The future of masks

Well, the future of masks is certainly getting plenty personal for me.  I walked into my building without a mask today for the first time since last Summer as NCSU has reduced their mask mandate to basically classroom instruction and transportation this week.  And, surprisingly, they already sent out an email that next weeks masks will be optional but “encouraged” in the classroom next week.  So, now we really find out what everybody thinks of masks here on campus in a mandate-free environment.

Personally, I’m kind of torn as 1) of course it’s better for my students to see my full face when I’m teaching and it’s more comfortable and I know my room had good ventilation, but 2) a small, but non-trivial risk of contracting Covid under the circumstances remains.  I suspect that my wife will just decide for me based on #2, but we’ll see.

Anyway, a nice article in Stat about adjusting to a mask mandate free future:

Is it a signal that we’re effectively done with masks? Probably not, experts tell STAT, though they also acknowledge many jurisdictions are unlikely to resurrect mask mandates unless they have absolutely no other choice.

“I’m not sure that we’re done with the need for widespread mask use, which is what mask mandates are intended to accomplish. But I’m also not sure where we are with respect to compliance with those types of requirements in the community,” said Jeffrey Duchin, health officer for the Seattle and King County public health department.

Jennifer Nuzzo, the epidemiology lead at the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, feels the use of mask mandates this late into the pandemic has done a disservice to a useful public health measure. Mandates are blunt instruments that were better suited to earlier in the pandemic, she said, when we had few tools with which to combat the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and hospitals were on the verge of collapsing under an avalanche of desperately sick Covid patients.

“We are in different circumstances now. We have more tools,” said Nuzzo, who is also a senior scholar at the Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Generally speaking, public health functions better when it is seen more like social workers than law enforcement. And I do think it is important for us to shift our approach to be not exclusively reliant on mandates.”

She supports shifting to a place where people are urged to wear masks when conditions require it. Taking the element of force out of the equation could help people to see masks through a different lens, she suggested.

“I would personally like to see us move towards a culture where instead of perhaps mandating masks to the point where the poor barista at Starbucks has to yell at people or call the police if they don’t come in with a mask that perhaps we make masks available at the entryway of buildings and say ‘Please use one, particularly if you have a cold’ or something along those lines,” Nuzzo said…

Over time, masks could become “a courtesy normalized in our culture,” she said. “I don’t love masks. I am very much looking forward to not having to wear them. That said, in the future, if I have a cold and I know it’s not Covid and I have to go out, I’ll wear a mask.”

It’s increasingly apparent, though, that many people are ready to cast off their masks. Will getting rid of mask mandates make masks perhaps more palatable? That’s not clear. The lowly face mask has acquired a lot of emotional baggage over the past couple of years.

“Unfortunately it’s become a symbol of people’s discontent with all the difficulties and struggles associated with this terrible pandemic,” said Duchin, who is also a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Washington. “And it’s a shame because it’s counterproductive. Masks can be useful.”

The experts STAT spoke to for this story believe people — some, anyway — will continue to wear masks at certain times or in certain settings, beyond what the CDC recommends. “I can imagine a lot of people will want to wear them while they’re traveling, even if it’s not required. I can imagine people will wear them in the winter because they don’t want to get the flu or anything else,” Nuzzo said.

Honestly, I can see this going in a number of different directions and the inquisitive social scientist in me is just very curious to see where and how that goes (and to hopefully good some good public opinion measures on it, while I’m at it).  

Did we get the pediatric dose wrong?

In a non-pandemic system of vaccine testing, we’d take our time and make sure we got the vaccine dosing just right.  Alas, we didn’t have the luxury of taking our time and testing a number of different dosing.  The fact that two doses was two low for 2-4 year olds and the lastest data on 5-11 year olds, suggest that, in our hurry, we probably aimed a little low.  The great news is that serious Covid is super-rare with these age groups, so that’s not so bad (and there’s almost certainly some good protection against more severe outcomes).  NYT:

In their study, Dr. Rosenberg and his colleagues analyzed data from 852,384 newly fully vaccinated children aged 12 to 17 years and 365,502 children aged 5 to 11 years between Dec. 13, 2021, and Jan. 31, 2022, the height of the Omicron surge.

The vaccine’s effectiveness against hospitalization declined to 73 percent from 85 percent in the older children. In the younger children, effectiveness dropped to 48 percent from 100 percent. But because few children were hospitalized, these estimates have wide margins of error.

The numbers for protection from infection are more reliable. Vaccine effectiveness against infection in the older children decreased to 51 percent from 66 percent. But in the younger children, it dropped sharply to just 12 percent from 68 percent.

The numbers change drastically between ages 11 and 12. During the week ending Jan. 30, the vaccine’s effectiveness against infection was 67 percent in 12-year-olds but just 11 percent in 11-year-old children.

“The difference between the two age groups is striking,” said Florian Krammer, an immunologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

The biological difference between the two ages is likely to be minimal, but while 12-year-old children got 30 micrograms of the vaccine — the same dose given to adults — children who were 11 received only 10 micrograms, he noted.

“This is super interesting because it would almost suggest that it’s the dose that makes the difference,” he added. “The question is how to fix that.” [emphasis mine]

I know, I know!  Increase the dose!  I’m kind of bummed that my 11-year old daughter is among the least protected dose-wise, but, again, likely significantly protected against (already rare) serious outcomes.  We’ve seen that we can get vaccines through administrative hurdles and rolled out fast in times of urgency.  A quite different question is just how fast we can move when we have pretty clear evidence that the urgency led to some mistakes that we should be able to rectify.  On that, we’ll have to see.  

Quick hits (part II)

Well, damn, had these all done and accidentally scheduled for Monday morning instead of Sunday morning.  Just realized, so, Sunday afternoon it is.

1) How the hell did the guy get away with this for so long? “Home Depot Worker Swapped $387,500 in Fake Bills for Real Ones, Officials Say: The U.S. Secret Service said Adrian Jean Pineda bought prop $100 bills, which are used for entertainment purposes, and swapped them for genuine currency for four years.”

Adrian Jean Pineda had an entry-level job at a Home Depot in 2018, working as a vault associate in Tempe, Ariz., in charge of counting the money from registers, placing it in sealed bags and depositing it at a local Wells Fargo Bank.

Over the next four years, however, the bank found $100 bills from the store’s deposits with “PLAYMONEY” written as a serial number — a clear sign of prop currency, according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court.

The problem continued, losses ballooned and, in December, Home Depot contacted the U.S. Secret Service. The agency charged Mr. Pineda last month with swapping $387,500 of the store’s real cash with fake bills.

“He was just in a really good position to do the crime,” Frank Boudreaux Jr., the special agent in charge with the U.S. Secret Service’s office in Phoenix, said on Sunday. He added that it was rare that someone would pass so much counterfeit money before being caught…

The scheme began in January 2018, according to the complaint, and started to unravel late last year after Home Depot detected a large number of fake bills coming from one particular store, Mr. Boudreaux said.

Mr. Pineda bought from Amazon prop $100 bills, which are used for parties and pranks and in television and movie productions. The bills are accurately scaled to size and contain text found on real ones. He brought to work about $800 to $1,200 of the fake currency at a time, Mr. Boudreaux said.

After cashiers brought Mr. Pineda the day’s receipts from the registers, he would swap real bills with fake ones, shoving crumpled fistfuls of real money into his pocket, the complaint said. Video surveillance cameras caught him doing this at least 16 times, the complaint said.

The prop bills, which cost $8.96 for a pack of 100 individual $100 bills, look “highly realistic,” Mr. Boudreaux said. They feature a perfectly printed Benjamin Franklin and, next to his face, a vertical blue line, similar to the 3-D security ribbon found on actual bills.

2) I tried Semantle a couple times but just found it too hard. That said, it’s still really cool:

In many ways, Semantle is hard mode Wordle. Gone is the simplified dictionary and five-letter limit, meaning words can be any type and length, and gone is any indication of correctly guessed letters or positions.

Instead, you’ve got two new helpers: the ability to make infinite guesses, and a neural network able to learn word associations telling you how close, conceptually, you are to the correct answer. I’ve yet to find the solution in fewer than 50 guesses.

Semantle, built by David Turner, uses Word2vec, an algorithm created by researchers at Google which can crawl through a large amount of text and, on its own, work out how words relate to one another. It then represents those associations by creating, basically, a galaxy of words. Words that are close together are similar, words that are far apart are less so.

How this is represented in Semantle is as a number between 1 and 100 which tells you how similar your word is to the solution. In yesterday’s game – like its inspiration, Semantle offers just one puzzle per day – the word “digest” had a similarity rating of 2.85 and “explode” had a rating of 16.17. The correct answer has a similarity rating of 100.

3) Let’s get Jeff Maurer in here on something I feel so strongly about and so bugs me about wokism, “The “You Can Only Write Characters Who Are Exactly You” Idea Is Not Workable: It’s Actually Pretty Racist and Dumb”

American Dirt author Jeanine Cummins became the subject of a Category 5 Twitter storm for telling a story about Mexican immigrants that was “not hers”. Jesse Singal wrote a series of articles chronicling the race-essentialism that has taken over young adult literature. Those stories match my own experiences in television, where ideas about who can write what have taken root seemingly without anyone asking: “Is this progressive, or is this an attitude towards race that would be at home in a book from the 1800s called The Traits of the Peoples of the Seven Continents?”

The current madness is a perversion of a legitimate critique. There is, without a doubt, something I’ll call the “hippies on Dragnet” problem. Dragnet, the ‘60s cop show that served as a cathartic release for squares whose greatest wish was to see some filthy long-hairs face justice, made no attempt whatsoever to understand the counterculture or portray it accurately. Hippies on the show are never anything more than hairy loudmouths dressed like a mashup of Pocahontas and Huck Finn, and whose only character traits are: 1) They say “groovy” a lot, and 2) They get their asses busted by Joe Friday. The writers clearly never bothered to meet any actual hippies. Not that that would have been easy; if a guy who looked like Vince Lombardi had shown up at a Country Joe and the Fish concert and said “Hello, fellow freaks! Care to rap with me?” I suspect it wouldn’t have gone over well.

Getting Old 30 Rock GIF
Seems like as good a time as any to post this.

When applied to hippies, lazy writing leads to lousy characters. When applied to an ethic group (or other group), it leads to ugly stereotypes. Was there a single gay, male character on TV before Will & Grace who wasn’t a lispy, effeminate guy in cutoffs? When did the first Asian character without any ancient wisdom to impart make it to the screen? The shallowness that leads to these stereotypes comes from assuming that you know something about a person based on their ascriptive traits.

