Quick hits (part II)

1) I meant to share this a while back– it’s so good.  Zeynep shares the insights of Whitney Robinson on meta-epistemology of epidemiology.  Basically goes through how she thinks about thinking about the pandemic, “How to reason when information is incomplete, uncertain and emotionally-fraught”

Principle 1. “Look to previous phenomena to know what questions to ask”

Principle 2. “Observed versus expected.” In other words, “Pay attention to unexpected data that has no natural constituency and to lack of data that are in high demand”…

Principle 3. “Beware of ‘sticky’ priors” 

2) Relatedly, loved this from Ellie Murray.  “I’m an epidemiologist. Here’s what I got wrong about covid.”  We should all do more of this.  For example, I put way too much stock in the potential value of therapeutics.  I have undoubtedly been more skeptical of findings that emphasize the role of children in transmission than those that suggest a small role.  Anyway, if you want to be a good thinker you should definitely be putting your own thinking under a skeptical focus. 

3) I really enjoyed Tim Harford’s The Data Detective.  In the last chapter, he talked about the power of curiousity and combating the “illusion of explanatory depth.”  I really love that idea.  Nice summary here:

If you asked one hundred people on the street if they understand how a refrigerator works, most would respond, yes, they do. But ask them to then produce a detailed, step-by-step explanation of how exactly a refrigerator works and you would likely hear silence or stammering. This powerful but inaccurate feeling of knowing is what Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil in 2002 termed, the illusion of explanatory depth (IOED), stating, “Most people feel they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence, and depth than they really do.”

Rozenblit and Keil initially demonstrated the IOED through multi-phase studies. In a first phase, they asked participants to rate how well they understood artifacts such as a sewing machine, crossbow, or cell phone. In a second phase, they asked participants to write a detailed explanation of how each artifact works, and afterwards asked them re-rate how well they understand each one. Study after study showed that ratings of self-knowledge dropped dramatically from phase one to phase two, after participants were faced with their inability to explain how the artifact in question operates. Of course, the IOED extends well beyond artifacts, to how we think about scientific fields, mental illnesses, economic markets and virtually anything we are capable of (mis)understanding.

At present, the IOED is profoundly pervasive given that we have infinite access to information, but consume information in a largely superficial fashion. A 2014 survey found that approximately six in ten Americans read news headlines and nothing more. Major geopolitical issues from civil wars in the Middle East to the latest climate change research advances are distilled into tweets, viral videos, memes, “explainer” websites, soundbites on comedy news shows, and daily e-newsletters that get inadvertently re-routed to the spam folder. We consume knowledge widely, but not deeply.

Understanding the IOED allows us to combat political extremism. In 2013, Philip Fernbach and colleagues demonstrated that the IOED underlies people’s policy positions on issues like single-payer health care, a national flat tax, and a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. As in Rozenbilt and Keil’s studies, Fernbach and colleagues first asked people to rate how well they understood these issues, and then asked them to explain how each issue works and subsequently re-rate their understanding of each issue. In addition, participants rated the extremity of their attitudes on these issues both before and after offering an explanation. Both self-reported understanding of the issue and attitude extremity dropped significantly after explaining the issue—people who strongly supported or opposed an issue became more moderate. What is more, reduced extremity also reduced willingness to donate money to a group advocating for the issue. These studies suggest the IOED is a powerful tool for cooling off heated political disagreements.

The IOED provides us much-needed humility. In any domain of knowledge, often the most ignorant are the most overconfident in their understanding of that domain. Justin Kruger and David Dunning famously showed that the lowest performers on tests of logical reasoning, grammar, and humor are most likely to overestimate their test scores. Only through gaining expertise in a topic do people recognize its complexity and calibrate their confidence accordingly. Having to explain a phenomenon forces us to confront this complexity and realize our ignorance. At a time where political polarization, income inequality, and urban-rural separation have deeply fractured us over social and economic issues, recognizing our only modest understanding of these issues is a first step to bridging these divides. 

I’m totally going to start having my students engage in this exercise of explaining things they think they understand.

4) Good stuff from PRRI on Republicans and the Big Lie.  This chart via main news source is not all the surprising, but still kind of amazing:

5) Good stuff from Zeynep on the Yankees outbreak:

So, yes, it does feel quite unusual for eight vaccinated people to test positive. That is almost certainly a cluster. Here’s what we know: it got detected after a coach, who had some mild symptoms but now no longer has any, tested positive. Then they found seven more people who tested positive, all of whom were completely asymptomatic. Here’s how the testing is done.

Everyone in the Yankees’ traveling party of 50 to 60 people is being tested three times a day using polymerase chain reaction, saliva and rapid tests. Thursday was the first day of no new positive test results since the outbreak began, Cashman said. “Maybe it’s slowing down,” he said.

For one thing, they should sequence these cases so we know if it was a variant or not, but the incident is still not a cause for worry. Here are some of the possibilities:

1-They are all positive because of a common source, likely a highly infectious individual. These people all got a bit of the virus, and the virus was able to replicate just enough to be picked up by PCR tests that are very sensitive and can pick up even very small amounts. They are testing people three times a day with PCR tests! They’ll pick up anything and everything, even the tiniest viral amount. The virus was obviously stopped in its tracks, so almost everyone is without symptoms. That sounds like a great outcome to me. 

A case of vaccine breakthrough is not the same thing as an unvaccinated or non-immune person catching COVID-19. Personally, if I had tested positive while unvaccinated, I’d be worried until it played out. Post-vaccination? For me, testing positive would be but a curiosity unworthy of my anxiety. There’s a reason that vaccine trials and real world data show so few severe cases, let alone hospitalizations or deaths. Post-vaccination, the virus would no no longer be able to surprise my immune system as a novel pathogen, and I’m not that worried whether it replicates just a bit in my nose before getting shut down.

The virus in the Yankees case might even have been a variant with some antibody evading features which gives the virus a bit more time to replicate (the mutations act like a disguise that slow down but don’t eliminate its eventual recognition) before the rest of the immune system shuts it down. None of the variants we have are in “disguises” (antibody evading mutations) that are 100% effective in hiding from the totality of the immune system, and it’s quite likely they never will get there. 

6) Really liked this, “Stop Deriding Liz Cheney: Demanding ideological purity among those who stand up to Trump is not a viable way to protect American democracy.”

Cheney deserves commendation for breaking with Trump and the GOP. The Republican Party’s refusal to accept the results of a free and fair election is an existential threat to our democracy. Defenders of liberal democracy of all political stripes should be applauding her honesty, courage, and refusal to bend the knee. 

But in the pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and progressive publications besides, journalists have been attacking Cheney. They say that it’s too little too late, label her a warmonger, or complain that she’s just too conservative. 

These critiques might be fair to level in a different circumstance, but raising them now as a reason not to applaud Cheney for standing up to her party is foolish. For five years, progressives asked for conservatives to come out and condemn Trump. Yet when they do, these same voices condemn conservatives within the Republican Party’s ranks for the sin of remaining conservative. It is ludicrous, if not reckless, to claim that the threat to the republic is imminent, and then rebuff potential allies who don’t come from the same ideological club…

Cheney could have gone along with Trump’s lie and stayed in Republican leadership. By fighting back, she is potentially sacrificing a powerful future in the party. Her quick rise up the party ranks shows that she is savvy enough to have had a clear shot at becoming speaker of the House. She was a State Department official and a viable future candidate for secretary of state or defense. She may have even had a chance at winning the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 and becoming the first female president of the United States. 

Instead, she chose to be cast into the political wilderness. This might have been why she waited so long to come out against Trump. To many of us, January 6 was the climax of Trump’s attacks on democracy. For Cheney, it was a wake-up call. But she finally woke up, and now she is sacrificing a potentially great future. That is worthy of admiration and praise, not scorn.

That is not to say that any progressive should become a Cheney superfan. Nor does it mean that Democrats should start agreeing with her on policy. It only means that they should welcome her efforts to preserve our liberal democracy and admire her courage.

As much as some progressives would like to do away with conservatism, America is going to have a conservative political faction with significant influence over a major party. We cannot afford to apply an ideological purity test, especially one that bans all conservatives, in our efforts to save liberalism in America. One can object to Cheney’s views on foreign policy, or even oppose conservatism altogether, and still see Cheney as a welcome addition to the fight against illiberalism…

Defenders of liberal democracy in America, on both the left and the right, should take the same approach. The main political divide is no longer between conservatives and progressives, but between liberals and illiberals. Demanding ideological purity among our liberal allies is not a viable way to protect American democracy.

7) This. “To prevent next pandemic, scientists say we must regulate air like food and water”

8) This story is totally bonkers and it was also basically a one-day story.  Amazing what we’re willing to just accept from all the corrupt criminals in the Trump administration, “Activists and Ex-Spy Said to Have Plotted to Discredit Trump ‘Enemies’ in Government: The campaign included planned operations against President Trump’s national security adviser at the time, H.R. McMaster, and F.B.I. employees, according to documents and interviews.”

9) Years ago I learned just how bad drug-sniffing dogs are from a paper from one of my students.  They are so bad at it! And yet, our whole criminal justice system treats them as if they are infallible.  Some dogs will basically just indicate, “yes, drugs here” every damn time you ask them.  And the way they test these dogs is some embarrassingly bad I expect many an elementary school student could explain it:

Don’t blame Karma. The police dog simply followed his training when he helped local agencies impound vehicles that sometimes belonged to innocent motorists in Republic, Washington, an old mining town near the Canadian border.

As a drug detection dog, Karma kept his nose down and treated every suspect the same. Public records show that from the time he arrived in Republic in January 2018 until his handler took a leave of absence to campaign for public office in 2020, Karma gave an “alert” indicating the presence of drugs 100 percent of the time during roadside sniffs outside vehicles.

Whether drivers actually possessed illegal narcotics made no difference. The government gained access to every vehicle that Karma ever sniffed. He essentially created automatic probable cause for searches and seizures, undercutting constitutional guarantees of due process.

Similar patterns abound nationwide, suggesting that Karma’s career was not unusual. Lex, a drug detection dog in Illinois, alerted for narcotics 93 percent of the time during roadside sniffs, but was wrong in more than 40 percent of cases. Sella, a drug detection dog in Florida, gave false alerts 53 percent of the time. Bono, a drug detection dog in Virginia, incorrectly indicated the presence of drugs 74 percent of the time…

False alerts, which create problems for people like Farris and Said, sometimes have nothing to do with a dog’s nose. Brain scientist Federico Rossano, who studies animal communication with humans at the University of California, San Diego, says dogs have an innate sense of loyalty that can override their sense of smell.

“The tendency of producing signals even when they detect nothing comes from the desire to please the human handler,” he says.

Essentially, intelligent animals pick up subtle cues from their handlers and respond. Rossano says the communication often occurs by accident without anyone being aware.

Clever Hans, a horse celebrated in the early 1900s for his math ability, provides the most prominent example. The proud owner truly believed that Hans could solve arithmetic problems, but skeptics later proved that the horse merely was responding to facial expressions and body language from his human companion.

A 2011 study from the University of California, Davis, shows how cues can influence drug detection dogs. When human handlers believed that narcotics were hidden in test areas, their canine partners were much more likely to indicate the presence of drugs—even when no drugs actually existed.

Police participants did not like the implications. But rather than using the findings to improve their training techniques, they denounced the study and refused further cooperation.

They preferred a 2014 study from Poland, which eliminated the potential for false positives. Rather than simulating real-world conditions, researchers ensured that every test included measurable quantities of narcotics.

Participating dogs had no opportunity to sniff drug-free vehicles and communicate a lack of odor. The only correct answer was an indication for drugs. Karma could have aced such a test simply by sitting down every time. He would have looked like a prodigy, but a broken dial stuck on “alert” would have achieved the same result.

10) Speaking of bad criminal justice practices… the death penalty really needs to go.  Yes, there are some people who actually “deserve” it, but not at the cost of the fact that we just keep putting innocent people on death row.  And maybe executing some innocent people. “4 Years After an Execution, a Different Man’s DNA Is Found on the Murder Weapon
Lawyers’ request to conduct additional DNA testing before Ledell Lee was executed had been denied.”

11) Really liked this on diversity “training” at universities:

At a time when trainings are proliferating across institutions of higher learning, people could be forgiven for confusing training with education. But they are vastly different and should be seen as such especially when it comes to issues of diversity. The purpose of education, bell hooks reminds us, is critical thinking. Requiring “courage and imagination,” the “heartbeat of critical thinking is the longing to know — to understand how life works.” With hooks’s words in mind, here are 10 ways to tell training and education apart.

  1. Training makes assumptions; education challenges them.
  2. Training is packaged; education cannot be contained.
  3. Training rewards compliance, education curiosity.
  4. Training is having to say something, education having something to say.
  5. Training tells you what to think; education teaches you how to think.
  6. Training answers questions; education poses them.
  7. Training is generic; education all about context.
  8. Training simplifies the world; education reveals its complexity.
  9. Training promotes conformity, education independence.
  10. Training is performative; education is transformative.

Training has its uses. It can even save lives. (See CPR above.) But training is woefully inadequate when it comes to confronting social problems such as poverty, discrimination and racism. These are long-standing, knotty and complex issues that defy ready-made solutions. Any serious effort to address them must start with education, a process for which there are no shortcuts.

Consider these two hypothetical examples of a college trying to deal with issues of race and diversity. The first is a prototypical training module; the second takes an educational approach.

In many trainings, you likely will be told that your racial identity defines who you are — and that participants will be divided into two main racial affinity groups, white and BIPOC. You will be informed that white people are oblivious to race, while BIPOC people see everything through a racial lens. You will be advised that white folks use “white talk,” which is “task-oriented” and “intellectual,” whereas people of color use “color commentary,” which is “process-oriented” and “emotional.”

It will be explained to you that traits like precision, individualism and objectivity are hallmarks of “white supremacy culture.” “White supremacy” will be defined as an ideology that maintains “white people and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs and actions of white people are superior to people of color and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs and actions.” In order to reveal unconscious biases, you will be made to share the racial stereotypes you hold and then catalog the racial microaggressions you have perpetrated. Finally, you will be encouraged to make a public commitment to transforming your institution into a “fully inclusive antiracist multicultural organization.”

12) OMG, I really do “know” that we just cannot build our way out of traffic.  And I’ve read many studies like this.  But even still, it’s so hard not to just want more lanes. “Asphalt, Gridlock and Common Sense: It’s clear that adding lanes to urban expressways or building new ones doesn’t reduce congestion. Sometimes it makes things worse. So why do we keep doing it?”

Sometimes in government, the best-laid strategies of policymakers and consultants are much less rational than ordinary common sense. Nearly everyone in America believes, correctly, that workers shouldn’t be yoked to their employers for health insurance, even though we can’t seem to change that. Nearly all of us can see that our zoning laws are a hodgepodge of outdated rules that ban mixed uses in neighborhoods badly in need of them. I could make a much longer list.

Other times, however, what seems the most elementary common sense turns out to be wrong. Nothing looks more obvious to most people than the idea that when a highway is choked with traffic, the solution is to expand it or build another road nearby. It looks like plain common sense, but it doesn’t work. A whole slew of examples from recent history is sufficient to prove the point.

There is, to cite one clear case, the Interstate 405 freeway in Los Angeles. In the first decade of the new century, it was such a traffic-clogged mess that people would leave social engagements hours early with the excuse that they needed a head start on the 405. So it was widened in a five-year project ending in 2014 at a cost of $1.8 billion. The benefits? Not very many. Travel times actually increased once the project was finished, although rush hours shortened slightly…

FIASCOES LIKE THESE run into the reality of “induced demand,” the phenomenon that lures more vehicles and more congestion to a highway after it is expanded than were there before. The idea goes back to the 1960s, when the economist Anthony Downs promulgated what he called “the law of peak-hour expressway congestion.” “On urban commuter roads,” Downs argued, “peak-hour congestion rises to meet maximum capacity.” Traffic planners, especially those in state highway departments, refused to believe it. They went with what they considered common sense and kept expanding and widening. They made a costly mistake.

What the numbers invariably show is that highways are vulnerable to latent demand — people who haven’t been using them start to fill them up once the capacity is expanded, especially at rush hour. Some are commuters who had been using public transportation; some are drivers who shift their trips to rush hour rather than the middle of the day; and some who hadn’t been making trips at all take to the highway. The combined result, in many cases, is more traffic than existed prior to the expansion.

But it isn’t just drivers suddenly venturing onto the highway. Expanded capacity means more development — new trucking depots and large numbers of employees who commute to work; new housing developments and shopping centers at the exits. All of this contributes to making a situation, if not greatly worse, then demonstrably no better.

13) Pretty fascinating post from Scott Alexander on prescription apps, which is pretty interesting in its own right.  In this case, the apps are for CBT-I (Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Insomnia), which I don’t need, but also find very interesting.  

14) I wish we didn’t live in a world where we so valued the lives of Americans over the lives of people in other countries.  Or that we weren’t such a damn tribal species.  But we do and we are, so arguments like this are so fantastically unrealistic that they just annoy me, “As pediatricians, we say please don’t use precious coronavirus vaccines on healthy children.” I mean, in reality, you can say this about the vast majority of resources spent on Americans, period, would have way way way more impact for good if spent in developing nations.  

15) Want to read a super-depressing assessment of the state of the world?  Here’s one from Noah Smith, “The Darkness: Illiberalism is on the march, all over the world.”

16) So, I just came across this from 6 years ago and, immodestly, was pretty happy with my results. “A Quick Puzzle to Test Your Problem Solving”

Do you realize just how bad our gun laws are?

Great stuff from Gail Collins.  I think one of the under-appreciated facts on how the gun rights folks have been so damn successful in shaping our gun laws is just how absurdly difficult to make it to trace the guns used in crimes.  And the fact that almost every gun used in a crime was first purchased legitimately– they are not being smuggled in like drugs.  Rather, legally purchased guns end up in the hands of malefactors and used for crimes and we completely hamstring our ability to actually know what these pathways are to take a rational approach to fighting gun crime.  Why?  Freedom!!  How can you really have the right to own a gun if the government know who you bought it from and when?!

Back in the olden days — oh, children, it was a long time ago, when woolly mammoths and liberal Republicans roamed the earth. Anyhow, back in those days, when you’d hear about a terrible shooting, one of the most obvious, major details to fret over was where the killer got the gun.

These days, the answer is often: It’s a secret.

Here’s how this works. Perhaps you heard we had a shooting in Times Square last weekend…

It’s very possible he acquired the gun in a street deal, or borrowed it from a friend. But we’re not going to learn anything about who originally purchased it, or where. That’s because — bet you didn’t know this, people — it’s illegal for the authorities who track this stuff to let the public know.

Yes! This is thanks to the Tiahrt amendment, first passed in 2003, which prohibits the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from sharing information with … almost anybody. It also limits the F.B.I.’s ability to hang onto gun background check data, requiring its quick destruction. All in all, the idea is to give gun dealers approximately as much right to privacy as cloistered nuns…

 As a result, it’s pretty much impossible for the public to know if there are one or two particular gun dealers in their town who’ve sold a whopping number of weapons that were later used in crimes.

“The A.T.F. has a tremendous amount of data,” said Josh Scharff, legal counsel for Brady, the gun-safety advocacy organization. Five percent of gun dealers, Scharff said, are responsible for selling 90 percent of the guns used in crimes.

A lot of these weapons come from the South, particularly Georgia and Florida. “I-95 is known as the iron pipeline.”

A gun dealer certainly can’t be responsible for knowing exactly where every gun he sells is going to wind up. But there can be some, um, telltale signs. Like all-cash transactions, or a single customer suddenly announcing he wants to buy five or 10 pistols of the same make and model.

Most dealers, Scharff noted, “won’t make that sale.” But some will, and it’d be very useful for all of us to know who — and where — they are…

And even the most modest gun laws require what optimists might call compromise. When you buy a gun from a legal dealer, he or she will have to report the sale right away. Most of the background checks — more than 90 percent — are finished almost instantly, and the F.B.I. has eight days to resolve the rest. Then it has to destroy the information it accumulated.

What’s left rests with the licensed dealers, who must maintain records for at least 20 years. The hitch is that, as you’ll remember, those are the same guys whose identities we aren’t allowed to know.

Good news: A handful of lawmakers have just introduced a bill to get rid of the Tiahrt rule. This proposal, helpfully called the Gun Records Restoration and Preservation Act, would allow the A.T.F. and the F.B.I. to share their gun-tracing data with local authorities, researchers and the public.

Of course, as we all know, if this data were actually available, the jackbooted guns would be bursting down doors and confiscating the guns of freedom-loving Americans in no time; and we can’t have that.  So, instead, we just have the highest murder rates (by far) among developed democracies and tie our hands in every possible way to try and have rational policies to changes this.  Thousands of innocent lives sacrificed an altar of illusory freedom.  
 

Quick hits (part I)

1) Bernstein:

You want to know something really depressing? Now is the time when Republicans have the least to fear from former President Donald Trump. There’s more than a year to go until the 2022 midterm elections, and at least 10 months until the primaries for those elections. Trump left office at one of his low points in popularity. Sure, most Republican voters still like him — as most Republicans like most Republican politicians (other than congressional leaders, who are almost always unpopular).

Not only that, but Trump’s electoral defeat is still fairly recent news. If there was ever a time to move away from him, it’s now.

That, of course, is not what’s happening. Just in the last few days, angry Utah Republicans hooted at Senator Mitt Romney, who voted to remove Trump from office after his impeachment trials. Over in the House of Representatives, Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney of Wyoming is apparently in danger (again) of losing her leadership post because she insists on accurately saying that Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 presidential election. And believing — or at least pretending to believe — Trump’s fantastic lies about nonexistent voting fraud is increasingly the central belief Republican elected officials must share

My guess is that this has little to do with Trump. Republican complaints about fictional election fraud were central to their legislative agenda in state after state well before Trump’s 2016 campaign. It’s true that the specifics of that agenda have shifted somewhat in response to Trump’s whining. What that shows more than anything, however, is that attempts to hijack elections may only be the secondary motive for these laws; the primary reason for them is for Republican elected officials to convince their strongest supporters that they are doing their best to repress Democrats and various Democratic groups. 

That’s why fictional election fraud is such a good issue for many Republicans right now. Opposing Biden and the Democratic legislative agenda, after all, would tend to unite the party. But a united Republican Party is the last thing that Republican radicals want. They need enemies; they need apostates they can label “Republicans in name only” to prove that they are the true conservatives. The Jan. 6 Capitol riot and Trump’s continuing lies are so obviously an attack on the Constitution, the rule of law and the American republic that Republicans such as Romney and Cheney refused to go along. For the radicals, that’s exactly the kind of opportunity they rarely fail to exploit.

It’s possible, but unlikely, that any of this will seriously damage Republicans in 2022 and 2024. Elections tend to ride on what voters think about incumbents, not challengers. There is a slim possibility that the party will split and make itself unelectable. And there’s a somewhat greater chance that it will wind up throwing away a handful of elections by nominating candidates who run well behind what a generic candidate would do, as it’s done repeatedly over the last decade. For the most part, however, the out-party’s actions don’t have much to do with its electoral success.

The real damage continues to be to the party’s capacity to govern when it does win. And, even more seriously, to the party’s commitment to core democratic beliefs and procedures. Depressing, indeed — and scary.

