were on the knife” and “Your friend said she wasn’t with you like you said” are some common but brazen lies told. There is almost no limit to the type or magnitude of deception permitted — one lie or many; small lies and whoppers; lies aimed at adults or anxious and unwary teenagers.

In the United States and elsewhere, confession evidence serves an important function in the administration of criminal justice. Yet the history of wrongful convictions points to countless innocent people induced to confess to crimes they did not commit.

bill awaiting legislative action in New York, Senate Bill S324, would finally put a stop to this in the state. It would bar police deception in the interrogation room and require courts to evaluate the reliability of confession evidence before allowing it to be used.

In the database of the Innocence Project, false confessions contributed to the convictions in 29 percent of its 375 DNA exonerations. Over all, 8.26 percent of these wrongful convictions originated in New York State; 45 percent of these New York cases involved false confessions.

Historically, New York City has been something of a hot spot. On Aug. 28, 1963, two young professional women on the Upper East Side were killed. Eight months later, with these “career-girl murders” still unsolved, homicide detectives interrogated George Whitmore, a 19-year-old African-American man and produced an exquisitely detailed 61-page confession to those murders and other crimes.

Whitmore signed the statement attributed to him but then later recanted. It turned out that he had a solid if not ironic alibi: He had been with friends on the South Jersey shore watching the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech televised from the Lincoln Memorial. After spending nine years in and out of prison, he was finally exonerated of all charges. His false confession was notable. In Miranda v. Arizona (1966), the Supreme Court cited the Whitmore case as the “most recent conspicuous example” of police coercion in the interrogation room.

Twenty-five years later, the Central Park jogger case elicited five false confessions, four on videotape for everyone to see — five in a single investigation, in the spotlight of Manhattan, while the world watched.

3) Great stuff from Julia Marcus, “Vaccinated People Are Going to Hug Each Other: The vaccines are phenomenal. Belaboring their imperfections—and telling people who receive them never to let down their guard—carries its own risks.”

But in the United States, the prevailing message is that, because vaccines aren’t perfect, people who have received them shouldn’t let down their guard in any way—not even at gatherings with just a few other vaccinated people. “Based on science and how vaccines work, it certainly is likely that [such a gathering] will end up being lower-risk,” a pharmacologist from Johns Hopkins University told The Washington Post. “But right now, we just don’t know.” Government officials are no more upbeat. In response to the question of whether a vaccinated person needs to continue taking precautions, the CDC states that “not enough information is currently available” to say when—or even if—it will stop recommending the use of masks and distancing.

The message that vaccines aren’t 100 percent effective in preventing disease, and that the data are still out on how much they reduce transmission, is an accurate and important one. Risk-mitigation strategies are needed in public spaces, particularly indoors, until more people are vaccinated and infections wane. But not all human interactions take place in public. Advising people that they must do nothing differently after vaccination—not even in the privacy of their homes—creates the misimpression that vaccines offer little benefit at all. Vaccines provide a true reduction of risk, not a false sense of security. And trying to eliminate even the lowest-risk changes in behavior both underestimates people’s need to be close to one another and discourages the very thing that will get everyone out of this mess: vaccine uptake.

As for me, I’m happy to hug anybody who is vaccinated (and hopefully they’ll be willing to hug me and my J&J 72% efficacy).

4) NC’s (truly nuts) Lieutenant Governor believes that US history is not racist because we had a black president and he is a black Lieutenant Governor.  Sure, it’s possible to go overboard in teaching the sorry and sordid history of the US with regard to race.  But, that’s not exactly the problem we’ve had up until this point:

Republican State Board of Education members charged Wednesday that proposed social studies standards are “anti-American” and will teach North Carolina public school students that the nation is oppressive and racist.

The board on Wednesday reviewed new K-12 social studies standards that include language such as having teachers discuss racism, discrimination and the perspectives of marginalized groups. Multiple GOP board members argued that the new standards are divisive and have a leftist political agenda.

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a Republican, said that the standards would inaccurately teach that the United States is a racist nation.

“The system of government that we have in this nation is not systematically racist,” Robinson said. “In fact, it is not racist at all.”

Robinson noted how he’s the state’s first Black lieutenant governor and that the United States previously had elected a Black president.

State board member Amy White said North Carolina social studies teachers should be telling students that America is the greatest nation on Earth. She blamed the news media for promoting an anti-American viewpoint.

“While I think some of the revisions have been helpful, I still see an agenda that is anti-American, anti-capitalism, anti-democracy,” said White, who was appointed by former GOP Gov. Pat McCrory. She is a former social studies teacher.

5) I endorse this from Derek Thompson, “The Truth About Kids, School, and COVID-19: We’ve known for months that young children are less susceptible to serious infection and less likely to transmit the coronavirus. Let’s act like it.

I think a fair reading of the evidence is that the costs of keeping elementary school kids out of school substantially outweighs the benefits of letting them back in school.  For older grades, it’s a tough calculation and a tougher discussion.  But not having the elementary school kids in does not strike me as a rational weighing of policy.  

6) Jonathan Last lets loose and it’s damn good:

The lockdown of the Capitol makes me sad.

I’ve been drifting away from my love affair with Washington for a long time. I got married. I had kids. I moved to the suburbs and no longer had time to spend my nights reading books on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, even if I still lived five minutes away.

Washington changed. Cities are always changing, but the pace of Washington’s transformation in the early ’00s was fast and the direction was not great. The city simultaneously became both more glamorous and less interesting. The intellectual energy began to dissipate, replaced by the same sort of naked rapaciousness for status and money that you see in Manhattan.

So over the last decade or so, Washington was more like a lover I’d lost touch with, a romance from a different part of my life. And when you see something you once loved have something terrible happen to it, it makes you sad. Even if that thing is no longer the thing you loved.

But it also makes me angry. And I want to explain why:

Our government has two ways to make the Capitol more secure.

The first is to explain to Americans that Joe Biden is the fairly elected president of the United States. That his victory was quite large. That the former president and many of his enablers lied about the outcome of the election.

In so doing, this would leach the poison out of our political life and remove the impetus for mobs to attack the Capitol.

The second option is to put fences and razor wire around the Capitol to discourage people whose minds have been poisoned from attacking it again.

Faced with these alternatives, our government chose the latter.

The Republican party did this.

They lied to America for months about the 2020 election. They are still lyingright now.

