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      •  Sunday Mailbag

Sunday Mailbag

If you are looking to avoid COVID-19 stuff, this isn't the best place to be, unless you just skip down to the fourth group of letters and start there.

The Politics of COVID-19

R.G. from Portland, OR, writes: I find it fascinating, albeit also terrifying, that you guys have talked about the possible ways for Trump to stay in office after his term is over at least three times now. The fact that this is talked about at all speaks volumes. In times past, pre-Trump and the neo-GOP, I don't think anyone would even question the democratic process. It would be unheard of, yet here we are.

S.G. from Newark, NJ, writes: FEMA's interference with supplies procured by desperate states was reported earlier by the NY Times.

To paraphrase former justice Antonin Scalia: It takes some cheek for the national government to tell the governors "go get it yourselves" and then to seize and redistribute what the governors obtain!

C.N. from Denver, CO, writes: I work for a major defense contractor. Yesterday we had an "all hands" teleconference, for my particular division, so our executive staff could keep us informed of the COVID-19 actions that the company was taking to protect its employees. During that call it was "mentioned" that the company had ordered face masks through its supply channels. The masks were targeted for employees that, because of their work environments, needed them. The masks were ordered and were about to be shipped when the entire shipment was commandeered by FEMA.

Note that I put "mentioned" in quotes. We're a division of some 2000+ people, 60% of which are engineers. Which is to say, we are not dummies. Consequently our management treats us with respect and also doesn't tell us anything they don't want us to know. They wanted us to know that this had happened. The co-workers whom I contacted after the call were not pleased.

M.B. from Granby, MA, writes: Real patriots? Not in the White House. When the Feds confiscated a shipment of 3 million N95 masks, Massachusetts relied on Patriots—the New England Patriots, that is—to get a new shipment from China.

S.A. from Los Angeles, CA, writes: I think ol' "Death Count Donnie" has jumped the shark. Not one local TV station here showed his briefing yesterday, and I think only Channel 5 here in L.A. showed part of it today. CNN has also stopped showing the whole briefing as well. He's probably driving away viewers at this point.

R.H.D. from Webster, NY, writes: Today, Fox News didn't show Governor Cuomo's daily briefing. Hmm... Tit-for-tat for what CNN did with the White House briefings? Or is it because brother Chris might be beating Hannity in the ratings?

C.W. from Carlsbad, CA, writes: To be honest, the more tightly the GOP clings to this administration, the more it resembles a cult rather than a classic political party. Popular or not, they've abandoned most of their principles. And it shows.

G.A. from Berkeley, CA, writes: Trump claimed that he could shoot someone on 5th Ave. in New York City and his base would still support him. He needn't have been so uncharacteristically modest.

Trump discounted the outgoing Obama administration's warnings to prepare for a possible pandemic, disbanded a National Security Council group at the White House charged with preparing for a pandemic, decreased staff at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in China by more than two-thirds, and disregarded warnings from U.S. intelligence agencies and his own trade advisor in the months before COVID-19 spread from China to the U.S. and other countries.

Trump can thus claim at least partial credit for the recent and impending deaths of thousands of Americans, including doctors and other medical staff, and for the suffering of hundreds of thousands of others from this disease. And he was right: "the base" (in Arabic, "al-Qaeda") still supports him. His accomplishment should be given full recognition, very publicly.

H.F. from Pittsburgh, PA, writes: I wonder how long it will be before some Republican politicians start pointing to America's increased death rates and its overwhelmed hospitals as further proof of "the failure of Obamacare." That doctors must decide who gets an available ventilator and who doesn't; that could be seen as evidence of the "death panels" Sarah Palin warned about. The fact that other countries (such as Italy, Spain, and Iran), where the Affordable Care Act is not in effect, are seeing horribly overcrowded hospitals, morgues and cemeteries will likely not matter to the base who follow Limbaugh, Breitbart, and Fox News.

P.S. from Lanoka Harbor, NJ, writes: Pretty hypocritical, but speeding up wall construction during the pandemic is simply another case of Donald Trump trying to "slip through" his personal agendas at the expense of the public's health and safety.

C.S. from Newport, U.K., writes: How will we know when Donald Trump really believes the COVID-19 crisis is over? That'll be the day he sacks Dr Fauci.

B.P. from Salt Lake City, UT, writes: Disaster comparison, Borowitz style:

The numbers of deaths are much lower
for Barack Obama than for George Bush or Donald Trump, but the bar graph, with information courtesy of Fox News and the 
White House, makes Obama's handful of deaths look much, much higher.
Life (and Death) with COVID-19

T.W. from Omaha, NE, writes: Just to confirm the deficient state of testing numbers in much of the U.S., I have been in isolation at home in Omaha for the past five days as a "presumed positive" covid infection. As advised by my county health department, tests in Nebraska are reserved for those in high-risk groups, medical workers, and those with severe symptoms. As I do not fit into these three groups, the county said not even a doctor's order would entitle me to a test, as they are in very short supply here. As I do not have a regular doctor, and I didn't feel it was an emergency, I didn't go to the trouble of trying. I have spoken to a few acquaintances who were told by ER personnel to go home and engage in self-care because their symptoms weren't severe enough to warrant hospitalization (ergo, not severe enough to warrant a test).