2) Yeah, so this… “Experts: CDC’s Summer-Camp Rules Are ‘Cruel’ and ‘Irrational’”

With all this good news related to the pandemic in the U.S. and the relaxing of a number of controls, the CDC’s newly released guidance for summer camps is notable for its rigidity and strictness: Masks must be worn at all times, even outdoors, by everyone, including vaccinated adults and children as young as 2 years old. The exceptions are for eating and swimming. (The guidance helpfully notes that if a person is having trouble breathing or is unconscious, no mask need be worn.) Campers must remain three feet apart from each other at all times including, again, outdoors. Six feet of distance must be maintained during meals and between campers and staff. If you need to sneeze and you don’t have a tissue, do it into your mask. (Children presumably are expected to carry a cache of spares.) Campers and staff should be cohorted, and any interaction with a person outside the cohort must be conducted at a distance of six feet. Art supplies, toys, books, and games are not to be shared…

For much of last summer, when COVID-19 rates were on par with where they are now — before half the adult population was vaccinated and millions of children had acquired immunity naturally — many camps had far fewer restrictions and there was no corresponding wave of related outbreaks.

The combination of masking and social distancing of children outdoors, said Dimitri Christakis, an epidemiologist and the editor-in-chief of JAMA Pediatrics, the leading journal for pediatric medicine, “is unfairly draconian.” We should let kids be close and play, he said. And with rapid testing twice a week on a rolling basis, a relatively easy program to conduct, he added, we should be able to forgo masks. Even without testing, Christakis said that sports like soccer should be able to be done without masks. And that “keeping children masked for activities like baseball and tennis is ridiculous.”

Mark Gorelik, a pediatric immunologist at Columbia University and an expert on MIS-C, the rare COVID-19-related inflammatory syndrome, said, “We know that the risk of outdoor infection is very low. We know risks of children becoming seriously ill or even ill at all is vanishingly small. And most of the vulnerable population is already vaccinated. I am supportive of effective measures to restrain the spread of illness. However, the CDC’s recommendations cross the line into excess and are, frankly, senseless. Children cannot be running around outside in 90-degree weather wearing a mask. Period.”

An infectious-disease scientist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci’s agency, spoke with me about the CDC guidance on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. “With staff and parents vaccinated, there is no reason to continue incredibly strict mitigation efforts or put severe limitations on activities,” they said. “Charitably,” the scientist, who has an expertise in respiratory viruses, continued, “masking kids at camp outdoors is simply virtue signaling. Requiring kids to continuously wear masks at camps, even while outside playing in the heat, when it provides little additional protection is unfair and cruel to our children. Considering that children are at incredibly low risk for developing severe illness, the minimal benefits of mask wearing do not outweigh the substantial costs of discouraging children to be active and their overall health.

3) We’re doing some survey experiments with some cool PSA’s we made.  Check out this one.  At the end of the survey there’s an option for open-ended feedback.  This one was just amazing:

In case you’re wondering.  I’m not getting the vaccine any time soon because I’m pissed off about the government lockdowns and the blatant lying by the CDC, and Fauci, about the actual research studies that prompted the state mandated lockdowns.  Refusing to get the vaccine is the only thing that I have control over in this whole unconstitutional situation.  So even though I compleley trust the vaccines, and I believe that they work remarkably well, and that refusing to get the vaccine is not in my best interest nor in the best interest of society as a whole, I am still going to say no.  I’ll get the vaccine when I’m done being pissed off.

4) Speaking of vaccines, I’m so tired of the media trying to scare people about variants for clicks when the reality is more like this, “Pfizer-BioNTech Vaccine is Highly Effective Against Variants, Studies Find: Two studies showed the vaccine to be more than 95 percent effective at protecting against severe disease or death from the variants first identified in South Africa and the U.K.”

5) Given the current reality, I’d be disappointed if my or my kid’s university was doing on-line only graduation.  NC State is doing multiple outdoor graduations.  I am disappointed, though, that the PS ceremony where we get to see our graduates and meet their families is not happening.  

6) The lost Franklin expedition of 1845 is fascinating.  I’ve not watched AMC’s The Terror, but read Dan Simmon’s novel upon which it’s based.  Now there’s this, “His Ship Vanished in the Arctic 176 Years Ago. DNA Has Offered a Clue.: For the first time, researchers have identified the remains of a sailor from the doomed 1845 Franklin expedition of the fabled Northwest Passage.”

7) I gotta say, I’m not impressed by the prison abolition movement.  There’s so much we need to do a lot better, but I think there’s pretty solid models in Europe rather than a utopian vision of prison abolition:

The book, which débuted on the Times best-seller list, offers an entry point into the world of abolitionist politics, beginning with an essay titled “So You’re Thinking about Becoming an Abolitionist.” It contains several basic but profound observations: “Increasing rates of incarceration have a minimal impact on crime rates. Moreover, crime and harm are not synonymous. All that is criminalized isn’t harmful, and all harm isn’t necessarily criminalized.” If there is a mismatch between punishment and crime, and crime and harm, then what is the intent of the criminal-justice system and the police it employs? Kaba refers to the “criminal punishment system” to emphasize that justice in the United States means a promise of retribution much more than an effort to understand why an infraction has occurred. She writes, “If we want to reduce (or end) sexual and gendered violence, putting a few perpetrators in prison does little to stop the many other perpetrators. It does nothing to change a culture that makes this harm imaginable, to hold the individual perpetrator accountable, to support their transformation, or to meet the needs of the survivors.” When we spoke, Kaba told me, “I am looking to abolish what I consider to be death-making institutions, which are policing, imprisonment, sentencing, and surveillance. And what I want is to basically build up another world that is rooted in collective wellness, safety, and investment in the things that would actually bring those things about.” …

Our current criminal-justice system is rooted in the assumption that millions of people require policing, surveillance, containment, prison. It is a dark view of humanity. By contrast, Kaba and others in this emergent movement fervently believe in the capacity of people to change in changed conditions. That is the optimism at the heart of the abolitionist project. As Kaba insists in her book, “The reason I’m struggling through all of this is because I’m a deeply, profoundly hopeful person. Because I know that human beings, with all of our foibles and all the things that are failing, have the capacity to do amazingly beautiful things, too. That gives me the hope to feel like we will, when necessary, do what we need to do.” Abolition is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Even the guiding lights of the movement are embedded in campaigns for short-term reforms that make a difference in daily life. For Kaba, that has meant raising funds for mutual aid during the pandemic and campaigning for reparations in Chicago. For Gilmore, it has meant working with incarcerated people and their families to challenge the building of prisons across California. For Angela Davis, it has meant lending her voice to movements for civil and human rights, from Ferguson to Palestine. The point is to work in solidarity with others toward the world as they wish for it to be. “Hope is a discipline,” Kaba writes. “We must practice it daily.”

8) Looks like MDMA (aka Ecstasy) can be remarkably effective as part of a treatment regime for PTSD.  It’s a shame to think of the human suffering we could have been alleviating without such a moralistic and binary approach to so many potentially beneficial drugs:

In an important step toward medical approval, MDMA, the illegal drug popularly known as Ecstasy or Molly, was shown to bring relief to those suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder when paired with talk therapy.

Of the 90 people who took part in the new study, which is expected to be published later this month in Nature Medicine, those who received MDMA during therapy experienced a significantly greater reduction in the severity of their symptoms compared with those who received therapy and an inactive placebo. Two months after treatment, 67 percent of participants in the MDMA group no longer qualified for a diagnosis of PTSD, compared with 32 percent in the placebo group.

MDMA produced no serious adverse side effects. Some participants temporarily experienced mild symptoms like nausea and loss of appetite.

“This is about as excited as I can get about a clinical trial,” said Gul Dolen, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the research. “There is nothing like this in clinical trial results for a neuropsychiatric disease.”

Mental health experts say that this research — the first Phase 3 trial conducted on psychedelic-assisted therapy — could pave the way for further studies on MDMA’s potential to help address other difficult-to-treat mental health conditions, including substance abuse, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias, eating disordersdepressionend-of-life anxiety and social anxiety in autistic adults.

And, mental health researchers say, these studies could also encourage additional research on other banned psychedelics, including psilocybin, LSD and mescaline.

“This is a wonderful, fruitful time for discovery, because people are suddenly willing to consider these substances as therapeutics again, which hasn’t happened in 50 years,” said Jennifer Mitchell, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, and lead author of the new study.

9) The latest on Neanderthals

Estatuas cave in northern Spain was a hive of activity 105,000 years ago. Artifacts show its Neanderthal inhabitants hafted stone tools, butchered red deer, and may have made fires. They also shed, bled, and excreted subtler clues onto the cave floor: their own DNA. “You can imagine them sitting in the cave making tools, butchering animals. Maybe they cut themselves or their babies pooped,” says population geneticist Benjamin Vernot, a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA), whose perspective may have been colored by his own baby’s cries during a Zoom call. “All that DNA accumulates in the dirt floors.”

He and MPI-EVA geneticist Matthias Meyer report today in Science that dirt from Estatuas has yielded molecular treasure: the first nuclear DNA from an ancient human to be gleaned from sediments. Earlier studies reported shorter, more abundant human mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from cave floors, but nuclear DNA, previously available only from bones and teeth, can be far more informative. “Now, it seems that it is possible to extract nuclear DNA from dirt, and we have a lot of dirt in archaeological sites,” says archaeologist Marie Soressi of Leiden University.

“This is a beautiful paper,” agrees population geneticist Pontus Skoglund of the Francis Crick Institute. The sequences reveal the genetic identity and sex of ancient cave dwellers and show that one group of Neanderthals replaced another in the Spanish cave about 100,000 years ago, perhaps after a climate cooling. “They can see a shift in Neanderthal populations at the very same site, which is quite nice,” Skoglund says.

In what Skoglund calls “an amazing technical demonstration,” they developed new genetic probes to fish out hominin DNA, allowing them to ignore the abundant sequences from plants, animals, and bacteria. Then, they used statistical methods to home in on DNA unique to Neanderthals and compare it with reference genomes from Neanderthals in a phylogenetic tree.

All three sites yielded Neanderthal nuclear and mtDNA, with the biggest surprise coming from the small amount of nuclear DNA from multiple Neanderthals in Estatuas cave. Nuclear DNA from a Neanderthal male in the deepest layer, dating to about 113,000 years ago, linked him to early Neanderthals who lived about 120,000 years ago in Denisova cave and in caves in Belgium and Germany.

But two female Neanderthals who lived in Estatuas cave later, about 100,000 years ago, had nuclear DNA more closely matching that of later, “classic” Neanderthals, including those who lived less than 70,000 years ago at Vindija cave in Croatia and 60,000 to 80,000 years ago at Chagyrskaya cave, says co-author and paleoanthropologist Juan Luis Arsuaga of the Complutense University of Madrid.

At the same time, the more plentiful mtDNA from Estatuas cave shows declining diversity. Neanderthals in the cave 113,000 years ago had at least three types of mtDNA. But the cave’s Neanderthals 80,000 and 107,000 years ago had only one type. Existing ancient DNA from Neanderthal bones and teeth had also pointed to a falloff in genetic diversity over the same period.

Arsuaga suggests Neanderthals thrived and diversified during the warm, moist interglacial period that started 130,000 years ago. But about 110,000 years ago, temperatures in Europe dipped suddenly as a new glacial period set in. Soon after, all but one lineage of Neanderthals disappeared. Members of the surviving lineage repopulated Europe during later, relatively warm spells, with some taking shelter in Estatuas cave.

10) The Carolina Hurricanes’ Sebasitan Aho had the team’s first hat trick of the season this week.  I was disappointed to learn that the team makes no effort to return the hats to the fans (some teams do).  

11) John Swartzwelder wrote a ton of iconic Simpsons episodes (and way more episodes than any other writer), but is known for being extraordinary private and reclusive.  Thus, a real treat to read this new interview with him.  

12) I’m entirely open to the scientific possibility that we don’t actually need to vaccinate all our kids to keep them safe and Covid well-contained (I like that formulation better than “herd immunity”).  But, the sociological/psychological reality is that there’s too many parents (and teachers) who won’t be able to relax and behave normally till all the kids are vaccinated— so let’s do it. “Do Kids Really Need to Be Vaccinated for Covid? Yes. No. Maybe.: Many experts argue that Covid-19 cannot be curbed without vaccinating children. But others aren’t so sure.”

13) I was shocked to see an ad for Dr Pepper Zero the other day.  As those who know me in real-life know, I absolutely swear by my Diet Dr Pepper (or DDP as we refer to it in the Greene household).  Fortunately, it’s not being replaced and we’ll have a Diet Coke/Coke Zero kind of thing going on here.  Also, I am curious about it.  

14) I remember being really intrigued by David Buss’ work on sex and evolutionary psychology a long time ago (in fact, I even used to discuss it in my Gender & Politics class).  I imagine it is less welcome than ever on the left.  Here’s a pretty interesting summary from his new book:

Professor David M. Buss, a leading evolutionary psychologist, states in the introduction of his fascinating new book that it “uncovers the hidden roots of sexual conflict.” Though the book focuses on male misbehavior, it also contains a broad and fascinating overview of mating psychology.

Sex, as defined by biologists, is indicated by the size of our gametes. Males have smaller gametes (sperm) and females have larger gametes (eggs). Broadly speaking, women and men had conflicting interests in the ancestral environment. Women were more vulnerable than men. And women took on far more risk when having sex, including pregnancy, which was perilous in an environment without modern technology. In addition to the physical costs, in the final stages of pregnancy, women must also obtain extra calories. According to Britain’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, pregnant women in their final trimester require an additional 200 calories per day, or 18,000 calories more in total than they otherwise would have required. This surplus was not easy to obtain for our ancestors. Men, in contrast, did not face the same level of sexual risk.

These differences in reproductive biology have given rise to differences in sexual psychology that are comparable to sex differences in height, weight, and upper-body muscle mass. However, Buss is careful to note, such differences always carry the qualifier “on average.” Some women are taller than some men—but on average men are taller. Likewise, some women prefer to have more sex partners than some men—but on average men prefer more. These evolved differences are a key source of conflict.

One goal of the book is to highlight situations in which sexual conflict is diminished or amplified to prevent victimization and reduce harm.

Because of the increased risk women carry, they tend to be choosier about their partners. In contrast, men are less discerning. Studies of online dating, for example, find that most men find most women to be at least somewhat attractive. In contrast, women, on average, view 80 percent of men as below average in attractiveness. Another study found that on the dating app Tinder, men “liked” more than 60 percent of the female profiles they viewed, while women “liked” only 4.5 percent of male profiles.

The book provides a simple figure to understand the ongoing conflict between men and women.

Men are constantly trying to manipulate women into moving closer to their preferred optimum, and women are likewise relentlessly influencing men to inch closer toward theirs. Buss writes, “If women and men could agree in advance on a compromised middle-ground solution that was perfect for neither but acceptable for both … they could avoid many of these costs.”

Because sexual risks are higher and sexual mistakes are more dangerous for women, they prefer to wait longer to evaluate a potential partner for suitability. For men, sexual mistakes are viewed differently. Research indicates that when asked to reflect on their sexual history, women are more likely to regret having had sex with someone, while men are more likely to regret having missed out on sexual opportunities. 

Even in the most egalitarian countries, men prefer more sexual partners compared to women. In Norway, researchers asked people how many sex partners they would prefer over the next 30 years. On average, women preferred five, men preferred 25. Even the desire to kiss before intercourse differs between the sexes. About 53 percent of men report that they would have sex without kissing, while only 14.6 percent of women would have sex without kissing. These different preferences can give rise to sexual conflict.

15) Pretty interesting stuff from Gallup on proof of vaccination status:

Americans’ Preferences for Proof of Vaccination to Participate in Activities Based on COVID-19 Attitudes
% Who favor businesses requiring people to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination in order to do each over the next several months
  Travel by airplane Go to events
with large crowds
Go to your worksite
to do your job*
Stay in a hotel Dine in
at a restaurant
  % % % % %
Vaccination status  
Have been/Will be vaccinated 74 71 59 56 52
Will not get vaccinated 8 7 6 6 5
Worry about getting COVID-19  
Very/Somewhat worried 77 72 66 59 55
Not too/Not at all worried 49 48 36 37 34
*Among those employed full or part time.
GALLUP PANEL, APRIL 19-25, 2021
Partisans’ Preferences for Proof of Vaccination to Participate in Activities
% Who favor businesses requiring people to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination in order to do each over the next several months
  Travel by airplane Go to events
with large crowds
Go to your worksite
to do your job*
Stay in a hotel Dine in
at a restaurant
  % % % % %
Party identification  
Democrat 85 82 69 66 62
Independent 47 47 38 35 30
Republican 28 25 16 22 19
*Among those employed full or part time.
GALLUP PANEL, APRIL 19-25, 2021

16) There’s a 9 inch(!) moth in Australia.

The giant wood moth was discovered by a construction worker at the Mount Cotton State School.

Credit…Mount Cotton State School

17) This is terrific.  “‘I seek a kind person’: the Guardian ad that saved my Jewish father from the Nazis: In 1938, there was a surge of classified ads in this newspaper as parents – including my grandparents – scrambled to get their children out of the Reich. What became of the families?”

18) David Frum argues that China is actually a paper dragon and not nearly as scary as we think.

Undergirding these examples and dozens more like them is Beckley’s clarifying theoretical insight: Repression is expensive.

The lines that plot the comparative GDP of the United States and China distort the real balance of power between the two societies, Beckley argues, because China must devote such a large share of its resources to basic subsistence needs to avert the overthrow of the state.

Beckley dramatizes this point with historical context. The concept of GDP did not exist in the 19th century, but economists have retrospectively reconstructed those figures backward into time. They have found that in the 1800s, the Chinese empire had a GDP much larger than that of Great Britain. The Chinese army of 800,000 men also enormously exceeded Britain’s troop numbers. Yet when the two states clashed in the two Opium Wars, from 1839 to 1842 and again in 1858, China was crushingly defeated. Why?

A great part of the answer, then as now, was the cost of repression.

Nineteenth-century China faced an average of 25 local uprisings a year. Most of its troops had to be deployed to suppress rebellions and control banditry, leaving few available for war-fighting.

The next part of the answer is that mass is not power.

Although China’s resources were enormous in the aggregate, most were consumed by the basics of subsistence. In the 19th-century, Britain produced only half as much as China, but it did so with one-thirteenth the population—making more wealth available for more purposes.

A final piece of the answer is that technological copycats face huge disadvantages against technological innovators. They will always lag behind the more creative rival, not only in the factory, but on the battlefield. “Repeatedly during the Opium Wars … Chinese armies of thousands were routed in minutes by a few hundred, or even a few dozen, British troops,” Beckley notes.

19) Looks like I was wrong on this and I truly believe that when you opine on stuff it’s important to admit when you are wrong (and even better to grapple with why you were).  For now, here’s Drum: “Update: The J&J Vaccine Pause Probably Had No Effect on Vaccine Hesitancy”

20) Always read Ash Jha: “We may not reach herd immunity. That’s okay.”

After an unprecedented mass vaccination campaign over the past four months, vaccine demand has begun to soften, leading to hand-wringing in some quarters about whether the United States will achieve herd immunity or whether we will be living with the coronavirus months and years from now.

The answer is, it’s not that simple. And just as important, it may not matter that much.

Herd immunity is not a clear line. The virus will not be eradicated the moment we administer the shot that gets us to herd immunity. The term describes the inflection point at which each infection results in less than one additional infection and outbreaks sputter out. You can think of it like a wildfire surrounded by firebreaks, where the blaze ultimately burns out without additional interventions.

It’s not hard to see how it came to be viewed as the pandemic finish line, but that line has shifted. Estimates of herd immunity have been adjusted upward from the 60 percent to 70 percent that we expected last year, to 80 percent more recently, largely because of new variants that are more contagious. The threshold is determined by factors beyond vaccination, including immunity due to prior infections, seasonal effects such as humidity and time spent indoors, who is immune and who isn’t, and broader behavioral factors such as whether people are engaging in any public health measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing.
 
Real-world evidence from Israel and the United Kingdom suggests that even without hitting the herd immunity threshold, vaccination can drive infections way down. Why? Because immunity in a population is not like an on-off switch. As populations begin to build up immunity, infection spread begins to slow. If people practice even modest levels of public health measures such as mask-wearing indoors or avoiding large crowds, it may be enough to drive infection numbers down substantially. To stretch the fire metaphor, even if you don’t have the flames surrounded on all sides, a little bit of a drizzle combined with some firebreaks may be enough to keep it from burning out of control…

The coronavirus pandemic marks the clearest dividing line in most of our lives. But while the pandemic had a clear beginning, the ending will be much more gradual. As vaccination rates slow, we will require a resource-intensive ground game to reach more and more unvaccinated people and push us toward herd immunity. It is indeed possible that we may not reach that elusive threshold, or we might get there for a period only to have waning immunity, new variants or changes in behavior drop us below that threshold. But with infection numbers low and modest mitigation efforts in place, we will see small outbreaks that will affect the unvaccinated and burn out quickly. The terrifying surges of the past year will be behind us. And the things we value most in our lives — time with family and friends, social gatherings with colleagues, entertainment and sports — things we have missed so much, will be possible and safe.

This pandemic will end when the risk it poses, and the strategies necessary to mitigate that risk, fade into the background and become part of normal life. To get there, we should focus less on the herd immunity threshold, vaccinate more people and get on with our lives. As the old saying goes, pandemics end with a whimper, not with a bang. This one, too, will end. With a whimper.

21) This was very interesting, but I think in some ways misguided, “The Lithium Gold Rush: Inside the Race to Power Electric Vehicles: A race is on to produce lithium in the United States, but competing projects are taking very different approaches to extracting the vital raw material. Some might not be very green” Yes, there’s absolutely local, significant environmental costs to mining all that lithium.  But on a global cost/benefit scale the benefits are so much greater.  Of course we should minimize the harm we do from mining lithium, but, let’s keep this in big picture perspective.

22) I’ve been following the whole global efforts and patents controversy at some remove so I’m a little cautious, but Alex Tabarrok seems pretty right based on what I do know:

For the last year and a half I have been shouting from the rooftops, “invest in capacity, build more factories, shore up the supply lines, spend billions to save trillions.” Fortunately, some boffins in the Biden administration have found a better way, “the US supports the waiver of IP protections on COVID-19 vaccines to help end the pandemic.”
Waive IP protections. So simple. Why didn’t I think of that???

Patents are not the problem. All of the vaccine manufacturers are trying to increase supply as quickly as possible. Billions of doses are being produced–more than ever before in the history of the world. Licenses are widely available. AstraZeneca have licensed their vaccine for production with manufactures around the world, including in India, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, China and South Africa. J&J’s vaccine has been licensed for production by multiple firms in the United States as well as with firms in Spain, South Africa and France. Sputnik has been licensed for production by firms in India, China, South Korea, Brazil and pending EMA approval with firms in Germany and France. Sinopharm has been licensed in the UAE, Egypt and Bangladesh. Novavax has licensed its vaccine for production in South Korea, India, and Japan and it is desperate to find other licensees but technology transfer isn’t easy and there are limited supplies of raw materials:

Virtually overnight, [Novavax] set up a network of outside manufacturers more ambitious than one outside executive said he’s ever seen, but they struggled at times to transfer their technology there amid pandemic travel restrictions. They were kicked out of one factory by the same government that’s bankrolled their effort. Competing with larger competitors, they’ve found themselves short on raw materials as diverse as Chilean tree bark and bioreactor bags. They signed a deal with India’s Serum Institute to produce many of their COVAX doses but now face the realistic chance that even when Serum gets to full capacity — and they are behind — India’s government, dealing with the world’s worst active outbreak, won’t let the shots leave the country.

Plastic bags are a bigger bottleneck than patents. The US embargo on vaccine supplies to India was precisely that the Biden administration used the DPA to prioritize things like bioreactor bags and filters to US suppliers and that meant that India’s Serum Institute was having trouble getting its production lines ready for Novavax. CureVac, another potential mRNA vaccine, is also finding it difficult to find supplies due to US restrictions (which means supplies are short everywhere). As Derek Lowe said:

Abolishing patents will not provide more shaker bags or more Chilean tree bark, nor provide more of the key filtration materials needed for production. These processes have a lot of potential choke points and rate-limiting steps in them, and there is no wand that will wave that complexity away.

