Quick hits

1) I saw this article on diamonds in the latest New Yorker and thought no way was I going to read something so long.  But so interesting on the geology, business, and history of diamond mining and production.

2) Big retail pharmacy chains are cutting back on staff and increasing medication errors, all in the name of greater profits.  I’m shocked.

3) The top leadership at Victoria’s Secret is disgusting, abusive, sexists.  I’m shocked.

4) I knew Inuit (maker of Turbo Tax) was an evil company.  I did not, realize, however, the depths of their moral depravity.  Great episode of “Reply All” on how they lie and mislead to stick it to poor people.  And shameful that our government is complicit in this.

5) I am such a corrupting influence on the youth, that my kids and their friends enjoy regularly singing the chorus of this song.

6) Tipping is a stupid, stupid way of doing things.  Just raise prices and pay workers an appropriate wage!  So much evidence that this is the way to go.  In the world we actually live in, I recognize the benefits of tipping hotel staff generously.  But don’t tell me there’s no downside to what is a stupid, unfair system, New York Times:

Many hotel staff earn the minimum wage, Ms. Cleveland said, and tips can add meaningful income. “There’s no downside in being generous in tipping.”

7) Love the premise here, “Kids Are Master Manipulators. So Use Game Theory Against Them.”  For the record, I’m already on it.  Number #1– do not make non-credible threats.

8)  Tamar Haspel, “Most dietary supplements don’t do anything. Why do we spend $35 billion a year on them?”   Because as a species we are proven morons when it comes to stuff like this.  Though, a few things actually have benefits:

How is it that perfectly respectable public-health initiatives, such as vaccines and water fluoridation, give rise to suspicion and conspiracy theories, while an entire industry that’s telling us out-and-out falsehoods in order to take our money gets a free pass?

Dietary supplements, people! Where is the outrage?

Every year, Americans spend something like $35 billion on vitamins, minerals, botanicals and various other substances that are touted as health-giving but mostly do nothing at all. Nothing at all!

Could the entire category really just be a rip-off? I turned to the National Institutes of Health. I spoke with Carol Haggans, a scientific and health communications consultant with the Office of Dietary Supplements, about vitamins and minerals, and to Craig Hopp, deputy director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, about botanical and other kinds of supplements.

My question was the same: Which dietary supplements actually have well-established benefits?

“It’s a short list,” Hopp told me. “Ginger for nausea, peppermint for upset stomach, melatonin for sleep disruption. And fish oil does seem to show some promise for cardiovascular disease, although some of the data is conflicting.” He went on to list some of the supplements that haven’t shown benefits in trials: turmeric, St. John’s wort, ginkgo, echinacea.

On the vitamin and mineral side, Haggans pointed out a couple of wins. Folic acid reduces risk for fetal neural tube defects, and it is widely recommended for women who may become pregnant. Vitamin B12 in food is sometimes poorly absorbed, she told me, and supplements can help in people over 50 (and vegans, because B12 comes from animal products). Then there’s a combination supplement that may slow the progression of macular degeneration. It’s also possible a daily multivitamin may decrease some disease risk.

9) I actually never use Rotten Tomatoes (I’m more a Metacritic guy), but I found this “behind the scenes” take on how they work quite interesting.

10) Look at this, #10 before my first purely political post this week (maybe politics is just too damn depressing this week).  Very good stuff from Lynn Vavreck and Chris Tausanovitch, “Are Democratic Voters Truly Divided by Ideology?  Survey results suggests their views and priorities are far more alike than different, despite labels like moderate or progressive, centrist or liberal.”

Of course, similarities across voters on policy preferences don’t imply similarities across candidates, and some voters will care about the distinctions even if, on average, everyone’s supporters want the same things. What’s clear is that policies aren’t driving division among most of the supporters of these candidates. If there is a fight for the future of the Democratic Party, it doesn’t appear to be playing out in terms of what voters want from their government. On that, no matter whom they may vote for in the primary, Democratic voters appear to be driving on a one-lane road. [emphasis mine]

11) I am so on this.  NYT, “Looking on the Bright Side May Be Good for Your Health: A number of recent long-term studies has linked greater optimism to a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease and other chronic ailments and to fostering ‘exceptional longevity.'”  Thing is, this seems so much more like just how I am naturally wired, than a conscious choice.  And, it is.  But everybody can do at least something:

Although the evidence indicates that a person’s outlook on life tends to stay stable over time, given the potential health benefits of optimism, I asked Dr. Rozanski if there might be a way to foster greater optimism in chronic pessimists.

He cited the tenets of cognitive behavioral therapy, which can help people develop better coping skills and counter negative thoughts.

“Our thinking is habitual, not conscious, so the first step is to learn to catch yourself when thinking negatively and make a commitment to change how you look at things,” he advised. “Recognize that the way you’re thinking is not necessarily the only way to think about a situation. Just that thought alone can decrease the toxic effect of negativity. Step two is to substitute a better thought that is credible.”

Dr. Rozanski likened the practice to increasing muscle strength, “gradually building a ‘muscle’ of positive thinking, for example, by trying to feel more grateful.”

I also asked these experts whether there’s a downside to optimism. The answer: not if it’s realistic and fosters views and outcomes that are within the realm of possibility.

12) Dan Froomkin calls out NYT’s Peter Baker on absolutely egregious both-sidesim.  As much as I love the NYT I wish it was better than this.  But for it’s lead political reporters, it’s just not.

There is one principle that should guide every serious news organization’s coverage of the impeachment trial: That the full truth should come out.

But because that guiding principle might tend to be interpreted as biased in favor of the political party that currently subscribes to that same notion, it has been wholly abandoned by the leaders of our most elite newsrooms, and by the reporters who have risen to stardom by doing their bidding.

Instead, as they do with so many other political stories, these journalists approach the impeachment trial as a game, covering each side with as little show of favoritism as they can possibly muster. This often leads to false equivalence, one example of which is when “both sides” are equally blamed for something that only one side has actually done.

Sometimes, the conflict between that approach and the one in which getting at the truth matters is just too much to deal with, if you care at all about the latter.

Case in point: New York Times all-star Peter Baker’s infuriating article Wednesday about how Democrats and Republicans have turned themselves “upside-down” when it comes to their views of John Bolton.

Yes, there’s a legitimate story in how Republicans who once spoke adoringly about Bolton are now calling him a traitor.

But to my knowledge, no Democratic senators have changed their minds about Bolton. They still think he is, as Baker gently mocks them for saying so in his lede, “too extreme,” “aggressively and dangerously wrong”“downright dangerous,” “nutty,” “reckless” and “far outside the mainstream.”

What these Democrats do believe is that Bolton’s testimony could help arrive at the truth. And they want Republican senators to hear him out.

13) It’s not surprising that Trump’s latest, disgusting moves on immigration haven’t gotten more attention this particular week, but, damn they are still so wrong.  I really like the way Masha Gessen puts it in a larger context of how Americans think about personal responsibility.

The thinking that underpinned the anti-immigrant amendments was fundamentally indistinguishable from the thinking that drove welfare reform in general: that undeserving people would somehow take advantage of the system, getting something for nothing. The spectre of the “welfare queen” haunted America. Viewed through the prism of this fear, immigrants are the least deserving people of all, because they haven’t paid their imaginary dues.

One could point out that noncitizens pay taxes. (Notably, many noncitizens pay Social Security taxes even though they may never attain the status that would entitle them to benefits.) But arguing about taxes misses the point. The basic idea behind the welfare state is that it’s best for a society when all its members lead lives of dignity. Not only those who have paid taxes, not only those who have worked, want to work, or will work, not only those who were born here, but all people who inhabit this wealthy land ought to have a roof over their heads and food on the table, have basic medical care, and be free of fear that they will not have any of these things tomorrow. Precisely because this is the foundational principle of a welfare state, in most welfare states noncitizens are eligible for public assistance, and, indeed, public assistance is seen as an essential element of integrating immigrants into society.

14) Fun and interesting stuff from Marc Hetherington (honestly about the best combination of excellent political scientist and good person I know) and others about how Iowa voters are making their choices:

In considering whom to nominate to run against President Trump, Democrats in Iowa appear to be employing criteria they might use to choose a car to drive or music to listen to: whether they want to fit in with the crowd or stand out.

Former vice president Joe Biden — establishment candidate and front-runner — is losing potential supporters for a reason that has nothing to do with political views. Many Democratic voters have a strong “desire to be different” in their regular lives. That disposes them toward candidates with more niche views and backgrounds.

Like driving a Saab rather than a Honda or arguing that punk rock pioneers Iggy and the Stooges were superior to mainstream favorite Led Zeppelin, picking candidates who challenge the establishment allows people to advertise their distinctiveness and authenticity.

We used survey data collected in Iowa to find out how much individuals’ preferences for being unconventional influences their political choices…

Our new theory suggests people inform their political choices by drawing on the same habits of mind they use in their personal lives. The habits of mind that people call on most frequently will also be the ones they turn to most when they encounter new problems or need to make new choices.

That is why a general desire to be different is a compelling explanation for primary election voting behavior. Americans have countless opportunities to decide whether to conform or be different. Choosing a candidate in a primary might look like yet another opportunity for that desire to be different…

In the December survey, we offered people the following three statements, and asked whether they agreed, disagreed or neither:

  1. When it comes to things like which sports teams to root for, which styles of clothes to wear, which type of cars to drive, what kind of music to listen to, and so forth, I tend to choose things that are different from the choices most people make.
  2. I like ideas and activities that are unconventional.
  3. When something becomes popular with other people, I tend to become less interested in it.

To measure desire to be different, we summed up respondents’ answers to the three questions and took the average. We divided scores into three categories — low, medium, and high — to more easily compare the choices of people who do not want to stand out with those who like to be different…

While desire to be different devastates Biden’s support, it is a bulwark of Sanders’s support. The quirky Vermonter runs only third, with 23 percent, among those who score low in desire to be different — but he leads all his competitors, with 32 percent, among those who like to stand out.

Warren also benefits from people who prefer the less conventional. She receives only 18 percent support from those scoring low in desire to be different, placing her last among the top four. But among those who score medium or high, she is nine and six points more popular.

15) Chait, “The Republican Cover-up Will Backfire. The House Can Keep Investigating Trump.”

16) Important twitter thread from Ezra:

 

 

 

 

Quick hits (part II)

1) Sean Illing on how Republican efforts to “flood the zone” with lies and information are so effective:

No matter how President Trump’s impeachment trial plays out in the Senate, one thing is certain: Despite the incontrovertible facts at the center of the story, the process will change very few minds.

Regardless of how clear a case Democrats make, it seems likely that a majority of voters will remain confused and unsure about the details of Trump’s transgressions. No single version of the truth will be accepted.

This is a serious problem for our democratic culture. No amount of evidence, on virtually any topic, is likely to move public opinion one way or the other. We can attribute some of this to rank partisanship — some people simply refuse to acknowledge inconvenient facts about their own side.

But there’s another, equally vexing problem. We live in a media ecosystem that overwhelms people with information. Some of that information is accurate, some of it is bogus, and much of it is intentionally misleading. The result is a polity that has increasingly given up on finding out the truth. As Sabrina Tavernise and Aidan Gardiner put it in a New York Times piece, “people are numb and disoriented, struggling to discern what is real in a sea of slant, fake, and fact.” This is partly why an earth-shattering historical event like a president’s impeachment has done very little to move public opinion.

The core challenge we’re facing today is information saturation and a hackable media system. If you follow politics at all, you know how exhausting the environment is. The sheer volume of content, the dizzying number of narratives and counternarratives, and the pace of the news cycle are too much for anyone to process.

One response to this situation is to walk away and tune everything out. After all, it takes real effort to comb through the bullshit, and most people have busy lives and limited bandwidth. Another reaction is to retreat into tribal allegiances. There’s Team Liberal and Team Conservative, and pretty much everyone knows which side they’re on. So you stick to the places that feed you the information you most want to hear.

2) OMG Susan Collins is just the worst.  Why anybody would take her seriously and treat her as anything other than a complete hack at this point is beyond me:

Former prosecutor Mimi Rocah tells me, “Senator Collins is either ignorant and uninformed because she doesn’t understand or know that a federal court only just released the Parnas docs or she is just making up excuses because the documents are so damning. Either one is unacceptable and the real question she should be asking is why Trump was trying to hide them.”

3) Would you be at all surprised if I told you that Mississippi had modern day debtors prisons?  NPR:

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It all started with an unlikely tip – a woman living in state prison in Mississippi was also working at McDonald’s and not voluntarily. That tip led Anna Wolfe and Michelle Liu, reporters at Mississippi Today, into a 14-month investigation of the state’s restitution centers. They compare the facilities to modern-day debtors’ prisons, and the people kept their working off fines and other debts rarely know how long they’ll have to stay, says Anna Wolfe.

ANNA WOLFE: The correction department doesn’t provide inmates with their debt balance. So it’s very hard for them to figure out how much they’re earning towards their debts and where their money is going.

CORNISH: People like Dixie D’Angelo. She worked four different jobs, trying to pay down more than $5,000 she owed for damaging a friend’s car.

DIXIE D’ANGELO: I got so depressed yesterday when I was looking at that because I got two checks. And, I mean, it’s not even – it’s, like, 900 and something dollars for two checks, and I’ve been here six weeks.

WOLFE: This is Anna. All the while, as they’re working, the department of corrections is taking out room and board and transportation off the top, and they are given very little documentation of where their money is going. Additionally, you know, they’re there to pay victims, but most of their earnings are going to pay court fees and criminal fines.

4) A couple of old school Republicans make the case for a carbon tax.  It’s a good case.  A friend shared it on FB saying, “I just don’t understand why so many conservatives oppose carbon pricing.”  My response: yes you do.

5) This “how to be a better white person” at the Root seemed pretty good.  Or maybe I think that because by the standards here, I’m a pretty decent white person.

6) I’m actually very much in favor of body positivity.  Love your body and who you are.  Really.  But, please, Vox, don’t pretend there’s not a clear relationship between being substantially overweight and being less healthy.

Michaels’s comments about Lizzo’s weight reflect a widespread belief: that all fat people face serious health risks purely because of their weight. This view is bolstered by a lot of research showing that there are health risks associated with carrying “excess” weight — including heart disease, some forms of cancer, and, yes, diabetes.

But that is not the end of the story, and research on the connection between weight and health is more complicated than it seems. While body mass index (BMI), the most common measurement used to assess if a person is a healthy weight, is correlated with metabolic health in population studies, there are many people with a “normal” BMI with cardiovascular and metabolic issues, while many in the “overweight” and “obese” range are metabolically healthy. Furthermore, the causal mechanisms linking obesity to chronic illnesses aren’t always well understood. For example, the psychological distress that can result from being overweight or obese in a society in which it is stigmatized can cause inflammation and negative long-term health effects.

Moreover, a number of scholars have argued that both the medical community and society put too much emphasis on the effects of weight on health, obscuring the importance of numerous other factors, such as blood pressure, blood lipid levels, and aerobic fitness, that together paint a more informative picture of a person’s health than BMI alone.

I mean all that– and it’s all true– to obscure the fact that overweight people are statistically more likely to suffer from all sorts of negative health consequences.  The give-away is the strawman, “that all fat people [emphasis mine] face serious health risks purely because of their weight.  Is it so hard?  1) Don’t shame people for being overweight.   Really.  2) Admit that most people would be healthier if not overweight.

7) With year’s Oscar controversy on race/gender, I think David Sims has a good take, ”

When the 2020 Oscar nominations were announced yesterday, Little Women earned a spot in the Best Picture category and collected nods for Ronan, Pugh, and Gerwig’s screenplay. But its recognition, which came without a Best Director nod, was still a tier below the biggest favorites of the night, including Joker, The Irishman, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and 1917—movies, some of them superb, about men and violence. For decades, those kinds of films have dominated the ceremony: Long dramas about weighty issues, biopics of celebrities, or narratives about moviemaking, with a dearth of genre movies, domestic narratives, and stories told by women and people of color…

Many of those snubbed movies didn’t fit the idea of “prestige” that has defined Oscar narratives for generations. This blinkered notion is what encourages studios to release certain films during awards season, which tends to run from October to December, and to spend millions of dollars on “for your consideration” campaigns. It’s what helps influential precursor awards such as the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs pick certain films for nominations, anointing them as favorites and nudging Academy voters toward them. The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood were two of my favorite films of the year, and got 20 nominations between them. But these stories of masculinity and brutality—burnished by their filmmakers’ legacies—shouldn’t be the types of works most celebrated by Oscar voters year after year.

Academy members themselves have the power to expand what kinds of movies are considered Oscar contenders. One step would be to reject the preemptive hand-waving doled out to so many acclaimed films, many of them artsier or smaller-scale, that supposedly will never play with Oscar voters for little reason other than tradition.

8) I quite enjoyed this on the lack of an anti-alcohol movement.  I hardly drink because 1) I really don’t like the taste of most all alcohol; 2) it’s a lot of empty calories; 3) because of my natural personality (low anxiety, low inhibition) I really don’t get all that much benefit; 4) I sure don’t like to spend money on it for the preceding reasons.  But, I really don’t judge those who are regular partakers (though, I could really live without even middle-aged people clearly somehow thinking it makes them “cool” to drink).  Anyway, Olga Khazan:

Occasionally, Elizabeth Bruenig unleashes a tweet for which she knows she’s sure to get dragged: She admits that she doesn’t drink.

Bruenig, a columnist at The New York Times with a sizable social-media following, told me that it usually begins with her tweeting something mildly inflammatory and totally unrelated to alcohol—e.g., The Star Wars prequels are actually good. Someone will accuse her of being drunk. She, in turn, will clarify that she doesn’t drink, and that she’s never been drunk. Inevitably, people will criticize her. You’re really missing out, they might say. Why would you deny yourself?

As Bruenig sees it, however, there’s more to be gained than lost in abstaining. In fact, she supports stronger restrictions on alcohol sales. Alcohol’s effects on crime and violence, in her view, are cause to reconsider some cities’ and states’ permissive attitudes toward things such as open-container laws and where alcohol can be sold.

Breunig’s outlook harks back to a time when there was a robust public discussion about the role of alcohol in society. Today, warnings about the devil drink will win you few friends. Sure, it’s fine if you want to join Alcoholics Anonymous or cut back on drinking to help yourself, and people are happy to tell you not to drink and drive. But Americans tend to reject general anti-alcohol advocacy with a vociferousness typically reserved for IRS auditors and after-period double-spacers. Pushing for, say, higher alcohol taxes gets you treated like an uptight school marm. Or worse, a neo-prohibitionist…

Americans would be justified in treating alcohol with the same wariness they have toward other drugs. Beyond how it tastes and feels, there’s very little good to say about the health impacts of booze. The idea that a glass or two of red wine a day is healthy is now considered dubious. At best, slight heart-health benefits are associated with moderate drinking, and most health experts say you shouldn’t start drinking for the health benefits if you don’t drink already. As one major study recently put it, “Our results show that the safest level of drinking is none.”

Alcohol’s byproducts wreak havoc on the cells, raising the risk of liver disease, heart failure, dementia, seven types of cancer, and fetal alcohol syndrome. Just this month, researchers reported that the number of alcohol-related deaths in the United States more than doubled in two decades, going up to 73,000 in 2017. As the journalist Stephanie Mencimer wrote in a 2018 Mother Jones article, alcohol-related breast cancer kills more than twice as many American women as drunk drivers do. Many people drink to relax, but it turns out that booze isn’t even very good at that. It seems to have a boomerang effect on anxiety, soothing it at first but bringing it roaring back later.

Despite these grim statistics, Americans embrace and encourage drinking far more than they do similar vices.

9) Also, one of the links led me to this 4+ year old piece on breast cancer (a subject I’ve always found particularly interesting) and the problems with mammography.  This figure was particularly compelling:

10) This was really, really interesting, “Air Pollution, Evolution, and the Fate of Billions of Humans
It’s not just a modern problem. Airborne toxins are so pernicious that they may have shaped our DNA over millions of years.”

Our ancestors were bedeviled by airborne toxins even as bipedal apes walking the African savanna, argued Benjamin Trumble, a biologist at Arizona State University, and Caleb Finch of the University of Southern California, in the December issue of the Quarterly Review of Biology.

Our forebears evolved defenses against these pollutants, the scientists propose. Today, those adaptations may provide protection, albeit limited, against tobacco smoke and other airborne threats.

But our evolutionary legacy may also be a burden, Dr. Trumble and Dr. Finch speculated. Some genetic adaptations may have increased our vulnerability to diseases linked to air pollution.

It is “a really creative, interesting contribution to evolutionary medicine,” said Molly Fox, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the new study.

The story begins about seven million years ago. Africa at the time was gradually growing more arid. The Sahara emerged in northern Africa, while grasslands opened up in eastern and southern Africa.

The ancestors of chimpanzees and gorillas remained in the retreating forests, but our ancient relatives adapted to the new environments. They evolved into a tall, slender frame well suited to walking and running long distances.