Long story short, the publicized "number of infections" in Nebraska should instead be regarded as the "number of hospitalizations."

I hope the antibody testing goes much better. It is going to be a long time before most of us feel safe in groups again.

V & Z respond: Take care of yourself, and our best wishes for a speedy recovery.

P.D. from Woodbridge, NJ, writes: All the COVID-19 numbers we are seeing remind of me the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy: "[W]here it is inaccurate it is at least definitively inaccurate."

As we are still not testing, we can't use test numbers to directly count cases. In New Jersey, the governor's briefing told us the testing labs are so overrun that test results take up to 14 days (longer than it usually takes for COVID-19 to resolve, one way or the other). Almost 50% of our tests come back positive, indicating we are only testing people who we are pretty sure have it (meaning they have serious symptoms). So, if we assume that our 54,000 cases are only the ones that have serious symptoms (say 20%), we can then guess that we probably have an additional 200,000 cases with no or minor symptoms. Interestingly, if we use a 1% mortality rate, we get a similar estimate. If we apply similar thinking nationwide, we can guess that we may already have about 2 million people infected.

However, there is good news. After COVID-19 becoming the leading cause of death in the U.S. this week, the last two days have not seen any increase in the death rate. The number of new cases has been flat for 5 days. After having been on a perfectly exponential growth curve, this is very good news. Using our admittedly flawed data, we have strong evidence that social distancing is indeed helping us to get this under control. Any analysis we are doing is on terribly flawed data, but there is at least reason to be optimistic.

R.M. from Tucson, AZ, writes: I know of one COVID-19 case for sure that was not counted. I had a friend that was not feeling well in mid-February and went to urgent care. He was immediately transferred to the ICU and placed on a ventilator because of oxygen levels and shortness of breath. Mind you, he was perfectly healthy and did not have any pre-existing health conditions before he began running a fever and became short of breath. Over the course of two weeks, everything possible, including ECMO, was done to save his life. All the things done did not save him; he passed at the end of February, long before the first COVID-19 cases were reported in Arizona. His illness path was exactly that of all other COVID-19 fatalities recorded. As far as I know, he was not tested for COVID-19.

I do not feel this is an isolated incident here in the United States. I am sure there have been untold number of deaths that have happened under the same scenario. In my opinion, if a vaccine is not developed the world will see a plague like those of the Middle Ages.

V & Z respond: Please accept our condolences on the passing of your friend.

M.C. from Chicago, IL, writes: I have heard from well meaning friends, who are sheltering in place and watching too much TV and reading social media, that hundreds more people are dying every day than is being reported. Despite data to the contrary, they are convinced that our hospitals in Illinois have patients dying in the waiting rooms every hour by the dozens because there are no medical supplies or ventilators and the hospitals are covering it up because they do not want to get sued for inadequate care.

There is an easy way for reporters to get to the bottom of things: Ask public officials how many death certificates were issued the past 60 days versus previous years. If the cause of death is not being accurately reported, but these hundreds or even thousands of undiagnosed COVID-19 deaths are happening, you would expect a net increase in the number of death certificates.

M.L.M. from San Jose, CA, writes: Several times you have pointed out that a vaccine for COVID-19 may be necessary before most restrictions can (de facto) be lifted. The oft quoted timeline is 12 to 18 months (June 2021) if all goes well. However, the availability of an approved vaccine is not the same as a vaccinated population. Even without interference from an administration that seems determined to make the virus as destructive as possible, it will take time (and money) to manufacture, distribute, and administer the vaccine.

For example, the Salk vaccine for polio was licensed in 1955, yet it did not (largely) eradicate polio in the United States until 1961. My own family fled Pittsburgh (where the vaccine originated) in 1958, through a flood, to escape a polio outbreak. In spite of advances in the vaccine, polio is still with us today in 14 countries. Suppression efforts have been suspended due to COVID-19.

L.M.S. from Harbin, China, writes: The unexpected effects of COVID-19 you listed are all negative or, at very least, unwelcome. In all fairness to the pandemic, let me bring up a positive effect: The shutdown of the industrial facilities in China (which curbs deadly pollution) as well as the reduced emission of transports, is saving people's lives. This finding might apply to other countries with similar preconditions.

These days, I often remind those complaining of the constrained freedom of their enormous (passive) contribution to healing the planet. There could be other positive effects resulting from this disease. Think of a possible reform enhancing the health care system, or even a push for Medicare for All.

L.G. from Lafayette, CO, writes: Might people everywhere decide they'd like to continue breathing cleaner air? Obviously, a worldwide pandemic isn't the way we want to achieve that goal, but we know it can be done. And how ironic that the pandemic is indirectly saving lives.

J.B. from Hutto, TX, writes: One unexpected effect of the COVID-19 pandemic that needs to be getting more attention is a shortage of blood in our nation's blood banks. Thanks to social distancing, people are not showing up to donate blood in nearly the same numbers as they normally do. Even amid the pandemic, hospitals have to treat people with gunshot or stab wounds or who have been in serious accidents and desperately need blood.

