Many Coronavirus Cases Linked to Churches
How Coronavirus Could Shield Trump’s Tax Returns
Rollout of Economic Relief Law Is a Mess
An Epic Fight Erupts Over Anti-Malaria Drug
The Worst President Ever
Boris Johnson Admitted to Hospital
To nobody's surprise, we're a bit COVID-heavy this week.
COVID-19, The Politics
D.S. in Silver Spring, MD, writes: You wrote that you "imagine that the First Son-in-law is pretty good at kissing whatever needs to be kissed." In her New York Times editorial on the same day, Michelle Goldberg offers a pithy and accurate assessment of his career: "Kushner has succeeded at exactly three things in his life. He was born to the right parents, married well and learned how to influence his father-in-law." Credit where credit is due: two of those accomplishments are relatively difficult.
P.B. from Los Angeles, CA, writes: Concluding that a Schiff Commission is only intended for political ends may be a bit cynical. There is a lot that we need to learn from this, and the opportunity to hammer science and reality into the heads of the people should be maximized. We just learned that the ventilators in the stockpile were not maintained, and there's a story there and lessons to be learned. Was it corruption or laziness that caused it? Was it under the direction of someone higher up, or just a bureaucratic mistake? Why were corners cut here? How was Jared Kushner involved? Answering these questions will help us in the future. As much as I can't stand him, to paraphrase a Klingon commander, "We need no more reasons to hate Trump!"
A.L. from Villigen, Switzerland, writes: I do agree that Donald Trump did a poor job of handling the COVID-19 crisis and that Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) wants the commission mainly to point that out.
But even if CDC funding would not have been reduced by Trump beforehand, and even if Trump would have acknowledged the severeness of the crisis right away, the U.S. would still have done a poor job in stopping this pandemic. A job about as poor as in Italy or Switzerland or Spain or France or Germany. Because only a few East Asian countries were properly prepared. South Korea was so well prepared, in fact, they never actually had to shut down the economy.
I do think that the fact that others coped so much better than the U.S. (or Europe) justifies a detailed investigation. It makes sense to look into it now, because some problems might be possible to fix, for the benefit of the people.
V & Z respond: Note that Trump tried to reduce CDC funding, but failed to do so. However, he did leave appointed jobs unfilled, and he did shut down the NSA's pandemic team.
L.S. from New York, NY, writes: I believe that VP Mike Pence and First Son-in-law Jared Kushner have different roles in this same crisis. Mike Pence will be explaining why Easter celebrations are wonderful expressions of religious freedom. Jared Kushner will explain how the lack of federal response is perfectly acceptable, because the states are in charge and the federal government has done exceptionally well by restricting international travel.
Two audiences with separate focus and expectations.
G.S. from Oakland, CA, writes: Emptywheel (nom de plume for freelance journalist Marcy Wheeler) offered an intriguing explanation for why Trump may have chosen to fire Michael Atkinson in the midst of the coronavirus crisis: "There were a lot of pandemic warnings Trump ignored," she writes, "that he wants to avoid becoming public."
K.A. from Key Largo, FL, writes: Donald Trump's base is indeed cracking. In case you haven't seen the latest Navigator tracking poll, "40% of 2016 Trump voters say the president did not take coronavirus seriously enough early in the crisis, up 17 points since early last week."
M.B. from Menlo Park, CA, writes: Two months ago, on February 4, Donald Trump delivered his state of the union address. *It was basically a campaign speech for his re-election, repeatedly touting the great state of the economy ("Since my election, U.S. stock markets have soared 70 percent, adding more than $12 trillion to our nation's wealth, transcending anything anyone believed was possible.").
Now, two months later, all that has fallen apart. The stock market has crashed, the economy is in shambles. He knows he mishandled the pandemic, and his re-election is very much in doubt. This would put even a rational President on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
V & Z respond: Perhaps, but we think some presidents (possibly most) would be focused on something bigger than themselves right now.
S.T. from Little Elm, TX, writes: As a resident of Texas, I just wanted to point out that, while Texas is a red state with a Republican governor who hasn't issued a statewide stay-at-home order, there are county-level leaders who have been way out in front of this thing, issuing orders early on, even in the face of objection and ridicule. One of them (and the first statewide, I believe) is Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. He has been rock solid through this whole thing so far, with decisions based on science and data, not politics. And some of us Texans are doing social distancing. My husband and I live in Denton County (just north of Dallas County), and we have been at home since the Dallas County order came out. Denton County was slow to follow, but they did finally follow suit. So, not all of us Texans are partisan Republicans. Some of us are reasonable people who are doing all we can to flatten the curve. And, while my husband and I are Democrats, my sister and her husband are Republicans, and they are staying at home too. So some Texans are behaving responsibly.
V & Z respond: Note that this message was sent in before Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) bowed to reality and issued a stay-at-home order.
M.S. from Scarsdale, NY, writes: If you come to praise Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) during the present crisis, he has done a very good job as a manager in explaining to the public what is happening, what we need to do and how we can pull through this together.