Dr. Finch and Dr. Trumble believe that early humans faced another challenge that has gone largely overlooked: the air.

Periodically, the savanna would have experienced heavy dust storms from the Sahara, and our distant ancestors may have risked harm to their lungs from breathing in the silica-rich particles.

“When the dust is up, we’re going to see more pulmonary problems,” Dr. Finch said. Even today, Greek researchers have found that when Sahara winds reach their country, patients surge into hospitals with respiratory complaints

Later, our ancestors added to airborne threats by mastering fire. As they lingered near hearths to cook food, stay warm or keep away from insects, they breathed in smoke. Once early humans began building shelters, the environment became more harmful to their lungs.

“Most traditional people live in a highly smoky environment,” Dr. Finch said. “I think it has been a fact of human living for us even before our species.”

Smoke created a new evolutionary pressure, he and Dr. Trumble believe. Humans evolved powerful liver enzymes, for example, to break down toxins passing into the bloodstream from the lungs.

11) The problem with the reporting and this study, “Run a First Marathon, and Your Arteries May Look 4 Years Younger: Training for and finishing a marathon can leave arteries more flexible, healthy and biologically younger than before” is that going from basically no exercise to becoming a regular runner is obviously going to have substantial health benefits.  Almost surely those benefits come from efforts well short of actually training for a marathon.

12) Cool experiments show how parrots can exhibit selfless behavior.

In a clear-walled laboratory compartment, an African grey parrot faced a heap of metal washers. A human waited nearby with her hand outstretched. If the washers were given to the human, she would hand back delicious walnuts — but the parrot couldn’t reach her. It could reach its neighboring parrot, though, whose compartment had an opening.

The parrot started picking up washers in its beak and passing them to its neighbor. At least one of them would get some walnuts today.

“They were quite intrinsically motivated to help another,” said Désirée Brucks, a cognitive biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany.

13) Loved this collection of readers’ takes on “life-changing” books.  I really enjoyed a number of these myself.  Cormac McCarthy’s The Road stands out for me from among these.

14) Some very cool infographics with this, “You Are Unvaccinated and Got Sick. These Are Your Odds.”

15) “You were never really here” got great reviews, but I ended up being pretty disappointed.  Struck me as like one of those Man Booker literary award winners that all the critics love, but are no fun to actually read.  Justin Chang’s positive review gets to why:

Some narrative details have been altered from the book, but the plot is largely beside the point.

Ummm, no.  Never going to go for a movie where the plot is beside the point.

16) Damn, is the whole GOP just a protection racket for Trump now?  Even the judges?  Slate, “Trump Judges Are Playing Keep-Away With His Tax Returns and Other Financial Records”

On Tuesday, Judge Trevor McFadden of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a surprising order further delaying any potential release of President Donald Trump’s tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee. McFadden, who was appointed by Trump to the federal bench, has had that committee’s subpoena of Trump’s tax returns before his court since July and has yet to issue a ruling. In Tuesday’s order, the judge continued to delay, putting the proceedings on hold until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decides a completely separate matter. The tax returns case—which has nothing to do with the ongoing impeachment inquiry of Trump—is now on hold until the circuit court rules on the House’s subpoena of testimony for former White House counsel Don McGahn in the impeachment inquiry. Because these cases have few similarities, it is difficult to understand McFadden’s latest order as anything other than an effort to delay the release of Trump’s tax returns for as long as possible. Coupled with D.C. Circuit Judge Neomi Rao’s effort to block a subpoena of Trump’s financial records in the Mazars USA case, this is another instance of one of Trump’s appointees to the federal bench taking a position that could undermine Congress’ ability to access critical information about this president’s finances.

Quick hits

1) Jennifer Rubin, “Hillary Clinton is the most exonerated politician ever”

2) This Op-Ed from Peggy Orenstein on teen boys and sex is really, really good.  (I’m pretty sure I linked to her Atlantic piece last month).  I thought about just sending it to my 8th grader to read (I send him a fair amount of good stuff), but realized it would be a parental cop-out if I didn’t make these points myself.  I did– not that either of enjoyed it.  But I’m glad I did.

Yet that silence has troubling implications. According to a 2017 national survey of 3,000 high school students and young adults by the Making Caring Common Project, a large majority of boys never had a single conversation with their parents about, for instance, how to be sure that your partner “wants to be — and is comfortable — having sex with you,” or about what it meant to be a “a caring and respectful sexual partner.” About two-thirds had never heard from their parents that they shouldn’t have sex with someone who is too intoxicated to consent. Most had never been told by parents not to catcall girls or use degrading terms such as “bitches” or “hoes” — this despite the fact that nearly 90 percent of the girls in the survey reported having been sexually harassed.

3a) Tom Steyer has been talking up term limits.  Jon Bernstein on why they are a “terrible” idea.

He’s for Congressional term limits. That’s a solution in search of a problem. As the scholar of Congress Josh Huder notes, “65% of the Senate and 70% of the House have served 10 years or less.” Today’s Congress is historically weak, and one reason is the relatively short tenure of many members. As it is, short-timers allow themselves to be bossed around by experienced leaders or by the White House. That’s bad enough, but if experienced leaders were eliminated, Congress would find itself bossed by the White House and by large organized interest groups. That’s not just the logic of the situation; it’s also what political scientists who have studied term limits in state legislatures have found.

Politicians who want long careers in Congress tend to work hard to represent their constituents. Politicians who know they’ll be seeking a different job soon won’t have any incentive to care about the people who voted for them — and won’t develop the skills needed to represent them even if they want to try.

3b) Jamelle Bouie is on it, too:

It’s worth saying, to start, that the “problem” of long-serving lawmakers — the problem a term limit purports to solve — isn’t actually a problem at all. The congressional scholar Josh Huder notes that just 35 senators (and less than a third of the House) have served 10 years or more. Likewise, according to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service, average tenure in the past two Congresses sat at roughly 10 years. Long-serving lawmakers are highly visible — often because they occupy key leadership roles — but they aren’t particularly common.

Not that this would be a problem, even if it were true. Time in office doesn’t inexorably lead to poor performance — just the reverse. It’s no coincidence that some of the most effective lawmakers in American history — architects of epochal bills like the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act — served for decades accumulating political and legislative expertise. And if voters want to reward an effective legislator or representative with more time in office, they should have that right. Forced retirement cuts against the idea that voters have an absolute right to choose their representatives.

If the goal of term limits is to bring new faces and fresh ideas to Washington, then the solution isn’t a blanket restriction on all lawmakers. The solution is more competition, to make it easier for interested people to run for office and win. There are ways to make that happen. Nonpartisan redistricting in all 50 states would break partisan gerrymandering and force incumbents to compete for votes. Public financing of campaigns would give challengers a fighting chance in a general election. And if part of the problem is low turnout, you can lower the barrier to voting and increase participation through universal registration and mail-in balloting.

4) What  it takes to hold your breath for 24 minutes (filling up on pure oxygen first, among other things).

5) David Hopkins on whether Democrats have a diversity problem:

But out in the mass Democratic Party, the pursuit of group interest is only sometimes channeled through supporting members of the group for elective office, and most citizens are resistant to—or even offended by—assumptions that they will or should line up behind a particular candidate simply because of shared social identity. Much has been made of Joe Biden’s success among black Democrats so far, persuasively explained as a combination of these voters’ collective ideological moderation, political pragmatism, and affection for Biden’s service under Barack Obama. But even the decidedly non-moderate and non-Obamaite Bernie Sanders was winning substantially more black support than Booker was before his withdrawal, just as Biden, Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren all easily outpolled Castro among Latino Democrats.

Mass-level Democratic voters of all races simply are not currently placing descriptive diversity above other priorities—defeating Donald Trump, achieving policy goals, ideologically recalibrating the party—to the same degree as the disproportionately audible voices of the journalistic and academic left. The historical milestone of Obama’s presidency has removed some urgency, at least in the short term, from efforts to elect another non-white candidate, and perceptions that women face a greater challenge than men in winning the presidency seem to have worked to the disadvantage of the female candidates in the 2020 race—perceptions that some feminist commentators have themselves unintentionally promoted. And the remaining Democratic field is not short on demographic diversity by traditional standards: Warren remains a leading contender, two major candidates are Jewish, and one is openly gay (it is, perhaps, a testament to the recent successes of the gay rights movement that much of the trendy left doesn’t celebrate Pete Buttigieg as a pathbreaking figure but instead mocks him as a square, co-opted incrementalist).

The demographic diversity of the 2020 presidential contenders in fact compares quite favorably to the larger officeholding class in American politics, where severe proportional discrepancies in social group representation remain rampant. (For example, Harris and Booker are two of only three black senators currently in office, and Patrick is one of only two elected black governors in the modern history of the nation.) On this issue, as on many others, the presidency receives excessive attention from American culture at the expense of the rest of the political system. But there is surely a distinction worth making between voters freely choosing across lines of group membership not to support a particular candidate or set of candidates in a large and wide-ranging field, as has occurred so far in 2020, and the more formidable social inequities in electoral politics that continue to shape the composition of the larger pool of political leadership in America.

6) Francis Wilkinson on Virginia and the NRA’s utter nonsense on guns:

The National Rifle Association, which has its headquarters in Virginia, and other gun-rights groups are rallying to fight the proposals, sometimes with a curious inattention to detail. Last month Erich Pratt, senior vice president of Gun Owners of America, and Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, released a 12-page letter to the people of Virginia. Over 12-single-spaced pages, they never quite get around to saying what those proposed regulations are — their broad outlines were debated in the campaign — or what makes them so awful. You will search the document in vain for the phrase “background check” or the word “silencer.”…

“Looking at a map of Virginia,” Pratt and Van Cleave wrote, “it becomes clear that only a few, geographically small, yet heavily populated, jurisdictions have declined to stand up against the current threats to the Virginia and United States Constitutions.” [emphases mine]

In other words, the “heavily populated” parts of Virginia do not have the same view of gun rights as the sparsely populated parts. And since the Virginia legislature was duly elected by popular vote, legislators will likely be more responsive to the interests of the majority than of the minority.

America is a representative democracy. But the gun lobby and other parts of the conservative coalition are increasingly skeptical of that. Armed with an all-purpose Constitution that means whatever they want it to mean, they seek to block popular government action.  

The Second Amendment sanctuaries emerging in Virginia and elsewhere may mark a burgeoning conservative counterculture. Contempt for the “geographically small, yet heavily populated” regions where most Americans reside is becoming a conservative tic. It’s the impetus behind those triumphal MAGA maps depicting countless hectares of American forest, farm and pasture in bold Republican red, while little enclaves such as Brooklyn, with a higher population than 15 states, are dismissed with a tiny blotch of blue.

Densely populated America, in other words, is not real America, and opposing real America is by definition unconstitutional. What the gun sanctuary movement is seeking is not protection from government overreach, but from democracy.

7) I just hate stuff like this, “Fox News goes to desperate lengths to gin up outrage over clip of Vince Vaughn chatting with Trump”  It’s bad enough that some would want to “cancel” Vaughn for talking with the president without Fox News basically pretending there was some widespread liberal reaction that wasn’t actually there.

8) Teaching middle-school sex education in the age of consent.  I’ll be curious to see what my 8th grader gets next semester (so far, it’s been pretty much biology, I think).

9) If 47 is really the most miserable age I’m doing awesome.  (Though, it’s 47.2 and I’m 47.9).

10) Trump’s absurd impeachment defense team (good Lord, is their any more embarrassing hack then Ken Starr?!) recruited from Fox News, of course:

What does this all-star team have in common? Between them, these four have appeared on Fox News over 350 times in the past year, according to Media Matters for America. Which no doubt left Jeanine Pirro asking why she didn’t make the cut.

11) Really liked Anand Giridharadas review of Michael Lind’s entirely class-based (and in some pretty bizarre ways) analysis of Trump’s populism:

Look, writing a book about Trump-era populism without a lens of racial awareness must be hard. Here’s how Lind describes political correctness, for instance: “the artificial dialect devised by leftist activists and spread by university and corporate bureaucrats that serves as a class marker distinguishing the college-educated from the vulgar majority below them.” In this framing, all the new awarenesses and sensitivities and humilities — for which I am profoundly thankful, since these days I’m much less often asked where I’m really from or told my English is impressive (thanks, they teach us well in Ohio!) — are just a ploy by leftists to hold white working-class people down. This understanding portrays the victims as the white working class, and the oppressors as those students who no longer wish to be called “faggots” and secretaries tired of being “sweetie.” I, for one, am grateful for all the thinking and doing that have changed how Americans navigate one another’s identities, and I do not have the luxury of dismissing the improvement in the dignity I am accorded daily as an “artificial dialect.”

Now, if you are going to present Trump as the receptacle of the cries of the unheard, you will need to funhouse-mirror him beyond recognition. Lind is on it. He takes the quintessential racist moment of Trump’s presidency — his famous comments on Charlottesville — and defends them: “Phrases from his remarks were taken out of context, recombined and misconstrued so they could fit into the Trump-is-Hitler narrative.” He also dismisses concerns about Russia’s role in the 2016 election as “mythological thinking.” “Liberal democracy in the West today is not endangered by Russian machinations or resurgent fascism,” Lind writes, describing a world I would love to live in. In fact, get this: Lind believes the “paranoid demonological thinking” represented by worries about Russia and fascism “has the potential to be a greater danger to liberal democracy in the West than any particular populist movements.”…

12) I really enjoy reading contemporary historical takes on Johnson’s impeachment as I got it so wrong in my AP US History paper in 11th grade based almost entirely upon sources which were basically by confederate apologists.  Unsurprisingly, Mike Pence’s history is still in the 1980’s:

On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Vice President Mike Pence urging Senate Democrats to follow the example of Edmund G. Ross, who “bucked his party and voted to acquit Andrew Johnson.” Pence praised Ross, who served as a Republican senator during Johnson’s presidency, for resisting “pressure” from his party and staying “true to his own convictions” to “render a fair judgment.” He favorably cites John F. Kennedy’s 1956 book Profiles in Courage, which depicts Ross who resisted “legislative mob rule” and “partisan impeachment.” The vice president draws parallels between Johnson and Donald Trump, asking, “Who, among the Senate Democrats, will stand up to the passions of their party this time?”

Pence’s op-ed is profoundly ahistorical, inaccurate, and oddly reliant upon a view of Johnson promoted by the Ku Klux Klan during its resurgence in the early 20th century. Far from a principled independent, Ross was an unscrupulous politician who exploited his impeachment vote to obtain favors from the president and may well have been bribed to acquit. Historian Brenda Wineapple’s extraordinary book The Impeachers, published in 2019, details the true story of Ross’ corrupt bargain to save Johnson’s catastrophic presidency. We spoke on Friday about the many errors in Pence’s op-ed. Our interview has been edited for length.

13) On the practical value of a liberal arts education:

A study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce finds that over the course of a career, a liberal arts education is remarkably practical, providing a median return on investment 40 years after enrollment that approaches $1 million. The results, searchable and sortable by institution, were released Tuesday…

The Georgetown study finds that the return on a liberal arts education is not typically immediate — at 10 years, the median return is $62,000 — but over the decades of a career, it is solid. Only doctoral universities with the two highest levels of research activity, well-known institutions such as Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, fared better in the school’s estimated return on investment. The median 40-year return of $918,000 at liberal arts colleges is more than 25 percent higher than the median for all colleges, researchers found.

Over a long period, the ideal preparation includes education in a field linked to a career, such as engineering, with the addition of general education that allows a person to be flexible and draw on a wealth of knowledge, according to Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the education and workforce center at Georgetown.

14) This is cool on many levels– living concrete:

For centuries, builders have been making concrete roughly the same way: by mixing hard materials like sand with various binders, and hoping it stays fixed and rigid for a long time to come.

Now, an interdisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has created a rather different kind of concrete — one that is alive and can even reproduce.

Minerals in the new material are deposited not by chemistry but by cyanobacteria, a common class of microbes that capture energy through photosynthesis. The photosynthetic process absorbs carbon dioxide, in stark contrast to the production of regular concrete, which spews huge amounts of that greenhouse gas…

The blocks also have the advantage of being made from a variety of common materials. Most concrete requires virgin sand that comes from rivers, lakes and oceans, which is running short worldwide, largely because of the enormous demand for concrete. The new living material is not so picky. “We’re not pigeonholed into using some particular kind of sand,” Dr. Srubar said. “We could use waste materials like ground glass or recycled concrete.”

The research team is working to make the material more practical by making the concrete stronger; increasing the bacteria’s resistance to dehydration; reconfiguring the materials so they can be flat-packed and easily assembled, like slabs of drywall; and finding a different kind of cyanobacteria that doesn’t require the addition of a gel.

Eventually, Dr. Srubar said, the tools of synthetic biology could dramatically expand the realm of possibilities: for instance, building materials that can detect and respond to toxic chemicals, or that light up to reveal structural damage. Living concrete might help in environments harsher than even the driest deserts: other planets, like Mars.

15) Nature shows are all the rage (and the Greene family is on-board).  I love that I shared watching National Geographic specials, etc., with my mom when I was a kid and now I’m watching David Attenborough with my kids.

16) Interesting, revisionist take on the 100th anniversary of Prohibition:

In reality, the temperance movement was anything but pinky-raising Victorians forbidding society to drink. Temperance was the longest-running, most widely supported social movement in both American and global history. Its foe wasn’t the drink in the bottle or the drunk who drank it, but the drink traffic: powerful business interests — protected by a government reliant on liquor taxes — getting men addicted to booze, and then profiting handsomely by bleeding them and their families dry.

In the 19th century, saloonkeepers across the United States and around the world were seen as parasites on the local community. This wasn’t Ted Danson, the friendly bartender in “Cheers!” There was no sending home a customer for having too much; that was lost profit. And since the saloonkeeper was often also the town pawnbroker, once you had drunk up your last penny, he might take your shirt, hat and watch too — if his hired pickpockets didn’t pinch them first.

Since fleecing customers was often illegal, the saloonkeeper’s profits paid kickbacks to the police, judges and mayor. Pop histories describe the saloon as a “symbol” — of masculinity, of drunkenness, of social ills. But the saloon wasn’t the symbol of some other problem; it was the problem itself.

This is why the powerful prohibitionist organization was called the Anti-Saloon League, not the Anti-Drinking Society. This is why neither the 18th Amendment nor state-level prohibitions ever outlawed drinking alcohol, but instead focused on its sale. It wasn’t taking a drink every now and then that got reformers’ hackles up; it was the idea of the rich getting richer by making the poor poorer through addiction.

One legislator called for prohibition “for the safety and redemption of the people from the social, political and moral curse of the saloon.” That zealot was Abraham Lincoln, rising to support Illinois’s statewide prohibition in 1855. Similar sentiments were expressed by Frederick Douglass, Theodore Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, William Jennings Bryan, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and many other progressive leaders.

Our inability to comprehend the past comes from taking current worldviews and projecting them backward. And the fact that Prohibition largely failed at the national level, and was later repealed, doesn’t mean that its proponents were crackpots or radicals.

17) The short story, “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” by Isabel Fall sounds interesting and provocative.  A shame that the publisher ultimately had to remove it

At the beginning of this year, the science fiction and fantasy magazine Clarkesworld published a short story called “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” by Isabel Fall. The story, which appears to be Fall’s debut, follows the first “somatic female” to undergo “tactical-role gender reassignment” surgery. She becomes, more or less literally, an Army helicopter. “When I was a woman I wanted my skin to be as smooth and dark as the sintered stone countertop in our kitchen,” the narrator says. “Now my skin is boron-carbide and Kevlar.” The experience of the narrator seemed to reflect the real-world struggles of transitioning. “Severe gender dysphoria,” Fall writes, “can be a flight risk.” The story took the offensive meme, slapped some rotors on it, and flew away to surprising places.

Responses were vehement. Readers who liked it saw an author being intentionally subversive. “I expected the worst when I saw the title,” wrote Reddit user Terminus0. “But I like how it leans into and treats seriously the saying … that people use to dismiss gender fluidity and makes it literal.” Most others in the thread agreed, saying they found the piece gripping, pleasantly surprising, or reminiscent of erotic sci-fi’s preeminent provocateur, Chuck Tingle. “I have been talking for days to everyone I meet about ‘I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter,’” @hoverpope tweeted. “It was immediately canonized for me.” Other celebrators of the work included noted author Carmen Maria Machado, who praised the story’s messy boldness. She also called out the critics—of which there seemed to be just as many. “My heart is so crushed and my brain is so angry,” Machado tweeted.

18) I’ll watch pretty much anything from Aardman animation.  And especially if it’s short and for a good cause like saving the oceans.