Some critics, to their credit, continue to focus on the writing, not the writer. The New York Times review of American Dirtcriticized Cummins’ characters without declaring her incapable of writing them because she’s not Mexican.1 But it’s common for people to adopt the simple heuristic that any major character should share the author’s traits. This is the logic behind the “Own Voices” movement, which promotes books by “an author from a marginalized or under-represented group writing about their own experiences/from their own perspective, rather than someone from an outside perspective writing as a character from an underrepresented group.” That definition comes from the Seattle Public Library, which also includes this warning on its web page:

Not good enough, Seattle Public Library! If you’re really serious about steering people towards diversity, you’ll start slapping big, red labels on books that say: “WARNING: MAY CONTAIN WHITE PEOPLE!!!”

I’m all for hearing stories we haven’t heard before, and I’m all for expanding access to fields that are difficult to enter. But I don’t think an ethic that insists that authors only write from “their own” perspective is remotely workable…

Many authentic, important works have been authored by people not writing about “their own” group. The book that became the movie Schindler’s List was written by Thomas Keneally, an Australian Catholic. Keneally did his research, interviewing numerous Schindler Jews, which is why there’s no scene in the book where one Jewish character turns to another and says: “Thank Christ it’s finally Saturday — let’s make pork chops!” Another classic by an “outsider” is The Wire, whose no-filter realism distinguished it from other cop shows (like Dragnet). The Wire is the brainchild of David Simon, who is not a cop, nor is he Black, nor is he — to my knowledge — a drug dealer. One could argue that the story wasn’t “his” by any measure. But Simon worked the City Desk at the Baltimore Sun for 12 years — he knew that world inside and out. His deep knowledge base is why he could write The Wire about the drug trade and, for that matter, also The Deuce about the porn industry — the guy watches A TON of porn!2

If David Simon was shopping The Wire today — and if he was a nobody and not David Fucking Simon — he might get it into the hands of a producer who would think “this guy covered crime in Baltimore for 12 years, and these characters seem really authentic — this can work.” But he’d definitely get it to several producers who would think “White guy writing a show about mostly-Black characters — so this show is basically Career Suicide: Baltimore. Pass.” There’s an obvious catch-22 here: White writers aren’t supposed to write non-white characters, but they also shouldn’t write something that’s “too white”. My advice to white writers is simple: People like movies where a talking dog and cat try to find their way home. Write one of those.

Fixating on a writer’s race is bad for non-white writers, too. Non-white writers are often pigeon-holed based on their race; I know several who are sick of being asked to write about “their experience”. 

4) Aarron Carroll, “Covid Drugs May Work Well, but Our Health System Doesn’t”

But having drugs, especially highly effective ones like Paxlovid, is critical. And for these medications to succeed they must be taken correctly. People need to start them within five days of an infection, and because of the deficiencies of our testing system and other problems in health care, beginning treatment that quickly is difficult.

Let’s start with diagnosis. If you feel sick, you need a coronavirus test. A P.C.R. test most likely would take at least a day or two to return results, and that’s if you can find the test. An alternative would be to use an at-home antigen test. Like everything else, these tests become scarce when people need them most. The government is sending some to families free if they sign up on a website, but you can get only four per household at the moment.

Any at-home tests beyond that cost money. The Biden administration has pledged to make insurance cover the costs (up to eight a month), but that promise often requires you to pay for them out of pocket and then get reimbursed later.

And that’s if you have insurance. For those who don’t, the administration plans to make tests available at sites in underserved communities, but getting some requires people to know when they’re in and have the ability to pick them up. The uninsured will, very likely, have the most difficulty doing any of this.

If you test positive, you can’t go straight to a pharmacy for the drug therapy like you did for the test. You need a prescription for the medication, which often requires a doctor’s visit. That presupposes that you have a doctor (many people don’t), and that there’s an appointment available. Before the pandemic, fewer than half of people in the United States could get a same-day or next-day appointment with their provider when they were sick.

5) Another fun headline, “Family Dollar closes 400 stores, recalls products after FDA finds decaying dead rodents in warehouse”

6) James Fallows, “Journalism Needs to Engage With Its Critics: For the New York Times, that means a public editor.”  Lots of great stuff on how media bias and framing really work with great examples.  You just kind of need to read it.  Trust me.

7) Good stuff in the Planet Money newsletter:

In a new paper , the economists Anna Aizer, Hilary W. Hoynes, and Adriana Lleras-Muney explore the reasons why the United States is such an outlier when it comes to fighting child poverty. While they acknowledge the reasons are varied and complex, they focus their analysis on one factor: American policymakers, influenced by economists, have dwelled much more on the costs of social programs than their benefits.

The Cost Of Focusing Solely On Costs

For decades, many American economists were pretty much obsessed with trying to document the ways in which welfare programs discouraged work, or broke up families, or encouraged pregnancy, while ignoring all the benefits that society gets from having kids grow up in a more financially secure environment. Aizer, Hoynes, and Lleras-Muney analyze research papers in America’s top academic journals since the 1960s, and they find that prior to 2010, fewer than 27 percent of all articles about welfare programs even bothered to try and document their benefits.

Over the last decade, however, economists have increasingly been focusing on the benefits of such social programs. One reason for this is that research techniques and data have gotten much better, allowing researchers to see both the short- and long-term effects of programs. In recent years, economists have found all sorts of benefits that derive from government spending on kids, including better educational outcomes, fewer health problemslower crime and incarceration rates, and higher earnings (and tax payments) when the kids become adults. 

One recent study in a top economic journal, by Harvard economists Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser, analyzed the bang-per-buck of government spending programs. They found that social spending on kids stands out as having far greater returns for society over the long run than spending on adults. The returns are so large that it’s possible that government spending on kids could end up paying for itself over those kids’ lifetimes, through economic gains for the kids, and through reduced public spending on them through other social programs when they get older.

Aizer, Hoynes, and Lleras-Muney argue that the evidence is clear: social programs aimed at kids are investments, which have very real, measurable returns for society. “The returns of these investments… can only be properly measured over the entire lifetime of the recipients and should be comprehensive in nature, including gains to schooling, health and other aspects of human wellbeing,” Aizer, Hoynes, and Lleras-Muney write.

However, they write, the federal government currently fails to take into account these long-term benefits. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which is the nonpartisan agency that informs lawmakers about the costs and benefits of programs, currently only looks at the effects of programs over ten years. “Many of the returns to investments in children are not realized for many years, once the children complete their education, attain young adulthood and enter the labor market,” Aizer, Hoynes, and Lleras-Muney write. “Thus, even if there were consensus on the long run benefits of a program (which might need to be predicted if a program is new), the long run benefits outside the 10-year window would not be included in the CBO scoring.” 

It’s Not Just Economists’ Fault 

There are many other reasons why America continues to prioritize social spending on the elderly over investment in kids. Kids, of course, don’t vote — and seniors do in droves. Aizer, Hoynes, and Lleras-Muney point out that the American Association of Retired People “boasted 38 million members and $1.7 billion in revenues in 2019.” It’s a powerful lobbying group. Kids, on the other hand, don’t really have an analogue to the AARP. “The Children’s Defense Fund, one of the major groups advocating for children in the US, reported revenue of $17.8 million in 2019, just 1 percent of AARP revenue,” Aizer, Hoynes, and Lleras-Muney write. 

Another factor that may be behind the discrepancy is that while children may be a sympathetic group, government spending, generally speaking, doesn’t go directly to them. It goes to their parents — and helping out parents sparks an age-old debate about fairness, work, and individual responsibility that doesn’t get opened up in the same way when giving money to the elderly. 

But, arguably, the biggest factor of all in explaining why our social safety net looks the way it does is America’s deeply fraught, racialized politics. That has been well-documented, including in a recent book by New York Times writer Eduardo Porter: American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise. Since the beginnings of the American welfare state, many Americans have disliked the idea of their tax dollars going to minorities or immigrants — and that has torn large holes in America’s social safety net.
Even today, Aizer, Hoynes, and Lleras-Muney argue, demographics may help explain why we spend so much more on seniors than kids. “The elderly population in the US is 77 percent white non-Hispanic in contrast to children who are slightly less than half white non-Hispanic,” they write. “From the onset, the generosity and universality of anti-poverty programs have been a function of the racial composition of potential recipients.”

Economists are now amassing a mountain of evidence that supports the notion that spending on kids has huge benefits, not just for kids themselves, but for society — and taxpayers — as a whole. While many economists in the past may have helped contribute to the scaling back of social programs by pointing out their costs, maybe now they will help contribute to building them back up by illuminating their ample benefits.

8) This is really cool.  You should check it out (free link), “The Paradox of the Lizard Tail, Solved” It can break off in an instant but also stay firmly attached. Scientists have figured out the microscopic structures that make this survival skill possible.”

9) Really great look at Denmark and at BA.2 from Katelyn Jetelina:

In the past two weeks we’ve also gotten more scientific clarity on BA.2. As a reminder, Omicron (called BA.1) continues to mutate as expected, but one of the sublineages (called BA.2) caught the attention of many scientists due to a number of concerning mutations. Since my last update, we’ve learned more about this sister lineage:

  1. Transmissibility. We now have consistent data showing that BA.2 outcompetes BA.1. A recent study found the global reproductive rate of BA.2 was R(t)= 1.4 compared to BA.1, which had a R(t)=1.1. In England, secondary attack rates in U.K. households are also higher: 13.4% of BA.2 cases transmitted within their households vs 10.3% of BA.1. Together, this means that BA.2 will become the dominant variant worldwide very soon.

  2. Immunity escape. In a recent lab study, immune escape was similar for BA.2 compared to BA.1. In the real world, we have evidence that boosters continue to work against BA.2, but just like BA.1, protection against infection wanes over time (see Table below). A study of Denmark households found that vaccination helped protect against transmission more for BA.2 than BA.1. So, vaccines continue to work against BA.2. This is not surprising but sure is great news.

    UK Health Security Report Source Here

    What about infection-induced immunity? A recent preprint from Denmark found that BA.2 reinfections after BA.1 infection were rare, but much more common among unvaccinated compared to vaccinated: of the 47 reinfections, 89% were not vaccinated and 6% had only the two-dose series.

  3. Severity. We’ve gotten mixed signals as to whether BA.2 induces more severe disease than BA.1. A recent lab study in Japan found that BA.2 is more severe in hamsters. Hamster models have helped us out a lot in the past, but they certainly have limitations. A “real world” study in South Africa found something different: BA.2 had similar risk of hospitalization as BA.1. Because hamsters are not people, and because the lab is not the real world, I tend to have more confidence in South Africa’s conclusion that BA.2 is not more severe than BA.1. But we definitely need confirmatory analyses from other countries.