Technology transfer has been difficult for AstraZeneca–which is one reason they have had production difficulties–and their vaccine uses relatively well understood technology. The mRNA technology is new and has never before been used to produce at scale. Pfizer and Moderna had to build factories and distribution systems from scratch. There are no mRNA factories idling on the sidelines. If there were, Moderna or Pfizer would be happy to license since they are producing in their own factories 24 hours a day, seven days a week (monopolies restrict supply, remember?). Why do you think China hasn’t yet produced an mRNA vaccine? Hint: it isn’t fear about violating IP. Moreover, even Moderna and Pfizer don’t yet fully understand their production technology, they are learning by doing every single day. Moderna has said that they won’t enforce their patents during the pandemic but no one has stepped up to produce because no one else can.

The US trade representative’s announcement is virtue signaling to the anti-market left and will do little to nothing to increase supply.

What can we do to increase supply? Sorry, there is no quick and cheap solution. We must spend. Trump’s Operation Warp Speed spent on the order of $15 billion. If we want more, we need to spend more and on similar scale. The Biden administration paid $269 million to Merck to retool its factories to make the J&J vaccine. That was a good start. We could also offer Pfizer and Moderna say $100 a dose to produce in excess of their current production and maybe with those resources there is more they could do. South Africa and India and every other country in the world should offer the same (India hasn’t even approved the Pfizer vaccine and they are complaining about IP!??) We should ease up on the DPA and invest more in the supply chain–let’s get CureVac and the Serum Institute what they need. We should work like hell to find a substitute for Chilean tree bark. See my piece in Science co-authored with Michael Kremer et. al. for more ideas. (Note also that these ideas are better at dealing with current supply constraints and they also increase the incentive to produce future vaccines, unlike shortsighted patent abrogation.)

Bottom line is that producing more takes real resources not waving magic patent wands.

Quick hits (part II)

1) One of my more idiosyncratic academic interests is the 19th century American political parties.  So, of course I loved seeing “What can Never Trump learn from the nineteenth century’s Free Soilers?”

The annexation of Texas, the Mexican-American War, and the Wilmot Proviso all served to deepen the rifts in the Democratic Party. Antislavery Northern and master-race Southern Democrats found themselves increasingly at odds with one another, feuding over the direction of the party as well as the nation. Building off their Jacksonian ideology, Democrats who opposed the so-called “peculiar institution” saw their fight against slavery as a continuation of their battle against entrenched power and corrupt elites. Others, like William Leggett, viewed it as the natural outgrowth of their egalitarian ethos. In time, they understood their fight against the “money power” of banks and corporations to be the same as the battle against the “slave power,” viewing both as threats to American liberty. For these Democrats, opposing slavery was the only logical conclusion to the democratic revolution Jackson had launched. Walt Whitman called these men members of “the Undaunted Democracy.”

With the nomination of Lewis Cass for the 1848 election on the Democratic ticket, a supporter of popular sovereignty, antislavery Jacksonians expressed their protest in the formation of the Free-Soil Party. In a powerfully symbolic gesture towards antislavery unionism, the Free Soilers nominated Andrew Jackson’s former Vice President, Martin Van Buren, and Charles Francis Adams, the son of the man Jackson had defeated. Their platform boiled down to the slogan, “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, and Free Men!”

Despite their antislavery stance, however, the Free-Soil Party stopped well short of the complete abolition of slavery. Despite their heady goals of halting the spread of slavery, with such little political infrastructure, numerous organisational weaknesses, and intense internal divisions, the Free-Soil Party did not win a single state, though a few did win election to the House of Representatives.

Diehard Free Soilers were soon marginalised and spent years in the political wilderness, out of power and with almost no influence. To make matters worse, many of these Democrats returned home following the failure of Van Buren’s presidential bid. The antislavery wing of the Democratic Party continued to quarrel with one another, so much so that Francis Blair lamented, “It is unfortunate that we should be splitting our fragment of a party into smaller fragments by making new strife among our leading men.” Despite Preston King’s best efforts at the 1854 New York Democratic convention to convert the party into a free-soil party, the Southern pull of the party proved too strong. Realising there was no room from in the party of Jackson, men like King bolted, finding their way into the newly formed explicitly antislavery Republican Party.

As Jonathan H. Earle in his masterwork on the antislavery Democrats notes, “The Jacksonian element within the Republican party was by no means a majority, or even a dominant voice. But the genius of the early Republicans lay in their ability to attract various Free-Soil Democrats, Liberty men, and Whigs under a single antislavery banner.” Soon, savage critics of the Jacksonians like the radical Whig Thaddeus Stevens found themselves in the same party. Though at odds on numerous policy debates and in matters of best governance, former rivals shared the common goal of putting slavery on the course for ultimate destruction from the United States. Combining their efforts and forgetting past feuds, antislavery Democrats were able to bolster the Republican coalition that won Abraham Lincoln the presidency in 1860.

Lincoln’s victory was the result of an antislavery amalgamation.

With Trump’s defeat in 2020, the question is whether or not Never Trumpers will formally join the Democratic Party, or try and reform the Republican Party, or embrace an exile from party politics. All three have risks and rewards. Naturally, appeals to conservative voters will not score points for Biden with the online left and party progressives. Likewise, if Never Trump Republicans like The Atlantic’s David Frum, CNN’s S.E. Cupp, and The Bulwark’s Sarah Longwell do formally join the Democratic Party, it will likely be greeted by Trumpsters as confirmation of their ‘fake’ conservative credentials. There is also the possibility that Never Trumpers will lose their identity in becoming Democrats. Free Soil Democrats faced similar questions and the lessons they offer are complex though poignant.

2) This is really great from John McWhorter, “How the N-Word Became Unsayable” [McWhorter actually uses the word, but I’m not going to because I sure don’t need people searching my blog and finding it, even if just quoting a NYT column]

In 1934, Allen Walker Read, an etymologist and lexicographer, laid out the history of the word that, then, had “the deepest stigma of any in the language.” In the entire article, in line with the strength of the taboo he was referring to, he never actually wrote the word itself. The obscenity to which he referred, “fuck,” though not used in polite company (or, typically, in this newspaper), is no longer verboten. These days, there are two other words that an American writer would treat as Mr. Read did. One is “cunt,” and the other is “[n-word].” The latter, though, has become more than a slur. It has become taboo.

Just writing the word here, I sense myself as pushing the envelope, even though I am Black — and feel a need to state that for the sake of clarity and concision, I will be writing the word freely, rather than “the N-word.” I will not use the word gratuitously, but that will nevertheless leave a great many times I do spell it out, love it though I shall not.

 “[n-word]” began as a neutral descriptor, although it was quickly freighted with the casual contempt that Europeans had for African and, later, African-descended people. Its evolution from slur to unspeakable obscenity was part of a gradual prohibition on avowed racism and the slurring of groups. It is also part of a larger cultural shift: Time was that it was body parts and what they do that Americans were taught not to mention by name — do you actually do much resting in a restroom?

That kind of concern has been transferred from the sexual and scatological to the sociological, and changes in the use of the word “[n-word]” tell part of that story. What a society considers profane reveals what it believes to be sacrosanct: The emerging taboo on slurs reveals the value our culture places — if not consistently — on respect for subgroups of people. (I should also note that I am concerned here with “[n-word]” as a slur rather than its adoption, as “nigga,” as a term of affection by Black people, like “buddy.”)…

Rather, the modern American uses “the N-word.” This tradition settled in after the O.J. Simpson trial, in which it was famously revealed that Detective Mark Fuhrman had frequently used “[n-word]” in the past. Christopher Darden, a Black prosecutor, refused to utter the actual word, and with the high profile of the case and in his seeming to deliberately salute Mr. Read’s take, by designating “[n-word]” “the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language,” Mr. Darden in his way heralded a new era.

That was in 1995, and in the fall of that year I did a radio interview on the word, in which the guests and I were free to use it when referring to it, with nary a bleep. That had been normal until then but would not be for much longer, such that the interview is now a period piece.

It’s safe to say that the transition to “the N-word” wasn’t driven by the linguistic coarseness of a Los Angeles detective or something a prosecutor said one day during a monthslong trial. Rather, Mr. Darden’s reticence was a symptom of something already in the air by 1995: the larger shift in sensibility that rendered slurs, in general, the new profanity.

This occurred as Generation X, born from about 1965 to 1980, came of age. These were the first Americans raised in post-civil-rights-era America. To Generation X, legalized segregation was a bygone barbarism in black-and-white photos and film clips. Also, Generation X grew up when overt racist attitudes came to be ridiculed and socially punished in general society. Racism continued to exist in endless manifestations. However, it became complicated — something to hide, to dissemble about and, among at least an enlightened cohort, something to check oneself for and call out in others, to a degree unknown in perhaps any society until then.

For Americans of this postcountercultural cohort, the pox on matters of God and the body seemed quaint beyond discussion, while a pox on matters of slurring groups seemed urgent beyond discussion. The N-word euphemism was an organic outcome, as was an increasing consensus that “[n-word]” itself is forbidden not only in use as a slur but even when referred to. Our spontaneous sense is that profanity consists of the classic four-letter words, while slurs are something separate. However, anthropological reality is that today, slurs have become our profanity: repellent to our senses, rendering even words that sound like them suspicious and eliciting not only censure but also punishment.

3) I’ve been hearing for a while about the super-high lumber prices.  Finally, I know why.  Pretty fascinating.  

Since 2018, a one-two punch of environmental harms worsened by climate change has devastated the lumber industry in Canada, the largest lumber exporter to the United States. A catastrophic and multi-decade outbreak of bark-eating beetles, followed by a series of historic wildfire seasons, have led to lasting economic damage in British Columbia, a crucial lumber-providing province. Americans have, in effect, made a mad dash for lumber at the exact moment Canada is least able to supply it.

Climate change, which has long threatened to overturn dependable facts about the world, is now starting to make itself known in commodities markets, the exchanges that keep staple goods flowing to companies and their customers. For years, scientists and agricultural forecasters have warned that climate change could result in devastating failures among luxury goods, such as fine chocolate and wine. Others have speculated about several grain-producing regions slipping into a simultaneous drought, a phenomenon dubbed “multiple breadbasket failures.” But for now, a climate-change-induced shortage is showing up more subtly, dampening supply during a historic demand crunch.

“There are people who say, ‘Climate change isn’t affecting me,’” Janice Cooke, a forest-industry veteran and biology professor at the University of Alberta, told me. “But they’re going to go to the hardware store and say, ‘Holy cow, the price of lumber has gone up.’”…

This has produced a surge in home construction—and with it, a need for Canadian softwood lumber. Among builders, the preferred “species” of wood for framing homes is called Canadian SPF, or Canadian spruce-pine-fir, Jalbert said. As its hyphenated name gives away, SPF is not a single species of tree, but a catchall industry name for conifers grown in the northern boreal forest. If you’re in a relatively new American home or low-rise building right now—or if you can see one out the window—there’s a good chance it’s made of SPF imported from Canada, specifically British Columbia or Alberta.

Canadian SPF is grown in orderly tracts of forest that span much of Canada’s northern belt. Starting in 1999, an outbreak of bark-eating mountain pine beetles has ravaged conifer forests across the American and Canadian West. It has been especially bad in British Columbia, which exports about half of its lumber to the U.S.

“The mountain pine beetle has been a force of nature in this current epidemic,” Cooke said. The beetle has devoured 18 million hectares of forest in British Columbia alone, killing 60 percent of its merchantable pine. The outbreak has been accelerated by “weather associated with climate change,” Cooke said. A series of unusually warm winters has failed to kill the usual number of mountain pine beetles, allowing populations to swell to unprecedented size. Nor have two decades of unusually dry and drought-riddensummers helped. When trees are drought-stressed, they’re less able to mount a defense to the beetle, and they succumb more quickly.

Across North America, the woodland affected by the beetle—a tract stretching from Montana to Saskatchewan—totals 27 million hectares, an area more than three-quarters the size of Germany.

The outbreak has required quick thinking from regulators and lumber companies. In the early years, British Columbia “went into salvage mode,” Cooke said. Loggers followed the path of the beetle, felling dead trees as quickly as they could. If collected in the first year or two after dying, beetle-blighted timber is essentially as high-quality as freshly felled trees. “But the longer it stands dead, the less useful it is,” Cooke said. “You can use it for pallets and pellets, but not that nice construction-grade timber.” At the same time, loggers cleared around the affected forest, hoping to cut off the outbreak’s expansion.

This approach worked for more than a decade. As the outbreak expanded, the province maintained its lumber production. But trees take a long time to grow in the harsh climes of British Columbia. With its bountiful sunlight and warm, wet weather, Florida can grow a pine to merchantable size in 15 years, but “in 15 years, a tree is not much taller than me here,” Cooke said. Canadian forests take 40 to 60 years to reach maturity. Looking ahead, British Columbia foresaw a production gap, a decades-long span when it would have no trees to harvest. That shortfall was predicted to begin about now.

4) Kate Winslet is terrific in Mare of Easttown, but, damnit, I expect HBO to spare me the melodramatic twists worthy of General Hospital or Dallas.  Alas.

5) I did not realize kids and berries was some weird instagram thing.  Apparently, some people are starting to notice that berries are expensive.

Why would we who can afford it—but not really—put ourselves through this? As year-round strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries have become absolutely ubiquitous on kid-food Instagram—that pleasing Technicolor world of carefully arranged fruit rainbows and nicely packed PlanetBox Rovers—some parents are beginning to push back on the fruits’ dominance. “Can I complain about the overuse of fresh berries in baby/kid food media?” wrote a commenter on a post by Amy Palanjian, whose account is @yummytoddlerfood. “They’re in most meals that I see on Instagram, and in my neck of the woods they’re very expensive most of the year and don’t last long.”…

The prices that middle-class parents moan about, others have recently pointed out on the social network where berries are king, put fresh berries totally out of reach for others. Dalina Soto, whose Instagram account is @your.latina.nutritionist, recently described going to the supermarket with her child, who “LOVES berries,” and grabbing a mixed 2-pound container of blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries. At the checkout counter, she realized that it was $18.25. “I can afford this but WTF,” she wrote. “I just heard my mom’s voice in my head: ‘Tu ta loca, pon eso pa’tra!’ [‘You’re crazy, put that back!’]” She got a 2-pound container of blueberries instead for $7.99—still, she wrote, “more than what a worker at that store probably makes” in an hour.

I’m long on record as saying the biggest difference in my lifestyle if I were super-rich is that I’d simply eat all the raspberries I wanted regardless of cost.  I think I could easily eat $8-10/day and that’s just not justifiable.  Relatedly, it’s strawberry season in NC and in-season, local strawberries are so much better than what typically survives the journey to the Food Lion or Harris Teeter. 

6) Speaking of kids, I don’t recall how I came across this 13 year old New Yorker article about EB White and Stuart Little, but I loved it as that is one of my very favorite kids’ books.

7) This is full of colorful goodness in Wired, “How Pixar Uses Hyper-Colors to Hack Your Brain: The animation studio’s artists are masters at tweaking light and color to trigger deep emotional responses. Coming soon: effects you’ll only see inside your head.”

8) We don’t notice what’s not happening, but excellent point from Fareed Zakaria, “Ten years later, Islamist terrorism isn’t the threat it used to be”

9) A really under-appreciated point– the U.S. actually kicked ass in our economic response to Covidcompared to a bunch of other modern democracies.

When my editors asked me to write a story for our Pandemic Playbook series on the country that I thought “got Covid-19 right” economically, I immediately looked abroad. I spent a few weeks researching and writing about Japan, which has kept unemployment low and spent big to fight the economic downturn.

But as I was working on my Japan article, the US adopted Biden’s American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion behemoth of a bill. With that step coming after the two Trump relief bills, the US just about matched Japan’s spending to fight the downturn. And as I looked into the details, it became impossible to deny that the US spent the money better…

No country handled the economic shock of Covid-19 perfectly. Every country, the US included, made mistakes, sometimes grave mistakes. But a detailed comparison suggests that the US had the strongest economic response to the pandemic, in terms of providing income to its citizens during lockdown and ensuring a strong, rapid recovery as the economy began to reopen.

“The US will come out of this economically better than any country that was similarly affected by the virus,” Jason Furman, an economist at Harvard and former chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, says.

10) We have to do criminal justice so much better.  Far too many headlines like this.  Not just an innocent mistake– a lazy mistake.  “KARE 11 Investigates: Innocent MN family held at gunpoint in SWAT no-knock warrant raid: Mother and child terrorized in bungled no-knock warrant raid. A KARE 11 investigation reveals Minneapolis police failed basic checks and hit the wrong address.”

11) OMG this makes me so mad.  If neo-Nazis started calling it the Hitler High Five should people stop giving each other high fives?  Like, “look at those high-fiving after a white guy scored a goal– must be a white power high five.”  I just don’t get the desire to live in the world where every action is given the worst possible interpretation and people let right-wing neo-nazis and trolls redefine ordinary hand gestures! “No, ‘Jeopardy!’ Champ Kelly Donohue Didn’t Make the ‘White Power’ Hand Gesture”

12) Relatedly, I loved this.  I have not watched “Nomadland” but did notice that it was a work about “nomads” in the American West, created by a Chinese woman.  Sounds great if that’s your type of movie.  Alas, a lot of people might have been complaining about a white American making a movie about Chinese people.  Look for the universals in the human experience, damn it!  Great artists do that, regardless of their own demography.  

On Sunday, Chloé Zhao won an Oscar for best director for her film Nomadland, becoming the first Asian woman to win the award. Zhao’s win is rightfully being celebrated by women and communities of color everywhere.

Zhao, 39, was raised in China and educated in London and New York. Nomadland is her third successive film that focuses on life in the American West. On the surface, Zhao has little in common with her protagonists, who include a pair of Native American siblings struggling with life on a reservation, a rodeo cowboy recovering from a traumatic brain injury, and, most recently in Nomadland, a 50-something teacher who adopts a nomadic lifestyle after losing her job. But this did not stop her from daring to tell their stories. In fact, the very thing that makes Zhao such an interesting filmmaker is the steady hand she brings to films whose protagonists experience a world wholly unlike her own. 

Zhao’s success has come at a time when critics are questioning the legitimacy of filmmakers telling stories as community outsiders. Last year, the filmmaker Lulu Wang publicly criticized Ron Howard’s decision to direct a film about the Chinese pianist Lang Lang. “As a classically-trained pianist born in China, I believe it’s impossible to tell Lang Lang’s story without an intimate understanding of Chinese culture and the impact of the Cultural Revolution on artists and intellectuals and the effects of Western imperialism,” Wang tweeted.  

Wang alludes to a movement that prioritizes stories whose creative leadership is “deeply tied to those communities” they aim to depict. Proponents of this perspective claim that, for too long, stories have been told by outsiders, which harms the communities portrayed. This can be true, and advocates are right to ensure that some films are chronicled by those with lived experience. But if this belief is the new paradigm for who can tell whose stories, will it not also work to prevent Zhao, a Chinese woman, from portraying the lives of those in the American West? Given the praise for Zhao, one is left wondering what actual standards are being applied.

Zhao says that her directing method allows her to more accurately portray lives so different from her own. She blends the real and the fictional by casting nonprofessional actors, incorporating their real-life stories into her scripts, and encouraging on-screen improvisation. “By staying close to real life, I can help myself, an outsider, to make a film from inside,” she says.

In Howard’s case, Lang Lang, whose story is at the center of the film, co-wrote the source material and is helping to produce the project. Even this, however, was not enough to shield the film from Wang’s experience-based criticism. Staying close to the truth, whether scripted or unscripted, does not seem to be a defense to the condemnation of “outsider” storytelling.

Elevating the work of non-white filmmakers is a worthy goal because viewpoint diversity allows great art to flourish. But in the uncritical embrace of Zhao’s filmmaking, those pushing the “lived-experience” norm have created a double standard. If they really mean that white filmmakers should not be allowed to tell the stories of non-whites, they should say so clearly and present a coherent argument for it. Otherwise, the prevailing standard will lead to the exclusion of great works like Zhao’s. 

13) One of those epidemiological studies I really enjoyed digging into:

In-person schooling has proved contentious and difficult to study throughout the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Data from a massive online survey in the United States indicates an increased risk of COVID-19-related outcomes among respondents living with a child attending school in-person. School-based mitigation measures are associated with significant reductions in risk, particularly daily symptoms screens, teacher masking, and closure of extra-curricular activities. A positive association between in-person schooling and COVID-19 outcomes persists at low levels of mitigation, but when seven or more mitigation measures are reported, a significant relationship is no longer observed. Among teachers, working outside the home was associated with an increase in COVID-19-related outcomes, but this association is similar to other occupations (e.g., healthcare, office work). While in-person schooling is associated with household COVID-19 risk, this risk can likely be controlled with properly implemented school-based mitigation measures.

14) Back before streaming lots of TV shows paid for only short-term rights for the music they used.  Not great for many shows that rely heavily on music.  Dawson’s Creek even lost its theme song!

15) Prepare for a major expansion of how the Supreme Court interprets the 2nd Amendment.  Also, to be fair, if we stipulate that the 2nd Amendment is an individual right (I don’t agree with that decision, but that’s’ where we are), I think there’s a very reasonable case to be made that NY’s law is, in fact, too strict.  

16) I am so with Ezra on this, “Let’s Launch a Moonshot for Meatless Meat”

It’s these next paragraphs where I fear I might lose you. It’s easier to argue for human welfare than animal welfare. I spent most of my life not just as a meat eater, but as an enthusiastic one. I posted my burgers on Instagram and I sought out the perfect roast chicken. Even now, I don’t believe it’s necessarily immoral to eat meat. What I believe is immoral is the way we treat animals in most factory farms. And the scale of that suffering melts the mind.

A reasonable estimate is that about 70 billion land animals are raised and slaughtered for food each year, a vast majority of them chickens. My colleague Nick Kristof has written eloquently about the plight of Costco’s rotisserie chickens, but the horrors do not end there. I’ve spoken with farmers who lie awake with guilt over the way they treat their animals, but they are so buried in debt to the agricultural conglomerates that they see no way out for themselves.

We treat too many animals like inputs, and their suffering as a mere byproduct. Cheap meat isn’t really cheap. It’s just the animal that paid the cost, living in conditions so gruesome I fear describing them. But suffice it to say: If we could produce the meat we want without the suffering we now inflict, it would be one of the great achievements of our age.

My reason for optimism is technological: There have been remarkable strides made in plant-based meat — witness the success of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods — and milks. And the next step is cultivated meat, which is meat grown directly from animal cells. This isn’t science fiction: There’s now a restaurant in Singapore where you can eat lab-grown chicken made by Eat Just. Unsurprisingly, it tastes like chicken, because that’s what it is.

But so far, most of these advances, most of these investments, are through private dollars, with the findings locked up in patents, by companies competing with one another for market share. We’re going to need to move faster than that. “If we leave this endeavor to the tender mercies of the market there will be vanishingly few products to choose from and it’ll take a very long time,” Bruce Friedrich, co-founder and executive director of the Good Food Institute, told me.

This is where policymakers can, and should, come in. At its heart, the American Jobs Plan is a climate bill. But there isn’t a dollar for alternative proteins, despite animal agriculture’s huge contributions to both climate and pandemic risk. That’s worse than a mistake. It’s a failure of policy design. Luckily, it’s easily fixed.

Quick hits (part I)

1) As always enjoyed Hidden Brain podcast, but particularly this one on “when conversations go wrong” with Deborah Tannen about conversation.