However, as an activist, I must tell you that the rumors surrounding the budget are incredible. Donald Trump would love to have the fiscal authority that a NY governor has. On Tuesday, for example, Cuomo said he was turning down federal Medicaid aid and wanted an "anti-semitism law," the latter of which translates into a rollback of bail reforms just achieved last year. He insists that there should be no new taxes on the ultra-wealthy. The rumors are that Cuomo is steamrolling everyone. This is an old New York movie.
COVID-19, The Impact
E.B. from Salem, WI, writes: Thursday's discussion of COVID-19's impact on different socioeconomic groups, and the fact that those on the lower end felt less anxiety than those on the upper end, reminded me of a discussion point we often have in our household: "When you're on the lower end, you already know how to live that way. On the other hand, those on the upper end cannot picture (or bear to think about) downward movement. To stare down from the perch of privilege and see what might loom is an anxious place to be, indeed."
J.M. from Portland, OR, writes: I think the answer is obvious, as someone who's been a member of all 5 groups in the poll at one time or another in my life: The lower classes are used to being shit on by reality. It gives a sense of fatalism. The uppers aren't used to being "inconvenienced."
M.W. from Richmond, VA, writes: The finding that anxiety increases with socioeconomic status came as no surprise to me. As an attorney working in civil legal aid for the past 41 years, I have two explanations. First, the lower socioeconomic classes, out of necessity, have developed much better coping skills for dealing with and surviving scarcity and hardship. Second, the upper socioeconomic classes have much more to worry about, because there is much farther they could fall. As Bob Dylan sang in "Like a Rolling Stone": "When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose."
L.M.S. from Harbin, China, writes: I would like to offer my thoughts on why people with lower incomes weather the stay-at-home orders better. The fact that they are concerned with paying their bills to make the ends meet doesn't change much during COVID-19 time. That still remains their focal point in life. In fact, faced with the existence threat, they fully plunge into the fight for their family with less emotion.
By contrast, people who are able to retain their job and work from home could lose an essential part of their ordinary daily life—networking in person. Kept away from their workplace, that is gone—a small talk for a cup of coffee, the gossiping time at lunch break, catch up from the vacation and so on. Those people also tend to have an abundant life to balance the work, like yoga hours, beer grabbing at a pub, sports in a handball club, etc. These activities to boost emotional well being are also gone due to the social distancing, however.
Everyone has a 24-hour day to pass. It seems that the less one is concerned with the struggles of daily life, the more she/he can spend on a lifestyle. When that part is taken away by COVID-19, it is hard to find something to fill in, despite the economic edge.
R.M. from Brooklyn, NY, writes: While it is true that lawyers (such as I) can work from home, the work itself has slowed. Courts in New York are closed to all but emergencies, and one cannot even file non-emergency matters electronically. I have a bench trial that has been put off until July (at least). As for transactional lawyers, I suspect deals have stopped happening because of the uncertainty and the downturn in the markets. During the last two recessions (Bushes '41 and '43 eras), lawyer hours were way down, as was hiring (my old firm, for example, hired 40% fewer summer associates for 1991 as it had for 1988). I don't expect anyone to shed tears over my profession's troubles in these times, but don't kid yourselves that they are not real.
K.M. from Denver, CO, writes: In your discussion about Liberty University's students returning to campus, you wrote: "They are innocents, of course, one can only hope that none of them perishes due to a university administrator." These college students might be young, politically inexperienced, and lacking in basic science concepts, however, they are NOT innocents. They are digital natives and they have the entire Internet available to them to learn and become informed about this life-threatening pandemic. Liberty University gave every student the option to return or not to return to campus. Each student had to make an individual conscious decision, and as such, their return to campus is not an innocent act. In 2016 we observed good, educated, and smart people display the same sort of willful ignorance about Trump. Being unwilling to seek, see, or act on facts is the opposite of innocent behavior and it is, in fact, dangerous behavior, both for individuals and for our collective democracy. Willful ignorance should be challenged at every turn.
V & Z respond: College students are, almost universally, extremely deferential to authority. That's going to be particularly true of students at a place like Liberty, most of whom come from evangelical religious (and thus very hierarchical) backgrounds. If you want to assign the students some small fraction of the blame, for not standing up to "the man," then very well. But the vast, vast majority of the blame goes to Falwell and anyone who enables him.
COVID-19, The Numbers
E.C.R. from Helsinki, Finland, writes: I don't doubt that China's COVID-19 numbers are low because all provincial bureaucracies fear reporting bad news. It's also quite possible that the central government desired to save face. However both factors, and particularly the latter, are also true of the U.S., and some countries in Europe, and for all I know, Canada as well. You should have pointed this out.
We all know that the highest levels of the U.S. government dithered in the early months and that there was pressure from the highest levels to keep the reported number low. Donald Trump even kept a cruise ship adrift off the California coast for a week to keep "his" numbers down. More recently, Trump has on numerous occasions vastly misstated numbers of anything and everything, from deaths to ventilators to masks. U.S. states were even instructed to not independently publish unemployment numbers. In sum, in the current crisis any numbers coming from U.S. government have to be viewed with deep skepticism.
P.D. from Woodbridge, NJ, writes: In response to your comment on COVID's contribution to the U.S. fatality rate, I would like to encourage you to look at worldometers.info It shows the COVID-19 data in nice graphs and appeals to the data geek in me.