10) Many years ago I was quite taken with the idea that the brain reaches full physical maturity around age 25 (through the myelination process).  So taken, that I named my new blog after this.  Now, this is just some guy on reddit, but a really thorough look at evidence to suggest that maybe we’re wrong about this.

11) University IRB’s are totally out of control and somebody really needs to write a deep dive on the topic.  This isn’t that, but it’s a start.

12) Yascha Mounk on Ukraine:

 was born in 1982. The Berlin Wall came down when I was seven. The internet, with its promise to connect the globe, became a part of everyday life when I was a teenager. Democracy kept expanding its reach around the world until I reached my early twenties.

In my generation, hope for a better future was not the exclusive preserve of inveterate optimists. Despite serious setbacks, from the civil war in the former Yugoslavia to the terrorist attacks which shook America on 9/11, the evidence seemed to bear out the assumption that the world was getting more peaceful and tolerant.

The number of wars really was declining. The most aggressive forms of nationalism really were fading. The portion of the human population that was able to speak freely and express its preferences at the ballot box really did rise to record highs. For a few precious years, a cosmopolitan optimism which swapped the narcissism of minor differences for the embrace of a common humanity seemed to be the ruling ethos of the world’s most powerful countries.

This made it easy to dismiss disturbances in the matrix as anachronisms which would soon be overcome. Many members of my generation wrote off civil wars fed by ethnic pride as “ancient hatreds,” played down the revival of religious fanaticism as the province of extremists, and dismissed bellicose nationalists as Ewiggestrige, those who are “forever beholden to yesteryear.” When I was twenty years old, I was very much concerned about the rise of Silvio Berlusconi and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin. But deep down, I thought I knew that they were throwbacks to a sinister past that would never make a real comeback—crooks and fanatics, ideologues and warmongers who posed a real threat but couldn’t possibly win the day and shape the future.

But just as the past can prove to be prologue, so apparent anachronists can turn out to be members of the avant-garde. 

Today, it seems clear that the prevailing consensus was reading the tea leaves all wrong. The world has just entered its sixteenth year of a democratic recession that has only gotten deeper over the past twelve months. Social media mostly inspired tribal narcissism instead of facilitating mutual understanding. Nothing, from the survival of democracy in its traditional heartlands to our collective ability to check the ambitions of the world’s most ruthless dictators, seems certain any longer.

Chauvinism and ethnic pride, demagoguery and the lust for conquest, it turns out, do not belong to a particular historical epoch. They are thoroughly human potentialities, forever lurking as possible futures should our vigilance waver and our institutions fail to keep the worst instincts of humanity in check—as they just did in the heart of Europe.

13) This case is so wrong on so many levels and, yes, deeply racist, “Pamela Moses ‘Requested a Jury Trial.’ So She Got 6 Years in Prison.” Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich said Moses would be a free woman—if she hadn’t insisted on exercising her constitutional right to trial.”

14) And, hey, if you are an old white guy (and former cop) you can be acquitted of shooting someone to death because they threw popcorn at you.  Yes, seriously.

15) I quite liked “The Mandalorian” but the “Book of Bobba Fett” from the exact same creative team was deeply, deeply disappointing.  Alan Sepinwall nicely explains all the ways it went wrong.  

16) Good stuff here, “Lt. Col. Vindman: Trump ‘Absolutely’ at Fault for Russia’s Ukraine Invasion: “It’s because of Trump’s corruption that we have a less capable, less prepared Ukraine,” retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman told VICE News.”

Quick hits (part I)

1) Don’t expect people to agree with everything in here on women’s rights versus transgender rights, but this part strikes me as so true:

Many of the people demanding these institutional shifts were and are not transgender themselves. They are bullies who set themselves up as moral arbiters, using self-righteous hysteria and factually questionable claims to demand censorship, instilling fear that anyone caught engaging in wrongspeak or even wrongthink will be publicly shamed and professionally destroyed. Bullies who insist they need to reshape women’s rights entirely, and then accuse any woman who even wants to discuss this of being hateful, stupid and dangerous. I have seen some people refer to gender-critical feminists as bullies, but I have never seen a gender-critical feminist call for writers to be no-platformed, words to be banned, books to be pulped, or articles to be deleted from the web. Gender activists do all of that as a matter of routine.

Contrary to what these bullies have claimed, gender-critical feminists do not hate trans people. I certainly feel no anger or animosity towards trans people. The only feeling I have towards them is compassion. Not to the point where I’m willing to give up all of women’s sex-based rights, no. But I do know I can only imagine the trauma and pain they have endured in their lives. I also know that so many of the arguments that are happening in their name are not ones that they wish for at all; they are conducted largely by provocateurs who are just burnishing their online brands…

Do they really think that something called gender identity, which I’m guessing most of them had never even heard of until six years ago, is the most important quality to a person, and any woman who doubts this must be shunned from society? Or do they just wish to be on The Right Side of History?

That’s a phrase I’ve heard often over the past few years. An editor said it to a friend of mine when she wanted to look at the effect of puberty blockers on gender dysphoric children (“I know, I know, but we want to be on the right side of history…”), and a US magazine editor said it to me when I asked if I could interview Martina Navratilova about her views on trans athletes: “I know what you’re saying, and I’m on your side, really I am. But you have to wonder what the right side of history is,” he said. It’s a concern that’s entirely based on vanity, because it’s about wanting to look good, to be seen as the good guy, polishing one’s future legacy. It’s also a way of abdicating responsibility for one’s choices: I’m not making this decision because it’s what I think – it’s what the future thinks! …

And then there’s Twitter. When I wanted to write for a magazine about the vilification of JK Rowling, I was told no, because it would cause “too much of a Twitter storm”. A friend wanted to put together a book of collected gender-critical essays, but an editor told her “the Twitter kickback would be too strong, and it wouldn’t get past the sensitivity readers anyway”. It amazes me how much power some people give to Twitter, because as someone who has been the object of several Twitter storms in my time, I’ll let you in on a little secret: Twitter means nothing, unless you give it the power to mean something. People should really stop giving Twitter so much power, because it’s making them bad at their jobs.

2) Happiness and money from an interview with Laurie Santos:

Is there anything surprising to you that people are just not getting about happiness? For my students, it’s often money. My fast read of the evidence is that money only makes you happier if you live below the poverty line and you can’t put food on your table and then you can afford to. Whether getting superrich actually affects different aspects of your well-being? There’s a lot of evidence it doesn’t affect your positive emotion too much. There was a recent paper by Matt Killingsworth5 where he was trying to make the claim that happiness continues as you get to higher incomes. And yeah, he’s right, but if you plot it, it’s like if you change your income from $100,000 to $600,000 your happiness goes up from, like, a 64 out of 100 to a 65. For the amount of work you have to put in to sextuple your income, you could instead just write in a gratitude journal, you could sleep an extra hour. Yeah, the money thing is one that students fight me on. It hits at a lot of the worldview they’ve grown up with.

5Killingsworth, a senior fellow at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who studies human happiness, recently published the paper “Experienced Well-Being Rises With Income, Even Above $75,000 Per Year.”

3) Love this list of 10 breakthrough technologies from MIT Technology Review.  I’m pretty partial to #4 and #10.

4) This is excellent, “When DEI Measures Crush Free Speech: On the farcical censorship of a Chinese artist at George Washington University.” (free PDF here)

At the start of the Winter Olympics earlier this month, a set of posters went up on the George Washington University campus. At first glance, they looked like they could be official advertisements for the Beijing Games. Look closer, though, and you see the snowboarder is perched atop a surveillance camera, the hockey player is body-checking a bloodied Tibetan monk, and the biathlete has their rifle trained on a blindfolded Uyghur man.

The George Washington University Chinese Students and Scholars Association said the posters were “racist,” a “naked attack on the Chinese nation” and called for a “public apology” and “severe punishment” for those responsible.

GW’s interim president, Mark S. Wrighton, who said he was “personally offended by the posters,” directed university staff to take them down and promised to “undertake an effort to determine who is responsible.”

After a flurry of public criticism, including pressure from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Wrighton reversed course, admitting he had erred in having the posters removed and that no university investigation was underway. He had learned, he said, that “the posters were designed by a Chinese-Australian artist” and that “they are a critique of China’s policies.” He continued: “I want to be very clear: I support freedom of speech — even when it offends people.”

Before this minor fiasco is swallowed up by the next news cycle, we should pause to consider what it tells us about the inevitable tensions between free expression and the kinds of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives taking root on college and university campuses. After all, as Wrighton wrote, concerns about the posters at GW arrived through “official university reporting channels that cited bias and racism against the Chinese community.”

Like hundreds of other colleges and universities, George Washington University has a Bias Incident Response Team, or BIRT. Designed to “support students who are targets or witnesses of hate or bias incidents,” GW’s BIRT reporting form includes more than a dozen options under the “nature of the alleged bias” section, ranging from “age” and “disability” to “personal appearance” and “political affiliation” to “national origin” and “race.”

In a remarkable open letter, the George Washington Chinese Cultural Association exploited the logic of DEI to make their case against the posters. The images “offended” many Chinese students, the association said, and violated the university’s commitment to “equality and inclusion.”Moreover, by potentially inciting “Asian hate,” the posters posed a risk to the safety of Chinese students, including “verbal and physical violence.” “We hope everyone at the university can feel safe on campus.”

In their attempt at suppressing critique of China’s human-rights abuses, the Cultural Association drew quite shamelessly on the rhetoric of social justice. “This egregious act,” the Cultural Association wrote, “took place in early February, during Black History Month, a time when black people in the United States are reminded of their tragic experiences through longstanding oppression and exploitation.” “Underrepresented groups,” they continued, “should join together to fight racism and stand together against prejudice.”

Born in China, now residing in Australia, the artist who goes by the pseudonym Badiucao to avoid unwanted attention from the government of China acknowledges that some people regard his Olympics images as “controversial” and “violent.” “I have to remind the people,” he said, “that what happened in China is a thousand times more terrible and violent, and art is merely showing the tip of the iceberg of all this crime and tragedy.” Responding to the charge that his work promotes “anti-China racism,” he underscores that his work critiques “the state, not the people.”

Beijing 2022 poster

This distinction is often conveniently overlooked by ideologically motivated students who invoke diversity mantras to try to shut down political speech.