19) If you haven’t seen this from Buzzfeed, it really is amazing, “Here Are 20 Headlines Comparing Meghan Markle To Kate Middleton That May Show Why She And Prince Harry Are Cutting Off Royal Reporters”

 

 

 

 

Quick hits (part I)

1) Love this on Trump’s GOP “takeover” from Eric Levitz:

Yet McConnell is “staying put.” His caucus’s principled conservatives believe that when the state intervenes in the pharmaceutical market to raise prices and juice profits (by awarding patent monopolies that restrict competition), that is free-market economics — but when “big government” intervenes to aid consumers at the expense of Merck’s shareholders, it’s socialist tyranny. And, at the end of the day, the GOP’s long-standing principles (a.k.a. the GOP donor class’s long-standing demands) ostensibly count for more than one president’s whims.

What, then, do we mean when we say that Trump has “taken over” the GOP? If a president cannot convince his congressional allies to buck their party’s established orthodoxy on his “next major priority” — even when his position is popular, and the orthodoxy is not — in what sense has he attained the “complete fealty” of his party’s lawmakers? The discrepancy of Trump’s supposedly historic power over his party — and his demonstrable inability to rally congressional Republicans behind his legislative goals — reflects a fact that’s too often elided in discussions of Trump’s “hostile takeover of the GOP”: The mogul’s conquest of the American right owed as much to strategic surrenders as it did to tweeted blitzkriegs.

Trump began accommodating the GOP Establishment from the moment he secured the nomination. In the early weeks of his primary campaign, Trump endorsed universal health-caretax hikes on hedge-fund managers, and a $1 trillion infrastructure plan. After Trump won the Republican primary — and, thus, the hearts and minds of many previously adversarial GOP donors — he either abandoned or de-emphasized such heresies. Once in power, he outsourced his agenda to Paul Ryan. Trump could have devoted his “honeymoon” to his (broadly popular) ambitions for improving U.S. infrastructure. Instead, he let the Randian speaker try and fail to take health-care from poor people, before successfully delivering (deeply unpopular) tax cuts to wealthy ones.

Notably, subordinating his own political interests to the GOP Establishment’s fiscal agenda did not earn Trump any “fealty” on his campaign’s defining issue: When the White House’s official immigration plan (which included full funding for a border wall, and cuts to legal admissions) came before the Senate in February 2018, 14 Republicans voted against it.  (Mitch McConnell held votes on three other immigration bills that same day; all won more support than Donald Trump’s.)

To be sure, the president has occasionally flouted his party’s orthodoxy on trade and foreign policy. But even in those realms, Trump’s heresies are often overstated. Every modern Republican president has dabbled in protectionism at the behest of his favorite industries. And Trump did not ultimately tear up NAFTA, but merely negotiated a nearly-identical replacement. Meanwhile, Trump’s personal affections for Vladimir Putin notwithstanding, his administration has pursued the hawkish anti-Russian foreign policy that Mitt Romney once demanded. The president’s betrayal of Syria’s Kurds may have ruffled some neoconservative feathers. But then, betraying the Kurds has long been a pastime of Republican presidents – and for all of Trump’s vows to withdraw U.S. troops from the region, “large-scale operations” in Syria are ongoing. 

Put simply, it isn’t that hard to complete a “hostile takeover” of a party when your hostility does not extend to anything that that party truly values. The GOP Establishment did not wage holy war on Trump in early 2016 because it found his incivility or xenophobia unconscionable; it did so because it doubted Trump’s ability to defeat Hillary Clinton, and his willingness to implement the conservative agenda. By delivering the White House to Republicans, the regulatory state to the Chamber of Commerce, the tax code to plutocrats, and the judiciary to the Federalist Society, Trump has dispelled those fears.

The mainstream press exaggerates Trump’s power over congressional Republicans because it refuses to recognize the gulf between the GOP’s stated values and its actual ones. The modern Republican Party has never been a stickler for balanced budgetsunfettered trade, or constitutional restraints on executive authority (when the executive is a Republican). It has always been happy to abet presidential lawlessness when doing so advanced the conservative movement’s ideological goals. Thus, the fact that House Republicans are willing to forgive Trump’s illicit efforts to sabotage the Democratic front-runner is much less significant than the Times suggests.

2) Jesse Singal on “toxic wokeness” with an analogy to human sacrifice and I kind of love it:

It sounds like you’re describing life in a toxic online social-justice community. Toxic SJ communities are, of course, no less toxic because they center around fundamentally worthy causes. One thing I’ve noticed about them is no one seems to be happy. When happiness does appear to manifest, it’s a strained, performative type of happiness.

Allow me my first of what are going to be several digressions. Earlier this week I got started on the latest “Fall of Civilizations” podcast, which is about the Aztecs. One of the many things the host, Paul M.M. Cooper, does masterfully is pick the right spots to zoom in a bit, to encourage listeners to really think, if only for a few minutes along what is an hours-long journey inside a particular civilization’s downfall, about some issue or moment.

One such moment in this podcast involves the Aztec practice of human sacrifice. Cooper treats the subject with sufficient care, given that, as he points out, human sacrifice was one of the rationales the Spaniards used to justify their plunder of the New World (the colonizing Spaniards were, of course, deeply concerned with human rights — real humanists, that lot). But human sacrifice did occur. A priest would stab someone to death with an obsidian dagger at the top of a pyramid and pull out their still-beating heart. Their blood would run down the steps of the pyramid and their body would be tossed down it, its parts fed to animals. Many people would watch; it was a big social and religious ritual.

Cooper invites us to imagine would it would be like to be in the crowd. What did the average member of this (in other ways) incredibly successful, astoundingly impressive civilization think of the practice? In all likelihood, he points out, there was a range of opinions, just as the Europeans of the era likely had a range of opinions on the very public executions that would take place thousands of miles from Tenochtitlan, in starkly different cultural settings.

It’s hard not to imagine some half-hearted cheers. At root, these grisly sacrifices, often perpetrated upon prisoners of war, were demonstrations of state power. This was, at the time, a powerful civilization that believed, as so many powerful civilizations do, that it had the power of the gods themselves on its side, and that it was important to stay in their good graces. So maybe you cheer a bit louder than you feel like cheering, because what are you going to do, not cheer? Deny the self-evident wonder and righteousness of what you’re witnessing? When the consequences of being a hated and defeated outgroup member are presently tumbling down those endless holy stairs, right toward you?

There is this stock response when people do what I’m doing now, when they put dysfunctional online social dynamics in the context of the really bad stuff from our human past — sacrifices or witch burnings or the Red Scare and so on. The response is incredulous outrage: How could you compare one to the other??? Then the indignant person shuts down and refuses to discuss the matter at hand. My theory is that when they chant the mantra You can’t compare them! loud and fast enough, it drowns out their own doubts; it allows them to avoid interrogating their own role in making the world a meaner and crueler place than it needs to be.

So, for the record:

WE KNOW THAT CALLOUT CULTURE ON TWITTER IS NOT LITERALLY THE SAME AS BURNING AN ACCUSED WITCH.

WE KNOW THAT CALLOUT CULTURE ON TWITTER IS NOT LITERALLY THE SAME AS BURNING AN ACCUSED WITCH.

WE KNOW THAT CALLOUT CULTURE ON TWITTER IS NOT LITERALLY THE SAME AS BURNING AN ACCUSED WITCH.

The whole point is that there are certain aspects of human nature that pop up again and again and again, in different forms at different times. One of them is in-group insecurity. Are you a member in good standing? Is someone else poised to overtake you in the local hierarchy? What can you do — must you do — to hang on? A huge amount of human social life is oriented toward determining and broadcasting people’s status — whether they’re in or out and just how in or out they are.

Toxic online social-justice communities are miserable places largely because they are fueled by stilted, superficial outrage, and because there is an accurate sense that if you say the wrong thing, all your friends will instantly throw you under the bus. Since so many members of these communities don’t know each other in real life, and in fact have no firm connection to one another other than explicitly stated political values, people naturally develop a rather insecure sense of in-group attachment — one premised almost entirely on avoiding wrongthink and on reciting the right parts of the liturgy at the right times.

3) Really like this Wired list of 24 best movies of the 2010’s as I’ve actually seen most of these and agree with many of the picks.  Since this is Wired, it is a sci-fi heavy list.  I love “Looper” and am very pleased to see “Edge of Tomorrow” get some much-deserved love.  Also a huge fan of Arrival.

4) Shockingly, none of the Trump administration’s justifications for the Solemani killing actually hold up.  Paul Waldman takes them all down.

5) Frank Bruni lets loose on Nikki Haley and false notions of patriotism in his weekly newsletter:

Shame on Nikki Haley.

In the aftermath of the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, she didn’t merely praise President Trump — a show of support that may well reflect her own, like-minded assessment of events and is absolutely her right.

She denigrated Americans who took a different view by disingenuously describing their reaction. “The only ones that are mourning the loss of Suleimani are our Democrat leadership and our Democrat presidential candidates,” she told Sean Hannity during an interview on Fox News. Of course he thrilled to that characterization.

Which is an utterly bogus one. Democrats aren’t mourning the Iranian military commander’s death. They agree that he was a dangerous actor, with blood on his hands. But they are asking why Trump ordered his killing now, whether the administration has a fully fleshed strategy beyond this extraordinary strike and whether Iran will be less or more bellicose as a consequence of it. These are important, necessary questions. Republicans should be asking them, too. The answers could determine whether we wind up at war.

There’s this popular, recurring notion — you’re going to hear more and more of it from Trump’s loyalists in coming days and weeks — that when America is threatened by an adversary, Americans must exhibit unity. Some readers will surely admonish me for failing to do that in my midweek column, about the mismatch of Trump and this moment.

“Partisan politics should stop when it comes to foreign policy,” said Haley, the former American ambassador to the United Nations, telling Hannity that “we need to be completely behind the president” and that “every one of those countries are watching our news media right now.” Forget a free press and skeptical public. She wants a cheering section.

And that’s not patriotic. It’s the opposite. And it’s foolish.

I agree that we should tamp down pettiness and check reflexive, press-a-button partisanship when the country is imperiled and American lives are on the line. Hell, we should do that all of the time.

And in matters of state we should be especially careful, which is why there was a long if imperfectly followed tradition of presidents not using their trips overseas to continue or start political spats back home.

You know who flouted that? Trump. I can still see the backdrop of white crosses in a Normandy graveyard as he trashed Nancy Pelosi in a television interview. He has repeatedly mocked Joe Biden while abroad — and of course tried to use his presidential sway to get a foreign country to do its own besmirching of Biden.

So please, Ambassador Haley, don’t lecture me on how foreign policy should be a partisan no-fly zone, certainly not on behalf of this president, whose ingrained habit of lying intensifies the imperative of not blindly accepting what our leaders tell us as troops are activated and storm clouds gather.

Too little skepticism toward what turned out to be misinformation mired us in Vietnam and, much later, Afghanistan and also got us into Iraq. Again and again we trust too quickly or too much, and the country pays a terrible price.

Doesn’t patriotism demand that we learn from those mistakes?

6) Thanks to NC State’s new gender guide, I actually learned several new terms.  Sure, I’m familiar with genderqueer and non-binary, but who knew agender was a thing.  Now that’s one hell of a rejection of the gender binary.

Agender – a term used to describe the experience of one being without gender, outside the gender binary, rejecting the social construct of gender
Gender Fluid – a term used to describe the experience of one’s gender as moving along the continuum between and among genders
Genderqueer – a term used to describe the experience of being outside the gender binary, which may include having two or more genders (bigender, pangender, etc.), being third-gendered or other-gendered, or being without gender
Man – a term used to describe the experience of one’s gender being male, masculine
Non-binary – a term used to describe the experience of one’s gender being outside the binary or otherwise not identifying with binary male or female gender categories
Self-Entered – please enter the term most appropriate to describe your gender
Two-spirit – a culturally-specific term used to describe some individuals in some Native American cultures whose gender orientation includes both a masculine spirit and a feminine spirit
Woman – a term used to describe the experience of one’s gender being female, feminine

7) Can classroom air filters improve student performance?  Looks like it.  Then again, Drum is pretty skeptical.

8) Really enjoyed this NYT Magazine piece on gene drive (first time I read how it came to be– which was really cool) and genetically-modified mosquitos.  I actually found this part about Monsanto, though, particularly interesting:

“With genetically engineered foods, in the earliest years, Monsanto really set the context,” Charo says. “And it was a mess. Their financial interest in the intellectual property and their regulatory interest in making sure these products were able to come to market got conflated with the science, so nobody was willing to trust the kind of research they were doing. The end result was that all G.M.O. research got tainted.”

Todd Kuiken, a researcher at the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University, says that “it was basically a lesson in how not to do things.” But, he pointed out, the “Monsanto Mistake” also alerted researchers to the need for a more transparent and collaborative approach. With gene drives, groups like Target Malaria, a nonprofit research consortium administered by Imperial College, London, and funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have stressed that the deployment of modified mosquitoes in Africa should be “an African decision.” Local and national governments would work with regulatory organizations like the United Nations and the World Health Organization, which have proposed frameworks for testing and releasing genetically modified mosquitoes. In the United States, recent developments in genetics, including gene drives, have created a boom market for ethicists, as well as for so-called engagement specialists, who have the unenviable problem of figuring out how to get people to be genuinely thoughtful about a confusing and highly technical area of research.

9) I didn’t even know “muscle confusion” workouts are a thing.  During my workouts, my muscles are pretty much never confused.  But that’s okay, because a new study suggests its about your brain, not your muscles:

What these findings suggest is that muscles are not deterred or bored by unvarying routines, says Brad Schoenfeld, an associate professor of exercise science at Lehman College in New York and a co-author of the study. “They adapt to load,” he says, whether that load arrives through the same exercise or a different one each time.

But minds are not muscles and could be influenced by novelty, he says. “The differences in motivation scores at the end were substantial,” he says, suggesting that “from a purely motivational standpoint, variety matters.”

10) Derek Thompson on how this decade will probably be “peak meat.”  That would be great.  As I might have mentioned, I’ve been very impressed with the newest plant-based meats I’ve had.  And I’m super-excited about Impossible Pork.  Anyway, Thompson:

If these trends continue, per-capita meat consumption in the United States is all but certain to peak this decade. “Peak meat” won’t happen because tens of millions of carnivores suddenly got religion on animal rights, but rather because they were motivated by the opposite of a collective sacrifice: the magic of a longer menu.

Factory farming may be the epitome of capitalist excess, an inferno of needless suffering and environmental degradation for the pursuit of profit. But the plant-based revolution, too, is driven by a set of highly capitalist forces: technology, choice, and transnational corporate power. In the past decade, total venture-capital investment in plant-based meat has exceeded $2 billion, led by Impossible Foods, with $700 million in venture funds, and Beyond Meat, which went public in 2019.

These companies have partnered with some of the largest fast-food chains in the world to serve plant-based alternatives for each of the three most popular meats in the West—chicken, beef, and pork. This week, KFC announced that it would test a new vegan chicken sandwich at nearly 1,000 locations, starting in the U.K. In the past year, plant-based options have grown more than 250 percent at all burger-serving restaurants in the U.S., according to the food-research company Datassential. Burger King’s meatless “Impossible Whopper” powered the company to its strongest sales growth in four years. McDonald’s has responded by partnering with Beyond Meat to test its own version of plant-based burgers in the U.S. Beyond Meat also provides plant-based sausages for breakfast sandwiches at Dunkin’ and Tim Horton’s, while Burger King is testing imitation ground pork on its breakfast menu with something called the “Impossible Croissan’wich.”

What’s immediately obvious from this long list of meatish items is that investors, corporate executives, and consumers—including, crucially, those who say they would never become vegetarian—are excited about meat produced from plants. But these developments have a more radical implication: Plants are becoming the fourth meat.

That sentence will register as absurd to many people—and for carnivorous gourmands, it will smack of outright heresy. But it’s not an extravagant prediction, once you shake off the obvious paradox. Within the next decade or two, if the typical American eats 10 pounds of plant-based meat each year (essentially, the weight of one Impossible Whopper every week) plant-based meat will replace seafood as the fourth-most-popular “meat.”

11) Good stuff from John Sides, “Incumbent presidents usually get more popular when they run for reelection. Will Trump?”

The third pattern is the one Trump needs: increasing approval numbers throughout the election year. Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton are the clearest examples. Nixon’s average monthly approval increased from 49 percent to 61 percent between January and October 1972. Clinton’s increased from 47 percent to 56 percent over the same period in 1996.

Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Barack Obama experienced more modest increases, but increases nonetheless. Reagan’s approval had already increased significantly in 1983 as the country recovered from the punishing 1982 recession. But it increased about three more points in 1984 before he was easily reelected…

As the graph shows, Trump’s approval rating is lower than any incumbent president’s at this point in their first term. And even though Trump won in 2016 despite being viewed unfavorably, it’s a different proposition when you’re the incumbent president. The political scientist Jonathan Bernstein put it nicely:

It’s one thing to vote for someone you dislike, it’s another to vote for someone you think is a bad president. In other words, asking people whether they approve or disapprove of how the president is handling his job is going to be a better predictor of their vote than asking them whether they have a favorable opinion of a candidate.

Of course, Trump’s reelection can’t be ruled out — hence the even odds he has in the betting markets. Nevertheless, his position is unusually weak for an incumbent presiding over a good economy. The simplest strategy for improving his chances is reaching that thin slice of persuadable voters with a message about the good economy.

The question is whether Trump has fully committed to this message.

12) I loved this mini stories episode of 99% Invisible.  But I had a truly wonderful moment listening to this segment on the history of Los Alamos when they started interviewing the Los Alamos historian, Alan Carr, who was a graduate student/friend of mine at Texas Tech way back when.

13) I was a little disappointed with the de-aging in the Irishman.  Looked too much like an older person with bad plastic surgery.  But, this is kind of amazing… somebody with video skills made a way better version (seriously, do watch this) with free software in seven days:

It’s impossible to argue with the star-power of a mob movie that contains the following names: Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, Pesci. On paper, it’s one of the greatest movies of all time. The problem is, though, that Robert De Niro is a 76-year-old man, Al Pacino is a 79-year-old man, and Joe Pesci is a 76-year-old-man. And in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, these three mid-to-late-’70s actors are playing real-life mobsters throughout the span of half a century. That means, at times, we’re seeing De Niro’s Frank Sheeran as a twenty-and-thirtysomething-year-old man.

To pull this off, Martin Scorsese spent millions of Netflix’s money to digitally de-age De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci so they could portray these men throughout different parts of their lives. It’s safe to say it doesn’t entirely work. The result is some hellish uncanny valley, where their faces on screen perpetually look like they could be anywhere from 40 to 60 years old. We see De Niro’s Sheeran, supposedly in his 30s, beating the shit out of mobsters, moving like a 70-year-old man with the face of a 50-year-old man. It’s confusing, and often distracting. But many critics and awards show voters were able to look past the clunky CGI to enjoy yet another Scorsese mob movie featuring his old pals.

I was not one of them. And neither was this deepfake YouTuber who says he used free software to make The Irishman de-aging look better. And, according to the YouTuber, it only took him seven days.

14) I just upgraded my old router with the Wirecutter’s “budget” recommendation and damn was that about the best $50 I’ve spent.

Quick hits

1) Obviously, I’m out of my depth on Iran, but I think Yglesias is exactly right about how far you should trust the Trump administration on this.  Or anything.

When someone has proven over and over again that they are not trustworthy, you can, and in important situations should, stop trusting them.

Unfortunately, in the escalating crisis with Iran, many people seem to have forgotten this basic principle.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went on CNN Friday morning to explain that the Trump administration killed a top Iranian general to forestall an “imminent threat” and that the decision to do so “saved American lives.” Those remarks are simply echoed uncritically in the Washington Post’s main write-up of the story, along with the observation that Pompeo “stressed that Washington is committed to de-escalation” — a fairly dubious assertion given the current cycle of escalating hostilities dates to Trump’s unprovoked decision to pull out of the Iranian nuclear deal. An ABC News write-up stresses the risks of Iranian retaliation, but simply takes Pompeo’s claim of an imminent threat at face value.

It’s obviously possible that this claim is true. But it’s somewhat at odds with the Department of Defense’s statement Thursday night saying merely that Suleimani was “actively developing plans” for attacks and that the American bombing was “aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans” rather than disrupting an ongoing one. And indeed, David Sanger’s news analysis in the New York Times takes the Pentagon’s deterrence account at face value without noting that the secretary of state actually claims the attack was about something else.

Beyond the contradictions, telling the truth about something would be a strange, new departure for the Trump administration, and it seems unwise to assume that’s something they would do…

Part of Trump lying about everything is that he frequently says things specifically about Iran that are not true…

rump, from time to time, even lies about his own past statements on Iran, spending one day in September complaining that the media reported he’d said he was willing to meet with Iranian leaders without preconditions when he clearly said in both an interview with Chuck Todd and a press conference with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte that he was willing to meet without preconditions.

The point is that the probative value of a Trump statement about Iran is, to be generous, roughly zero. And Pompeo is no better. [emphasis mine]

So, what to make of all this with Iran?  Complicated.  What I do know for sure is that there is literally no reason to believe that Trump or his minions will be telling you the truth about what’s going on.

