Just pay teachers (a lot) more

Back in 2014 when I was really into education policy, I wrote a long-ish post on all the things we should do to improve education policy.  The sine qua non is, undoubtedly, pay teachers more.  A lot more.  So much else flows from that.  And here’s my post on teacher pay from 2018.

And for 2021, I really, really loved this “guest essay” (no longer an Op-Ed, mind you) by Collete Coleman, “The Case for Paying All Teachers Six Figures.”  Hell yeah.  I’ve often felt like one of those billionaires who wants to improve schools instead of trying all sorts of fancy interventions should just pick some small state and say something like, “I’m going to see to it that every teacher in Rhode Island makes it least $100,000.”  I’m quite confident good things would happen.  Why?  Coleman explains:

The RAND Corporation, a research organization, noted in a recent report that several factors influence student performance, including “individual characteristics and family and neighborhood experiences.” Its analysts concluded that “among school-related factors, teachers matter most.” High-quality teachers, they said, can boost student performance on reading and math tests twofold or threefold…

Research collected by the Center for American Progress found that “the teacher labor market is responsive to changes in pay just like other occupations” and that “changes in pay can affect not only teacher attrition, but also the pool of candidates choosing to enroll in teacher preparation programs.” Even the former secretary of education Betsy DeVos — a staunch conservative — recognized that “great teachers” should earn a minimum of $250,000 a year in many cases.

Years ago, when I quit my Wall Street job to teach in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I thought — as the culture has taught us all — that a pay cut was just the cost of following a calling, a reduction taken to do meaningful work. I soon learned I was wrong…

Here’s the key, I think:

A 2019 report revealed that fewer college students are studying to become teachers and that because of “low salaries, difficult working conditions and a lack of career pathway opportunities,” teaching generally cannot compete “with other high-status professions such as medicine and law.”

It may be awkward to acknowledge, but it needs to be permissible in polite society to admit that the interplay between money and status — which we all are pressured to navigate — has a role in the teacher pipeline issue.With the cost of living and the price of raising a family higher than ever and rising, who wouldn’t be tempted to find not just your calling but also a higher-paying career? But that’s a choice American society doesn’t have to push educators to make…

There’s a social factor to consider in this teacher-administrator pay differential. The majority of K-12 teachers, nearly 80 percent, are women. Over 75 percent of superintendents, however, are men. Would we be OK with paying teachers so little if they were mostly male?

Of course, even if we were to raise teachers’ salaries to match those of their district leaders, it’s not the case that all of K-12 education’s problems would disappear. My dissatisfaction and that of many other former teachers extended beyond compensation. Attracting and retaining highly qualified educators will also require, for instance, improvements in working conditions. Meaningful raises are a strong start, though. Competitive salaries would lower attrition rates and attract fresh talent that would push everyone to do better. (Making the market for teaching more attractive may, yes, put job pressure on low-performing teachers, but that’s a good thing for students.)

Pay teachers like valued, highly-competent professionals and you know what?  You’ll end up with a lot more highly-competent professionals as teachers.  A lot of other countries have figured this out.  

Quick hits (part II)

1) As someone who thinks demographics are a very big deal in explaining American politics, I found this quite interesting, “Is Demographic and Geographic Polarization Overstated?”

Are Americans substantially more divided based on where they live and their social identities? Or are stories of voters sorted into neat social and geographic enclaves overstated? Seo-young Silvia Kim finds that it is not so easy to predict how Americans will vote based on their demographic groups—and it hasn’t gotten any easier over time. David Darmofal finds that demographics are a bit more predictive of geographic voting patterns, but spatial polarization has not increased markedly over time. They both take the long view, finding that we are not as divided by social groups and geographies as we seem…

Matt Grossmann: Demographic and geographic polarization is overstated this week on the Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.

Are Americans substantially more divided based on where they live and their social identities? It certainly seems that way, with our urban/rural divides and our increasing divisions on race and education. It seems like it should now be easy to predict how an individual or a geographic area voted based on a handful of variables, but taking a longer view makes the story more complicated, with the trends much less pronounced.

This week, I talked to Seo-young Silvia Kim of American University about her new working paper with [Yon Zelinsky 00:00:45], The Divided but Not More Predictable Electorate. She finds that it’s not so easy to predict how Americans will vote based on their demographic groups, and it hasn’t gotten any easier over time. Instead, voters are increasingly divided by partisanship.

I also talked to David Darmofal of the University of South Carolina about his [Springer 00:01:04] book with Ryan Strickler, Demography Politics and Partisan Polarization in the United States. He finds that demographics are a bit more predictive of geographic voting patterns, but spatial polarization has not increased markedly over time. They both find the conventional stories of voters sorted into neat social and geographic enclaves to be overstated. Kim says demographics aren’t destiny when it comes to Americans voting and have not become more important over time.

Seo-young Silvia Kim: Try as we might, demographic labels do not give much information about vote choice throughout the last 70 years. We quantify how a well-performing machine learning algorithm does with just five variables: age, gender, race, education, and income, the big five that the people think is demographics. And we find that, on average, you can only predict about 63.5% of the two party vote choices correctly on average, throughout these years.

It also does not increase over the period of 1952 to 2020. So I think this goes against a lot of people’s intuition that the demographic group identities do really determine political behavior such as vote choice. There’s a lot of punditry built around such notions. And also academics, we believe that demographics is a strong and important predictor that we must pay attention to. And given that we believe that demographic sorting has taken place, and that party line voting has increased, it must have been a natural conclusion to say that, based on demographics, we can predict vote choices better. But it’s not really that case.

2) Interesting stuff on abortion, “The Abortion Fight Has Never Been About Just Roe v. Wade: Anti-abortion-rights activists have turned their arguments away from protecting democracy and toward maximizing protection for fetal life.”

Ever since Roe, abortion-rights foes and their Republican allies have been asking the Court to reverse course—to acknowledge that the Constitution has nothing whatsoever to say about abortion, either in favor of or against it. Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court justice arguably most beloved by conservatives, routinely stated that the Constitution is silent on abortion. Republicans have railed against the Court’s judicial activism in Roe, insisting that the justices robbed the American people of the opportunity to decide the abortion issue for themselves. In this account, Roe did not just destroy valuable opportunities for compromise on abortion; the decision did fundamental damage to America’s democratic principles, removing one of the most controversial issues from representative legislatures and resolving it by judicial fiat.

Finnis’s article has provoked debate across the ideological spectrum. The conservative attorney Ed Whelan has taken issue with the substance of Finnis’s claim, suggesting that unless the anti-abortion-rights movement first wins over public opinion, Finnis’s approach will backfire. Progressives have been far harsher, unsurprisingly. Writing in The New York Times, the columnist Michelle Goldberg denounced what she calls an authoritarian turn in anti-abortion-rights advocacy—one more sign that the GOP has changed fundamentally in the post-Trump era.

The abortion debate has never been about just Roe—and it’s never been about letting a popular majority have a say. What’s new is that this argument now meets a receptive Supreme Court for the first time in more than a generation.

3) Not your everyday poll, just, found this notable as it’s me, “A third of hosts who always take off their own shoes never ask their guests to”

4) When I was a teenager and Paulina Porizkova first came to prominence in the SI Swimsuit issue, suffice it to say I was a big fan (pretty sure her SI photos were the first decorations I ever had in a locker).  Pretty fascinating reading about her life nearly 40 years later and in the wake of the death of her rock-star husband, Ric Ocasek.  

5) It’s been so long since I’ve been through the crazy intersection in Breezewood, PA, but reading about it was a great trip down memory lane as well as an explanation of photography and crazy highway policy:

relates to What Internet Memes Get Wrong About Breezewood, Pennsylvania

It’s summer, and for hundreds of thousands of Americans, that means at least one burger-and-bathroom break in Breezewood, Pennsylvania. This half-mile gauntlet of gas stations, fast-food outlets, and motels, its oversized signs towering above the surrounding countryside, is familiar to anyone who has to drive regularly from the East Coast to the Midwest or vice versa.

As the New York Times explained in 2017, Pennsylvania’s “Gas Vegas” sprang up because of an obsolete law. Breezewood is a deliberately awkward transition between Interstate 70 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where they (almost) meet. Back in the 1950s, as I-70 was being built, a law prohibited spending federal funds to channel drivers directly from a free road to a toll road. The law was later overturned, but to comply with it, highway planners designed a looping interchange that lets drivers avoid the turnpike if they (hypothetically) want to. From this constant stream of slow-moving traffic, a mega-rest-stop was born.

It’s true that it would be hard to find a purer distillation of American car culture in one image. A gas station occupies the whole foreground of the photo and seems to merge into the diner behind it, a blurring of our hunger for food with our appetite for fossil fuels. There are plenty of cars in the picture and several semi-trailers, but no humans that the eye can make out…

Nor is the photo’s composition a lucky accident. Edward Burtynsky is a famous photographer, the subject of a New Yorker profile whose work is in the Guggenheim. He took the picture in 2008, as part of a project called Oil that became a book of the same name

Getting such a striking image of the place took a lot more work than most meme-sharers might realize. Burtynsky told me he spent three days in town scouting vantage points and setting up the shot. He often shoots from helicopters, but here he relied on an earthbound rig.

6) Good stuff from Frank Bruni on Joe Biden, 

President Biden was talking about Israel the other day, and I almost had to strain to hear his voice. It was that soft, and it complemented the languid pace of his words.

The subject was bloody, agonizing, unsolvable: the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, which had taken an especially violent turn and killed many people over the previous days. Biden had reason to scream, cause to cry.

But his timbre and cadence brought to mind a lullaby.

There’s something to that.

We live in polarized, adrenalized times that hardly need the turbocharging of a president who foams at the mouth. Wasn’t Donald Trump’s presidency proof of that?

Most Democrats certainly thought so, and several of their party’s candidates for president in 2020 promised a post-Trump slump on the unbridled-passion front. I remember in particular Senator Michael Bennet’s pledge to be a president whom you didn’t have to think about for days on end.

Well, Biden is that president — sort of. I’m qualifying my assessment because the magnitude of the challenges facing the United States and the ambition of his prescriptions are certainly front of mind. But he himself as a player and a potentate isn’t, and that’s partly intentional.

For the sake of national healing, in the interests of governing, he has turned down the emotional temperature in his administration. My Times colleague Annie Karni noted one aspect of that in an incisive recent article about “the overall culture of the Biden White House,” which includes “the least personality-driven West Wing in decades.”

“President Biden is undoing a longstanding Washington tradition in which staff members enjoy their own refracted fame,” she wrote. Such celebrity is a distraction. It’s grist for social-media tempests that compromise the mission at hand.

Biden sets the retiring, reticent example. He leads by stepping back. The big political story last week was Kevin McCarthy v. Liz Cheney, and Biden for the most part didn’t touch it. He doesn’t need to be in the first or even second paragraph of every news story. He doesn’t want to.

That’s a striking change for him, as I’ve written before. It’s an even more striking change for the country. In terms of presidential bearing, we’ve gone from a screech to a whisper. I for one am relishing the hush.

7) I really appreciate Drum’s contrarianism on Covid, like this post, “US Bungling Is Not Why the COVID-19 Pandemic Was So Bad.”  As much fun as it is to blame Trump and as awful as he was at Covid-related matters, we really don’t look too different from most of Western Europe:

Why did the United States suffer such high fatalities from COVID-19? Was it:

  1. CDC incompetence
  2. FDA sluggishness
  3. Donald Trump’s mismanagement
  4. Poor preparedness planning left over from the Obama administration

Now let’s rephrase the question. Why did the the United States and all of Europe suffer such high fatalities from COVID-19? Was it:

  1. CDC incompetence
  2. FDA sluggishness
  3. Donald Trump’s mismanagement
  4. Poor preparedness planning left over from the Obama administration

This rephrasing should make it evident that none of these answers—or anything else unique to the United States—makes sense. Europe had good quality tests earlier than us, but it did them no good. Europe responded sooner than we did, but it did them no good. Europe had shortages of PPE etc. just like we did. Europe had the opportunity to establish travel restrictions before the US, but didn’t. European health agencies provided roughly the same masking advice we did. Etc.