V & Z respond: A good point. We encourage readers who are able to do so to consider visiting the Red Cross' blood donation page, to set up an appointment.

C.W. from Myrtle Beach, SC, writes: I really miss getting my hair cut. I feel like a hippie.

The Economics of COVID-19

S.K. from Chappaqua, NY, writes: I posit that Donald Trump's nascent task force on reopening the country faces insuperable obstacles.

First, as you have noted several times, "60% of the public doesn't trust" the administration. I think you might have been justified in adding that 60% includes most of the people who have significant influence on the health of the economy, because those influential people are the ones who decide whether to hire employees and/or invest in objects that businesses buy to produce things.

Yes, business owners and executives are traditionally Republicans, but they are "free trade" and "dooh nibor" (that is, take from the poor to give to the rich) Republicans, far from the Trump-sotted Republicans who "trust" him (that is, those who believe everything he says).

Second, even if businesses in states with the lowest number of infections reopened, that would have little impact on the nation's economy, because those states are North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, West Virginia, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Alaska, and Hawaii. Combined, they account for so little of the country's economy (less, I'd guess than either California or New York alone) that most Americans would notice no "reopening."

P.S. from Marion, IA, writes: In your item on Friday about the economy not being able to fully recover by the election, there's one more factor that's probably most critical to why the economy won't be turning around anytime soon: consumers. One-time stimulus checks do virtually nothing for consumer confidence and they never work. We only need to recall the last time there was a stimulus check sent out (spring/summer of 2008) to know it won't work.

Was the stimulus badly needed to make people whole and simply hold things together, so they weren't foreclosed or evicted? Yes, of course. Will there be some "pent-up demand?" Yes, probably at restaurants, coffee shops and an evening at the ballpark once those options are available. But it's unlikely there will be many takers on a 30-year mortgage or an 84-month new-car note by mid-summer. Scared money won't spend.

J.K. from Short Hills, NJ, writes: FYI, the University of Michigan survey of consumer confidence, one of the two most important gauges of sentiment on Main Street, hit an 8 year low this week.

M.A. from Reston, VA, writes: Please contact tax accountants about your answer to the question about the stimulus payment. My understanding is that this is actually a refund against your 2020 tax liability. So if you have your tax withholding set so you will end up with $0 refund when you file next year, you will actually end up with a liability of -1200, or -2400 married when you file in 2021.

I hope I'm wrong, because it's really a scam if it is how I think it is.

V & Z respond: We were very careful about that before writing it, given the obvious consequences of being wrong. See these items from Forbes, Money, and Snopes to put your mind at ease. See also the next letter.

R.R. from Mount Kisco, NY, writes: A suggested clarification offered from a now-retired tax attorney to your answer to E.S. of Maine, NY, who asked about the tax aspects of the "COVID-19 money," referred to as "recovery rebates" in the CARES Act, and that the IRS is calling "economic impact payments." You correctly describe how a "refundable tax credit" works and also said that "this payment will not affect next year's tax return at all, and everyone will get the same refund (or will pay the same amount) as they otherwise would have."

This is true for most people who will be receiving payments now, based on the income shown on their 2019 or 2018 tax return. However, this will not be true for everyone who now receives a reduced amount or nothing at all because their 2019 or 2018 income exceeded certain threshold amounts (single tax filers receive full payment of $1,200 for income below $75,000, a reduced amount between $75,000 and $99,000, and nothing if above $99,000; for joint returns, full payment of $2,400 for income below $150,000, a reduced amount between $150,000 and $198,000, and nothing if above $198,000). If someone in that situation has lower income in 2020 than in past years, they could be allowed a benefit on their 2020 tax return for what their previously higher income prevents them from receiving now.

V & Z respond: Thanks for the benefit of your expertise!

On Vote-by-mail

R.L. from Alameda, CA, writes: Vote-by-mail doesn't necessarily favor Democrats everywhere. Utah is ruby-red and does vote-by-mail. Colorado is purple and does the same. Sens. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) were both elected by largely mail-in ballots. Former RNC chair Michael Steele states weekly on his podcast that he favors expansion of voting rights. Just last week, he had a conversation with former Utah governor Mike Leavitt in which he stated support for vote-by-mail.

Democrats drive me nuts sometimes. There are Republicans in the world who favor voting rights. There is potential to make this a bipartisan issue that they just won't latch on to.

F.L. from Denton, TX, writes: Much has been said (especially by #45) about how the GOP opposes mail-in ballots. However, this article from NPR reveals that the GOP, particularly in Florida, has pushed long and hard for vote-by-mail, even in the '16 election. Situational ethics, much?

C.S. from Newport, Wales, writes: Further to J.B.'s comments, it may be worth noting that the normal way postal voting infringements are spotted in the U.K. is not by comparing the signatures on the envelopes to any signatures on file, but by comparing them to each other.