5) Interesting and sad case of what sure looks like “suicide by cop” but where the cop sure did not to shoot additional rounds at somebody who was already shot and only brandishing a knife, “The first shots wounded their 16-year-old. His parents wonder: Did police need to fire the second round?”

6) I think there really are complexities to the issue of legal sports gambling, but damn it, just telling me it’s “evil” is so surely not the way to make public policy.  But, that’s what we get here in NC:

We don’t understand the human spirit that says we should surrender in the face of something evil. Sports betting is inevitable, some say. There’s too much money involved. We can’t stop it, so we should just regulate it and get something out of it.

That’s the way some North Carolina leaders are approaching the prospect of legalizing sports gambling. They know thousands of people will be hurt and families will be destroyed, but they seemingly have have lost any manner of courage and given in without a fight.

Decades of research shows that legalizing sports betting in North Carolina will, over time, seriously increase adverse outcomes such as divorce, bankruptcy, child abuse, domestic violence, drug addiction, crime and suicide. The gambling industry’s business model is built upon exploitation of the financially desperate and addicted.

7) Really, really good twitter thread on Joe Rogan and expertise:

8) Just maybe the fact that we’re paying more attention to disease means we can do something about this.  Given the amazing technological advancements against a virus in a short time, imagine what we could do against bacterial foes if we really set our minds to it, “The hidden epidemic: Antibiotic resistance is approaching a crisis point, and the world needs to act.”

Two years ago, the CDC made a disturbing prediction: Without radical change to antibiotic use practices, drug-resistant pathogens,which at that point were estimated to cause 700,000 deaths globally every year,couldkill 10 million people per year by 2050.

A recent report published in TheLancet, however, found that the toll from antibiotic resistance is worsening even faster than expected.

Last month’s Global Research on Antimicrobial Resistance (GRAM) project report estimates that, in 2019, about 1.27 million people died directly due to antimicrobial resistance (AMR), which means cases where the patient wouldn’t have died had their infection been treatable with standard antibiotics. The total rises to 4.95 million deaths once fatalities associatedwith a drug-resistant infection, meaning that a patient died while having an identified antibiotic-resistant infection but it wasn’t clearly the immediate cause of death, are also included.

The report includes data on 23 pathogens and 88 pathogen-drug combinations in 204 countries and territories in 2019, with statistical modeling used to produce estimates for regions missing data.

The new numbers means that AMR is now among the leading causes of death worldwide, exceeding the toll of HIV/AIDS and malaria (864,000 and 643,000 deaths in 2019 respectively, according to the Lancet’s Global Burden of Disease study).HIV research attracts close to $50 billion per year in funding, but as Ramanan Laxminarayan of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy noted in a commentary published along with the Lancet study, “global spending on addressing AMR is probably much lower than that.”

In the last century, antibiotics have revolutionized medicine, massively cutting down mortality from common infectious diseases, while drastically improving the safety of major surgery and recovery rates from trauma. By one estimate, antibiotics have extended average human life expectancy by more than 20 years since their discovery over a century ago.

But the overuse of antibiotics, whether in human patients or in livestock, results in bacteria adapting to the drugs, leading them to become less effective over time. If the pace of resistance isn’t halted — whether through more judicious use of the drugs or through the development of new classes of antibiotics — it will likely lead to soaring deaths from common infections and surgical complications, sending us back to a world where a minor cut could potentially once again be lethal.

We can avoid this fate, but it will require coordinating a global response before it’s too late.

9) Recently came across this deBoer post from last year.  Good stuff, “People of Color Have Agency: the incredible condescension towards people of color in contemporary liberal culture”

This is, on the face of it, anti-white ideology – all of the bad stuff in the world happens as a direct result of white actions, white power. Yet I have always felt that there’s something else going on in these debates. I suspect that placing all of the blame for historical crimes on white people is strangely comforting for white leftists: it advances a vision of the world where only white people matter. It says that the sun rises and sets with white people. It suggests that white people wrote history. It assures white people that, no matter what else is true, they are the masters of the world. That all of this is framed in terms of judgment against the abstraction “white people” is incidental. I think if you could strip people down to their most naked self-interest and ask them, “would you be willing to take all the blame, if it meant you got all the power?,” most would say yes. And of course in this narrative people of color are sad little extras, unable even to commit injustice, manipulated across the chessboard by the omnipotent white masters whose interests they can’t even begin to oppose. All of this to score meaningless political points in debates about inequality and injustice.

The leftist conception of history as a series of crimes committed by white people against the virginal and defenseless brown masses is a perfect example of where radical American politics ostensibly castigates establishment power and the white people who wield it, and yet ultimately comforts those who express them, who are themselves white in dominant majorities. And what I’ve witnessed the last several years is that this condition has been generalized to domestic politics too: in the liberal mind of 2021, white people do, people of color are done to. Were I a person of color, I would find this impossibly insulting…

I find this attitude, which I heard from both Black people and white, to be really ugly. Quite racist, in fact. You really have to marvel at where we’ve come in race relations in this country when “Black people are incapable of following rules” is represented as an antiracist position. While exonerating this particular girl and other Black people from their culpability in breaking rules, this attitude posits an entire race of people who are such dysfunctional victims that they can’t possibly undertake the basic steps necessary not only to survive in 21st century America but to navigate any society, which are rule-bound by their very nature. The short-term rhetorical convenience of excusing individual Black people’s behavior in this way comes wrapped in a terrible curse; if this vision of the world is true, Black liberation must be just about impossible, as the hand of white supremacy is so damaging to Black people that it’s hard to imagine a world in which they are able to rise above the bigotry that will inevitably linger into the future. I would argue that, instead, while Black America faces structural disadvantages that are certainly related to historical and ongoing injustice, the right application of policy could dramatically ameliorate their current problems and leave them better able to flourish. Racial inequality is a choice. We could choose to end it. The question is, should progressives view Black people and other people of color as empowered adults with the capacity to make their own decisions, and thus as responsible for the consequences of those decisions, or as noble, permanent victims?

Worth saying, of course, that the large majority of Black people in this country live their lives every day without breaking such rules – including most Black Smith students. But to recognize this is to give the lie to the proffered defense.

10) I thought this was a pretty compelling take from George Will given that Abery’s murderers were already convicted of murder in state court (it would be quite different otherwise), “Ahmaud Arbery’s racist killers are grotesque, but their ‘hate crimes’ prosecution was a show trial”

If fractious Americans can agree on anything nowadays, it should be that the punishment of thought crimes is the odious essence of totalitarianism. So, consider the constitutionally dubious conviction of Ahmaud Arbery’s three murderers for having committed “hate crimes.”

The criminal justice system has now correctly concluded that his murderers were racists whose racism manifested itself in their actions. This conclusion, however, does not justify complacency about deciding that because the killers’ gross acts reflected grotesque thinking, the thinking merits its own punishment.

The killers chased Arbery — a Black jogger in a White neighborhood — and killed him with a shotgun. For this violation of Georgia’s law against murder, a state court sentenced them to life imprisonment. Then this week, they were convicted in a federal court of violating a federal law that punishes those who violate a person’s civil rights “because of” their “race, color,” etc. For this they can again be sentenced to life in prison.

This misuse of judicial proceedings was, Sullum says, possible because of two regrettable Supreme Court conclusions: The killers’ “second, symbolic prosecution did not amount to double jeopardy, because the state and federal crimes, defined by two different ‘sovereigns,’ are not ‘the same offense.’” And prosecutions of hate crimes are deemed consistent with the First Amendment, even if they impose added punishment for speech that, however scabrous, is nevertheless constitutionally protected.

So, the government can conduct trials for the purpose of virtue signaling — to announce, however redundantly, that it condemns particular frames of mind. A bigot’s shabby mental furniture is, however, not a crime. Were it, what other mentalities might government decide to stigmatize by imposing special punishments? Arbery’s killers had expressed their racism in speech (texts, social media posts, remarks) that no jurisdiction can proscribe. But their federal punishment will be imposed precisely because their speech demonstrated their bigotry.

11) I’m sure I’ll have more to say about our newest SC Justice to be in the future, but I think the WP Editorial was pretty spot-on:

Judge Jackson by all accounts possesses the qualities essential in a Supreme Court justice: a devotion to the rule of law; a commitment to judicial independence; an ability and willingness to collaborate with colleagues whose views and philosophies differ from her own. She also appears to be a keen and careful legal thinker. A graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law School, she was an editor of the law review and went on to clerk for Justice Stephen G. Breyer, whom Mr. Biden has chosen her to replace. She put in eight years as a trial judge before ascending to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 2021. And compellingly, she would bring even more diversity to the court as the first public defender on the modern court — an especially proud legacy for a president who has proclaimed his devotion to criminal justice reform.

Senate Republicans should judge her on the basis of her career and character, and refrain from obstructive maneuvering designed to deprive the nominee of a fair hearing. This may seem like a fantasy considering the poisoned state of the Supreme Court confirmation process. Yet the signs so far are somewhat encouraging. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) rhetoric in advance of her nomination had been conciliatory — with the minority leader refusing to criticize the president’s pledge to pick a Black woman for the job. He should urge members of his caucus to consider her on her merits. Indeed, three of these Republicans — Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) — have already voted for Judge Jackson once, to confirm her for her current role.

That the Supreme Court could now look a little more like America is worth celebrating, not least for how it might help preserve the public trust in the institution, which has taken a beating in the eyes of the country. The court’s integrity would be further enhanced if senators approached the confirmation process not as a partisan battle but as the constitutional duty it is.

12) I meant to share Eric Levitz’s take on that pre-K study a few weeks back:

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that universal pre-K is undesirable. For one thing, the positive results from specific, intensive pre-K programs suggest that the typical American prekindergarten can be substantially improved. But even if it turns out that such programs cannot be scaled up — either because there isn’t political will for the requisite funding or because of some more fundamental constraint — the typical American pre-K (and/or day-care) program still has clear, proven benefits.

Won’t somebody please think of the parents.

Public pre-K programs may not reliably improve enrollees’ long-term academic performance or social behavior. But they do reliably provide parents with a safe, somewhat stimulating place to put their children while they go earn money. And that’s an important service for parents and children alike.

When Washington, D.C., established free and universal preschool, the labor-force participation rate among women with young children in the city rose by 11.4 percentage points over the course of a decade; during the same period, that rate among all American women with young kids inched up by only two points.

