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      •  Sunday Mailbag

Sunday Mailbag

The mailbag is usually pretty diverse. This one is especially so, we would say.

COVID-19 Thoughts

M.M. from Harrisburg, PA, writes: Gallows humor runs rampant in my home and is the current preferred coping method for me and my 15-year-old daughter (e.g. "As long as those who die from COVID-19 don't come back and start eating us, it can't get any worse, right?"). But maybe it can.

While it is not my intent to minimize the economic impact of the crisis of the current situation, especially on the service industry it is the case that given the technology at our disposal, there are still many businesses, organizations, and schools that can function with individuals connecting remotely from home.

So, what keeps me awake each night is the thought of how vulnerable and susceptible our infrastructure might be to foreign attack. If someone (or some country) wanted to inflict serious damage on us, this is the most opportune time to do so.

I imagine the utter chaos and devastation that would follow if the electrical grid in just the northeastern region of the country failed. The impact (beyond the hospitals, which would be deadly) would be no less than crippling.

I wanted to keep this brief (and failed), so I won't tick off all the elements we take for granted that would be instantly removed from our lives and how it would make dealing with this pandemic (and its impact on our economy) exponentially more difficult.

I want to be positive, but this is my nightmare scenario.

R.D. from Austin, TX, writes: Friday afternoon, reports came out that Donald Trump was not allowing shipments of supplies to go to certain blue states, including Michigan. This to me is the ultimate betrayal of one's office. However, the spineless GOP, which has tied itself with handcuffs to the dear leader of the cult, following him just like a group did at Jonestown decades earlier, is clearly going to be unwilling and incapable of stopping this madness. If I ever hear someone say, "I thought this event might change Trump," give me a damn break. To paraphrase a former NFL coach, "Trump is who we thought he was, and we let him off the hook!"

What is also obvious to me, is that Trump thinks like a 10-year-old. There is no long-term approach to what he does, it is all about the current moment and what reaction he gets on cable news within the next hour. What will be most tragic when this is over, though, is the unwillingness of the President to realize he is going to put many Americans six feet under with his uninformed and illogical approaches. Also terrible is the thought that I, as a liberal in red Texas, can hope for more support for our governor from Trump than a dear conservative friend of mine can similarly expect living in Washington State with a Democratic governor that Trump hates. To me, that also shows why this man, with no heart, no soul, and a weak mind, must be removed. If things get worse, I do wonder if the 25th amendment or the military beats the voters to that opportunity.

E.V. from Derry, NH, writes: After reading your four reasons why the President has resisted invoking the DPA, two more came to mind:

One, his instinct to be contrary. People from many public sectors are clamoring for the planning and efficiency that Federal oversight would bring. So Trump, of course, is not going to be told by anyone what to do. This has the added benefit that he can use flip-flopping as a positive, since it keeps him the focus of the issue—will he or won't he?

Two, invoking the DPA for all the reasons people want it invoked is a no-win situation for him, at least through his reality filter. On the one hand, if he took charge fully, he would have to have a short-, medium-, and long-term plan. This is something he has proved he just cannot do. On the other hand, he could transfer the planning and execution to others—logistics experts, the military, officials at the state level, people in the medical field—and then get out of the way. This option, aside from being totally out of character, would show that others are the real experts, and not he himself. In addition, those experts are not part of the Trump loyalty circle, and therefore could never be given such a task.

Trump's comments Friday bear some of this out. He invoked the DPA, but just a bit, sort of. And his comments about the need for governors and others "to be nice to me" shows that loyalty is never far from his mind.

G.W. from Oxnard, CA, writes: Another possibility for why the White House continues to resist invoking the Defense Production Act is that would be a tacit admission that the federal government can do big things that help people and that would run contrary to the Republican narrative. The Ronald Reagan quote, "Government isn't the solution, government is the problem" has remained a rallying cry for Republicans all these years later.

P.S. from Lanoka Harbor, NJ, writes: I am of the opinion with regard to the DPA that the president does not want to activate it as it gravitates towards Socialism, something you know he will use against a Democratic opponent this fall. If he decides to enact anything that is tangential to that, he knows it weakens him during the campaign.

N.G. from San Jose, Ca, writes: I was tired of seeing Trump ads on YouTube videos I was watching, so I accepted the "challenge" of taking the "Official Socialism Approval Poll" to see what the campaign was up to.

"We are up against an unhinged left-wing mob, a Democratic party that has embraced radical socialism, and the FAKE NEWS media that will NEVER tell the truth about all of our accomplishments," they declare. They seem especially concerned about the Green New Deal: "Would you be upset if YOUR taxes being raised in order to pay for socialist programs like the $92 TRILLION Green New Deal?"

Of course, being a self-described "Bernie Aunt," I would be thrilled if my taxes were raised for a socialist program like Green New Deal.

So there you have it: They will accuse any Democratic candidate of being an evil socialist. I would prefer that a real socialist was the candidate to show that they will not threaten our way of life, that a social democratic system is what we really need in response to this COVID-19 crisis.

E.G. from Laufen, Germany, writes: I take issue with the comment by J.E. from Ann Arbor, MI. To begin with, his assessment of the mortality rate is misleading. There is a reason that South Korea has a low mortality rate from COVID-19. Following the 2015 Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak, South Korea established some very specific and stringent laws to combat the spread of infectious disease. These laws give the government vast authority to track the populace. See here for details. Among many other things, these laws provide for:

Emergency texts from the government alerting citizens of nearby cases of coronavirus infection. A government-mandated GPS-tracking app designed to monitor and punish people who break quarantine. Public government reports detailing the whereabouts of every single confirmed patient—down to which theater seat they sat in, which plastic surgery clinic they visited and even where they got their lingerie.

In countries such as the U.S. that are not as prepared as South Korea, the mortality rate will be much higher (if it's not already). Also, young and healthy people certainly have died from COVID-19, including a doctor in Wuhan at the very beginning of the outbreak.

