Quick hits (part I)

Very abbreviated quick hits because I’ll be hiking, etc., almost all weekend with NC State Park Scholars, but time to get a few out…

1) You know I’m always here for David Shor’s takes.  I think this point is particularly important:

Prior to Afghanistan, Shor credited Biden with managing “to avoid a lot of the controversies. I think the [Biden] formula – to talk about and run on broadly popular economic issues – is good”. He noted that Biden’s initial $1.9trn Covid-19 relief bill was “the most popular policy we have ever polled”. Many Democrats, however, deviate from Shor’s playbook: they are led by their values even when they contradict public opinion, which Shor thinks futile. “If you had told me in 2012 that most of the Democratic field would embrace [slavery] reparations and decriminalising border crossings, I would have thought that a joke.” Talking about divisive issues or issues that “people don’t care about”, said Shor, is damaging. Most voters know this, but many in the media and politics do not.

The problem is that political debate is shaped by the few, not the many. Young white graduates, Shor noted, account for one in 20 voters, yet make up “a literal majority of people who work in politics”. Many are unaware of, or uninterested in, the unpopularity of their own biases.

Biden is from a different political generation, one that Shor believes has a better grip on how to retain power. “Biden just intuitively understands that defunding the police is crazy.” Yet as the US has polarised in recent decades – for every 100 voters, only a handful are now swing voters – the rules of the game have changed. The incentives for young politicians today are clear: raise money from the hyper-engaged, cater to hyper-partisan outlets, and build a digital following. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic congresswoman from New York, exemplifies the new tribal politician.

But an older generation – and Shor here includes Bernie Sanders alongside Biden – know that gaining a cult following does not help you win. The key is to build a broach church. Shor believes that polling is the way to “get around” your biases and align your view with the world’s view. If a politician or activist ignores the public, Shor told me, it is easy for them to think “we’re so progressive, we’re so amazing”. But what they are really doing is “privileging the concerns of rich, educated people”.

2) Yglesias on the Fed Chair broadly, but I most liked his take on the ridiculous attack from the Squad:

What is the climate left doing?

Where I feel on firmer ground is once again asking What Is The Climate Left Doing?

Of all the possible things you could be doing with your time and money, why pick a fight about the Fed Chair job and start funding financial regulation groups to devise this slightly loopy notion of crippling fossil fuel investment through backdoor bank regulation?

And the answer is that the climate left has a misperception that the Democratic Party desperately needs to be pushed toward more aggressive climate action, and that therefore finding fights to pick — even weird and unimportant ones — is constructive.

The reality is that Democratic Party elites — members of Congress, liberals in the media, Biden executive branch employees, foundation officers, etc. — are in practice all much more fired up about climate change than the median voter, or even than the median Democratic Party voter. Climate activists have won the intra-party argument, and Democrats push hard on climate issues because they sincerely believe the issue is important. They are held back in this regard by the tilted electoral maps that give more weight to non-college rural white people’s preferences and they have bestowed on the Democrats a razor-thin majority that’s dependent on senators from West Virginia and Montana. But they are also held back by the preferences of the electorate, which is loosely favorable to climate action but very averse to anything that smacks of personal sacrifice or disruption.

It’s simply a difficult problem. But the answers involve things like helping Democrats be popular and win elections and actually convincing more voters to care more about climate change. The idea that you’re going to fix this by sneaking in a climate-friendly Fed Chair is silly, and trying to craft a narrative whereby Biden is betraying climate activists if he makes a safe Fed appointment is absurd.

3) This was really interesting from NPR, “Why The South Is Decades Ahead Of The West In Wildfire Prevention”

As Western states contend with increasingly catastrophic wildfires, some are looking to the Southeastern U.S., where prescribed fire is widespread thanks to policies put in place decades ago. From 1998 to 2018, 70% of all controlled burning in the country was in the Southeast.

While a continent apart, both regions have a similar need for fire. For thousands of years, forests and woodlands experienced regular burning, both sparked by lightning and used by Native American tribes, which prevented the buildup of flammable growth. Without fire, the landscape is prone to intense, potentially devastating wildfires.