In other words, everyone needs to stop the CDC/FDA/Trump blame game because it’s wrong. It’s obvious that the United States isn’t unique among Western nations, and by definition that means the primary cause of our high mortality rate is also not something unique to the US. Our premature reopening in May of last year was responsible for a higher summer death rate, and Donald Trump can certainly be blamed for that, but that’s about all.

This is the question you should ask anyone who insists on blaming the virulence of the pandemic on some specifically American screwup: “But what about Europe?” If their theory doesn’t explain Europe too, you can just toss it out immediately.

8) Just came across this post from JFresh (definitely one of my favorite hockey writers) on one of my favorite subjects– the difficulty of assessing the quality of NHL goaltenders.  Easily one of the most important positions in all of sports, and yet, “Why Goaltending is Basically Random and Will Always Make You Look Stupid (In 5 Graphs): Expecting consistency from year to year will probably leave you disappointed.”

9) This is such a fun and fascinating article.  You should read it, “How to Survive a Killer Asteroid”

The day the Chicxulub asteroid slammed into what is now a small town on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula that bears its name is the most consequential moment in the history of life on our planet. In a prehistoric nanosecond, the reign of the dinosaurs ended and the rise of mammals began. Not only did the impact exterminate every dinosaur save for a few ground-nesting birds, it killed every land mammal larger than a raccoon. In a flash, Earth began one of the most apocalyptical periods in its history. Could you survive it? Maybe.

If you make camp on the right continent, in the right environment, and you seek out the right kind of shelter, at the right altitudes, at the right times, you might stand a chance, says Charles Bardeen, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research who recently modeled the asteroid’s fallout for the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences. Of course, even if you are on the opposite side of the world at the time of impact—which is the only way you can hope to make it out alive—he recommends you act quickly. As soon as you hear its sonic boom (don’t worry—you’ll be able to hear it from the other side of the world), get yourself to high ground and find underground shelter. Immediately…

The impact triggers tsunamis—plural—as high as skyscrapers. The first of them hit gulf coastlines within the hour. Waves ranging from 600 feet to perhaps as tall as a 1,000 feet smash into what is now Mexico and the southern United States and flood tens of miles inland. The waves temporarily reverse the flow of rivers, rushing up river beds like 30-foot tidal bores…

Tsunamis wrap up the eastern seaboard, smash into the eastern coast of the United States, and, six hours after impact, crest as 600-foot-high walls of water in Europe, Africa, and the Mediterranean coasts. Within 15 hours of impact, waves arrive on every coastline on the planet. Depending on local topography, the ocean sweeps away anything in its path and sucks it back to the sea when the waters finally retreat.

These tsunamis deeply complicate your survival strategy, because proximity to the coastline is otherwise a good idea in super-large asteroid strikes. The ocean serves as Earth’s great insulator, moderating the severe temperature swings that massive asteroids induce. In the case of Chicxulub, the swing starts with heat.

Data visualization of the Chicxulub fallout blast.

When the big rock strikes, its splash constitutes 25 trillion tons of earth that it launches on ballistic trajectories, some at speeds that exceed Earth’s escape velocity. These rocks exit Earth’s gravitational pull to either orbit the sun or embed themselves on other moons or planets as meteors themselves. But the majority of ejected debris returns back to Earth within the hour. These glass-like chunks, called tektites—some as large as school buses, but most the size of marbles—pelt the earth at speeds ranging from 100 to 200 mph in lethal quantities. Regardless of where you are on Earth, you’ll need to find protection from this fiery hailstorm.

Bardeen suggests a cave.

But these glass bullets don’t need to hit you to kill you. As they fall, their friction with the atmosphere collectively emits enough thermal radiation to set fires across the world…

In a final piece of terrible luck for the dinosaurs (and you), Chicxulub happens to strike an area rich in oil and sulfur. The impact ejects 100 billion tons of vaporized sulfur and 10,000 Lake Superiors worth of water into the atmosphere, which then condenses into massive storm clouds and falls back as torrents of acid rain. In the higher latitudes, continental-wide snow storms deposit tens of feet per day. But the global inundation doesn’t last long, because in addition to water, Chicxulub vaporizes and forcefully ejects 150 football stadiums worth of oil in the Yucatán bedrock. This oil then condenses in the stratosphere as a black sooty layer, covering Earth like a coat of black paint. Unlike the sulfur and wildfire smoke, the carbon circulates high above the cloud layer so it doesn’t rain back down. And that’s the problem. The soot layer persists, reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches Earth’s surface by 90 percent for at least three years, so the initial ovenlike heat brought on by the returning tektites is followed by a deep, prolonged freeze. Global temperatures drop by an average of almost 50 degrees. The only places on Earth to avoid frost are tropical islands like Madagascar, India (at the time an island), and Indonesia. Not only are these places where you have the best chance of finding plants and the animals that eat them, but according to climate models these tropical islands are some of the few places on Earth that continue to receive fresh water. In the global chill, evaporation almost ceases, which drops rainfall by 80 percent. Nearly every spot on earth outside of these tropical islands dries into a desert.


Quick hits (part I)

1) Excellent stuff from Yglesias on capitalism, China, and free speech:

That being said, it seems really clear at this point that the original premise of U.S.-Chinese economic integration got one important point backward. Rather than trade and development allowing for some spread of American liberal norms into China, it is doing the reverse, and western multinationals’ commercial interests in China are inducing them to impose Chinese speech norms on the West. And we ought to try to do something about it…

But here’s what’s worst of all: not only is the internet failing to smuggle free speech into China, Western companies’ desire to make money is smuggling unfree speech out of China.

There are no Chinese movie villains

International intrigue is a common cinematic plot device. There are lots of movies about spies and assassins and terrorists attacking the White House and all sorts of other things. One would expect that just in the ordinary course of such matters, someone would make a movie where the bad guy is an agent of the Chinese government. After all, I assume that in the real world, the U.S. and Chinese intelligence agencies tussle here and there doing whatever the boring real-world equivalent of cool movie spying is.

For a while, the general understanding about this was basically that the PRC would not let you show your movie in China if it made them mad, so film studios told the stewards of big tentpole films and franchises to not do stuff that would cut them off from the China market.

That’s kind of lame, but it also seems to fall within the scope of pretty normal business operations. But last year, Ben Smith reported that Apple’s formal guidelines for original Apple TV+ content include that you cannot portray China in a negative light:

Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president for internet software and services, who has been at the company since 1989, has told partners that “the two things we will never do are hard-core nudity and China,” one creative figure who has worked with Apple told me. (BuzzFeed News first reported last year that Mr. Cue had instructed creators to “avoid portraying China in a poor light.”)

And Smith says that Disney+ has essentially the same policy:

So far, Apple TV+ is the only streaming studio to bluntly explain its corporate red lines to creators — though Disney, with its giant theme park business in China, shares Apple’s allergy to antagonizing China’s leader, Xi Jinping.

What’s disturbing about this is that while “you can’t sell this particular movie in China” certainly hurts that movie’s marketing prospects, it’s not like it’s impossible to make a profitable film or TV series without selling it to China. It’s one thing to say “look, we’re so invested in the James Bond franchise that we don’t want to lose any opportunities to market it.” It’s another thing entirely to say “we are categorically going to refuse to make anything that antagonizes the Chinese government.”

The implication is that Chinese pressure has stepped up. That they’re not just telling Disney that if they make a movie the PRC disapproves of then that movie won’t air in China, but that they will retaliate against Disney’s overall business interests. Of course on some level, we can’t really know what’s going on inside these companies or in their conversations with Chinese leaders. But some things that we can see are disturbing.

2) Not dead yet by any means, but what is going on now with the Republican Party (and too many Democrats who don’t seem to realize the stakes) is exactly what it looks like when democracies die.

Before leaving town for their Memorial Day recess, in fact, Senate Republicans successfully used the legislative filibuster for the first time this session to block the proposed bipartisan panel. Their stated arguments against a commission range from the implausible to the insulting; the real explanation is political cynicism in the extreme. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is so far delivering on his pledge to focus a “hundred per cent” on blocking Biden’s agenda, even claimed that an investigation was pointless because it would result in “no new fact.” John Cornyn, a close McConnell ally, from Texas, was more honest, at least, in admitting, to Politico, that the vote was all about denying Democrats “a political platform” from which to make the 2022 midterm elections a “referendum on President Trump.” For his part, Trump has been putting out the word that he plans to run for reëlection in 2024—and exulting in polls showing that a majority of Republicans continue to believe both his false claims of a fraudulent election and that nothing untoward happened on January 6th. Needless to say, these are not the signs of a healthy democracy ready to combat the autocratic tyrants of the world.

“Turns out, things are much worse than we expected,” Daniel Ziblatt, one of the “How Democracies Die” authors, told me this week. He said he had never envisioned a scenario like the one that has played itself out among Republicans on Capitol Hill during the past few months. How could he have? It’s hard to imagine anyone in America, even when “How Democracies Die” was published, a year into Trump’s term, seriously contemplating an American President who would unleash an insurrection in order to steal an election that he clearly lost—and then still commanding the support of his party after doing so…

In contemporary Germany, he pointed out, an incitement to violence of the kind deployed by Trump and some of his backers might be enough to get a political party banned. But, in America’s two-party system, you can’t just ban one of the two parties, even if it takes a terrifying detour into anti-democratic extremism.

This is the worrisome essence of the matter. In one alarming survey released this week, nearly thirty per cent of Republicans endorsed the idea that the country is so far “off track” that “American patriots may have to resort to violence” against their political opponents. You don’t need two Harvard professors to tell you that sort of reasoning is just what could lead to the death of a democracy. The implications? Consider the blunt words of Judge Amy Berman Jackson, in a ruling on a case involving one of the January 6th rioters at the Capitol, issued even as it became clear that Republican senators would move to block the January 6th commission from investigating what had caused the riot:

The steady drumbeat that inspired defendant to take up arms has not faded away; six months later, the canard that the election was stolen is being repeated daily on major news outlets and from the corridors of power in state and federal government, not to mention in the near daily fulminations of the former President.

It’s worth noting that Jackson released this ruling this week, the same week that Trump issued statements calling the 2020 vote “the most corrupt Election in the history of our Country,” touting himself as “the true President,” and warning that American elections are “rigged, corrupt, and stolen.”

3) Good interview here, “Are Democrats sleepwalking toward democratic collapse?”

Sean Illing

You said we were “at a very dangerous moment in American history” back in 2018. I have to say, the situation seems worse now. Trump is gone, but over the last year or so the Republican Party has taken an explicit turn against democracy itself. So what’s your current level of concern?

David Faris

My current level of concern is exploring countries to move to after 2024. I’m deeply concerned about the direction that the Republican Party has taken, especially over the last year or so. Things were bad in 2018, but the basic problem in 2018 was that we had structural factors working against the Democrats and you had a Republican Party that was fundamentally trying to keep people from voting.

So 2020 felt like a test run. The plot to overturn the 2020 election never had a real chance of working without some external intervention like a military coup or something like that, which I never thought was particularly likely. But the institutional path that they pursued to steal the election failed because they didn’t control Congress and they didn’t control the right governorships in the right places.

So I worry complacency has set in on the Democratic side and people are lulled into thinking things are normal and fine just because Biden’s approval ratings are good.

Sean Illing

2020 was a “test run” for what, exactly?

David Faris

It was a test run for a way to overturn an election with the veneer of legality. You have to give Trump and Republicans some kind of dark credit for figuring out that this is really conceivable. I think they now know that, even though it would cause a court battle and possibly a civil war, that if they can’t win by suppressing the vote and the election is close enough, they can do this if they control enough state legislatures and the Congress.

If Democrats don’t make some changes to our election laws and if they lose some races that they really need to win in 2022 and 2024, then we’re in real trouble.

4) College are moving away from relying on standardized tests in admissions, but they may mean more reliance on essays.  Which have even more of a socio-economic bias (and really interesting to read in which ways).

5) Kind of nuts that twitter will literally ban people because it’s AI is entirely lacking a sense of humor and that twitter doesn’t seem to care to much about wrongly banning people unless they have a ton of followers.

It took a single tweet about autism for Twitter to suspend me for life. The tweet, part of my “life with #autism” series, quoted a clumsy joke from my autistic son. It contained the words “smash your head.”

The fate of those who accidentally post the wrong words on social media should set off alarm bells for anyone concerned about due process and free speech.