Finally, the claims that the pandemic is fake and being promoted by Putin are so utterly ridiculous, they don't deserve attention.

D.O. from Cambridge, MA writes: I read J.E.'s comment from 3/22 regarding the "fake pandemic" of COVID-19 where they state "It's very difficult to even find any healthy individual who has died" from this disease.

I am a critical care doctor in Boston and I can attest based upon first hand experience that healthy people do get critically ill from this disease. I was taking care of a ward of mechanically ventilated patients where we had multiple otherwise healthy individuals under the age of 50 who were critically ill, and we expect at least some of them to die. Additionally, discussions with colleagues around the country and world indicate that there are no age groups who are spared by this disease. Just recently, a 19-year-old and a 21-year-old died from COVID-19 in New York City. While J.E. is correct that the data is incomplete, namely that we do not have the testing capacity to assay the entire population to obtain an accurate number of infected people, and thus an accurate mortality rate, that fact does not minimize the deaths that do occur because of this pandemic. So the advice to everyone is stay home, wash your hands frequently, and if you have any signs of illness please self-quarantine.

P.N. from Austin, TX, writes: Will you change your editorial policy to restrict letters that contain unsubstantiated statements of fact regarding COVID-19? You ran at least two letters last Sunday that made incorrect statements of fact regarding the disease. I can understand that you may choose to run letters with unsubstantiated statements of fact regarding other topics, but we are in the midst of an infodemic, and fear is spreading faster than the virus. When will you realize extraordinary times call for extraordinary editors?

V & Z respond: You're right. We were trying to showcase a variety of opinions, but we should either have held those two letters or added a strongly worded editorial note.

A.A. from Branchport, NY, writes: Watching Donald Trump attempt to control the spread of COVID-19 by fiat reminds me of the apocryphal tale of King Canute the Great:

In Huntingdon's account, Canute set his throne by the sea shore and commanded the incoming tide to halt and not wet his feet and robes. Yet continuing to rise as usual [the tide] dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person. Then the king leapt backwards, saying: "Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws." He then hung his gold crown on a crucifix, and never wore it again "to the honour of God the almighty King."

In other words, Canute used this episode as a demonstration that he was not all powerful and in fact answered to a king mightier than he. He demonstrated both piety and humility. Perhaps that is one of the reasons he is known as "the Great."

Contrast that with the Trump Who Would Be King, who believes that he commands the ebb and flow of a disease that has already made him look small and weak. Yet he continues to issue commands, and his cult embraces it. Time will tell if Trump or nature is mightier. And on the off chance that nature proves the stronger, Trump will surely blame the adverse outcome on Obama!

G.A. from Berkeley, CA, writes: When someone speaks of "easing" regulations or restrictions, it is usually a euphemism for decreasing protection of the public to benefit some economic interest. With respect to the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists and doctors urge more social distancing to reduce untenable demands on the healthcare system and save lives. Trump, on the other hand, seeks to declare "mission accomplished" and "ease" social distancing at Easter, only a couple of weeks away, since this would be a "beautiful time" to have "packed churches," he says. What he really intends is a pyrrhic attempt to reboot the economy at the expense of American lives, since alleged economic improvement is his main claim for reelection.

Republican Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has furthered this view from a subjective standpoint, maintaining that many grandparents would be willing to die in order to help the corporate economy thrive. This gets us perilously close to fascism.

D.R. from Anaktuvuk Pass, AK, writes: While Protestants and Catholics celebrate Easter this year on April 12. Orthodox Christians celebrate on April 19. Who knows, maybe another week of isolation following the Orthodox calendar could be an important distinction. Personally, I am holding out until Pentecost, (May 31 for Protestants and Catholics, June 7 for Orthodox).

L.V.A. from Idaho Falls, ID, writes: It seems obvious that come Easter, Trump will reverse his position on "opening the country" and have some rationale that offering hope in these trying times is the only thing that prevented a depression. His base (and Faux News) will eat it up.

M.M. from San Diego, CA, writes: If we're back to work by Easter, the only thing getting resurrected is COVID-19.

Strong Medicine

K.A. from Key Largo, FL, writes: Decisions about who gets treatment and who doesn't (e.g., ventilators) are usually made by the hospital's Medical Executive Committee based on recommendations from the Ethics Committee, which is typically made up of a team of critical care workers including physicians, nurses, and social workers (and maybe some other staff, like the CEO or COO) as well as clergy and/or a member(s) of the community (like a business leader or academician).

V & Z respond: Obviously correct, in terms of long-term planning (as the letter below also notes). We were thinking of in-the-moment decision-making, as in "it's 1:00 a.m., we have three ventilators and five people in need; who gets them?"

B.R. from Portland, OR, writes: As a physician, and bioethicist I wanted to comment on your answer about how decisions of who gets a ventilator are made. I believe your response was oversimplified. An addendum may be helpful for your readers.

The short answer is that there is no universally agreed upon triage criteria. While there are general principles that discrimination based on race, etc. is ethically prohibited, the actual criteria are not dictated by state or federal law. Policies and the criteria they use vary considerably.

A large part of what hospitals are doing now is planning for such painful situations by crafting policies and contingency plans. Hospitals generally create committees of experts from several fields (medicine, ethics, nursing, law, theology, administrators, military personnel with triage experience, etc,) to develop criteria for their hospital. Generally there should also be coordination with other hospitals in the region so that there is uniformity. These committees are charged with deciding what the process will look like in the event these decisions need to be made. Of note, this is a dynamic process, as these guidelines need to be flexible as both the needs of the hospital and the nature of the disease change.

Perhaps most importantly, I want to stress that individual physicians who are providing care to sick patients should never be the ones who make the decisions alone. As physicians, our job is to care for our patients. "Bedside rationing" rather remains (at least in theory and ideally) the responsibility of in hospital committees which would be seen to be impartial precisely because they are not caring for any particular patient. Perhaps most importantly, the whole process needs to be transparent, so that there is buy-in from the community that these decisions are being made uniformly, consistently and impartially.