Despite that risk, Western states have struggled to expand the use of controlled burns. This month, the U.S. Forest Service suspended them because of the extensive fires burning in record-dry conditions.

“We have this generational gap in fire knowledge in the Western U.S. that we’re trying to rebuild now,” says Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension. “But Florida and the Southeast still have it.”

4) This seems like a good idea, “There’s a Better Way to Stop Ransomware Attacks”

But none of these efforts tackle the problem at its root. Ransomware attacks occur because criminals make money from them. If we can make it harder to profit from such attacks, they will decrease.

The United States can make it harder. By more aggressively regulating cryptocurrencies, the government can limit their use as an anonymous payment system for unlawful purposes.

In the nonvirtual world, kidnappings for ransom are wildly unsuccessful. Between 95 percent and 98 percent of criminals involved in cases of kidnapping for ransom that are reported to the police are caught and convicted. Why? In part because at the moment when the victims are exchanged for cash, the criminals put themselves at great risk of identification and capture.

Ransomware attacks are different. Cybercriminals can “kidnap” a company from afar and receive payment anonymously and securely in the form of cryptocurrency. (Technically, cryptocurrency use is only pseudonymous, but in practice the challenge of identifying a user is formidable.)

What should the U.S. government do to make cryptocurrency harder for criminals to use? First, it should adopt and enforce regulations for the cryptocurrency industry that are equivalent to those that govern the traditional banking industry. Cryptocurrency exchanges, “kiosks” and trading “desks” are not complying with laws that target money laundering, financing of terrorism and suspicious-activity reporting, according to a recent report from the Institute for Security and Technology. Those laws ought to be enforced equally in the digital domain.

For example, some cryptocurrency services offer a “tumbler” feature. Tumblers take cryptocurrencies from many sources, mix them up and then redistribute them, making financial transactions harder to trace. This practice looks like money laundering and would be illegal in the nonvirtual world.

To do this, the U.S. banking system should refuse access to cryptocurrency exchanges unless they demonstrate that they are equipped and prepared to prevent ransomware payoffs. It may seem as if cryptocurrency exchanges operate free from traditional banking, but to be fully valuable, digital currency must also be convertible to cash, so the exchanges would have a strong incentive to comply.

The United States should also prohibit transactions with the American banking system by foreign banks that do not impose stricter regulations on cryptocurrency. Because access to the American financial market is vitally important to foreign banks, they, too, would have a strong incentive to comply.

5) Leonhardt earlier this week on whether Delta has crested:

We have asked experts about these two-month cycles, and they acknowledged that they could not explain it. “We still are really in the cave ages in terms of understanding how viruses emerge, how they spread, how they start and stop, why they do what they do,” Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, said.

But two broad categories of explanation seem plausible, the experts say.

One involves the virus itself. Rather than spreading until it has reached every last person, perhaps it spreads in waves that happen to follow a similar timeline. How so? Some people may be especially susceptible to a variant like Delta, and once many of them have been exposed to it, the virus starts to recede — until a new variant causes the cycle to begin again (or until a population approaches herd immunity).

The second plausible explanation involves human behavior. People don’t circulate randomly through the world. They live in social clusters, Jennifer Nuzzo, a Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, points out. Perhaps the virus needs about two months to circulate through a typically sized cluster, infecting the most susceptible — and a new wave starts when people break out of their clusters, such as during a holiday. Alternately, people may follow cycles of taking more and then fewer Covid precautions, depending on their level of concern.

Whatever the reasons, the two-month cycle predated Delta. It has repeated itself several times in the U.S., including both last year and early this year, with the Alpha variant, which was centered in the upper Midwest:

6) Hot damn Josh Marshall unloads on the Supreme Court and legal elitism more generally:

There’s nothing I can add to the overnight news out of the Supreme Court and Texas that we haven’t discussed previously: the Supreme Court is both corrupted and corrupt. One of the court’s nine members sits illegitimately. At least five of the current conservative majority have opted for a parodic version of what the judicial right once denounced as “judicial activism.” The conservative majority’s jurisprudence is a results-oriented approach abandoning both precedent and the more basic interpretive traditions to arrive at the preferred outcomes of either the Republican party or conservative ideology generally. A 6 to 3 Court doesn’t require extraordinary measures to overrule Roe. It seems prepped to do so next year in a case from Mississippi. The overnight decision – which rather overstates what the Court did – is another example of the injudicious exuberance to use the Court to remake the nation’s laws in ways that mere democracy will not allow.