Shortly after posting what turned out to be my last tweet about life with autism, I discovered I had been permanently suspended for violating Twitter’s rules against violent threats. I also discovered that Twitter won’t tell you what your offending tweet was. But when, stunned, I scrolled through my history, I found that one tweet—and one only—had been expunged.

It is highly unlikely that a human would mistake the quotation of a joke threat for an actual threat. But artificial intelligence has no sense of humor. And most artificial intelligence looks only for keywords and phrases, not for whether they are embedded within a quoted dialogue.

I am a computational linguist and have long known about the limitations of AI. But only after becoming a Twitter outcast did I learn the dirty secret of moderation on social media. While Twitter’s policy for reviewing tweets is ambiguous (likely purposefully so), prominent figures, like the former president, are almost certainly monitored by real humans who examine their every utterance. But regular people are more frequently relegated to AI—an AI that not only erases tweets, but indefinitely suspends entire accounts. And though Twitter claims not to ban accounts solely based on AI, my own experience and many similar anecdotes make me incredibly skeptical of that claim.

A scroll through tweets directed at @TwitterSupport, Twitter’s customer support account, shows scores of people using alternative accounts, along with their supporters, protesting that no Twitter rules were violated. Some report making joke threats like “I’ll kill you”; others have no idea what went wrong.

But this problem has flown under the radar. Most people writing about free speech and social media are focused on partisan politics, not on artificial intelligence. They appear to be unaware of, or unconcerned about, the thousands of ordinary folks who are suspended indefinitely because a clumsy and indifferent AI flagged a perfectly legitimate tweet.

6) And, back to a theme, “If American Democracy collapsed, you probably wouldn’t notice it”

Let’s warm up with a question. Why don’t powerful people just seize the reins of authority in American politics? You may think that the answer is because our system of laws says that they may not. We have a Constitution, after all, that says that presidents and members of Congress are elected. The rules say that powerful people cannot just seize power. If you want to have the authority to make laws, you have to win elections.

But that answer is wrong. What constrains the powerful is not the Constitution, nor the system of laws, regulations, and bureaucracies that govern political competition. What constrains them is the practice that American politicians seek power through elections and that everyone agrees to accept that method.

That difference is subtle. It may even seem tautological—didn’t I just say that powerful people don’t seize power because they don’t? But it is essential for understanding what sustains democracy, and what undermines it. Democracy is a political regime, which O’Donnell and Schmitter define as

the ensemble of patterns, explicit or not, that determines and channels of access to principal governmental positions, the characteristics of the actors who are admitted and excluded from such access, and the resources or strategies that they can use to gain access.

Democracy is nothing other than a particular pattern of behavior that reveals how, within some community, people access positions of political authority.

Constitutions and laws, like other so-called “parchment institutions,” help to provide a structure for politics. Given that there are many ways to have elections, our Constitution generates public, common expectations about how they might be conducted (see Carey [PDF]). But laws do not constrain on their own. They constrain—and this is the essential bit—if people behave as if they are constrained by them.

Working from these two points—democracy is a pattern of behavior, and laws only constrain if people behave as if they are constrained—it follows that we would be correct to say that democracy has collapsed if the explicit or implicit patterns of behavior that govern access to political authority no longer operated. And we would not look to the passage of a law, or necessarily even the outcome of an election, to determine if democracy had collapsed.

Democracy, in fact, makes it particularly challenging to know if democracy has collapsed. That is because when democracy functions, challenges to it are usually hidden, and when they emerge in the open, they are processed through a system that presumes that challenges can be handled democratically. Political actors invoke laws and Constitutions as if they were binding constraints. Stresses that pose questions about the stability of the regime over time, therefore, are fundamentally ambiguous. They may be regime-altering, or not. And the responses to them by those who hold power may be regime-altering. Or not.

And that is why, if American democracy were to collapse, you almost certainly wouldn’t notice it. Not right away, at least…

That is an unsettling conclusion, but it is an important one, because it lays out the stakes for defending democracy. Indeed, there aren’t very many differences between everyday life under most forms of authoritarianism and everyday life under democracy. For most people, in most cases, life is basically the same. And because most people, in most cases, are not motivated primarily by their politics in going about their everyday life, the functioning of national politics is not a first-order concern for them.* Democracies usually do not go out with a bang. They just cease to be.**

7) OMG I hate articles about “myths” that aren’t myths at all, or that actually a thing and they pretend its not.  The reality is that NPR should just not being producing this kind of ideological journalism, “6 Charts That Dismantle The Trope Of Asian Americans As A Model Minority”  For starters, “Myth: Asian Americans are a single monolithic group.”  Seriously?!  Does even your average 8-year old believe this.  What a ridiculous low bar of a “myth” to debunk.  Meanwhile “myth” number 2 got dragged, rightly, all over twitter because “Myth: Asian Americans are high earning and well educated” in this case the underlying data shows, that, on average, yes.  The fact that there are large disparities within Asian-Americans (really– not a monolith?!) does not undermine this at all.

8) I loved this guest post at Zeynep’s substack about the key to the novel coronavirus being the novelty.

Novelty Means Severity

by Dylan. H. Morris, PhD

SARS-CoV-2 is new to our immune systems. That makes it very dangerous. Viruses that are new to us spread faster and are more lethal than old familiar ones.

Some scientists are tempted to chalk this up to evolution. The argument is that a virus that leaves its host alive will outcompete one that kills its host. Viruses do sometimes become less deadly as they adapt to a new host species (like us), but they also sometimes become more deadly. But whether wrong or right for a given virus, this tempting just-so story can be a distraction.

Novelty is bad regardless of virus evolution.

When a virus is new, nobody possesses acquired immune protection against it. Acquired immune protection is a different kind of adaptation: not virus evolution, but our own learned—adaptive—immunity. We build over our lifetimes as we encounter new pathogens and learn how to fend them off.

If nobody has adaptive immune protection, a virus spreads faster. Even a few immune individuals in a population can meaningfully slow the rate of virus spread, since they are less likely to become infectious and infect others. If there are enough immune individuals, the virus may not be able to spread at all. This is the logic of population immunity and herd immunity. It is important. We talk about it a lot.

If nobody has adaptive immune protection, a virus causes severe disease in more of the people it infects. This is also important. We don’t talk about it enough…

One of the first observations people made about COVID was that it was frighteningly lethal in the elderly, but by and large, children were not getting too sick. Some people were surprised. Conventional wisdom was that influenza hit children and the elderly hardest, while sparing younger adults. Why was SARS-CoV-2 different?

But we need to look a little more closely, because it’s hard to reach adulthood without having had the flu. Look at virus severity not by age but by age of first infection, and a pattern emerges: see something for the first time as a kid, and you’ll most likely be okay (but only most likely). See it for the first time as an adult, and it can be nasty. The older you get, the worse it becomes to be infected with a virus you’ve never seen.

Children encounter many viruses to which they have no prior immunity. They compensate with robust innate immune responses that allow them to handle novel infections fairly well.

Robust doesn’t equal invincible. Without widespread childhood vaccination, infectious diseases kill many children, particularly children under five. A first encounter between the immune system and a virus can end tragically, even for a child.1

As you age, you get less good at handling novel viruses. And eventually you get less good at handling any virus, novel or familiar—your immune system ages (“immunosenescence”). The flu, for example, can be very severe in the elderly. But adults, even elderly adults, usually have at least some adaptive immunity to the viruses they face.

Things can get bad if they don’t…

In an article on OC43, Anthony King writes: “If OC43 was the culprit in the 1889/90 pandemic, it has clearly lost its sting in the past 130 years”. Has it? Or do we (almost) all now see it in childhood?

The “almost” may be important. I often wonder about the strong similarity between myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS)—a rare but severe chronic health condition—and many cases of Long COVID. ME/CFS is more common in adults than in children; it often takes hold in adults after a viral infection. What if it is a rare but dangerous consequence of first seeing in your 30s a virus most people first saw in childhood? Evade OC43 or another common virus as a kid, and it could give you post-viral sequelae when it finally hits you in adulthood.

And so while we don’t yet have hard data on the efficacy of the vaccines in preventing Long COVID if they fail to prevent infection, the severity-is-novelty principle makes me hopeful. The virus might get you sick, but it won’t be new to you. That could matter a lot.2

9) Thank your T-cells.  Monica Gandhi, “Relax: If you’re vaccinated, you won’t need a booster any time soon”

As coronavirus vaccines begin to steer the United States back to normalcy after a long and nerve-racking year, Americans’ optimism is mixed with anxiety about the pandemic hurdles that lay ahead. Among those worries is boosters — extra shots that might be needed to shore up immunity among the vaccinated. But emerging research is showing that vaccines and even infections by the virus actually confer long-term immunity and that most vaccinated people won’t need booster shots — at least, not any time soon.

A short primer on the immune system will help explain why. There are two major arms of the immune system: B cells, which produce antibodies, and T cells, which form to attack parts of a pathogen called epitopes. Part of the reason booster shots are under discussion is that antibodies in the bloodstream produced by B cells wane over time. Your blood cannot hold high levels of antibodies to all of the infections you have seen over your lifetime or it would be as thick as paste.

But when you get an infection or vaccine, both parts of your immune system also typically make what are known as memory cells. These long-lasting cells are designed to protect you from a disease you might have encountered a long time ago. For instance, a 2008 study found memory B cells in the blood of people who had been exposed to the influenza pandemic of 1918 and were over 90 years old. Those memory B cells could produce strong neutralizing antibodies against the virus or its variants decades later. The immunity conferred by memory T cells can also last decades.

10) Edsall rounds up a variety of opinions on how the “woke” debate may (or may not) be hurting Democrats:

At one level, it is a dispute over ground rules. Can a professor quote literature or historic documents that use taboo words? What rights should be granted to a person accused of sexual harassment? Are there issues or subjects that should not be explored in an academic setting?

On another level, though, it is a conflict over practical politics. Do specific policies governing speech and sexual behavior win or lose voter support? Are there policies that attract criticism from the opposition party that will stick? Are certain policies so controversial that they divert attention from the opposition’s liabilities?

In an article in March, “Why Attacking ‘Cancel Culture’ And ‘Woke’ People Is Becoming the G.O.P.’s New Political Strategy,” Perry Bacon Jr., formerly a senior writer at FiveThirtyEight and now a Washington Post columnist, described the ways that policies the Democratic left argued for provided political opportunities to the Republican Party:

First and perhaps most important, focusing on cancel culture and woke people is a fairly easy strategy for the G.O.P. to execute, because in many ways it’s just a repackaging of the party’s long-standing backlash approach. For decades, Republicans have used somewhat vague terms (“dog whistles”) to tap into and foment resentment against traditionally marginalized groups like Black Americans who are pushing for more rights and freedoms. This resentment is then used to woo voters (mostly white) wary of cultural, demographic and racial change.

Among the reasons Republicans will continue to adopt an “anti-woke posture,” Bacon writes, is that it

gives conservative activists and Republican officials a way to excuse extreme behavior in the past and potentially rationalize such behavior in the future. Republicans are trying to recast the removal of Trump’s accounts from Facebook and Twitter as a narrative of liberal tech companies silencing a prominent conservative, instead of those platforms punishing Trump for using them to “incite violence and encourage overturning the election results.”

Insofar as Republicans suppress Democratic votes, Bacon continued,

or try to overturn election results in future elections, as seems entirely possible, the party is likely to justify that behavior in part by suggesting the Democrats are just too extreme and woke to be allowed to control the government. The argument would be that Democrats would eliminate police departments and allow crime to surge if they have more power, so they must be stopped at all costs. Polls suggest a huge bloc of G.O.P. voters is already open to such apocalyptic rhetoric.

Bacon’s views are widely shared among Democratic Party strategists, whether or not they will say so publicly. And Bacon is hardly alone.

In a piece in New York magazine, “Is ‘Anti-Wokeness’ the New Ideology of the Republican Party?” Ed Kilgore makes the case that for Republicans

Casting a really wide range of ideas and policies as too woke and anyone who is critical of them as being canceled by out-of-control liberals is becoming an important strategy and tool on the right — in fact, this cancel culture/woke discourse could become the organizing idea of the post-Trump-presidency Republican Party.