That outcome is typical. In other countries, the implementation of universal child care produced similar increases in female workforce participation. What’s more, as Vox’s Kelsey Piper has noted, household economic stability and parental labor-force participation are heavily associated with positive life outcomes for children, including higher rates of high-school graduation and lower rates of incarceration. Thus, if all universal pre-K did was function as a de facto child-care program, there is reason to think it could ultimately improve disadvantaged children’s life outcomes, even if it proves ineffective at increasing their cognitive ability. Simply by enabling their parents to earn higher incomes, the program could improve children’s well-being in the long run. And in any case, it would serve to enhance mothers’ economic autonomy in the immediate term. Which is pretty important, if we want to live in a society in which low-income women are not coerced into abusive relationships for want of economic resources.

All this said, the mixed evidence for pre-K’s efficacy does suggest that if progressives must prioritize some social-welfare policies over others, then they might be wise to favor a child allowance over pre-K. After all, the former increases parents’ economic security instantly and automatically. Further, given that some kids apparently do better under home care than in the typical pre-K program, it might make sense for a universal pre-K policy to include an alternative cash option, which families could use to compensate a relative for providing pre-K-like services if they wish.

On the other hand, in the immediate term, it doesn’t really matter which social-welfare policies progressives wish to prioritize. If the Democratic-controlled Congress does anything to make life easier for parents in America, it will do so at West Virginia senator Joe Manchin’s command. And Manchin, like much of the U.S. electorate, would rather give parents universal pre-K than unconditional cash assistance, owing to the mistaken belief that the latter would enable idleness or drug abuse.

Pre-K may not be the panacea that some of its boosters make it out to be. But it is nevertheless the only de facto public child-care program that has some bipartisan support within the U.S. That makes the young institution worth nurturing in the hope that it eventually outgrows its present flaws.

13) I am all in on Derek Thompson’s “abundance agenda.”  I really like his take on a new book about energy, “Forget ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle‘: A new book suggests that the best way to save the planet is through abundance.”

I recently spoke with Griffith about his plan to electrify the world, his controversial idea to bribe fossil-fuel companies to go green, and why American gloom and NIMBYism are standing in the way of the abundance agenda. This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Derek Thompson: What does “electrify everything” mean, and why is it such a crucial part of the fight against climate change?

Saul Griffith: “Electrify everything” quite literally means electrify everything we do. Electrify our vehicles. Electrify our homes, including the kitchen, the laundry, the basement, the attic, and the garage. Electrify our small businesses and commercial buildings. Electrify our industrial processes.

We then have to produce all of that electricity with zero emissions, which means solar, wind, hydroelectricity, geothermal, but also nuclear. We can use biofuels, too, but biomaterials aren’t realistically going to power more than about 5 to 10 percent of the economy.

The reason to boil down climate action to that simple message is to make it concrete, make it simple, and to cut through the various distractions and smoke screens such as hydrogen and negative emissions. Very simply, the great majority of our emissions will be eliminated by electrifying everything. It also makes concrete the important decisions in a person’s or consumer’s or citizen’s life: what you drive or ride, what powers the place that you live, what powers your appliances.

Thompson: Does electrifying everything require lots of brand-new technology? Or is this something we can do by simply deploying technology we’ve already invented?

Griffith: We have invented all of the things that are necessary. More inventions might make it cheaper or easier, but we do have everything we need already. Electric vehicles are widely now seen as equals to or better than internal-combustion-engine vehicles. Electric heat pumps now beat furnaces on cost and performance in nearly any environment. Electric cooking is cleaner, faster, cheaper, and easier than cooking with gas. Wind and solar are cheaper than natural gas and coal at feeding the grid. Batteries are dropping in cost every day. Rooftop solar can be cheaper than the cheapest grid-based electricity…

Thompson: I’ve come to think that what I call the “abundance agenda” needs both an economic argument—that is, “How do these policies help me?”—and a values argument—that is, “What do these policies say about me?” I wonder if the local energy reforms you’re talking about might appeal to people’s values of local control and community.

Griffith: Electricity literally is the network that connects every home. You are connected to everybody through this thing in your community. And it really might be the opportunity for community renewal that America needs. It might be the thing that binds us back together again. Because it saves us money and has a damn good chance of being bipartisan.

Thompson: I’m concerned that the world is turning away from nuclear power at the very moment we most desperately and obviously need nuclear power to make the clean-energy math work. It’d be one thing if only California was turning away from nuclear with the closure of the Diablo Canyon plant. But so is Germany. So is Japan. Why is this happening around the world, and what is your outlook on nuclear’s future?

Griffith: If you take the six biggest countries by land area—Russia, Canada, the U.S., China, Brazil, Australia—only one of those countries could provide all of its energy with solar and wind using less than 1 percent of its land area. That would be Australia, because it’s giant and has so few people. But if you tried to give everybody in China an American lifestyle, fully electrified with renewables, you’d need 10 percent of the land covered with wind turbines and solar cells. In America, you’d need about 2 percent of the land. My view is that any country that needs more than 1 percent of its land dedicated to renewables has to keep nuclear on the table. People have to realize that they can’t have Western lifestyles without nuclear power in a country as dense as Switzerland.

14) Katelyn Jetelina generally approves of new CDC guidance:

My two cents

As many of you know, I’ve been one of CDC’s biggest critics throughout this pandemic. But… I’m pleasantly surprised with this framework for a few reasons:


  1. Cases included. The CDC ended up integrating case metrics into their framework and this was 100% the correct call. Before today, rumors suggested that the CDC was only going to use hospitalizations to map behaviors. But this is inherently flawed because once hospitalizations increase, transmission in the community has already been high for about 3-4 weeks. So, I’m glad they decided not to do this.

  2. Hospitalization definition. The CDC is counting hospitalizations “with COVID” and “for COVID19” in their hospital metrics. This is also, absolutely, the right call. First, some jurisdictions just don’t have the capacity to differentiate the two. But, second, because Omicron showed us that there’s actually a third category that isn’t clearly differentiated: “COVID19 exacerbating medical conditions.” For example, if a child has diabetes, COVID19 infection significantly complicates the disease and the child is hospitalized “with COVID” not “for COVID19”. But, this is very different than a child with a broken bone that happens to test positive. So, I’m happy that the CDC is counting everything because everything does impact supply, staff, and hospital capacity.

  3. Layered approach. The CDC did not just map these metrics to masks. They also mapped the metrics to our other tools, like rapid testing (when and how), ventilation of spaces, vaccines, treatment, etc. I was VERY happy to see this. Yes, masks work. But so do all the other tools we have significantly underutilized throughout the pandemic.

  4. Dial up and dial down. Given my proposed framework a few weeks ago, you won’t be surprised to hear how happy I am the CDC provided guidance on how to “ride the waves”. The end of a surge is not the end of a pandemic. We need to be prepared and ready for the next. It may never come. But in the high likelihood that another wave does come, we need clear guidance.

  5. Vaccination rate. This is minor, but I’m glad they didn’t include community-level vaccination rates in their metrics. Vaccinations are already folded into population-level hospitalizations, so they are already accounted for to some degree. Also, I have yet to see any scientific evidence that vaccines reduce Omicron transmission. They did for Delta, but I would want to see this data first before assuming so for Omicron.

  6. Transportation. This guidance is NOT for public transportation, like planes. All of the masking requirements still pertain (at least until mid-March). The CDC said they’re evaluating the situation and will comment in the coming weeks.

15) So does Leana Wen.  I am glad to see more of a focus on hospitalization over just cases:

The CDC finally got masking right. After months of pleading from governors, local officials, educators and health experts, their new recommendations make clear that masks are no longer required in much of the United States — including in most schools.

Previously, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s sole determining factor for whether a community needed to implement masking was case counts. This made sense in 2020 and early 2021, when surges in infections invariably led to overwhelmed hospitals and deaths. But vaccines have rendered covid-19 far less severe. In areas with high levels of immunity from vaccination or prior infection, cases can be high, but hospitalizations remain low. The risk to society now correlates with severe infection, not positive tests, so it’s reasonable to shift the threshold for government-imposed restrictions.

The CDC’s new metrics are predominantly based on covid-19 hospitalizations as well as hospital capacity. Because severe illness lags infection by one to two weeks, the CDC also takes into account community infection rates. For example, there is a lower threshold of hospitalizations needed to trigger masking if the overall infection rates are more than 200 cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days.

Importantly, the guidelines leave open the possibility that these metrics might need to change in the future should a new variant arise that escapes vaccine immunity. Instead of viewing masking as an on-off switch, the CDC makes the case that mitigation measures are more like a dial. Depending on changing circumstances, restrictions can be turned up or down.
Beyond the rationale for the revision, the CDC deserves recognition for its newfound clarity of messaging. I appreciated the easily understood orange, yellow and green categorizations: When concern for severe illness is very high (orange), everyone should mask; when they are low (green), everyone could unmask; in between (yellow), people can decide whether to mask depending on their medical circumstances and risk tolerance.
16) And just for fun, in case you missed it, “Cross-country skiing-Finn Remi suffers frozen penis in mass start race”

Ukraine thoughts… I have a few

My real frustration when I first started reading this morning was “why aren’t we doing more?!”  I discussed some with BB and then I read today’s Leonhardt.  I still very much think we need to be doing more (as those of you who follow my retweets can see), but, at least I understand better why we’re not.  Leonhardt:

But it’s also worth taking a look at the potential sanctions that the U.S., Britain and the European Union have chosen not to impose. They are almost certainly more severe than the sanctions going into effect. A full-scale diplomatic response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could include:

  • Suspending Russia from international organizations, like the SWIFT network of banks (as Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, suggested yesterday) and the Interpol network of law enforcement (as Garry Kasparov, the Russian opposition figure, has called for).

  • Seizing apartments, yachts and other assets owned by many members of the Russian elite in London, Miami and elsewhere, as Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic has suggested.

  • Cracking down on Vladimir Putin’s propaganda tools in the West, including the RT television network, and on people like Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor who now works for a Russian oil company.

  • Perhaps most significant, sharply reduce purchases of Russian oil and natural gas, by far the country’s largest source of revenue.

That the U.S. and its allies have chosen not to pursue a more aggressive path helps explain why Putin has been willing to take the enormous risk of starting the most significant war in Europe in 80 years. He believes that his enemies will respond in a limited way. Not only will they decline to send troops to Ukraine; they will fight only a limited economic and diplomatic battle, too.

This decision could change at some point, of course. For now, I want to help you understand why the Western response has been so limited.

1. Sanctions will hurt the West, too. “It’s very hard to get countries to sign up for truly tough sanctions against Russia,” Michael Crowley, who covers the State Department for The Times, told me. “It comes at a cost to their own economies.”