The Court’s corrupt. The solution is to expand the number of justices on the high court to at least thirteen in order to break its power. I don’t know when this will be possible. We don’t know the future. But it is important to know what the correct and proper solution is…

I would be remiss if I didn’t add that Justice Breyer is in the process of handing the corrupt majority a seventh seat by insisting on remaining on the Court with no justification whatsoever.

He deserves the most unremitting scorn.

This is not only a verdict on his selfishness and self-regard. His rationale for remaining on the Court at the risk of further empowering the corrupt rightwing majority is emblematic of a further problem. It is on a par with those liberal legal academics who in recent years have penned editorials confidently informing us that while they disagree with now-Justices Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett they are nonetheless learned and brilliant jurists of integrity who deserve our support in ascending the bench.

This decision – or rather bad faith refusal to render a decision – is emblematic of the fact that that claim fails even on its own terms. But there is a deeper problem with the claim. It imagines that constitutional jurisprudence is a specialized professional discipline that commands our public assent and support regardless of the outcomes it delivers. If a lawyer has mastered the technical processes of constitutional jurisprudence and has a keen mind they should be supported regardless of their beliefs or likely decisions, the argument goes. This is an argument both dangerous and absurd.

As civilians we don’t presume to judge the personal beliefs or research ambitions of physicists who do advanced research at universities or build our nuclear weapons. We defer to all sorts of specialized domains of knowledge. With all due and real respect to various friends and peers who do important work in the field of law, lawyering is not such a field of knowledge. The suggestion that it is is part and parcel of the same general institutional arrogance of the elite academic legal profession that leads countless law professors to head out on disciplinary safaris into economics, history, psychology and virtually every other domain of knowledge. They actually imagine, risibly, that a JD – a limited and largely technical credential – enables one to launch off on this sort of intellectual tourism as easily as a member of the New York bar might get waived in to try a case in California as a matter of professional courtesy. Both claims are products of the same professional arrogance. And in the case of deference to Court appointees it is an arrogance that menaces democratic and civic life itself.

7) Michele Goldberg, “The Intolerable Wait for a Kids’ Vaccine”

Julie Swann, an engineer who studies health systems and models infectious disease at North Carolina State University, leads a team of researchers who recently tried to simulate how the Delta variant of the coronavirus could move through schools in various scenarios. The results, which The Washington Post published over the weekend, were alarming.

Absent masking and testing, the study said, more than 75 percent of susceptible students would become infected in three months. Even with masking and testing, the simulation found, kids in environments with low immunity — which includes virtually all elementary school classrooms — had a 22 percent chance of getting Covid within 107 days.

As a parent of two elementary-school students, I found these figures harrowing. It already felt like a gut punch when, last week, Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, said he didn’t expect a pediatric Covid vaccine to be approved before the end of the year…

That’s why we need the Food and Drug Administration to move quickly. “I can tell you almost certainly there will be data available in September to present to Pfizer,” Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, a Stanford professor of pediatric infectious diseases and a lead investigator at the Stanford site of Pfizer-BioNTech’s pediatric vaccine trial, told me. She thinks Pfizer will be able to file for emergency use authorization in October.

So why is Collins saying the end of the year? It’s unclear. One question, which even well-connected people are having a hard time getting an answer to, is whether the F.D.A. is going to demand extra data for the kids’ vaccine. In July, the agency asked Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna to double the number of kids in their clinical trials to have a better chance of detecting rare side effects. The F.D.A. also said it wanted four to six months of follow-up safety data, as opposed to two for adults.