This approach is particularly attractive to conservative politicians and strategists, Kilgore continued, because

It allows them and their supporters to pose as innocent victims of persecution rather than as aggressive culture warriors seeking to defend their privileges and reverse social change.

Really not a fan of casting everything in the language of harm, so I really appreciated the pushback from Randall Kennedy:

Randall Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard and the author of the forthcoming book “Say It Loud! On Race, Law, History and Culture,” cited in an email a similar set “of reasons for the deficient response to threats against freedom of thought, expression and learning emanating from the left.”

His list:

“Woke” folk making wrongful demands march under the banner of “EQUALITY” which is a powerful and attractive emblem, especially in this George Floyd/Covid-19 moment when the scandalous inequities of our society are so heartbreakingly evident. On the campuses, many of the most vocal woke folk are students whom teachers and administrators want to mollify, comfort and impress. Many teachers and administrators seek desperately to be liked by students.

At the same time, Kennedy continued, many of the people demanding the diminution of what he sees as essential freedoms have learned how to package their insistence in effective ways. They have learned, Kennedy wrote, to deploy skillfully the language of “hurt” — as in “I don’t care what the speaker’s intentions were, what the speaker said has hurt my feelings and ought therefore to be prohibited.”

Authorities, particularly those at educational institutions, need to become much more skeptical and tough-minded when encountering the language of “hurt.” Otherwise, they will continue to offer incentives to those who deploy the specters of bigotry, privilege and trauma to further diminish vital academic, intellectual and aesthetic freedoms.

11) Good stuff in Reason on the NHJ tenure case:

The question is who ought to decide whether particular individuals should be hired for available faculty positions. The board at UNC has apparently taken the view that it should not rubber stamp such offers but should feel free to override the determination of the faculty and administration on individual personnel decisions. Nothing good can come of this.

Members of the boards of trustees of universities have no expertise to assess the quality of an individual’s work and the potential contribution that a faculty member might make to the campus. They have no basis on which to assess whether the faculty have made a good or bad choice in a hiring or promotion decision from a scholarly perspective. What board members do have are political opinions and personal interests. If boards can block faculty hiring and promotion decisions, the inevitable result will be to shrink the range of acceptable ideas that can be expressed, taught and investigated on the university campus. Faculty hiring and promotion decisions will turn not just on peer review but also on the vagaries of political lobbying campaigns by activists. Peer review is hardly perfect, but it does not get better if a political body gets to second-guess the results…

Even so, those who seek to promote academic freedom, campus free speech, and greater intellectual diversity in academia should be seeking to expand and not to shrink the range of ideas expressed on college campuses. Free speech is not only for those with whom we agree. The principle requires tolerating those with whom we disagree. We do not improve the state of higher education by further politicizing the process of hiring and promoting faculty.

The Hannah-Jones situation is not the most egregious sin against freedom of thought in American higher education. She was still offered a five-year contract. She apparently accepted that offer. She will remain a loud voice in American political discourse, and she will be regularly feted on university campuses. Far more troubling and career-damaging decisions are made every day on university campuses across the country.

But the principle that trustees should not interfere in faculty hiring decisions was hard won and essential to establishing academic freedom in the United States. It would be all too easy for that principle to be eroded in our current polarized political environment. Setting aside that principle whenever we happen to disagree with what the faculty has done will only encourage the belief that faculty appointments should be treated as political spoils and that the scope of acceptable teaching and scholarship should be determined by politicians and mass public opinion.

12) This is so true, “Americans, It’s Time to Get Comfortable With Platonic Touch.”  I remember that being a big issue when I went off to college and no longer got daily hugs from my mom and dad.  My two youngest kids, especially, really just love snuggling up, so I sure get plenty these days, but, as a society, we should do better.

The isolation of the pandemic has highlighted how much we need — and miss — the many forms of nonsexual contact that once permeated daily life. Returning to normal offers not just a chance to resume hugs and handshakes, but also to ask if we should engage in more forms of touch with our friends and colleagues.

As I learned from 17 months of travel abroad before the pandemic, America has a narrow approach to touch. (I’d witnessed the difference on previous travel abroad, but a trip of this duration allowed me to also experience the difference firsthand.) As adults, our opportunities to touch each other are generally limited to a handshake when we meet someone for the first time, a quick hug greeting of a friend, and all the forms of touch two people in a romantic relationship exchange.

In other countries, touch is far freer. I interviewed Christian singles around the world, talking to more than 300 people in nearly 40 countries — all but a handful in person. In several of those places, I saw public touch between same-sex pairs that has almost no corollary in the United States.

13) Good stuff from Zeynep on the media and the lab leak:

Essentially, in early 2020, Trump and Senator Tom Cotton weighed in on the issue, after which it exploded in the fever swamps, with undeniable racism at play, advocating increasingly weird and unlikely scenarios. All that made it kind of became harder to talk about the topic at all.

At the same time, a small but vocal group of scientists, some of whom had fairly active profiles on social media, provided a lot of content, quotes and viewpoints to the media,  generally making themselves very accessible but with a particular point of view on this question. They also wrote strongly-worded opinion pieces for a few high-profile scientific outlets, essentially dismissing a version of what’s getting called the “lab leak” hypothesis—which is fine, as is their right.

By itself, there isn’t anything wrong with what I just outlined. That small vocal group of critics were not even entirely wrong, in my view, and they are certainly entitled to their opinions and to being loud about them.

But the response to that reality from traditional journalism/media is where things went awry.

Many top media outlets took this group of critics’ dismissal of a version of the lab leak hypothesis and then acted like that dismissal was universal and a scientific consensus, which it wasn’t, or was conclusive, which it couldn’t be simply because we… don’t know. We certainly didn’t have the evidence we need to be so conclusive, especially not at the time.

In addition, press reports suggested that everything that fell under the umbrella of the term ‘lab leak,’ which has been a conceptual mess, had also been dismissed, although it hadn’t been, even by some of the original opponents of that particular version.

Then, for a whole year, the coverage implied that any question or statement skeptical of the lab leak critics, broadly defined, was essentially unscientific and could only be motivated by racism. Social media sites took down posts, and even news articles that made such claims.

In the meantime, the reporters did not do the leg work to separate the pieces of the question or seek a broad range of experts. If they had, they might have realized that many experts were quiet on the topic partly because they didn’t want to die on this hill last year, and partly because many were actually eminent experts very very busy doing work on the pandemic itself. Unfortunately, many media outlets failed to do the work necessary to pull themselves out of the tight Twitter/media feedback loop that dominates so much of our media coverage.

Next came the scolding “fact-checks,” painting all discussion of the lab leak as a possibility in any version as mere racism or just a conspiracy theory, suggesting that any attempt to have a sane conversation about a really important topic was, at best, aiding and abetting racists if not outright racist. Of course, these knee-jerk dismissals just makes the problem worse, because when the mainstream media ignores vital, debatable topics, the ones left speaking about the issue most vocally become the racists in the fever swamps.

In any case, just looking at the names on that letter itself would make it obvious to someone who was familiar with the field why it was such a big deal, but it seemed not to get the media attention it would get in that context, probably because most the signatories, while leaders in the filed, are not on social media much, if at all and not that active — and there are many others in this and related fields who aren’t involved openly at all, but would maybe talk to reporters if contacted. However, media keeps quoting the same few very accessible people, to the detriment of the story.

Plus, the coverage has been weird in terms of logical analysis and causal inference. Once something does happen in the real world, we cannot go directly from considering the abstract odds of it happening before to understanding what actually happened after it already happened. It’s one thing to understand how pandemics happen, in general and in the past. It’s an entirely different process to try to answer the question as how did this one happen…

I believe that working to answer key questions that otherwise would be monopolized by racists is core to practicing antiracism. I also believe that equating criticism of the Chinese government with racism against Chinese people is, to put it bluntly, is, indeed, racist. The government is not the people, and like all authoritarian countries, China has great many dissidents.Some dissidents we know of, and there are many others who cannot speak out freely, including some who risked everything to warn us about the pandemic early on and were punished by their government. We should honor and highlight their work, not bury them by acting like criticizing a government — any government, to be honest, but especially unelected, authoritarian ones — means we’re somehow being racist against a billion of people who just happen to live there, or people of that descent. These people are not puppets of a singular government, and criticizing a government is not racism; rather, it’s often a requirement of antiracism.

14) For a while, I was pretty annoyed that we were not going to get a vaccine mandate for NC State.  But, pretty soon I realized this is just politics and our university system is under control of the Republican legislature.  Here’s the sad reality, “For Colleges, Vaccine Mandates Often Depend on Which Party Is in Power: Hoping for a return to normal, more than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated for Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.”

15) There’s good arguments for banning ransomware payments.  And there’s good arguments against banning ransomware payments.  And this Post article nicely rounds them up.  That said, I’m not sure there are not good arguments for failing to step up investment and policies that make life much tougher for the ransomware malefactors.

16) This was good from Linda Greenhouse, “The Free Ride May Soon Be Over for Anti-Abortion Politicians”

Do I think the court will use this case to permit states to ban abortion entirely? No, not directly and not this soon; there’s no need for the new majority, handpicked for that very purpose, to go that far this fast. The question the court has agreed to answer, as framed by the state’s petition, “Whether all previability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional,” suggests but doesn’t require an all-or-nothing response.

However, as President Biden might say, here’s the deal: Viability has been the essential firewall protecting the right to abortion. As the law of abortion currently stands, states can require onerous waiting periods, misleading “informed consent” scripts, needless ultrasound exams — anything to make abortion as burdensome, expensive and stigmatizing as possible. But what a state can’t do at the end of the day is actually prevent a woman with the resources and will to get to one of the diminishing number of providers (the clinic that sued to block the Mississippi law is the only one in that state) from terminating her pregnancy.

Once the viability firewall is breached, it’s hard to see what limiting principle the new majority might invoke even if so inclined. Ninety percent of abortions take place in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy. What’s the difference between 15 weeks and 13, or 11, or 10? Mississippi offers as a limiting principle the claim that at 15 weeks a fetus is “likely capable of conscious pain perception.” But as a compilation of peer-reviewed medical articles published in 2015 by FactCheck.org concluded, scientific evidence is lacking even for the more common assertion that fetuses are capable of feeling pain at 20 weeks…

If there is any good news to salvage from the court’s announcement this week, it is this: the free ride that anti-abortion politicians have enjoyed may be coming to a crashing end.

Ever since the 2010 election ushered new Republican majorities into state legislatures, politicians there have been able to impose increasingly severe abortion restrictions without consequence, knowing that the lower courts would enjoin the laws before they took effect and save the people’s representatives from having to own their actions.

The question as the polls’ respondents processed it was most likely “Do you want to keep the right to abortion?” And no wonder the answer was yes: nearly one American woman in four will have an abortion. (Catholic women get about one-quarter of all abortions, roughly in proportion to the Catholic share of the American population.) Decades of effort to drive abortion to the margins of medical practice have failed to dislodge it from the mainstream of women’s lives.

For the cynical game they have played with those lives, politicians have not paid a price. Now perhaps they will. Of course, women themselves will pay a heavy price as this new reality sorts itself out, particularly women with low incomes who now make up the majority of abortion patients.

And there’s another price to be paid as justices in the new majority turn to the mission they were selected for. The currency isn’t votes, but something even more important and harder to win back: the institutional legitimacy of the Supreme Court of the United States.

There’s no free ride for the court either.

17) I cannot remember the last time I watched a Friends episode.  And I don’t even remember if I was still watching at the end of their run.  But I quite enjoyed the Friends Reunion special on HBO.  Truly some excellent writing and gifted comic actors on that show.

The lab leak

Well now that both Yglesias and Leonhardt have written on the matter somehow it feels I should say something here.  I’m actually pretty sure this is the first time I’ve written about it.  Yes, it may have “leaked” from a lab, but the idea that it was actually engineered and is part of some Chinese plot has always been and remains, extremely unlikely.  And, I’ve always been far more interested in the virus, the disease, and how we’re dealing with it than how it got here.  As Yglesias put it:

A separate question that’s less clear to me is what follows from this in terms of policy. You can break this down into three questions:

  • Suppose the media had been more open to Cotton’s point back in February 2020 — what would we have done differently?

  • Suppose definitive evidence arises this Friday that the virus in some sense came from the Chinese lab — what would we do differently going forward?