And they would rather perpetuate this lie than try to explain to their voters what the truth is. Because the lie brings them nearer to power and the truth would repel the people they most need to vote for them.

Even if the price is insurrection. Even if the lie costs people their lives. Even if it means turning our Capitol into Fort Knox.

Because Republicans would rather lose freedom than tell the truth.

7) Really enjoyed this interview with Fauci on surviving the Trump administration.

8) OMG I hate this.  “San Francisco Scraps 44 School Names, Citing Reckoning With Racism: The school board said the move would shed homages to figures including Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Dianne Feinstein.” We’re not exactly talking schools named after Jefferson Davis or Nathan Bedford Forrest!  

The commission had decided that schools named after figures who fit the following criteria would be renamed: “engaged in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings; or who oppressed women, inhibiting societal progress; or whose actions led to genocide; or who otherwise significantly diminished the opportunities of those amongst us to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

By the criteria here, you probably cannot name much of anything after almost any white American who lived before 1950. It’s just so intellectually dishonest to judge people by the standards or our time; not theirs.

9) I mean this is definitely good from Brownstein, but again too much “Democrats…” and not acknowledging, really “Manchin (and Sinema)…”, “The Decision That Will Define Democrats for a Decade: Will they get rid of the filibuster if it means passing their voting-rights and election-reform agenda?”  Whether M&S are truly up for this approach seems key:

Still, passing the bill, and perhaps the new VRA, will almost certainly require every Senate Democrat agreeing to end the filibuster in some fashion—and at least two of them, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, have been adamantly opposed to that action. Merkley’s strategy for convincing Democrats to reconsider—at least for the democracy-reform legislation—is to encourage an extended debate on the bill, both within the committee and on the Senate floor, and to allow any senator to offer amendments. If Republicans still block final passage with a filibuster after that process, Democrats could either vote to “carve out” election-reform legislation from the filibuster, or require Republicans blocking the bill to actually filibuster in person, he told me. Democrats could change the rules to tell Republicans “you better be here day and night, because we are going to go for weeks and if you are not here, we are going to a final vote on the bill.”

10) Damn I always love reading Arthur Brooks on happiness and the meaning of life.  I love this take on looking at it through the lens of two ancient Greek philosophers Epicurus and Epictetus (especially since I literally started reading a book about living life by Stoic philosophy yesterday).  (I feel like DJC and I need to have a future conversation about this one).

For epicurus, unhappiness came from negative thoughts, including needless guilt, fear of things we can’t control, and a focus on the inevitable unpleasant parts of life. The solution was to banish them from the mind. To this end, he proposed a “four-part cure”: Don’t fear God; don’t worry about death; what is good is easy to get (by lowering our expectations for what we need to be happy); what is terrible is easy to endure (by concentrating on pleasant things even in the midst of suffering). This is made all the easier when we surround ourselves with friendly people in a peaceful environment.

Epicurus promoted hedonia, from which we derive the word hedonism. However, he would not have recognized our current usage of the term. The secret to banishing negative thoughts, according to Epicurus, is not mindless debauchery—despite the baseless rumors that he led wild parties and orgies, he taught that thoughtlessly grabbing easy worldly pleasures is a mistake, because ultimately they don’t satisfy. Instead, reason was Epicurus’s best weapon against the blues. For example, here is the mantra he suggests we tell ourselves when the fear of death strikes: “Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.”

Moralism is the principle that moral virtue is to be defined and followed for its own sake. “Tell yourself, first of all, what kind of man you want to be,” Epictetus wrote in his Discourses, “and then go ahead with what you are doing.” In other words, create a code of virtuous conduct for yourself and live by it, with no loopholes for convenience.

Epicureans and Stoics are encouraged to focus their attention on different aspects of life—and death. Epicurus’s philosophy suggested that we should think intently about happiness, while for Stoics, the paradox of happiness is that to attain it, we must forget about it; with luck, happiness will come as we pursue life’s purpose. Meanwhile, Epicurus encourages us to disregard death while we are alive, and Epictetus insists that we confront it and ponder it regularly, much like the maranasati meditation in Buddhism, in which monks contemplate their own deaths and stages of decay…


Finally, it is important to pursue life goals in which each happiness approach reinforces the other. That portfolio is simple, and I have written about it before: Make sure your life includes faith, family, friendship, and work in which you earn your success and serve others. Each of these elements flexes both the Stoic and the Epicurean muscles: All four require that we be fully present in an Epicurean sense and that we also work hard and adhere to strong commitments in a Stoic sense.

11) Very similar to #8.  The beloved Cameron Village shopping center in Raleigh is changing it’s name to drop the Cameron because, apparently, the Cameron family had slaves 160 years ago.  

“There are so many beautiful words in our vocabulary. Why use one that is a tinder box?” Goode asked, noting that there are African Americans today who can find the names of their ancestors among the Cameron family slave inventories.

“The shopping center might never have been named for Duncan Cameron,” Goode said. “But his descendants are still living off the wealth that he gained off of slavery.”

Tinder Box?  Oh, I’m guessing that a miniscule fraction of Raleigh residents, including Black residents, have any idea about what the Cameron family did in the 1850’s.  I mean find real ways to do something about racial inequality in this country.

12) I really don’t have a strong opinion on whether Pit Bulls are actually more violent or not.  What I do know is that when they are, they are far more dangerous.  I mean, yeah, a small handgun and an AK-47 are both guns and deadly, but not exactly the same thing when someone is coming after you with one.  The seriously injured person and dog in this first-person account would have been much less injured with a different breed. 

13) EJ Dionne on Biden and America’s Catholic bishops:

Instead, President Biden’s rise has underscored deep divisions within the U.S. church: the emergence of an increasingly hard right within the U.S. hierarchy now being met by a more vocal progressive Catholicism represented by Pope Francis and the cardinals and bishops he has appointed.

The day of Biden’s inauguration brought a dramatic confrontation between the two forces…

The conflict — called a “functional schism” by the Catholic writer Michael Sean Winters — encompasses more than a half-century of Catholic history. Biden embodies the Catholicism of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, a period when the American Catholic imagination was shaped by the “two Johns,” in the writer Garry Wills’s evocative phrase, Pope John XXIII and John F. Kennedy.