Freezing out Russian banks could create problems for the global financial system. Hurting Russia’s energy industry would increase prices when inflation is already high and angering many Western workers. The effects would often be largest in the E.U., which may explain why European officials have often been more dovish on sanctions than American or British officials.

(Here’s an explainer about why the U.S. cannot unilaterally cut off Russia from the SWIFT financial network — and why some Europeans have reservations.)

“The European Union is Russia’s largest trading partner, accounting for 37 percent of its global trade in 2020, and receives a third of its energy from Russia,” my colleague Patricia Cohen wrote. “The flip side of mutual interest is mutual pain.” Matina Stevis-Gridneff, The Times’s Brussels bureau chief, adds: “The reality is that many of the tougher sanctions are considered too onerous for Europe.” …

3. The West has wanted to move slowly — both to retain future options and to avoid aggravating the crisis.

As Matina reports, the E.U. is keeping some sanctions in reserve. Doing so will allow it to impose them if Putin later expands the war and will also keep open a channel of communication with the Kremlin, officials say. Critics of this approach, on the other hand, say it “gives the impression of proportionality to a completely outrageous move by Putin which should be met by shock and awe,” Matina said.

For now, the critics are losing the debate.

And I love the idea of “shock and awe” sanctions.  Do everything we can short of ground troops.  Which in today’s inter-connected global economies really is a lot.  Here’s a couple of the best ideas I saw on twitter.

Also, loved Brian Beutler on the domestic politics aspects:

Likewise, most Democrats think President Biden has grappled with the unfolding crisis in an adept, admirable way, methodically stripping away Russian pretexts and surprise tactics, leaving Putin a choice between de-escalating and charging ahead naked to the world. 

Republicans, by contrast, are torn rather horrifyingly between a pro-Putin faction of corrupt and/or ideologically fascistic Trump loyalists, and a nominally anti-Putin faction, and the glue holding them together is reflexive partisan demagoguery. Putin is brilliant, and playing Biden like a drum; Putin is brilliant but this magnificent development wouldn’t have happened if Trump were president; Putin is a tyrant, but his tyranny is only possible because Biden is “weak”; Putin is a tyrant, but Biden should be weaker towards him and save his firepower for the southern border. It’s incoherent but coherence isn’t the point. Exploiting war against an ally to hurt Democrats is the point. This is their m.o. in just about every circumstance—whatever the facts on the ground, unite through hyperpartisanship. 

That kind of nauseating opportunism is often effective on its own terms, but in this case it leaves Republicans exposed, at least in theory if not in fact. The pro-Putinists have aligned the GOP with an act of world-historic evil; the anti-Putinists have tried to weaken that association, while reserving most of their rhetorical firepower for the leader of the world’s democracies (Biden) whose approach may well yet be vindicated; and the two factions have banded together with each other in the hope that Americans will blame the party in power for what are ultimately the inescapable consequences of events beyond America’s control. The problem with that hope is that Republicans don’t have the only say in determining how American voters interpret these events; the problem for us is it’s unclear how hard Democrats will try to rally them…

This is why I worry that Republican efforts to delink the war in Europe from its material consequences and lay them at Biden’s feet will succeed. There’s no law of physics holding that higher gas prices must always hurt the incumbent; the historical record is replete with reminders that in extraordinary times—during wars and pandemics—citizens will rally behind their leaders, and make sacrifices for a greater good.   

But for that to happen now, Democrats will have to do the kind of demagoguing and line-drawing that simply terrifies them. 

In his White House remarks on Thursday, Biden said, “I know this is hard and that Americans are already hurting. I will do everything in my power to limit the pain the American people are feeling at the gas pump. This is critical to me. But this aggression cannot go unanswered. If it did, the consequences for America would be much worse. America stands up to bullies. We stand up for freedom. This is who we are.” It’s a worthy mix of empathy and higher calling, and we as individuals can rise to it by reminding the people in our lives who get taken in by right-wing propaganda that the “prices at the gas pump” are a consequence of a foreign dictator’s quest for domination, not of anything elected Democrats did. 

But these appeals will have to punctuate a constant din of deception, and the only thing that can really drown that out is a rhetorical counteroffensive to remind the public that Republicans have chosen to side with that dictator. 

It can matter, even though it’s not a kitchen-table appeal, that the leader of the GOP has a famously corrupt relationship with the president of Russia, and applauds his Hitler-like attempt to annex a neighboring democracy as “genius.” It’s worth reminding people that as Hitler conquered much of Europe, the leader of the Republican Party didn’t side with him, nor did he simply sit back and salivate quietly, imagining that the consequences of the war would help him in the election. We can say, explicitly, honestly, that today’s Republican Party fails by comparison even that basic test of patriotism. Want Americans to disbelieve Republicans when they blame Biden for the consequences of Putin’s actions? Tell them that Republicans are under his thumb—remind them of this, with the huge archive of Trump’s words and deeds, every day. Instead of stopping short at, “I will do everything in my power to limit the pain the American people are feeling at the gas pump,” draw on the same kind of anticipatory information tactics that so effectively stripped Putin bare: Because they’ve sided with Putin, Republicans in Congress will try to convince you that higher gas prices are Democrats’ fault—don’t believe them. [emphasis mine]

These kinds of jingoistic accusations understandably make liberals queasy; among other things, they’re scarred by the experience of being on the other end of them after 9/11. But we are not at war and not looking to become mired in one.

And, given that Republican elites are, actually, many saying and doing the right things (e.g., “Sanctions against Russia ‘need to hurt,’ NC’s Sen. Thom Tillis says”), maybe we can actually get some meaningful bipartisan cooperation here.  Likewise, this is encouraging:

I’m always talking about how little American care about foreign policy that does not directly involve U.S. troops.  I honestly think this may well be different and we need those differences to take it to Putin as hard as we can and, just maybe, with meaningful backing of the American people, even if they have to bear some of the indirect costs (e.g., inflation).  It’s one thing for Americans to say, “oh, look at those people in the Middle East always fighting.”  It’s quite another for the American people to see a democracy in Europe invaded by an authoritarian hostile power. I really think the American people just may have the appetite to support the strong response we clearly need.  

“I was wrong”

As you’ve hopefully noted, I’m just a huge fan of Jeff Maurer these days.  I really enjoyed this recent post, “Are We Getting Worse At Changing Our Minds?
I used to think “yes”, but now I STILL think “yes” ”

At the risk of being wrong, I really think I am actually better at being wrong– and learning from it!!– than most people.  I think that being an active, researching academic really encourages this.  Most journal articles I send out are rejected–probably less these days, as I just aim lower and have a pretty good feeling for where things are a good fit– but regular rejection is just part of the business.  And, it’s not always because I’m “wrong” per se, but if you are actually going to get published there’s a lot of critical evaluation of how you might do things better.

On a personal level, I used to hate being wrong and was really obnoxious about it.  Damn was I so sure of myself.  I’m so glad that I insisted there was no way the Tour de France was coming through Geneva when my family was there in 1990.  It’s the Tour de France!  Of course, the next day I saw Greg Lemond go by in the maillot jaune.  I can’t say I was never again insistent on my rightness when actually wrong, but damn did that teach me some humility at the still tender age of 18.

And, of course, I’m wrong about politics all the time.  But, now I see that as a learning opportunity.  What did I miss when I said Donald Trump would never get the nomination in 2016?  How do we understand presidential nominations differently? What did I miss when I said Joe Biden would never get the nomination in 2020?  How do we understand presidential nominations differently? I like to be clear that my predictions are made with some humility, but I do like to make predictions now as it’s a good way to test and improve my thinking.  And that only comes from being wrong.

Anyway, back to Maurer:

There are two big problems with changing your mind. The first is that you have to acquire new information, and I’m sure we can all agree: Fuck that. I’m a busy guy; I have Funyons to eat and video games to play. I’m not going to pore through Economist articles and peer-reviewed research — or even Huffington Post articles and tweets from actors — trying to gather data when I already have an opinion. That’s just a hassle.

The second problem is that you have to admit that you were wrong. Admitting that you’re wrong is probably the most painful human experience that doesn’t involve testicular trauma; I think humans are hard-wired to avoid it. In 1985, my dad bought a Betamax player, and no amount of subsequent developments could get him to admit that he made the wrong call. Well into the ‘90s, when the Beta section at our local Blockbuster had withered to just Tron and Tim Conway’s Dorf on Golf series, my Dad still argued that VHS was a fad and that he was some sort of Vonnegut-esque sane-man-in-a-mad-world figure.

Adapting your opinion to changing conditions is hard, but necessary. Clinging to outdated heuristics leads to bad decision-making; Noah Smith recently wrote about how “last war brain” is causing some on the left to reach faulty conclusions about inflation and Ukraine. It does seem to me that this type of thinking — or rather non-thinking — is currently more common on the left. Of course, I might just feel that way because: 1) I run in lefty policy circles, and 2) The GOP’s policy apparatus is like Toyota’s sewing machine division: Still technically around, but not exactly crucial to the operation. Regardless, I think it’s worth thinking about why outmoded thinking is so pernicious and why it might be becoming more common.

There are three big topics where the unwillingness of some on the left to update their assumptions makes me want to jump into a volcano: 1) Covid, 2) Nuclear power, and 3) Race…

Nuclear power is another area where it seems that no amount of new evidence will change some people’s minds. In the late ‘60s, the anti-nuclear weapons movement began to oppose nuclear power, and say what you will about the link between nuclear weapons and nuclear power (I’d say “there basically isn’t one”), the risk/reward calculus back then was very different. Nuclear power involves risk, and nobody in the ‘60s knew about climate change. But now, climate change is a global threat, and refusing to consider nuclear power seems a lot like a starving person finding a sandwich and thinking “oh, but the carbs!” When Homer Simpson called nuclear power “the cleanest, safest energy source there is” 32 years ago, that was a joke, but now it’s pretty much true (and the subsequent joke about solar being a pipe dream is now not true)…

Race is another topic where some people seem determined to stay in the ‘60s. I feel like liberals fell into a bit of a trap on racial issues; racism was so common several decades ago that it was almost impossible to overstate its prevalence. You could pretty much close your eyes, point randomly, and say “that’s racist”, and you’d probably be right. But times have changed, and while there’s still much progress to be made, we’re not living in the white supremacist hellscape that some progressives imagine. People who cling to outmoded 1960s views of race relations end up pushing a narrative that’s universally degrading: In their story, white people are evil oppressors, Black and Native American people are helpless victims, and Hispanic and Asian people — who are now about a quarter of the country — barely exist. The narrative is like a Don Rickles routine in that it’s insulting to literally everyone…

Clearly, beliefs are like driver’s licenses: They need to be renewed from time to time. Are we getting worse at doing that? I’m not sure; societal trends that lack data are hard to track. But it feels like we’re getting worse, and I can point to a few trends that have empirical backing and spin a coherent narrative about why our views might be getting less flexible.