  • Or suppose definitive vindication of the zoonotic origin theory emerges — what difference would that make?

I think in all three of these cases, the answer is basically that nothing would be different.

That struck me as about right when I read it yesterday.  Today, Leonhardt nicely summarizes Yglesias and also addresses what would be different:

The virus’s origin does not affect many parts of the fight against Covid. The best mitigation strategies — travel restrictions, testing, contact tracing, social distancing, ventilation and masking — are still the best mitigation strategies.

But there are at least three concrete ways, in addition to the inherent value of truth, in which the origin matters.

First, if the virus really did come from a lab, an immediate airing of the details might have led to even faster vaccine development and more effective treatments. Second, a leak that caused millions of deaths could lead to widespread change in laboratories’ safety precautions. Third, confirmation of a leak would affect the world’s view of China — and would put pressure on China to bear the burden of vaccinating the world as quickly as possible.

Even here, I think the best you can come with is, “ehhh, a little different.”  Yeah, no, basically hardly any faster on the vaccines.  Likewise, pretty skeptical that we’d have China leading the charge to vaccinate the world.  Also, even if this is what happened, what is the scenario where China admits this and we can have 100% confidence it happened?  Better lab security?  Sounds great, but, I’d like to think even an uncertain, but plausible case for a lab leak would lead labs to re-think their safety protocols.

What’s actually most interesting about this is what a massive failure of the media this is.  Leonhardt’s summary:

It appears to be a classic example of groupthink, exacerbated by partisan polarization.

Global health officials seemed unwilling to confront Chinese officials, who insist the virus jumped from an animal to a person.

In the U.S., one of the theory’s earliest advocates was Tom Cotton, the Republican senator from Arkansas who often criticizes China — and who has a history of promoting falsehoods (like election fraud that didn’t happen). In this case, though, Cotton was making an argument with plausible supporting evidence.

The media’s coverage of his argument was flawed, Substack’s Matthew Yglesias has written. Some coverage exaggerated Cotton’s comments to suggest he was claiming that China had deliberately released the virus as a biological weapon. (Cotton called that “very unlikely.”) And some scientists and others also seem to have decided that if Cotton believed something — and Fox News and Donald Trump echoed it — the idea had to be wrong.

The result, as Yglesias called it, was a bubble of fake consensus. Scientists who thought a lab leak was plausible, like Chan, received little attention. Scientists who thought the theory was wacky received widespread attention. It’s a good reminder: The world is a complicated place, where almost nobody is always right or always wrong.

And more from Yglesias:

What happened is that Tom Cotton raised this idea in February in his capacity as a China hawk, and then again in March as part of a nonsensical attack on Joe Biden. He got shouted down pretty hard by scientists on Twitter, by formal institutions, and by the media. Then this kind of pachinkoed down into being a politics story where writers and fact-checkers who didn’t cover science at all “knew” that this was a debunked story that right-wingers were pushing for their nefarious ends. I think it’s increasingly clear that this was a huge fiasco for the mainstream press that got way over their skis in terms of discourse-policing, and there is in fact a serious scientific question as to where the virus came from — a question that we will probably never be able to answer because the Chinese government has clearly committed to one viewpoint on this and isn’t going to allow a thorough investigation…

The situation in January 2020

Looking back on the media fiasco side of this, it seems to trace back to statements Cotton made at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on January 30. This appears to have been a hearing with senior military commanders from U.S. Africa Command and U.S. Southern Command. I think talking about a virus outbreak in China probably sounded like a bit of a crank thing to do, but Senators say weird stuff at hearings all the time.

Cotton said that the Chinese government had been lying about the severity of the outbreak all month and that their story linking the outbreak to the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market was dubious…

February 2020, inventing a “conspiracy”

Cotton’s statements did not get any immediate coverage, but several days later David Choi at Business Insider wrote them up with the headline “Republican senator suggests ‘worse than Chernobyl’ coronavirus could’ve come from Chinese ‘superlaboratory.’”

Choi’s piece is one of those things that happens on the internet when the story is totally accurate but also doing a lot of sensationalization for clicks. What Cotton said at the hearing is that the Chinese government’s official story about the seafood market was wrong, which was something that was at the time also being floated in Vox and The New York Times and Science and the Lancet. Where Cotton differed from the consensus is that he attributed this to malice, which is not what the scientific articles said (but also isn’t a scientific question) and was not the NYT’s preferred interpretation of events.

But that was the actual parameter of the debate; Fisher thought this illustrated a point about the abstract functioning of systems while Cotton thought it illustrated a point about the malign intent of a foreign adversary. Belluz, a science journalist rather than a foreign policy writer, entertained both interpretations as consistent with the facts. And it seemed like a fairly classic foreign policy sort of argument. Throughout history, hawks see malice and threat behind everything that happens, while more dovish people tend to see misunderstanding and confusion. You can imagine the Tom Cotton of 1914 talking somewhere in Vienna about the Serbian government’s obvious complicity in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand while the Max Fisher of the time says the difficulty controlling the Black Hand and its operations reveals the fundamental weakness of the Serbian state.

What Choi did was not exactly accusing Cotton of spreading a conspiracy theory about Chinese bioweapons, but just sort of locating his remarks as adjacent to other people’s conspiracy theories and misinformation:

Cotton was referring to China’s first Biosafety Level 4 lab, the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which investigates “the most dangerous pathogens,” according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While Cotton qualified his remarks by saying “we still don’t know where” the virus originated, his comments come amid numerous conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins — including one that says the virus “originated in lab linked to China’s biowarfare program.”

The amount of false information spreading across social-media platforms has prompted several companies, including Facebook, to limit the reach of such posts. In a statement, Facebook said it would display “accurate information” and notify users if they are suspected of sharing false or misleading information.

So now we have leaped from “everyone agrees the Chinese government’s claims were wrong but Cotton is an outlier in claiming they were deliberately wrong” to “Cotton’s views should be associated with conspiracy theories and misinformation,” even though his core factual claim was not particularly different from what anyone was else was saying. Then things blew up, thanks not so much to a Sunday show interview as to tweets about an interview…

A similar piece by Alexandra Stevenson in the New York Times is headlined “Senator Tom Cotton Repeats Fringe Theory of Coronavirus Origins.”

But again, the article is overwhelmingly about people who are not Tom Cotton saying something different from what Tom Cotton said. Stevenson’s piece is also a reminder that this was a different era of Covid politics, because one of the reasons she gives for doubting that it’s a deliberately engineered bioweapon (which again, is not what Cotton said) is that the virus isn’t really that big of a deal because younger and healthier people don’t have much to fear from it.

Okay, I’ll stop, lots more detail at Yglesias.  Tom Cotton is a bad man.  And almost surely too quick to blame China for all sorts of not-great ideological reasons.  But that doesn’t mean that he’s wrong or that questions about the lab leak are a “conspiracy theory.”  The media got this really wrong.

All sorts of fun discussion of this on twitter and I’m still leaning towards zoonotic origin, but, in the end, sure it would be nice to know, but, in the great scheme of the Covid-19 pandemic it just doesn’t matter that much because we do know that pandemics have arisen zoonotically in the past, they will again in the future, and we damn sure need to be better prepared next time.  

Small steps are steps

Good stuff (as pretty much always) from Leonhardt on crime and policing reform on the year anniversary of George Floyd.  Lots of good stuff, but, as you know, I’m an optimist and I find stuff like this chart very encouraring:

Sure some of it is very low-hanging fruit (i.e., neck restraints), but there’s movement and it’s all in the right direction.  And I think de-escalation and duty to intervene are both important and being widely adopted.  That’s good.  

Most of the states and cities passing these laws are run by Democrats, but not all. Kentucky, Indiana and Iowa have done so, too. At the federal level, the House has passed a bill named for Floyd that would limit police use of force and make it easier to prosecute officers for wrongdoing. The Senate has not passed any policing bill.

Christy Lopez of the Innovative Policing Program at Georgetown University calls the changes important but preliminary: “They’re really necessary first steps, but they’re also baby steps,” she said.
I’d consider them more toddler steps than baby steps.  But, they are steps and they are moving in the right direction. Policy change moves slowly.  If this is what we’ve got in a year, I’ll take it.

Do vaccine skeptics really believe we “rushed” the vaccines?

Seems like everywhere I look/read lately– from the NYT, to open-ended responses on surveys I’m working on, to class on-line discussions, a very common explanation for vaccine hesitancy is that the vaccines were rushed and we just don’t really know if they are safe or not.  This NYT piece breaks down the unvaccinated and there is no “it was rushed” group, but the closest is the “watchful”

The Watchful are holding out to see what kind of experience their friends or neighbors have with the vaccine before committing themselves. They dominate in Delaware, making up 17 percent of the state’s population, as well as 12 percent in Hawaii and Rhode Island.

Behavioral science researchers know that establishing norms can lead to acceptance of products and could help persuade the Watchful. Encouraging those who are vaccinated to show their vaccination status with pride, both online and offline, can nudge their family, friends and networks to follow suit. The Watchful are already likely to wear masks, showing an intent to comply with social norms, so they may respond to similar altruistic messages about vaccination and get vaccinated to protect others.

For this group, experts should consider allowing for a “vaccinate later” option. Behavioral science suggests that people prefer moderate or “compromise” options over their extreme counterparts. Being able to opt-in to vaccines down the road may provide a comfortable alternative for this group.

So, here’s the thing… I’m somewhat skeptical of these skeptics.  One thing that is pervasive in public opinion research is that people are really bad at introspection.  Ask them who they are going to vote for… sure.  Ask them why they are going to vote for that person and their answer likely bears little relationship to the actual reason.  How many people actually just say “because he’s a Democrat/Republican and I always vote for Democrats/Republicans”?  Or how many of the people who believe the vaccine has 5g chips are actually willing to say that aloud when interviewed?  

My theory?  A substantial number of the people claiming concerns that the vaccine was rushed have no idea whether it was rushed or not.  They readily accept the decisions of government bureaucracies on the safety of the products/medications they use every single day without question. Also, any fair-minded research will find the vaccine was not rushed, it was expedited.  Nobody refuses their FedEx overnight package because it got their so damn fast.  My guess is that a lot of people have a vague, inchoate concern about the vaccine for any variety of reasons, but people have also learned that “I’m concerned the vaccine was rushed” has become a perfectly socially acceptable answer (although factually wrong) in a way that “I don’t know, just something feels wrong about it/I’ve just got this hesitancy I cannot quite explain” is not.  I’d actually love to do some research and try and tease this out.  Any, hey, maybe I’m totally wrong, but just thought I’d put this out there.  

The vaccine skeptical you will always have with you

(Apologies to Jesus for the title of the post)

Yes, it is really frustrating that so many people don’t want to get the vaccine that can save lives and allow us all to return to 2019 living, but the reality is that a decent amount of vaccine skepticism is clearly just human nature.  Tara Haelle lays out the history of vaccine skepticism from Edward Jenner to know and it’s always there:

As vaccines to protect people from COVID-19 started becoming available in late 2020, the rhetoric of anti-vaccine groups intensified. Efforts to keep vaccines out of arms reinforce misinformation about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines and spread disinformation — deliberately misleading people for political, ideological or other reasons.

Vaccines have been met with suspicion and hostility for as long as they have existed. Current opposition to COVID-19 vaccines is just the latest chapter in this long story. The primary driver of vaccine hesitancy throughout history has not been money, selfishness or ignorance.

“Vaccine hesitancy has less to do with misunderstanding the science and more to do with general mistrust of scientific institutions and government,” says Maya Goldenberg, a philosophy expert at the University of Guelph, Ontario, who studies the phenomenon. Historically, people harmed or oppressed by such institutions are the ones most likely to resist vaccines, adds Agnes Arnold-Forster, a medical historian at the University of Bristol in England.

A range of recurring and intersecting themes have fueled hesitancy globally and historically. These include anxiety about unnatural substances in the body, vaccines as government surveillance or weapons, and personal liberty violations. Other concerns relate to parental autonomy, faith-based objections, and worries about infertility, disability or disease. For example, some people oppose vaccines that were grown in cell culture lines that began from aborted fetal cells, or they mistakenly believe vaccines contain fetal cells. One of today’s false beliefs — that COVID-19 vaccines contain a microchip — represents anxiety about both vaccine ingredients and vaccines as a surveillance tool.