V & Z respond: Thanks for your clarifications; if things were simplified too much, that is the fault of (Z), who was trying to keep things concise. The original physician we spoke to writes in with this link, which is also helpful.

A Herd of Elephants

L.D. from Santa Rosa, CA, writes: My dad worked and lived overseas until 1997. He was a committed Republican but beyond basic fiscal conservatism (he read The Wall Street Journal cover to cover every day) had fairly reasonable opinions. Once he moved back to the U.S. and joined the local Republican Party, he began spouting Fox News opinions even though he never watched it (in fact, he often listened to "All Things Considered"). I originally hypothesized that the slant of the WSJ had changed after the ownership change, but that was not the case. I eventually realized that he was getting massive amounts of junk mail from Republican sources—he believed everything he read that came in the mail (even all the investment junk, which was disturbing given that he had been a financial executive). It was only after he died that I realized just how much Republican junk mail he was getting. Judicial Watch alone sent at least one mailing a day.

J.H. from Edison, NJ, writes: Amazon Prime has the documentary "The Brainwashing of my Dad," which makes some interesting points and discusses some of the history of talk radio and Fox News.

T.L. from San Francisco, CA, writes: Jonathan Haidt argues in The Righteous Mind that social conservatives tend to value loyalty and authority much more than liberals do (see the figures in chapter 8).

If so, then that is perhaps another reason why Republicans have an easier time getting (almost) all of their party members behind their candidate than the Democrats do.

V & Z respond: Haidt is the one of the two or three finest evolutionary psychologists working today. His work is well worth a look-see.

D.H. from Lisbon Falls, ME, writes: In your discussion about pack mentality for Republicans and how their words are coordinated, your readers should refer to Newt Gingrich's 1990 GOPAC memo for how this unity was created.

K.J. from Roanoke, VA, writes: This is a response to C.S. of Cincinnati, OH, from your March 7 Q&A. I believe (V & Z's) caricature of Trump supporters was not very realistic. While plenty of people across the political spectrum are "exceedingly ill-informed about U.S. history," I think few Trump supporters would believe the things you listed. Additionally, some Trump supporters are over the top (somewhat similar to those of Sanders), but the average Trump supporter would not claim that he is the greatest president ever.

I was initially skeptical of Trump and voted for a third-party candidate in 2016, but I plan to vote for Trump this year. Why?

  • While he has a huge ego and often says things he shouldn't, he has shown that he loves our country—at least, if you envision the U.S. the way the Founding Fathers did (more freedom and smaller government).

  • He has proven to be a great champion of religious liberty and of life (not control over women's bodies, but concern for the pre-born babies living inside).

  • He has appointed many judges who believe in interpreting the Constitution as it was originally written, replacing rogue judges who have tried to abuse their power and overstep their boundaries.

  • He has led a massive deregulation effort, which is good for everyone (except those who want more government control) and has helped the economy. But I am disappointed that he has not reduced our national debt.

  • He has led the way toward sensible solutions in areas such as climate change and school choice. (I have college degrees in both meteorology and education. Climate change is highly questionable to those who truly examine the evidence, and our public school system is filled with problems.)

  • He has accomplished these things while facing unprecedented hate-filled opposition from most Democrats, who started looking for a reason to impeach him from the day he took office.

While many Trump supporters don't like everything about him or his personality, we are thankful for things that he has accomplished. Most of us simply believe smaller government is better, but that government should protect life and liberty.

V & Z respond: Readers should note that this was submitted a couple of weeks ago, and held until this week with K.J.'s permission. It should not be read as a response to anything that happened (or that we wrote) this week.

Trump's Approval

D.K.S. from Tahlequah, OK, writes: Minor quibble concerning your item on presidential approval ratings during crisis periods. Regarding President Ford, although it is perfectly acceptable today to use the swine flu as his crisis "issue," at the time (and I am old enough to remember 1976) the flu did not seem to rise to a crisis perception in most people's minds (although perhaps it should have). Only one swine flu death and very few cases. Plus, there was a vaccine that was already available. Perhaps a better case study for President Ford might be the Mayaguez incident of May 1975. I suspect you might see more pronounced shifts in Ford's approval rating based on that crisis? You might want to "run the numbers"...maybe we'll see a different result.

V & Z respond: You're right. Just before that incident, Gallup had Ford at 40%. The first poll they ran after Mayaguez, he was up to 51%. This strengthens our argument, obviously, that Trump's current bounce is underwhelming, historically speaking.

D.R. from Thousand Oaks, CA, writes: I have to mildly disagree that Trump has not seen a decent bump in his polling numbers. Using FiveThirtyEight as an example, his net disapproval on March 12 was 10.9%. Today it is 3.6% and it is literally the first time in Trump's presidency, save for the first month, that he has a disapproval of under 50% in an aggregated manner. And his aggregated approval is at 45.9% which is the highest ever on that site. Granted that this could well be statistical noise, or "rally around the flag", but I do think it is more than insignificant. It is surely not a Bush Bump (father or son), but it is seemingly a bump for Trump.

R.B. from Cleveland, OH, writes: I was surprised to see that Trump's approval rating in dealing with COVID-19 is actually above water. A more instructive poll, that unfortunately will never be done for obvious reasons, would be his approval rating among all of the U.S. governors after he's essentially abandoned them.

High Finance

P.Y. from Upper Nyack, NY, writes: How does the U.S. borrow lots of money? The Treasury asks its Primary Dealer network (big banks) for bids to buy bills and/or notes/bonds, asking how much the banks will buy at various rates of interest. The banks bid on behalf of themselves and their customers. The treasury fills the lowest interest rate bids to meet their borrowing needs. It is possible for this auction process to fail if there are not enough buyers at any acceptable rate.