But a more conservative leadership appointed by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI coincided with a Reagan-era push by intellectuals and activists on the church’s right to ally with the White evangelical political movement in opposition to abortion and advances in LGBTQ rights. The effect was to play down the church’s social justice teachings and to create what Cathleen Kaveny, a Boston College theologian, called “an American fusion of Catholicism with certain conservative and nationalist forms of evangelical Protestantism.”

Now the tables have turned again with Francis. He sharply shifted the church’s public witness toward a crusade against poverty, social injustice and climate change. Francis regularly speaks against abortion, but he has repeatedly criticized those who cast abortion as, in the phrase Gomez invoked, the church’s “preeminent priority.” Francis, like the more liberal bishops of the 1970s and 1980s, regularly links abortion to his broader agenda.

Biden did not run for president to transform the politics of the Catholic Church. But the devout kid from Scranton, Pa., is already having that effect.

As for those who think the Church should be focusing more on abortion and LGBTQ issues I suggest they familiarize themselves with something called the New Testament, or heck, just the Sermon on the Mount.

14) This Eric Levitz article on the current and future Democratic Party is terrific.  I should summarize it in its own post, but, really, just read it.

The basic problem facing the Democratic Party is simple: Barring an extraordinary change to America’s political landscape, it will lose control of Congress in 2022 and have a difficult time regaining control for a decade thereafter.

To be sure, the assumption that existing political trends will continue indefinitely has been leading pundits astray since the advent of our loathsome profession. And in certain respects, the future of our politics looks more uncertain than at any time in recent memory. For example, the fact that a critical mass of Republican voters now belong to the personality cult of a narcissistic con man — who has no real investment in the conservative movement’s well-being — makes the prospect of the GOP fracturing more thinkable than it’s been in about a century.

This said, the trends bedeviling Democrats have been in motion for decades and are rooted in America’s most durable political divides. To summarize the party’s predicament: As a result of 19th-century efforts to gerrymander the Senate, the middle of our country is chock full of heavily white, low-population, rural states. This has always been a problem for the party of urban America — by boasting stronger support in rural areas, Republicans have long punched above their weight in the race for control of state governments and the Senate. But for most of the 20th century, this advantage was mitigated by the Democrats’ (1) vestigial support in the post-Confederate South and (2) ability to render local issues more salient than national ones in Senate elections. Over the past two decades, however, urban-rural polarization in U.S. politics has reached unprecedented heights, while the collapse of local journalism and rise of the internet has made all politics national. Voters have never been less likely to split their tickets, and white rural areas have never been more likely to vote for Republicans. This is plausibly because the (irreversible, internet-induced) nationalization of politics has increased rural white voters’ awareness of the myriad ways that urban, college-educated Democrats differ from them culturally. If this is the case, then the Democratic Party may have only a limited ability to reverse urban-rural polarization in the near-term future.

It took a series of minor miracles for the party to eke out its current 50-vote majority. By coincidence, Democrats happened to have their most vulnerable incumbent senators on the ballot two years ago, when the party rode anti-Trump fervor to one of the largest midterm landslides in American history. And yet: Winning the House popular vote by 8.6 percent was not sufficient to prevent the party from losing Senate seats. And although Jon Tester and Joe Manchin won reelection in their deep-red states, both underperformed the national environment: In a year when the nation as a whole favored Democrats by more than eight points, both Democratic incumbents won their races by a bit over three points. Which is to say, had those senators been on the ballot last year instead, when the national environment favored Democrats by “only” 4.4 percent, they likely would have lost. Or, to put the matter more pointedly: Unless the Democratic nominee orchestrates an extraordinary landslide in 2024, Manchin and Tester will likely return to the private sector by mid-decade.

Meanwhile, attempts to mint new “Joe Manchins” – i.e., idiosyncratic Democrats whose strong local ties overwhelm the taint of the party’s brand in white rural America — have invariably failed in the post-Trump era. Two years after Tester won reelection in Montana, the state’s Democratic governor didn’t come within ten points of winning his Senate race in 2020.

The party’s outlook in the House of Representatives isn’t much better. The abundance of predominantly white rural states doesn’t just give Republicans an advantage in the Senate; it also gives them an advantage in fights over redistricting. Since there are more solidly red states than there are solidly blue ones, Republicans have more opportunities to gerrymander House maps than Democrats do. What’s more, even in the absence of gerrymandering, the convention of drawing geographically compact districts naturally underrepresents Democrats, since their support is more geographically concentrated in urban centers than the GOP’s support is in low-density areas.

This is one reason why Democrats lost House seats in the 2020 election. Now, with the new Census set to empower the GOP to produce an even more biased House map before 2022, Republicans have an excellent chance of retaking the House two years from now.

Graphic: FiveThirtyEight/Brookings Institution

Making matters even more dire: (1) The Electoral College now has a four-point pro-GOP bias, meaning that if Biden wins the two-way popular vote by “only” 3.9 percent in 2024, he will have a less than 50 percent chance of winning reelection, and (2) the Republican Party has grown more openly contemptuous of democracy since Donald Trump’s defeat. If the GOP does gain full control of the federal government in 2024, there is a significant risk it will further entrench its structural advantages through anti-democratic measures, so as to insulate right-wing minority rule against the threat of demographic change.


15) This is cool, “Understanding Human Cognitive Uniqueness”

Humanity has regarded itself as intellectually superior to other species for millennia, yet human cognitive uniqueness remains poorly understood. Here, we evaluate candidate traits plausibly underlying our distinctive cognition (including mental time travel, tool use, problem solving, social cognition, and communication) as well as domain generality, and we consider how human cognitive uniqueness may have evolved. We conclude that there are no traits present in humans and absent in other animals that in isolation explain our species’ superior cognitive performance; rather, there are many cognitive domains in which humans possess unusually potent capabilities compared to those found in other species. Humans are flexible cognitive all-rounders, whose proficiency arises through interactions and reinforcement between cognitive domains at multiple scales.

16) Really looking forward to reading Daniel Lieberman’s new book on exercise.  Sounds like I’m doing pretty good with my approach:

For example: Is sitting the new smoking? Not really. Of course 150 years of machines assisting humans in everything from walking upstairs to opening doors has meant we burn fewer calories in a day, but the act of sitting is not nearly as lethal as that of inhaling burning tar into your lungs. On the flip side, standing desks won’t save us. Instead, fidgeting, which burns calories and promotes blood flow to arms and legs, may help.