Until the last week, we have been on a exponential growth curve across the board, and are still on one for total deaths. Looking at the last week's total to get a picture is a little like taking the average speed of a rocket over the first minute of flight. We are on an exponential growth rate, where every day is a lot more than the day prior. So, you can look at the last day's total as being the best (and still very a conservative) predictor as to how fast this COVID rocket is going. Right now we are over 1,300 deaths/day and the rocket is still accelerating.
In general, I think we focus on the wrong statistic. I don't focus much on where the train is located right now (total deaths), I am less interested in how fast the train is currently going (death rate). What interests me is the answer to the question: Do we have our foot on the gas or the brake? For that, I would ask you to look at the logarithmic transform of the total deaths graph . Here you see a straight line since we started the journey and no change in the last month. If we continue on the same trajectory we will be at 10,000 total deaths tomorrow, and 100,000 total deaths 10 days after that. Somewhere in the next week, COVID-19 becomes the leading cause of death in the U.S. Further, if you look at the logarithmic transforms (total cases or total deaths) of other countries, everyone except Canada seems to be getting this under control much better than we are.
Even the most negative, pessimistic projections I have seen seem to be based on a kind of rainbows and unicorns mathematics that I never learned. I really want to be wrong on this, but...
D.J. from Manchester, NH, writes: This article, from The Atlantic, is an unusually sophisticated take on modeling of pandemics, which your readers might find well worth reading. (The site also has a wealth of other good articles on COVID-19, which they have kindly put outside their paywall for the duration. Unfortunately not every reporter or outlet is this careful or this generous.) I also wanted to add a few thoughts of my own, based upon both my own modest experience with statistical modeling and my experience as a soldier in Vietnam, where I necessarily dealt with potentially lethal uncertainties for over a year.
Anyhow, we could all learn some useful things from this article but, for journalists in particular, it contains some useful cautions. Namely: don't oversimplify the story. Not everything is a simple horse race.
The key point is that dynamic models of pandemics are not simple functions in which X -> Y (i.e. input X inevitably yields output Y), but are rather what mathematicians and computer science folks call "self-referencing", which means, in this case, that outputs from one iteration feed back as inputs to subsequent iterations of the model.
Modeling of this sort is quite like certain computer games, in which the plot of the story is dependent upon the choices made by the player at various points in the game, and you "win the game" by knowing which choice to make at every decision point that you encounter in the course of play. In principle, all final outcomes are equally likely in such games, and over thousands of games, if all choices were made completely at random, you would eventually see every possible outcome, sooner or later.
This is why epidemiologists are going bat-shit crazy listening to the rambling, random, contradictory pronouncements from Donald Trump's daily press briefings. Many of the things Trump says are acted on by millions of people, merely because the President is saying them, and those reactions are a large part of the input to the next day's course of the pandemic. Trump is playing one game, while Mother Nature is playing a completely different one. In addition, every individual in the world is playing their own idiosyncratic version of the game, as they understand it.
So, at each iteration of the actual day-to-day course of the pandemic, many of the human behavioral inputs are effectively random, which in turn means that the ultimate course of the pandemic will be effectively impossible to model much in advance of actual events, if at all.
The foregoing does not mean, however, that no broad outcomes can be predicted at all. To the contrary, it is virtually certain that, one way or another, the pandemic will end at some point in the relatively near future (by which I mean within a year or so).
Of course, at this point we cannot know who will live and who will die, which is a very nerve-wracking fact for each of us to confront individually, but, still, those who do survive this outbreak can look forward to a time in which the immediate crisis will be over, and in which the survivors can get back to sorting out the less life-threatening problems that will still confront them.
So, best that we stay as calm as possible, and enjoy each day as well as we can. Anything else is just asking for avoidable grief of some sort.
After all, anyone reading this is clearly not dead yet, which is well worth keeping clearly in mind.
E.R. from Padova, Italy, writes: I'm writing in response to the question from J.M., New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, Canada about the comparison of the COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. and China, where you pointed out that new estimates put China's deaths at a level much higher than officially reported. I wish to say that this is certainly true also of other countries, and that is not necessarily part of a cover-up, but can also be explained by a lack of resources, or by chaos, or by incompetence. For example, there is a study from the Imperial College putting the number of cases in Italy at more than 1.9 million, which (at the time of the writing) was 20-30 times the official total. Even deaths are likely to be heavily under-reported; a few days ago the Italian Statistics Institute (ISTAT) released a comparison of mortality data for the March 1-21 period in 2019 and 2020. In the hardest-hit region (Lombardy), the official death count from COVID-19 in those 3 weeks is 3,072, but the mortality records show 5067 "excess" deaths, which could easily be more like 9,000 if corrected for incompleteness (the ISTAT sample covers only 56% of the region's population).
J.O. from Raleigh, NC, writes: "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon"-style, I have watched the distance between myself and COVID-19 shrink. When the son of a coworker contracted it (presumptively; all other tests negative, COVID-19 test still pending) I counted that a "two." Now, one of my extended family has the symptoms (again presumptively; still waiting on the test results) and I count that as a "one." I wonder what the average degree of separation is for Americans right now? Whatever it is, it is surely rapidly shrinking.