The Fed will lend money against these securities in the repurchase market, as needed, to target short term interest rates, so they are easy to finance if money is "tight," though the buyers carry the price risk on the securities.

If the Fed feels there is a long term shortage of cash in the economy (which this crisis may or may not create) the Fed can buy these securities from the primary dealers and "create" the needed cash to complete the purchase.

If the treasury auction fails, Congress can either: (1) curtail their spending plans (and the economy blows up), or (2) require the Fed to buy the bonds, which will quickly cause the dollar to be sold off in international markets in exchange for other currencies or, as a last resort, for gold (and the economy blows up).

However, demand for treasury securities is currently robust. When people sell stocks they have to do something with the money. There is some worry, however, about Donald Trump's background as a junk bond borrower. At the same time Steven Mnuchin, as a former Goldman Sachs partner, would threaten to resign before he would let the credit of the dollar decline. This is why Treasury secretaries often have to be people that the financial markets trust.

Note that options (a) and (b) are both unacceptable. So all bailout packages must be sized such that the auction does not fail. Mnuchin will have assured the Congress there is no danger and he is likely the person who set the size of the bailout, while demanding $500 billion for himself as discretionary spending, I mean "slush fund." That is quite a power.

J.L. from Glastonbury, CT, writes: As an econ BA, I'll take you up on the invitation to comment on the $2 trillion disaster relief bill's implications.

There are two key things to understand: the source of inflation, and the relationship between the US dollars and the federal government.

First, inflation occurs when prices are bid up for something scarce. For example, if there isn't enough toilet paper for all buyers, people bid up the price. If there isn't enough available labor, wages are bid up. The entity doing the buying doesn't pay more than the market demands, no matter how much money it has. Does a billionaire pay more for a case of Charmin? Only if he or she has to. As long as there is adequate or excess supply, there is no inflation, no matter how much money is floating around the system.

In our present situation, there are tons of suddenly idled workers. Printing money to give them does not bid up wages, since there are more available workers than open jobs. If the printed money is used to pay ordinary bills, then it isn't bidding up the prices for those things, like rent, groceries, utility bills, etc. In fact, paying the bills for these things keeps those businesses viable, and in operation contributing to GDP, and keeps unemployment from skyrocketing even more. Ideally, we'd give those idled workers something to do, so they could contribute to GDP.

Second, the U.S. federal government is a fiat currency sovereign. Thus, it creates and destroys money all the time, a number of different ways (through the Fed balance sheet, through issuing bonds, by printing currency, and by collection of taxes). It does this to provide an adequate medium of exchange to facilitate economic activity. U.S. currency is literally the lifeblood of the American economy, not a balance sheet of profit earned. The federal government issues bonds to create money because people desire a safe way to save their money for the future. The lowest interest rate on such bonds is proof that US bonds are the safest place to store money in the world. Safest because they can be paid with a keystroke, and are backed by the productive capacity of the U.S. economy.

Since the federal government is the only entity with the power to intentionally create US dollars by keystroke, they are different from everyone else. The rest of us must pay our debts; the US government could wipe its away, if it chose, by a keystroke. Thus the competent exercise of this power is incredibly important to the success of the country. Faith is needed, and for the most part that faith has been well-earned. What constrains the amount of money is the productive capacity of the economy. If our resources are employed, but not scarce, the product (GDP) is maximized and we're all best off.

Money is also created and destroyed all the time by the market. When the stock market crashes, that wipes trillions of US dollars off balance sheets and out of existence. And when it booms, the opposite. There's no necessary inflationary consequence (see above), so people should not be alarmed by the federal government doing this to provide disaster relief.

So the short answer to where the $2 trillion comes from is: from a keystroke, and thank God for that.

J.K. from Short Hills, NJ, writes: You implied that stocks rallying hard for three consecutive days is puzzling, considering COVID-19 infection rates are rising sharply in the U.S. Since the crisis began, the equity markets of those regions—at the time they were the epicenter for the virus—outperformed their counterparts around the world. Specifically, the Shanghai Composite enjoyed a massive rally throughout February and the Euro Stoxx 50 significantly outperformed the S&P 500 (by 14%!) in the week that ended this past Wednesday. In short, markets are forward looking, and investors may be looking through the end of the event (2-3 million deaths in this country seem unlikely at this juncture).

To be fair, pension fund rebalancing is projected to be massive for quarter/month-end given the substantial outperformance of treasury prices over stock prices, which almost assuredly contributed to the rally as well.

I agree that the shutting of the NYSE could have unintended consequences that would outweigh its benefits. However, regulators should consider limiting the trading hours of equity index futures, most notably the S&P 500 E-Mini which is listed on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. It opens at 6 p.m. EST for the next day's trading. Some of the biggest selloffs from the past month have arisen in the evening hours as a consequence of extremely low market liquidity when no major stock market in the world is open and one only needs to post a tiny fraction of the notional value of a futures contract to fulfill margin requirements. The ability to bully (I refrain from using the word "manipulate," for obvious reasons) the entire U.S. equity market when few people are watching or have the ability to trade is alarming and disheartening for longer term investors. Perhaps regulators could push back the start of the trading day to coincide with the commencement of the pre-market session for the NYSE at 4 a.m. EST.

History Lessons

T.E.J. from Hector, NY, writes: As a history teacher, I'm enjoying your "Times that Try [Our] Souls" series. However, I did take issue with one point in the background of your Intolerable Acts piece.

The idea that French and Indian War was "France vs. the Indians" is easily corrected, but often is replaced with another inaccurate idea—that it was "Britain vs. France and the Indians." You rightly added the American colonial militias to the British side of things (there were likewise colonial militias in New France), but left out the Native American allies of the British.

It is true that France had a greater number and more solid support from their Native American allies, and also that many of Britain's alliances were complicated: the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nations were fairly tepid in support until the Treaty of Easton in 1758, Cherokee support dissolved during Anglo-Cherokee War (1759-1761), Catawba military assistance was hindered by a smallpox outbreak, etc; but that shouldn't discount them!