Another example: Should we really work out to look like our caveman ancestors? Not if you know what they actually looked like. They certainly didn’t resemble bodybuilders, because that wouldn’t have made any sense. “The ability to lift above your head something twice or more your body weight is a bizarre, dangerous feat that probably had little practical value in the Stone Age,” Lieberman writes. Instead, cavemen probably looked more like the current Hadza hunter-gatherer tribe, based in Tanzania, a tribe that Lieberman has studied extensively and lived among himself. They’re strong but lean so as not to waste calories on activities that do not contribute to acquiring food. Fueling glamour muscles would never make the cut. Strike those paleo diets too, which he calls illogical…

So what works? It’s not especially complicated, and Lieberman outlines the science behind his prescription of a mix of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, strength training and high-intensity interval training. This is probably the best bet for most of us. 

17) I was not actually surprised to learn that attending an elite high school is over-rated.  

“The major advantage of selective schools is that they provide a more desirable school environment,” the paper explains. “Students are more likely to feel positive about their high school experiences at selective schools.”

Still, that didn’t translate into higher high school graduation, college attendance, or college completion rates. Students from low-income neighborhoods actually ended up at less-selective colleges, on average, as a result of going to a top high school.

“Schools can look like they have a large effect on student outcomes, while these apparent successes should actually be attributed to the students themselves,” the Chicago researchers say.

We can’t say for sure whether the results would look the same today, though, or if the schools’ selection criteria were changed.

18) This is pretty good, ““Anti-Racist” Education Is Neither”

Take, for instance, the anti-racist materials that schools are using to train their K-12 teachers. The materials used by the Denver Public Schools teach educators that “the belief that there is such a thing as being objective,” distinguishing between “good/bad” and “right/wrong,” and valuing an “emphasis on being polite” are all distinctive characteristics of white culture. The same is true of the “individualist” mindset that “if something is going to get done right, I have to do it.” In Loudoun County, Virginia, one of the nation’s wealthiest counties, the Dismantling Racism Workbook used to train teachers this summer highlighted “15 Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture,” including a weird admixture of positive and negative stereotypes, including “perfectionism,” “progress is bigger, more,” “right to comfort,” and “defensiveness.”

Anti-racists also want to end traditional grading practices, which they deem “profoundly discriminatory.” Cornelius Minor, a leading “Grading Equity Advocate,” is an author and speaker who has worked with Columbia Teachers College and the International Literacy Association. He seeks to dismantle “pernicious” grading practices, such as teachers reserving A’s for students who demonstrate understanding of the subject matter. This, he explains, is because one “cannot separate grading practices” from “the history of classism, sexism, racism, and ableism in the United States.” To Minor, a teacher’s inability to perceive a student’s knowledge is evidence of the teacher’s racism, not the student’s ignorance. While Minor is fuzzy regarding the remedies, he is sure that teachers must abandon problematic ideologies such as expecting that students “should know” things.

When it comes to facilitating tough discussions about race, a favored practice among anti-racist educators is, ironically, to sort students and staff by race. These “affinity groups” typically involve one group for black participants, a second for “non-black people of color,” and a third for white participants. Such racially determined groupings are regularly utilized at universities, by Teach For America, and even in high schools. Without a hint of irony, Teach For America makes this exercise in apartheid part of its “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” training for new teachers. Absent is any acknowledgment by these self-avowed anti-racists that they’re resurrecting practices that would’ve been applauded in the Jim Crow south.

19) Interesting research:

Scholarly journals are often blamed for a gender gap in publication rates, but it is unclear whether peer review and editorial processes contribute to it. This article examines gender bias in peer review with data for 145 journals in various fields of research, including about 1.7 million authors and 740,000 referees. We reconstructed three possible sources of bias, i.e., the editorial selection of referees, referee recommendations, and editorial decisions, and examined all their possible relationships. Results showed that manuscripts written by women as solo authors or coauthored by women were treated even more favorably by referees and editors. Although there were some differences between fields of research, our findings suggest that peer review and editorial processes do not penalize manuscripts by women. However, increasing gender diversity in editorial teams and referee pools could help journals inform potential authors about their attention to these factors and so stimulate participation by women.


It’s going to be harder to get the next Trump than people think

I try and not make too many predictions that aren’t basically my interpolation of political science knowledge.  But I’m kind of going to make one here.  And, that is, there won’t really be a “next Trump.”  Sure, there will be many a politician who gains success by pandering to the worst elements of the Republican base, but I think that person will actually have a much more difficult time winning a Republican primary and a national election than Trump.  I really think we under-appreciate just how much Trump’s decades of fairly substantial celebrity where able to contribute to his political appeal.  And, unless the “next Trump” also has a long history as tabloid fodder and a successful reality show where they are the star–or, something similar, I don’t think they will be nearly as successful.  Jamelle Bouie addressed this in a column last week:

In 2015 and 2016, Donald Trump wasn’t just an unconventional politician with a direct appeal to the prejudiced attitudes of the Republican base, and he wasn’t just a fixture of conservative media and entertainment. He was a bona fide celebrity and household name, with 30 years on the public stage as the embodiment of wealth and luxury. And for more than 10 of those years, he was star of “The Apprentice,” a popular reality television series in which he played the most successful businessman in America, whose approval could turn an ordinary nobody into an extraordinary somebody. His was a persona that rested on the valorization of entrepreneurship and the worship of success.

This wasn’t a dour or self-serious performance. Trump wasn’t Ebenezer Scrooge. He was a winking, cheerful vulgarian who knew the show was an act and played along with the viewers. From his cameos on the big screen in films like “Home Alone 2” to his parodic appearances in professional wrestling, he was affable, even charming.

It’s hard to overstate how important this was for Trump’s first campaign. If modern American politics is entertainment as much as civics, then Trump was its star performer. And his audience, his supporters, could join in the performance. This is crucial. Trump could say whatever they wanted to hear, and they could take it in as part of the act, something — as one sympathetic observer wrote — to be taken seriously, not literally. Words that might have doomed any other Republican candidate, and which have in the past, meant nothing to the strength of Trump’s campaign.

When he finally ran against Hillary Clinton, celebrity helped him appeal to those voters who hated politicians — who sat at the margins of politics, if they participated at all — but could get behind an irreverent figure like Trump. Did he lie? Sure. But the shamelessness of his lies, and his indifference to decorum, was its own kind of truth. Celebrity was his shield and his sword, and his life as a reality television star primed his supporters to see his presidency as a show that would never end…

If celebrity is what it takes, then there’s no Republican politician who can carry Trump’s mantle. No one with his or her hat obviously in the ring — neither Cruz nor Hawley, neither Tom Cotton nor Haley — has the juice. There are the Trump children, of course. But the Trump name doesn’t actually stand for success, and there’s no evidence yet that any of them can make the leap to winning votes for themselves.