During a long phone call with my dad he opined that this pandemic will be like nothing the country has seen since World War II. Everyone who lives through it will know someone who died. This resonates strongly with me. The question is: What will this visceral brush with death do to us? I (and my dad) believe that we will pull together (figuratively, even if literally is still not recommended) and take steps for the common good, based on reality, not fantasy. I do so hope, and I think, not without reason.
"Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon"-style, COVID death is still very far away for me, and I hope it stays that way. But I fear it will not.
Gaming the Election
J.L. from Paterson, NJ, writes: I agree with your conclusion that Trump can't stay in office by getting some Republican states to cancel their elections, but the scheme would be thwarted even more easily than you suggested. You assumed that 270 electoral votes are needed for election. What the Constitution says, however, is: "The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed..." If several states fail to appoint electors, then the number required for a majority drops accordingly.
In your hypothetical of 291 electors appointed, the Democratic nominee could lose all the red states, all the swing states, and even some not considered prime "swing" territory (all of Maine, New Mexico, and Virginia). The easy wins of California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, and Washington, D.C., would give the Democrat a majority (at 158-133 with room for up to 12 faithless electors). Furthermore, as you note, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maryland would also go forward with their elections, thus providing an additional blue cushion.
R.D. from Austin, TX, writes: Members of the military in other countries might swear allegiance to the "Dear Leader" or the monarch or whatever, but in the U.S., we swear to support and defend the Constitution "against all enemies, foreign and domestic." I'm fairly certain y'all have mentioned this before, but I think it bears repeating: All the officers of the Executive and members of the Congress take a similar oath, but I still trust the U.S. military forces to take their oaths seriously. Unlike a certain current Senate Majority Leader from Kentucky who shall remain nameless.
The Pros and Cons of Vote-by-mail
J.L. from Chicago, IL, writes: In the item about voting by mail, you noted that "American voters, by law, are entitled to keep their ballot choices secret."
You addressed this being compromised at the receiving end, but not at all at the sending end. While this year is a special circumstance where universal vote-by-mail probably is the lesser of the dangers, it is an awful idea in general. There is no real protection against someone being pressured to show their ballot to a spouse, parent, boss, or person buying the vote. Sure, it's illegal but let's be realistic: Can we seriously believe ballot secrecy crimes are going to be successfully punished?
Low-tech and old-school as it seems, there is no protection that can be applied widely that is superior to a private booth in a public place, at least as an option for the voter. Again, this year, that probably has to lose out to physical safety and the risk of voter suppression by fear, but let's not start thinking this is a good idea in general.
J.S. from Hillsboro, OR, writes: One of the caveats that you often mention about vote-by-mail is that results won't be ready right away since they have to wait for ballots to arrive via the post. I'd like to point out that in Oregon, "Ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day."
We get our election results typically on election night. Many (and I would assume most) people (at least in the urban areas) use the free drop-boxes. Those that mail know they'd better send it in a few days before Election Day or their vote won't be counted.
V & Z respond: One state, with a relatively small population, might be able to report same-night results. 50 states, some of them with populations that dwarf Oregon's? We're skeptical.
E.B. from Wiesbaden, Germany, writes: When reading your interesting vote-by-mail items I thought it might be interesting for your readers to know how other countries tackle the issue.
In Germany, there is a mandatory registration in the place you live, authorities check automatically if you're eligible to vote and send you an information postcard before an election if you are. Information regarding your voting preferences is never stored.
For in-person voting, either the information postcard or an ID must be shown; as everyone in Germany is required to have an ID, this is not major problem.
Vote-by-mail can be requested generally up to two days before the election. Germany changed from a laxly-enforced valid-excuse to a no-excuse system. The request can be made in-person (postcard or ID needed), by mail (postcard has application on its back) or online (you have to enter information not contained on the postcard, e.g. your birthday, to prevent fraud).
The vote-by-mail kit includes two envelopes (one inner, unmarked envelope for the ballot, one outer one which has the voting office's address on it and a number which corresponds to your Wahlschein number). The Wahlschein, also contained in there, is an official document which allows you to vote by mail. To vote by mail, you have to state under oath to have marked the ballot yourself. You then put the ballot in the inner envelope, tape it, put the signed Wahlschein and the inner envelope into the outer envelope, sign it and send it to the voting office.
Your signature will usually not be thoroughly checked when the vote-by-mail ballot is processed because the fact that you got a Wahlschein in the first place is deemed sufficient to verify you.
The vote-by-mail ballot must arrive before the closing time of the in-person ballot (they don't care about stamping dates). All counting is done by hand, all voter lists are printed out from a secure server. Voting machines are considered unconstitutional because they violate the principle of the election being "direct."
There are only few ways for hackers to get involved: Yes, they may block your online application, but then you simply don't get your by-mail ballot (and can still go to the office personally). They can manipulate the send-to address for the vote-by-mail (which is possible for the case you're not at home) but I've never heard of something like this (and at least you could tell the authorities that your Wahlschein never arrived so they can cancel it). Additionally, it is difficult to manipulate the outcome of the overall vote because there is no way to determine how a voter is inclined to vote because we don't register as party supporters in any way.