Postal ballot fraud requires the falsification of hundreds or thousands of signatures—one per envelope. You could get lots of people to falsify a few signatures each, but then you have a large number of co-conspirators, which increases the chance that someone blows the whistle. So it is usually attempted using very few people. But then each will have to sign hundreds or thousands of envelopes, and even if each name is different, it is not easy to make the handwriting to look different —try it out yourself! Worse, unless you post them at different times and different locations (which is logistically difficult for large numbers), the fraudulent ballots will all lie together in the same ballot box. So even an ordinary poll worker, just counting the envelopes, gets suspicious. And once the police know there is an issue, because of the need to falsify postal votes on an industrial scale in order to make it worth doing, there are usually plenty of opportunities to find sufficient evidence.

K.S. from Harrisburg, PA, writes: I don't understand why the Democrats are allowing that other party to paint voting by mail as open to corruption and un-American. The military relies on absentee voting. The Democrats merely have to say that any restrictions to absentee voting will hurt our soldiers. Case closed.

P.S. from Nashville, TN, writes: Is it safe to assume that vote-by-mail is being set up as the scapegoat should Trump lose? This was how I saw the real intent behind his comments on Tuesday. I can see an election hinging on Arizona, where Trump is winning on election night, but loses by 2 or 3 points after all the votes are counted.

S.K. from Sunnyvale, CA, writes: You've developed a habit of roll-calling the five states that have already instituted statewide vote-by-mail, these being Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. These states, collectively, have 12.8 million registered voters according to the latest data I was able to find on their respective websites. Unmentioned to date is that, under California's Voter's Choice Act of 2016, voters in participating California counties (currently representing over half of the state's 20.7 million registered voters) will automatically receive a ballot by mail, which they may return at their discretion either by mail, at any ballot drop box in their county, or at any voting center within their county (where they may fill it out in a voting booth in the traditional manner, provided the voting centers are not closed this November over COVID-19 concerns).

I realize that explanation doesn't have the same brevity as simply listing off the five statewide vote-by-mail states, and that compared to the examples of those states, California's progress on this front may be criticized as sluggish, but given the relative numbers of voters affected, and given that (Z) works in a participating county, I thought it at least deserved a shout-out.

Donkey Kong

P.M. from Innsbruck, Austria, writes: How about a TV show instead of a classical convention? As a European, The Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) comes into mind. First, 50+ clips of what a president Biden would do for 50+ states and territories, maybe with local "stars" (from politics or economy or culture). Then live connections to the 50+ delegations—"Hello DNC, this is Augusta, Albany, Carson City, Sacramento, etc., speaking. Thank you for a wonderful vision of our future. Here's the result of our primary/caucus..."

Yes, it would rob the activists the chance to meet in person, but for the broader audience this could be both informative and entertaining. I guess "liberal Hollywood" would stand in line to produce such a show.

M.R. from New Brighton, MN, writes: You wrote:

The highlight of each convention is the roll call. The roll call would have to be different. The state chairs can still make their statements from remote studios...but the excitement will be lost.

Why do you assume the state chairs would make their statements from a studio? With a virtual convention the state chairs can be anywhere. Why not have the state chairs make their statements outdoors, with a state landmark in the background (for example, Missouri's Gateway Arch, Arizona's Grand Canyon, Pennsylvania's Independence Hall)? This visual celebration of our 50 states would be much more "exciting" than the boring roll calls of the past. The 2020 Democratic Convention will be the first virtual convention ever held by a major party. With a little planning they can make it fresh and interesting. And if one week later we see old Republicans wearing silly clothes at a hall in Charlotte, the contrast in optics between the two parties will be stark.

L.C. from Boston, MA, writes: You wrote:

Democratic leaders everywhere are now feeling relieved. They knew that had [Sen. Bernie] Sanders been the nominee, Donald Trump would have ripped the bark off him. He would have run ads claiming Sanders was Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Fidel Castro all rolled into one. He would have said Sanders was going to nationalize private industry and send his opponents off to reeducation pig farms in Siberia. It would have been brutal. Of course, not a single bit of it would have been remotely true, but for someone who has already told 15,000 out-and-out lies, what's a few more? Sanders' problem would have been that with Fox News repeating the lies morning, noon, and night, 40% of the country would believe every word of them.

But Republicans will be doing that with Joe Biden, just as they did with each past Democratic candidate ever since Bill Clinton started running for president (and, more subtly, even before), and that 40% of the population who believe it aren't going to vote for a Democrat anyway. So you might as well run a real socialist and stand up for principles rather than trying to bend over to avoid exciting the Republicans.

V & Z respond: We don't disagree, but we would point out that not all lines of attack work equally well.

D.A. from Brooklyn, NY, writes: (V), who I will credit with writing my favorite OS and networking texts, seems to have a remarkable level of animus towards Bernie Sanders. And so, the already-bruised loyal followers of the site who are also staunch Sanders supporters received a gross underestimate of the political accomplishments of the Sanders movement, a very one-sided narrative of the campaign itself, all of that topped with extra servings of snark.