Perhaps the next Trump, if there is one, will be another celebrity. Someone with a powerful and compelling persona, who traffics in fear and anger and hate. Someone who “triggers the libs” and puts on a show. Someone who already has an audience, who speaks for the Republican base as much as he speaks to them. Republican voters have already put a Fox News viewer into the White House. From there it’s just a short step to electing an actual Fox News personality.

Of course, maybe I’m wrong, but for the good of our democracy, I sure hope I’m right on this one as we sure don’t need another Trump.  

We have to fix the Republican party– but we can’t

That’s really the fundamental problem we’ve got right now.  Very good stuff from Jamelle Bouie:

Yes, we held an election, and yes, Trump actually left the White House — the Secret Service did not have to drag him out. But the difference between our reality and one where Trump overturned a narrow result in Biden’s favor is just a few tens of thousands of votes across a handful of states. If it were Pennsylvania or Arizona alone that meant the difference between victory and defeat, are we so sure that Republican election officials would have resisted the overwhelming pressure of the president and his allies? Are we absolutely confident the Supreme Court would not have intervened? Do we think the Republican Party wouldn’t have done everything it could to keep Trump in the White House?

We don’t have to speculate too much. At points before the election, key actors signaled some willingness to stand with Trump should the results come close enough to seriously contest. And recent reporting from Axios shows that the plan, from the start, was to try to use any ambiguity in the results to claim victory, even if Trump lacked the votes.

We were saved, in short, by the point spread. This does not reflect well on American democracy. But it does make clear the source of our dysfunction: the Republican Party...

When in power in Washington, the Republican Party can barely govern, and when out of power, it does almost everything it can to stymie the government’s ability to act. And it was the party’s nearly unbreakable loyalty to Trump that neutered the impeachment power and enabled his fight to overturn constitutional government, which ended on Jan. 6 with a deadly mob wilding through the Capitol.

To even begin to fix American democracy, we have to make the Republican Party less dangerous than it is…

The optimal solution would be to build our two-party system into a multiparty one that splits the radical from the moderate Right and gives the latter a chance to win power without appeal to the former. But this requires fundamental change to the American system of elections, which is to say, it’s not going to happen anytime soon (and may never).

The only other alternative — the only thing that might force the Republican Party to shift gears — is for the Democratic Party to establish national political dominance of the kind not seen since the heyday of the New Deal coalition…

This, too, is unlikely. 

The Trump stress test, in other words, has revealed a nearly fatal vulnerability in our democracy — a militant, increasingly anti-democratic Republican Party — for which we may not have a viable solution.

With that said, I don’t think we’re doomed to minoritarian rule by reactionaries. Political life is unpredictable, and there’s no way to know what may change. Lofty dreams can enter reality and obvious certainties can vanish into thin air.

But one thing is certain. The crisis of our democracy is far from over. The most we’ve won, with Trump’s departure, is a respite from chaos and a chance to make whatever repairs we can manage.

And Francis Wilkinson:

Yet in the case of the GOP, the party is already a threat. The grassroots overwhelmingly trust propaganda outlets such as Fox News for political information. A Washington Post/ABC News poll taken after the attempted coup on Jan. 6 reveals a GOP base saturated in falsehoods and supportive of authoritarian reaction.

While most Americans say there is no solid evidence of voter fraud to support Trump’s claims, 65% of Republicans say there is solid evidence, while only 25% disagree. Even more alarming, two-thirds of Republicans say Trump spoke and acted “responsibly” in the aftermath of the election, a period in which he spread flagrant lies and incited a White nationalist coup attempt at the Capitol.

The Republican Party is now locked in an adversarial relationship with fact and a dysfunctional relationship with its own base, which represents the voracious demand side of demagogy. When Cheney delivered the truth about Trump and voted for his impeachment on Jan. 13, she was not simply voting her conscience. She was placing herself squarely in opposition to an entire epistemology grounded in propaganda and fantasy. It’s possible to reform rules about party organization and nominations, to make it harder for demagogues or authoritarians to seize control of a party. But what do you do if the base of the party is delusional? …

This struggle in the GOP quite simply puts American democracy on the line.

Recent work by political scientists characterizes the struggles within conservative parties as key for democracy. Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s book “Let Them Eat Tweets” addresses what they call “the conservative dilemma.”

The core of this dilemma is that in modern democracies, the conservative party tends to be more associated with wealth — large corporations, business leaders, the financial sector, etc. But there are, of course, fewer wealthy people than poorer people, so the conservative party is doomed to lose in democratic elections unless they can pull off a few things.

One is to essentially govern as a minority party, taking advantage of institutions like the Senate and the electoral college that allow them to prevail even when winning fewer votes or by making it harder for poorer people to vote.

And Seth Masket:

The other approach is to bring cultural cleavages into the political debate, drawing voters’ attention to issues like racial animosity, gun rights, abortion rules and same-sex marriage instead of wealth inequality. As Hacker and Pierson wrote, “In focusing attention on social and cultural cleavages rather than economic divisions, can conservatives generate sufficient vote support to compete in elections without destabilizing a country’s politics? Or do they end up promoting conflicts that are increasingly divisive, dangerous, and uncontrollable?”

For this reason, it is quite often the conservative party’s own commitment to democratic norms that determines whether a democracy succeeds or fails. We see the Republican Party struggling with these very issues today. Given the size of the faction apparently willing to overturn an election, the prospects for a shift aren’t good. Still, there has been criticism of Trump for the insurrection, even by the likes of Sen. Mitch McConnell. And Republicans are witnessing the political dangers of pushing further in this direction.

It’s been 3 weeks since the January 6 riot/insurrection and the signs from the Republican Party are, sadly, not remotely encouraging.  There are a few Republicans of conscience, but far too few.  It really looks as if, as Hans Noel put it, Republicans are just going to agree to disagree on democracy.  And damn is that dangerous for our country.  

How are we going to get our kids vaccinated in time for school?