J.B. from London, UK, writes: Here in the U.K., we have a long history (back to 1948 legislation, subsequently updated) on postal voting, including experiments, around 2001, on 100% postal voting exercises. Whilst there have been some minor local infringements (which have been heavily punished), generally the system has worked well, and the only rolling back on it has been because there has been the occasional political fuss made about cost, not because there has been any evidence of widespread cheating.
All electoral administration is by law kept well out of the (potentially) dirty hands of politicians, and the whole exercise is overseen by our passionately impartial Electoral Commission. And there has only been one case in the history of post-war UK elections where the result has been voided because of questions (never proved) over the integrity of the electoral process (Election to the Greater London Council, Croydon North-east division, 1973).
So maybe the USA has something to learn from this side of the pond. I know we're all a bit busy on another little problem right now, but maybe Congress (or at least the Democrats) could talk to the election specialists in our parties here. Both main parties work hard and fairly to harvest postal votes, and it's not as if the party machineries have much else to do at the moment, since all election campaigning has been suspended for a year.
J.K. from Mesa, AZ, writes: I would like to highlight how my County Recorder (Maricopa), Adrian Fontes, runs his ship. His office makes the process of Arizona's "Motor Voter" (aka PEVL) ballot progression as transparent as I've ever seen. I know what's happening at every step, and this transparency gives me confidence that things are progressing properly (and would prompt me to contact his office proactively if something seemed wrong). In my opinion, this is how it should be done:
J.C. from Binan, Laguna, Philippines, writes: Something I'd add to your list of needs for a national vote-by-mail verification system: that the group who verifies the signature of the outer envelope at no point sees the inner ballot. There is no way in these divided times that signature experts can be unbiased (just like the rest of us).
J.T.M. from Phoenix, AZ, writes: One simple idea: Stagger voting over several days. Lump voters alphabetically, by years, or whatever criteria works, so crowding is limited. Restrict release of information until all voting is completed, including exit polls, so there is no influence on anyone who hasn't voted yet. Combined with wider vote-by-mail, problem solved. I'm sure there are other ideas out there that would also work...if the parties actually wanted people to vote...if.
Pushing Back Against Last Week's Trump Voter
D.H. from Boston, MA, writes: I would like to respond to one part of the comment from K.J. from Roanoke, Virginia: "[Donald Trump] has led a massive deregulation effort, which is good for everyone (except those who want more government control) and has helped the economy."
I would like to provide a counterexample to the argument that Trump has deregulated industries. Here in Massachusetts, an 800 megawatt offshore wind project was blocked by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management last August for a more thorough review, and now it looks like that review won't finish until at least December this year. The state legislature and government, up to and including our Republican governor, Charlie Baker, is in favor of this project. It will bring jobs to a part of the state that could use them.
I feel like the Trump administration is deregulating only the industries it likes. However his supporters feel about wind power, this is a case where the federal government has used its regulatory powers to prevent a state from significantly increasing its renewable energy production (at least so far), and it has been frustrating to me to watch.
G.W. from Oxnard, CA, writes: The deregulation of the Trump administration has reduced protection of the environment, worker health and safety, public health and safety, and protection for the public from abuses by corporations and banks. If you lost everything or a loved one dies because Trump cut a regulation the helped a corporation's bottom line, then you will not think everyone benefited from reducing regulations.
R.W. from Albuquerque, NM, writes: "He has led the way toward sensible solutions in areas such as climate change"? Is K.J. living on another planet?
J.G.D. from Bellevue, WA, writes: "Climate change is highly questionable to those who truly examine the evidence"?
The scientist in me just cannot let that pass without commenting. What evidence, where, Mr. J? Please do not refer to something you found on the Internet. James Inhofe throwing a snowball on the Senate floor five years ago also does not qualify. Calvin once put one in the freezer to throw it at Susie in June and it backfired.
Over the past 27 years, I have traveled to over 50 countries on all seven continents and have seen the effects of climate change in place like the Arctic, Beijing, Chile, Hawaii, Moscow, Tanzania and the Yukon. It happens everywhere and it will keep getting worse. As a silver lining of sort, this coronavirus crisis will definitely give Mother Earth a much needed breather for however long it lasts.
If Voltaire said: "I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it," he did not mention anything about having to believe in any of it, listen to it all, read it from beginning to end, or share it with others.
Which leads me to this parting note to (V) and (Z): As a rule, I do not listen to the President or watch Fox News, so that I can avoid such nonsense. Quite honestly, I never expected to see any of it on your site.
V & Z respond: We try to print a wide variety of opinions, in hopes of pushing back against a bubble effect.
D.A. from Brooklyn, NY, writes: You characterized Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-VT) supporters as "all or none" type folks, and not "80% of what we want is pretty good for now" type folks. This Sanders supporter is not going to address that description one way or another, but I'm sure you realize that there are some policy goals that by their very nature tend to be closer to a binary choice (as opposed to a continuum) than others. For example, a Green New Deal program and carbon emission standards are good examples of continuums.