2) And Slate’s Fred Kaplan on just how dumb this is.  (Great discussion with Pesca on the Gist).

The United States is now at war with Iran.

This is the inescapable result of President Donald Trump’s order to assassinate Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, arguably the most powerful military leader in the Middle East, and the most important person in Iran,except for the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

You don’t deliberately kill someone like Soleimani unless you’re at war with his country, and even then, you want to think long and hard before you do, given the near-certainty of blowback. The blowback may soon be coming. Friday morning, Khamenei called for three days of national mourning and a “forceful revenge.” It would be shocking if he didn’t follow through.

To convey a sense of Soleimani’s significance, it would be as if, during the Iraq war, the ayatollah had ordered the assassination of Gen. David Petraeus, Gen. Jim Mattis, the head of Special Operations Command, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.* Soleimani’s responsibilities corresponded with all four of these roles. Even then, the analogy falls short because, among Shi’ite Muslims across the region, Soleimani also exuded the charisma of a religious icon, a holy warrior…

Trump’s actions on Thursday had no strategic purpose, and this means that, at a moment when he needs allies more than ever, he is less likely than ever to recruit them.

Did Trump have an endgame in mind when he ordered the attack, or was his action, like so many of his words and actions, simply impulsive? Did any of his advisers warn him of the legal implications and the potential political, military, and economic consequences? We now know that Congress wasn’t notified, much less consulted. Did the National Security Council even meet to weigh the pros and cons or to discuss alternative responses? Give Trump’s track record on deliberations, it’s unlikely.

In any case, whether Trump means to provoke a war or wants to pursue a diplomatic course at some point, there is no one around him very capable of doing either.

3) When looking for readings for my upcoming Political Parties seminar, I came across this great Yashca Mounk piece from 2018 (that I somehow had missed) that summarizes the excellent work on partisanship from both Daniel Hopkins and Lily Mason.  You should read it.

4) Great stuff from NeverTrumper Stuart Stevens, “Wake up, Republicans. Your party stands for all the wrong things now.”

Here’s a question: Does anybody have any idea what the Republican Party stands for in 2020?

One way to find out: As you are out and about marking the new year, it is likely you will come across a Republican to whom you can pose the question, preferably after a drink or two, as that tends to work as truth serum: “Look, I was just wondering: What’s the Republican Party all about these days? What does it, well, stand for?”

I’m betting the answer is going to involve a noun, a verb and either “socialism” or “Democrats.” Republicans now partly define their party simply as an alternative to that other party, as in “I’m a Republican because I’m not a Democrat.”…

Republicans are now officially the character-doesn’t-count party, the personal-responsibility-just-proves-you-have-failed-to-blame-the-other-guy party, the deficit-doesn’t-matter party, the Russia-is-our-ally party, and the I’m-right-and-you-are-human-scum party. Yes, it’s President Trump’s party now, but it stands only for what he has just tweeted.

A party without a governing theory, a higher purpose or a clear moral direction is nothing more than a cartel, a syndicate that exists only to advance itself. There is no organized, coherent purpose other than the acquisition and maintenance of power…

Trump didn’t hijack the GOP and bend it to his will. He did something far easier: He looked at the party, saw its fault lines and then offered himself as a pure distillation of accumulated white grievance and anger. He bet that Republican voters didn’t really care about free trade or mutual security, or about the environment or Europe, much less deficits. He rebranded kindness and compassion as “PC” and elevated division and bigotry as the admirable goals of just being politically incorrect. Trump didn’t make Americans more racist; he just normalized the resentments that were simmering in many households. In short, he let a lot of long-suppressed demons out of the box.

5) Yes, J.K. Rowling stood up to cancel culture, and that’s awesome, but I doubt this will necessarily work as well for those that lack Rowling’s stature.  Megan McArdle:

Not that we care about the people next door to us. Rather, we fret about the opinions of officious strangers, possibly thousands of miles away, who swarm social media like deranged starlings over and over again, in the same pattern: A few thousand souls, left or right, decide that some opinion or behavior, tolerated as recently as last week, is now anathema. Then they descend upon unwitting heretics en masse — as when author J.K. Rowling attracted the mob’s ire in mid-December for tweeting in support of Maya Forstater, who was fired from a British think tank for expressing her belief that biological sex is immutable and binary. “Dress however you please,” Rowling wrote. “Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill

Institutions reward the mob by firing employees, yanking advertising or inflicting other punishments. Those in the mob-ridden middle quietly think this insane but also quietly think the better of saying so out loud. Which is how the Terrible Tens became the decade of the online mob.

Even the most strait-laced small town probably rolled its collective eyes at those delicate souls who supposedly used chintz ruffles to hide piano legs from the imagined stares of lascivious men. We moderns haven’t yet developed any such filters. Today’s vaporing maiden aunts fell for an adolescent prank that gulled them into believing that the thumb-and-forefinger “okay” sign was a secret white-supremacist symbol . . . and rather than ever admit they were fooled, or that it’s a bad idea to voluntarily cede harmless gestures to racist lunatics, things escalated until the U.S. Naval Academy and West Point were investigating whether midshipmen and cadets were making an “okay” sign at this year’s Army-Navy football game.

It would be too neat a bit of plotting if the decade ended with the discovery of the antidote to this proscription plague. Yet I wonder if that isn’t what happened when the mob decided to cancel J.K. Rowling, and she demurred.

Rowling’s tweet earned her all the denunciations and anguished think pieces that a good mobbing entails. The usual script for what would follow: Rowling vanishes the tweet, apologizes and goes on a listening tour until she had been sufficiently reeducated to explain how wrong she’d been. But Rowling didn’t recite her lines.

There was no apology (though Rowling, who for several years apologized each May 2 for a beloved “Harry Potter” character she had killed off, clearly knows how to offer one). GLAAD contacted Rowling’s PR people to arrange a meeting; she declined it. Almost two weeks later, the tweet remains up despite suggestions that Rowling had irreparably tainted her legacy.

Whatever you think of Rowling’s views, you have to acknowledge that until recently, hers was considered a highly progressive opinion. That view was deemed wrongthink not because reasoned debate proved it incorrect, but because activists proved they could shout louder than anyone who voiced it. Can we also agree that virtual name-calling is a bad way to decide important questions? Quite possibly we’ll decide that Rowling’s beliefs are wrong — but that should be a decision, not something we conceded to save our eardrums a beating.

If you’d prefer reasoned debate, it will start with a collective realization that mobs can’t do much except make noise.

(Also, I purposely kept the part about the cadets as I meant to post on that and did not.  I had recently had a non-white student accused of being racist for this and he explained to me it was just a stupid game he did with his friends.  Occam’s razor).

6) Great interactive video feature in the Washington Post on the Australian wildfires.

7) I haven’t quite finished watching “The Irishman” yet (it’s too long!).  I’m enjoying it, but it ultimately strikes me as pretty derivative of, and less entertaining than, Scorsese’s earlier works. Certainly not worth the universal acclaim it has largely received.  I liked Leah Greenblatt’s review:

As Scorsese hopscotches across cities and decades, often in the service of a dizzyingly large number of plot turns, characters, and narrative cul de sacs, it’s hard not to wonder whether the movie — underwritten entirely by Netflix in the anything-goes age of streaming — would have made more sense as a limited series. (The real-life story would certainly support it, and surely there must be reams left over on the cutting-room floor; though it also feels a little like sacrilege to question his famously discerning editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.)

There’s a sense too, that The Irishman is a kind of caps-lock Scorsese — the greatest hits of his career revisited once more, with feeling. The movie’s passing parade of gangsters and goodfellas don’t have the electric specificity of 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street or the still, hymn-like beauty of 2016’s Silence. Babies are born; deals are forged; doubles are crossed. Men go to prison (though they call it “school”), women smoke cigarettes (and don’t speak much), and kids (played in adulthood by, among others, Anna Paquin and Jesse Plemons) serve mostly as bystanders, looking on in vague confusion or with the harder squint of those who’ve seen more than they really want to know.

It all becomes a bit of muddle for a while midway through; one that’s not nearly as compelling as the acting itself, which is largely phenomenal, frequently surprising, and often more than a little heartbreaking. As Bufalino, Pesci — who’s hardly been on screen for over a decade — abandons his hair-trigger intensity for a sort of gentle, contained menace, his eyes slow-blinking behind enormous glasses and his mouth pursed in a thoughtful moue. He doesn’t want to do bad things, but sometimes bad things are necessary for the order of things, you know?

8) Speaking of movies, I watched Alien with my 9-year old daughter.  She was a little bored as pretty much any 9-year old would be with the pacing of the movie, but she liked it and stuck it out for the whole thing.  And then the whole family watched Aliens.  Damn do those movies hold up.  Sarah wants to watch all the Alien movies now, although I’ve told her it’s all downhill.

9) Good stuff from earlier this year in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the poor job colleges do in getting students to graduate, “Forty percent of students don’t graduate. No one is held accountable. No one is fired. That must change.”

10) Also into the Political Parties syllabus, Lee Drutman’s excellent new piece in the Atlantic, “America Is Now the Divided Republic the Framers Feared: John Adams worried that “a division of the republic into two great parties … is to be dreaded as the great political evil.” And that’s exactly what has come to pass.”

Though America’s two-party system goes back centuries, the threat today is new and different because the two parties are now truly distinct, a development that I date to the 2010 midterms. Until then, the two parties contained enough overlapping multitudes within them that the sort of bargaining and coalition-building natural to multiparty democracy could work inside the two-party system. No more. America now has just two parties, and that’s it.

The theory that guided Washington and Adams was simple, and widespread at the time. If a consistent partisan majority ever united to take control of the government, it would use its power to oppress the minority. The fragile consent of the governed would break down, and violence and authoritarianism would follow. This was how previous republics had fallen into civil wars, and the Framers were intent on learning from history, not repeating its mistakes.

James Madison, the preeminent theorist of the bunch and rightly called the father of the Constitution, supported the idea of an “extended republic” (a strong national government, as opposed to 13 loosely confederated states) for precisely this reason. In a small republic, he reasoned, factions could more easily unite into consistent governing majorities. But in a large republic, with more factions and more distance, a permanent majority with a permanent minority was less likely.

The Framers thought they were using the most advanced political theory of the time to prevent parties from forming. By separating powers across competing institutions, they thought a majority party would never form. Combine the two insights—a large, diverse republic with a separation of powers—and the hyper-partisanship that felled earlier republics would be averted. Or so they believed.

However, political parties formed almost immediately because modern mass democracy requires them, and partisanship became a strong identity, jumping across institutions and eventually collapsing the republic’s diversity into just two camps.

Yet separation of powers and federalism did work sort of as intended for a long while…

Over the past three decades, both parties have had roughly equal electoral strength nationally, making control of Washington constantly up for grabs. Since 1992, the country has cycled through two swings of the pendulum, from united Democratic government to divided government to united Republican government and back again, with both sides seeking that elusive permanent majority, and attempting to sharpen the distinctions between the parties in order to win it. This also intensified partisanship.

These triple developments—the nationalization of politics, the geographical-cultural partisan split, and consistently close elections—have reinforced one another, pushing both parties into top-down leadership, enforcing party discipline, and destroying cross-partisan deal making. Voters now vote the party, not the candidate. Candidates depend on the party brand. Everything is team loyalty. The stakes are too high for it to be otherwise.

The consequence is that today, America has a genuine two-party system with no overlap, the development the Framers feared most. And it shows no signs of resolving. The two parties are fully sorted by geography and cultural values, and absent a major realignment, neither side has a chance of becoming the dominant party in the near future. But the elusive permanent majority promises so much power, neither side is willing to give up on it.

This fundamentally breaks the system of separation of powers and checks and balances that the Framers created. Under unified government, congressional co-partisans have no incentive to check the president; their electoral success is tied to his success and popularity. Under divided government, congressional opposition partisans have no incentive to work with the president; their electoral success is tied to his failure and unpopularity. This is not a system of bargaining and compromise, but one of capitulation and stonewalling.

 

 

Boxing Day Quick Hits

1) Good stuff from Jamelle Bouie on impeachment:

What is on the table is a narrative that Democratic presidential candidates can incorporate into their overall message. You can already see this happening. “Today is a sad but necessary day for democracy,” Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont said in a video statement for his presidential campaign. “The president of the United States is being impeached, and that is the right thing to do because we have got to never forget that no individual in this country, certainly not the president of the United States, is above the law, is above the Constitution.”

This isn’t the relentless focus on personality that undermined the previous campaign against Trump. It’s an important point of information to tie into a larger political case. Sanders makes that completely clear in his conclusion: “I am running for president not just to develop and work on a set of policies that represent working families in this country, not just to take on the greed and corruption of the 1 percent, but also to change the way the presidency functions. And that is, we cannot continue having a pathological liar in the White House.”

Sanders is using impeachment to underscore the themes of his campaign. He’s tying Trump to a broader narrative of corruption and elite impunity, reinforcing the message of impeachment without naming the president or making him the subject of his remarks. He’s showing voters that he’s attentive to the central issue of this election without letting it consume his message. It’s a deft move, and a strong one for an election where many voters will want someone to stand against Trump and make a comprehensive case for a new direction.

2) Linda Greenhouse on the Supreme Court and Trump:

When the first two of President Trump’s appeals seeking to shield his financial records from disclosure reached the Supreme Court last month, I predicted that the justices would take their institutional interests into account and turn the cases down.

I was wrong.

And on reflection, now that the court has agreed to hear those two appeals plus a third, I’m glad I was wrong. Here’s why: The eventual decisions, to come in the months after the as-yet unscheduled arguments in late March or early April, will give the country much-needed clarity about the Supreme Court. With the court in the full glare of an election-year spotlight, we will learn beyond any doubt what kind of Supreme Court we have — and whether its evolution into partnership with a president who acts as if he owns it is now complete.

Those of us who have been warning about this evolution are well aware that it’s a contested claim, subject to ready dismissal as overstatement or ideologically driven fearmongering. So I want to make the case here that for the justices to do anything other than affirm the three decisions at issue by two Courts of Appeals would be to vindicate both the warnings and the president’s disturbing assumption.

3) I’ve been enjoying the TNT marathon of Star Wars movies (yes, I own the DVD’s, of course, but something about just having them on the TV in the background) and I really like this take on the original Star Wars, “The Original Star Wars Is a Great Movie Because It Asks More Questions Than It Answers.”  Did not love the new movie, but that’s for another day.

4) Pretty intrigued by the Historians pushback on the 1619 NYT project and the response from the NYT.  My sense is that the 1619 Project is a super-important and useful corrective to years of History that under-played the truly fundamental role of slavery and white supremacy in American history.  But, that doesn’t mean you cannot go too far in your corrections.  I think Andrew Sullivan makes some good points:

There’s no question that Americans have deliberately avoided the brutal truths about slavery, and it is undeniably important that the full horror of that hideous regime be better and more widely understood. A special issue dedicated to exposing the racial terror-state in America before and after Reconstruction is extremely worthwhile. I wasn’t brought up here, but I can easily believe that high-school history literally whitewashes the historical reality, and still minimizes the evil. Taking that on is God’s work. Equally, Hannah-Jones’s essay is deeply moving about the faith in America that African-Americans, with little reason, clung to for so long. Vital too is recognizing that African-Americans are the most American of anyone in this country (apart, of course, from Native Americans)…

This is therefore, in its over-reach, ideology masquerading as neutral scholarship. Take a simple claim: no aspect of our society is unaffected by the legacy of slavery. Sure. Absolutely. Of course. But, when you consider this statement a little more, you realize this is either banal or meaningless. The complexity of history in a country of such size and diversity means that everything we do now has roots in many, many things that came before us. You could say the same thing about the English common law, for example, or the use of the English language: no aspect of American life is untouched by it. You could say that about the Enlightenment. Or the climate. You could say that America’s unique existence as a frontier country bordered by lawlessness is felt even today in every mass shooting. You could cite the death of countless millions of Native Americans — by violence and disease — as something that defines all of us in America today. And in a way it does. But that would be to engage in a liberal inquiry into our past, teasing out the nuances, and the balance of various forces throughout history, weighing each against each other along with the thoughts and actions of remarkable individuals — in the manner of, say, the excellent new history of the U.S., These Truths by Jill Lepore.

But the NYT chose a neo-Marxist rather than liberal path to make a very specific claim: that slavery is not one of many things that describe America’s founding and culture, it is the definitive one. Arguing that the “true founding” was the arrival of African slaves on the continent, period, is a bitter rebuke to the actual founders and Lincoln. America is not a messy, evolving, multicultural, religiously infused, Enlightenment-based, racist, liberating, wealth-generating kaleidoscope of a society. It’s white supremacy, which started in 1619, and that’s the key to understand all of it. America’s only virtue, in this telling, belongs to those who have attempted and still attempt to end this malign manifestation of white supremacy.

5) The Upshot quiz on recognizing famous people was really fun.  I got 86th percentile, but would have done a little better if I had not mis-typed one person.

6) Really good column on the problems with actually trying to have a free college plan:

Democratic presidential candidates are fighting over who should be eligible for free college based on income, but a bigger question is how to structure a plan that could work in all 50 states.

The United States has no national system of higher education, and each of the states works somewhat differently. Overlooking this basic fact risks creating a policy that could make things worse instead of better.

All of the leading Democratic presidential candidates want to make college free for at least some students. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren say all public colleges should be tuition-free. Pete Buttigieg has proposed making public college tuition free for families earning up to $100,000, saying at Thursday’s debate that “I just want you to go ahead and pay your own tuition” if “you’re in that lucky top 10 percent.” And Joe Biden has proposed eliminating tuition at community colleges, but not at four-year ones.

But the candidates’ plans generally fail to explain how the federal government should make college free nationwide. States vary widely in how well they fund their public colleges, and how much they charge for tuition. In-state prices for a year at a four-year public college range from about $6,000 in Florida and Wyoming to about $17,000 in Vermont and New Hampshire. States that charge students the most tend to be those that fund their colleges the least.

This creates a problem for federal policymakers who want to make college affordable everywhere. A plan that simply pays whatever colleges are charging would bail out states like Vermont at the expense of states like Wyoming — and encourage states to raise tuition to capture more federal money.

The solution would have to consider states’ investment, and the details matter a lot.

7) Waking up in the dark in winter sucks (fortunately, I don’t do that anymore, but my wife and HS-age son do).  Why we should just work shorter hours in winter.  Also, some cool natural experiments:

One potentially insightful group to examine includes people who live at the western edges of time zones. Since time zones can cover vast areas, people living at the eastern edges of time zones experience sunrise about an hour to an hour and a half before those living at the western edge. Despite this, the entire population must abide by the same working hours, meaning that many people will be forced to get up before sunrise. This essentially means that people in one part of the time zone are constantly out of sync with their circadian clocks. And while this might not seem like such a big deal, it’s associated with a number of damaging consequences. People living at the western edges experience higher rates of breast cancer, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease—put down by researchers primarily to the chronic disruption of circadian rhythms that arises from having to wake up in the dark.

Another extreme example of social jet lag is experienced in Spain, which abides by central European time, despite being geographically in line with the UK. This means the country is shifted one hour forward, and that the population must follow a social schedule which is not in keeping with their biological timings. As a result, the whole country suffers from sleep deprivation—getting an hour less on average than the rest of Europe. This degree of sleep loss has been linked to increased absenteeism, stress, work-related accidents, and failure at school in the country.

8) As a reader of YA fiction, really enjoyed Laura Miller’s take on the decade in YA fiction and the rise and fall of dystopias.

9) This seems… problematic.  “UNC campus police used geofencing tech to monitor antiracism protestors: Police used the technology to collect info from a protest at a Confederate statue on the UNC campus known as “Silent Sam.”

10) Favorite New Yorker cartoons on Instagram this year.  I really like this one:

View this post on Instagram

A cartoon by @johnpmcnamee. #TNYcartoons

A post shared by The New Yorker Cartoons (@newyorkercartoons) on

11) I quite enjoyed “A Marriage Story.”  And the SNL version of George and Kellyanne Conway.

12) Comic-book based TV/Movies are so not my thing.  All the more reason I was super-impressed by Watchmen.  James Poniewozik on the show.

13) Damn did I love the New Yorker’s “Classic Christmas movies starring Mitch McConnell.”  For example:

14) I really meant to do a post on the horrible Appeals Court ruling on the ACA.  But, you should at least read Jon Cohn’s summary:;

The ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans upheld key elements of a controversial, widely criticized decision that a district court handed down last year. The lower court had held that a GOP-controlled Congress rendered the entire statute unconstitutional in 2017 when it eliminated the Affordable Care Act’s tax penalty for people who violated the law’s individual mandate to have health coverage.

The 2-1 decision by the three-judge panel is not a full endorsement of that ruling, because it argues that parts of the Affordable Care Act unconnected to the individual mandate might be constitutional. For that reason, the appeals court remanded the case back to U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor in Fort Worth, Texas, to decide which (if any) parts of the law can stay in force.