2) And I love this interesting bit of social science they shared:

Do conversations end when people want them to? Surprisingly, behavioral science provides no answer to this fundamental question about the most ubiquitous of all human social activities. In two studies of 932 conversations, we asked conversants to report when they had wanted a conversation to end and to estimate when their partner (who was an intimate in Study 1 and a stranger in Study 2) had wanted it to end. Results showed that conversations almost never ended when both conversants wanted them to and rarely ended when even one conversant wanted them to and that the average discrepancy between desired and actual durations was roughly half the duration of the conversation. Conver-sants had little idea when their partners wanted to end and underestimated how discrepant their partners’ desires were from their own. These studies suggest that ending conversations is a classic “coordination problem” that humans are unable to solve because doing so requires information that they normally keep from each other. As a result, most conversations appear to end when no one wants them to. conversation | social interaction | social judgment

3) In a world where I was not busy with end-of-semester grading, I’d do a post on race vs class messaging and the Democratic Party.  Instead, I’m going to tell you to read Tom Edsall’s great summary of the academic debate.

In the past, English wrote, scholars studied how Republicans used racial frames to “undermine support for redistributive policies, but now Democrats have started doing the same thing — with, according to our data, the same effects.”

Nicholas Valentino, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, said the English-Kalla study “comports with a long line of work in political psychology demonstrating a gap between a widely shared principle of racial equity and resistance to policies intended to achieve it.”

From the standpoint of rhetorical strategy, Valentino continued,

there is a trade-off between persuasion and mobilization. Highlighting racial injustice may mobilize nonwhite constituencies and racially progressive whites to engage in politics more forcefully.

That anger could be crucial in motivating voters “to overcome the obstacles to voting being pursued by the G.O.P. in many states,” Valentino noted. “The downside is that policy support for racial redistribution among moderates may decline.”

Martin Gilens, a political scientist at U.C.L.A., praised English and Kalla, but was quick to add caveats:

It’s a very nice paper and solid work. Their findings suggest that even in this time of heightened public concern with racial inequities, Democrats are not likely to boost public support for progressive policies by framing them as advancing racial equality.

That said, Gilens added, “I would consider the English and Kalla results to be sobering but not, in themselves, a strong argument for Democrats to turn away from appeals to racial justice.”

Elizabeth Suhay, a political scientist at American University, captured the complexity of the debate.

“English and Kalla’s findings are compelling,” she wrote by email:

Their findings are consonant with a great deal of conventional wisdom in political science. We would expect race-focused messaging to decrease support for a policy not only because of racism in the public, but also because many Americans perceive policies directed at specific population subgroups as unfair.

Suhay also noted: “Don’t forget self-interest. A longstanding definition of politics is that it’s a contest over ‘who gets what, where, when and how.’ ”

Broad public approval is not the only thing politicians care about. From a strategic perspective, they must also be responsive to activists, interest groups, and donors. Given the intense focus on racial justice among some of the most active Democrats — including but not exclusively African Americans — Biden needs to not only deliver on this issue but also to tell people about it.

Suhay went on:

They face intense demands from Democratic activists for both policy and symbolic actions that address racial inequity; however, these actions do threaten to turn off many whites, especially those without a college degree.

Biden, Suhay argues, “seems to have no choice but to find some middle road: focusing communication on how his policies benefit most Americans while also, more infrequently but unmistakably, making clear his commitment to racial equality” and, she added, “he seems to be walking the tightrope well.”

4) OMG this NYT interactive feature on how Pfizer makes their Covid-19 vaccine is amazing.  Not only is the science behind the vaccine amazing, but the engineering, manufacturing, logistics, etc., of pulling off these millions of doses is really pretty mind-blowing.  If you are one of those “I only read a few free NYT articles” people, this should be one of them.  

5) Good Ezra Klein on the problems with bipartisanship:

We are a divided country, but one way we could become less divided is for the consequences of elections to be clearer. When legislation is so hard to pass, politics becomes a battle over identity rather than a battle over policy. Don’t get me wrong: Fights over policy can be angry, even vicious. But they can also lead to changed minds — as in the winning coalition Democrats built atop the successes of the New Deal — or changed parties, as savvy politicians learn to accept the successes of the other side. There is a reason Republicans no longer try to repeal Medicare and Democrats shrink from raising taxes on the middle class.

This is what Manchin gets wrong: A world of partisan governance is a world in which Republicans and Democrats both get to pass their best ideas into law, and the public judges them on the results. That is far better than what we have now, where neither party can routinely pass its best ideas into law, and the public is left frustrated that so much political tumult changes so little.

This whole debate is peculiarly American. In parliamentary systems, the job of the majority party, or majority coalition, is to govern, and the job of the opposition party is to oppose. Cooperation can and does occur, but there’s nothing unusual or regrettable when it doesn’t, and government does not grind to a halt in its absence. Not so in America, where the president can be from one party and Congress can be controlled by another. In raising bipartisanship to a high political ideal, we have made a virtue out of a necessity, but that’s left us little recourse, either philosophically or legislatively, when polarization turns bipartisanship into a rarity. That’s where we are now…

It will surprise no one to hear that I think Democrats should get rid of the filibuster. But it’s not because I believe Democrats necessarily have the right answers for what ails America. It’s because I believe the right answers are likelier to be found if one party, and then the other, can try its hand at solving America’s problems. Partisan governance gives both parties true input over how America is governed; they just have to win elections. Bipartisan governance, at least with parties this polarized, does the opposite: It deprives both sides of the ability to govern and elections of their consequences.

6) I’m so tired of “scariant” reporting.  The vaccines work great against the variants, too.  The worst has been the reporting on India’s “double mutant” while most of what is going on is likely just the same B117 that’s taken over Europe and America.  

India’s worries have focused on a homegrown variant called B.1.617. The public, the popular press and many doctors have concluded that it is responsible for the severity of the second wave.

Researchers outside of India say the limited data so far suggests instead that a better-known variant called B.1.1.7 may be a more considerable factor. That variant walloped Britain late last year, hit much of Europe and is now the most common source of new infection in the United States.

“While it’s almost certainly true B.1.617 is playing a role, it’s unclear how much it’s contributing directly to the surge and how that compares to other circulating variants, especially B.1.1.7,” said Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego.

7) I think LG is probably bothered that I’m so bothered by NYT headlines like this “Teach Your Kids to Resist Hatred Toward Asians.”  I mean how about I teach my kids to resist stereotyped/prejudiced hatred against anybody?  And pretty sure I do.  I mean, I know that feels a little “All Lives Matter,” but lets just teach our kids not to hate and fall prey to ugly stereotypes, period.

8) I’m not sure this is the case for legalizing heroin that I’d make, but just yesterday I was telling my kids I’m literally for decriminalizing possession and small amounts of selling all drugs (the reality is that many “drug dealers” are just drug addicts supporting their habit and not exactly Stringer Bell).  

In 2013, the Columbia psychologist and drug-addiction researcher Carl Hart published a book that was a specific kind of success: it made him into a public character. The book, “High Price,” is in part a memoir of Hart’s adolescence in a poor Miami neighborhood, documenting the arrival of cocaine there in the eighties. Two cousins, whom as a child he’d looked up to, are exiled from their mother’s house for using cocaine, move into a shed in her back yard, and steal her washer and dryer to pay for drugs. The narrative of Hart’s ascent, to the Air Force, graduate school in neuroscience, and, eventually, Ivy League tenure, is interspersed with evidence from his career as an addiction researcher, in which he spent years paying volunteers to use drugs in a controlled hospital setting and observing the results. Hart argues that the violence and despair that defined the crack epidemic had more to do with the social conditions of Black America than they did with the physical pull of drugs. The book begins with his father beating his mother with a hammer after drinking. Hart’s view is that the attack was not about alcohol. “As we now know from experience with alcohol, drinking itself isn’t a problem for most people who do it,” Hart wrote. “The same is true of illegal drugs, even those we have learned to fear, like heroin and crack cocaine.”

Hart, who was one of the first Black scientists to attain tenure at Columbia, cut a charismatic figure. He had an easy authority in talking about the human and pharmacological experience of drug use, describing it in a way that turned an audience’s expectations on its head. Recounting the Rat Park experiments of the seventies, which allowed rats to press a lever for a drug, Hart explained that rats raised and kept in isolation consumed greater quantities of the drug than those that were held in a stimulating environment. “The key factor is the environment, whether you’re talking about humans or rats,” he said. In the late Obama years, most everyone, but especially most evidence-minded liberals, had lost faith in the war on drugs, and Hart became the scientist who said that pharmacology was a weaker force than we’d been led to think.

To promote the book, and this idea, Hart travelled overseas. During those trips, he said that he favored decriminalization and the regulation of all drugs from a perspective of harm reduction, positions that put him on the far left of the American debate. Still, he was sometimes challenged by audience members who thought these positions condescended to users. At an event in Vancouver, a man in the audience raised his hand and explained that he was a heroin user. “Canadians are more polite than New Yorkers, but essentially he said, ‘Who are you to tell me how to live my life?’ ” Hart recalled. The man was smart and clear, and he knew things about heroin that Hart did not. Hart said the conversation made him feel that he had been “paternalistic, pedantic, all those things. I thought I was, I don’t know, some enlightened scientist, and it just came down to, I had no right.”

In Geneva, he met a physician who invited him to visit a heroin-maintenance clinic with which she was affiliated. Hart spent several months there in 2015, watching heroin users behave as efficiently and functionally as the weighted gears in a watch. Patients checked in twice a day for injections, during one period that began at seven in the morning and another at five in the afternoon. In between, many of them went to work. The patients were each assigned a cubby to stash their respective belongings, and often one would leave a beer there, to drink after injection. Hart noticed that though American doctors worried endlessly over the harms of mixing booze and opioids, it didn’t seem a very big deal to the Swiss users, maybe because they knew the exact dose of heroin they were getting and could trust its purity. When one patient had to attend a wedding in less enlightened England, utterly lacking in injection clinics, she carefully planned out her doses and travel arrangements so she could make the trip. When Hart told me about the Geneva injection clinic, he spoke about it in the way that liberal parents speak about Montessori schools—as a fanatically engineered expression of trust. Of the users, Hart said, “They were always on time.”

Shortly after visiting the clinic, Hart began regularly snorting heroin, as he recounts in a new book, “Drug Use for Grown-Ups.” His description of how he started is deliberately simple, suggesting how many of his boundaries had fallen away: a friend said that she’d never used heroin before but was interested in doing so. “Same here. So one Friday evening we did.” He describes using heroin in carefully managed doses, with product he trusts, in the company of friends, at times when being in an altered state does not interfere with his life, and achieving “a dreamy light sedation, free of stress.” Hart says that he used on “no more than about ten consecutive days at a time,” with a frequency roughly similar to his use of alcohol. He writes, “Like vacation, sex, and the arts, heroin is one of the tools I use to maintain my work-life balance.” There are libertarian strains in Hart’s extreme vision of a responsible individual user—but he also sometimes describes his use in the context of a shared racial identity. “I am frequently in a state of hypervigilance in an effort to prevent or minimize the damage caused by living in my own skin,” he writes. “When heroin binds to mu opioid receptors in my brain, I ‘lay down my burden’ as well as ‘my sword and shield’ just as described in the Negro spiritual ‘Down by the Riverside.’ ”

9) This is a great story, “After years as a meme, ‘Disaster Girl’ takes control of her image — with a hefty payoff”

Zoe Roth couldn’t stop checking her phone. “What’s it at now, what’s it at now?” her co-workers asked as they passed by the hostess stand at the Italian restaurant Il Palio. She gave a live play-by-play, and everyone on staff was invested.

As the clock neared 6 p.m. on April 17, she was shaking. Zoe was in the middle of an online auction for a photo, one that years ago had made her 4-year-old self famous.

In that photo, Zoe’s hair is askew. A close-up of her smirking face is in the foreground of the frame, and in the background, a house fire blazes. In her eyes there is a knowingness, as if she is saying, “Yes, it was me. I did this. Wouldn’t you like to know how.”

Evil girl looking back at the viewer in front of a burning house

10) Where’s that Novavax vaccine, anyway?

11) Noted professor asks, “Should We Stop Grading Class Participation?”  Ummm… no.

12) Oh, please.  “Tech Confronts Its Use of the Labels ‘Master’ and ‘Slave’ :Companies and programmers are reexamining how technical terms are used amid Black Lives Matter protests. But some worry the changes are empty symbolism.”  Let’s be clear– it is empty symbolism and there’s been masters and slaves long before any white or black people made it to America.  

13) You know what we really need to work on?  The fact that Black men are way more likely to get pulled over and have a gun pulled on them. Drum:

You might be surprised by this. The key thing we’re interested in is contact initiated by the police, which is about 80% traffic stops. As you can see, Black drivers and white drivers are stopped at nearly the same rate: 11.7% and 11.0%. This is based on survey data in which people report their own experience.

Now let’s move on to use of force by police. Black and Hispanic respondents report that police used force on them at more than twice the rate reported by white respondents. But there’s also this:

Black respondents report having a gun pointed at them at eight times the rate of white respondents. (The number for Hispanics is unreliable due to small sample size, so don’t pay too much attention to that.)

If these self-reported statistics are accurate, Black and white drivers (along with street encounters) are stopped by police at roughly the same rate. But Black men (and it’s mostly men) have guns aimed at them eight times more often. This probably explains why we see so many examples of this captured on video. It’s because it happens so often.

14) Or a story like this, “NC ROTC student, who is Black, practiced drills with fake gun. A neighbor called police.”

Until Tuesday, Jathan Walthour practiced his Air Force ROTC drills with a mop, marching around his Raleigh home with a kitchen cleaning tool.

But as the drills grew more complicated, the sophomore at Sanderson High School got his first dummy rifle from Dick’s Sporting Goods — a fake wooden gun for more realistic practice.

He took his rifle to the cul-de-sac Tuesday night, spinning and switching it between his shoulders, until his practice stopped short. Someone called police on Walthour, who is 16 and Black. A patrol car rolled up to investigate.

Walthour knew what to do. He belongs to Police Explorers, a community program for kids interested in criminal justice. So he placed the rifle on the ground and stepped away from it before officers said a word.

His mother, Jasmin Krest, offered this sobering response: “This is every day for us.”

15) Meredith Conroy ,”Why Being ‘Anti-Media’ Is Now Part Of The GOP Identity”

There’s little question that the media is one of the least trusted institutions in Republican circles.

In the past two decades, trust in traditional media has plummeted — especially among Republicans. According to polling from Gallup, since at least the late 1990s, Republicans have been less likely than Democrats (and independents) to say they trust the media. But starting in 2015, trust among Republicans took a nosedive, falling from 32 percent to 10 percent in 2020. (Meanwhile, among Democrats, trust in the media has actually climbed back up, and by quite a bit.)

This distrust, and Republicans’ growing animosity toward the media, is significant because they’re already isolated news consumers. And studies have shown that when news consumers exist in a media bubble, they can be hostile toward news that doesn’t match their political beliefs. (It also means they can be too trusting of their preferred news outlets.) Plus, as Jonathan Ladd, a Georgetown University public policy and government professor and the author of “Why Americans Hate the Media and How It Matters,” points out,Republicans are getting the message from Fox News (and the broader conservative media ecosystem) that the mainstream media can’t be trusted. “This isn’t new,” Ladd said, but he added that the conservative media’s continued criticism of the press has been “kicked into high gear” by the modern Republican Party.

Take what happened in the Trump era. During both his campaign for the presidency and his four years in office, Trump openly attacked the mediacalling journalists or news organizations critical of him or his administration “fake news.” Consequently, his supporters’ existing perceptions of media bias and distrust of news organizations intensified — this was especially true among his white supporters, who are more likely to consume exclusively conservative media. For instance, at many of Trump’s campaign events, his supporters would disparage, attack and threaten the press. And now, when Trump’s supporters disagree with a fact, they can decry it as “fake news” — whether it be crowd size or election results.

Hostility and distrust of the news media, in other words, has become a point of political identity among Republicans. 

16) Meanwhile, all the more reason Biden’s low-key style is successful, “The Biden White House media doctrine: Less can be more”

But as a strategy, it is a return to an era that predated the Obama White House, when the country heard from the president sparingly.

But it’s also a continuation of the campaign strategy — especially during the general election — premised on the idea thattoo much exposure didn’t necessarily work to his benefitThat mindset sparked criticism from the press as well as then-President Trump, who was doing daily press briefings on Covid-19 while his opponent was largely broadcasting from his home in Delaware. But Biden aides believed that simplicity and restraint was the best approach. He won the election.

“I don’t think that we felt like what [Trump’s team] did worked,” a senior communications aide told POLITICO. “What [Trump] was doing as a strategy was not successful.”

Robert Gibbs, Obama’s first press secretary, says that the current media environment forces a balance for any White House staff. The American people want to see the president working. But overexposure carries risk — and not just in the form of increasing the chances for a notable gaffe.

“I used to have these discussions with President Obama; we were just laying too much of the communications work on top of him,” Gibbs said. “In reality, once you elevate it to the role of the president commenting on it, you can’t really go backwards. Like it’s now fully owned by them.”

17) Aaron Carroll, “When Can We Declare the Pandemic Over?”

Too many people, though, are unwilling to talk about any lowering of our guard — even in the future — because some danger still exists. They want to know that no one is dying of Covid-19 in their community anymore, or they want to know that there are no cases in the area and that there is no chance of their being exposed.

I understand the sentiment, as we have been overwhelmed with messaging about how dangerous Covid-19 is. But the sentiment is not realistic, nor is it reasonable. Such extreme vigilance can also backfire: Each day we wait, more people become impatient and abandon their posts.

Normal has never meant “perfectly safe.” A safer world will likely still have Covid-19 in it.

Ideally, we should reduce restrictions gradually while we closely monitor the situation. First, we might liberalize outdoor gatherings and open schools and maybe even camps more fully. If all goes well, we could allow for denser indoor public events, with masks. We could allow restaurants and bars to increase to full capacity in stages.

While we do all this, we should track cases, hospitalizations and positivity rates. We will still need to test widely, even asymptomatic people, to measure our progress. Should all go well, eventually, we could get rid of masking requirements. If enough people are vaccinated and transmissions slow, we will reach a place where we are much, much safer than we are now.

Americans are generally willing to live with a greater-than-zero level of risk in exchange for what we used to consider a normal life. The roads are full of cars, even though accidents are the No. 1 killer of children. We don’t seem that eager as a country to restrict access to guns, even though they cause injuries or deaths every day. Bottom line: We can sometimes collectively act to reduce risk, but we almost never eliminate it.

18) Especially since I’m working on PSA’s to encourage vaccination (hopefully coming soon to a social media feed near you), I was especially intrigued by Noah Smith’s take on anti-vaccination:

But in fact, I think there’s another angle to the new antivax movement besides the partisan angle — a widespread need for a feeling of personal control.

I got this idea when I noticed that talk show host Joe Rogan declared that healthy 21-year-olds shouldn’t get vaccinated. Rogan is no partisan Republican. But he is someone who seems to place great stock in independence of personal thought and action. And this made me realize that refusing to get vaccinated — or simply harboring reservations about the public health experts’ advice that everyone get vaccinated — might feel like a way of exercising personal independence.

And personal independence really just means exercising control over your own life. This pandemic year has seen Americans lose a lot of the control over their lives that they felt they had previously. Mask mandates and distancing requirements created new rules for everyone to follow. And the virus itself represented the greatest loss of control — a silent, insensate, ever-hungry terror that could lay low the strongest man and send the freest spirits cowering to the safety of their homes.

The plague year infantilized us, made us impotent in the face of forces beyond our control. I think that in some people, that produced a strong desire to strike back and reassert a measure of personal autonomy, even if that meant not wearing a mask or not taking a vaccine. Unable to control the virus or their own fear, people instead took the only independent action they felt they could take — they broke society’s rules.

If this is a big part of vaccine refusal, I doubt that paying people to get shots — one commonly suggested remedy — will be very effective, since to the refusers that would feel like selling their personal autonomy for money.

So I think we need to find some way to convince people that getting vaccinated increases your control over your own life, rather than decreasing it. Especially in low-vaccination red states, we have to get refusers to see it as a tool to be wielded, rather than a rule to be followed. Just like a car or a hammer or a gun, a vaccine shot allows you to escape the fear of the virus, while denying COVID simply shoves that fear back into the deep recesses of your psyche. Vaccines are liberating.

More and better policing– it’s complicated!

First of all, a great piece from Planet Money:

Williams and his colleagues, Aaron Chalfin, Benjamin Hansen, and Emily Weisburst, got motivated to answer questions like: What is the measurable value of adding a new police officer to patrol a city? Do additional officers prevent homicides? How many people do these officers arrest and for what? And how do bigger police forces affect Black communities?

They gathered data from the FBI and other public data sources for 242 cities between the years 1981 and 2018. They obtained figures on police employment, homicide rates, reported crimes, arrests, and more. And they used technically-savvy statistical techniques to estimate the effects of expanding the size of police forces on things like preventing homicides and increasing arrests (read their working paper for more depth, and, also spend a few hours reading about “instrumental variable” regression, which is pretty freaking genius).

The Impact Of One More Officer

Williams and his colleagues find adding a new police officer to a city prevents between 0.06 and 0.1 homicides, which means that the average city would need to hire between 10 and 17 new police officers to save one life a year. They estimate that costs taxpayers annually between $1.3 and $2.2 million. The federal government puts the value of a statistical life at around $10 million (Planet Money did a whole episode on how that number was chosen). So, Williams says, from that perspective, investing in more police officers to save lives provides a pretty good bang for the buck. Adding more police, they find, also reduces other serious crimes, like robbery, rape, and aggravated assault.

Very good stuff.  So, implemented correctly, more policing saves lives and reduces crimes– disproportionately benefiting Black Americans.  It also leads to more low-level arrests, disproportionately hurting Black Americans.

So, what we really need is more policing, done better.  And how to we get policing done better?  Taking training way more seriously would be a great place to start.  Olga Khazan with a nice piece in this in the Atlantic:

Police in the United States receive less initial training than their counterparts in other rich countries—about five months in a classroom and another three or so months in the field, on average. Many European nations, meanwhile, have something more akin to police universities, which can take three or four years to complete. European countries also have national standards for various elements of a police officer’s job—such as how to search a car and when to use a baton. The U.S. does not.

The 18,000 police departments in the U.S. each have their own rules and requirements. But although police reform is a contentious subject, the inadequacy of the current training provides a rare point of relative consensus: “Police officers, police chiefs, and everyone agree that we do not get enough training in a myriad of fields,” Dennis Slocumb, the legislative director of the International Union of Police Associations, told me…

The mix of instruction given in police academies speaks volumes about their priorities. The median police recruit receives eight hours of de-escalation training, compared with 58 hours of training in firearms, according to the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank for police executives…

American police training resembles military training—“polish your boots, do push-ups, speak when you’re spoken to,” Brooks told me. In an article for The Atlantic last year, she described practicing drills and standing at attention when senior officers entered the room. “I don’t think I’ve been yelled at as much since high-school gym class more than three decades ago,” she wrote. Reformers worry that this type of training teaches recruits that the world runs on strict power hierarchies, and that anything short of perfect compliance should be met with force and anger.

Though he generally agrees with the push toward less militaristic police academies, Slocumb thinks the stress of military-style drills can be a useful proving ground for new officers. “You don’t want the first time that you have to make a decision while people are screaming in your face to be out in someone’s living room,” he told me. “It needs to be something you’ve been accustomed to during training.” …

Police should be trained “to be sympathetic, to be guardians, rather than warriors,” Wexler says.