Meanwhile, here’s a handy chart from Drum that shows American attitudes towards major vaccines since WWII.  Covid is just part of this same pattern:

What’s especially of note in the current pandemic, though, is this strong partisan polarization.  Drum with some interesting commentary here, too:

Overall response to the COVID-19 vaccine is right in line with historical averages. What’s more, Republicans have always been more hesitant about vaccines than Democrats—though with a twist:

As you can see, Republicans have always been more wary of vaccines. That wariness has increased over time, but it’s been stable since 2000 and obviously has nothing to do with Donald Trump. In fact, the especially big difference in the uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine isn’t due to Republicans becoming more hesitant at all. It’s due to Democrats becoming less hesitant. Democrats are about 20 points more enthusiastic about the COVID-19 vaccine than they have been about other vaccines.

There’s an important point here: People are hesitant about vaccines for different reasons, and conservatives have historically been more hesitant than average about them. This means that loud snarking about Republicans being idiot zealots willing to kill themselves just for partisan satisfaction misses the point: their hesitance has little to do with Donald Trump or Tucker Carlson or the polarization of modern politics. Vaccine yahooism may have made things worse at the margins, but that’s about it. Conservatives have always been this way.

Short version: We’ve always had vaccine skepticism (and always will).  What seems to have changed is how the constellation of demographics/beliefs/attitudes that seem to lead to vaccine skepticism are now much more common in the Republican Party, relatively speaking, than in previous eras.  

And that was going to be the post.  But, then I saw Leonhardt today and clearly part of this story is educational polarization (which as we know, is increasingly tied to partisan polarization).  This chart is something else:

Wow.  So much of this is a class gap.  Though, especially noteworthy to me is just how much true anti-vaxxerism there is among Republicans of both college and non-college variety.  The 25% of Republican college grads who are full-on anti-vaxx strikes me as the biggest outlier in this chart.  

Anyway, lots to chew on in all of these pieces, but, for me the takeaway is to not at all be disheartened and to recognize that this is a hill to climb in every major vaccination campaign.  That said, this outsized partisan valence almost surely makes it harder (like it makes everything harder).  

Quick hits

Sorry, just this one not-all-that-long edition:

1) Bernstein on what we really need to make the House better:

In particular, increasing number of House districts enough to make representation happen on a normal human scale would produce an unwieldy legislative chamber of thousands of representatives. The likely results: either chaos, or a highly centralized body in which individual representatives had little or no importance. Neither of these would be good for healthy, meaningful representation. The more plausible reforms, on the other hand, would add relatively small numbers of representatives, and it wouldn’t take long before population growth brought their districts back to about the same size they are now.

In other words, in a nation soon to reach 350 million people, there’s no realistic way for the national legislature to have districts that allow most people to know their representatives.

Rather than increasing the size of the House, the best way to increase personal connections between members and constituents would be to throw money at the problem.

Congressional staff budgets haven’t come close to keeping up with the size of congressional districts over the last 30 years. Over that same period, the demise of local media has made low-cost communication with the district a lot harder, and perhaps impossible. Once upon a time, members gave interviews to local TV and radio stations that everyone in the district could watch and listen to, and were quoted on national and local issues in local newspapers that constituents could subscribe to. All of that, of course, is either gone or diminished. There are lots of reasons that the incumbency advantage in House elections has just about disappeared, but it certainly can’t help that there’s a lot less local media for incumbents to dominate.

So instead of, say, quadrupling the size of the House, how about quadrupling (or more!) each member’s budget? Yes, a lot of that money would be wasted or spend on frivolous things, but so what? Constituents might not have any better chance of knowing their representative personally, but they would have a better chance of visiting a district office, knowing a district staffer (or even a Washington-based one), and perhaps “knowing” their representative on social media. Of course, with a bigger personal staff, members might also increase their personal capacity for doing legislative work without relying on the party leadership. That would be good, too.

In the 1970s, a reasonable objection to adding resources to individual members of the House would have been that it might make them invulnerable to electoral defeat. Today, House elections are nationalized, and so individual members are hostage to the fate of their parties. Whether restoring a bit of incumbency advantage would be a little good or a little bad, it certainly wouldn’t be decisive.

2) Yglesias: on standardized testing and racial equality:

Most critiques of SATs are wrong

People offer a lot of casual criticisms of the SAT that are false or misleading, such as noting that kids with richer parents have higher SAT scores and thus inferring that the test is easily gamed by high-income parents.

It’s true that there is a modest positive correlation between parental income and SAT scores, but you see a similar positive correlation with pretty much anything related to school or child development. Parceling out exactly why it is that the children of doctors and lawyers and business executives do better at school-related stuff than the children of waitresses and cashiers and cab drivers is probably really hard. But broadly speaking, people who do well in school and have high standardized test scores end up earning more money than those who don’t. They then have children who are genetically related to them, and they raise those children in households where the adults are able to constantly model the behaviors of a good-at-school person. There would be something profoundly weird about a world in which the children of good-at-school people were not, on average, better at school than the children of bad-at-school people.

What’s not the case is that rich parents are bestowing huge gains to their kids via the mechanism of extensive test prep. Slate’s Daniel Engber did a good roundup of this in 2019 — the benefits of test prep are modest, maybe between 10 and 30 points out of 1600. There’s a Wall Street Journal article making the same point.

Note that this is not the same as saying that practicing for the tests isn’t helpful! You will absolutely do better on a test if you are familiar with the kind of questions you are going to be asked than if you show up to it cold. But what that means is that taking a little time to prepare is going to help you, not that vast sums of money are going to dramatically boost your score. From the WSJ article:

Laurence Bunin, a College Board senior vice president, says the board’s own research shows limited benefit from test-prep courses. He says familiarity with the SAT tends to provide the biggest short-term gains for students. He recommends free and low-cost College Board materials, including a $20 study guide.

This kind of practice can make a huge difference!

3) Leonhardt on wages:

The chief executive of Domino’s Pizza has complained that the company can’t hire enough drivers. Lyft and Uber claim to have a similar problem. A McDonald’s franchise in Florida offered $50 to anybody willing to show up for an interview. And some fast-food outlets have hung signs in their windows saying, “No one wants to work anymore.”

The idea that the United States suffers from a labor shortage is fast becoming conventional wisdom. But before you accept the idea, it’s worth taking a few minutes to think it through.

Once you do, you may realize that the labor shortage is more myth than reality.

Let’s start with some basic economics. The U.S. is a capitalist country, and one of the beauties of capitalism is its mechanism for dealing with shortages. In a communist system, people must wait in long lines when there is more demand than supply for an item. That’s an actual shortage. In a capitalist economy, however, there is a ready solution.

The company or person providing the item raises its price. Doing so causes other providers to see an opportunity for profit and enter the market, increasing supply. To take a hypothetical example, a shortage of baguettes in a town will lead to higher prices, which will in turn cause more local bakeries to begin making their own baguettes (and also cause some families to choose other forms of starch). Suddenly, the baguette shortage is no more…

Human labor is not the same thing as a baguette, but the fundamental idea is similar: In a market economy, both labor and baguettes are products with fluctuating prices.

When a company is struggling to find enough labor, it can solve the problem by offering to pay a higher price for that labor — also known as higher wages. More workers will then enter the labor market. Suddenly, the labor shortage will be no more…

If anything, wages today are historically low. They have been growing slowly for decades for every income group other than the affluent. As a share of gross domestic product, worker compensation is lower than at any point in the second half of the 20th century. Two main causes are corporate consolidation and shrinking labor unions, which together have given employers more workplace power and employees less of it…

Corporate profits, on the other hand, have been rising rapidly and now make up a larger share of G.D.P. than in previous decades. As a result, most companies can afford to respond to a growing economy by raising wages and continuing to make profits, albeit perhaps not the unusually generous profits they have been enjoying…

That so many are complaining about the situation is not a sign that something is wrong with the American economy. It is a sign that corporate executives have grown so accustomed to a low-wage economy that many believe anything else is unnatural.

4) Terrific interview with Michael Mina on the Yankees outbreak and his latest ideas on testing:

It seems like you don’t think these are “breakthrough” infections and also that you’re not surprised to see them.
The Yankees are testing themselves frequently. When that happens, especially if you’re doing PCR tests, you’re going to find exposures and infections.

Even in people who’ve been vaccinated?
Yes. I’ve always said that it is very unlikely that these vaccines will create fully sterilizing immunity. Sterilizing immunity is the kind of immunity where, if you get exposed and the virus lands in your respiratory tract, it will be neutralized (or killed) immediately. It will not have a chance to replicate. On the other hand, you can have very highly protective vaccines that are not fully sterilizing — vaccines that prevent you from illness, especially severe illness, but may still allow the virus to grow.

And a PCR test would catch those kinds of infections?
This is a technology that can catch just ten molecules of virus. But this is a virus that when it is contagious, there are billions of molecules. So we have to be very careful about how we interpret PCR results. Just because the virus can grow a bit — and be detected on a PCR test — does not mean we are stuck in the woods as far as herd immunity goes. A vaccine that doesn’t create sterilizing immunity can still greatly limit virus growth, perhaps enough to massively limit transmission. This is likely the case with the mRNA vaccines at least, given the large reductions in cases among kids in hospitals as a result of the adults getting vaccinated. Clearly transmission declined significantly enough to elicit some level of herd effects on the kids.

But it probably won’t decline to zero.
As I have been saying since last summer, we should expect reinfections following infection or vaccination. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. The real question is do those reinfections matter — or more to the point — do the reinfections have negative consequences?

Do we not have to worry about infections of that size?
In my opinion, if they’re not infections that are causing disease, they should be viewed very differently from a breakthrough case, which is a term that should absolutely be reserved for a case that’s causing disease…

In other words treating infection as much more of a spectrum, when throughout the pandemic we’ve treated it much more as a binary matter. 
Right. The way we’ve been using PCR thus far is the equivalent of saying that you either are completely immune to a disease, or you’re completely vulnerable. But we all know that you can get a little bit sick or you can get a lot sick, and that those are two really different things.

That had its own cost throughout the pandemic, of course, but it’s also meant we’ve sort of poorly educated the public about how to navigate the post-pandemic, as this episode with the Yankees shows.
That’s exactly right. Binarizing all of these results, and continuing to put everything in black and white — that has been immensely destructive. One of my core philosophies in public health is we absolutely need to bring the public along. You need to keep them up to speed. You need to keep them informed. If you don’t have the public buy-in for everything you’re doing, you will never defeat a pandemic.

Throughout this pandemic, we’ve generally considered the public to be the problem. But this is public health. The public isn’t the problem – that’s on the virus – instead, the public is the solution. As we are seeing with vaccines, the public is the solution and unless we want to vaccinate people based on some forceful military state requirements (which we do not and I hope never would) then we must see the public as the solution, always.

So we need to bring the public along. You need to keep them up to speed. You need to keep them informed. If you don’t have the public buy-in for everything you’re doing, you will never defeat a pandemic. What we’ve done instead, by assuming that the public was unable to deal with this kind of information and this kind of nuance, we have done immeasurable damage.

We’ve made the same mistake with herd immunity — treating it as some threshold before which there’s still great danger and after which there is none, rather than a gradual lessening of risk as more people gain immunity through infection or vaccination.
It’s crazy. Why we continue to treat everything as black and white from testing to disease to herd immunity is … I can’t really figure out why. Maybe it’s just a basic human thing, but I think it’s something our CDC and our FDA and our policymakers should’ve done a much better job educating about. The burden really falls on them.

5) Quite entertaining science journalism, “The Body’s Most Embarrassing Organ Is an Evolutionary Marvel: And yet we have very little idea where anuses come from.”

The appearance of the anus was momentous in animal evolution, turning a one-hole digestive sac into an open-ended tunnel. Creatures with an anus could physically segregate the acts of eating and defecating, reducing the risk of sullying a snack with scat; they no longer had to finish processing one meal before ingesting another, allowing their tubelike body to harvest more energy and balloon in size. Nowadays, anuses take many forms. Several animals, such as the sea cucumber, have morphed their out-hole into a Swiss Army knife of versatility; others thought that gastrointestinal back doors were so nice, they sprouted them at least twice. “There’s been a lot of evolutionary freedom to play around with that part of the body plan,” Armita Manafzadeh, a vertebrate morphology expert at Brown University, told me.