Most experts don’t think this data is necessary for the F.D.A. to authorize the vaccine on an emergency basis. But we don’t know if the F.D.A. will insist on waiting for it. “That is probably one of the decision points that is affecting the various predictions,” said Dr. Lee Savio Beers, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Two weeks ago, 108 members of Congress, worried about how long approval for a pediatric vaccine was taking, wrote to the F.D.A. seeking some visibility into its timetable. On Monday, the F.D.A. responded, but without offering specifics. “We understand that it is essential that the public have full trust in the F.D.A.’s review process, complete confidence in whatever products we approve or authorize, and faith in F.D.A. and our commitment to protecting public health,” the agency said.

Personally, I’m losing that trust. I fear the F.D.A. knows it will be blamed if anything goes wrong with the vaccine, but not necessarily if kids get horribly sick for lack of it.

8) This is a great NYT feature on medical pricing.  Definitely check it out, “Hospitals and Insurers Didn’t Want You to See These Prices. Here’s Why.”

9) And we’ll wrap up this short version with Will Wilkinson, “The Density Divide and the Southernification of Rural America”

But here’s the thing… America’s increasingly placeless, homogenous white rural culture isn’t a blend of all our various regional cultures. Rural Iowans and Minnesotans sound more like rural Missourians than the reverse.

Now, consider this analysis of the latest Census figures from David A. Hopkins, a Boston College political scientist:

Many large metropolitan areas grew faster over the past decade than the Bureau had previously projected, with eight of the nation’s ten largest cities showing an increased growth rate compared to the 2000 to 2010 period. At the same time, most of rural America shrank in absolute as well as relative terms. A majority—52 percent—of the nation’s counties actually reported a smaller raw population in 2020 than they had in 2010.

[…]

The fundamental geographic division in American politics has traditionally been a sectional conflict setting the North against the South. The idioms of “red states” and “blue states” caught on widely after the 2000 presidential election because they could be applied to a regional divide—blue North, red South—that was already presumed to reflect the main axis of political debate and competition. But the partisan difference between large-metro and rural residents has now become much larger than the gap between northerners and southerners.

I call this widening gap between the partisan loyalties of urban and rural America “the density divide.” Hopkins is clearly correct that urban vs. rural has eclipsed North vs. South as the geographic embodiment of our partisan divisions. As the old adage goes, a chart speaks a thousand white papers. The divergence is crazy.

However, I suspect that battle between North and South lives on both culturally and geographically. The North has drifted out of the countryside and concentrated itself into our cities. At the same time, America’s rural and exurban counties have slowly become more and more homogenously Southern. The South has risen again … in rural Maine? …

One of the puzzles of the 2016 election, and the catastrophe of the Trump presidency, is how populist white nationalism finally prevailed at a time when Americans, taken altogether, were less racist than ever. This is one of the questions I take up in the “Density Divide.” But I left out one of my favorite answers to this question largely because it’s too speculative and I didn’t have the data to prove it. My hunch is that rural white culture, which was once regionally varied and distinctive, became more uniform by becoming increasingly Southern. I call this the Southernification thesis.

In the Density Divide, I argued that the key to answering “Why did white ethnonationalism finally work to win the GOP nomination and then the White House when it didn’t even get close to working for Pat Buchanan or Ron Paul?” was that residential self-selection on ethnicity, personality, and education had made lower density parts of the country progressively more homogenously ethnocentric and socially conservative, which finally made it possible to unify and organize rural and exurban whites as a single constituency.

I’m confident that this is correct, as far as it goes. However, I think it’s an incomplete explanation without something like the Southernification thesis. Before it could be successfully organized politically, America’s increasingly ethnocentric non-urban white population needed to be consolidated first through the adoption of a relatively uniform ethnocentric white culture.

What I’m still groping for is solid empirical confirmation that the Southernification of white rural America did happen and, if so, how it happened. Now, I have few doubts that it did happen and is still happening. Indeed, it’s hard to think of better impressionistic evidence than the spread of Confederate flags far from the South into all parts of white rural America. But that doesn’t seem like quite enough.

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