That might mean adding new subjects to the curriculum. Few American officers receive much education about the history of policing or the role of police in a democratic society. “The officer coming out of one of the European training programs, he’s much more likely to have a much broader perspective on what the job is, what your role is, what your society is like, how do you fit into it,” says David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “Those things are just not really part of what’s going on in most American police-training programs.”

American police academies are also light on training in “soft skills,” such as how to communicate or use emotional intelligence to see a situation clearly. “We didn’t talk about any of what you might call the big issues in policing: race and policing, policing and excessive force, what is good policing?” Brooks said. (The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department’s curriculum has been updated since Brooks’s 2016 training and “now includes these areas,” according to a police spokesperson.)

American cops are poorly prepared for trauma on the job, too: They get just six hours of training in stress management, compared with 25 hours in report-writing, according to a 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Justice.

And after officers graduate from police academies, such deficits in their training are difficult to make up.

And Leonhardt on some needed political/policy changes:

The two big changes

The recent policy changes fit into two main categories. The first is a set of limits on the use of force. Sixteen states have restricted the use of so-called neck restraints, like Derek Chauvin’s use of his knee on Floyd’s neck. And 21 additional cities now require officers to intervene when they think another officer is using excessive force.
The changes have mostly been in Democratic-leaning states, but not entirely: Kentucky has limited no-knock warrants, which played a role in Breonna Taylor’s death, while Indiana, Iowa and Utah have restricted neck restraints. (Republican legislators in some states are pushing bills that go in the other direction, by strengthening penalties for people who injure officers, for instance, or by preventing cities from cutting police budgets.)
The second category involves police accountability. Several states have mandated the use of body cameras. Colorado, New Mexico, Massachusetts and Connecticut have made it easier for citizens to sue police officers, as has New York City.
In Maryland, David Moon, a state legislator, said that the recent changes were “just light-years beyond” those enacted after Freddie Gray died in the custody of Baltimore police six years ago. The new laws “basically blew up the old system and tried to create a new structure for discipline,” Moon told The Washington Post.
One significant part of the policy changes: States are enacting them, forcing local police departments to abide by them. “States had given great leeway to local jurisdictions to decide how to police themselves,” The Times’s Michael Keller told us. “Now, states are starting to take more control.”

I’m a glass half-full guy and, personally, I’m pleased that we are really taking the problems with policing (and especially race and policing) seriously for the first time ever.  And I think the evidence is that his is already leading to needed improvement.  There’s a long way to go and the path surely will be bumpy, but I really think we’re moving in the right direction.  As I teach in my policy courses, the very first step in policy change is “problem definition” and now, really, for the first time we are pretty accurately defining the problems and what we can do about them.

Quick hits (part II)

1) This is very true, “A Vaccine Can Be Bad for a Person but Awesome for All People: The safety pause in giving the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine is up for debate again—a battle in a Secret War of Denominators and risk-benefit philosophies.”

2) Have I mentioned how much I love, love, love Zeynep’s (free) substack.  So many posts are basically just a clear breakdown of how to be a better thinker applied to examples with Covid.  In these week’s it’s about an outbreak at a nursing home that led many to say “oh, no, vaccines don’t work” but was really a great demonstration of vaccine efficacy.

What are we looking at here? A nursing home outbreak, 46 infections, three deaths, a variant with concerning mutations.

Here’s one way to headline an article about the study:

The article describes the outbreak:

An unvaccinated health care worker set off a Covid-19 outbreak at a nursing home in Kentucky where the vast majority of residents had been vaccinated, leading to dozens of infections, including 22 cases among residents and employees who were already fully vaccinated, a new study reported Wednesday.

Most of those who were infected with the coronavirus despite being vaccinated did not develop symptoms or require hospitalization, but one vaccinated individual, who was a resident of the nursing home, died, according to the study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Altogether, 26 facility residents were infected, including 18 who had been vaccinated, and 20 health care personnel were infected, including four who had been vaccinated. Two unvaccinated residents also died.

The article isn’t inaccurate. It relays what indeed happened. The headline is descriptive. The article states up top that most of the infected did not develop symptoms or require hospitalization, while noting the one death. It highlights the importance of vaccinating nursing home staff (which is how it came into the facility), and explains that this was a variant that shared a key mutation, E484K, with variants that were suspected of partial immune escape, like  B.1.351 (South Africa) and P.1. (Brazil). I’m not picking on the article at all, it is usually how such studies are represented in responsible outlets: the descriptive facts, in order. This is our accepted practice.

The CDC study also notes an efficacy calculation: “Vaccine was 86.5% protective against symptomatic illness among residents and 87.1% protective among HCP.” I saw multiple attempts on social media to compare this number to the one efficacy number from the trials, usually around 95%:…

A cluster differs greatly from what we measured in trials where the participants did not live together or share exposure especially because we know this pathogen is very overdispersed. It oscillates between being aggressively contagious—probably a combination of a person who emits a lot of aerosols and is at the most contagious stage of their infection plus an enclosed space, or repeated exposure in a congregate living facility like this one—and not transmitting onward at all. Various studies find that 80 to 90 percent of people never transmit onward—they are the end of the chain.

Hence, if your exposure takes place while you are a member of a potential cluster, your odds of being infected are much greater than in comparison with exposure that doesn’t occur as part of a cluster. For a pathogen like this, finding transmission events, not infected people, are key because transmission events are near each other. If you find one, you are likely to find more. But that also means that being in a cluster is a worse case scenario, compared with the independent measurements from the trials: one would expect higher attack rates.  In fact, this is very useful information for mitigation: focusing on finding such clusters and “backward-tracing them” to find the source, and then trying to look at other people that might have been exposed within that cluster, rather than trying to trace every infected person’s onward contacts (most of which were going to be dead end anyway) was key to Japan’s comparatively very successful strategy (something I wrote about while explaining overdispersion and its implications). 

When you put this together, what is the information you get from the above study?

You get very, very good, reassuring news about the vaccines.

3) This is really good from political scientists Frances Lee and James Curry: “What’s Really Holding the Democrats Back: It’s not the filibuster.”

Joe Manchin, West Virginia’s Democratic senator, has put everyone on notice: Under no circumstances will he vote to eliminate the Senate filibuster. If the support of at least 10 Republicans is needed to pass legislation, progressives have little hope for their agenda. At least that’s what many seem to think. But eliminating the filibuster probably wouldn’t matter as much as they believe it would. The bigger obstacle to any party’s agenda is its members’ inability to agree among themselves.

We compiled the stated policy goals of every congressional majority party from 1985 through 2018. We identified the parties’ agendas by looking to the bills designated as leadership priorities and the issues flagged by the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader in their opening speech to Congress, yielding a list on average of 15 top priorities per congressional term. Tracking each proposal, 265 in total, we found that the parties failed outright on their agenda priorities about half the time, meaning that no legislation on the issue was enacted.  

We then analyzed when, how, and why each failed, and also whether the majority party faced a unified or divided government when it did. Naturally, when a party controlled the House, Senate, and presidency, it fared somewhat better in enacting its agenda than when it didn’t, but not markedly so. Parties failed on 43 percent of their agenda priorities in unified government as compared with 49 percent in divided government. This failure rate varies from Congress to Congress, but has remained fairly consistent even in recent years. When Democrats most recently held all three branches of government (in 2009–10), they failed on 50 percent of their agenda items. When Republicans most recently held all three (in 2017–18), they failed on 36 percent.

When a party has unified control of government, the filibuster provides the Senate’s minority party (if it has at least 41 senators) with the ability to stop the majority’s legislative efforts. This is why partisans focus so much on the filibuster, and why progressive activists are so concerned over it right now. But the filibuster accounted for only about one-third of the majority party’s failures during the periods of unified government we studied. In the two most recent instances of unified government—the Democrats in 2009–10 and the Republicans in 2017–18—agenda failures caused by the filibuster were even less common. The Democrats had just one of their priorities, immigration reform, fail because of the filibuster. The Republicans had none. Filibuster reform, then, may enable Democrats to achieve particular policy goals opposed by Republicans, and those would certainly be victories. But most failures, about two-thirds overall during years of unified government and 90 percent during the past two instances of unified government, stemmed from disagreements within the majority party rather than the minority party’s ability to block legislation via the filibuster.

4) Kevin Drum with his “megatrends” of American politics.  I agree with most, especially these:

1. US politics will stay toxic as long as Fox News is around. Rupert Murdoch has discovered that spreading fear and outrage is the most reliable way of making money, so that’s what he does. It’s all but impossible to sustain a traditional political system when half the population is scared senseless of the other half, and that will remain the case until Fox New is somehow reined in…

6.  We are entering a biotech golden age. I know, I know: we’ve been entering a biotech golden age for the past four decades. But after years of prologue, I think we really are finally on the verge of huge change. Cheap genome sequencing, CRISPR, and mRNA vaccines are harbingers of the near future.

5) David Frum with an interesting take on the rise of Ron DeSantis.

6) Jack Shafer on the rise of Substack:

The rise of Substack—and of platforms of its competitors—signals a new juncture in journalism, one that combines the power and mystique of the byline with the editorial independence afforded by the blog. After being lectured forever about how information wants to be free, Substack is teaching us that not only will readers pay for top-drawer copy, but that the work of some writers was actually undervalued in the market before readers were given the opportunity to purchase journalism a la carte instead of from a prix fixe menu.

Substack has stampeded some elite media types into a panic. “Is Substack the Media Future We Want?” worried a New Yorker feature recently. New York Times media columnist Ben Smith analyzed the upheaval in his column, “Why We’re Freaking Out About Substack.” Yes, Substack looks like a revolution and smells like a revolution, but as many have noted, it’s really a throwback to the origins of journalism in the Middle Ages, and the emphasis on who is writing the copy as opposed to what is being written can be traced to the late 19th century. Substack may be educating the industry about who adds the high value in journalism, writers or editors.

7) This is cool, “This Map Lets You Plug in Your Address to See How It’s Changed Over the Past 750 Million Years”

8) Pretty sure I wrote a post a while back about how the soccer penalty kick is the dumbest thing in sports.  I stand by that.  Apparently, Premier League teams are now working extra hard to draw fouls in the corner of the penalty box where the likelihood of your next few actions actually scoring a goal is super-low anyway.  Soccer is such a great sport with some really stupid rules.  

Indeed, it hasn’t merely gone, but it’s flipped the other way. Aside from serious foul play, VAR only looks at incidents in the box — so now, fouls that are less obvious inside the box are penalised more than those outside.

This new era hasn’t simply changed the decision-making of officials, but also the approach of forwards, which probably explains the increase in the award of penalties between the first VAR season and the second (as well as some particularly harsh handball decisions at the start of this campaign). It has become increasingly obvious that in certain situations, more than ever, attackers are playing for penalties by attempting to engineer contact. Strategically, it makes complete sense, particularly when an attacker is in the corner of the box.

The word “box” is key here, because the concept of a penalty box doesn’t reflect the true value of the football pitch. In other comparable sports — hockey, for example — this type of area is denoted by a semi-circle rather than a rectangle, forming a consistent distance from the goal. Everyone knows the penalty box in football is 18 yards long, but they might not know it is 44 yards wide — because that ensures it also stretches 18 yards away from the two posts, which are eight yards apart.

So although 18 yards was considered the key distance from goal, this became a box rather than a semi-circle. Clearly, there’s a zone in the corners of the penalty box that are within 18 yards of the byline, but considerably further from the goal. These are poor positions in terms of creating a goal from open play, and are therefore disproportionately valuable in terms of winning a foul.

You’ll probably be familiar with the concept of expected goals, aka xG, which outlines the probability of a shot finding the net when struck from a particular position. Shooting from the corner of the box will result in a goal around one or two per cent of the time, depending upon the xG model and the precise position.

Of course, that doesn’t entirely explain the situation. A player with the ball in that position probably won’t shoot. He’ll attempt to pass or dribble into a better position.

But we can also account for that through analytics. Karun Singh, a football analytics writer with a computer science degree from Cornell University, has developed the concept of “expected threat” — xT. This is explained at length on his blog, and largely follows the concept of xG, but takes the process forward a few stages. In other words, it’s not simply about judging the probability of a goal stemming directly from a particular zone, but about judging the probability of a goal arising from the next two, three, four or five “actions” (passes, crosses, dribbles, shots etc) from a particular zone.

Singh’s analysis is worth reading — his methodology is beyond most of us, but it features excellent interactive graphics to explain the concept. For the purposes of this article, the zone highlighted below is relevant. If a player has the ball in this position, his team will score from the next five “actions” 9 per cent of the time (on average — it varies for different teams).

Furthermore, the heatmap demonstrates how the probability of a goal arising in the next five moves varies across the pitch — the darker the zone, the more dangerous it is. And the most interesting here is the very obvious visual proof that not only is the corner of the box less dangerous than a central position, as you would expect, but it’s also slightly less dangerous than a wider position — the same distance from the byline, but outside the box. The danger increases further when a player reaches the zone near the byline, still outside the box.

In other words, having the ball in the corner of the box is not particularly valuable in terms of creating a goal from open play. And therefore the more logical thing to do is attempt to win a penalty, which will bring a 78 per cent chance of a goal (slightly more if, like in Singh’s model, you include subsequent actions, to account for rebounds).

9) This is very good for the Covid-inclined, “We know a lot about Covid-19. Experts have many more questions”

10) Civil Asset Forfeiture is just the worst! “The Government Seized This Innocent Man’s Car Without Due Process. SCOTUS Won’t Hear the Case.
“How can an ordinary person afford to wait years after the government takes their car?””

11) I don’t post a lot on foreign policy, but if this wasn’t just the clearest case of “sunk cost trap” imaginable when it comes to Afghanistan:

At a recent National Security Council Principal’s Committee meeting, Cabinet-level officials including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and others gathered as part of the administration’s weekslong review of US policy in Afghanistan.

The officials are debating which of three broad options for the 20-year war in Afghanistan Biden should pursue. The first is to adhere to former President Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban, which would require Biden to withdraw all remaining 2,500 US troops by May 1. The second is to negotiate an extension with the insurgent group, allowing American forces to remain in the country beyond early May. And third is to defy the Trump-Taliban pact altogether and keep fighting in Afghanistan with no stated end date.

During the meeting, according to four sources from the White House, Pentagon, and elsewhere familiar with what happened, Milley made an impassioned — and at times “emotional,” according to some — case to consider keeping US troops in the country.

Milley, who was the deputy commanding general of US forces in Afghanistan and served three tours in the country, essentially argued that if American forces fully withdraw by May 1, it would open the door for the Taliban to overtake the country, making life worse for millions of Afghans and imperiling US national security goals.

Women’s rights “will go back to the Stone Age,” Milley said, according to two of the sources. He argued that it wasn’t worth leaving the country after “all the blood and treasure spent” there over the last two decades. [emphasis mine] He also added that, in his view, the lack of 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan would make it harder to stem threats from a nuclear-armed Pakistan.

12) Damn I love science! “This Ultra-White Paint May Someday Replace Air Conditioning: Developed by researchers at Purdue University, the paint reflects 98.1 percent of sunlight”

Researchers at Purdue University have developed a new ultra-white paint that reflects 98.1 percent of sunlight and can keep surfaces up to 19 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than their ambient surroundings. This new paint, which may become available for purchase in the next year or two, could someday help combat global warming and reduce our reliance on air conditioners.

The team of scientists in Purdue’s mechanical engineering department recently published the findings of their paint research, funded by the university’s cooling technologies research center and the Air Force’s scientific research office, in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

“Our paint only absorbs 1.9 percent of the sunlight, whereas commercial paint absorbs 10 to 20 percent of sunlight,” says Xiulin Ruan, a Purdue mechanical engineering professor and one of the study’s co-authors.

The paint is a marked improvement from current heat-rejecting paints on the market. When struck by the sun’s rays, surfaces covered in today’s available white paints get warmer, not cooler. At best, these heat-combatting paints can reflect 80 to 90 percent of sunlight, says Ruan.

The new ultra-white paint, which the researchers say is the coolest on record, reflects nearly all of the sun’s rays and sends infrared heat away from the surface, providing an average cooling power of 113 watts per square meter. If painted onto the roof of a 1,000-square-foot home, that translates to a cooling power of 10 kilowatts, which is more powerful than most residential central air conditioners, Ruan says.

In tests conducted during sunny, midday hours on the roof of a campus building in West Lafayette, Indiana, the paint kept outdoor surfaces 8 degrees cooler than the ambient surrounding temperatures. At night, the paint kept surfaces 19 degrees cooler than their surroundings.

“Our paint can lose heat by its own emission—it emits heat to deep space,” Ruan says. “With such little absorption from the sun, our paint loses more heat than it absorbs. This is really exciting for us. Under the sun, it cools below the ambient temperature and that’s hard to achieve.”

13) Apparently the NHL told its players that after vaccination life could go back to normal, but, then… not so much.  Also, I had no idea how restrictive they were being to make this all work:

Golden Knights goalie Robin Lehner sparked discussion and controversy Wednesday when he spoke out against the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols and overall approach to mental health during the pandemic.

Lehner sat at the press conference table inside the Vegas practice facility and delivered an emotional message, claiming that the NHL promised players a more relaxed version of the current protocols once players were vaccinated. He said that even though the majority of Golden Knights players have received their shots, the league hasn’t followed through.

“To be promised something’s going to change, to take a vaccine,” Lehner said. “Where some people, some players were even on the verge of taking it, and I was one of them. I wasn’t sure, but I took it for my mental health. When we did it, now they said it’s not happening. I think that’s wrong.”

The NHL and deputy commissioner Bill Daly quickly disputed Lehner’s claim, stating the league never made such promises. Shortly after Lehner spoke publicly, he talked again with The Athletic over the phone to clarify some of his statements and provided details for the exact rule relaxations he was expecting.

He didn’t back down from his initial statements but doubled down on his belief that the league must do better in its handling of players’ mental health issues.

“We were presented with, ‘Listen, if we can get 85 percent of our travel party vaccinated, these rules are going to change,” Lehner told The Athletic. “They showed us the NBA protocols for all the stages, and that’s what made me take the vaccine.

“Being lied to about things changing, to kind of force us to take the vaccine, is unacceptable. And now that we’ve taken the vaccine, to say ‘Nah, we aren’t changing because of competitive advantage,’ is outrageous.”

NHL players are following stricter isolation rules than most of the general public, essentially only traveling from the rink to their house and back for an entire calendar year. They aren’t allowed to leave their house for something as simple as grocery shopping. No visitors are allowed into their homes, including their own teammates. On the road they often can’t even dine as a team, forced to grab a meal and take it to their room to eat. Even players’ family members are encouraged not to go out for any reason. To the rink, and back home. That’s it.

14) Of course there’s fraud in the vaccination cards.

15) Leonhardt on our inability to properly assess the risks of Covid:

Guido Calabresi, a federal judge and Yale law professor, invented a little fable that he has been telling law students for more than three decades.

He tells the students to imagine a god coming forth to offer society a wondrous invention that would improve everyday life in almost every way. It would allow people to spend more time with friends and family, see new places and do jobs they otherwise could not do. But it would also come with a high cost. In exchange for bestowing this invention on society, the god would choose 1,000 young men and women and strike them dead.

Calabresi then asks: Would you take the deal? Almost invariably, the students say no. The professor then delivers the fable’s lesson: “What’s the difference between this and the automobile?”

In truth, automobiles kill many more than 1,000 young Americans each year; the total U.S. death toll hovers at about 40,000 annually. We accept this toll, almost unthinkingly, because vehicle crashes have always been part of our lives. We can’t fathom a world without them.

It’s a classic example of human irrationality about risk. We often underestimate large, chronic dangers, like car crashes or chemical pollution, and fixate on tiny but salient risks, like plane crashes or shark attacks.

One way for a risk to become salient is for it to be new. That’s a core idea behind Calabresi’s fable. He asks students to consider whether they would accept the cost of vehicle travel if it did not already exist. That they say no underscores the very different ways we treat new risks and enduring ones.

I have been thinking about the fable recently because of Covid-19. Covid certainly presents a salient risk: It’s a global pandemic that has upended daily life for more than a year. It has changed how we live, where we work, even what we wear on our faces. Covid feels ubiquitous.

Fortunately, it is also curable. The vaccines have nearly eliminated death, hospitalization and other serious Covid illness among people who have received shots. The vaccines have also radically reduced the chances that people contract even a mild version of Covid or can pass it on to others.

Yet many vaccinated people continue to obsess over the risks from Covid — because they are so new and salient.

Visitors riding the swings at Adventureland, in Farmingdale, N.Y., yesterday.Johnny Milano for The New York Times

‘Psychologically hard’

To take just one example, major media outlets trumpeted new government data last week showing that 5,800 fully vaccinated Americans had contracted Covid. That may sound like a big number, but it indicates that a vaccinated person’s chances of getting Covid are about one in 11,000. The chances of a getting a version any worse than a common cold are even more remote.

But they are not zero. And they will not be zero anytime in the foreseeable future. Victory over Covid will not involve its elimination. Victory will instead mean turning it into the sort of danger that plane crashes or shark attacks present — too small to be worth reordering our lives.

That is what the vaccines do. If you’re vaccinated, Covid presents a minuscule risk to you, and you present a minuscule Covid risk to anyone else. A car trip is a bigger threat, to you and others. About 100 Americans are likely to die in car crashes today. The new federal data suggests that either zero or one vaccinated person will die today from Covid.

It’s true that experts believe vaccinated people should still sometimes wear a mask, partly because it’s a modest inconvenience that further reduces a tiny risk — and mostly because it contributes to a culture of mask wearing. It is the decent thing to do when most people still aren’t vaccinated. If you’re vaccinated, a mask is more of a symbol of solidarity than anything else.

Coming to grips with the comforting realities of post-vaccination life is going to take some time for most of us. It’s only natural that so many vaccinated people continue to harbor irrational fears. Yet slowly recognizing that irrationality will be a vital part of overcoming Covid.

15) Discovered the Raccoon Whisperer videos this weekend.  Ummm… wow.  Who knew raccoons could get so fat!

16) I love McDonald’s ice cream cones.  The fact that they are so constantly broken drives me crazy and feels like some bizarre failure of capitalism (I mean, there’s money at stake here– invent a more reliable ice cream machine!!)  And OMG this amazing Wired story explains it all and so much more.  It’s your must-read for the weekend.  And it also introduced me to this awesome website which I will now be checking before heading to McDonald’s for cones with the kids after Sunday afternoon nature walks.

Quick hits (part I)

1) Good stuff from Yglesias on Housing policy as a case study in how liberals make arguments to each other versus what is the best way to actually accomplish the goals of liberal arguments.  

What’s interesting about the housing case is that we just recently had a really good collaboration between Vox and Data for Progress (written up by Jerusalem Demsas) on the question of whether a race-forward framing of the housing issue is a good idea. The answer was: No, land use reform is more popular if you describe it as an economic growth initiative than as a racial justice initiative.

This is not a very surprising result if you take a second to think about it. Most voters like to hear that politicians care about people like them and their problems, and most voters are white. Meanwhile, non-white people benefit from economic growth. The presumption of Kahlenberg’s framing is that the audience is fully bought-in on the need to prioritize racial justice, and just needs to be told how to do that. But this, to me, is the central paradox of contemporary liberalism, which simultaneously holds that racism pervades American society and also that a good way to do politics is to constantly frame things in racial terms…

Aside from land use, the other big cause I’ve been very involved with is trying to get more political focus on expansionary monetary policy and full employment. In his memoir, “Eyes to the Wind: A Memoir of Love and Death, Hope and Resistance,” Ady Barkan very generously credits me with inspiring him to launch Fed Up, the first activist campaign focused on these issues. The articles that he says got him wanting to do this don’t say much of anything about race, but he explains that centering race was critical to securing momentum for his project in the progressive non-profit world:

I had laid out a good argument for why the Fed should pursue full employment, but I still needed to tell a comprehensible story about how the Fed should do that and how we could plausibly get the Fed to do it. Over my first months at CPD, Amy and I talked through those questions, and quite soon she had identified the crucial element that was missing from my analysis and my proposal: race.