“In terms of what it does, it decides that the individual mandate is unconstitutional ― and that a big chunk of the ACA may be invalid,” Nicholas Bagley, a University of Michigan law professor, told HuffPost. “But it doesn’t say how much or how little is invalid, and leaves it to Judge O’Connor [to decide].”…

The central issue in the lawsuit is whether, by reducing the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate penalty to zero, Trump and the then-GOP-controlled Congress in 2017 introduced a fatal constitutional flaw into the program — one that requires the courts to wipe it out entirely.

Legal experts from across the political spectrum, including some who were vocal advocates of previous challenges to the Affordable Care Act, have called the argument unfounded and nonsensical. [emphasis mine]

But on the 5th Circuit panel, two Republican appointees, Jennifer Walker Elrod and Kurt Engelhardt, found it persuasive. The third judge, Democratic appointee Carolyn Dineen King, voted to keep the law in place.

15) Sean Illing with a good interview with Suzanne Metzler on anti-government attitudes:

Suzanne Mettler

We’re in this weird situation in which people have to come to rely on government more and more, and at the same time government has required less and less of people. Now, you’d expect this to mean that people’s attitudes toward government have become favorable, but the opposite is true. And this is the paradox I’m grappling with in the book.

It turns out that how much a person actually benefits from government services matters very little in terms of shaping their attitude toward government. And that’s true even when controlling for all sorts of other factors.

Sean Illing

But there was one factor in particular that did make a big difference in terms of predicting someone’s view of government, right?

Suzanne Mettler

Right, and that was people’s attitudes about welfare. About 44 percent of Americans have unfavorable views of welfare. And the people who have very unfavorable views about welfare have strong attitudes about government that are shaped by this view. They believe that welfare is unfair, or that undeserving people are receiving it, and that deserving people like themselves are not getting anything.

There’s a lot of resentment out there from people who have this deeply negative perception of welfare, and this perception determines their view of government more than anything else. They’re blind to their own relationship to government, and so they assume welfare is something “other” people get.

Sean Illing

I have to address the giant elephant in the room. When we’re talking about welfare and people’s perceptions of it, we’re talking about race. And what you often find is that people don’t necessarily object to welfare; they object to welfare going to the out-group, to the “others.” Is this consistent with your findings?

Suzanne Mettler

Yes. Race is significant, and many other scholars have discovered this as well. Across the board, whites had more unfavorable views of welfare than people of color, in large part because they considered welfare something that people of color primarily benefit from.

16) To be fair to Trump, I think this horrible policy could come from many Republicans, “A Trump Policy ‘Clarification’ All but Ends Punishment for Bird Deaths”

Across the country birds have been killed and nests destroyed by oil spills, construction crews and chemical contamination, all with no response from the federal government, according to emails, memos and other documents viewed by The New York Times.

Not only has the administration stopped investigating most bird deaths, the

In one instance, a Wyoming-based oil company wanted to clarify that it no longer had to report bird deaths to the Fish and Wildlife Service. “You are correct,” the agency replied.

In another, a building property manager in Michigan emailed the Fish and Wildlife Service to note that residents had complained about birds being killed while workers put up siding and gutters around the apartment. Not to worry, the agency replied: “If the purpose or intent of your activity is not to take birds/nests/eggs, then it is no longer prohibited.”

And when a homeowners’ association in Arizona complained that a developer had refused to safely remove nesting burrowing owls from a nearby lot, Fish and Wildlife said that, because of the new legal interpretation, it could not compel the developer to act.

“Of course, we just got sued over that interpretation, so we’ll see how it ends up,” the enforcement officer wrote.

The revised policy — part of the administration’s broader effort to encourage business activity — has been a particular favorite of President Trump’s, whose selective view of avian welfare has ranged from complaining that wind energy “kills all the birds” to asserting that the oil industry has been subject to “totalitarian tactics” under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Quick hits (part II)

1) The University of North Carolina is going to pay $2.5 million on very shaky legal grounds to the Sons of Confederate Veterans to “care for” a confederate memorial statue that pretty much nobody at UNC actually wants on the campus anymore.  The whole thing is nuts.

2) Honeycrisp apples are good, but they strike me as vastly over-rated.  I’ll take a far more affordable Braeburn anyday.  And, damn, are they hard to grow.

3) Sometimes you really wonder what the NYT Op-Ed editors are thinking.  I read a horrible Op-Ed but decided I wasn’t going to waste my time blogging about it.  But, Drum has more time to blog, so…

Hmmm. So the theory here is that black kids are exposed to so much stress already that a little more barely has an impact. Let’s keep going:

Differences in access to socioeconomic resources such as mother’s education accounted for up to nearly 50 percent of the gap in high school completion….The importance of socioeconomic resources makes sense when we consider the racial gaps in income and wealth between black and white two-parent families. Although in general, youths raised in two-parent families are less likely to live in poverty, black youths raised by both biological parents are still three times more likely to live in poverty than are their white peers. Additionally, black two-parent families have half the wealth of white two-parent families. So, many of the expected economic benefits of marriage and the two-parent family are not equally available to black children.

This really makes no sense. For starters, the usual progressive assumption is that those who are suffering the most deserve the most help. But in this case, Cross is suggesting the opposite: black kids are already suffering enough that we shouldn’t worry too much about tossing another log on the fire in the form of a one-parent home.

Second, Cross suggests that socioeconomic resources account for much of the gap in high school completion. That’s plausible. But if we made some kind of massive effort to close that gap, it wouldn’t do us any good. It would just put black kids on a level footing with white kids, and their single-parent homes would then affect them as much as white kids.

Why write an op-ed like this? Unfortunately, this is the kind of special pleading that’s common when the subject is family structure. On the one hand, there’s a pretty fair literature—which Cross’s own study supports—suggesting that a two-parent family is beneficial for kids (and less stressful for the parents). This is largely because two-parent families are richer; have more time to spend with their kids; are more stable; live in better neighborhoods; and, sometimes, provide better role models for their children. On the other hand, we liberals don’t like telling other people how to live their lives, and we especially don’t like to say anything that even remotely sounds like a criticism of black family lives. So we end up with op-ed pieces like this one that desperately try to make a case that really can’t be made.

4) OMG in a sane world it would be a huge story that the President’s own personal charity was a giant fraud.  I mean, seriously.  We are so damn inured that this is okay?!

It’s easy to get caught up in impeachment, or the hastening ecological decline of our world, or the fact that the president posted more than 80 tweets before 9:30 this morning, including a suggestion to a teenage climate activist that she should “chill” and consider “Anger Management” classes.

But did you see the charity thing? You should see the charity thing. It was almost water under the bridge. Our politics have gone so far down the rabbit hole that a story about how the President of the United States agreed to pay $2 million at a court’s order—while admitting he used his charity for his own gain—barely made a splash. Folks saw the headline and thought to themselves, Well, yeah, of course Donald Trump ran a crooked charity. But really. Look at this.

As part of the settlement, the president paid eight charities a total of $2 million while admitting “he misused funds raised by the Donald J. Trump Foundation to promote his presidential bid and pay off business debts, the New York State attorney general said on Tuesday.”

By the 2000s, the charity was largely holding other people’s money, which was donated to benefit philanthropic causes. Trump used some of this money to buy a $20,000 portrait of himself.

He also used the money to buy a $12,000 signed Tim Tebow helmet, which he kept for himself.

He spent more than a quarter of a million dollars of the charity’s money to settle lawsuits involving his for-profit businesses. This is not legal.

5) Enjoyed this Vulture compilation of year’s best TV shows.  Definitely agree with the multiple mentions of Russian Doll and Fleabag.  I also really enjoy Barry and have found myself liking Watchmen far more than I expected.  I tried one episode of Kingdom last night.  Not sure if I’ll try another.

6) I liked Fred Kaplan’s take on the Afghanistan Papers:

The war in Afghanistan—18 years old and still raging, at a cost of nearly $1 trillion, 2,300 U.S. troops killed, and more than 20,000 injured—has been a muddle from the beginning, steered by vague and wavering strategies, fueled by falsely rosy reports of progress from the battlefield, and almost certainly doomed to failure all along.

This is the inescapable conclusion of a secret U.S. government history of the war—consisting of 2,000 pages, based on interviews with more than 400 participants—obtained and published by the Washington Post on Monday after years of legal battles to declassify the documents…

Central to the current war effort—and to its failure—was corruption. It was central because the Afghan government couldn’t defeat the Taliban insurgents, or win the support of its people, as long as it was corrupt from top to bottom. The United States failed because the billions of dollars we poured into the country only made Afghanistan’s corruption worse…

A major obstacle here, she said, was the “culture” in the State Department and the Pentagon, which focused on building relationships with their counterparts abroad. Since Afghan officials at all levels were corrupt, officials feared that going after corruption would endanger those relationships.

Chayes also said it was a big mistake to be “obsessed with chasing” the Taliban, to the point of neglecting the country’s political dynamics. We didn’t realize that many Afghans were “thrilled with the Taliban” for kicking corrupt warlords out of power. Instead, we aligned ourselves with the warlords, on the adage that “the enemy of our enemy is our friend”—and, as a result, further alienated the Afghan people and further enriched the corrupt powers, which in turn further inflamed the anti-government terrorists.

“It was through sheer naivete, and maybe carelessness, that we helped to create the system,” Kolenda said. He added, “Foreign aid is part of how” the Afghan kleptocrats “get rents to pay for the positions they purchased.”

What makes this syndrome all the more tragic is that it was recognized long ago, and even publicly discussed. In September 2009, as the Obama administration was debating a new policy toward the Afghanistan war, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified at a Senate hearing that the main problem “is clearly the lack of legitimacy of the government” in Kabul.

7) Brendan Nyhan, “You could teach a political science class on all of Tom Steyer’s bad ideas”

Steyer is a gift to political scientists. His campaign offers us an unusual opportunity to explain why the “reforms” he champions as magical solutions to our political problems are likely to be anything but. Unlike other candidates in the race, who focus on substantive policies — like health care — Steyer is passionate about changing the procedures of democratic decisionmaking. Unfortunately, the ideas he champions are generally bad ones. My field has spent decades amassing evidence that his proposals, and overall approach to governing, would probably make our political system worse, not better.

A hedge-fund manager who recently qualified for the Dec. 19 Democratic debate, Steyer has flooded early primary states with so many ads touting these proposals that even his supporters think he should dial it back. (Months ago, my 13-year-old son could already quote Steyer’s YouTube ads word for word.) Few politicians have worked so hard or spent so much to, in effect, troll an entire scientific field.

8) It’s a crazy and medically-advanced world we live in.  And, my, that’s one hell of a brother.  “Surgeons Transplant a Testicle From One Brother to His Twin”

9) I so relate to this, “How the Loss of the Landline Is Changing Family Life”

My tween will never know the sound of me calling her name from another room after the phone rings. She’ll never sit on our kitchen floor, refrigerator humming in the background, twisting a cord around her finger while talking to her best friend. I’ll get itHe’s not here right now, and It’s for you are all phrases that are on their way out of the modern domestic vernacular. According to the federal government, the majority of American homes now use cellphones exclusively. “We don’t even have a landline anymore,” people began to say proudly as the new millennium progressed. But this came with a quieter, secondary loss—the loss of the shared social space of the family landline.

“The shared family phone served as an anchor for home,” says Luke Fernandez, a visiting computer-science professor at Weber State University and a co-author of Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid: Feelings About Technology, From the Telegraph to Twitter. “Home is where you could be reached, and where you needed to go to pick up your messages.” With smartphones, Fernandez says, “we have gained mobility and privacy. But the value of the home has been diminished, as has its capacity to guide and monitor family behavior and perhaps bind families more closely together.” …

Cheryl Muller, a 59-year-old artist living in Brooklyn, raised her two sons, now 30 and 27, during the transition from landline to cellphone. “I do remember the shift from calling out ‘It’s for you,’ and being aware of their friends calling, and then asking them what the call was about, to pretty much … silence,” she says. Caroline Coleman, 54, a writer in New York City whose children grew up during the same transition, recalls how at age 10 her son got a call from a man with a deep voice. “I was horrified. I asked who it was—and it was his first classmate whose voice had changed,” she said. “When you get cells, you lose that connection.”

These days, this dynamic is also often reversed. A shared family phone meant that kids overheard some of their parents’ conversations, providing a window into their relationships, but today, children frequently see a parent silently staring at a screen, fingers tapping, occasionally furrowing a brow or chuckling. “Sometimes there are people that I’ve never even heard of that you’re texting,” my 11-year old once told me. Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT and the author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, has described this as “the new silences of family life.”

OMG… how much fun it was to answer the phone when a boy called my big sister.  Or how nervous I would be to call a girl and wonder if her dad was going to answer the phone.  Or talking to my in-laws when they called my wife (early in our marriage) and I answered the phone instead of her.  Or my wife talking to my parents.  Yes, everybody having their own phone is kind of awesome.  But something really is lost.

Quick hits (part I)

1) I remain a techno-optimist when it comes to the future of nuclear power.  Newer designs are so much safer and more efficient that the 40-50 year old designs we are using, if we would just give them a real chance.  Like small modular reactors:

For the last 20 years, the future of nuclear power has stood in a high bay laboratory tucked away on the Oregon State University campus in the western part of the state. Operated by NuScale Power, an Oregon-based energy startup, this prototype reactor represents a new chapter in the conflict-ridden, politically bedeviled saga of nuclear power plants.

NuScale’s reactor won’t need massive cooling towers or sprawling emergency zones. It can be built in a factory and shipped to any location, no matter how remote. Extensive simulations suggest it can handle almost any emergency without a meltdown. One reason is that it barely uses any nuclear fuel, at least compared with existing reactors. It’s also a fraction of the size of its predecessors.

This is good news for a planet in the grips of a climate crisis. Nuclear energy gets a bad rap in some environmentalist circles, but many energy experts and policymakers agree that splitting atoms is going to be an indispensable part of decarbonizing the world’s electricity. In the US, nuclear power accounts for about two-thirds of all clean electricity, but the existing reactors are rapidly approaching the end of their regulatory lifetimes. Only two new reactors are under construction in the US, but they’re billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.

Enter the small modular reactor, designed to allow several reactors to be combined into one unit. Need a modest amount of energy? Install just a few modules. Want to fuel a sprawling city? Tack on several more. Coming up with a suitable power plant for a wide range of situations becomes that much easier. Because they are small, these reactors can be mass-produced and shipped to any location in a handful of pieces. Perhaps most importantly, small modular reactors can take advantage of several cooling and safety mechanisms unavailable to their big brothers, which all but guarantees they won’t become the next Chernobyl.

2) I’m no so big into watching baseball, but I still find it intellectually interesting.  Like this, about the baseballs:

SAN DIEGO—Baseballs with a lower seam height coupled with a “change in player behavior” were among the primary causes of the power surge that resulted in players hitting a record 6,776 home runs in 2019, a panel of scientists commissioned by Major League Baseball to study the issue said Wednesday.

The committee’s report attributed 60% of the spike to less wind resistance on the balls themselves and 40% to what it described as “launch conditions”—essentially differences in how batters swing.

Throughout the 2019 season, pitchers across the sport questioned whether the league instructed Rawlings, the MLB-owned company that manufactures the baseballs in a factory in Costa Rica, to intentionally “juice” them to generate offense. The report dismissed that theory, saying that “no evidence was found that changes in baseball performance were due to anything intentional on the part of Rawlings or MLB and were likely due to manufacturing variability.”…

The latest study comes closer to identifying an explanation: inconsistency in the height of the seams, which the professors said can have a dramatic effect on how the ball behaves.

Newly developed laboratory techniques enabled the committee to show a correlation between seam height and drag. The average seam height in 2019 was lower than 2018 by less than one-thousandth of an inch. Still, that was enough to account for 35% of the change in drag.

“This is something that escaped our observation in the preceding study simply because the equipment that we were using was not precise enough to determine that,” said Alan Nathan, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Illinois and the chair of the study.

The problem is that the committee still can’t figure out the other factors that contributed to the decreased drag. It did rule out certain hypotheses such as roundness, surface roughness and lace thickness. Further breakthroughs will require more study. Asked how long that might take, Lloyd Smith, the director of the Sports Science Laboratory at Washington State University, said, “We have no idea.”

3) This is good from Chait, “Hunter Biden Is the New Hillary Clinton Email Server”

The email scandal was not just a Fox News narrative. It dominated mainstream news coverage of Clinton’s campaign, because it was a real issue, albeit a small one. Mainstream reporters made a historic blunder by devoting far more attention to the email issue than it deserved, but this is an inevitable result of the incentive system in the mainstream press, which prioritizes critical coverage over passive transmission of a candidate’s chosen message. The email issue was the “toughest” subject reporters could cover, so they focused a lot of attention on it. The bizarre result of this coverage choice was that voters came away concluding Clinton’s mishandling of email protocol was a crime on roughly the same scale as Trump’s endless array of massively unethical and illegal acts. Clinton, by the way, apologized for using the private server, but the apology did not stop reporters from highlighting the issue…

Most of Trump’s lax security protocol is both far more serious than Clinton’s snafu, and still not on anybody’s list of the 100 worst things Trump has done in office. For that reason, reporters obviously aren’t going to give it anywhere near Clinton-email levels of attention. Nobody who voted against Clinton because they thought her emails were a major scandal is going to realize Trump’s information-security record has been worse.

Here is another parallel to Biden’s Burisma problem. While he allowed the appearance of impropriety, Trump has allowed actual impropriety. Not only are Trump’s children making money off their relationship — Ivanka received a lucrative patent deal in China; Don Jr. got bulk party purchases of his book — President Trump himself is collecting payments from foreign and domestic sources who have government business. The ethical impropriety involved in Trump running a large business concern while serving as president is so enormous it defies all the applicable laws and terms. The structure built to insulate the president from conflicts of interest never anticipated conflicts on this scale. The idea that Trump’s opponent has a liability on this issue is an absurdity. It would be like electing Ted Bundy president because his opponent once kicked a dog.

And yet, such an absurdity is not just a possible outcome: the incentives of the news media turn it into a likely one. Reporters aren’t going to stop asking Biden tough questions about a legitimate ethical shortcoming just because his opponent’s sins dwarf Biden’s a thousandfold. Clinton’s example suggests that an apology wouldn’t do Biden much good.

4) Really cool Upshot feature, “The Age That Women Have Babies: How a Gap Divides America”

Becoming a mother used to be seen as a unifying milestone for women in the United States. But a new analysis of four decades of births shows that the age that women become mothers varies significantly by geography and education. The result is that children are born into very different family lives, heading for diverging economic futures.

First-time mothers are older in big cities and on the coasts, and younger in rural areas and in the Great Plains and the South. In New York and San Francisco, their average age is 31 and 32. In Todd County, S.D., and Zapata County, Tex., it’s half a generation earlier, at 20 and 21, according to the analysis, which was of all birth certificates in the United States since 1985 and nearly all for the five years prior. It was conducted for The New York Times by Caitlin Myers, an economist who studies reproductive policy at Middlebury College, using data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

The difference in when women start families cuts along many of the same lines that divide the country in other ways, and the biggest one is education. Women with college degrees have children an average of seven years later than those without — and often use the years in between to finish school and build their careers and incomes.

People with a higher socioeconomic status “just have more potential things they could do instead of being a parent, like going to college or grad school and having a fulfilling career,” said Heather Rackin, a sociologist at Louisiana State University who studies fertility. “Lower-socioeconomic-status people might not have as many opportunity costs — and motherhood has these benefits of emotional fulfillment, status in their community and a path to becoming an adult.”

There has long been an age gap for first-time mothers, which has narrowed a bit in recent years, driven largely by fewer teenage births, Ms. Myers said. Yet the gap may be more meaningful today. Researchers say the differences in when women start families are a symptom of the nation’s inequality — and as moving up the economic ladder has become harder, mothers’ circumstances could have a bigger effect on their children’s futures.

A college degree is increasingly essential to earning a middle-class wage, and older parents have more years to earn money to invest in violin lessons, math tutoring and college savings accounts — all of which can set children on very different paths. Yet an education and a high-paying career also seem out of reach for many people.

5) John Cassidy argues that impeachment is a win for Democrats

If Trump is to be defeated next year, his opponents will have to maintain that energy and build upon it. To do so, Ezra Levin, the co-founder and co-executive director of the Indivisible movement, which now has more than five thousand affiliated local groups, insists, it was utterly necessary for the Democrats to react to the shocking Ukraine revelations by issuing the ultimate congressional rebuke to Trump. Speaking hours after Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed that the House Democrats would go ahead and file articles of impeachment, Levin said, “I see only positive sides to this. I see a system that is working. For all the millions of people who got involved with politics after 2016, it shows that all the hard work they did mattered. That is going to get them involved again in 2020.”