And besides, some French alliances were likewise complicated (the Shawnee and some Lenape/Delaware supported them until the Treaty of Easton when most became neutral, Abenaki support was tepid until the same time), as were overall relationships on both sides (nations such as the Delaware allowed individual villages to decide which side to support; Mohawks fought on both sides but not against each other, etc.).

When all is said and done, it is really: British troops, their American colonial militias, and their (mostly Iroquoian) Indian allies French troops, their Canadian colonial militias, and their (mostly Algonquin) Indian allies.

V & Z respond: When (Z) writes those items, he has to balance the desire to be perfectly accurate with the desire to keep things clear and not-too-wordy. But you are correct, of course.

P.C. from Burlington, Ontario, Canada, writes: Canadians do not use the name "French and Indian War." At least in all my history classes, it was called the "Seven Years War." I always assumed the "French and Indian War" was some episode in the western expansion of the US.

The war is of considerable importance in Canada, because it was when Britain took control of New France (now Quebec). (France decided, in the eventual treaty, that it needed the sugar plantations of Guadeloupe more.) The battle, in which both Generals Wolfe and Montcalm were killed, is legendary. The Plains of Abraham, outside Quebec City, is preserved as a historic site.

V & Z respond: When (Z) was stopped at the Canadian border, and quizzed/grilled to judge the veracity of his claim that he was headed to a historical conference in Toronto (which he was), the final question asked by the Canadian customs officer was "What years did the French and Indian War take place?" Of course, the officer might have been translating from Canadian to American, eh.

S.G. from Newark, NJ, writes: Turns out the writers of a certain Broadway musical see the Revolution much as (Z) does:

Dickinson: What's so terrible about being called an Englishman? The English don't seem to mind.

Franklin: Nor would I, were I given the full rights of an Englishman. But to call me one without those rights is like calling an ox a bull—he's grateful for the honor but he'd much rather have what's rightfully his.

D.A. from Brooklyn, NY, writes: I think you underestimate Washington as a general. Yes, until 1781, his chief accomplishment was simply keeping the Revolution alive and, as you acknowledge, that in itself was not chopped liver. But in 1781, upon receiving intelligence that Cornwallis' huge army had retired to the Yorktown peninsula to await the British fleet's transport back to the north, he made the somewhat risky and utterly decisive move to rally his troops on a brutal, exhausting forced march from the Philly outskirts to the Yorktown peninsula. With the help of the French fleet's blockade, he seized a tactically advantageous position and forced the second surrender of a major British army in North America. (The first one was Burgoyne's army, which led to the entry of France into the war.)

Politically it had the effect of the Tet offensive on the Brits, except with none of the military disaster for the Americans. It was a smashing victory, and it wasn't luck—it was daring, timing, effective leadership, and perfect use of available resources, and coordination.

Sure, he initially bombed in NYC (lots of shows do), but he took the show on the road, became a smash hit, and eventually came back to NYC as President of the USA.

V & Z respond: Are you suggesting that it's only a matter of time until we inaugurate President Andrew Lloyd Webber?

E.M. from Milwaukee, WI, writes: Z's item on the Intolerable Acts made me think of some numbers that I only learned in the last decade or so. In 1801, the population of England (not the whole U.K.) was 7.7M, while there were about 5M more in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. In 1780, the population of the American Colonies was about 2.8M. So, the colonies might have been 20% of all the citizens of the U.K., but they didn't have full rights. (Hmm, reminds me of the U.S. in 1859 in a certain way.) Likewise, I believe I've read that during the American Revolution, Britain had committed 1/2 of its entire standing Army to the fight.

The point here is that the Revolution and the underlying political issues were actually a huge deal for both parties. The American colonies had a high enough population to be a substantive, though not large, country. And the Revolution required tremendous resources and produced a giant dislocation in the cultural/demographic structure of Britain as a whole. Somehow, this wasn't communicated clearly to me in high school history class.

I.D. from Richmond, VA, writes: The most British name on record? I'll see your Salisbury Humphreys and raise you Coventry Kersey Dighton Patmore. Pip pip, old chaps!

V & Z respond: Fiddlesticks! Codswallop! Tosh!

C.N. from Houston, TX, writes: With the past week spent at home distancing, I've had plenty of time to go back and re-explore some of my favorite "what-if" scenarios of American history. (I'd highly recommend the enjoyable and very readable The Collected What If? Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been).

To add to your analysis of "could the Confederacy have fought the Union to a draw?" hypothetical, I'd like to make a special mention to an often overlooked part of the Antietam Chapter and one of the truly mind-boggling "what ifs" of the Civil War: It is possible the preservation of the Union rested on a set of lost cigars?

In September of 1862, Robert E. Lee's Special Orders #191 were discovered by Union soldiers wrapped around three cigars, lost by a careless courier. Inside was a full outline of Lee's invasion plan (the first "offensive" action of the offensive-defensive Southern strategy), giving the newly re-promoted General George McClellan a decisive advantage. As you covered yesterday, just days later and less than 30 miles from where the orders were discovered, the Battle of Antietam marked a critical turning point in the war.

Imagining the potential ramifications of a first real sustained Confederate invasion within striking distance of D.C. and affecting everything from the Congressional elections to French/British involvement is enough to fill an entire quarantined day of thought space. Knowing it all could have hinged on a lazy rebel courier losing a pack of cigars is just an added bonus.

V & Z respond: This is another example of a detail we thought about including, and then held in the interest of length and readability. That said, what happened with the lost orders may actually have worked to Abraham Lincoln's benefit. Antietam, as we noted, was enough of a win to allow him to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. On the other hand, the fact that George McClellan won only a narrow victory despite: (1) being on defense, and (2) knowing the enemy's plan of attack afforded the President the necessary political cover to get rid of the troublesome general. "If he can't win big under these circumstances, when can he?" was the basic idea.