The first trend is polarization. I probably don’t need to spend many words making the case that we’re polarized; the fact that Americans no longer agree on anything is the only thing we agree on. Go read Ezra Klein’s book if you want, but I’ll give you the upshot: We’re polarized as shit. There: I just saved you 12 hours and $17.99…

We’ve essentially built a system with no brakes. Media organizations are supposed to convey facts and information, but many don’t; they just push narratives. This makes people less likely to question whether their beliefs are true, so they seek out media that confirms their worldview. In the digital age, they’re sure to find it. And so, the cycle of comfortable dumbassery continues in an ideologically charged environment where uncomfortable facts fear to tread.

I really don’t have a firm opinion on whether society is getting worse at this (though Maurer makes a strong case), but I’d like to think that if society is getting worse, I’m at least doing the part to fight this trend (and to help my students fight it).

Court fees on poor people are bad policy

Something I’ve written about occasionally is how in many ways, the U.S. is basically criminalizing poverty.  Here’s a great series of NPR stories on it from 2014 and a New Yorker article about the profit motives distorting justice in the alternatives to incarceration industry.  

Of course, if this somehow kept “bad guys” in prison and all of us actually safer it would, presumably, be worth it.  But, you will likely be unsurprised to learn it does not.  A group of scholars actually did an RCT on court fines and fees.  Really cool stuff.  Here’s the abstract:

Court-related fines and fees are widely levied on criminal defendants who are frequently poor and have little capacity to pay. Such financial obligations may produce a criminalization of poverty, where later court involvement results not from crime but from an inability to meet the financial burdens of the legal process. We test this hypothesis using a randomized controlled trial of court-related fee relief for misdemeanor defendants in Oklahoma County, Oklahoma. We find that relief from fees does not affect new criminal charges, convictions, or jail bookings after 12 months. However, control respondents were subject to debt collection efforts at significantly higher rates that involved new warrants, additional court debt, tax refund garnishment, and referral to a private debt collector. Despite significant efforts at debt collection among those in the control group, payments to the court totaled less than 5 percent of outstanding debt. The evidence indicates that court debt charged to indigent defendants neither caused nor deterred new crime, and the government obtained little financial benefit. Yet, fines and fees contributed to a criminalization of low-income defendants, placing them at risk of ongoing court involvement through new warrants and debt collection.

A better approach to sports gambling?

I really like this from Spencer Bokat-Lindell.  I really think we need to let adults gamble if they want to.  That said, we don’t need to encourage it.  Kind of like, yes, I’m good with legal marijuana, but that doesn’t mean I want the genius of capitalism pushing it on everyone.  This sounds about right (though to be fair, I’m always a sucker for a “public health approach” to many potential vices):

A common argument against the formal policing of any vice is that it does little to suppress the behavior at issue; more often than not, criminalization merely drives it underground.

“Before we envision a country of rundown addicts selling baby formula to place one last parlay into their phones, we should consider the ubiquity of sports gambling even before the apps showed up,” Jay Caspian Kang of Times Opinion writes. “ESPN recently estimated that under-the-table bets on N.F.L. and college football games alone exceeded $95 billion per year. (‘Under the table’ generally refers to bets taken by a bookie or through an offshore gambling site.) The point is, people have always bet on sports, and they probably always will, legally or not.”

For Kang, as for many others, the primary concern is not sports gambling’s legalization so much as its social normalization and, even more than that, its commercialization. To permit a vice is one thing; to promote and profit from it is quite another. A 2021 study published in the Journal of Gambling Studies found that there was a direct relationship between exposure to gambling advertisements and problem gambling. And the ad market for gambling is exploding right now, with federal oversight that is “downright nonexistent,” as Streeter says.

What might a better approach — a public health approach, as some have called it — to gambling look like? To start with, Eric Webber, a senior clinician at Caron Treatment Centers, argues that regulators should ban gambling ads during sports broadcasts, as Britain has done. “In the U.S., we have also put limits on advertisements for many other vices, such as tobacco use, where there is a compelling public health need,” he writes. “Like smoking, gambling is a public health threat, and our advertising policy should reflect that.”

Many casinos, both physical and virtual, try to lull gamblers into a state of “attenuated thought” that keeps them betting, in part by making transactions as frictionless as possible. The Times’s Peter Coy believes that casinos should be made to replace some of that friction through behavioral interventions. A 2018 article in Gaming Law Review he cites, for example, found that one of the most effective policy changes for reducing gambling expenditure was the introduction of smoking bans that made gamblers take a break for a smoke.



Coalition of pragmatic materialists

Loved this from Freddie deBoer’s substack last week.  I’ve mentioned it before and will mention it again, but what I love about deBoer is 1) his focus on material conditions; and 2) his pragmatism.  The man is a Marxist.  We really do disagree on stuff.  But, he’s very pragmatic about his thinking with moving America to the left of where it is even if we have different opinions on just how far left it should go. And damn am I all for pragmatism, unlike social justice politics politics readily defining everyone who disagrees as some racist, sexist, or some other -ist.  Anyway deBoer, “I Want a Political Movement That’s…”

Materialist. This should come as no surprise. Any functional and healthy left political movement must be concerned with the material reality of the present world. My ideal movement would recognize that science exists within human power relations, and that scientific arguments are often used to marginalize other points of view, but it would also recognize that science is key to human flourishing and would engender respect for science even as it permitted skepticism towards the claims of particular scientists. This movement would not place undue emphasis on language as the shaper of reality, and would instead recognize the material, economic foundations of most human relations, including the relations that create injustice. It would avoid statements like “reality is socially constructed,” as they are unhelpful and misleading, but we would acknowledge that the limits of human understanding shape our apprehension of reality. We would reject all forms of supernaturalism, the occult, and vague spiritualism. (Yes, religious supporters are welcome, so long as they don’t try to use religious arguments to settle human debates.)

We would be concerned first and foremost with reality, and we would therefore privilege “is” statements over “ought to be” statements. My ideal movement would recognize that the obsession with the symbolic has become a road to nowhere for the left-of-center. Our relentless habit will be to say, what does this do for actually-existing poor people? What does this do for actually-existing Black people? What does this do for actually-existing women or gay or trans people? What does this policy, argument, or claim do in fact, for real human beings, in material terms? Put another way, if we got our way, could we see the effects of that with our own two eyes? I can see hungry Black kids getting food. I can’t see white liberals “holding space” for Black people. We must return to the real. It’s past time.

All of the preceding, for the record, is in keeping with basic Marxist epistemology, despite the claims of many who think of themselves as Marxists…

Racially just. Our movement would recognize that racial discrimination is a unique form of injustice that has been ever-present in modern society. It would take the elimination of this discrimination as one of its most important tasks. We would understand racism as both material oppression and emotional insult, but would further understand that combating racism must begin with addressing economic inequality and material injustice. We would never mistake racism as merely a function of economic inequality, but would recognize it as a unique (and uniquely pernicious) phenomenon. We would acknowledge that the history of the modern world is the history of the domination of non-white races by white races. Our movement would understand the role of state violence in the oppression of peoples of color and would establish procedural checks on racist discrimination in police and judicial conduct. We would assertively pursue a society of equal rights, equal power, and equal dignity for all races…

Feminist. My ideal left political movement would recognize that gender discrimination is a unique form of injustice that has been ubiquitous throughout human history. We would take fighting sexism as one of our most central moral and political responsibilities. It would understand sexism as both material oppression and emotional insult, but would further understand that combatting sexism must begin with addressing material inequality and material injustice. We would not reduce sexism to an epiphenomenon of other forms of oppression but as a specific and historically destructive injustice. We would acknowledge that the history of the world is a history of the domination of women by men. The movement would understand the unique role of sexual violence in the oppression of women and work diligently to reduce that sexual violence. We would address sexism through the economic, political, and social empowerment of women. We would assertively pursue a society of equal rights, equal power, and equal dignity for all sexes and gender identities.

There’s plenty more.  And again, on a lot of this stuff deBoer runs well to the left of me.  But, the focus on “addressing economic inequality and material injustice” is really the key for me.  

Just clean the air and water already!

I read this interview with the current head of the Sierra Club.  Historically I’m a fan and have definitely given them money in the past.  The current iteration, though, does not really entice me to want to donate:

As protests after the killing of George Floyd convulsed the nation in the summer of 2020, the executive director of the Sierra Club wrote an explosive blog post about John Muir, the storied conservationist who founded the environmental organization.

Muir, the executive director wrote, had made “derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes.”

That blog post, and the internal debate that followed, led to the executive director’s departure last year. And while the Sierra Club now has an acting executive director, many of its public leadership duties have fallen to the president of the board, Ramón Cruz…

Where are you today?

I am in Brooklyn, New York, the land of the Canarsee people. When we say where we are these days, we have the land recognitions of Indigenous people. New York was the greater Lenape territory, and Brooklyn was the land of the Canarsee.

Why do you feel like it is important to recognize that?

Especially after the summer of reckoning, after George Floyd and so much focus on the effects of systemic racism in our society, understanding the legacy of racism, of supremacy, of colonialism is very important to understand where we are today as a society. I come from Puerto Rico, which is a colonized land. All of this is very important. So when I introduce myself, I usually say I’m in the greater Lenape territory in the unceded land of the Canarsee people, but I hail from Borinquen, which is the Taíno name of the island of Puerto Rico.

We were not the original inhabitants of most of the places that we step in. There has been for millennia other groups and other nations that were there, and when it comes to environmental issues many of these groups were much better stewards of our natural world than we are right now.

I didn’t look too deeply into it, but, from what I can tell, Muir held entirely normal views on race and on Indians for his time (that is ugly and racist by our standards, but not out of place for turn of the 20th century America).  But besides that, I want a Sierra Club that cares about clean air, clear water, and preserving natural places and habitats.  Not one that seemingly cares more about land acknowledgement in Brooklyn (and, yes, of course he makes some convoluted argument on how that’s actually core to the group mission).  

After reading this, I saw Yglesias in my inbox as, “Clean air doesn’t need explicit racial targeting” and thought maybe it was actually a post about the article I just read.  Nope.  The wokeness has so infiltrated environmental politics that it was just a coincidence.  A paid Yglesias post, so I’ll just quote extensively:

Last week’s New York Times article “White House Takes Aim at Environmental Racism, but Won’t Mention Race” was, I think, meant to make the Biden administration’s approach to addressing air pollution look perverse and weird, like they’re dodging the real issue out of political or legal cowardice.