From this perspective, the key thing isn’t whether the Senate actually removes Trump from office. Levin, who is also the co-author of a new book, “We Are Indivisible: A Blueprint for Democracy After Trump,” said that he wasn’t making any predictions about the outcome. But he added, “It was vital to demonstrate that elections do have consequences and that the Democrats will use their power to stand up to Trump.” If Pelosi and her colleagues had refused to launch an impeachment process, Levin went on, “it would have been enormously demoralizing for all these people who were newly engaged after 2016.”

This argument seems incontrovertible. I suspect it is why Pelosi ultimately came around to supporting impeachment, despite the reservations of some House Democrats who represent purple districts…

Of course, none of this means that the impeachment process couldn’t end up alienating some independent voters who believe Trump’s misdeeds don’t rise to the level of impeachable offenses, or who think Congress should let voters determine his fate next November. That may happen. And an impeachment trial will certainly fire up pro-Trump activists as well.

But these threats have to be balanced against the imperative of maintaining an energized front against Trump going into an election year. As a disruptive insurgent who eagerly fans social and racial resentments, he has always had an enthusiastic base—that isn’t going to change. One of the big challenges for Democrats—or anybody else opposed to Trump—is to nurture and sustain a nationwide countermovement that is at least equally passionate and engaged. From that perspective, as Levin pointed out, impeachment is already a win.

6) Really cool work from Lynn VavreckJohn Sides and 

What the Nationscape data reveal is clear: Impeachment is a top priority for almost everyone, regardless of whether they are in favor of it or against it.

Democrats are nearly 40 percentage points more likely to choose a collection of policies when it contains the position they agree with on impeaching Mr. Trump. Most of them want it to happen (among Democrats with an opinion on the topic, 86 percent support impeachment; the remainder don’t). But taken as a whole, the topic is something Democrats care a lot about right now.

The only policy more important to Democrats is family separation at the southern border (92 percent of Democrats with an opinion are opposed). Slightly less important to Democrats is whether to enact a total ban on abortion (87 percent against) or build a wall on the border (86 percent against). These are the topics Democrats are less willing to sacrifice relative to the other issues we ask about; they are issues with high impact.

To get these things, Democrats are willing to give up some issues like union rights (whether to oppose right-to-work laws) and whether to oppose an immigration system based only on merit. Even climate policies are seen as less important than impeaching the president…

Republicans are similarly focused on impeachment. They are roughly 45 percentage points more likely to choose a basket of policies when it includes their preferred position on the topic (88 percent of Republicans with a position on impeachment do not favor it). It outweighs every other issue for Republicans — including parts of Mr. Trump’s and the party’s agenda, such as building a border wall. The Green New Deal is the sixth-most important issue for Republicans — a much higher ranking than among Democrats (nearly a quarter of Republicans support it, but many more are opposed to it or just not sure).

Just like Democrats, Republicans are willing to sacrifice getting what they want on other issues, like estate tax repeal and a merit-based immigration system. Rounding out the lower-impact issues for Republicans are school vouchers, trade restrictions and a public option for health insurance.

6) 538, “Millennials Are Leaving Religion And Not Coming Back”

Millennials have earned a reputation for reshaping industries and institutions — shaking up the workplace, transforming dating culture, and rethinking parenthood. They’ve also had a dramatic impact on American religious life. Four in ten millennials now say they are religiously unaffiliated, according to the Pew Research Center. In fact, millennials (those between the ages of 23 and 38) are now almost as likely to say they have no religion as they are to identify as Christian. 1
For a long time, though, it wasn’t clear whether this youthful defection from religion would be temporary or permanent. It seemed possible that as millennials grew older, at least some would return to a more traditional religious life. But there’s mounting evidence that today’s younger generations may be leaving religion for good.

Social science research has long suggested that Americans’ relationship with religion has a tidal quality — people who were raised religious find themselves drifting away as young adults, only to be drawn back in when they find spouses and begin to raise their own families. Some argued that young adults just hadn’t yet been pulled back into the fold of organized religion, especially since they were hitting major milestones like marriage and parenthood later on.

But now many millennials have spouses, children and mortgages — and there’s little evidence of a corresponding surge in religious interest. A new national survey from the American Enterprise Institute of more than 2,500 Americans found a few reasons why millennials may not return to the religious fold. (One of the authors of this article helped conduct the survey.)

For one thing, many millennials never had strong ties to religion to begin with, which means they were less likely to develop habits or associations that make it easier to return to a religious community.
Young adults are also increasingly likely to have a spouse who is nonreligious, which may help reinforce their secular worldview.
Changing views about the relationship between morality and religion also appear to have convinced many young parents that religious institutions are simply irrelevant or unnecessary for their children.

7) Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes, “If the Witnesses Could Exonerate Trump, Why Aren’t They Testifying? Trump’s defenders suggest that White House aides could exculpate the president—but the evidence suggests otherwise.”

To the extent that the lack of testimony from these witnesses creates holes in the record, those are likely to be damning for Trump. Take Bolton, for example: According to Morrison, after meeting with Trump about the Ukraine aid, Bolton told Morrison that the president “wasn’t ready” to release the aid and that Morrison should “continue to look for opportunities” to convene a meeting with officials who could persuade Trump to do so. This doesn’t sound like Bolton was convinced that the president was legitimately concerned with addressing corruption in Ukraine…

But let’s imagine for a moment that the day comes when these men are compelled to testify—and that they tell the truth. Does anyone believe that the truth will set Trump free—that the real story here is that the president had long-standing concerns about corruption in Ukraine and earnest anxieties about Ukrainian intervention in the 2016 election, and that he asked for investigations out of a disinterested anti-corruption passion he has never exhibited before in his life? …

If these men end up testifying, Republicans will face yet another moment of reckoning as the strongest defense of the president, and the last factual defense, falls away. In an ideal world, that would finally force them to acknowledge the outrageousness of the president’s conduct, and Trump’s support in Congress would plummet. More likely, they will revert to the last defense: that the phone call with Zelensky was, as the president has insisted, “perfect,” and that Trump’s abuse of power is actually a model of how presidents should behave—or if not that, then at least not impeachable behavior.

8) Greg Sargent, “The massive triumph of the rich, illustrated by stunning new data”

A new analysis prepared at my request by Gabriel Zucman — the French economist and “wealth detective” who has become famous for tracing the hidden wealth of the super-rich — illustrates that dual story in a freshly compelling way.

The top-line finding: Among the bottom 50 percent of earners, average real annual income even after taxes and transfers has edged up a meager $8,000 since 1970, rising from just over $19,000 to just over $27,000 in 2018.

By contrast, among the top 1 percent of earners, average income even after taxes and transfers has tripled since 1970, rising by more than $800,000, from just over $300,000 to over $1 million in 2018.

Among the top 0.1 percent, average after-tax-and-transfer income has increased fivefold, from just over $1 million in 1970 to over $5 million in 2018. And among the top .01 percent, it has increased nearly sevenfold, from just over $3.5 million to over $24 million.

I’m emphasizing the phrase “after taxes and transfers” because this is at the core of Zucman’s new analysis. The idea is to show the combined impact of both the explosion of pretax income at the top and the decline in the effective tax rate paid by those same earners — in one result.

The declining progressivity of the tax code is the subject of “The Triumph of Injustice,” a great new book by Zucman and fellow Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez. It charts the slow strangulation of that progressivity at the top.

As they demonstrate, the effective tax rate (federal, state, local and other taxes) paid by top earners has steadily declined since the 1950s and 1960s, when the tax code really was quite progressive, to a point where the highest income groups pay barely more, percentage wise, than the bottom.

9) Alex Seitz-Wald on Republicans and Trump:

WASHINGTON — Late in the afternoon of Aug. 7, 1974, Republican leaders in Congress traveled up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House to deliver a stark message to Richard Nixon: His presidency was over.

The public had turned on Nixon as evidence emerged about his role in the Watergate scandal and the bottom fell out once his own party abandoned him.

“None of us doubted the outcome. He would resign,” conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater later wrote of the meeting in his memoir. Two days later, Nixon stepped down.

Today, as Democrats in the House of Representatives move toward bringing articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, with the next Judiciary Committee hearing of evidence set for Monday, few Democrats are still clinging to the hope that Republicans will reach a breaking point with Trump like they did with Nixon.

“I really don’t think there is any fact that would change their minds,” Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told NBC News.

Why? Two key changes since Nixon: a massive divide in American political life — we hate the other team more than ever before — and a media climate that fuels and reinforces that chasm, powered by Fox News on the Republican side. [emphasis mine]

10) New research says LBJ’s war on poverty worked better than is often credited:

We evaluate progress in President’s Johnson’s War on Poverty. We do so relative to the scientifically arbitrary but policy relevant 20 percent baseline poverty rate he established for 1963. No existing poverty measure fully captures poverty reductions based on the standard that President Johnson set. To fill this gap, we develop a Full-income Poverty Measure with thresholds set to match the 1963 Official Poverty Rate. We include cash income, taxes, and major in-kind transfers and update poverty thresholds for inflation annually. While the Official Poverty Rate fell from 19.5 percent in 1963 to 12.3 percent in 2017, our Full-income Poverty Rate based on President Johnson’s standards fell from 19.5 percent to 2.3 percent over that period. Today, almost all Americans have income above the inflation-adjusted thresholds established in the 1960s. Although expectations for minimum living standards evolve, this suggests substantial progress combatting absolute poverty since the War on Poverty began.

11) Dan Drezner on the toddler-in-chief:

Longtime readers of Spoiler Alerts are aware of my efforts to keep track of when President Trump’s staffers, subordinates and political allies talk about him like he’s a toddler. Over a bit less than three years, there are 1,113 documented examples of this phenomenon, which averages out to more than one a day…

During a week in which Trump finally secured bipartisan agreement on a trade deal, it also raises a question: Are examples like these evidence that, dare I say it, Donald Trump is finally growing into the presidency?

Let’s not leave this reader in suspense: The answer is no. As Aaron Rupar explains in Vox, Trump continues to behave in an unhinged, unconstrained manner. The president’s behavior has not changed one iota, which is why, until this month, the quarterly #ToddlerinChief count had shown a steady increase.

What has changed, however, is something akin to what I warned about back in January: “Shifts in the political balance of power in Washington are altering the incentives for who deploys the analogy.” In particular, two ongoing dynamics have slowed down the toddler mentions: the purging of the executive branch and the impeachment of Trump in Congress.

Within the executive branch, Trump has continued to force out subordinates who have resisted his more toddler-like impulses. The most obvious recent example was the departure of Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer, who was fired because of his disagreement with Trump’s decision to intervene in the military justice system. Spencer later wrote an op-ed for The Post in which he stated, “the president has very little understanding of what it means to be in the military, to fight ethically or to be governed by a uniform set of rules and practices.” An even more recent example came this week when FBI Director Christopher A. Wray defended the FBI from baseless conspiracy theories. In response, Trump swatted at him on Twitter.

The population ecology here is simple: The more Trump makes life miserable for mature people serving under him, the more likely those people will leave the government and stop being a source of good toddler analogies. Over time, Trump’s staff is becoming as immature as he is.

12) Jonathan Last makes a good case for Biden winning the nomination.  Ugh.

13) I make a point of never using the phrase “begs the question” because I don’t trust myself to use it correctly.  At some point, though, if virtually everyone uses it to mean “raises the question” shouldn’t that be what it means.  It already kind of is.  But there’s good reason not to give in:

In fact, that wrong usage is so common some people will argue it’s not an error anymore (7). But I’m firmly in the camp that believes it’s worthwhile to stick to the formal definition. There are plenty of phrases writers can use when they mean “makes me wonder” or “raises the question.” There’s no hole in the English language that needs to be filled, so there’s no reason to use begs the question improperly.

The quick and dirty tip is to remember that when something begs the question, it begs the question: what is your support for that premise?

14) The NYT art critic defends the $120,000 banana.  Mistake.  When you are wrong in the NYT, the commenters are so much smarter.  Really enjoyed the comments on this one, e.g.,

I know the art world. I ran a successful contemporary art gallery and was editor of an international art magazine. Cattelan’s banana is rubbish, and it’s sad to see the Times critic engaged in rhetorical backflips to try convince a rightly suspicious public that their instincts are wrong. You don’t need an art education to realize that telling the public they should recognize a banana and duct tape as worthy art is little more than gaslighting by art world elites.

 

Quick hits

Didn’t really feel like working on this on Friday night.  But, damnit, today is DJC’s birthday celebration (not sure if it’s the actual day) and I know he’s depending on his quick hits bright and early.

1) I found this NYT Op-Ed about how Mississippi (of all places) has dramatically improved reading scores by focusing on phonics and making sure elementary teachers understand the science if firmly behind it.  I didn’t realize lots of places still are not fully on-board with it despite the clear scientific evidence.  I’m glad my kids have had Letterland.

To understand what the science says, a good place to start is with something called the “simple view of reading.” It’s a model that was first proposed by researchers in 1986 to clarify the role of decoding in reading comprehension. Everyone agrees the goal of reading is to comprehend text, but back in the 1980s there was a big fight going on over whether children should be taught how to decode words — in other words, phonics.

The simple view says that reading comprehension is the product of two things. One is your ability to decode words: Can you identify the word a string of letters represents? For example, you see the letter string “l-a-s-s” and you are able to sound it out and say the word.

You may have no idea what “lass” means. This is where language comprehension comes in. Language comprehension is your ability to understand spoken language. So, when someone says to you, “Let’s have all the lads and lasses line up at the door,” you know that’s what all the boys and girls are supposed to do.

The simple view is an equation that looks like this:

decoding ability x language comprehension = reading comprehension

Notice that reading comprehension is the product of decoding ability and language comprehension; it’s not the sum. In other words, if you have good language comprehension skills but zero decoding skills, your reading comprehension will be zero, because zero times anything is zero. The simple view also says that if you have good decoding skills but poor language comprehension skills, your reading comprehension isn’t going to be very good either.

The simple view model was proposed more than 30 years ago and has been confirmed over and over again by research. But a study in Mississippi several years ago showed that teachers were not being trained to use this model and that many professors and deans in colleges of education had never even heard of it. Now, through workshops and coaching paid for by state taxpayers, teachers in Mississippi are learning about the simple view and other key takeaways from the science of reading.

Also, there’s a long piece by the same author that I found especially interesting because of the Education professors who are basically the equivalent of climate deniers on the matter.  Really interesting stuff.

2) Rachel Bitecofer makes a strong case that we are using polls wrong in thinking about electability:

The problem with this conclusion is that it’s based on “electability” polls that are unreliable, leading to erroneous narratives that can make or break campaigns, especially for lesser-known candidates who also seek to break through gender or racial glass ceilings like Warren and Harris.

Horserace polling is replete with electability polls because the electability question is central in voters’ minds and, as such, is the type of data heavily prioritized by media outlets. There are significant incentives to produce this type of polling but little scrutiny placed on the practice. Decades of political science scholarship shows that polling helps create narratives that can impact voter behavior, the ability of candidates to raise money, and electability, all of which tie to candidate poll performance in a positive feedback loop. Research shows that voters highly value candidate electability, defined as a candidate’s potential to compete against the opposition party’s nominee, as one of the most important factors driving their vote choice. Even in today’s hyper-ideological environment, two-thirds of likely Democratic primary voters in a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos survey indicate they’d prefer a candidate who can beat Trump over one who aligns with them on the issues, even immediately following an ideology-priming event such as a debate.

The only candidates for whom head-to-head ballot tests are capable of reliably measuring “electability” are those who enjoy what I call “saturation” name recognition. The test only works when two or more equally well-known candidates are compared to each other. It is really important to illustrate how hard it is to reach saturation-level name recognition among the American electorate.

Even Biden, who served as vice president for eight years, is not universally known by voters. The most recent iteration of the Economist/YouGov tracking poll, which samples 1,500 American adults on a rolling basis, finds 15% of sampled adults unable to offer an opinion as to whether they approve or disapprove of Biden. The latest iteration of the Morning Consult Democratic primary tracking poll finds 8% of potential voters reporting they’ve “heard of, but can’t offer an opinion” on Biden and 1% have never heard of him, for a total of 9% in what I call the “unfamiliar with the candidate” category. However, it must be noted, we are now talking about a far more sophisticated population of voters: potential Democratic primary voters. Participants in presidential primaries are among the most engaged and informed voters in the country. Yet, 8% of these voters appear incapable of offering the most basic of opinions about a man who served as President Obama’s veep.

3) The headline about a once-a-month birth control pill is a little misleading (the technology still needs a lot of work), but it was fascinating indeed to learn about the work on a pill that basically slowly releases medication in your stomach for a month.

4) We’re going to run out of teachers because we don’t pay them enough.  We really need to remedy this.  If only rich people and corporations didn’t need their tax cuts so badly.

There are one-third less people enrolling in teacher training programs, which is part of the certification process to become an educator, according to data from the Center for American Progress.
In some states, such as Michigan, Oklahoma, and Illinois, enrollment declined by more than 50%.
The drop in teacher training enrollment suggests that issues plaguing the profession — from low pay to dwindling school funding — has discouraged potential educators, exacerbating the nationwide teacher shortage…

Other data centers have similarly staggering estimates of the teacher shortage crisis. The independent research group Learning Policy Institute estimated a 112,000 teacher shortage in 2018.

Part of the reason many rejected the education field was due to low pay. Teachers get paid nearly 21% less on average than other professions that require a college degree. Thirty years ago, the pay gap was just 2% less.

5) It’s ultimately super-small, but nonetheless encouraging to see some NC local elected officials giving up on the Republican Party for it giving up on the rule of law.

6) Interesting column from David Brooks where he, in theory, is taking on the left by taking on socialism, but ultimately holds up the same model as Bernie Sanders– Denmark.  Yes, Northern Europe does seem to have largely figured out how to balance relatively free markets with a robust public sector– I’m all for emulating it.

7) Sad story of rural, Southwestern Virginia town doing everything to hand on as the population just shrinks.  But, it is also a story of a hugely disproportionate transfer of wealth to one community where it is unlikely to save it:

This corner of southwestern Virginia has long sought alternatives to coal as a source of sustenance. The Appalachian School of Law, which opened in the 1990s in the shell of Grundy Junior High School, was heralded as a new economic engine, lubricated — of course — with taxpayer funds. So was the Appalachian College of Pharmacy, founded in 2003 some 20 minutes down the road in Oakwood. County officials considered a dental school, but figured it was too expensive. They still get grumpy about the optometry school, on which they spent $250,000 in feasibility studies only for it to open across the state line in Pikeville, Ky. Then there is downtown Grundy itself, much of which was moved up the hill to avoid periodic floodwaters from the Levisa Fork, a tributary of the Big Sandy River…

Virginia estimates that the relocation and flood-proofing projects, started almost 20 years ago, cost $170 million in federal and state funds, more than $170,000 for every woman, man and child living in town today. The Army Corps of Engineers shaved off the flank of a mountain across the river to create an elevated platform on which the new commercial district would sit. Virginia’s Department of Transportation bulldozed much of the old downtown and routed U.S. 460 through it, built on top of a levee protecting what was left of Grundy’s old center. Finally, in 2011, Walmart opened a superstore to anchor the new site, perched somewhat oddly above a two-story, publicly funded parking lot.

8) I really quite enjoyed and appreciated the NYC subway on my trip there this summer.  Most everyone on twitter was a big fan of this NYT interactive feature on the subway map.

9) Helaine Olen in polling and a winning message for Democrats in 2020.  Honestly, it does seem crazy to see far left and center-left tear each other apart when there’s a consensus agenda that all Democrats can embrace, Republican voters like, but is anathema to Republican politicians:

While the president remains divisive, the report finds majorities of Democrats, independents and Republicans agree on many things. Seventy percent or more of those surveyed, including majorities of Republicans, agreed with each of the following statements:

  • College education is too expensive, and states should do more to “help people afford a college education without getting buried in debt.”
  • “Rich families and corporations should pay a lot more in taxes than they do today, and middle-class families should pay less.”
  • People who don’t receive health insurance from an employer should be allowed to buy into a public plan, and pharmaceutical companies should be “penalized” if drug prices increase faster than the rate of inflation.
  • Increase “good jobs” with a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure, including both roads and “expanded production of green energy.”
  • Reduce inequality with a 2 percent “wealth tax” on net worth in excess of $50 million.

That’s not all. People of every political persuasion give President Trump negative marks on his handling of health care and poverty. When asked what they believed is the most important issue that Trump and Congress should address in the coming year, “making health care more affordable” was cited by a majority of voters. Only a third of the entire electorate supported cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in an effort to address the national debt. And 8 in 10 Democrats and three-fourths of independents believe corporations have too much power and should be “strongly regulated” — something even 49 percent of Republicans also signed off on.

10) In a more sane world, we’d be talking more about trump’s military pardons, which really were appalling.  Thomas Edsall:

I asked Porch what the consequences might be of Trump’s war crimes pardons of former Army First Lt. Michael BehennaMaj. Mathew L. Golsteyn and 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, and his restoration of rank and service medals to Chief Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEAL.