So, these phase 3 trials really take a while.  So, I’ve really been wondering how we’re going to be able to make headway on vaccinating school kids for the Fall when the phase 3 trials are just getting under way for 12 and up and nothing for below 12 yet?  Well, in this nice Vox explainer, it turns out the trials are way easier for kids as we only care about safety and antibody production, not disease prevention.  Since, we know from the adult trials that certain levels of antibody production reliably result in disease prevention.  

One bit of luck is that children’s vaccine trials can be much smaller — and hopefully faster — than the adult trials. That’s because, in addition to seeing who among participants naturally got sick with Covid-19, adult vaccine trials have been measuring immune response to the vaccines (by looking for antibodies in the blood).

This immune response data provides a reliable shortcut for future trials, showing researchers what a successful immune response to the vaccine looks like. So pediatric studies will look for similar responses in children to assess whether it is effective in preventing Covid-19, rather than having to wait for dozens of them to come down with the disease.

So whereas each phase 3 adult trial had to enroll tens of thousands of people to find enough naturally occurring infections in a few short months, “as we are only measuring immune response in adolescents, we can get those answers with many less participants,” Robert Frenck, director of vaccine research at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, wrote to Vox in an email. As such, the goal is to enroll about 2,000 teenagers, he says.

So, in this case, you really just need a couple months at the most to make sure 1) you are not getting bad side effects and 2) you are getting antibody response.  Cool!  Let’s get to it!

Photo of the day

And another great photo from the recent Atlantic gallery.  Love a good silhouette.


An Israeli youth rides a stand-up paddleboard at sunset on the shore of the coastal city of Netanya, north of Tel Aviv, on January 21, 2021. 

Jack Guez / AFP / Getty


Republicans will agree to disagree about Democracy

Almost nobody knows political parties like political scientist Hans Noel, thus, this is the best analysis of the future of the Republican party that I have seen.  Short version: don’t expect any major GOP fractures– just expect the party to agree to disagree about democracy (just like there’s internal disagreements over trade policy, LGBT rights, etc.).  Noel:

As a political scientist who studies political parties and ideological divisions, I’ve heard two scenarios that end with a fracturing of the Republican coalition. In one, the Trump faction abandons the GOP, perhaps for a Patriot Party. After all, it has been Republican state election officials and Trump-appointed judges and Supreme Court justices who have been finding no evidence of voter fraud. To believe the conspiracy means believing that even many Republicans are complicit.


The other scenario has Constitution-respecting conservatives abandoning the GOP to the pro-Trump faction. How could they tolerate remaining in a party that continues to enable sedition and insurrection?

Political handicappers have been predicting breakups like this for a long time. But under the rules of our system, the incentives for parties to hold together are strong. To win elections in America means coming in first. Therefore, voters and politicians both have strong motivation to join one of the two largest parties. If one of those parties splits into two smaller ones, the schism pretty much guarantees that the remaining large party will win a lot more elections.

In multiparty parliamentary democracies, extremist factions are typically isolated in their own minor parties. In those countries, a governing coalition can be built from multiple parties after an election, so a mainstream party doesn’t need to win an outright majority. In the United States, however, the path to victory is in forming the largest party during the election itself. Neither the mainstream Republicans nor the pro-Trump Republicans can outnumber the Democrats on their own.

The Democrats and Republicans both get to a majority by being broad coalitions. The Democratic coalition includes those who want economic redistribution and those who want racial equality. The Republican coalition includes libertarians and religious traditionalists. Both parties include ideological extremists and moderates. Both parties manage their internal disagreements in order to present a united front and win elections.

Managing disagreement with the sedition caucus would work the same way. Disagreement over commitment to democracy is a big disagreement, but it is now the price for Republican unity. And most Republicans may prove willing to pay it

Instead, what is likely is continued conflict within the Republican Party among its factions, with the sedition caucus emboldened by the attack on the Capitol but also chastened by the reaction to it.

The prizes of the Republican Party—a presidential nomination, its cherished name—are too valuable for anyone to back down. The lesson of the Tea Party is instructive. The Tea Party was also a faction within the Republican Party—indeed, it was the precursor to the Trump faction. As the political scientist Rachel Blum argues, the Tea Party also didn’t trust the establishment and felt betrayed by it. But this faction didn’t form its own party; it stayed and fought for influence within the party. In the near term, mainstream Republicans will fight back against the sedition caucus—but not at the expense of dismantling the party forever.

Neither party’s institutions are well equipped to prevent factions from invading. Party leaders do have ways of managing conflict and avoiding nominees out of step with their values, but now that the antidemocratic faction of the GOP is has representatives among the party brass—the House minority leader and minority whip both voted to contest the electoral tallies in two states—it cannot simply be shut out. It has to be bargained with.

Perhaps the prodemocracy Republicans’ best bet is to tell their seditionist fellow party members the truth about the 2020 election. Republican voters will not listen if Democrats tell them that the vote was not fraudulent. But they may listen to an intraparty debate in which Republicans vigorously defend the right to vote, even if it means losing elections.

Or perhaps they won’t listen. But the party has to have that debate.

This strikes me as exactly right.  It would be great if the pro-democracy Republicans and pro-sedition Republicans would split, but they each have too much to gain (tax cuts!  owning the libs!) by sticking together.  

Fixing the police takes more money

Damn, this Slow Boring post from Yglesias on police reform was so, so good.  And it’s a public post, so you really should take advantage and read the whole thing as he covers most every key element of police reform.  It’s a nice follow-on to what he wrote in Vox this summer, but even more thorough (and will actually be replacing it in my Criminal Justice Policy syllabus this semester).   A few points that I think are particularly noteworthy.

It’s complicated, but it’s not that complicated.  What’s so frustrating is that you have this ridiculously narrow-minded “it’s just a bad apples/law & order!” crowd which is so obviously fundamentally wrong on many key points about the problems and police reform.   But, unfortunately, the reformers, though very much on the right side and well-intentioned, are too narrow-minded and too knee-jerk themselves.  I love this analogy:

But the big problem here is that defunding police does not address the actual problem.

Tamir Rice never should have been shot and killed. Nor should Philando Castile. Eric Garner and George Floyd shouldn’t have been suffocated to death. But none of these are cases of cops being called to respond to situations that should have been dealt with by a social worker. They’re simply cases of police officers behaving with a reckless disregard for human life. And if you listen to Black men from all walks of life talk about their fearful encounters with American policing, I think it’s crazy to come away thinking “well, maybe if we had 10 percent fewer officers it would be fine.”