And later.

So my framing would matter. A campaign pitch about the Federal Reserve and creative expansionary monetary policy would be met by glazed-over eyes and silence. A campaign about jobs and wages would be met by nodding heads and smiles. But a campaign about combatting racial and economic equality by delivering full employment to all communities? That might actually get some people excited.

Barkan’s frankness about this was really helpful and enlightening to me because the monetary policy campaign has been very successful but also very deliberately focused on elite persuasion. The basic question was how could a white activist convince a group of funders to give him money to convince a group of highly educated monetary policy officials to care more about working-class people and the answer was … talk a lot about race.

But that’s not the advice you would give someone trying to win a US Senate seat in Iowa…

Here at Slow Boring, everything ultimately comes back to Max Weber and politics as a vocation.

And what I would really like is for funders to think harder about these issues and try to adopt more of an ethic of responsibility and less of an ethic of moral conviction. What does that mean? Well in the ethics of conviction what matters are your feelings and intentions. Your job on this view is to wage the righteous struggle, and a struggle against white supremacy sounds a lot more righteous than a struggle against inefficient regulation.

But to use the social justice jargon of our time, intentions aren’t what matters. And relatively privileged people ought to be self-reflective about our privileges. If there are urgent problems, your obligation is to act like a responsible person and actually try to make them better. Does turning zoning reform into a highly polarized issue of racial conflict make it more or less likely to happen? And in particular, does setting up your grantmaking in such a way that any progressive cause’s advocates are strongly incentivized to turn it into a highly polarized issue of racial conflict make those causes more or less likely to prevail?

If the answer is “less likely,” then you have to not do it. That does not mean that you can’t address issues of race and racism. An issue that’s gotten attention in recent years is that a lack of racial diversity in clinical trials is compromising the quality of the health care that non-white patients receive. There is very strong evidence of racial bias in police stops. These are racial issues and they deserve to be addressed.

At the end of the day, though, there’s a big difference between saying “I want to fund various kinds of work, including some work on issues where race-neutral solutions won’t work” and saying “I want to create financial incentives for everyone to frame their race-neutral policy ideas as racial justice initiatives.” These days there is a lot of the latter happening and a lot of people are responding to it. If you’re in a position to make those kinds of decisions, you have to ask yourself whether that’s actually helping anyone.

2) The shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant the day of the Chauvin really blew up.  But 48 hours later, when it was clear she was basically shot while just about to stab an unarmed person, it’s largely dropped away.  This is not a good case to make arguments about racist policing and police reform.  I like Drum’s take:

Just as the verdict in the Derek Chauvin case was coming down on Tuesday, another high-profile police shooting of a Black person was taking place in Columbus, Ohio. But this case resolved very differently than the Chauvin case. Police had been called to a house where a fight was taking place and body cam video of the incident was released almost immediately. Here’s what it showed:

The girl wearing black, identified as 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, has a knife out and is obviously about to stab the girl wearing pink. A police officer on the scene shot Bryant four times before she could do any harm.

By American standards this was a righteous shooting. The police officer did the right thing and will certainly not be in any trouble over it.

But looking at this a little more broadly suggests that maybe American standards aren’t very good. Police are trained to react to situations like this with direct firepower, and you can make an argument that this is the right thing to do. But was it? Would rushing the two girls have been adequate? A warning shot? A taser? In countries like Norway and the UK it would have been handled differently simply because cops in those countries don’t routinely carry guns.

Shooting Bryant was, in some sense, the lowest-risk response. It was 100% guaranteed to save the girl in pink from any injury whatsoever. But would a different response have been better, even if it ran some small risk of the girl in pink suffering some (probably non-fatal) injury?

I think so.

3) Good stuff from Susan Glasser, “Many Republicans are acting like the Capitol insurrection never happened, and much of Washington is fine with it.”

Next Wednesday, President Joe Biden is set to deliver his first address to a joint session of Congress, on the eve of his hundredth day in office. Outside the Capitol, newly erected fences and a heavy National Guard presence attest to the lingering scars of our own January 6th. But January 6th denialism has taken hold in Trump and many of his supporters—even some inside Congress. They now claim the horrific events of that day were merely a peaceful protest, and they continue to refuse to accept the legitimacy of Biden’s win. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been unable to reach a deal with Republicans to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the attack on the Capitol.

And never mind the old bipartisan ritual of applauding the President, no matter which Party he comes from; a number of Republican members of Congress told Punchbowl News that they won’t even bother to show up for the President’s speech. “No,” said Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a former member of the House Republican leadership. “No,” said Representative Nancy Mace, a highly regarded Republican freshman from South Carolina. “I am not,” said Representative Greg Pence, the brother of Trump’s Vice-President, Mike Pence. Just hours after rioters sought to stop the Vice-President from banging down the gavel on the Trump Presidency, Greg Pence was one of the hundred and forty-seven Republicans who voted against certifying the election results—a total so large that it represents not some small lunatic fringe but the vast majority of the House Republican Conference.

Three months later, no price has been paid by the Republicans who took that vote. In the immediate aftermath of January 6th, this outcome was not entirely clear. Some Republican politicians initially disavowed Trump and seemed to believe that his hold on the Party would dissipate—Nikki Haley, I’m thinking of you—but have since proved eager to run away from their own words. Many companies even announced that they would suspend political donations to those who had voted against certifying the election results, suggesting there might actually be consequences. Instead, the inevitable walk-back has already started.

In recent days, as new campaign-finance reports have come in, the nonprofit group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (crew) has found numerous examples of corporate political-action committees resuming contributions to Republicans who voted to overturn the election results. They include the pacs run by A.T. & T., the American Bankers Association, JetBlue, and the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors. Toyota’s pac has given at least forty-eight thousand dollars to thirty-one Republican members who voted against certification, according to Noah Bookbinder, the president of crew, who told me it was the largest amount that his group has found so far—a “full-on embrace of not caring that members of Congress encouraged an insurrection.”

This is hardly surprising. Washington is a calculating place, and these companies have calculated, accurately, where the vast majority of Republican officials in Congress still stand. Papering over a scandal, assuming that the public is not paying enough attention to care about a few donations which really matter only to the politicians who receive them—that’s what this town is all about. “There was an opportunity for the Republican Party to differentiate itself from Donald Trump and his anti-democratic actions and tendencies, to say he’s gone too far,” Bookbinder told me. “They didn’t do that.”

4) Damn, I loved this from Katherine Wu, “Show Your Immune System Some Love: Antibodies are great and all, but macrophages, B cells, and helper T cells deserve some attention too.”  You know I am all about showing the T-cells some love:

If the immune system ran its own version of The Bachelor, antibodies would, hands down, get this season’s final rose.

These Y-shaped molecules have acquired some star-caliber celebrity in the past year, due in no small part to COVID-19. For months, their potentially protective powers have made headlines around the globe; we test for them with abandon, and anxiously await the results. Many people have come to equate antibodies, perhaps not entirely accurately, with near imperviousness to the coronavirus and its effects. Antibodies are, in many ways, the heartthrobs of the immune system—and some 15 months deep into immunological infatuation, the world is still swooning hard.

Don’t get me wrong: Antibodies have served me well, and thanks to my recent dalliance with the Pfizer vaccine, the anti-coronavirus variety will be receiving an extra dose of my admiration for a good while yet. I am, above all else, eager for the rest of the global population to nab the safeguards they offer, ideally for keeps.

But antibodies are simply not the only immune-system singles worthy of our love. A multitude of cells and molecules are crucial to building a protective immune response against this virus and many others. It’s time we took a break from antibodies, and embarked on a brief Rumspringa with the rest of the body’s great defenders…

T cells play a far more subtle game. Their career choices range from demolishing virus-killed cells to corralling and coordinating other immune cells. As several researchers have pointed out, T cells might be some of the most underappreciated cells in the war against COVID-19, especially when it comes to vaccines. Some evidence even suggests that, in the absence of decent antibodies, T cells can clean up the coronavirus mostly on their own.

Then there are the helpers—the benign Jekyll to the killers’ bellicose Hyde. Helper Ts are some of the most loyal partners you’ll find in the immune system, nurturing almost to a fault and versatile to boot. They coax B cells into maturing into antibody factories. They cheer killers along their murderous paths. They even goad innate immune cells into becoming the most ferocious fighters (and feeders) they can be. Effectively, helpers are “badass multitaskers that coordinate every level of immunity,” Marion Pepper, an immunologist at the University of Washington, told me. They’re about as supportive as they come—as long as you don’t mind being micromanaged from time to time.

5) As a parent who has let all his kids play with nerf guns and water guns, the idea of an NYT advice columnist saying even water pistols desensitize gun violence, all I can say is… give me a break.  

6) Great stuff from Brian Beutler in this week’s newsletter:

I’ll admit to mostly sidestepping the question of whether the Waters and Biden statements were appropriate; I have mixed feelings about them, and only one read-it-in-10-minutes-or-less email to write. (Unless….subscribe to my Substack, The Watersgate Investigation.) The norm that elected officials, particularly the president, shouldn’t opine on the guilt or innocence of criminal defendants before juries do is a strong one. The fact that Trump trampled it heedlessly was awful and corrosive. At the same time, Waters’s prerogatives in her dual-hatted roles as congresswoman and civil-rights activists are in tension here; as are Biden’s obligations to uphold the rights of the accused, respect separation of powers, and play social peacemaker. It’s a thorny debate, but it’s playing out all on its own, in good faith, without Republican input, on the broad left. 

Tabling the censure resolution, as Democrats did, was a way of saying Republicans should be excluded from that debate, and rightly so—but not because Republicans have their own “mess” to clean up. They’re unwelcome because they don’t see themselves as bound by the principles they’re pretending to be mad that Waters violated. Republicans love interfering in judicial processes to help their allies and punish their enemies; they love inciting violence against their political opposition. Donald Trump did these things with abandon and they cheered it for years; after he lost, they forged ahead in his image, most recently in the form of legislation offering their supporters immunity from civil liability for running over Black Lives Matter protesters with their cars

This isn’t the hypocrisy of a politician who preaches conservative family values by day then hits the Appalachian Trail at night. It’s shit-eating revelry in the fascistic notion that they and only they are allowed to violate the rules. They may use and abuse power all they want while their opponents must never run afoul of norms of decorum or fair play. The catch is that they understand it would be politically untenable to assert or attempt to justify this double standard explicitly. They get around that impediment by resorting to deception, to trying to convince the wider public that they view principles other than raw self-interest as sacrosanct. They preen about higher values they do not hold, knowing that neither the press nor the opposition party is likely to stipulate to the plain truth: That they are liars, keen on sanctioning their enemies for behavior that they revel in by feigning offense. 

7) Interesting, “What Facebook Did for Chauvin’s Trial Should Happen All the Time: If the social-media giant can discourage hate speech and incitements to violence on a special occasion, it can do so all the time.”

On Monday, Facebook vowed that its staff was “working around the clock” to identify and restrict posts that could lead to unrest or violence after a verdict was announced in the murder trial of the former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. In a blog post, the company promised to remove “content that praises, celebrates or mocks” the death of George Floyd. Most of the company’s statement amounted to pinky-swearing to really, really enforce its existing community standards, which have long prohibited bullying, hate speech, and incitements to violence.

8) Linda Greenhouse on guns and the Supreme Court:

Once again, the country is awash in gun violence. And once again, the justices have to decide whether to inject the Supreme Court into the middle of the gun debate. Will the first of those two sentences inform the second?

That’s really the question now, it seems to me. There is little doubt that the necessary four votes exist to add a Second Amendment case to the docket for decision, and there are plenty of candidates to choose from. One case under active consideration challenges New York State’s restriction on carrying a concealed gun outside the home. The justices have taken it up at their private conference twice this month and are scheduled to do so again on Friday.

case from New Jersey raising the same challenge to a similar constraint was filed at the court on April 2. There are other Second Amendment cases in the pipeline, propelled toward the court in the expectation that Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s arrival has finally tipped the balance toward action on the gun rights agenda…

Thirteen years post-Heller, the decision itself has become more of a symbol and talking point than a legal opinion that people actually take the trouble to read.

If they did, they would see Heller as the limited decision that it was. Yes, it took the unprecedented step of interpreting the Second Amendment as conferring an individual right to own a gun, but the court applied that new right to the unusual circumstance of a District of Columbia law that prohibited private gun ownership. Only the District and Chicago had such a strict law. The court held only that individuals have a constitutional right to own a gun and to keep it at home for self-defense. For the vast majority of people in the country, Heller changed nothing as a practical matter; it constitutionalized a right that gun owners already enjoyed under state and local laws.

Whether the Second Amendment also protects a right to walk down the street, or onto a college campus, or into a supermarket, a warehouse, a State Capitol, or a 12-year-old’s birthday party carrying a gun are questions that Heller did not answer. The current court can answer those questions in the affirmative if it so chooses. It has the votes. We will soon see whether it has the discipline and common sense to stay its hand.

9) Richard Hasen, “Republicans Aren’t Done Messing With Elections: Not content with limiting voting rights, they are threatening the integrity of vote counting itself.”

A new, more dangerous front has opened in the voting wars, and it’s going to be much harder to counteract than the now-familiar fight over voting rules. At stake is something I never expected to worry about in the United States: the integrity of the vote count. The danger of manipulated election results looms.

We already know the contours of the battle over voter suppression. The public has been inundated with stories about Georgia’s new voting law, from Major League Baseball’s decision to pull the All-Star Game from Atlanta to criticism of new restrictions that prevent giving water to people waiting in long lines to vote. With lawsuits already filed against restrictive aspects of that law and with American companies and elite law firms lined up against Republican state efforts to make it harder to register and vote, there’s at least a fighting chance that the worst of these measures will be defeated or weakened.

The new threat of election subversion is even more concerning. These efforts target both personnel and policy; it is not clear if they are coordinated. They nonetheless represent a huge threat to American democracy itself.

Some of these efforts involve removing from power those who stood up to President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The Georgia law removes the secretary of state from decision-making power on the state election board. This seems aimed clearly at Georgia’s current Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, punishing him for rejecting Mr. Trump’s entreaties to “find” 11,780 votes to flip Joe Biden’s lead in the state.

Even those who have not been stripped of power have been censured by Republican Party organizations, including not just Mr. Raffensperger and Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, but also Barbara Cegavske, the Republican secretary of state of Nevada who ran a fair election and rejected spurious arguments that the election was stolen. The message that these actions send to politicians is that if you want a future in state Republican politics, you had better be willing to manipulate election results or lie about election fraud.

Republican state legislatures have also passed or are considering laws aimed at stripping Democratic counties of the power to run fair elections. The new Georgia law gives the legislature the power to handpick an election official who could vote on the state election board for a temporary takeover of up to four county election boards during the crucial period of administering an election and counting votes. That provision appears to be aimed at Democratic counties like Fulton County that have increased voter access. A new Iowa law threatens criminal penalties against local election officials who enact emergency election rules and bars them from sending voters unsolicited absentee ballot applications.

10) Loved this, “Can We Learn to Live With Germs Again? The health of our bodies and microbiomes may depend on society’s return to lifestyles that expose us to bacteria, despite the risks.”

In January, a global consortium of health researchers published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in which they raise the alarm about the microbial fallout that may follow in the pandemic’s wake. “We’re starting to realize that there’s collateral damage when we get rid of good microbes, and that has major consequences for our health,” says B. Brett Finlay, first author of the PNAS paper and a professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at the University of British Columbia.

Almost everything we know about the microbiome is uncertain, including how our activities and environments influence its makeup. But Dr. Finlay and others argue that our collective health may depend on our willingness to holster our sanitizers and cleansers, moderate our use of bacteria-slaying drugs, and resume old habits that nourish our microbial communities. In other words, we’re going to have to live with germs again…

The world and just about everything in it, including people, are awash in microbes. Bacteria blanket our surfaces, suffuse the air we breathe and saturate certain areas of our bodies, especially the gut. While some microbes and other microscopic particles are a threat to us, a vast majority are benign. And there’s mounting evidence that our health relies on our early and ongoing interactions with them.

Dr. Graham Rook, an emeritus professor of medical microbiology at University College London, likens the immune system to a computer. He says that the microbes we encounter in daily life — on other people and in our spaces — are the data that the immune system relies on to program and regulate its operations.

Deprived of these exposures, especially at the start of life, the immune system is prone to malfunction. The result can be allergies, asthma, autoimmune disorders, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and other chronic medical conditions.

The “hygiene hypothesis,” introduced in 1989 by the epidemiologist David Strachan, first made the case that bodies deprived of contact with microbes could be at risk for health problems. The hygiene hypothesis has evolved over time, and experts continue to debate many of its finer points. But it’s now clear that exposure to “good” bacteria is necessary for a person’s health, and that living in too-sterile environments may threaten us in ways scientists are only just beginning to grasp.

Before the pandemic, there was growing recognition among both doctors and the public that aspects of modern life may be upsetting our balance of healthy microbes, perhaps especially in our guts, and hurting our health as a result. This idea is not so much controversial as simply too new to be fully appreciated; roughly 95 percent of the published microbiome scholarship has come in just the last decade, and two-thirds of it only in the last five years. But already, research has revealed that, apart from training the immune system, our bacteria produce molecules that affect the workings of our every cell and organ.

“The microbes we carry in our gut could affect the function of the brain, the spinal cord, the joints or things far from where those microbes live,” says Dr. Eran Elinav, another of the PNAS paper’s authors and a principal investigator at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

There’s some conjecture that the imbalance or loss of good microbes may heighten a person’s susceptibility to infection — including, perhaps, to the coronavirus. Late last year, researchers based in Hong Kong observed a link between certain microbiome characteristics and severe Covid-19. Experts have hypothesized that unwell gut microbiomes may partly explain why older adults and adults with conditions such as obesity or Type 2 diabetes seem to be at greater risk of serious Covid-19 illness. There’s even some speculation that microbiome factors play a part in so-called long Covid — the brain fog, fatigue and other persistent symptoms that afflict many in the aftermath of the infection.

“There’s a wealth of evidence to suggest the microbiome has an influential role in our response to viral infections,” says Brent Williams, an assistant professor in the department of clinical pathology and cell biology at Columbia University. This raises intriguing questions about how the microbiome might influence disease outcomes for Covid, he says, “or how it might be altered by Covid, and whether those alterations persist.”

Love the human body as ecosystem rather than organism analogy– I use that one all the time.

11) Interesting! “Vietnam defied the experts and sealed its border to keep Covid-19 out. It worked.: How the country has kept coronavirus deaths to just 35, and grew its economy in 2020.”

12) People really need to stop using flushable wipes that aren’t actually flushable.  “A nasty pandemic problem: More flushed wipes are clogging pipes, sending sewage into homes.”  Actually, even better, I really don’t understand why government cannot come up with enforceable standards for flushable wipes that actually are flushable.  What we have know is disgusting and expensive.  

13) “Normal” temperature is about to get warmer.

As soon as the 2021 New Year’s celebrations were over, the calls and questions started coming in from weather watchers: When will NOAA release the new U.S. Climate Normals? The Normals are 30-year averages of key climate observations made at weather stations and corrected for bad or missing values and station changes over time. From the daily weather report to seasonal forecasts, the Normals are the basis for judging how temperature, rainfall, and other climate conditions compare to what’s normal for a given location in today’s climate.

For the past decade, the Normals have been based on weather observations from 1981 to 2010. In early May, climate experts at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information will be releasing an updated collection—hourly, daily, monthly, and annual Normals for thousands of U.S. locations, states, regions—based on the weather experienced from 1991 to 2020.

But what about global warming?

Alongside the questions about when the new Normals will be released (first week of May), we’ve gotten a lot of questions about the Normals and global warming. Is global warming affecting the Normals? (Yes). Are the Normals adjusted to “subtract out” global warming? (No.)  So the new normal reflects our changing climate? (Yes). Then how do we keep track of what used to be normal? (Different analyses.)

The last update of the Normals took place in 2011, when the baseline shifted from 1971-2000 to 1981-2010. Among the highlights of the rollout was the creation of a map showing how climate-related planting zones across the contiguous United States had shifted northward in latitude and upward in elevation. It was a clear signal that normal overnight low temperatures across the country were warmer than they used to be.  

Changes in US plant zones between 1971-2000 Normals and 1981-2010 Normals

14) Possibly the biggest vaccine news this year.  “‘Game-changing’ malaria vaccine is 77% effective at stopping infection”

15) This Zeynep Tufekci analysis (older, but recently re-shared) on why the final Game of Thrones season is so bad is just fantastic.  Such a great way of thinking about storytelling.  But only read it if you’ve watched all the show or are confident you never will. 

16) Great stuff from Ron Brownstein, “The racist “replacement theory” that more in GOP are pushing has it exactly backwards. The real risk to older Whites is that immigrants won’t replace them in the workforce & tax base.”

A few thoughts on the Chauvin verdict

1) Phew, we needed that.  It’s not some great victory that the most obvious and heinous act of police brutality and malfeasance is punished, but it is necessary if we are to have any hope of improving policing in this country.  And it is necessary if we expect Black people in this country to have any confidence whatsoever in the ability of the criminal justice system to have justice.

2) I think it is a very good thing that we actually had this trial rather than Chauvin taking any kind of deal.  Even if he had plead guilty to his ultimate toughest charge, 2nd degree murder, the country needed to see that we could put a white police officer on trial for killing a black man and find him guilty.  

3) It would have been really, really bad for the country if Chauvin was somehow acquitted, but his conviction, was a really low bar.  Unlike a lot of cases, law enforcement (quite rightly, obviously) completely threw him under the bus.  That’s often not the case.  Good stuff from David Graham: “Chauvin’s Conviction Is the Exception That Proves the Rule: The former Minneapolis police officer was found guilty on all three counts he faced—but his trial was a demonstration of how difficult efforts at accountability remain.”

Assuming the guilty verdict stands, Chauvin’s conviction is an important instance of accountability, and will come as a relief to the millions of people outraged by Floyd’s death, but it doesn’t make for much of a model. Police leaders don’t usually feel such a need to make an example of an officer, and they don’t typically testify so bluntly against a former officer. There isn’t always video evidence so clear and compelling. Despite all of these factors, prosecutors still felt the need to portray their case as pro–law enforcement. If all of this is necessary to convict a former officer, convictions will remain rare—and reform will have to take place outside the courts.

4) This was right and just that we had this verdict.  Will be interesting to see next time when it’s a much less clear-cut case.  Still, slowly, and definitely not in a straight line, but I really do believe we, as a country and a society, are moving in the right direction on this.  

 

Bad policing comes back to a country awash in guns

This was from Derek Thompson last year, but, sadly, so relevant and pretty much an evergreen in America.  Really, really on-point:

It’s been four years now. The list of men and women killed by law enforcement seems to grow every month. So why can’t I stop thinking about Philando Castile?

Because I think few other chapters in the long epic of American police brutality so capture the hell into which we have all chosen to walk, arm in arm, under the banner of the Constitution. Castile was set up to die by a country that proclaimed his inviolable right to a gun, legally approved his right to carry, and then excused his killing by virtue of the fact that the object he’d been permitted to keep in his pocket could also be used as a precondition for his slaughter.

Castile was killed by a cop in a country where it is more dangerous for a black man to exercise his Second Amendment right than it is for a white man; that is undeniable. But he also died at the hands of a culture that, in celebrating widespread gun ownership, makes it all but inevitable that the United States has more armed police than similarly rich countries, more panicky officers, more adversarial police encounters, more officer shootings, and more civilian killings.