In the case of how best to provide universal health coverage, a good case can be made that the only way to afford that in this country is to eliminate or come close to eliminating the outsize influence of the private health insurance industry on health care costs. It can be argued that it is very close to an all-or-none situation on practical grounds, not principled ones. Even relying on private insurance for as little as 20% is likely to distort provider availability, result in a two-tier (and highly unequal) health care system, and continue to inflate actual costs. Advocating all-on-none on this issue (which I do) is very different from advocating all-or-none on almost everything else (which I don't).
V.P. from New York, NY, writes: In Saturday's Q&A, J.Z. from Santa Rosa, CA, pointed to the current crisis as evidence in support of Medicare for All. I'd argue that an even greater body of evidence points to the disaster that Medicare for All would be in today's America. I oppose Bernie Sanders' proposal, not because I oppose universal healthcare but because I can imagine how that would play out.
Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), in particular, have been entirely willing to withhold or delay assistance to entire states they view as "enemies" and to lavish funds on others. They were willing to delay an emergency rescue bill to sneak in abortion restrictions and other things unrelated to the coronavirus emergency. I shudder to think how this will work when every year's budget has trillions of dollars to be allocated and available to be held hostage. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see the next Trump lavishing funds on swing states to effectively buy votes with public money.
We have many systemic issues with our electoral system and government that can't be ignored or wished away. Until we can make some major systemic changes including the constitutional amendments to protect them, something along the lines of Obamacare is probably the best we can do.
M.C. from Santa Clara, CA, writes: You wrote: "The very fact that Sanders continues to campaign suggests he's either unwilling to accept that he can't have everything he wants, or else that his own personal needs are more important than implementing his political program."
Or maybe he actually thinks (as his supporters do) that Bernie is the best person for the job?
Sooner or later, Uncle Joe will be savaged by the right-wing media. He will be exposed as incapable of being President, largely due to cognitive decline. And then the rest of the states vote. Please, no thumbs on the scale. Let the chips fall where they may. The fat lady has not yet zipped up her gown, and certainly has not sung a single note yet.
V & Z respond: Note that any Democratic candidate, including Sanders, is going to be savaged by right-wing media, and that every person who ran for president this year thought they were the best person for the job. Even if they were the only person who thought that (ahem, Wayne Messam).
I.D. from Richmond, VA, writes: We all have a great deal of down time on our hands right now, so if readers are interested in learning more about Johnny Von Neumann, David Halberstam's The Fifties offers an excellent bird's-eye view on him and many other Manhattan Project scientists, in addition to analysis of the decade that really marked the beginning of the "modern" USA.
As to being in Von Neumann's league, that's a short list. However, I don't think his contemporary George Marshall is too far off the mark.
V & Z respond: Five-star general and Nobel laureate? We'll take that.
B.P. from Salt Lake City, UT, writes: John von Neumann is an excellent standard for superhuman genius. Let me recommend Stanislaw Ulam's autobiography Adventures of a Mathematician, which is a great history book, and which started not as an autobiography of Ulam, but as a memoir of his friend and colleague von Neumann. The original solution to triggering fusion seems to have been Ulam's idea.
J.K. from Boston, MA, writes: Note that a lot of historians and journalists are using the term "enslaved person" rather than "slave" these days, so as to reinforce their humanity rather than their status as a commodity. This is similar to the shift some time ago from "victims" to "survivors" of sexual assault. I know there's some pushback on this, and I don't know if your choice was by design, but I thought I'd put it out there. I find the term "enslaved people" does what it intends when I come across it.
V & Z respond: Our resident historian doesn't love that change in language, since it complicates other forms of the word (is it "slavery" or "enslaved personhood"?), and it is also not the manner in which the slaves referred to themselves.
C.J. from Lowell, MA, writes: You mentioned Pennsylvania being the first state to abolish slavery, but my understanding is that Massachusetts gets that honor, by Supreme Judicial Court ruling in 1783.
V & Z respond: Pennsylvania was the first to pass a gradual abolition law (1780), Massachusetts was the first to abolish the institution entirely.
L.P. from Happy Valley, OR, writes: Concerning statehood for California, there's an interesting book that describes the South's recognition of the importance of California becoming a slave state and of their machinations to achieve that goal. The book is Leonard L. Richard's The California Gold Rush and the Coming Civil War.
The new western states that were being formed from territories were non-slave states. The South recognized the threat to their political dominance in Congress. It was imperative that California become a slave state to maintain some semblance of political balance. Their plan was to create a strong economic bond between the South and the California lands. A railway was to be their conduit. It would cross the Southwest deserts and terminate what is now Los Angeles. But there was an acute problem to overcome: Water.
The path includes large stretches of desert. Steam engines require an abundant and reliable water source. The logistics of maintaining a vast supply of water across the deserts proved formidable. The only solution was to temporarily transfer loads to mule trains. At the other side of the desert the cargo would be reloaded to a waiting train. But that is impractical. It defeats the purpose of a railroad connection.
One could conclude that geography was a major factor why California did not become a slave state.