Or read Zack Beauchamp’s reporting on the troubled culture of American policing. Who wants departments that are just like that, but a bit smaller? That’s crazy. If your city had a bus system where a few times a year a driver is intoxicated on the job, crashed the bus, and kills someone you wouldn’t say “time to cut the bus budget” or “goes to show buses don’t work.” You need bus drivers who do their jobs properly!

Yes!  We need police officers to do their jobs properly and reform is not about cutting budgets and taking responsibility away (though, obviously, there’s some real room for reform there with mental health, etc.), but actually reforming all sorts of policies around training, hiring/firing, police unions, etc.  And we need to change incentive structures in a variety of ways for police and for politicians to have these better policies.  And it’s hard, but certainly possible.  But we’re sure not going to get there with a simplistic “defund the police” approach.  

Much like with teachers, one way to get better police is to actually pay them more (something I used to write about with teachers all the time).  Right now, we don’t pay officers enough and compensate them with way too good job security (which keeps bad police around) and over-generous pensions (which keeps bad police around).  We need to change those things.  

And, handily, Yglesias concludes by summarizing his policy recommendations, all of which makes sense to me after teaching about Criminal Justice policy for more than a decade:

Better policing will be more expensive

To me, the research all points to a pretty clear reform agenda:

  • Police should be completely stripped of all special procedural rights and investigated with the same investigative tools that they use against anyone else.

  • These arbitration panels should be scrapped; officers should have some basic civil service protection against being fired for no cause at all, but the goal should be to build an effective police force not a sinecure for officers.

  • Compensation structures should feature much higher starting salaries, but not escalate so much over the course of a career. You want way more people to consider a career in policing, but also make it lower stakes to counsel-out someone who finds it frustrating or can’t do the job well.

  • Quitting one department and going to work in another one should be more normalized than it currently is, where officers instead seem to respond to directives they disagree with by acting surly. But officers dismissed for actual misconduct should not just get hired elsewhere as a shortcut.

  • Departments need bigger recruiting budgets to invest in securing high-quality job candidates, including those who are Black, female, or fluent in Spanish or other locally relevant languages.

  • Politicians should acknowledge that when we ask officers to be more restrained with the use of force, we are asking them to take risks with their lives that most people would not want to take and that cops should be compensated accordingly.

  • But politicians should also insist that taking risks for the greater good of the community literally is the job, and officer fear can’t be an all-purpose answer to questions about brutality.

In the aggregate, we should hire more detectives, so non-fatal shootings get investigated as rigorously as fatal ones. There is also a whole bunch of studies that show when cops work long hours, they get tired and generate more use of force problems. Departments should hire more officers both as a means to boost diversity, and simultaneously to dramatically cut down on the reliance on overtime, long shifts, and other fatigue-inducing scenarios. And while putting beat cops on the street reduces crime, aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics appear to have no benefit over and above the basic benefit of the officers being physically present.

You want a large, diverse, well-compensated police force that is staffed to be present in high-crime areas without necessarily doing all that much, and then you want to hold the officers to a high standard of conduct rather than treating the job as make-work. It’s going to be expensive. But both police misconduct and crime itself are much too important to address in stingy ways or with superficial solutions.

Politically, some of these are a lot harder than others, but they are all worth working on.  And they would make a hell of a lot more difference than cutting budgets.  

Photo of the day

Haven’t done a photo of the day in a while.  From Atlantic’s photos of the week: (This one’s for you, Mika!)


The aurora borealis, seen in the sky over Muonio in Lapland, Finland, on January 18, 2021 

Alexander Kuznetsov / Reuters

Vaccination is going better than you think

I almost feel like we’ve got a little test going right now for just how ideologically influenced one is and how much attention people are paying to the vaccination rollout.  The truth is, the standard liberal take is along the lines of “this is a disaster!”  The reality?  We could and should be doing better, but this is definitely not a disaster.  This chart is pretty key:

A chart of vaccination rates in different countries.

So, basically we’re beating all the developed world but Israel and UK.  We’re roughly 3x Germany and 5x France.  Yet, this is seriously in a piece at Vox entitled, “What Biden can do to fix America’s Covid-19 vaccine mess.”  If that’s a mess are there even words for France?  It’s almost like, hey, it’s Vox, we’ve got to say it’s been awful under Trump.  Again clear failure of federal leadership and very much we can and should be doing better, but what I think this chart shows is that mass vaccination is hard.  I have no idea of the specifics of the European countries, but when one considers that countries like Denmark and Germany– where we generally admire their state capacity– are behind us, you just have to realize this is really hard.  And, yet, in a relative sense, we’ve actually done pretty well even under Trump.  And it’s only going to get better with real federal leadership.  So, look on the bright side here, damnit.  That vaccine is coming for you.  

Do it big and do it now!

Damn this Ezra Klein column is really, really good. I think this is one I’m going to be referring back to a lot.  If you only read a few NYT a month, make this one of them.  That said, my favorite parts:

President Biden takes office with a ticking clock. The Democrats’ margin in the House and Senate couldn’t be thinner, and midterms typically raze the governing party. That gives Democrats two years to govern. Two years to prove that the American political system can work. Two years to show Trumpism was an experiment that need not be repeated.

Two years.

This is the responsibility the Democratic majority must bear: If they fail or falter, they will open the door for Trumpism or something like it to return, and there is every reason to believe it will be far worse next time. To stop it, Democrats need to reimagine their role. They cannot merely defend the political system. They must rebuild it…

Democrats mocked his “I alone can fix it” message for its braggadocio and feared its authoritarianism, but they did not take seriously the deep soil in which it was rooted: The American system of governance is leaving too many Americans to despair and misery, too many problems unsolved, too many people disillusioned. It is captured by corporations and paralyzed by archaic rules. It is failing, and too many Democrats treat its failures as regrettable inevitabilities rather than a true crisis.