The morbid exceptionalism of American police violence cannot be explained by the amount of money the U.S. spends on police, or by the number of cops it employs. The U.S. spends less on police than the European Union does, as a share of GDP. Italy has more officers per capita than any state in the U.S., according to a comparison of FBI and Eurostat databases. Greece has more officers per person than Newark, New Jersey; Baltimore; and Chicago.

But none of those places shares our epidemic of police violence. American police kill about 1,000 people every year. Adjusted for population, that body count is five times higher than that in Sweden, 30 times higher than that in Germany, and 100 times higher than that in the United Kingdom.

Many differences between the U.S. and the European Union can partly explain these gaps, including our history of systemic racism and our porous social safety net. But without the mention of guns, no explanation for America’s record of police violence is complete.

Let’s begin with the simplest fact: Life is more dangerous in the presence of firearms—period. A 2013 study of U.S. states in the American Journal of Public Health found that for each percentage-point increase in gun ownership, the overall firearm homicide rate increased by 0.9 percent, controlling for other factors. The correlation between gun availability and violent crime is statistically significant at every level of income. More money can spare Americans from the material and psychological ravages of poverty, but it does not buy an exception from the deadly social physics of guns…

Gun prevalence—roughly 400 million firearms are in circulation in the U.S.— is a danger for cops, too.  As the Vox reporter German Lopez writes, police officers are especially likely to be shot dead in states with more guns. A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Public Health examined the relationship between state firearm-ownership rates and police killings, controlling for factors that relate with homicide rates, such as income, poverty, property crime, and alcohol consumption. The researchers concluded that “a 10% increase in firearm ownership correlated to ten additional officer homicides” from 1996 to 2010.

Where guns are abundant, civilians are more likely to kill civilians and cops, and cops are, in turn, more likely to kill civilians. A 2018 study from Northeastern University and the Harvard Injury Control Research Center found that “rates of police shooting deaths are significantly and positively correlated with levels of household gun ownership,” even after accounting for other variables, such as poverty…

Both police militarization and this pernicious “warrior mentality” are a direct response to gun violence and mass shootings. After the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, where police officers faced sniper fire over several bloody days, the LAPD responded by creating the nation’s first SWAT team. After the University of Texas clock-tower shootings the following year, other police departments added their own quasi-military units. In 1997, the LAPD faced off against two bank robbers in North Hollywood, who held off the officers with automatic rifles and body armor. This highly publicized event spurred police departments to arm patrol officers with heavy weapons, and “the AR-15 rifle, a semiautomatic, civilian version of the military’s M-16 rifle, became the weapon of choice for patrol officers,” Stoughton wrote in the Wake Forest Law Review in 2016.

Today’s warrior-cop training is inappropriate, as violent crime has declined by more than 70 percent since 1993. But perhaps some police paranoia comes from the fact that the U.S. has added twice as many guns as people since the mid-1990s. “Generally, when a police officer pulls up to a car in Australia, they don’t expect someone to be armed,” Terry Goldsworthy, a criminologist at Bond University in Queensland, Australia, has said. Indeed, just 6 percent of Australian households own a gun. In the U.S., that figure is 43 percent

In a country where guns are protected by the Constitution and cherished by tens of millions of Americans, meaningful change will require a major social movement. Perhaps we’re seeing the seeds of that groundswell right now. As long as reformers are imagining the future of an unbundled police force, they have to be clear-eyed about the roots of civilian and police violence. Which means they have to talk about guns.

And because I’m at it and I forgot to give this WP Editorial it’s due a few weeks ago, this was excellent, ” Of course no one law will stop every shooting. But stopping some is enough to act.”

IT WAS a normal transaction. A man went to a licensed gun store north of Atlanta, filled out paperwork, got an instant background check, paid the bill and walked out with a gun. No waiting period; no required safety or training class. And just hours later, according to authorities, that 21-year-old man used that 9mm handgun to kill eight people in a rampage that targeted Asian spas. The obvious question that emerges is “What if?” What if there had been a waiting period? What if the man’s family had been able to raise a red flag about him that would have prevented him from getting a gun?

It is impossible to know for sure whether the tragedy that unfolded March 16 would have been averted. Perhaps the killer would have figured out some other way to get a gun. But it is also possible that the families of those eight people killed might not now be mourning irreplaceable loss had there been reasonable restrictions on gun purchases to guard against weapons falling into the wrong hands or being used on impulse, as both seem to have been the case here…

None of that — or the 18 lives lost in a span of days — makes a bit of difference to opponents of gun-safety laws who refuse to even consider the possibility that there might be steps that could be taken to try to protect public safety. “Ridiculous theater,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said of last week’s discussion by the Senate Judiciary Committee on how to combat gun violence. A common refrain from opponents of gun-safety laws is how one particular law wouldn’t stop one particular shooting, or wouldn’t stop every shooting.

Well, of course no one law will stop every shooting. And of course other factors, such as mental health, come into play. But laws can — and do — make a difference in stopping some shootings. Waiting periods for gun purchases result in decreased suicide and homicide rates. Countries that have had the good sense to ban assault weapons don’t have the mass shootings that are epidemic to the United States. Robust background checks do stop guns from falling into the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. And lives have been saved when a family member has had the means to prevent a suicidal loved one from getting a gun. Stopping some shootings, saving some lives. Wouldn’t that be a good thing?

Why yes, yes it would.  

 

Quick hits (part I)

1) Good stuff from Bernstein on expanding the Supreme Court.  As you may recall, I’m totally behind this idea in principle.  As for April 2021 politics, it’s a bad idea:

On Wednesday we saw that in a new congressional bill to expand the Supreme Court by four justices  — in other words, the number needed to give Democratic-appointed members a 7-6 majority. 

Democrats, to be sure, have a reasonable complaint about Republicans’ refusal to allow then President Barack Obama to fill a vacancy in 2016, especially after the Senate’s GOP majority rapidly filled a Supreme Court vacancy in late 2020. If the current court acts in purely partisan ways — and dictates unpopular Republican policies that could not have been enacted through the elected branches — there may be serious grass-roots enthusiasm for Congress to fight back against it. Expanding the number of seats, a perfectly constitutional option, would be a fair threat for Democrats to raise.

But right now, that grass-roots enthusiasm barely exists. Nor can Democrats claim overwhelming popular support. Yes, they won last November. But even if we adjust for the ways elections are tilted somewhat against Democrats, the 2020 outcome wasn’t an overwhelming landslide.

Maybe that’s a subjective judgment, but objectively there’s no way that majorities in Congress — let alone a supermajority in the Senate — are going to add four Supreme Court justices. Perhaps — I doubt it but perhaps — they might have had a chance to add former Obama nominee Merrick Garland as a temporary 10th justice until he retired or died, but he’s busy now being attorney general in the Joe Biden administration.

Not surprisingly, President Biden has dealt with the issue with more political acumen than the members of Congress have. His commission on court reform doesn’t appear designed to do much, but it’s at least possible it will put together a consensus on some things — perhaps even a plan to impose term limits on the high court and create regularly scheduled vacancies, a nonpartisan idea that has some merit.

Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress would be better off finding a way to add new judges below the Supreme Court level, something that has been needed for some time to keep up with the expanding workload. That too could yield partisan benefits for Democrats, if more modest ones. It might be easier to find support for such a measure if the new vacancies were stretched out over time so that future presidents and Senates would be responsible for filling many of the new positions. 

As for the push by congressional Democrats to add four justices now, it’s hard to see the point. Their threat to play constitutional hardball just as viciously as Republican leader Mitch McConnell isn’t going to impress anyone if those Democrats don’t have anywhere close to the votes to back up their threat. Nor is it likely that seeking four new justices will increase pressure to compromise and, say, expand the court by one or two slots.

The effort is far more likely to backfire, giving Republicans an easy target to rile themselves up over, while only frustrating any Democrats who think there’s any serious chance they can succeed. Sure, they aren’t the first members of Congress to do a little grandstanding, but there are far better causes available for that.

2) I know that pessimism feels better to a lot of people and that it certainly gets the clicks.  But we really are making meaningful progress on criminal justice reform.  Here’s the latest bipartisan reform in NC:

North Carolina legislators filed three criminal justice reform bills with bipartisan support this week, as momentum grows for changes to policing.

Groups that advocate for the state’s police chiefs and sheriffs are largely on board with the reforms, too.

House Bill 536 would create a statewide “duty to intervene” for police who witness a fellow officer using excessive force on someone.

“That one’s designed to state in the law what officers should already know,” said Eddie Caldwell, the lobbyist for the N.C. Sheriff’s Association. “That if one officer is using unreasonable force then, if possible, they have to intervene.”

The two others — House Bill 547 and House Bill 548 — seek to crack down on bad cops who currently can hide their unsavory pasts by jumping from department to department.

One would target cops who have been caught lying under oath in court but are currently able to sweep it under the rug by getting a new job in a different county. The other would target cops who were banned from law enforcement in another state but then apply for a job here.

Fred Baggett, the lobbyist for the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police, said they support those as well as the duty to intervene bill.

All three bills were sponsored by Fayetteville Republican Rep. John Szoka, along with Rep. Kristin Baker, a Republican from Cabarrus County outside Charlotte, and Rep. Howard Hunter, a Democrat from Hertford County in the northeast.

The bills came out of a criminal justice reform committee that Szoka asked GOP leaders to create last year, as Black Lives Matter protests were gaining steam across the state and the country. He said it seems that bad cops are very rare, but it’s hard to know exactly. The state keeps little to no data on topics like how often police get reported for abusing people, how often they’re caught lying in court, and more.

These bills would change that — in addition to trying to stop such behavior in the future.

3) This is not new.  We know. We’ve known.  “A year into the pandemic, it’s even more clear that it’s safer to be outside.”  As I put it on twitter: Few things more anti-science than closing outdoor spaces in response to Covid-19. Might as well be pushing hydroxychloroquine while doing it.  Also, if you actually bore down into the research they are classifying a lot of the “outdoor” spread on sketchy information that is not at all clear the spread was outside (e.g., landscaping workers often travel in shared vehicles) and the estimates of really low outdoor spread are almost surely over-estimates.  

4) Ummm, so for years I’ve had a computer with a master and slave hard drive (and I’ve been sleeping in a master bedroom).  So, I’m racist?  Maybe I’m just a bitter old white guy, but its not like these words haven’t been with us for thousands of years of history across time and culture.   Not the biggest fan of person-first language either.  Like, a person who is in prison is, you know, a “prisoner” and I’m not quite sure what’s wrong with saying that.  Any, yes, my son who has intellectual disabilities is also intellectually disabled.  Let’s do stuff to make the world a better place for all sorts of marginalized and struggling people and less language policing.  Now get off my lawn.

5) A nice dive into various theories to explain the blood-clotting issue.  Seems to me its got to be, on some level, related to the adenovirus vector.  For now, it is a fascinating (and fortunately, super-rare) medical mystery.  

6a) This is great from Mark Joseph Stern, “The Myth of the Dangerous Traffic Stop Is Killing Black Men in America”

Racism surely plays a role here, but there is another reason so many appalling police shootings involve motorists: Law enforcement officers are taught that routine traffic stops pose extreme danger to their own lives. Courts have seized upon this idea to water down the constitutional rights of drivers, justifying police brutality on the grounds that officers must act quickly to protect themselves against the random violence that always lurks just around the corner.

This theory has pervaded American law and law enforcement for decades. It is also untrue. In a 2019 article published in the Michigan Law Review, Jordan Blair Woods demonstrated that violence during traffic stops is, in fact, extremely rare. Woods, a professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law, also found that it is officers, not drivers, who frequently escalate those few stops that lead to actual violence. In a forthcoming article in the Stanford Law Review, Woods proposes removing police from traffic enforcement altogether to prevent more violence against motorists, especially Black civilians, during traffic stops. On Thursday, we spoke about his articles, which are tragically topical in light of Wright’s killing. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Mark Joseph Stern: What’s the “danger narrative” about traffic stops, and where did it originate?

Jordan Blair Woods: Traffic stops are the most common way that people come into contact with police. The Supreme Court has traditionally deferred to the authority of police to order people out of vehicles, the authority of police to take action without questioning their judgment. And a lot of that is grounded in this narrative, this myth, that routine traffic stops are especially dangerous settings for the police. That narrative dates back to a study that Allen Bristow published in 1963 which put out the figure that one in every three police killings involves a traffic stop. The Supreme Court credited that study in a 1977 case called Pennsylvania v. Mimms. Justice John Paul Stevens dissented, and was one of the voices that called attention to some of the problems with the data that the Supreme Court was relying on. His basic point was that the data was being used in a way that didn’t support the conclusions that the court was coming to. And I think he was right. Bristow’s research has been distorted to perpetuate these danger narratives.

What happened after the Supreme Court blessed this “danger narrative”?

Over the next few decades, there were a lot of cases where the Supreme Court cited cases like Mimms to put forth the general idea that routine traffic stops are especially dangerous settings for police officers. Over time, the myth became a key justification for why the court will defer to officers’ decisions on the grounds of officer safety. Courts don’t want to second-guess these decisions, and instead say that officer safety is a justification that leans in favor of allowing police to do what they’re doing. And it becomes very difficult for stopped drivers and passengers to bring a Fourth Amendment claim when courts are deferring to what the officers are doing on officer safety grounds.

And as you write in your article, the narrative seeped into the culture of law enforcement, too.

This narrative has infiltrated law enforcement departments and culture. One of the ways we see this happening is with regard to officer training. Now it is very common that when officers are going through training, they see video clips of random traffic stops that look fairly routine, and drivers randomly shooting an officer or using random violence. And what agencies are trying to get across to officers is that if you’re hesitant to use force and you’re not aware at every second during a routine traffic stop, this is what the traffic stop will evolve into.

This training frames how you come to think about doing traffic stops yourself. You’re told that no traffic stop is routine and you never know who you’re stopping. That affects how you approach interacting with stopped drivers and passengers. It might mean you’re too quick to take aggressive actions that escalate the situation. What I’ve tried to do in my research is point out the ways in which framing routine traffic stops as especially dangerous actually fuels escalation.

6b) In the middle of writing these, I came across a similar piece from 2014.  

6c) John McWhorter argues that it’s not so much racism, actually, and that we’re ignoring all the white and Hispanic people who get shot this way, too.  Personally, I think it is both, but it more exactly what Stern is talking about above in terms of the culture of how traffic stops are approached.  And, yes, I think they are more likely to be approached that way when a black man is driving.

7) Good stuff from Will Wilkinson on the Big Lie:

I’ve been trying to keep my cool, but the right’s defense of new Republican-authored laws regulating elections, such as the one recently established in Georgia, is so dishonest it’s hard to stay on an even keel. But I’m trying, man. I’m trying. It’s important to articulate what Republicans are up to and repeat it ad nauseam because they’re trying like hell to bury the truth with bluster, umbrage, and witlessly complicit both-sides horserace political coverage. They’ll get away with it, too, if we let their relentless mendacity wear us out.

Here are the main beats of the Republican playbook for selling their election-rigging agenda, as I see it:

  1. Pretend that no one has noticed that the GOP’s election reform proposals are based entirely on Donald Trump’s transparent lies about the election — the same lies that led directly to a violent, seditious Republican assault on the U.S. Capitol to prevent Congress from certifying the election.

    Now, it’s not a great look for the Grand Old Party that its flood of new election regulations are premised on the same disinformation and propaganda that inspired the most shocking act of political terrorism in modern American history. But once you’ve bought in to wall-to-wall disinformation as a political strategy, the solution is obvious and easy: more disinformation!

    So…

  2. Recast the January 6th insurrection — a deadly Republican assault on the Capitol that scattered a joint session of Congress as it tallied electoral votes! — as a peaceful protest of legitimately concerned citizens that got a little rowdy.

  3. Treat those inclined to take direct, violent attacks on the U.S. government at all seriously as paranoid, ax-grinding partisan nuts out to “cancel” Congressional Republicans who did nothing but voice the concerns of their partisan constituents.

  4. Of course, what these Republican members of Congress were really doing was enthusiastically repeating blatant lies that animated an insurrection whose explicitpurpose was to overturn a legitimate Democratic election victory. Should someone point this out, the plain truth must be reframed as slanderous disinformation!Take umbrage! Be indignant! Treat honest people as though they’re crazy and hateful for believing what they saw with their own eyes in real time on TV.

  5. Simply ignore the fact that Republican votes on January 6th to reject the election results from Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, and Pennsylvania just were votes for the mass disenfranchisement of Democrats. How could this possibly be relevant to Republican “voter integrity” bills!?

  6. Insist that new election regulations are needed to “restore the confidence of voters,” while playing dumb about the fact that Republicans undermined it in the first place by spreading lies based on the viciously anti-democratic premise that Democratic political participation (especially by non-white voters) is inherently suspect, if not entirely illegitimate.

    Obviously, if Republican distrust in the electoral system is ultimately based on the assumption that Democratic votes are illegitimate, the only way you can restore Republican confidence in the system is through measures that stymie or invalidate Democratic voting. Naturally, that’s what these Republican election reform bills aim to do. But this is not a legally acceptable basis for election reform and bad messaging to boot. Therefore, if anyone points this out…

  7. Scream bloody murder!

  8. Generally and especially, treat your fellow citizens as though they’re idiots who fell off the turnip truck they were born on yesterday…

But most of us aren’t actually stupid. We recognize that the “problem” Georgia’s new elections laws are meant to address is that Joe Biden beat Donald Trump and the GOP lost both its Senate seats to Democrats, neither of whom are both Christian and white, in a clean election run by Republicans according to Republican-authored rules that were meant to prevent this very outcome.

You don’t need to be a Democratic partisan to grasp that Republicans felt an urgent need to revise these rules not because they facilitated fraud — Georgia’s Republican election administrators found none — but because they didn’t “work” as intended. You just need to be awake. And we all know what it means for the law to “work,” don’t we?

8) Adam Jentleson, “How to Stop the Minority-Rule Doom Loop: The next two years might be America’s last chance to protect the basic democratic principle of majority rule.”

The doom loop consists of four interlocking components. Candidates who represent white conservatives—Republicans, in our ideologically sorted era—begin every election cycle buoyed by a sluice of voter suppression and gerrymandering (what I call electoral welfare), which makes it easier for them to win. Then antidemocratic features of the American system that have always existed but never benefited one party over the other in any systematic way help those same candidates take control of institutions such as the White House and the Senate, despite winning fewer votes and representing fewer people than their opponents. Once in control of these institutions, these newly elected officials use them to entrench their power beyond the reach of voters. If they are eventually voted out of power, they retain a veto over the agenda of the majority, which they use to block change and feed the conservative case that the government is “broken.” This hastens their return to power—along the very path they greased with voter suppression…

The loop starts at the ballot box, where Republicans are making it harder than at any time in recent history for those who are unlikely to vote for them to vote at all. According to Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida and one of the nation’s foremost experts on voting laws, “We are witnessing the greatest rollback of voting rights in this country since the Jim Crow era.” The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder unleashed a new wave of voter suppression targeted at reliably Democratic constituencies such as nonwhite voters and young people. The pace of suppression has only increased since the November election. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks voter-suppression efforts across the country, 47 states have seen 361 bills aimed at restricting voting rights since the beginning of the year.

Republicans don’t just have an easier time winning elections; they have an easier time piecing together individual election wins to gain control of the institutions that govern American life. Here, too, the doom loop gives a big boost to candidates who represent predominantly white conservatives. Over the past half century, demographic shifts have rendered the antidemocratic features of American government newly vulnerable to exploitation, but especially by candidates who represent white conservatives.

The clearest—and most powerful—demonstration of this is the role of the Electoral College in American politics. Throughout the 20th century, the antidemocratic potential of the Electoral College remained dormant. After 1888 until 2000, every president who won the White House won both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Even when the popular vote was close, the Electoral College only accentuated the margin of the victor. In 1960, it augmented John F. Kennedy’s narrow popular victory with a 303–219 Electoral College win. Eight years later, it converted Richard Nixon’s .7 percent popular-vote win over Hubert Humphrey into a 301–191 electoral-vote victory. A swing of thousands of votes in either election could have caused the popular vote and Electoral College results to diverge. But it didn’t happen, and so for the entire 20th century, America never had to contend with a president who had won fewer votes than his opponent…

Republicans owe their newfound Electoral College advantage to a recent shift in white voters’ preferences. As the analyst David Shor has found, that advantage exists “because white voters without a college degree *in large midwestern states* switched their votes en-masse from Obama to Trump in 2016.” According to FiveThirtyEight, the effect of this shift is that a Democratic presidential candidate now has to run at least 3.5 percentage points ahead of their Republican opponent in the popular vote to win the White House—the largest advantage either party has held in more than 70 years, and the first time any advantage has helped a party overcome a popular-vote deficit.

Republicans enjoy the same kind of structural welfare when it comes to the Senate, where they have to win fewer votes than Democrats to control the chamber. Although it was always theoretically possible for a party to control a majority in the Senate despite representing a minority of the population, it did not happen with any frequency in the 20th century. By contrast, in the 21st century, every time Republicans have controlled the Senate, they have represented a minority of the population.

Like the Electoral College, the antidemocratic nature of the Senate has always existed, but it did not favor one party over the other in any systematic way until recently.

9) If you think this “stay in your lane” from Holden Thorpe annoyed me, you’d be right.  He’s actually got plenty of good points, but you really need to be far more nuanced about this than most people are.  Zeynep Tufekci who arguably strayed far from her narrowly-defined lane, has probably had more benefit for public health than any almost any academic.  

10) One hell of a local headline, “Popular NC teacher killed trying to rob Mexican drug cartel member, sheriff says”

11) Leonhardt on how the vaccination map is increasing looking red v. blue.

In the early weeks of Covid-19 vaccinations, the shining examples of success were all places with politically conservative leaders. Globally, the countries with the largest share of vaccinated people were Britain, Israel and the United Arab Emirates. In the U.S., the states that got off to the fastest starts were Alaska and West Virginia.

This pattern made me wonder whether many progressive-led governments were spending so much effort designing fair-seeming processes that they were failing at the most basic goal of a mass vaccination program: getting shots into arms. That error has held down vaccination rates across much of continental Europe. And it appeared to be an early problem in California and New York.

But it has not turned out to be much of an issue in the U.S. Instead, the states with the highest vaccination rates are now mostly Democratic-leaning, and the states with the lowest rates are deeply conservative.

“The parts of the U.S. that are excelling and those that are struggling with vaccinations are starting to look like the nation’s political map: deeply divided between red and blue states,” Russ Bynum of The Associated Press wrote this week…

Why? There seem to be two main reasons.

1. The party of government

Democrats believe more strongly than Republicans in the power of government. Compare, for example, the chaos of the Trump administration’s virus response to the Biden administration’s. Democrats’ belief in the power of government certainly doesn’t ensure they will manage it competently, but it may improve the odds.

In the most successful state programs, one theme is what you might call centralized simplicity. In Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont gave priority to older residents, including people in their 50s, rather than creating an intricate list of medical conditions and job categories that qualified people for shots (and that more privileged families often figure out how to game).

In New Mexico — which has the country’s highest rate of fully vaccinated people, despite also having a high poverty rate — Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has overseen the creation of a centralized sign-up system. The state has one vaccine portal that all residents can use to sign up for shots, rather than the piecemeal, confusing systems in many other states, my colleague Simon Romero reports from Albuquerque.

South Dakota, the red state with the highest share of vaccinated residents, has also taken a centralized approach, NPR’s Ailsa Chang points out.

2. Vaccine skepticism

Vaccine hesitancy has declined substantially, polls show. But it is still notably high among registered Republicans.

 

12) Local mall to be demolished and everything is up for auction.  Have you ever wanted a food court trash can?  Now’s your chance.