And we second your book recommendation. Very readable, written by people who know their stuff.

M.B. from Montreal, Quebec, Canada, writes: In mentioning that Jeanette Rankin voted against entry in WW II, you neglected to note that she also voted against entry in World War I, then lost her seat and finally got back to Congress in 1940, just in time to vote against World War II and lose her seat again. Although there were other reasons she lost her seat the first time, she was widely vilified for her vote.

Magic Bullet or Magic Bull**it?

R.G. from Portland, OR, writes: I read your site daily and really enjoy your perspective on things, but I want to push back on your dismissal of the JFK conspiracy. First, I am absolutely not a conspiracy theorist. I lived in New York City when 9/11 happened and saw events with my own eyes. It made me furious when the conspiracy theories about that attack were going around. It's ignorant and it disgraces those who lost their lives there. That being said, while I am not suggesting some kind of conspiracy about JFK, I will say that the official version of what happened, I simply do not believe. I won't get into this rabbit hole with forensics and charts but I really think that the only conspiracy is that the government either: (1) knows what happened and changed the narrative or (2) actually has no idea what happened and had to show the American people that they knew what they were doing, regardless. The latter seems more likely.

E.F.K. from Piscataway, NJ, writes: You wrote, "the Warren commission left some questions unexplored or under-explored, in part because they couldn't go down every rabbit hole, and in part because the nation needed closure...there simply isn't evidence to support the conclusion that the whole narrative is a tissue of lies."

The problem with the Warren Commission isn't that it's a tissue of lies; it's more like a Swiss Cheese of facts. Their unwillingness (refusal?) to go down every rabbit hole—particularly any that could lead to reasonable doubt of Oswald's guilt and/or evidence of a conspiracy—is precisely why our nation never did achieve closure, and why we are still arguing about it nearly 60 years later.

P.H. from Columbia, SC, writes: I am an avid reader of your site; and I enjoy your examinations of current events and political news. Your recent dismissal of JFK Assassination conspiracy theories, however, is unfair to your readers and your students.

To believe the official story--that is, the Warren Commission--requires one to believe the Single Bullet Theory and to ignore the laws of science. The Single Bullet Theory, the crux of the case against Lee Harvey Oswald, is scientifically impossible. No bullet on this planet is capable of its alleged zigzag course, its six wounds through multiple layers of clothing, skin, and bone, and its largely pristine appearance as Commission Exhibit 399.

When one studies other aspects of the assassination—the Zapruder film, the trajectory of the fatal shot, the observations of the Parkland Hospital doctors regarding Kennedy's wounds, the cheap and defective rifle supposedly used by Oswald, and the fact that the best shot from the School Book Depository would have been straight at the presidential limousine on Houston Street—the Warren Commission falls apart. It is a lie; and historians need to ask why the current establishment continues to push it.

The Kennedy Assassination continues to be a source of mistrust between the American government and its people. Please treat it with the respect it deserves.

V & Z respond: Given that it's no secret that (Z) is a historian, and that he's noted a couple of times, including on Saturday, that he's taught courses in conspiracy theories, we would suggest that the natural inference is that he's exceedingly familiar with what is literally the most famous of all historical conspiracy theories, and not that he's ignorant or a deep-state shill.

In any case, we printed this letter and the two above it so people see there remains a range of opinions on this subject. In fact, you and the two folks whose letters are above yours are in the majority. Depending on which poll you believe, anywhere from 60% to 85% of the American people doubt the "official" account of the JFK assassination. Just because that's a majority position does not make it right, however. In contrast to your assertion, there have been a number of scientific analyses, aided by modern computers. And their conclusions have ranged from "the one bullet theory is very plausible" to "our simulation shows that this is far and away the most likely path for the bullet to have taken." You can read a brief summary here. Or, for those who wish a visual representation, this is the sort of diagram that appears in conspiratorial books and articles:

This shows the magic bullet curving around multiple times, an impossible trajectory, as inflicts multiple wounds in both JFK and John Connally

Here is a second diagram, with only nominal changes from the first, that is vastly less fishy:

This shows the bullet creating all the same wounds while following a straight line.

As you can see, all that is necessary for the single bullet's flight path to be viable is a slight change in position of the front-seat passenger (Gov. John Connally). And again, a number of computer-aided analyses and simulations have supported this version.

R.M. from Aberdeen, WA, writes: You briefly answered a question about the viability of conspiracies. I taught remedial math classes for years, which always included a part about logic and reasoning, truth tables, syllogisms, etc. I was often asked about the possibility of conspiracies, like the Kennedy assassination. I told my classes that every conspiracy is only as strong as its weakest link. Any person in the conspiracy who knows enough to expose it (or enough to expose a good part of it) must have more incentive to remain part of the conspiracy than they could get by exposing it.

So, if the weakest link in the so-called Kennedy assassination conspiracy, who could provide good evidence that would expose it, could make a million bucks by doing so, do they also have the equivalent of a million dollars worth of incentives to stay in the conspiracy? And this applies to everyone in the conspiracy. And their reason for not exposing it must extend for their entire lifetime and beyond. With Watergate, for instance, the FBI's second highest-level person, Mark Felt ("Deep Throat"), likely felt obligated out of duty to help Woodward and Bernstein expose the conspiracy. And he did so in secret so as not to endanger his life or career. Later, when Felt was becoming demented, one of his family's attorneys told the world that he was Deep Throat. So an attorney, who is obligated to keep most of his knowledge about his client secret, also came forward when Felt was aging. Why hasn't anyone involved in the so-called Kennedy assassination conspiracy come forward? Why didn't any of them leave incontrovertible evidence that would come forward after their death? Because nothing like this has happened, you can bet there was no high-level conspiracy.

Biden Accusation

I.K. from Olympia, WA, writes: I really appreciate you answering the question about Tara Reade and the anti-Biden propaganda push. You make excellent points, but I have two comments.