C.J. from Fort Worth, TX, writes: Y'all's anti-Sanders bias has always shown bright, and y'all sure didn't "disappoint" in that department this week. Implying he was the weaker candidate against Trump, for starters. Like, seriously? Biden might as well be Trump. The lessons of 2010—that given a choice between "Republican" and "Republican lite"... well, think beer. Beer beer or light beer? Most simply go for the beer beer. Same with politics. Present a real alternative, or if that's not present, just go with the full feature. This year, throw on top of that the fact that Biden's cheese fell off his cracker sometime in the last decade in a bigger way than Trump's has, and you have a recipe for 2016, Part 2: Another Election BooHooHoo. Bernie is lucid and holds his own and Trump would be no match for him. Biden's liable to forget where he is during the debates and start running his pie hole about "ol' Corn Pop" again.

The idea that Biden is any less evil than Clinton is a myth. He's a war criminal just like she is, as well as being a segregationist, a sexual predator, and is all about the status-quo capitalism that causes so much damage to us outcasts, as well as our environment. Civilization thinkers, those of us above the sociopathy, we ain't voting for him. Whether it's writing in Bernie, an accelerationist vote for Trump, or one of several actually decent third parties...we're tired of "lesser evil." How's about no evil? When evil is the only thing that's "viable," just let the whole thing collapse in on itself like any evil plan eventually does (it's not just a fictional trope!). And, hopefully, we'll take enough support out from the DemocRATS to re-elect Trump. After all, if we're to get a true left alternative in, we have to dislodge the pretenders first. Let 'em fall apart.

M.C. from Santa Clara, CA, writes: Well, they dragged the fat lady out, told her to squawk out a few notes, then she fainted. They carried her out on a stretcher. But, technically, she did "sing"—for Uncle Joe.

There is more chance all the stars in the galaxy explode than I vote for Joe.

K.B. from Dallas, TX, writes: I am not a Bernie guy and found his BernieBros to be obnoxious.

I am sure in the days to come, we will find out more, but I want to give this perspective. Bernie Sanders, like him or not, has always stood up to his guns and fought hard for his ideals. After the clusterf**k that was Wisconsin, and with no votes coming for days, I believe he stood to his guns. He has had the healthcare of Americans as a constant. While we can create programs in the future to keep us safe, we can not do that now in the COVID-19 crisis we live in. So if you really care about the people, you have a couple of choices. One is to keep on the fight, but this would require many people to go and do dangerous things like voting in an unsafe place. The other option is to give up just this one fight so you can make sure that the country is safe and whole.

Nobody except Sanders and his immediate staff know the entire reason. The best of me thinks this may have come into play. Bernie may be a figurehead of change, even if we are not all ready for that change, but he is not a monster. His regard for life has been clear. His regard for our nation is clear. I only hope that in this one moment it gives us perspective that unity, regardless of party, can be a reality.

J.F. from Sloatsburg, NY, writes: It is not the end of the primaries, even if it is the end of the presidential race. A huge percentage—by some accounts, 90% or more—of down-ballot races like county water commissioner, city zoning committee, animal control chief, community planning board, and the like end up being unopposed in the general election. Similarly, many state legislature seats and city council seats end up with no opposition. In those cases, the primary is the general, and it is important that voters get out there to decide who is going to be the new official.

State Politics

K.M. from Royal Oak, MI, writes: In the last couple of weeks, there has been a lot of talk of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) as a leading VP choice for Biden. On paper, Whitmer looks great, but as a resident of Michigan I can attest that she is not as popular as one might think. I voted for Whitmer and am a pretty liberal person myself, but a lot of people in my orbit have been displeased with her handling of the crisis. After all, Michigan is #3 in COVID-19 deaths and cases, even more than California, which has roughly 30 million more residents.

On top of that, Whitmer has dispatched the state police to write tickets to people at places like Home Depot for buying non-essential items. This is rubbing a lot of Michiganders the wrong way.

Lastly, Whitmer's ascension to the Governor's mansion was extremely predictable. The previous governor Rick Snyder was quite unpopular, the Republican candidate for governor in 2018, Bill Schuette, had his hands all over the Larry Nassar scandal at Michigan State and the Flint Water situation. He also had the personality of a Ziploc bag. Michigan also rotates governing parties like clockwork. We haven't elected a back-to-back party in the governor's mansion since 1968. In my mind, Whitmer was simply in the right place at the right time. Her addition to the ticket wouldn't put Michigan in the bag, and might actually hurt Biden, in my opinion. He would be better off with Stacey Abrams or Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN).

M.H, from Coralville, IA writes: You wrote:

There was a time when the Wisconsin Supreme Court really was nonpartisan, but that time came to an end with the seat that came up for election in 2011, when the GOP moved heaven and earth to keep arch-conservative David Prosser Jr.'s seat for him. The Court's elections have been hyperpartisan ever since.

I grew up in Wisconsin, and after 30 years on the East Coast moved back to the Midwest (specifically Iowa) two years ago. As a Wisconsin native, I can recall exactly one time before the 21st century when a Wisconsin Supreme Court election got much public attention: the Supreme Court election after the Braves baseball team moved to Atlanta! The Court stopped a last-ditch effort to stop the Braves from leaving Milwaukee, for reasons most legal scholars agree were sound, but voters were not very interested in legal technicalities. To the average voter, it was simple: they coulda stopped it and didn't.