But now Democrats have another chance. To avoid the mistakes of the past, three principles should guide their efforts. First, they need to help people fast and visibly. Second, they need to take politics seriously, recognizing that defeat in 2022 will result in catastrophe. The Trumpist Republican Party needs to be politically discredited through repeated losses; it cannot simply be allowed to ride back to primacy on the coattails of Democratic failure. And, finally, they need to do more than talk about the importance of democracy. They need to deepen American democracy…

But none of these bills will pass a Senate in which the filibuster forces 60-vote supermajorities on routine legislation. And that clarifies the real question Democrats face. They have plenty of ideas that could improve people’s lives and strengthen democracy. But they have, repeatedly, proved themselves more committed to preserving the status quo of the political system than fulfilling their promises to voters. They have preferred the false peace of decorum to the true progress of democracy. If they choose that path again, they will lose their majority in 2022, and they will deserve it…

To give Manchin his due, a more high-minded fear — shared by others in his caucus — is that we have just come through a long, ugly period of partisan norm-breaking. Surely the answer to Trump’s relentless assaults on decorum, to Mitch McConnell’s rewriting of Senate rules, is a return to the comity they cast off, to the traditions they’ve violated, to the bipartisanship they abandoned. A version of this may appeal to Biden, too: Trump stretched the boundaries of executive authority, so perhaps he should retreat, offering more deference to Congress and resisting opportunities to go it alone, even when stymied by Republicans. But if this is what he means by “unity,” it will just empower the merchants of division.

In their book, Howell and Moe write that this is a common, but dangerously counterproductive, response to populist challengers. Defenders of the political system, eager to show that normalcy has returned, often embrace the very defects and dysfunctions that gave rise to the populist leader in the first place. The nightmare scenario is that Trump is defeated, driven from office, and that augurs in an era when even less appears to get done, as Biden submits to congressional paralysis while embracing a calmer communications strategy. If Democrats permit that to happen, they will pave the road for the next Trump-like politician, one who will be yet more disciplined and dangerous than Trump…

A successful mass immunization campaign will save lives, supercharge the economy and allow us to hug our families and see our friends again. Few presidents, outside the worst of wartime, have entered office with as much opportunity to better people’s lives immediately through competent governance.

Biden’s team understands that. Their $20 billion plan to use the full might of the federal government to accelerate vaccinations hits all the right notes. But it’s attached to their $1.9 trillion rescue plan, which needs 10 Republican votes it doesn’t have in order to pass over a filibuster (Senator Mitt Romney already dismissed it as “not well-timed”). Letting the resources required to vaccinate the country — and to set up mass testing and to prevent an economic crisis — become entangled in Republican obstruction for weeks or months would be a terrible mistake.

Here, too, Democrats will quickly face a choice: To leave their promises to the American people to the mercies of Mitch McConnell, or to change the Senate so they can change the course of the country…

In other words, what Democrats need to do is simple: Just help people, and do it fast.

This, this, this!!  The one problem I have with this frame is that Klein is a little too ready to blame “Democrats” if they fail to act this way.  But, it won’t be “Democrats.”  It will be Joe Manchin and maybe one or two others.  My guess is that there really are at least 218 House members and around 47 Senators who understand this dynamic and recognize the need to get stuff done and get it done fast and that’s the best for the American people and the best political outcome for Democrats.  Now, I’m hopeful, that Republican intransigence is so bad, and that Joe Manchin actually is a Democrat because he wants to help people and believes in democracy (let’s be honest, it’s sadly clear that many Republican Senators do not), so that we really can get the 50 votes in the Senate to do what needs to be done for the American people.  But, if not, the entire Democratic party will be blamed, but it’s not fair to actually do that, as Klein suggests.

Also, Derek Thompson with a very similar piece hitting many of the same points (they’re right!), “Biden Should Go Big, Fast, and Simple”

The Obama stimulus was too small and too subtle. It was too small because the Republican opposition was intransigent, and the Democratic coalition was uncomfortable with the multitrillion-dollar deficits necessary to close the GDP gap. And it was too subtle because Obama’s team, including the regulatory czar Cass Sunstein, was transfixed by the emerging science of “nudges,” or sneaky policies to encourage Americans to make efficient decisions. For example, the tax centerpiece of the 2009 stimulus bill got money to families by modestly reducing payroll tax withholding. The nudgey idea was that if Americans got lump-sum checks from the government, they might save the money. But if they looked at their bank account and went, Huh, that’s more than I expected!, they might spend it immediately. Unfortunately, the tax cut was so sneaky that many people didn’t even know about the policy, let alone give Obama credit for it.

The Affordable Care Act had the same issues of size and subtlety, as Slate’s Jordan Weissmann has argued. It was too small because, once again, members of the Democratic coalition, such as Senator Joe Lieberman, refused to support its most ambitious parts, such as a public option. The historic act failed to make itself immediately felt, because its most important components were delayed to reduce the 10-year budgetary impact. Medicaid expansion, for instance, didn’t begin until several years after Obama signed the law.

Biden can rectify these errors by putting heft, speed, and simplicity at the heart of his agenda. And perhaps he will. According to reports from The New York Times and The Washington Post, Biden’s first rescue bill, with nearly $2 trillion in spending, will include hundreds of billions of dollars for vaccines and testing, unemployment benefits, and state and local aid. For inspiration on COVID-19 policy, Biden can look to Israel, which went big on early vaccine purchases, went fast and furious with distribution—converting parks, schools, and parking lots into vaccination megacenters—and used simple criteria for its first tranche of shots: health-care workers and seniors…

Awesomeness matters. One lesson from the Obama years is that smart policy making isn’t just about doing brainy stuff; it’s about doing good and popular stuff in a way that keeps you in power so you can do more good stuff. The Democrats’ failure to properly stimulate the economy in 2010—or get credit for their very real contributions—led to catastrophic midterm losses in the House that made it impossible for them to accomplish much of anything in Obama’s last six years in office. For non-mysterious reasons, polls show extraordinary support for giving $2,000 to every American household as a kind of stimulus-qua-consolation gift for making it through the year from hell (one study indicated that seven in 10 Republicans support the direct payments). With stimulus checks, Biden could endear himself to the persuadable middle of the U.S. electorate, which might enjoy liking an American president, for once.

To get back to a theme I was on shortly after the election, do popular stuff!  I’m not normally one for political strategizing, but the other day, I suggested to friends that the Democrats just need to do something like relentlessly push “the 80% agenda” and just emphasize that they are working their butts off to pass very popular stuff.  Or, okay, maybe the 70% agenda, but I like how 80% sounds and it’s politics– so just fudge it and use the poll that shows 80% support.  

There’s a clear path forward for Democrats that is not only politically successful for them, but hugely beneficial for the American people.  But it does truly require some boldness from typically cautious politicians.  But, cautiousness is almost surely they way to lose both politically and on policy.  Do it big and do it now.  

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