First, Porch wrote, “the treatment of POWs is based on reciprocity” and “thus, to pardon soldiers who allegedly carry out war crimes is to put you own soldiers at risk.”

Second, “it undermines the moral foundation of intervention — how can a cause be moral and acceptable internationally if those who carry it out do not behave within legal norms?”

Trump has taken the opposite stance. In a tweet on Oct. 12, the president declared: “We train our boys to be killing machines, and then prosecute them when they kill!”…

General Charles C. Krulak, former commandant of the United States Marine Corps and a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also disagreed. He told The Wall Street Journal that Trump’s intervention “betrays these ideals and undermines decades of precedent in American military justice that has contributed to making our country’s fighting forces the envy of the world.”

Scholars of the military generally took the side of Dempsey and Krulak in opposition to the pardons.

Mara Karlin, the director of the strategic studies program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development during the Obama administration, was incisive in her critique of the war crimes pardons. In an email, Karlin wrote:

While some in the military are surely enthusiastic that Trump did so because they support him or Gallagher, they may be underestimating the precedent now set. Of all the contemporary norms that Trump has violated vis-à-vis the military, this is among the most catastrophic because at the end of the day, a transparent, trustworthy, and effective military justice system is the sine qua non of a transparent, trustworthy, and effective military.

11) Should we trust the polls on ready the country is ready for a gay president?

As Pete Buttigieg, the openly gay mayor of South Bend, Ind., has surged to a top position in Iowa polls in the Democratic presidential primary, media reports have emerged warning that his sexuality may yet derail his White House bid. A recent national Politico/Morning Consult poll found that a plurality of voters, 45 percent, think the country is not ready for an openly gay president, with only 40 percent saying it’s ready. Consultants have chimed in to say the mayor may be less electable than coastal elites realize because he’s gay.

Ordinary voters are quoted saying they — or their “devout Christian” mother — “would never vote for a gay.” And the Buttigieg campaign’s own focus groups recently found that many undecided black voters in South Carolina regard the candidate’s sexual orientation as a “barrier” to winning their votes.

But the power of polls to predict behavior around social issues and disfavored groups has always been poor, and what we know about people’s attitudes and actions when it comes to L.G.B.T. concerns tells a cautionary tale about how to interpret claims by voters that they won’t support an openly gay candidate for president.

Pollsters have long known about the poor predictive power of asking respondents how they would treat members of an unfavored minority group, especially in politically polarized climates.

12) The Supreme Court heard a big gun control case this week.  What was notable was the way some of the conservatives were really eager to deny the mootness of the issue staring them in the face.  Now that’s judicial activism.

13) Super-edifying, but I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising, when I write something and see that one of my favorites has already made the same point.  In this case, Drum on Barron Trump.

There is nothing wrong with saying this. Nonetheless, Republicans pretended to be outraged by it, and as near as I can tell there was no pushback. Not a single Republican stepped up to say “Give it a rest, guys.”

This kind of solidarity is a startlingly successful strategy. Reporters mostly bought into the Republican outrage, and even more tellingly, so did many Democrats, who suggested that Karlan really shouldn’t have “brought up the president’s son.” Eventually this forced Karlan to say sorry, which prompted yet another round of faux Republican outrage over her (of course) inadequate apology.

This was a minor affair, quickly forgotten. But it reminds me once again of the hack gap. Conservatives instinctively circled the wagons after the first person let loose on Karlan. Many joined in and none defended Karlan. Liberals, by contrast, were divided. Some were clear from the start that the whole thing was entirely fake, but others apparently felt like they had to demonstrate their reasonableness, which they did by saying that while it was no big deal, “still she really should have left Barron out of it.”

14) Paul Waldman on Biden’s “surprisingly liberal” tax plan:

Joe Biden is more liberal than he looks.

Let me qualify that: Biden is moderate in many ways, in vision and inclination. But the policy plans he has laid out as part of his campaign are much more progressive than most anyone seems to realize.

The latest evidence: the tax plan he just released. The coverage it’s receiving has tended toward “Biden releases tax plan much less ambitious than what Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders propose.” In fact, it’s so liberal — in very good ways — that when he was vice president it would have been considered radical, certainly too much for Barack Obama to have signed into law, or in some cases even suggested.

This tells us a great deal about the state of the Democratic Party and how it has affected Biden, who is assumed to be the ideologically moderate choice for president (along with other candidates, including Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar).

15) Max Boot, “To GOP hypocrites: I never want to hear about Hillary Clinton’s emails again.”

If there were a global competition for insincerity, President Trump would have won the equivalent of an Oscar, a gold medal, a Ballon d’Or and a Vince Lombardi Trophy combined. You simply could not be more two-faced; it is not humanly possible. His picture belongs in the dictionary under the very word “hypocrisy.”

Trump, recall, spent much of 2016 leading chants of “Lock her up!” because Hillary Clinton made the mistake of employing a private server for some of her official emails as secretary of state. Trump still routinely refers to the former first lady and secretary of state as “Crooked Hillary” as if she had actually committed a crime. Never mind that the Justice Department decided not to prosecute and that a lengthy State Department investigation, completed during the Trump administrationfound “no persuasive evidence of systemic, deliberate mishandling of classified information.”

And yet, while castigating Clinton for supposedly mishandling classified information, Trump has been engaging in far more egregious examples of the very same sin…

But all these security breaches pale by comparison with Trump’s promiscuous use of a cellphone to conduct top-secret conversations. My Post colleagues Paul Sonne, Josh Dawsey, Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller report that “Trump has routinely communicated with his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and other individuals speaking on cellphones vulnerable to monitoring by Russian and other foreign intelligence services.”

And lets definitely not forget to blame the media for taking these bad faith arguments in good faith.

16) Call me transphobic, but, sorry, if you were born a male I don’t think you get to compete in athletic competitions as female.  Also, I honestly don’t know where the controversy falls on the terminology these days, but I’m totally comfortable with the author identifying as as “woman,” but I don’t know about the insistence upon “female.”

17) Okay, I don’t actually listen to the album anymore (though I hear plenty on 90’s at 9 on my satellite radio), but I still say Alanis‘ “Jagged Little Pill” was a great album.  Enjoyed this NYT magazine feature on her.

18) Speaking of music, I had not heard the Kinks’ “Father Christmas” in years and years, but heard it on the radio yesterday.  Used to listen to it all the time on the one Kinks album I owned.  Now that’s a rock ‘n roll Christmas song.

19) How exercise may make your muscles function like they are decades younger.

20) Planet Money on the Constitutional hurdles (with this Supreme Court… hell yeah!) of the wealth tax and an interesting alternative:

Recently, Senator Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, proposed such a reform. He wants to get rid of the “two tax codes” for workers and investors. He proposes the government create “one tax code” by taxing investment income at the same rate as labor income and taxing investment gains annually whether or not they’re sold. Julian Castro and Senator Cory Booker, each running for president, have proposed similar tax policies.

Wyden proposes an “anti-deferral” tax system in which people with over a million dollars in annual income or ten million in net worth over three consecutive years would lose the ability to defer tax payments on publicly listed assets, like stocks and bonds. Harder-to-value private assets, like artwork, real estate, and ownership shares of private businesses, would face a retroactive “deferral charge” when they’re sold. He estimates the tax would raise between $1.5 to $2 trillion over ten years, and he wants to use the money to strengthen the Social Security program.

Proposals for accrual taxes face similar criticisms to the wealth tax. The policy would require, for instance, significant resources to administer. It could distort saving and investment decisions and have unintended consequences for the broader economy. And while proposals on the table include measures to avoid such problems, it’s possible the tax could be hard on some taxpayers who look rich on paper but are in fact short on the cash needed to pay the tax.

A key question over an accrual tax is how it will deal with investor losses. If rich investors get hammered in a financial crash, for instance, will they be able to write off their paper losses? If they make a huge gain one year on Amazon stock and pay a lot in accrual tax, but then next year Amazon stock tanks, do they get to claw back those taxes previously paid? If so, how much? Wyden expresses support for allowing deductibility of losses from tax bills, but he doesn’t provide many specifics. As of September, when he released a white paper about the policy, he sought public comment.

Batchelder believes a wealth tax has a number of advantages over an accrual tax. For one, a wealth tax is easier to explain, which is an asset to politicians, who have to convert complicated policies into easy-to-digest talking points. An accrual tax, which necessitates more wonky details and dull explanations, just isn’t as sexy. “It hasn’t gotten, obviously, the media attention that a wealth tax has,” Batchelder says.

But Batchelder thinks an accrual tax could go a long way toward raising revenue and addressing inequality, and she suggests the policy could even be included as a “backup mechanism” in wealth tax legislation that could kick in if the Supreme Court knocks a wealth tax down.

 

 

Quick hits (part II)

1) I don’t know that we should abolish, ICE, but damn is that one problematic government bureaucracy.  “How a worker who survived a catastrophic building collapse ended up in ICE detention: Delmer Palma’s looming deportation has had a chilling effect in New Orleans, hampering a federal investigation of the Hard Rock site disaster, lawyers say.”

Delmer Joel Ramirez Palma was in bad shape.

The 38-year-old metal worker survived the collapse of a building he had been working on near the French Quarter in New Orleans, jumping between floors as the 18-story structure crumbled around him. But he suffered from headaches, extreme back pain, sleeplessness and signs of shock, his family says.

Doctors said he needed to take a few weeks to heal.

So his wife, Tania Bueso, was surprised when he called her and said federal immigration agents were arresting him for deportation. The collapse had occurred just two days before.

The spectacular wreck had brought a circus of unwanted attention to New Orleans. Three workers had died, dozens of others were injured, and speculation was growing that the site, an $85 million development slated to become a Hard Rock hotel, had been a mess of dangerous working conditions. A federal investigation was moving quickly. Lawsuits against the developers were piling up. (William Kearney, a spokesman for 1031 Canal Development, the LLC behind the development, did not respond to requests for comment.)

But Palma’s arrest sent a secondary shock wave through New Orleans, where the Latino population has more than doubled in the past 20 years. Activists and lawyers said they think it has had a chilling effect, discouraging workers without permanent legal status from coming forward to cooperate with investigators and reminding more of the federal government’s power to deport them at any moment.

This is one of the unseen consequences of the Trump administration’s aggressive crackdown on undocumented immigrants in the United States — 8 million of whom are in the workforce. Not only do these arrests break apart families, like Palma’s, but they send a message that immigrants are not protected, even if they have witnessed misconduct at work, advocates say. And that means that people who would exploit them — on construction sites, in kitchens, on farms and in factories — are more empowered.

2) Adam Serwer, always good on Trump:

All of these arguments, ranging from the weak to the false, obscure the core reason for the impeachment inquiry, which is that the Trump administration was engaged in a conspiracy against American democracy. Fearing that the 2016 election was a fluke in which Trump prevailed only because of a successful Russian hacking and disinformation campaign, and a last-minute intervention on Trump’s behalf by the very national-security state Trump defenders supposedly loathe, Trump and his advisers sought to rig the 2020 election by forcing a foreign country to implicate the then-Democratic front-runner in a crime that did not take place. If the American people could not be trusted to choose Trump on their own, Trump would use his official powers to make the choice for them.

It was, in short, a conspiracy by Trump and his advisers to keep themselves in power, the exact scenario for which the Framers of the Constitution devised the impeachment clause. This scheme was carried out by Trump-appointed officials, and by the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, running a corrupt back channel aimed at, in his words, “meddling in an investigation.” And it came very close to succeeding. As Brian Beutler writes, “Had the whole scheme not come to light in a whistleblower complaint, and Trump not released his hold on aid to Ukraine, we might have awaken [sic] one morning to a blaring CNN exclusive about international corruption allegations against the Democratic presidential frontrunner and his party.”

3) Book review of The Meritocracy Trap

On the surface, meritocracy seems fair, but in reality, Markovits writes, what we call merit is “a pretense, constructed to rationalize an unjust distribution of advantage.” If you know what you’re doing and if you have enough money to spend on expensive tutors and prep schools, the meritocracy is easily gamed — which basically ensures that people who are rich because they went to a fancy school will have kids who will also go to fancy schools and thus also become rich. In this way and over the years, meritocracy has become the opposite of what it purports to be: It is “a mechanism for the concentration and dynastic transmission of wealth, privilege and caste across generations.”

The results are ugly but undeniable. At two Ivy League colleges, the author tells us, data collected by students suggests that “the share of students from households in the top quintile of the income distribution exceeds the share from the bottom two quintiles combined by a ratio of about three and a half to one.” At other elite schools, “more students come from families in the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from the entire bottom half.”…

The middle class, broadly defined, is of course an outcast in the meritocracy, left behind in what Markovits calls “a stagnant, depleted and shrinking world.” Once, perhaps, America’s elite professional class served the general public, but today its members figure out how to replace local bankers through mortgage securitization and come up with clever ways to de-skill retail supply chains. With just about every recent meritocratic “innovation” Markovits studies, the winners turn out to be — surprise! — people already at the top of the meritocratic heap.

4) Great story on the hidden costs of medical school for low-income students was really good.  We need to to better:

David Velasquez learned his first clinical lesson early on: The health care system wasn’t made to care for people like him. Mr. Velasquez, 24, never had a primary care physician, because his parents, immigrants from Nicaragua, couldn’t afford the bills. When he was 12, his undocumented godmother died of cancer, having avoided hospitals until it was too late. Mr. Velasquez, the only college-bound member of his family, knew he needed to become a doctor.

When he registered for the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, his junior year, he called the Princeton Review to ask for a discount on a $1,200 preparation package. He felt that, coming from a poor Los Angeles community without connections, he would need an especially strong test score to compete for admission.

“I thought maybe they’d hear I was desperate and put me on a payment plan,” said Mr. Velasquez, now in his third year at Harvard Medical School. The company refused his pleas for a discount, so he worked overtime to scrounge up the money. After purchasing the package, he checked his bank account to see what remained: $4.80.

American medical schools are the training grounds for a white-collar, high-income industry, but they select their students from predominantly high-income, and typically white, households. Ten years ago, a national study found that over 75 percent of medical school students came from the top 40 percent of family income in the United States, representing an annual income above $75,000. A study last year from the Association of American Medical Colleges re-examined medical school demographics and found that the numbers had barely budged. Between 1988 and 2017, more than three-quarters of American medical school students came from affluent households.

5) Interesting new research, “The Key to a Long Life Has Little to Do With ‘Good Genes’”

In 2015, the companies inked a research partnership to investigate the human heredity of lifespan, with Ruby leading the charge to sift through Ancestry’s vast forest of family trees. What he found by analyzing the pedigrees of more than 400 million people who lived and died in Europe and America going back to 1800 was that although longevity tends to run in families, your DNA has far less influence on how long you live than previously thought. The results, published Tuesday in the journal Genetics, is the first research to be made public from the collaboration, which ended quietly in July and whose terms remain confidential.

“The true heritability of human longevity for that cohort is likely no more than seven percent,” says Ruby. Previous estimates for how much genes explain variations in lifespan have ranged from around 15 to 30 percent. So what did Ruby uncover that previous studies had missed? Just how often amorous humans go against the old adage that “opposites attract.”

It turns out that through every generation, people are much more likely to select mates with similar lifespans than random chance would predict. The phenomenon, called “assortative mating,” could be based on genetics, or sociocultural traits, or both. For example, you might choose a partner who also has curly hair, and if the curly-haired trait winds up being somehow associated with long lifespans, this would inflate estimates of lifespan heritability passed on to your kids. Same thing for non-genetic traits like wealth, education, and access to good health care. People tend to choose partners in their same income bracket with the same terminal degree, both of which are associated with living longer, healthier lives…

But when Ruby looked at in-laws, things started to get weird. Logic suggests you shouldn’t share significant chunks of DNA with your siblings’ spouse—say your brother’s wife or your sister’s husband. But in Ruby’s analysis, people connected through a close relative’s marriage were almost as likely to have similar lifespans as people connected through blood. “I sort of kick myself for being surprised by this,” says Ruby. “Even though no one has shown the impact of assortative mating to such an extent before, it aligns well with how we know human societies are structured.”

6) Thought-provoking essay on how our society has been slow to adapt to much longer lifespans, but I think it insufficiently addresses persistent realities of human biology.

It’s time to get serious about a major redesign of life. Thirty years were added to average life expectancy in the 20th century, and rather than imagine the scores of ways we could use these years to improve quality of life, we tacked them all on at the end. Only old age got longer.

As a result, most people are anxious about the prospect of living for a century. Asked about aspirations for living to 100, typical responses are “I hope I don’t outlive my money” or “I hope I don’t get dementia.” If we do not begin to envision what satisfying, engaged and meaningful century-long lives can look like, we will certainly fail to build worlds that can take us there.

In my view, the tension surrounding aging is due largely to the speed with which life expectancy increased. Each generation is born into a world prepared by its ancestors with knowledge, infrastructure and social norms. The human capacity to benefit from this inherited culture afforded us such extraordinary advantages that premature death was dramatically reduced in a matter of decades. Yet as longevity surged, culture didn’t keep up.

Long lives are not the problem. The problem is living in cultures designed for lives half as long as the ones we have.

Retirements that span four decades are unattainable for most individuals and governments; education that ends in the early 20s is ill-suited for longer working lives; and social norms that dictate intergenerational responsibilities between parents and young children fail to address families that include four or five living generations.

7) This is kind of perfect for fans of both The Terminator and GOT (like me):

8) Really, really good discussion between some really smart political scientists on the role of early primary states in choosing the nominee.  Short version: maybe their role is not all it’s cracked up to be.

9) Sean Trende argues that the party politics of the 1870’s have important lessons for us now.

10) I really think the idea of charging people with murder for sharing drugs with a fellow addict is truly appalling and speaks to how incredibly stupid we are about facing the problem of drug addiction.

We gathered along the banks of the Columbia River at sunset. In front of the assembled crowd, a volunteer read the names of more than 40 people in our Oregon community who had died from overdoses. Four of those names belonged to people I loved, including my mom and my best friend, Justin DeLong. I attended this vigil with Justin’s mother, Ember. She had watched us struggle with addiction throughout our young adulthood. Now she and I stood arm in arm. We lit candles and thought of Justin, who in 2014 fatally overdosed from heroin I had sold to him — an act that resulted in my conviction and imprisonment for five years.

Increasingly, prosecutors are treating accidental overdoses as homicides and charging the people who provided the drugs with manslaughter or murder. “Homicide-by-overdose” laws, which have been enacted by the federal government and 25 states, date back to the 1980s. Until recently, prosecutions were relatively rare. But they’ve soared over the past decade, with drastic year-over-year increases, according to researchers at the Northeastern University School of Law. In Minnesota, the New York Times found that they quadrupled.

These laws are growing in popularity and severity: In 2017 (the most recent year in which this data was collected), 13 states introduced bills to strengthen their drug-induced-homicide laws or create new ones, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. Last year, Rhode Island passed a drug-induced-homicide law that allows for sentences of life without parole. In July, North Carolina passed a “death by distribution” law that treats an overdose as second-degree homicide and carries a sentence of up to 40 years. These are draconian punishments for low-level offenses — and there is no evidence that prosecutions deter drug use or sales.

Quick hits (part II)

1) Really good piece in the Times about how the streaming revolution really is fundamentally changing both TV and movies now.

Streaming services, of course, have been challenging the Hollywood status quo for years. Netflix began streaming movies and television shows in 2007 and has grown into a giant, spending $12 billion on programming this year to entertain more than 158 million subscribers worldwide. There are 271 online video services available in the United States, according to the research firm Parks Associates, one for seemingly every predilection — Pongalo for telenovelas, AeroCinema for aviation documentaries, Shudder for horror movies, Horse Lifestyle for equine-themed content. (Offerings include a series called “Marvin the Tap Dancing Horse.”)

While all this was happening, however, the three biggest old-line media companies — Disney, NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia — largely stayed on the sidelines. Charging into the streaming fray would mean putting billions of dollars in profit from existing cable networks like USA, Disney Channel and TBS at risk. Building video platforms of the size needed to compete with Netflix and Amazon would be frightfully expensive. And mastering the underlying technology would require a sharp learning curve. Better to bide their time. When it became clear that protecting their existing business model was more perilous than embracing the future, no matter now disruptive in the near term, they would act.

That time is now. And everything is changing.

“I get asked all the time, ‘Where does this stop? When does it stop?’” said Brett Sappington, a senior Parks Associates analyst and researcher. “The truth is that it is only getting started.”

2) I found Frozen 2 enjoyable enough yesterday.  Probably would have enjoyed more without too many overactive 3rd graders there for my daughter’s birthday party.  But, I mostly agree with this review, mostly, because the plot was really not great.

3) I was especially intrigued by this story of U of Florida way over-paying Donald Trump Jr because I do know how crazy speaker fees at universities can be.  It’s kind of like an arms race and the rich universities need to stop absurdly over-paying (not that that is the point of the article at all).