C.W. from Cupertino, CA, writes: In Wisconsin, the Republicans lost all perspective, and in order to maintain a 5 to 2 majority on the State Supreme Court (which would have become 4 to 3 majority in their favor), forced millions of people to do in-person vote during a pandemic. Come November, they will have so many pissed-off voters that they will not be able to repress the vote. Wisconsin is a State the orange one needs to win for reelection. The short-term gain of keeping a bigger majority on the State Supreme Court seems likely to lead to the long-term pain of losing the Presidency in only half a year. The Republicans have lost all perspective! The U.S. Supreme Court claims to only call balls and strikes, but helps in voter suppression. It hurt its reputation by showing its true face in a single primary which will backfire in only half a year. That is very dumb.

R.J. from Jersey City, NJ, writes: Your discussion of the Wisconsin primary was, as usual, full of wild distortions and outright lies. Any blame for delayed action by the courts on voting decisions rests solely with the incompetent Gov. Tony Evers (D-WI) who, up until less than a week before the vote, said the primary must go on. The voter ID rules in Wisconsin allow for a secure and fair election that other states should adopt.

S.G. from Newark, NJ, writes: Just for completeness on the list of general election postponements, you should know that local school board elections, scheduled in many NJ municipalities for April 21, have been postponed to May 12 and will be conducted entirely by mail.

Just in 2018, the state greatly expanded vote by mail. New Jersey has had no-excuse absentee voting for a while, but in 2018—just weeks before the election, in fact—the legislature passed and governor signed a law that could be described as "once by mail, always by mail," automatically sending a mail-in ballot to anyone whose last vote was cast by mail unless that person affirmatively opts out and chooses to vote in person. (If someone who mailed an absentee ballot tries to vote in person, the voter casts a provisional paper ballot that will be counted only if it is confirmed that the voter did not return the absentee ballot.) At the time it seemed an annoyance; now it seems prescient.

V & Z respond: For those who would like a (pretty) comprehensive accounting, Ballotpedia has a good list of all the local elections and the dates for which they are currently scheduled.

E.G. from Los Angeles, CA, writes: A couple of hours ago Burning Man 2020 (scheduled for the last week before Labor Day) was canceled. Seriously going to hurt northern Nevada.

V & Z respond: Now the letter writer above, with the hippie haircut, has nowhere to show it off.

J.M. from Montpelier, VT, writes: On Thursday you wrote that we should expect a battle over voting rights in states where the legislature is controlled by the Democrats but the Governor is a Republican, listing Vermont as one of these. Though it is true that Gov. Phil Scott has an (R) after his name, he marches to the beat of his own drummer and cares little for what the national party leaders think. He tends to be conservative-to-moderate on fiscal issues and moderate-to-liberal on social issues. He is pro-choice, supports LGBT equality, and has signed a variety of gun control bills into law. He has consistently denounced President Trump's policies and vocally approved of his impeachment. Support from Democrats was important in his election, while some Republicans disdain him as a RINO. I doubt it would help his own re-election chances this year to suppress voter turnout, and it would be out of character for him to play along with any RNC plans to do so.

I know we're a small state, and what goes on here is rarely significant in national politics (except when one of our Senators decides to run for President now and then) but I would suggest crossing Gov. Scott off your mental list of Republicans who are assumed to be complicit in party shenanigans.

C.J. from Richmond, VA, writes: Not all GOP governors are cretins. I would not expect a big battle in Maryland, for instance, where Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has been very reasonable.

D.Y. from Windsor, U.K., writes: I wanted to send you a comment on your item about the Georgia Senate races. You noted that there will be two Senate elections in Georgia this year due to the special election for Sen. Kelly Loeffler's (R-GA) seat and pointed out that whichever party wins one seat probably wins them both. I generally agree, but if the vote is close, there may be a chance that this pattern does not hold.

The reason is the incumbency advantage for Sen. David Perdue (R-GA). Back in 2012, when I was working on my Ph.D. in political science, a colleague and I wrote a paper entitled "The Curious Case of Special Senate Elections." We started by looking at the Hollings/Thurmond election of 1966 that you mentioned and proceeded to examine every instance of simultaneous Senate elections since the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913. We found that on average, an incumbent senator wins 4.6% more of the two-party vote than his or her fellow partisan seeking the other Senate seat. And in all but one simultaneous election where two incumbents were running (elected and appointed), the elected incumbent has won a higher share of the vote.

Since we wrote our paper, the trend has continued. In Oklahoma in 2014, incumbent Sen. James Inhofe (R) got (just a few) more votes than James Langford (R). In 2018, elected incumbent Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN) won over 60% of the vote in Minnesota, while appointed incumbent Sen. Tina Smith (DFL) won just under 53%. Also in 2018, in Mississippi, re-elected incumbent Sen. Roger Wicker (R) with 58.5% of the vote, while appointed incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) only got 41.2% that same day (because of the jungle primary). Though she kept her seat, she still only got 53.6% of the vote in the run-off election, five points behind Wicker.