V & Z respond: This plan was also why the southern 10% (or so) of Arizona was acquired from Mexico in the Gadsden Purchase.
L.S. from Greensboro, NC, writes: The first time I ever voted in a statewide election, in 1974, I voted for Doug La Follette for Wisconsin Secretary of State. Now 46 years (and two states of residence) later, I read that he's still Wisconsin's Secretary of State! Is he the longest serving state official in the country? If not, he's got to be among the leaders.
By the way, when he first ran I think he spelled his last name differently than the famous Fighting Bob, I believe, if I recall correctly, that it was Lafollette. There was a bit of a stink at the time since he claimed a distant relationship to Fighting Bob, which Bronson La Follette (definitely a relative!), who was then the state's Attorney General, vehemently denied. So unless my memory is totally deceiving me, he has subsequently changed his spelling to match that of the famous Wisconsin La Follettes.
V & Z respond: He is indeed the longest-serving state official in the country (even though there was a break in his service in the 1980s), he did change the spelling of his name, and he is indeed related to "Fighting Bob." Meanwhile, besides the Kennedys and Massachusetts, is there any political family and state more connected than the La Follettes and Wisconsin?
L.V.A. from Idaho Falls, ID, writes: On conspiracy theories, I have an initial "laugher test" which has rarely let me down. Since most conspiracy theories involve "the government" in some fashion I ask "Is the government disavowing it?" If the answer is "yes," there's something there.
C.F. from Lawrence, KS, writes: When it comes to JFK conspiracy books, I would also include Rush to Judgment: A Critique of the Warren Commission's Inquiry into the Murders of President John F. Kennedy, Officer J. D. Tippit and Lee Harvey Oswald.
J.B. from Brookline, MA, writes: I know the books you suggest, but for something a little more accessible, this website is a great place to start. Practically everyone's knowledge of the assassination comes from the film JFK, and most people seem to believe it—lock, stock, and barrel. This website goes scene-by-scene, sometimes even line-by-line, exposing the numerous distortions, falsehoods, and omissions in that movie, and proving not only that practically the whole film is one big lie, but that Oliver Stone knew it was a lie at the time he made it.
Notes on Sources
J.J. from Minneapolis, MN, writes: In my opinion, the best political news site is politicalwire.com. It has a slight leftward bias (so do you guys, in my opinion), but it regularly gives me incredible insights as to what's going on. Just sayin'.
V & Z respond: You do know we link to them every day, right? If you did not, see the box directly above "Today's Headlines."
D.R. from Anaktuvuk Pass, AK writes: I was pleasantly surprised when I reviewed your list of news sources (Politico, TalkingPoints, et al.), because it generally corresponded with my reading. Another that I would recommend would be The Christian Science Monitor. Despite its name, its driving editorial principle is not religion, but truth. While it tends to be more progressive, it presents a fair-minded analysis of the news on a regular basis, and occasionally focuses on a story missed elsewhere.
V & Z respond: We didn't intend that answer to be exhaustive; we just gave representative examples of each category to keep things readable. In any event, we agree that the Monitor is one of the best. You don't win seven Pulitzers by accident.
More Fantasy Cabinets
A.R. from Los Angeles, CA, writes:President: Joe Biden
Vice President: Rep. Val Demings (this seems like a no-brainer to me; African-American female from the mother of all swing states, Florida, with national name recognition thanks to her solid showing during the impeachment proceedings and a former police chief—does anyone check more boxes than she?)
Secretary of State: Pete Buttigieg
Secretary of the Treasury: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)
Secretary of Commerce: (Former FDIC chair) Sheila Bair (often-overlooked economist who called for regulation of mortgage-backed securities long before the financial collapse)
Secretary of the Interior: (Obama-era Secretary of the Interior) Ken Salazar
Secretary of Agriculture: Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN)
Secretary of Defense: (Obama-era Under Secretary of Defense for Policy) Michele Flournoy
Attorney General: Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA)
Secretary of Labor: Julián Castro
Secretary of Energy: (Obama-era Secretary of Energy) Dr. Steven Chu
Secretary of Education: (American Federation of Teachers President) Randi Weingarten
Secretary of Transportation: Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)
Secretary of Veterans Affairs: Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL)
EPA Director: Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA)
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: Stacey Abrams
Secretary of Health and Human Services: Dr. Anthony Fauci
Secretary of Homeland Security: Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM)
National Security Advisor: (Former NSC official) Fiona Hill
E.W. from Skaneateles, NY, writes:President: Donald J. Trump
Vice President: Donald J. Trump Jr. (What better way to start a dynasty?)
White House Chief of Staff: Gary Busey (It's a nuthouse anyway!)
White House Press Secretary: Geraldo Rivera (He's on TV!)
Secretary of State: Ivanka Trump (Then she can play act at diplomacy full time)
Secretary of Defense: Mike Ditka (He clearly knows about "defense")
Secretary of the Treasury: Jared Kushner
Attorney General: Eric Trump (What better lackey than a guy with HUGE daddy issues. Plus, nepotism was good enough for Kennedy!)