4) I might have mentioned that I’m pretty much done with baseball and I have not attended a game of any sort in years, but I still have very, very fond memories of attending minor league games and agree that MLB’s abandonment of many minor league teams seems really bad.

5) This is interesting from Rolling Stone, “The Unsolved Case of the Most Mysterious Song on the Internet”

Twelve years ago, a catchy New Wave anthem appeared on the internet with no information about who wrote or recorded it. Amateur detectives have spent thousands of hours since trying to figure out where it came from — with little luck. Inside the question that’s been driving the internet crazy for years

6) Seems to be the evidence is pretty clear that apes do have a theory of mind and those arguing that the evidence does not lead to this conclusion are really being quite tendentious.

7) Really liked this from Leonhardt, “Mueller and Comey Failed Their Tests. She Passed Hers.”

Three years later, Robert Mueller faced his own uncomfortable choice. As special counsel, he helped uncover evidence that President Trump had repeatedly broken the law, including paying hush money to two women and interfering in the Russia investigation. But Mueller understood that clearly laying out his conclusions would subject him to vicious criticism as a partisan. Like Comey, he prized his reputation for floating above partisan politics. [emphases mine]

Conveniently, he found a solution that protected his reputation. Mueller’s final report included a detailed recitation of facts, but its conclusions were deliberately obtuse, which meant they changed almost nobody’s mind. “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller cryptically said. Making matters worse, he then allowed the Trump administration to control — and spin — the report’s release.

Mueller, to be fair, has a stronger defense than Comey. Throughout, Mueller interpreted Justice Department guidelines in narrow ways: Those guidelines didn’t compel him to present clear conclusions — as Kenneth Starr had two decades earlier — and so Mueller didn’t do so. It’s possible that Mueller’s mistakes had more to do with naïveté than pride.

Yet the outcome was the same. Both Mueller and Comey preserved their nonpartisan images (only temporarily in Comey’s case, because he later engaged in a full-on fight with Trump), while the country suffered.

Comey’s unprecedented insertion of the F.B.I. into the final stages of a presidential campaign may have decided the outcome. And Mueller’s convoluted report was a gift to Trump. Mueller’s long investigation uncovered extensive evidence of a president who had broken the law and abused his power, but Mueller did almost nothing to hold the president accountable.

8) William Barr is definitely the worst.  But I think Mike Pompeo might be a close second.  Thomas Friedman, “Mike Pompeo: Last in His Class at West Point in Integrity: The secretary of state’s behavior has been cowardly and self-serving.”

It seems like every story you read about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo always includes the sentence that he graduated “first in his class” from West Point. That is not a small achievement. But it is even more impressive in Pompeo’s case when you consider that he finished No. 1 even though he must have flunked all his courses on ethics and leadership. I guess he was really good in math.

I say that because Pompeo has just violated one of the cardinal rules of American military ethics and command: You look out for your soldiers, you don’t leave your wounded on the battlefield and you certainly don’t stand mute when you know a junior officer is being railroaded by a more senior commander, if not outright shot in her back.

The classes on ethics and leadership at West Point would have taught all of that. I can only assume Pompeo failed or skipped them all when you observe his cowardly, slimy behavior as the leader of the State Department. I would never, ever, ever want to be in a trench with that man. Attention all U.S. diplomats: Watch your own backs, because Pompeo won’t.

9) This piece on how Quakers shifted our pronouns is really fascinating.  You know how it’s annoying that we have the same word for 2nd person singular and plural, i.e., “you.”  Wasn’t always that way.  We also, like many other languages, used to have formal and informal versions.  The Quakers changed that.

10) This, I had no idea about, “Replacing Coal with Gas or Renewables Saves Billions of Gallons of Water. The ongoing transition from coal to natural gas and renewables in the U.S. electricity sector is dramatically reducing the industry’s water use, a new Duke University study finds”

11) Charles Pierce on Barr and the GOP:

If this really is Attorney General William Barr’s final go-round as a servant to radical conservative power, and we can only pray to god that it is, he’s certainly going out with a bang. In the past two weeks, he’s given two speeches that are so stunningly detached from political reality, and so basically and fundamentally un-American, that they were probably best given from atop a milk crate in Washington Square, and not from respectable rostrums provided by powerful and influential institutions. In short, Barr has become something of a raving maniac…

Again, two specific points: one, this is being done in defense of the most lawless president* in American history and, two, and much more important, these are theories of government that Barr developed while working for Republican presidents since 1989. They are the theories by which he helped cover up the Iran-Contra scandal. They are the theories that underpinned what Dick Cheney did in making this country a country that tortured, and what he did to lie this country into a catastrophic war. (Barr even cited the Cheney and the “unitary executive” theory in his speech, ridiculing the notion that the unitary executive posed any threat to the balance of power.) In both speeches we see not Trumpism, but modern conservative Republicanism in its clearest and most extreme form.

It didn’t start with this president*. And my money’s on the proposition that, sadly, it won’t end with him, either.

12) I really liked this NYT Op-Ed on if we are going to kill animals, we should at least do it far more humanely.

NASHVILLE — Last week, Walden’s Puddle, a nonprofit wildlife rescue organization in a rural area of Nashville, posted a set of photos of a barred owl caught in the jaws of a leg-hold trap. The first photo, which featured the owl on the ground, its wings spread wide and its eyes cast down, was emblazoned with the words “Graphic images ahead.” I didn’t click through to see the rest of the pictures. The sight of that magnificent creature of the air tethered to the ground was graphic enough to break my heart. I didn’t need to see what the rest of the images would inevitably reveal: sinews torn, bones splintered, flesh bloody and swollen, great yellow claws mangled beyond repair.

Walden’s Puddle rehabilitates and releases orphaned and injured animals, and its Instagram account is normally a feel-good feed of squirrels, songbirds, turtles, deer, raccoons, opossums, snakes, rabbits, foxes, skunks, groundhogs, bobcats — pretty much everything that flies or crawls or walks or swims — and all of them on the mend. The caption to the post about the barred owl, which had to be euthanized, was uncharacteristically fierce:

These traps are cruel, evil, disgusting and should be illegal, causing unimaginable suffering to any creature who gets caught in its unforgiving jaws. While it is illegal to harm protected bird species such as this one (though these situations rarely result in criminal charges), these types of traps are sadly still legal to use in the state of Tennessee and in many other places, though they’ve been outlawed for many years in other parts of the world. Because the law requires they only be checked every 36 hours, any animal stuck in its grip will experience unimaginable pain and fear, possibly for hours or days.

Although their use has been banned or severely curtailed in more than 120 countries, leg-hold traps are indeed legal in Tennessee and in most other states in this country. Traps are sometimes used by farmers and ranchers to catch livestock predators, but the primary use for leg-hold traps is to catch an animal in a way that preserves the value of its pelt. Fur-edged down parkas, a fashion trend kick-started by a 2013 Sports Illustrated cover featuring the model Kate Upton wearing a bikini and a fur-trimmed Canada Goose parka, are now so prevalent among the affluent that they have caused a boom in backwoods trapping.

Trappers still use leg-hold traps illegally in states where they have been banned, but the problem isn’t generally a matter of legality. The problem is that these traps, and every other kind of trap on the market, are indiscriminate. They mangle pets and people. They mutilate “trash animals” whose pelts are worth nothing to the fur industry. They destroy songbirds and raptors, all of whom are federally protected. And in every one of those creatures, they cause unimaginable suffering…

The word “humane” refers to qualities we believe are part of human nature: tenderness, compassion, mercy. We rarely live up to our own etymology, but in this matter it poses no great trouble for us to do so. We don’t need to agree on whether it’s morally permissible to kill animals to agree that this is not the way to do it. It’s time to ban glue strips. It’s time to ban rat poison. It’s time to ban lead ammunition. It’s time to ban traps that injure but do not kill. There is no good reason not to. [emphasis mine]

13) I saw a comedian live last night for the first time since I saw Jerry Seinfeld in 2002.  I really enjoyed HBO’s Crashing and Pete Holmes was in Cary, so I went.  Good stuff.  I was explaining to my son just how much care and craft goes into a comedy routine and found this great article about Holmes‘ craft.

14) Really interesting essay, “I was an astrologer – here’s how it really works, and why I had to stop”

15) This comic on motivated reasoning and identity-protective cognition is pretty good.  Also, I just really don’t get emotional when learning a fact that goes against my identity, because my identity is as a person who always wants to learn new things.

16) This was interesting and disturbing, “I Accidentally Uncovered a Nationwide Scam on Airbnb
While searching for the person who grifted me in Chicago, I discovered just how easy it is for users of the short-term rental platform to get exploited.”

 

Quick hits

1) Great stuff from Adam Serwer:

All of these arguments, ranging from the weak to the false, obscure the core reason for the impeachment inquiry, which is that the Trump administration was engaged in a conspiracy against American democracy. [emphasis mine] Fearing that the 2016 election was a fluke in which Trump prevailed only because of a successful Russian hacking and disinformation campaign, and a last-minute intervention on Trump’s behalf by the very national-security state Trump defenders supposedly loathe, Trump and his advisers sought to rig the 2020 election by forcing a foreign country to implicate the then-Democratic front-runner in a crime that did not take place. If the American people could not be trusted to choose Trump on their own, Trump would use his official powers to make the choice for them.

It was, in short, a conspiracy by Trump and his advisers to keep themselves in power, the exact scenario for which the Framers of the Constitution devised the impeachment clause. This scheme was carried out by Trump-appointed officials, and by the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, running a corrupt back channel aimed at, in his words, “meddling in an investigation.” And it came very close to succeeding. As Brian Beutler writes, “Had the whole scheme not come to light in a whistleblower complaint, and Trump not released his hold on aid to Ukraine, we might have awaken [sic] one morning to a blaring CNN exclusive about international corruption allegations against the Democratic presidential frontrunner and his party.”

2) New Yorker’s Susan Glaser:

For hours afterward, Republicans on the panel dismissed Hill. Some of them yelled at her. Some of them refused to ask her any direct questions. Some made false equivalences between Russia’s massive state-sanctioned campaign in 2016 and Ukrainian expressions of dismay that Trump publicly backed the country with which they are at war and employed as his campaign chair a man who had worked for their ousted corrupt Russian-backed leader. Confronted after the hearing with Hill’s unequivocal statement that Ukraine had not interfered in the U.S. election, the House Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy, a man who once mocked Trump for being in the pocket of Vladimir Putin, simply refused to accept it. “I think they did,” he told reporters. On Friday morning, Trump called into “Fox & Friends” and repeated the Russian conspiracy theory about Ukraine all over again on live TV.

The denial was telling. If Republicans were now willing to disavow a fact they had previously acknowledged, it seemed more and more apparent that they could not be swayed by any of the actual evidence against Trump. On Wednesday, Sondland told the committee that Trump had personally directed him to work with his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to force Ukraine’s hand on the investigations, leveraging a White House meeting sought by Ukraine’s new President. “Was there a quid pro quo?” Sondland testified. “The answer is yes.” But many committee Republicans simply twisted that statement around, repeating Trump’s misleading words to Sondland that there had been “no quid pro,” as if the President’s denial were the only proof needed of his innocence. As Thursday’s hearing wound down, Will Hurd, a retiring Texas representative who was once seen as a possible Republican vote for impeachment, used his questioning time not to engage with Hill but to announce that he saw “no evidence” of impeachable offenses. There was no one left to persuade, at least in the House of Representatives. It was a surprisingly definitive moment.

3) Had no idea college paper mills and plagiarism software were now in an odd symbiosis.

4) Great stuff from Norm Ornstein on the “fantasy world” of Democratic debates:

Yet while polls show that health care is a top priority for voters, and while the policy differences among the slew of Democratic presidential candidates are meaningful, the moderators posing highly specific questions about the issue at past debates have ignored something important: However coherent, complete, fiscally sustainable, or popular the positions the candidates are taking on health reform—and on other issues such as immigration, education, taxes, and more—presidents do not get to wave magic wands and make their policies happen. They are thrown into a governing process in which a president’s plan is almost never enacted into law fully, if it is enacted at all. The legislative process, in recent decades, has become even more toxic. But questions that press the candidates on how they would navigate through this environment—and what they would do to reduce its toxicity—have been conspicuously absent in every debate so far. [emphasis mine]

5) Terrific column from Krugman:

No, what we’re actually witnessing is a test of the depths to which the Republican Party will sink. How much corruption, how much collusion with foreign powers and betrayal of the national interest will that party’s elected representatives stand for?

And the result of that test seems increasingly clear: There is no bottom. The inquiry hasn’t found a smoking gun; it has found what amounts to a smoking battery of artillery. Yet almost no partisan Republicans have turned on Trump and his high-crimes-and-misdemeanors collaborators. Why not?

The answer gets to the heart of what’s wrong with modern American politics: The G.O.P. is now a thoroughly corrupt party. Trump is a symptom, not the disease, and our democracy will remain under dire threat even if and when he’s gone.

6) Really interesting stuff on male/female speech patterns and politics:

Women and men tend to have different speech patterns, linguists will tell you. Women, especially young women, tend to have more versatile intonation. They place more emphasis on certain words; they are playful with language and have shorter and thinner vocal cords, which produce a higher pitch. That isn’t absolute, nor is it necessarily a bad thing — unless, of course, you are a person with a higher pitch trying to present yourself with some kind of authority. This basic contradiction has kept speech coaches in business for decades…

In a course called “Sounding American,” at the University of California at Berkeley, Tom McEnaney, a professor of comparative literature and Portuguese and Spanish, teaches that there is in fact a sound that people associate with authority in this country — and, while it is constantly evolving, it has its roots in many things, one of which is early broadcast technology. Dating back to the phonograph, he said, engineers had created a device that was designed for the male voice — newscasters, presidents, public figures — to the extent that if a woman spoke into it, her voice would sound distorted, thin or scrambled.

“The mic wouldn’t pick up certain ranges of voice,” Professor McEnaney said. “If a woman wanted to speak and get her voice recorded, she had to produce more volume and more energy to make the same marks. She could try to speak lower, or she could shout. But she’d have to change her voice.”

Over time, that technology improved — but he thinks the deep-rooted association between female voices and sonic distortion leads to the seemingly strong (albeit frequently subconscious) reaction that many people have to the higher pitch.

“So there was a bias in the engineering. That bias in the engineering produced distortion, which was mistakenly associated with women’s voices, and then listeners, even after that correction, used that association as the justification for their ongoing prejudice against women’s voices,” Professor McEnaney said. “And those carry up to the present day.”

Indeed, a 2012 study published in PLoS ONE found that both men and women prefer male and female leaders who have lower-pitched voices, while a 2015 report in a journal called Political Psychology determined, in a sample of U.S. adults, that Americans prefer political candidates with lower voices as well.

7) Dana Milbank:

At its core, President Trump’s defense in these impeachment proceedings is not a dispute over the facts of the case, the credibility of the witnesses or the motives of Democrats.

It is a bid to discredit the truth itself.

The Ukraine escapade began, in large part, because Trump pursued a conspiracy theory that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 election to bring about his defeat, a false notion spread by Vladimir ­Putin and ultimately — with the help of Rudy Giuliani and others — embraced by the president himself.

But to defend Trump, a number of Republicans have concluded that they must establish that he had good reason to believe Ukraine was, in fact, out to get him. They must defend the Putin-planted conspiracy theory.

8) Catherine Rampell, as usual, is right, “Democrats already have a popular, progressive agenda. They just need to amplify it.”

Americans who watched the presidential primary debate this week might have learned something surprising: Despite GOP accusations of Bolshevism, nearly all the Democratic contenders share a pretty mainstream policy platform.

 In fact, as exemplified on Wednesday night, most of their core policy principles are quite popular among voters who identify as Democrats and voters who identify as Republicans.

Consider a few issues that came up during the debate.

For instance, we heard about how the candidates broadly agree on the need for paid family leave. They differ on precisely how many months of leave should be offered and how such a program should be financed. But, according to a Post questionnaire recently sent to each candidate, every single politician still in the race supports some amount of guaranteed paid leave.

This view is squarely within the political mainstream, as you might expect from a policy that already exists in some form in nearly every other country on Earth. In fact, 90 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of Republicans support paid maternity leave, according to a Pew Research Center survey. For paid paternity leave, the shares are 79 percent and 57 percent, respectively.

Democratic candidates also showed significant overlap on other popular policies as well, such as the need for a more progressive tax code.

Yes, they differ on exactly how to raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations, but basically all propose doing so. In espousing those ideas, they contrast sharply with their Republican politician counterparts, who advocate flatter tax rates and more cuts specifically for the rich. But in espousing these ideas, the Democratic candidates find common ground with Americans writ large, most of whom believe that both high-income people and corporations have not been paying their fair share.

9) This in Wired is quite interesting, “The 8-Hour Workday Is a Counterproductive Lie: What was once a socialist dream has become every knowledge worker’s nightmare. It’s time to unmake the modern myth of productivity.”

10) So sad and so true, “How the Collapse of Local News Is Causing a ‘National Crisis’
The loss of local news coverage in much of the United States has frayed communities and left many Americans woefully uninformed, according to a new report.”  Subscribe to your local newspaper, damnit!  Yes, I mean you.

11) I never did quite figure why people thought Nikki Haley was anything other than a typical moral compass-less Republican opportunist.  John Cassidy: “Nikki Haley embodies what’s wrong with the Republican Party.”

12) Trump’s most recent pardons of American war criminals are pretty damn appalling.  But, that’s only the 10th worst thing about Trump this week.

13) Good stuff from Robert Griffin in the Monkey Cage, “Who’s most electable? Don’t trust polls that match Democratic candidates against Trump.  They’re measuring who’s most well known, not who’s most likely to win.”

14) I get that Democrats are going with “bribery”‘ because that’s the term in the constitution.  But, what’s going on here is obviously blackmail/extortion.  Thus I appreciated Benjamin Wittes piece that explains that, in legal parlance, blackmail is bribery.

That said, the bribery statute offers a reasonable working definition of what it means to bribe a public official: “Whoever … directly or indirectly, corruptly gives, offers or promises anything of value to any public official … to influence any official act” has committed the offense.

What’s more, the statute also offers a reasonable working definition of what it means for a public official to demand a bribe: “Whoever … being a public official … directly or indirectly, corruptly demands, seeks, receives, accepts, or agrees to receive or accept anything of value personally … in return for … being influenced in the performance of any official act” also has committed the offense.

15) More exercise ==> less depression.

16) A student informed this week that Joe Biden is the “architect of the war on drugs.”  Whoa.  Somehow I missed that.  No doubt, he was absolutely prominent among Democrats who pushed for and helped pass tougher drug policies.  But architect?  Please.  I guess if you consider, like this article I presume my student read, that even co-sponsoring a bill is being an “architect” than sure.

17) I really wish the ACLU would go back to ensuring free speech and fighting against unjust and unfair mass incarceration policies.

18) Really interesting idea for saving the rhino… flood the market for rhino horns with really good fake horns.  Probably wouldn’t work, but, lots of interesting stuff to think about here.

19) Given that Soledad O’Brien is about the best media critic this side of Jay Rosen, now, really enjoyed reading this, “How Soledad O’Brien Became CNN and the Mainstream Media’s Most Outspoken Critic.”

20) And, another way of re-thinking how we structure our time, “Our Schools Can’t Solve the Problems of Our Rigid Workweek: Parents need better options for after-school care, but longer school days may not be the answer.”

21) Novelty is over-rated.  Really, science says so.  And I agree when I am eating a lunch of pepperoni pizza and drinking Diet Dr Pepper for the 4th or 5th time in a given week.

Counter to previous research, Mr. O’Brien found that across the board, repeat experiences were far more enjoyable than participants predicted.

“Doing something once may engender an inflated sense that one has now seen ‘it,’ leaving people naïve to the missed nuances remaining to enjoy,” he wrote in the study.

In other words: You’re far more likely to enjoy something the second time around than you think.

Given that participants experienced the exact situation they imagined repeating, their predictions should’ve been relatively accurate, Mr. O’Brien explains. In reality, participants who repeated experiences found the second time around just as enjoyable as the first.

“Novel experiences are definitely great for enjoyment, and our studies don’t go against this idea,” he said. “In many cases, the novel option is better. But what our studies emphasize is that repeat options also might have high hedonic value and might also come with less costs to acquire than a purely novel option, and people might sometimes overlook this.”

22) Yes, recent gubernatorial elections can be somewhat telling.  But these elections really are different, “Why Governors Are the Only Candidates Voters Will Break Party Ranks to Support
Unlike other federal and state offices, there’s still ‘wiggle room’ for ticket-splitting in contests for governor. Tuesday’s result in Kentucky means there will be a dozen governors whose party lost the last presidential election in their state.”

23) Blues Clues is coming back!  This brings back very happy memories of early parenthood.  When my oldest (hi, David) was a toddler he was tough.  But the one thing that could get him to just be calm for a while?  Blues Clues.  Hooray for Steve.  Also, loved the chapter on it in Gladwell’s Tipping Point, way back when.

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