What does this all mean? First, that Sen. Perdue will almost certainly run ahead of whichever Republican runs in the special election. Second, if both elections are close, Perdue could end up on one side of the won-lost divide, while Loeffler or Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) could end up on the other.

History Matters

D.M. from Canterbury, NH, writes: Lieutenant General A.P. Hill, a Virginian with success in the Mexican and Seminole wars who eventually became commander of the Army of Northern Virginia's Third Corps, would likely have been a good replacement for Lee.

V & Z respond: Maybe so, but we didn't list him because he was always sick. Hard to remain in command if you can't even remain in the saddle.

R.B. from Chaska, MN, writes: Loved the item on (now-former) Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly. You wrote that he was "in for a rough ride." I served on that carrier for three years and we call ourselves the "Rough Riders." Guess Modly didn't know who he was screwing with.

T.F. from Potsdam, NY, writes: I very much enjoyed your piece on John Brown and Harpers Ferry. He's buried about an hour south of where I live—in Lake Placid, NY, home of the 1932 and 1980 Olympics (along with 12 of his collaborators). Brown spent some time in Placid from 1848 on attempting to assist black homesteaders who received a land grant. They called the community "Timbuctoo."

Russell Banks wrote a historical novel, Cloudsplitter, that chronicles Brown's time in the Adirondacks along with his business failures in Connecticut, the Pottawatomie Massacre, and Raid on Harpers Ferry. As you mentioned, there have been many books written on John Brown's life and escapades, but Russell's presents an interesting fictional account. It's a bit of a tome, but I found it engaging and worthwhile. Specific scenes from Harpers Ferry, Kansas, and Brown's work bringing African Americans through the wilds of the Adirondacks to Placid as part of the Underground Railroad are still vivid in my mind.

J.J. from Philadelphia, PA, writes: I must say that in your John Brown item, one perspective was glaringly omitted: how John Brown is viewed among African Americans. As an African American, I can tell you he is a historically revered figure. Regardless of his failed business acumen or messianic tendencies or the lack of planning of his attacks, he is revered to no end because quite simply he put his life on the line to free blacks. Unheard of then, might still be now. People were dying and suffering in bondage, and John Brown was a living embodiment of hope and resistance for many.

A family story was passed down in generations, of a relative who would tear up at the mention of John Brown. This relative would say we would've been free if this had been a nation full of John Browns. Brown and Lincoln were on par among many black families in regards to reverence. I grew up in the South, and, needless to say, they tend to lampoon Brown viciously in schoolbooks, etc. So I am not unfamiliar with the harsher coverage of Brown, but consideration of the black perspective is vital too. It is similar as to how Nat Turner is considered a hero who fought for freedom to end the barbarism of slavery, but many history books insultingly presented him like a madman or some wild animal like. That isn't the right way to view them. Though imperfect, they laid their lives on the line to fight the most evil barbarism the world has ever known. That is the prevailing perspective of most blacks, including my own.

V & Z respond: We did include Frederick Douglass' quote, but perhaps we should have done more on this angle. Thanks for filling in the gaps.

A.C. from London, U.K., writes: I feel that while the people of Wisconsin might well be facing a first in risking their lives to vote in person, this is not something entirely unprecedented for other states, especially in the South.

K.L. from New York, NY, writes: I had thought that the Nullification Crisis met your criteria for a "crisis." It seemed like a dress rehearsal for the Civil War. The divide that it highlighted, states rights, remains an issue today.

V & Z respond: It does meet the criteria, but when (Z) made the master list, he imposed a limit of three Civil War-related events, given the temptation (as a Civil War historian) to include 10 or 20 Civil War-related events. He is now considering lifting that cap to four, though if another Civil War-related event does sneak in, it won't be Nullification (which would be #5 on the Civil War list).


J.B. from San Francisco, CA, writes: I read your website regularly, and thoroughly enjoy it, probably because I agree with you most of the time. However, I do take strong exception to your assertion that COBOL is a "dreadful" programming language, and was somehow responsible for the near-calamity of Y2K. COBOL is designed to be easily understood (it's written in English), so that practically anyone could learn how to code in it. I wrote COBOL code for 4 decades (retired 2 years ago) and I would never claim to be the sharpest programming knife in the drawer. In other words, if I could write that code, anyone can. Because it's easily understood, it's also easy to debug and maintain. You want a dreadful legacy programming language? Try Assembler—it looks like it was written in Klingon. And regarding that old chestnut about COBOL supposedly causing Y2K, nothing could be further from the truth. The decision to code only the last 2 numbers of date year fields was a decision management made in many companies many years ago because storage space was a lot more expensive back in the day. It had nothing to do with what language was being used. The fact that Y2K turned into a nothing event was a testament to how easily COBOL could be modified to accommodate a situation like Y2K.