Secretary of Commerce: Hulk Hogan
Secretary of Labor: Lou Ferrigno
Secretary of the Interior: Kid Rock
Secretary of Agriculture: Meat Loaf (USDA inspected and approved)
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: Kanye West (same reason as Ben Carson)
Secretary of Transportation: Dennis Rodman (He can take it downtown.)
Secretary of Education: Frederick Douglass (Who cares if he's dead?)
Secretary of Veterans Affairs: Mike Tyson
Secretary of Health and Human Services: Scott Baio (Happy days!)
Secretary of Energy: Terrell Owens (He's got a lot of energy, right?)
Head of the CDC: Ted Nugent ("Cat Scratch Fever")
Ambassador to the UN: Dean Cain (also, Ambassador to the Fortress of Solitude)
Ambassador to Antarctica: Mitt Romney
Trade Representative: Rod Blagojevich (It's f***ing golden!)
Office of Management and Budget: Sheldon Adelson (he knows numbers an' stuff).
EPA Director: A&E's "Duck Dynasty" star Willie Robertson
Small Business Administration Director: Vince McMahon (his wife did it, after all!)
Director of the Drug Enforcement Agency: Rush Limbaugh
Director of the Food and Drug Administration: Roseanne Barr
NASA Director: Stephen Baldwin (He's even been in a movie about space!)
Director of National Intelligence: Vlad Putin
CIA Director: Buffalo Bills guard Ritchie Incognito (Perfect name for it!)
US Supreme Court to replace RBG: Barron Trump. There's technically no Constitutional minimum requirements, and then Trump's legacy will last forever.
V & Z respond: You forgot to name someone to lead Homeland Security. Maybe former Indiana coach and noted Trump supporter Bob Knight? He could throw chairs at anyone who threatened the United States. You also missed the opportunity to name Trump-supporting John "Cliff Clavin" Ratzenberger as Postmaster General.
And Finally, On the Lighter Side...
D.C. from San Francisco, CA, writes: Your language choices inspired me to tweet this:
If you have a question about politics, civics, history, etc. you would like us to answer on the site, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, and include your initials and city of residence. If you have a comment about the site or one of the items therein, please send it to email@example.com and include your initials and city of residence in case we decide to publish it. If you spot any typos or other errors on the site that we should fix, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Email a link to a friend or share:
---The Votemaster and Zenger
Apr04 While You Weren't Looking, Part II
Apr04 Wisconsin Governor Changes His Mind
Apr04 Saturday Q&A
Apr03 Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
Apr03 Unemployment Figures Are Ghastly
Apr03 Democrats Officially Reschedule Convention
Apr03 Vote-by-mail List Grows
Apr03 National Vote-by-mail Is Going to Be Tough
Apr03 Can Trump Postpone the Election?, Part II
Apr03 The Times That Try Men's (and Women's) Souls, Part V: California Statehood (1850)
Apr02 Biden: Difficult to Imagine Having Democratic Convention as Scheduled
Apr02 Sanders Wants Wisconsin to Postpone Its Primary
Apr02 Can Trump Postpone the Election?
Apr02 Trump Confronts a New Reality
Apr02 Pentagon Has 2,000 Ventilators, but Doesn't Know Where to Ship Them
Apr02 Pelosi Wants Vote-by-Mail Provision in Next Coronavirus Bill
Apr02 The Coronavirus Is Affecting Different Socioeconomic Groups Differently
Apr02 "Trump Bump" Fizzles
Apr02 Schiff Is Drafting Legislation to Study Why Nation Was Unprepared for Coronavirus
Apr01 Trump Gets Real about COVID-19
Apr01 A Grim Mortality Milestone
Apr01 A Grim Economic Milestone
Apr01 Obama Is Not Happy
Apr01 Maybe Biden Shouldn't Worry about Appeasing Sanders
Apr01 Mike Francesa Slams Trump
Apr01 The Times That Try Men's (and Women's) Souls, Part IV: Missouri Statehood (1819-20)
Mar31 Social Distancing Gets Political
Mar31 COVID Relief Bill v4.0 Dance Has Begun
Mar31 Trump Really Hates pro-Biden Commercial
Mar31 About that "Trump Bump"...
Mar31 Voting and Pandemics Don't Mix Well
Mar31 Cuomo Moves New York Primary
Mar31 Meadows Makes it Official
Mar30 Fauci Predicts 100,000 to 200,000 COVID-19 Deaths in America
Mar30 Is Trump Blackmailing Blue-State Governors?
Mar30 Trump Wipes Out the Anti-Corruption Measures in the Corornavirus Relief Bill
Mar30 Poll: Biden and Trump Are in a Statistical Tie
Mar30 Trump Brags about His Ratings
Mar30 Coronavirus May Help the Democrats Indirectly
Mar30 Where's the Libertarian Party?
Mar30 Governors Are Blocking Off Their States
Mar30 Highlights and Lowlights of the $2 Trillion Relief Law
Mar30 Liberty University Has Become a Flashpoint
Mar29 Sunday Mailbag
Mar28 COVID Relief Bill v3.0 Is a Go
Mar28 Saturday Q&A
Mar27 No Relief Bill Yet
Mar27 About Trump's Approval Rating...
Mar27 White House Continues to Resist Invocation of the DPA