But I think an understanding of the racial disparities in pollution exposure actually points to the opposite conclusion. Precisely because a large set of pollution problems disproportionately affect Black Americans, you don’t need a racial targeting strategy to advance racial equality. What you need is a strategy to reduce air pollution, particularly in the places where air pollution problems are most severe. Just as any strategy to redistribute money from rich to poor helps to close the racial wealth gap and any strategy to tax the rich and expand the welfare state helps to close the racial income gap, any strategy to reduce air pollution will reduce the racial gap in pollution exposure.

Or to be more precise, any effective strategy to reduce air pollution will reduce the racial gap.

But problems arise when eco-NIMBYism replaces actual pollution reduction and simply enhances local communities’ ability to say no, preventing some useful projects from getting built and dumping the harmful stuff in the communities that have the least political clout. That’s a real social justice issue. But real policies to reduce the amount of pollution disproportionately help the people who face the biggest pollution problems, closing gaps without racial targeting and/or bespoke “environmental justice” initiatives. Justice flows naturally from solving the problem.

Don’t overthink the racial pollution gap

Friedman’s piece is full of examples of advocates who seem to be overthinking this issue and creating unnecessary political difficulties. Here’s one:

“When you look at the most powerful predictor of where the most industrial pollution is, race is the most potent predictor,” said Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University and a pioneer in the environmental justice movement. “Not income, not property values, but race. If you’re leaving race out, how are you going to fix this?”

And another:

Christopher Tessum, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and lead author of that study, said in order to understand the communities most affected by air pollution, if one is looking at income alone, “you’re missing a lot of the story.”

What Bullard and Tessum are saying is, to the best of my understanding, true. If you want to understand the geographical distribution of pollution in the United States you need to use race as a variable with independent explanatory power over and above income or whatever else.

But if you’re doing pollution cleanup, you don’t need to target by income or by race or by any other set of demographic criteria — you can target by pollution.

To take a non-racial (but related) example, air pollution is generally a bigger problem in urban areas than in rural areas. But that doesn’t mean that helping city-dwellers with their air quality problems requires a targeted program to address urban air pollution. It means that if you reduce air pollution, the benefits disproportionately flow to people who live in or near big cities. And conversely, while air quality is generally good in rural areas, if you happen to live in a rural place where the air quality isn’t good, the fact that this is an unusual situation doesn’t help you. Your lungs don’t care that statistically speaking, as a rural person, the air you breathe is probably pretty clean. The air is either clean or it isn’t, and if it isn’t, that’s bad for your lungs.

Here’s another advocate:

“You can be a person of color in a middle-income community and still be disproportionately impacted,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice at the National Wildlife Federation.

He’s right. But again, if you just target the communities that have the worst pollution, that addresses the problem. There’s no need to debate whether race or income is the better instrument because in this case, we can specifically measure the variable of interest, which is pollution itself…

But again, the right way to look at this is that reducing the major sources of air pollution has racial equity benefits, not that we need a bespoke racial targeting system for assessing air pollution…

I think it is completely true that if you want to write a historical account of why pollution got concentrated in particular urban neighborhoods rather than others, you need to talk about racism. But it’s not as if the particulates themselves are discriminating and we need to do a housing-style audit study, catch them being racist, and then make the stop. The particulates themselves are bad no matter who is breathing them in. What you want to do is find the most serious sources of pollution and neutralize them. If you want to write an essay on the historical interplay of racism, land use, and transportation policy, then by all means — it really is a central part of the story.

But the administration has this right: if you want to reduce the pollution, you just reduce pollution.

To be clear, yes, I really do want less racism. And I want a cleaner environment.  But, really, I want the environmental organizations focusing on a cleaner environment. And in so doing that will disproportionately help minorities.  Clean air, clear water, preserved natural spaces, etc.,  benefit all of us and that’s good and okay and let’s have it and let’s have NAACP, BLM, etc., push the fight for racial justice, but is it so wrong that I want the Sierra Club to focus on that better environment regardless of what happened to George Floyd?

Why do I care what this crazy crank says? Oh, yeah, he’s my Lt Governor

Just checking out the local headlines in the N&O today and I see this, “Are NC schools unsafe? Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson says student discipline is ‘abysmal.’”

I’ll save you the details (mostly because the N&O, for some reason, has made copying and pasting a mess), but, mostly they don’t matter.  The truth is Robinson is just basically making stuff up because that’s what he does.  Apparently we’ve got “chaos” in the schools.  

Before he was elected Lt Governor, Robinson was basically just a loud right-wing crank who managed to get himself some attention.  He’s not a  remotely serious person.  Here’s the wikipedia summary:

Robinson promoted his persona as a “brash and unfiltered conservative culture warrior.”[16] He opposes abortion,[17] promotes climate change denial,[18] and opposes the legalization of recreational marijuana.[19]

Robinson’s past antisemitic comments have drawn scrutiny and condemnation.[16][20] He claimed that the Marvel movie Black Panther was “created by an agnostic Jew and put to film by satanic Marxist” that was “only created to pull the shekels out of your Schvartze pockets” (using a Yiddish word for Black).[21][17] Robinson also appeared at an interview with fringe pastor Sean Moon, who claimed that he planned to become “king of the United States”; in the interview, Moon claimed that the Rothschild family was one of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” and promoted the antisemitic conspiracy theory of a cabal of Jewish “international bankers” who rule every country’s central bank. Robinson endorsed Moon’s claim as “exactly right.”[20] Robinson’s statements, as well as his refusal to apologize or retract them, drew much concern from the leaders of North Carolina’s Jewish community.[16]

On his Facebook page, which has more than 100,000 followers, Robinson’s posts, which often impugn transgender people, Muslims, former President Barack Obama, and African-Americans who support Democrats, have drawn criticism.[21] Robinson accused people “who support this mass delusion called transgenderism” of seeking “to glorify Satan”.[21] Robinson called former President Obama “a worthless, anti-American atheist”[21] and posted “birther” memes;[17] accused American Muslims of being “INVADERS” who “refuse to assimilate to our ways while demanding respect they have not earned”; called Michelle Obama a man; and disparaged Joy Behar and Maxine Waters in crude terms.[21] After the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, Robinson wrote that “Homosexuality is STILL an abominable sin and I WILL NOT join in ‘celebrating gay pride.'”[17] In 2020, Robinson asserted that the coronavirus was a “globalist” conspiracy to defeat Donald Trump, and dismissed the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, writing, “The looming pandemic I’m most worried about is SOCIALISM.”[17]

The Charlotte Observer editorial board described Robinson’s posts as “cringeworthy” and “an embarrassment”[22] while the state Democratic Party called them “homophobic, anti-Semitic, and downright unhinged.”[20] Robinson’s posts were also criticized by Equality North Carolina[21] and Jewish community leaders in North Carolina.[23] When asked about the posts, Robinson declined to apologize, referring to his posts as “my personal opinions” and saying “I’m not ashamed of anything that I post.”[18][21]

And it goes on.  So, anyway, I though, why should anyone care what this person thinks about schools or anything else?  But oh, yeah, it’s not wrong to care about what the Lt Governor of your state thinks.

And Robinson speaks to our current polarized dynamic in two important ways.  Firstly, this extreme culture war persona, alas, is what gets you victory in a NC Republican primary these days.  Sad!  There were actually even some presumably (semi-)reasonable people running for the office.  But this embodiment of an internet troll got the nomination.

And then, because even statewide elections have become overwhelmingly about partisanship, Republicans all pretty much voted for him, mostly not knowing and also not caring that he’s basically unhinged and that the Democratic candidate was a respected and reasonable state legislator. 

And, so here we are, with a lead story in the N&O being about what amounts to an online crank complaining about school discipline. But he’s our Lt Governor.  

Happy old age, here I come

Good health permitting, of course.  But, especially as I just turned 50, yeah, I’ll admit to thinking about “getting” old more lately.  Anyway, I loved this Arthur Brooks article “The Seven Habits That Lead to Happiness in Old Age” that sure suggests to me that I on track for a health old age.  Of course, my guess is that a generally happy disposition is probably a big factor in all of this, and I’ve got that covered.  But, here’s the things you can actually do

Using data from the Harvard study, two researchers showed in 2001 that we can control seven big investment decisions pretty directly: smoking, drinking, body weight, exercise, emotional resilience, education, and relationships. Here’s what you can do about each of them today to make sure your accounts are as full as possible when you reach your later years:

  1. Don’t smoke—or if you already smoke, quit now. You might not succeed on your first try, but the earlier you start the quitting process, the more smoke-free years you can invest in your happiness account.
  2. Watch your drinking. Alcohol abuse is strongly correlated with smoking in the Harvard study, but plenty of other research shows that even by itself, it is one of the most powerful predictors of winding up sad-sick. If you have any indication of problem drinking in your life, get help now. If you have drinking problems in your family, do not take your chances: Keep that switch turned off. Although forgoing alcohol can be difficult, you’ll never be sorry you made this decision.
  3. Maintain a healthy body weight. Eat a diet with lots of fruits and vegetables and moderate serving sizes, but avoid yo-yo diets or intense restrictions that you can’t maintain over the long run.
  4. Prioritize movement in your life by scheduling time for it every day and sticking to it. Arguably the single best, time-tested way to do this is by walking daily.
  5. Practice your coping mechanisms now. The earlier you can find healthy ways to deal with life’s inevitable distresses, the more prepared you’ll be if ill luck strikes in your 80s. This means working consciously—perhaps with assistance from spiritual practices or even therapy—to avoid excessive rumination, unhealthy emotional reactions, or avoidance behavior.
  6. Keep learning. More education leads to a more active mind in old age, and that means a longer, happier life. That doesn’t mean that you need to go to Harvard; you simply need to engage in lifelong, purposive learning. For example, that can mean reading serious nonfiction as part of a routine to learn more about new subjects.
  7. Do the work to cultivate stable, long-term relationships now. For most people, this includes a steady marriage, but other relationships with family, friends, and partners can fit in this category as well. The point is to find people with whom you can grow, whom you can count on, no matter what comes your way.

The best way to maximize your chances of happiness in your 70s is to pursue all seven of these goals with fervor, sort of like balancing your 401(k). But if you can choose only one to pour your heart into, let it be the last. According to the Harvard study, the single most important trait of happy-well elders is healthy relationships. As Robert Waldinger, who currently directs the study, told me in an email, “Well-being can be built—and the best building blocks are good, warm relationships.”

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