But anuses are also shrouded in scientific intrigue, and a fair bit of squabbling. Researchers still hotly debate how and when exactly the anus first arose, and the number of times the orifice was acquired or lost across different species. To tap into our origins, we’ll need to take a squarer look at our ends.


In the beginning, there was nothing. The back ends of our animal ancestors that swam the seas hundreds of millions of years ago were blank, relegating the entry and exit of all foodstuffs to a single, multipurpose hole. Evolutionary echoes of these life-forms still exist in corals, sea anemone, jellyfish, and a legion of marine worms whose digestive tract takes the form of a loose sac. These animals are serially monogamous with their meals, taking food in one glob at a time, then expelling the scraps through the same hole. (Contrary to what you might have read, not everyone poops.) These creatures’ guts operate much like parking lots, subject to strict vacancy quotas that restrict the flow of traffic.

The emergence of a back door transformed those parking lots into highways—the linear “through-guts” that dominate body plans today. Suddenly, animals had the luxury of downing multiple meals without needing to fuss with disposal in between; digestive tracts lengthened and regionalized, partitioning into chambers that could extract different nutrients and host their own communities of microbes. The compartmentalization made it easier for animals to get more out of their meals, Andreas Hejnol, a developmental biologist at the University of Bergen, in Norway, told me. With the lengthening and uncorking of the end of the gut, he said, many creatures grew into longer and larger body forms, and started to move in new ways. (It would take several more eons for true buttocksthe fleshy, fatty accoutrements that flank the anuses of some animals, such as humans—to evolve. Some researchers I talked with are comfortable using butt to mean any anal or anus-adjacent structure; others are purists, and consider the term strict shorthand for buttocks and buttocks alone.)

6) Really enjoyed Robinson Meyer on the new F150 electric:

4. An electric vehicle is, at a mechanical level, a giant battery on wheels. Ford is pitching this not only as a technical necessity but as a feature: They want you to plug stuff into the car. “Let’s say you’re at a tailgate or at work. You can set up a cement mixer, a band, or lights and draw only half the power the truck is capable of producing at a time,” Linda Zhang, the chief engineer on the Lightning, told me. Like all electric vehicles, the F-150 replaces the hefty internal-combustion engine with a much smaller electric motor, and like many EVs therefore has a storage compartment under its front hood: a “frunk.” Except the F-150 has a “power frunk”—the most marvelous three-syllable phrase American marketing has produced since “half-priced apps”—meaning that it both opens to the touch of a button and has multiple plugs for appliances.

The Lightning can store so much power that, in a blackout, it can supply a house’s normal power usage for three days, according to Ford. If the house conserves power, it can keep the lights on for more than a week, Zhang said. Talking about this feature, Ford employees and Farley himself have referenced the Texas blackouts. The Lightning is a technology of resilience, of climate adaptation.

5. Chemically speaking, decarbonization—the move away from carbon-based fossil fuels—is a shift to less dense forms of energy. Gasoline, for its many flaws, contains an enormous amount of potential energy in a very small amount of mass. Transitioning away from it means, in practical terms, that electric vehicles will be much heavier than gasoline-powered vehicles. The F-150 Lightning weighs 6,500 pounds, about the same as the gargantuan Hummer H2 of the mid-2000s. The battery alone is 1,800 pounds.

These are hefty, dangerous vehicles. Ford has said that it will send software updates to its EVs over the air, and that it will soon transmit its new autonomous-driving feature, BlueCruise, to its EV fleet. But the tonnage of the Lightning, specifically, means that it must especially prioritize advanced safety features, sensors, and auto-braking. Otherwise pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers of smaller and lighter vehicles will die.

7) Zeynep on ransomware:

The dynamics of digital insecurity, ransomware, and related threats are eerily similar to the global public health dynamics before the pandemic. Battlestar Galactica helps explain one key similarity: Networked systems are vulnerable. The premise of the series is that the battleship Galactica, and only Galactica, survived an attack by the Cylons (humanoid robots) on the human fleet simply because it was old and had just been decommissioned in the process of being turned into a museum. Being older, it had never been networked into the system. The “shutdown” command sent by the attackers never reached it, and it was thus spared…

In pandemic terms, Galactica was an island that no one could travel to.

Our software infrastructure is not built with security in mind. That’s partly because a lot of it depends on older layers, and also because there has been little incentive to prioritize security. More operating systems could have been built from the start with features such as “sandboxing,” in which a program can play only in a defined, walled-off area called a “sandbox” that is unreachable by anything else. If that program is malicious, it can do damage only in its sandbox. (This is analogous to the idea of “air gapping,” in which crucial parts of a network are unplugged from a network’s infrastructure.)

Adding security after the fact to a digital system that wasn’t built for it is very hard. And we are also surrounded by “technical debt,” programs that work but were written quickly, sometimes decades ago, and were never meant to scale to the degree that they have. We don’t mess with these rickety layers, because it would be very expensive and difficult, and could cause everything else to crumble. That means there is a lot of duct tape in our code, holding various programs and their constituent parts together, and many parts of it are doing things they weren’t designed for.

Our global network isn’t built for digital security. As I wrote in 2018, the early internet was intended to connect people who already trusted one another, such as academic researchers and military networks. It never had the robust security that today’s global network needs. As the internet went from a few thousand users to more than 3 billion, attempts to strengthen security were stymied because of cost, shortsightedness, and competing interests.

8) My favorite sports analytics discovery (thanks, BB!) of recent vintage is hockey writer JFresh.  I really enjoyed this look at how hockey is about the most luck-dependent of sports and we really need to keep this in mind.  So much regression to the mean both ways.  

9) It also led be to this Vox video” Why it’s so much harder to predict winners in hockey than basketball” that I just absolutely loved (and put in a request for the book it’s based upon).

10) Good stuff from Mark Blumenthal, “How far might incentives nudge the hesitant toward getting COVID-19 vaccines?”

As the rate of new COVID–19 vaccinations has slowed, health officials have grown more creative in efforts to entice the unvaccinated to get their shot. In Ohio, the offer of a chance to win $1 million helped boost new vaccinations to their highest rate in three weeks.

New YouGov polling – conducted prior to the announcement of the Ohio lottery – shows that while such efforts may do little to dissuade the most hardcore of vaccine resistant Americans, the various nudges and incentives being offered in some areas have the potential to motivate many Americans still on-the-fence about getting vaccinated.

The most recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll, for example, asked unvaccinated Americans whether a series of incentives would make them more likely to get vaccinated. Not surprisingly, the various enticements were most attractive to those already planning to get vaccinated (11% of adults overall), especially the prospect of getting easier access to things like travel, sports, entertainment and restaurants (would make 63% of this group more likely to get a shot), receiving $100 in exchange (62%), or the option to be vaccinated “at my doctor’s office” (58%). Nearly all (91%) who say they are planning to get vaccinated respond favorably to at least one of eight potential incentives tested…

In short, these results confirm survey results elsewhere, such as those of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which finds the unvaccinated “have a range of questions and concerns about the vaccine that require different strategies to address.” 

It may take a broad range of approaches and incentives, but if 90% of those still planning to be vaccinated and 40% of those who say they are unsure can be prodded to get at least one vaccine dose – targets consistent with the results above – it would mean a vaccination rate above 70% of the adult population, the goal recently set by President Biden for July 4.

11) I’ve got Amanda Ripley’s new book on conflict on my coffee table and cannot wait to read it.  I really loved this whole interview with Yascha Mounk.  So many good tidbits in here:

Mounk: I’m struck often, in our political discourse, by the ways in which many of my friends and acquaintances—people who are broadly on the, quote, unquote, same side—want to have a view of the other side that’s as negative as possible. Actually, they seem comforted when the other side does something horrible, because it allows them to hate them without any reservations or without any nuance. Then when the other side actually does something honorable, that’s sort of irksome. 

Ripley: At this level of conflict, emotion is driving the train. I admit to that myself. I remember, early on in Trump’s tenure, he did something—I can’t remember what it was, something about China. I remember having this sudden thought that, actually, that was not a bad idea—but not even wanting to have the thought in my head, let alone verbalize it. Then I realized I felt like if I gave him an inch, he’d take a mile—as if we were in a relationship. It’s a trick of the brain, as if he and I were in conversation, which we’re not. So, it’s a fear. It’s a lack of trust. It’s easier, in a way, to keep things binary: bad, good. There’s really cool research that haunts me to this day by Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg, where they asked liberals and conservatives if they would reframe an argument for something in words that [would get] conservatives behind it. Interestingly, they found that 20% of liberals would not reframe their arguments to persuade conservatives, even if it would work better to get what they want. That’s high conflict: when any concession, no matter how small, feels too threatening to contemplate, even when it would be in their interest.

Mounk: I find it to be true that when you say, “Hey, these arguments really are not persuasive and popular to a lot of people,” there’s a particularly strong reaction against that among some readers and on social media, where they’re saying, “Look, this is a question of justice, how dare you talk about it in these kinds of terms.” It’s like you’re desecrating the sacredness of your cause by thinking about how you might put it in a way that’ll actually attract support. Of course, we live in a democracy, and that means you have to think about majorities, and that can sometimes be a slightly dirty business. But if you actually cared about the cause, you would be willing to reframe your argument in the ways that makes it most likely for your cause to happen—whereas I think it’s an indication that you care more about being on the good side when you become reluctant to do that. […] To what extent do you think we can apply everything you say about high conflict to the current situation in the United States?

Ripley: I think 100%. That’s why I wrote the book. What I found is, if you come at [conflict] head on, you lose a lot of people. Many people are stridently locked in on one side or another. But if you come at it sideways, with an analogy, people will make the connection. When you’re in high conflict, it feels unique to you, your country and your pathology. You just can’t believe that this is a universal human condition that has anything to do with divorce court. But I’ll tell you what, there is no daylight between divorce court and Congress at this point. There is nothing different about it. 

12) Really good stuff from Derek Thompson on why Texas was okay despite removing its mask mandate super-early:

In early march, Texas became the first state to abolish its mask mandate and lift capacity constraints for all businesses. Conservatives hailed Governor Greg Abbott’s decision, while liberals predicted doom and death and President Joe Biden disparaged it as “Neanderthal thinking.”

Nine weeks later, the result seems to be less than catastrophic. In fact, in a new paper, economists at Bentley University and San Diego State University found that Abbott’s order had practically no effect on COVID-19 cases. “The predictions of reopening advocates and opponents failed to materialize,” the authors concluded.

How could a policy so consequential—or at least so publicly contested—do so little? …

A subtler possibility is that Abbott’s decision didn’t matter very much because other factors—such as weather, accelerating vaccinations, and a bit of luck—mattered more at the time. The coronavirus seems to spread less efficiently in hot and humid environments, which could partly explain why states such as Texas and Florida have managed to avoid higher-than-average COVID-19 deaths, despite their governors’ famous aversion to restrictions. Add this to the pace of vaccinations in March, and it’s possible that Abbott just got lucky, by lifting restrictions at a time when cases were destined to decline, no matter what.

Yet another explanation is that Abbott’s decision didn’t matter because nobody changed their behavior. According to the aforementioned Texas paper, Abbot’s decision had no effect on employment, movement throughout the state, or foot traffic to retailers. It had no effect in either liberal or conservative counties, nor in urban or exurban areas. The pro-maskers kept their masks on their faces. The anti-maskers kept their masks in the garbage. And many essential workers, who never felt like they had a choice to begin with, continued their pre-announcement habits.The governor might as well have shouted into a void.

Across the country, in fact, people’s pandemic behavior appears to be disconnected from local policy, which complicates any effort to know which COVID-19 policies actually work.

In November, for instance, a team of economists using private data to survey all 50 states concluded that state-ordered shutdowns and reopenings had only “small impacts on spending and employment.”…

Governors don’t reopen or close economies. The CDC doesn’t put masks on or take them off citizens’ faces. A small number of elites don’t decide when everyone else feels safe enough to shop, eat inside, or get on a plane. People seem to make these decisions for themselves, based on some combination of local norms, political orientation, and personal risk tolerance that resists quick reversals, no matter what public health elites say.