First, you left out what happened with the Time's Up fund, who declined to fund legal and PR fees for Reade because the appearance of them being political would threaten their 501(c)(3) status. In response, some sites have cried "cover-up." However, Time's Up could have safely helped Tara Reade (despite Joe Biden being a presidential candidate) as long as they used their normal procedure to decide whether to help. Doesn't it make more sense that they used their normal procedure to evaluate Reade's claims, and (they, like you) found them unconvincing?

Second, you say that this story did not gain traction, and you also say that it is instructive that Trump has not deployed this against Biden, but you ignore something important. Does Trump know a better way to harm Biden with this than using it against him directly (and appearing to be the pot calling the kettle black).

In the last week, I have been inundated with messages from my relatives and friends who are Sanders supporters, all of them saying exactly the same thing: that because of this one accusation of sexual assault, they refuse to vote for Biden for president. So this is splintering the Democrats, which can only help Trump. I have no idea who is spreading this, but it seems to be working, and there are plenty of actors (Republicans, Sanders supporters, Russians, etc.) who would benefit. Plus, this is eerily similar to the way that fear, uncertainty, and doubt was used against Clinton during the 2016 election.

S.K. from Chappaqua, NY, writes: I can't let "We think it's instructive that Donald Trump has yet to deploy this against Biden. If there was any chance it could stick, and was going to become an element of the 2020 campaign, surely the President would have tossed it out there already" pass unchallenged. If Trump raised the point himself, many would immediately think of the accusations made against him. I think he believes (correctly, for a change) that it would be far better for him to have others raise the issue while he makes no comment or even "sympathizes" with Biden for being so cruelly tarred with false accusations.

Fantasy Cabinets

S.S. from West Hollywood, CA, writes: I have to admit J.B.'s "fantasy Cabinet" gave me a hard-on. (Figuratively, not literally.) The only suggestion I would make is moving Andrew Yang to the newly created and very much needed post of Secretary of Climate Change. Then move Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to Secretary of Labor and make Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) our Attorney General. That would complete a Cabinet I could enjoy fantasizing about during my self-imposed isolation.

K.A. from Key Largo, FL, writes: My Biden Cabinet wish list:

President: Joe Biden
Vice President: Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN)
Secretary of State: (Former NSA) Susan Rice
Secretary of Treasury: (Fed. Board Member) Lael Brainard
Secretary of Defense: (Current Secretary of Defense) Mark Esper
Attorney General: Kamala Harris
Secretary of the Interior: Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH)
Secretary of Agriculture: (Former Wisconsin senator) Russ Feingold
Secretary of Commerce: Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA)
Secretary of Labor: Julián Castro
Secretary of HUD: Pete Buttigieg
Secretary of Transportation: Rep. Anthony Brown (D-MD)
Secretary of Energy: (Obama-era Secretary of Energy) Elizabeth Sherwood
Secretary of Vets Affairs: Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA)
Secretary of Education: Gov. Jared Polis (D-CO)
DHS Director: (Former Missouri senator) Claire McCaskill
OMB Director: (Obama-era OMB Director and HHS Secretary) Sylvia Mathews Burwell
EPA Director: Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA)
Trade Representative: (Obama-era acting Trade Rep.) Miriam Sapiro
Ambassador to UN: (Obama-era Ambassador to UN) Samantha Power
Director of National Intelligence: (Obama-era Deputy DNI Director) Stefanie Sullivan
Central Intelligence Agency: (Obama-era Dept. CIA and Dept. NSA Director) Avril Haines
Small Business Admin: Nikki Haley
Chief of Staff: Stacey Abrams

R.H.D. from Webster, NY, writes: I will take you up on your offer to list possible names in a potential Joe Biden cabinet. I'm including multiple names for some positions. I'm also listing names for some positions that haven't been mentioned yet.

President: Joe Biden
Vice President: Stacey Abrams
White House Chief of Staff: Rep Jim Clyburn (D-SC), (Former Virginia governor) Terry McAuliffe, (Former Ohio governor) John Kasich, (Former Massachusetts governor) Deval Patrick (D-MA)
Secretary of State: Susan Rice, Samantha Power
Secretary of Defense: Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), John Kerry
Secretary of the Treasury: Elizabeth Warren
Attorney General: (Former U.S. Attorney) Preet Bharara, Kamala Harris
Secretary of the Interior: Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM)
Secretary of Agriculture: Amy Klobuchar, (Former Iowa governor) Chet Culver
Secretary of Homeland Security: Rep. Benny Thompson (D-MS)
Secretary of Commerce: Beto O'Rourke
Secretary of Labor: Andrew Yang
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: Pete Buttigieg
Secretary of Transportation: Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)
Secretary of Education: Elizabeth Warren, as she was a teacher and professor. I was also thinking Biden's wife, Jill, would be qualified as she is a professor. But that might be a problem with nepotism and her being First Lady.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs: Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL)
Ambassador to the UN: Julián Castro
Trade Representative: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI)
Office of Management and Budget: Gov. Charlie Baker (R-MA)
EPA Director: Jay Inslee
NASA Director: (Former Florida senator) Bill Nelson
Director of National Intelligence: (Former California Representative) Jane Harman (D-CA), (Former Michigan Representative) Mike Rogers
CIA Director: Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA). But I think he'd turn this down to focus on possibly being House Speaker when Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) steps down in a few years.
US Supreme Court to replace RBG: Kamala Harris. She'd be fairly young at 56 in 2021 and would fulfill Biden's promise to appoint a black woman to the Court. Another possible name that meets Biden's criteria is current NY AG Letitia James. However, she might be wanting to be the first woman governor of New York if and when Andrew Cuomo steps aside. He's planning to run again in 2022.

But there is a big caveat here. This would all depend on who controls the Senate when Biden is President. If the GOP holds on, it becomes more difficult. Also, Warren's seat would be appointed by a Republican (Baker) for a while before there is an election. On a side note, assuming Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) beats Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) in the upcoming primary, I could see Markey making a comeback by taking Warren's seat. Should the Democrats gain the Senate majority, they might need a little cushion (51 or 52 seats at least) if considering Warren.