13) Good stuff from Ryan Burge and Perry Bacon Jr,  “It’s Not Just Young White Liberals Who Are Leaving Religion”

Only 47 percent of American adults said they were members of a church, mosque or synagogue, according to recently released polling that was conducted by Gallup throughout last year. It marked the first time that a majority of Americans said they were not members of a church, mosque or synagogue since Gallup first started asking Americans about their religious membership in the 1930s. Indeed, Gallup’s finding was a kind of watershed moment in the long-chronicled shift of Americans away from organized religion.1

What’s driving this shift? In part, it’s about people who still identify with a religious tradition opting not to be a member of a particular congregation. Only 60 percent of Americans who consider themselves religious are part of a congregation, compared to 70 percent a decade ago, according to Gallup. But the bigger factor, Gallup said, is the surge of religiously unaffiliated Americans — people who are agnostics, atheists or simply say they are not affiliated with a religious tradition. The rise of this group — sometimes referred to as “nones” because they answer “none” when asked about their faith (and, you know, it’s a play on words) — isn’t new. But the Gallup survey is part of a growing body of new research on this bloc (that includes a recent book by one of us, Ryan’s “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going”)…

People are leaving mainline Protestant churches and Catholicism in particular.

There are about as many evangelicals (22 percent of American adults), Jewish Americans (2 percent), Black Protestants (6 percent) and members of smaller religions in the U.S. like Islam and Hinduism (6 percent) as there were a decade ago, according to GSS data. It’s really two groups in particular that are declining: mainline Protestants (think Episcopalians or Methodists) and Catholics.

Part of that decline is about young people — elderly members of these denominations who die are not being replaced by a younger cohort. But older people are now increasingly shifting from Christian to unaffiliated too — particularly older people who lean left politically. As a result, mainline Christianity is not only declining but becoming more conservative. Between 2008 and 2018, three of the largest mainline traditions (the United Methodists, the Episcopalians and the United Church of Christ) all became more Republican

Nones aren’t just leaving religion because of the Christian right.

People who leave Christianity often cite the politics of the Christian right turning them off. But some of the evidence here suggests that probably isn’t the only explanation. There is a general disengagement of Americans from organized religion — people who are religious no longer identifying as members of congregations. Republicans are becoming less religious, but they seem just fine voting for candidates who court the Christian right. And the people leaving Christianity aren’t usually members of conservative evangelical congregations in the first place. 

So what else is going on? Well, nations with fairly high per capita GDPs (such as Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom) tend to have fairly low levels of religiosity. The U.S. has long been an outlier: a high-income, highly religious nation. But America may have always been destined to grow less religious. 

14) Damn, I just love everything David Epstein writes.  “You’re fooling yourself, which is great for your endurance”

Alex Hutchinson, a.k.a. @sweatscience, is basically the taller Canadian version of me: we’re close in age, and he was also a national level middle-distance runner who transitioned from science into writing. Except, unlike me, he actually finished his Ph.D. program (in physics), and made his national team.

Far from making him my annoying professional doppelgänger, it has made him one of my favorite writers. His bestselling book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, is, quite frankly, a book I wanted to write. I’m glad Alex did, though, because I can’t imagine anyone having done it better.

The paperback is just out, with a new afterword, so I invited Alex to chat about human limits and the mind-body connection.

DE: How did you decide to take on this topic?

AH: The initial spark was some research by a South African scientist named Tim Noakes, who proposed that we have a “central governor” in our brains that slams on the brakes before we reach our true physical limits. As a long-time runner, I was fascinated by the idea that it’s my brain, rather than my lungs or my legs, that holds me back. And as a journalist, of course, I’m a sucker for “Everyone always assumed X, but it’s actually Y” stories.

DE: Ok but you’re also clear on the fact that this doesn’t just mean “It’s all in your head,” in the sense that physiology doesn’t matter. My read of your work is that it’s more like a racecar, in that the machine definitely matters, but in focusing our research on the machine, we’ve often overlooked the driver — i.e. the brain. 

AH:Exactly — it’s not all in your head, any more than it’s all in your muscles. It’s 100 percent both — kind of like the nature/nurture debate you tackled in The Sports Gene. The big mistake is thinking that you can understand the body without including the brain’s input, or vice versa. As a classic study from the early 1960s put it, “psychology is a special case of brain physiology.” (That’s the study where they tested maximum strength after scaring the crap out of subjects by sneaking up behind them and firing a starter’s pistol in their ear. Fear increased strength. But I digress!)…

DE: An overall sense I get from your book is that our brain acts as an integrator; it’s collecting data from inside our body, and from the environment (how hot and bright it is, things like that), and spitting out a sort of composite, which is how tired you feel — sometimes called your “rating of perceived exertion” in studies. And that RPE is very much not a function only of your physical limitations, but also of things like the conditions around you, and even how much you care about whatever you’re trying to do. Is that a reasonable understanding?

AH: Yeah, that’s a hugely important point. Your subjective sense of effort acts as a sort of “master switch” that determines whether you can keep going: if it feels too hard, you’ll slow down or stop. It’s almost tautological. That feeling is not arbitrary: if you speed up or lift a heavier weight or don’t eat enough, it will definitely feel harder. But it’s not entirely deterministic, either: the exact same workout, under identical conditions, might feel harder this week than it did last week because you’re under a lot of stress at work.

15) This sounds great for when I have to get my first colonoscopy at age 50 next year, “This AI Could Help Wipe Out Colon Cancer: Medtronic’s GI Genius, recently cleared by the FDA, will help doctors identify precancerous polyps.”

16) My much-younger little sister with generally great taste in TV recommend I try, a Formula-1 reality show.  I was skeptical, but 3 episodes in, I really like it.  

Quick hits (part II)

1) I think this might be an over-estimate.  Seriously.  “Outdoor transmission accounts for 0.1% of State’s Covid-19 cases”

The HPSC data, provided in response to a query from The Irish Times, was based on “locations which are primarily associated with outdoor activities, ie outdoor sports and construction sites, or outbreaks that specifically mention in comments that an outdoor location or activity was involved”. The HSPC said, however, that it “cannot determine where transmission occurred”.

Sports often use indoor locker rooms and construction workers regularly share automobiles, so, yeah, probably an over-estimate.

2) Thanks to my third-born for sharing this video of a monkey playing pong with just his mind (and a cool neural link).

3) A professor (admittedly a nutty Trump supporter) pushed back with some seemingly reasonable arguments, though unsurprisingly, rudely presented, against white fragility training at her community college.  The college investigated her for 9 months.  I’ll say right here that I think diversity training based on “white fragility” is a bad idea.  Hopefully, NC State will not decide I’m a problem. 

4) Really loved this Yglesias post, “Andrew Yang versus the unrepresentative activists”

The author of the piece, James Walsh, writes that “for many in New York’s Asian communities, his prescription — more police funding — reads like a glib response to a deep-seated societal ill,” and that the NYPD’s Asian Hate Crime Task Force is “contradictory to the nascent defund-the-police movement, which has been gaining momentum since the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.”..

But the whole tone and structure of the article suggest its purpose is to criticize Yang for blowing off these activist groups. However, I think a more important point about Yang versus the activists here is that it reveals — and not for the first time — that progressive identity-oriented activist organizations often have very little connection to the groups they purport to represent. You can listen to these groups if you want to. But if your purpose in listening to them is to understand how certain communities are thinking about specific issues, you’re barking up the wrong tree…

Andrew Yang, similarly, has become the frontrunner in the New York City mayoral election, not despite criticism from activist groups, but precisely because he has adopted normal popular opinions like “groups suffering from rising crime need more police protection.”

He’s not just in first place overall, but he has a commanding lead with Asians and a sizable one with Hispanics as well…

Now is Andrew Yang a good choice for mayor? I have my doubts! He has no public sector experience, doesn’t strike me as having any particularly big ideas for solving New York’s big problems, and I all-around continue to feel comfortable thinking that the lesser-known Kathryn Garcia would be a better choice.

But what’s striking about Yang is how effortlessly the combination of “he’s well-known” and “he avoids toxically unpopular left-wing ideas” has let him leapfrog past people like Scott Stringer and Maya Wiley who’ve spent years (if not decades) trying to climb the greasy pole of progressive niche politics.

And the thing about this is we are talking about a primary election in New York City, not a statewide race in Pennsylvania or North Carolina or Florida. If this style of politics doesn’t have purchase there, where does it have purchase? 

5) And Noah Smith recently reshared his good take on “defund the police” from December:

Stone concludes that cops have been on a two-decade “riot against the republic”. Watching the hundreds of videos of police brutality from around the country during the George Floyd protests this summer, it’s hard to disagree…

But while the two-decade police riot in America needs to be put down somehow, abolishing the police is not the way to go about it. The reason is that police serve essential functions in society — deterring crime and preserving public order. If we abolished the police, someone else would start performing those functions. And it would probably not be someone we liked…

More generally, every complex society on the planet has some form of cops. Japan has cops. India has cops. Ghana has cops. Venezuela has the Policía Nacional Bolivariana (PNB).

When the PNB was set up, their wages were three times as high as police wages had been before; it was thought that this would help make the police more professional and less brutal.

The U.S. doesn’t have nearly as many cops per person as many European countries, in fact — 238 per 100,000 people in 2018, compared to 429 in France, 388 in Germany, and 295 in the Netherlands (though we do have more than Sweden, Denmark, or Canada!).

The problem is how American cops behave. Despite the fact that we have fewer police per capita than Germany, and a murder rate only about 5 times as high, our cops shoot civilians at a rate 25 times as high as cops in Germany…

To me, though, the most interesting reforms involve changing what functions the police are expected to perform in society. Many of the reforms involve taking cops out of schools. In Berkeley, cops will no longer handle traffic enforcement (an idea partly credited to the excellent activist Darrell Owens). San Francisco is taking police off of 911 calls involving mental health and drug addiction, and replacing them with unarmed responders.

To me, this seems like exactly the right thing to do. Time will tell, of course. But there seems to be no reason why armed police should be the people to issue traffic tickets or help calm down a mentally ill person. And cops in schools are just dystopian. By removing these functions from police departments, we reduce the chance for violent escalation, and thus remove opportunities for police violence. And hopefully police departments, chastened by this reduction in their duties, will work harder to crack down on brutality.

This is real police defunding, since the money that would pay police to perform these functions will now go to pay unarmed responders. It’s not police abolition (sorry anarchist friends!), but it is a partial de-policing of our society. Hopefully these programs will succeed and be emulated throughout the country. Joe Biden already thinks they’re a good idea.

So what should police do?

Police still need to arrest crime suspects. This is part of the essential deterrent function of cops, because people need to know that crime will be punished; there is plenty of evidence that the existence of police officers does deter crime.

But there’s probably another way for police to deter crime more peacefully, while also integrating themselves into the communities they serve — police boxes and foot patrols…

Even in June, while the George Floyd protests were still going strong, only 25% of Americans (and only 42% of Black Americans) favored cutting police budgets by even a little bit…

So police are here to stay. And because police are here to stay, it’s crucial to use a whole lot of different levers to make sure they protect and serve the community instead of beating it down. Defunding — by shifting police functions to unarmed responders — is one important lever. Changing police work from crisis response to foot patrol and community integration is another. Real change is possible.

6) Drum, “Everybody Wants More Police”

What do Black people think about crime and policing? According to a new Vox poll, they think:

  • Violent crime has been increasing.
  • Most police officers can’t be trusted.
  • Police are more likely to use force against African Americans.

And yet, there’s also this:

Everyone wants more police patrols. It’s true that white communities want them most of all, but 65% of Black respondents and 70% of Hispanic respondents want them too. They may think police can’t be trusted and are too quick to use force, but by a very large margin they still want them around.

Perhaps I’m misinterpreting this, but I’d say it speaks loudly for trying to reform the way police interact with the Black community rather than defunding them.

7) Apparently, not everybody actually thinks in words?!  For real.  Drum.

8) I found this from Gallup totally unsurprising, “Few Signs of a Catholic ‘Bump’ for Biden.”  As we’ve well-established here… PID > Jesus.  No reason to expect Catholicism to change that in any meaningful way.  

The answer, I believe, lies in the extraordinary power of partisanship in determining how Americans look at a president. Religious intensity and religious identity are highly correlated with party identification, and it appears that it is the latter variable that is the more powerful in determining views of a president. Trump’s personal religiosity and behavior did not seem to have a negative effect on the support he received from highly religious White Protestants, and Biden’s Catholicism doesn’t appear to be having a positive effect on the support he receives from Catholics. The most important factor is straightforward: Biden is a Democrat and Trump was a Republican, and it is difficult for other presidential characteristics, including religion, to alter the power of this core reality.

9) Kristoff, “How Do We Stop the Parade of Gun Deaths? :A first step: Biden should act urgently against untraceable “ghost guns.””

10) I don’t agree with everything Freddie deBoer writes in here, but it is a thorough and fascinating analysis of (overly) woke politics.  

Here are some basic observations.

  1. Social justice politics, like most political schools, is right about some things and wrong about others. The problem is that social justice politics also militate against criticizing people who express them thanks to ideas like standpoint theory; embedded in this school of politics is the notion that no one outside the movement (and few people inside) have standing to say that the movement is unhealthy. In a very basic sense this means that social justice politics lack the typical correction systems of other ideologies. When criticism becomes forbidden it is impossible to recognize and address serious internal problems. This meta-problem permeates everything that follows.

  2. This prohibition against criticism is enforced with the same instrument that the members of this community use to enforce everything: absolute social destruction. There is no probation in the eyes of the social justice world. The only penalty is the death penalty, the attempt to commit permanent character assassination. I suppose that some will call this claim inflammatory, but it seems to me to be far easier to find examples of people being forever shunned in the social justice world than to find examples of people who were gently educated and allowed to perform penance. This brutality is self-replicating: the executioners know that they could become the condemned with the slightest slipup. The most reliable way to prevent that is to be the most aggressive prosecutor you can. So the cycle actively rewards a never-ending escalation of vindictive punishment. This makes the social justice world, it’s fair to say, a somewhat unpleasant space.

  3. The desire to find fault in everyone and everything damages your basic perception of the world and make it harder to express your moral purpose. There are times when people are targeted for social exclusion because of perceived violation of social justice norms where many people react not with objection but with confusion; the alleged violation is premised on academic theories so complex and inscrutable that it’s hard for ordinary people to sort them out…
  4. An obvious conclusion one must draw from social justice politics is that most people are inherently bigoted, perhaps irredeemably so. It’s hard to see how someone could not derive that from the basic ideology. It is now perfectly common for people within that world to say that all white people are racist, in the interpersonal sense – that is, that all white people harbor animus and fear towards people of color. And those who do not go that far still see all white people as parts of a structurally racist system which they personally benefit from and uphold via their passive behavior at the very least. Similarly all cisgender people are assumed to perpetuate transphobia, again at least through participation in normal transphobic society and usually through active prejudice, patriarchy conditions the thoughts and behavior of all men and many unenlightened women, etc. Simply taking the basic texts and values of this tradition at face value leads you inevitably to the conclusion that almost everyone you encounter in contemporary society is a bad person.

  5. A consequence of the above item is profound fatalism. If these bigotries are so ubiquitous, so inevitable, and so pernicious, it becomes difficult to imagine how the world might ever become fixed. Social justice politics present themselves as revolutionary, but a minimum prerequisite of revolutions is a belief in the capacity for change.

  6. ..
  7. One problem with this fatalistic belief in the universality and inevitability of bigotry is that many or most people find it profoundly unattractive. The progenitors of this school of politics created the social expectation that racism is a uniquely pernicious evil, as it certainly is. But, for one thing, the more you generalize and universalize an accusation, the less it has meaning. Terms like “problematic” have become parodies of themselves because of their relentless application. More importantly, this dynamic makes it really hard to apply social justice politics in mass spaces…
  8. Social justice politics are obsessive about the linguistic, symbolic, cultural, discursive, and academic to the detriment of the material. The reasons for this are pretty plain: the parts of contemporary society that the social justice world controls are media, academia, the arts, nonprofits – in other words, the domains of ideas, the immaterial. The man with only a hammer seeing a world full of nails, etc. But this means that basic aspects of material suffering ultimately receive scant attention. I already mentioned above that Meghan Markle received vastly more press coverage in that news cycle than the Black-white wealth gap that touches the lives of every Black American. From the standpoint of promoting mass racial justice this makes no sense. But the wealth gap is a difficult problem that the cultural industries have no capacity to solve, and they don’t spend a lot of time reporting on poor Black people. Because the British royal family is sensitive to public perception they fixated on that problem which they thought they could change. Sadly for poor Black people the wealth gap does not have a public relations team, nor is entry into wealthy royal families a realistic path for most. The triumph of the linguistic overall the practical can be found all over this world. For example, consider the recent rigid policing of the term “person suffering from homelessness” over “homeless person.” The thinking is that the former stresses that homelessness happens to some people at some point while the latter defines them by that condition. I’m sympathetic to this reasoning; it makes sense to me. I’m also sure that if you polled a thousand homeless people you would not find a single one who would list this among their top ten problems. But when you’re a bookish arts kid language is everything, and anyway, social justice politics does not have anything substantial to offer the homeless in material terms. So language policing it is.

11) Apparently, it’s been deemed “transphobic” for a cis-gendered man to not have sexual interest in transwomen.  I’m quite comfortable with the “transwomen are women” formulation for most general applications, but, when it comes to romantic/sexual partners it does not seem unreasonable to claim “transwomen are transwomen.”  So, apparently, we’re now in this crazy place where some men are arguing that their sexual orientation is “super-straight” (preferring cis-gendered women only) and that we should not criticize them as we don’t criticize people for their orientation.  

12) More good stuff from Noah Smith with Bidenomics explained:

The Biden program is multifaceted — it includes things like support for unions, environmental protection, student debt cancellation, immigration, and a bunch of other stuff. But it would be wrong to characterize his program as merely a grab bag of long-time Democratic policy priorities. Three approaches stand out above the maelstrom:

  1. Cash benefits

  2. Care jobs

  3. Investment

Cash benefits were at the center of the COVID relief bill that already passed. In addition to the standard COVID relief items (quasi-universal $1400 checks, special unemployment benefits, housing and medical assistance, etc.) there was a very big program that is officially temporary but which will probably be made permanent: A child allowance. It’s very big in size — $3000 to $3600 per child. There’s no time limit and no work requirement. It’s basically a pilot universal basic income program for families.

The second pillar of Bidenomics is care jobs. The new “infrastructure” bill includes tens of billions of dollars a year for long-term in-home care for disabled and elderly people. Biden has made it explicit since early on that he intends to make caregiving jobs a pillar of his strategy for mass employment.

The third pillar of Bidenomics is investment — government investment, and measures to encourage private investment. The former includes tens of billions a year in new research spending, massive construction of new green energy infrastructure like electrical grids and charging stations, retrofits of existing infrastructure (e.g. lead removal from pipes), and repair of existing infrastructure like roads and bridges. This will help restore government investment as a fraction of GDP, which has been drifting downward for decades:…

Before I go on to discuss the justification for this new paradigm, I’d like to sum up all these “pillars” into one more-or-less cohesive vision of where I think Bidenomics is taking us. I think it’s aiming to create a two-track economy — a dynamic, internationally competitive innovation sector, and a domestically focused engine of mass employment and distributed prosperity.

I basically get this notion from Japan. In the 1970s and 1980s, Japan cultivated a world-beating export sector, based around all the companies you’ve heard of (Toyota, Panasonic, etc.). But this was only perhaps 20% of its economy, and the rest was a domestic-focused sector. Although some domestic-focused industries were highly productive (health care!), much of the domestic-focused sector — retail, finance, agriculture, utilities, and a few non-competitive manufacturing industries — was not very productive compared to the U.S. But those sectors did manage to employ a huge number of people; Japan has traditionally had very low unemployment, and that has not changed with the mass entry of women into the workforce since 2012. Japan in many ways built the most effective corporate welfare state in the world.

Biden and his people, I’m sure, do not want the domestic-focused sectors of the economy to be unproductive. But they want those sectors to do the heavy lifting in terms of giving most Americans a job, as they did in Japan. Those domestic sectors include the care economy, where Biden’s team believes much of future employment will come from.

13) I appreciate that John McWhorter, a Black Linguist, has taken to writing about the difficult it creates when a word like “racism” means dramatically different things, “Words Have Lost Their Common Meaning: The word racism, among others, has become maddeningly confusing in current usage.”

14) Jamelle Bouie, “The G.O.P. Has Some Voters It Likes and Some It Doesn’t”

This is what it looks like when a political party turns against democracy. It doesn’t just try to restrict the vote; it creates mechanisms to subvert the vote and attempts to purge officials who might stand in the way. Georgia is in the spotlight, for reasons past and present, but it is happening across the country wherever Republicans are in control.

Last Wednesday, for example, Republicans in Michigan introduced bills to limit use of ballot drop boxes, require photo ID for absentee ballots and allow partisan observers to monitor and record all precinct audits. “Senate Republicans are committed to making it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” the State Senate majority leader, Mike Shirkey, said in a statement. Shirkey, you may recall, was one of two Michigan Republican leaders who met with Trump at his behest after the election. He also described the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 as a “hoax.”

Republican lawmakers in Arizona, another swing state, have also introduced bills to limit absentee voting in accordance with the former president’s belief that greater access harmed his campaign. One proposal would require ID for mail-in ballots and shorten the window for mail-in voters to receive and return their ballots. Another bill would purge from the state’s list of those who are automatically sent a mail-in ballot any voter who failed to cast such a ballot in “both the primary election and the general election for two consecutive primary and general elections.”

One Arizona Republican, John Kavanagh, a state representative, gave a sense of the party’s intent when he told CNN, “Not everybody wants to vote, and if somebody is uninterested in voting, that probably means that they’re totally uninformed on the issues.” He continued: “Quantity is important, but we have to look at the quality of votes, as well.”

In other words, Republicans are using the former president’s failed attempt to overturn the election as a guide to how you would change the system to make it possible…

This fact pattern underscores a larger truth: The Republican Party is driving the nation’s democratic decline. A recent paper by Jacob M. Grumbach, a political scientist at the University of Washington, makes this plain. Using a new measure of state-level democratic performance in the United States from 2000 to 2018, Grumbach finds that Republican control of state government “consistently and profoundly reduces state democratic performance during this time period.” The nationalization of American politics and the coordination of parties across states means that “state governments controlled by the same party behave similarly when they take power.” Republican-controlled governments in states as different as Alabama and Wisconsin have “taken similar actions with respect to democratic institutions.”

The Republican Party’s turn against democratic participation and political equality is evident in more than just these bills and proposals. You can see it in how Florida Republicans promptly instituted difficult-to-pay fines and fees akin to a poll tax after a supermajority of the state’s voters approved a constitutional amendment to end the disenfranchisement of most ex-felons. You can see it in how Missouri Republicans simply ignored the results of a ballot initiative on Medicaid expansion.

Where does this all lead? Perhaps it just ends with a few new restrictions and new limits, enough, in conjunction with redistricting, to tilt the field in favor of the Republican Party in the next election cycle but not enough to substantially undermine American democracy. Looking at the 2020 election, however — and in particular at the 147 congressional Republicans who voted not to certify the Electoral College vote — it’s not hard to imagine how this escalates, especially if Trump and his allies are still in control of the party.

If Republicans are building the infrastructure to subvert an election — to make it possible to overturn results or keep Democrats from claiming electoral votes — then we have to expect that given a chance, they’ll use it.

15) Very cool interactive feature.  Also, not good.  “In the Atlantic Ocean, Subtle Shifts Hint at Dramatic Dangers: The warming atmosphere is causing an arm of the powerful Gulf Stream to weaken, some scientists fear.”

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