I do appreciate your heads-up regarding the sudden availability of new COBOL jobs. In the midst of all of this sadness and tragedy, silver linings do appear sometimes. Might dust off my résumé. And by the way, although I'm retired, there are still a lot of people out there who not only maintain existing COBOL code, but are developing more of it. We haven't all retired or gone to that great CPU in the sky.

V & Z respond: We wrote last week that sometimes we know an item will produce a lot of comments, and sometimes we're surprised. This was one of the biggest surprises we've gotten; it turns out there is a very sizable number of readers who have strong opinions on COBOL. The reason we singled out COBOL for the Y2K problem is that COBOL had a data type of "decimal." The programmer could specify that a variable was 2 decimal digits. This made it possible to represent a year as a number from 0 to 99. The compiler stored a variable of this type as two 4-bit fields in one (8-bit) byte. In FORTRAN, Algol 58/60/68, BCPL, Pascal, C, C++, Python, Java, and pretty much every other programming language, decimal numbers are not a data type, just integers (including shorts and longs). There is no easy way to specify that a variable has to be in the range 0 to 99 and even in those languages that allowed some kind of range to be specified (e.g., subranges in Pascal), variables were still stored as integers, so there was no memory saved. So no one abbreviated years to 2 digits in these languages. If COBOL had not been invented, Y2K would not have been an issue. As an aside, it is time to start planning for Y2038. UNIX systems on 32-bit processors record time as the (signed) number of seconds since midnight on Jan. 1, 1970. On Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2038, the value will overflow and become negative, indicating that the date is Dec. 13, 1901. However, by then, 32-bit CPUs may be obsolete, except in very cheap devices.

T.C. from Stone Mountain, GA, writes: As a seventy-something former programmer I can say those of us programming in the 60s and 70s knew perfectly well that the year 2000 was coming. Nevertheless, we used two digit years on purpose. Using four digit years would have made every date we stored 33% longer (8 digits instead of 6). Data back then was stored on tape drives. A significant amount of the time used by a computer program was reading and writing the tapes. And the longer the tapes were, the more time it took to process them.

So to get the same amount of work done, we would have needed faster computers and tape drives. Computers back then were very expensive. In 1968, my college bought a very small mainframe for $100,000 (about $740,000 in 2020 dollars). So to use 8 digit dates we would have had to spend much more money. You don't get very far if you go to your CEO or state governor or university president suggesting that they spend much more money today in order to save time, aggravation, and money 30 years from now.

For a contemporary example, how many people today are writing letters to their congressperson demanding that their taxes be raised today to fight climate change problems in 2050?

P.C. from New York, NY, writes: How rude! I didn't start in IT until 1990, then spent a decade implementing a brand-new finance program that was based on COBOL batch and online processing. I first had to fix a Y2K issue on the night of 1/1/98 when a projected spending process crashed because it couldn't calculate the carryover for 1900. I am not a programmer and it was easy enough to modify the program and some data tables to get it going again.

Yes, veteran COBOL programmers are old and crusty. But also you can order as many new ones as you want from the University of Mumbai. Delivery in 6 months.

M.M. from Plano, TX, writes: Your time frame on COBOL has one small error. COBOL was not around in the 1950s; it came online in 1960. During the '50s, the universal language was FORTRAN. In its time, COBOL was useful and more respected for business purposes than FORTRAN. In the '80s, I was educated extensively in COBOL, which I thought was evil, but I hardly used it because the time frame of my programming career (1989-2014) coincided with the rise of relational databases (e.g. Oracle) and net-based programming.

B.H. from Westborough, MA, writes: Loved your piece on the COBOL code. I was the lead Y2K analyst for Gartner Group in the 1997-98 timeframe. Turned out that the insurance industry helped with the remediation. Most managers did not want to undertake the repairs due to lack of ROI, and most COBOL programmers could not make a convincing case as to the risk. The insurance industry weighed in, and said that if a company had not undertaken an earnest effort to repair the problem, claims may be denied since the risk was well known. In other words, the CEO could lose their personal assets if their company suffered a Y2K related loss. Soon after that edict came out, I was inundated with calls from companies starting Y2K projects. And that's why there weren't widespread Y2K failures.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Apr11 Saturday Q&A
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Apr08 Wisconsin Primary Is a Fiasco
Apr08 Congress Prepares to Get Out the Checkbook Again
Apr08 Navarro Plot Thickens
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Apr08 White House Does Some Spring Housecleaning
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Apr07 White House's Dirty Laundry Gets Aired in Public
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Apr07 The Times That Try Men's (and Women's) Souls, Part VI: The Raid on Harpers Ferry (1859)
Apr06 Republicans Will Try to Block Vote-by-Mail Nationwide...
Apr06 ...And Are Already Trying in Wisconsin
Apr06 Texas' Law Could Disenfranchise Millions
Apr06 States Raid Election Security Funds to Pay Costs Related to COVID-19
Apr06 Trump Pursues Pet Projects in the Middle of a Pandemic
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Apr04 While You Weren't Looking, Part I
Apr04 While You Weren't Looking, Part II
Apr04 Wisconsin Governor Changes His Mind
Apr04 Saturday Q&A