And, I gotta say, this following part super-resonated with me (for obvious reasons, once you read it):

If governor mandates don’t change behavior, and state shutdowns don’t change behavior, and CDC guidance doesn’t change behavior (so far), then where do our beliefs about this virus come from? Who shapes the way we think, feel, and act in response to complex and consequential things like a global pandemic?

I’ll first answer for myself: Skeptical of some official narratives from the Trump administration to the CDC, I’ve become my own private investigator on all things COVID-related. (It helps that I’m paid to be one.) I track what public-health officials say about the pandemic, but I don’t wait with bated breath for their pronouncements. Months before the CDC acknowledged that surface transmission of the coronavirus is vanishingly rare, I wrote that surface transmission is vanishingly rare. Weeks before the CDC acknowledged that outdoor mask mandates make no sense, I wrote that outdoor mask mandates make no sense. I’m not bragging; I’m … well, all right, I’m bragging a little.

But my private-detective work isn’t so special. At at time when citizens don’t trust their government and when information is abundant, anybody can, like me, become their own sleuth on all things COVID-related, piece together their own theory about what this virus is and how it spreads, and come up with their individual risk level. Many remote workers, hunched behind their laptops for 16 months, have had the opportunity to steep themselves in modern epidemiology.

Can young Republicans save the future?

Lots of good stuff in this latest Pew report on views of government.  For example, here’s key partisan comparisons on the scope of government:

Chart shows wide partisan divides on government responsibilities, especially providing health insurance for all

I really do want to ask those almost 1 in 4 Republicans about clean air and water– “really… really?”  And, likewise, less than 2 in 3 for high-quality K-12?!

Anyway, lots of interesting stuff throughout, but I thought this chart was particularly noteworthy:

Chart shows demographic differences, especially among Republicans, in views of government responsibilities

Younger Democrats are modestly more liberal on role of government issues than older Democrats.  But among Republicans, wow, that’s a really dramatic difference.  Would really like to understand better what’s driving this.  

Of course, after decades of exposure to Fox, etc., it’s entirely possible they’ll revert to more Republican norms, but, just maybe some small hope for optimism here?  

Tenure, academic freedom, and the 1619 Project

I have mixed views on the 1619 Project. I think the balance of the evidence suggests NHJ really should have been more careful with her history, which she somewhat distorted to achieve her ideological goals.  That said, I think the larger point– really fundamentally re-thinking the role of slavery and Black Americans in our history and the very meaning of the American nation is a worthy and important undertaking. And, for the most part, accurately and very well done.

Anyway, on the back of her very impressive resume in journalism– and it’s damn impressive whether or not one agrees with her ideological project– Jones was offered a prestigious, tenured position a the UNC School of Journalism.   Alas, the best evidence seems to clearly indicate, though, that the UNC Board of Trustees (appointed by the Republican-led state legislature, refused to grant her tenure).  Apparently the Board of Trustees is basically a rubber stamp for every tenure case (mine too, presumably), but conservative outrage led to what seems like a transparently political denial.  They hang it on the reed that Jones is not a real academic (something that as a PhD professor tenured for my scholarship, I was initially open to), but, it turns out that it is common practice to give tenured Journalism positions to journalists who are not academics.  So, so much for that.  Anyway, good details in the N&O story:

Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones will not be a tenured professor when she joins UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media in July.

Instead, her role as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism will be as a fixed-term “Professor of the Practice,” with the option of being reviewed for tenure within five years.

The journalism school’s dean, Susan King, said she was told that the UNC-CH Board of Trustees was hesitant to give tenure to someone outside of academia.

But the news comes as Hannah-Jones has been a lightning rod for some conservatives critical of her work, particularly on The 1619 Project, which explores the legacy and history of Black Americans and slavery. Her piece won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, but faced scrutiny from some historians and politicians and led to a clarification from the New York Times.

“Investigative journalists always are involved in controversies,” King said. “They dig deep, and they raise questions that demand answers. Part of what they do is raise uncomfortable questions for people, institutions and systems.”’

NC PolicyWatch first reported that UNC “backed down from offering” Hannah-Jones the tenure-track position after conservative criticism.

The board has the authority to approve all tenured positions, which are lifetime appointments. In the message, King said she was told: “the board was worried about a non-academic entering the university with this designation.”

However, all of UNC-CH’s previous Knight Chairs have been appointed with tenure, and the position is designed to bring professionals into academia. Some Knight Chairs around the nation are not tenured positions, King wrote, but this will have implications for their next search and appointment of this role.

Tenure is a rigorous process that requires approval at many levels. Hannah-Jones was being courted by King before The 1619 Project was published and her hiring for this position has been months in the making.

As part of her tenure package, Hannah-Jones met with groups of faculty and taught a class at UNC-CH. She wrote a statement about her professional vision, teaching and service and presented her body of work to be explored by the journalism school’s promotion and tenure committee, which voted to approve her. That package was also reviewed by outside academics and presented to all tenured faculty in the journalism school. Then King presented it to the provost, to the promotion and tenure committee at the university level and then to the Board of Trustees.

Nice succinct statement from FIRE:

FIRE is investigating reports that the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees declined to follow through on a recommendation from the faculty and chancellor that journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, best known as the creator of The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” be granted a tenured appointment as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Hannah-Jones will instead be offered a term appointment without tenure.

If it is accurate that this refusal was the result of viewpoint discrimination against Hannah-Jones, particularly based on political opposition to her appointment, this decision has disturbing implications for academic freedom, which is vital in allowing faculty members to voice divergent views and in avoiding casting what the Supreme Court called a “pall of orthodoxy” over the classroom. When decisions on academic tenure incorporate a form of political litmus test, this freedom is gravely compromised.

Also, what’s interesting is that our local right-wing Higher Education “thinktank” appears to be instrumental in drumming up opposition to NHJ that almost surely affected the Board of Trustees.  It’s kind of tempting to go through point-by-point just how ridiculous this article, “School of Journalism—or Ministry of Propaganda?” from their Director of Policy Analysis, but I will let’s it’s overblown, if not downright Trumpian language speak for itself:

The real goal of The 1619 Project was not historical or journalistic, but political agitation. And an angry, underhanded politics at that; Hannah-Jones admitted that her underlying intent is to get “white people to give up whiteness.” That is, to make them regard their identities as something abhorrent. As Arthur Milikh of the Heritage Foundation wrote:

The overriding lesson is clear: young people must learn to despise their nation—its Constitution, ideals, economic system, and its Founders.

Damn, somehow this white guy missed that lesson to hate myself and my whiteness when reading this nor do I hate the Constitution, etc.  I guess NHJ is a failure.

Anyway, not at all a precedent we want in academia and very concerning that this is happening in my own university system.  

Universal pre-K– now!

Planet Money’s Greg Rosalsky sums up the latest very compelling research on the benefits of pre-K.  Added to previous research, there can only be one reasonable public policy conclusion.  Invest in pre-K and do it now.  There’s potentially huge benefits that mean materially and non-materially better lives for millions of Americans.

It is possible that at a truly national scale we wouldn’t see these benefits?  Maybe.  But at this point, the clear preponderance of the evidence is that this an absolutely great investment of public resources.  Maybe such that even Republicans can recognize this, too.  I also kind of love that the impact is not on test scores, but on all the far more subtle ways that help lead these kids to be successful and productive members of society.  Let’s make this happen.  

Wokeness makes it harder to pass policies that actually help Black people

This is from a couple weeks ago, but far too damn good to just let it slip into quick hits.  This Eric Levitz take is just so spot-on, “Avoiding White Backlash Is a Racial-Justice Issue.”  It starts with a re-hashing of the English/Kalla findings (race framings hurt Democrats) versus Lopez (no, not if you do it right).  Consult Edsall or read all of Levitz if you need a refresher.   Anyway, Levitz goes on to make, what I think, are truly critical points in contemporary American politics:

Progressives should do everything they can to persuade moderate Senate Democrats to make Congress more representative of the national electorate. But the default assumption must be that no democratizing reforms will be passed. In that scenario, there will be no path to passing progressive federal legislation unless Democrats increase their support in places that voted for Donald Trump.

Thus, few questions are more pertinent to the project of racial justice in 2021 than, “How can Democrats advance policies that aid nonwhite people without triggering white backlash?” If our goal is to fend off reactionary rule and make life easier for disadvantaged communities, then we must not stigmatize open inquiry into that question…

López, and others who favor race-conscious messaging, have a coherent theory for why their approach is optimal: In the real world, major policies that disproportionately advantage nonwhite people will be racialized no matter how Democrats talk about them. The right will make sure of that. Given this reality, getting ahead of such racial demagoguery — by recasting racism as a tool of elite domination, or else, directly challenging white identity itself — will be more effective than pretending there is no racist elephant in the room. Moreover, even if tiptoeing around the prejudices of white swing voters were expedient in the short-term, such a strategy would leave the barriers to thoroughgoing reform in place. White supremacy has always been the chief obstacle to social democracy in the United States. And its legacy does not disappear when Democrats close their mouths about it.

But there is a coherent, alternative view. David Shor, and other so-called “popularist” progressives, have a theory that goes (roughly) like this: Democratic politicians have little ability to change the views of voters who are not already strong Democratic partisans. The median voter in the race for Senate control is a 55-year-old, non-college-educated homeowner who pays only a little attention to politics, and voted for Trump at least once. Joe Biden is not going to change this person’s fundamental beliefs about race or the nature of American society. Rhetoric about how the rich use racism to divide working people is too abstract and ideological to register with them; they just don’t think about politics in those terms. To the extent that Democrats can win them over, it’s by telling them, in simple language, how the party’s policies will make their lives easier. If this voter is thinking about Medicare and stimulus checks when they head to the ballot box, Democrats have a chance; if they’re thinking about race or immigration, all is lost. Therefore, Democrats must exercise message discipline and work to heighten the salience of their most popular economic ideas — because, for the most vulnerable in our society, the costs of allowing Republicans to retake power are immense. And we are at a point in history when progressives have no choice but to play some defense. Eventually, demographic churn will erode the GOP’s structural advantages and the grip of white supremacy on American society. But until the boomers’ share of the electorate falls to a safe level, we face a real risk of right-wing authoritarianism. The left’s avant-garde should pursue long-term public-opinion change by writing op-eds and propagandistic TV shows; Democrats should tailor their rhetoric to the tastes of unenlightened white people.

Both these views seem facially plausible to me, and I think there may be ways to reconcile some of their respective insights. To the extent that Democrats must choose between them, however, that choice should be dictated by evidence. The Race-Class Narrative is an intriguing strategy. But the publicly available evidence for its potency appears to consist of studies conducted by the concept’s proponents, using outdated methodologies.

Some progressives reject the enterprise of polling and message-testing on epistemological grounds; they contend that political reality is too complex — and Democratic messaging choices, too irrelevant to political outcomes — for such research to be of much use. I think this view is quite reasonable, if suspect in its ideological convenience (if message-testing is dead, everything is permitted).

But those who believe that there are more and less effective ways for Democrats to communicate with the public — and that polling can tell us useful things about which is which — must favor methodologically rigorous studies over ideologically pleasing ones. To do otherwise is to put one’s own comfort above the well-being of the marginalized groups who have the most to lose from reactionary rule.

Super-short version: far and away the most important way to actually improve the lives of minorities in the United States is to have Democrats, rather than Republicans in power in Congress and the presidency.  Whatever makes it most likely you get there is what actually helps Black lives; not ideological purity tests.  Facing substantial structural headwinds (e.g., huge over-representation of rural whites in the Senate and electoral college), the simple fact is that for Democrats to get the majorities they need they are going to have to appeal to decidedly unwoke white voters.  Hey, if appeals about racial equality and helping Black people would do that, I’d be all for it.  But, the best evidence is that they decidedly do not.  Obviously, Democrats should not campaign on racist dog whistles or any such things Republicans regularly use.  Nor should Democrats ignore commitments to the civil rights of LGBT people are any marginalized groups.  But, it is fairly safe to say that Democrats are going to get the national majorities they need by appealing to the broad, economic concerns that resonate with working class people of all stripes; not by appeals to “Latinx” voters and an emphasis on minimum wage as a racial justice issue, etc.  

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