A.B. from Wendell, NC, writes: What the heck, I can't do March Madness brackets this year, so I will bite!

President: Joe Biden
Vice President: Amy Klobuchar
Secretary of State: Susan Rice
Secretary of Defense: Tammy Duckworth
Secretary of the Treasury: Tom Steyer
Secretary of Agriculture: Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL)
Secretary of Education: (Former Florida representative) Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. I know some Democrats (my party) would freak at picking a Republican for Education. However, there is a reason. Ros-Lehtinen is qualified and was a classroom teacher. More to the point, after Betsy Wetsy and her constant attacks on transgender students, Ros-Lehtinen has a transgender son, Rodrigo. It would be nice to see someone who really understands the struggles trans students face in that post.
Secretary of Labor: Andrew Yang
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: Cory Booker
Secretary of Commerce: Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC)
Secretary of Veterans Affairs: Tulsi Gabbard
Secretary of Transportation: Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-CA)
Secretary of the Interior: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI)
OMB Director: Gov. Charlie Baker (R-MA)
Trade Representative: Julian Castro
Ambassador to the UN: (Obama-era Ambassador to Japan) Caroline Kennedy
EPA Director: Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA)
Attorney General: Elizabeth Warren

L.V.A. from Idaho Falls, ID, writes: I couln't resist. I do not support the current occupant of the white house, but there may be some benefit to maintaining the status quo.

President: Donald J. Trump
Vice President: Donald J. Trump
Secretary of State: Donald J. Trump
Secretary of Defense: Donald J. Trump
Secretary of the Treasury: Donald J. Trump
Attorney General: Donald J. Trump
Secretary of the Interior: Donald J. Trump
Secretary of Agriculture: Donald J. Trump
Secretary of Commerce: Donald J. Trump
Secretary of Labor: Donald J. Trump
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: Donald J. Trump
Secretary of Transportation: Donald J. Trump
Secretary of Education: Donald J. Trump
Secretary of Veterans Affairs: Donald J. Trump
Ambassador to the UN: Donald J. Trump
Trade Representative: Donald J. Trump
Office of Management and Budget: Donald J. Trump
EPA Director: Donald J. Trump

N.T. from Dallas, TX, writes: I do not have a full roster yet.. but I'll start with:

President: Donald J. Trump
Press Secretary: Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf (a.k.a. "Baghdad Bob")
Secretary of Transportation: (Former New Jersey governor) Chris Christie

B.P. from Salt Lake City, UT, writes: I'm at a loss. Abraham = Abrams with football player #56?

V & Z respond: It would appear that we confused a lot of people. What we were going for was ABE (Lincoln) plus (Los Angeles) RAMS:

Abraham Lincoln, plus several Los Angeles Rams

However, if you read Lincoln as Abraham, then all is lost, since you can't get 's' from the Rams picture. Other folks took us to task for a rebus that technically spells out Aberams, because that could cause ballots to be rejected (usually, election officials are supposed to be pretty liberal about spelling, but you never know in Georgia). Anyhow, here is a remake that will hopefully resolve all issues:

A man pointing at his ab, plus three bighorn rams

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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
Mar27 The 2020 Presidential Election Is a Whole New Ballgame
Mar27 Trump Declares That GOP Convention Will Proceed as Scheduled
Mar27 Trump Administration Indicts Maduro
Mar27 The Times That Try Men's (and Women's) Souls, Part III: The Chesapeake Affair (1807)
Mar26 Relief Bill Passes the Senate
Mar26 The $2.2 Trillion Relief Bill Is a Christmas Tree--As Usual
Mar26 Far Right Is Now Targeting Anthony Fauci
Mar26 Biden Says That Trump's Timeline Could Be Catastrophic
Mar26 Twenty States Have Stay-at-Home Orders
Mar26 California Has Had 1 Million Unemployment Claims in Two Weeks
Mar26 COVID-19 Could Devolve into Class Warfare
Mar26 Biden: "I Think We've Had Enough Debates"
Mar26 German Cathedral Will Showcase St. Corona
Mar25 We Have a Deal
Mar25 The 2020 Congressional Elections Are a Whole New Ballgame
Mar25 Trump Wants This Thing Done By Easter
Mar25 New Jersey Blazes an E-Trail
Mar25 Pennsylvania Will Postpone Its Primary
Mar25 Sanders Will Keep Going
Mar25 The Times That Try Men's (and Women's) Souls, Part II: The Alien and Sedition Acts (1798)
Mar24 Congress Flails Around...
Mar24 ...And So Does Trump
Mar24 Is It Time to Take Away Trump's Platform?
Mar24 DNC Says They Are Moving Forward with Their Convention
Mar24 List of Primary Postponements Keeps Growing
Mar24 Sanders Wins Another Primary
Mar24 The Times That Try Men's (and Women's) Souls, Part I: The Intolerable Acts (1774)
Mar23 Democrats and Republicans Are Far Apart on the Relief Bill
Mar23 States Are Fighting with One Another over Scarce Medical Supplies
Mar23 Trump's Normal Modus Operandi Won't Work This Time
Mar23 Poll: Majority Approve of Trump's Handling the Crisis
Mar23 Burrgate Could Have Consequences for the Senate
Mar23 What Can Sanders Get from Biden?
Mar23 Bloomberg Dumps Staff
Mar23 Rand Paul Has COVID-19
Mar23 Buttigieg Had No Choice
Mar22 Sunday Mailbag
Mar21 Saturday Q&A
Mar20 Senate Unveils Relief Package v3.0
Mar20 Republicans in Denial
Mar20 Trump Has His Scapegoat
Mar20 California Takes the Plunge
Mar20 Three More NBA Players Test Positive for COVID-19
Mar20 An Asymmetric Presidential Campaign
Mar20 Gabbard Ends Presidential Bid