• Sunday Mailbag
A couple of weeks ago, Rep. Justin Amash (L-MI) said that he was launching an exploratory committee for an all-but-certain bid for the Libertarian Party's presidential nomination. Apparently, the committee did its exploring, and reported back that the Representative would not, in fact, be able to smash the foundations of American government as we know them, remaking the country into an Ayn Randian Objectivist paradise. So, the Representative decided he's not interested, and announced that his campaign is over before it ever started.
This does not mean that Amash has fully resumed contact with reality, though. In his good-bye tweets, he declared that "The Libertarian Party is well positioned to become a major and consistent contender to win elections at all levels of government." This conclusion is not supported by any available evidence, particularly given that the Party has never elected someone to federal or statewide office (Amash switched earlier this month, well after being elected). It was unclear if Amash was going to steal more voters from Donald Trump or from Joe Biden; there were arguments for both sides of that. Now, it's a moot point. (Z)
The individual referenced most frequently in today's mailbag is Donald Trump. Second is Richard Burr. Third is Satan. But we repeat ourselves (apologies to Mark Twain).
COVID-19, Life and Times
P.D. in Woodbridge, NJ, writes: I am not an MD (not that kind of doctor). I have a PhD in information systems and have run a medically focused software company for the last 25 years. My customers are hundreds of doctors and hospitals throughout the country. Living in New Jersey near New York City, I was personally invested in this virus from the beginning (the last concert I attended was in December). I have a strong background in stats and research and have access to really smart doctors (including one working with a COVID ICU unit in a large local hospital) who vet everything I write for medical accuracy and help me to be sound on medical thinking. I have been an avid EV reader since 2008 and love that I can contribute. Much of what I have written was inspired by my friends pointing out interesting articles (like cell phone records indicate that 30% of affluent New Yorkers fled the city). If you find anything I should include in these reports, please send it to the comments e-mail.
Things have not really changed much since last week. New York and New Jersey continue to look very good. The rest of the country seems to have mostly benefited from the social distancing that now is being weakened as we reopen.
We should temper any enthusiasm for announcements concerning vaccine development, early trials, etc. All of the early hype about hydroxychloroquine clearly caused more harm and confusion than good. Who knew that treating a brand new virus would be so complicated? We may already have the perfect vaccine sitting in a lab (or not). Proving it is the perfect vaccine (or not) is a much harder job. There are reasons being careful with drug development is important. If you are unfamiliar with the history of thalidomide, that would be a good piece of history to read about.
The next chapter in COVID-19 is about to begin. Now that we are beginning to open the country, what will happen? Probably the most dramatic thing you are going see is a pronounced increase in stories that either point out how opening is a terrible idea or else that it was a long overdue. There will also be loads of stories showing experts predicting everything from Armageddon to a modest increase in cases. Every town that has a spike in cases will become the poster child for staying shut down, areas where the number of cases stay low will be featured on Fox News. From a disease perspective we are probably not going to see much of anything for a few more weeks. Here's why:
- Many areas of the country are still living in a world of "what was the big deal?" We instituted social distancing too late to stop the spread in New Jersey and New York City, but we were mostly in time for the much of the country. With fewer cases, they are earlier on the exponential growth curve. Even if they went back to pre-lockdown behavior instantly, it would still be weeks before they looked like New Jersey.
- Most people are not willing to "go back to normal". Even if every restriction on every activity were dropped tomorrow, that does not mean that people will be comfortable going to the movies this Friday. Most people will continue to socially isolate, to some extent.
- States are only gradually reducing restrictions. Even in the reddest of the red states you still can't go to the movies (ok, you can in North Dakota, but you can't sit next to anybody).
- It takes time for COVID to make you sick. People do not get sick for 1-2 weeks after they are exposed.
Predicting what we are going to experience when we open depends on how well we guess on a whole lot of things that are not currently known. What we should focus on is protecting the vulnerable segment of population. If 1,000 people get the flu, you are going to have 990 really uncomfortable, sick people, but only one will die. If 1,000 people get COVID, most will not even be aware of it, but about 50 will get really sick and 10 will die. 9 of those will have had some kind of underlying medical condition (diabetes, hypertension) and most of them will be over 65.
B.R. in Union, NJ, writes: In regard to your item "If a Vaccine Is Available, Will People Get It?" I suspect that there are several factors that will result in even more people being vaccinated against COVID-19 than would normally be the case. That includes the anti-vaxxers, whether they like it or not.
First, we know that in most states, in particular the states that are densely populated, public schools already require vaccinations before children can attend. It's fair to assume that these requirements will be extended to include the COVID-19 vaccine, especially since teachers and other parents will insist on it. So the vast majority of children, even those of anti-vaxxers, at least those not being home-schooled, will be vaccinated.
Second, I would expect that businesses, particularly those whose employees interact in-person with the public regularly, will require their employees to be vaccinated. I'm thinking of businesses like restaurants, stores, airlines and others in the business of transporting people, sports and entertainment facilities, private educational facilities, etc. I don't have the statistics, but I'd bet that's a good portion of the employees in the modern American economy. The anti-vaxxers may dislike it, but they'll dislike being unemployed even more. Especially since they probably wouldn't even be eligible for unemployment, given that they were denied the employment for refusing to comply with requirements of the job.
Third, even other types of businesses will require employees to be vaccinated. Especially those whose employees work in close quarters. As we have already seen with the meat packers and similar businesses, such environments create hotbeds of exposure. Last thing these employers will need is significant numbers of their workers becoming ill and being unable to work, resulting in loss of production (and profits).
Fourth, the populations at risk will get the vaccination as soon as it is available. That would be true even if there is a cost. And since one of the largest at-risk populations is senior citizens (particularly given the co-morbidities that exist in that population that increase the risk), and since with Medicare and the usual supplemental plans there will be minimal or no fee, I would bet they will be lining up (with social distancing, of course) at doctor's offices and pharmacies and wherever else the vaccine is available as soon as it comes out.
In this regard, it must be noted that except for the first and last, the points about schools and seniors, these are actions not of government but of private entities, which are free to impose such rules or requirements. And I would doubt that the anti-vaxxers will get much sympathy if they complain—at least outside the anti-vaxxer community.
D.E. in Lititz, PA, writes: For The State of the Union Speech for 1941, FDR introduced his "Four Freedoms" concept of what makes democracies special: They are Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear. The speech is very famous and has influenced art, architecture, and pop culture. Of late I have the feeling that the modern GOP or POT (Party of Trump) would like to add a Fifth Freedom to that speech, Freedom from Inconvenience. Let me explain.
I work in an essential business (grocery) and while most of our customers are good, decent, thoughtful individuals there are about 20-30% who are the antithesis of that. Not surprisingly, that latter group are almost all white, middle-aged Boomers, mostly male and mostly moderately middle class, Trump supporters, and gun enthusiasts, to use the polite term, and all are simmering with anger. Some even fancy themselves as survivalists, armed and ready to face the coming race wars/civil war/zombie apocalypse. Yet these same people are grousing, yelling, and acting out like two-year-olds swearing up and down how their Freedoms are being repressed because they have to wear masks and walk a few extra feet. They complain loudly about having to enter the store through one door and exit out another, often misappropriating Civil Rights Icon Rosa Parks to their "cause." I would love to tell them that Rosa Parks wasn't told to go to the back of the bus in order to prevent her from getting sick but rather because the society she lived in saw her as subhuman or chattel. These people, when told that they can only purchase one package of an item a day, fly off into raging fits and throw frozen butter sticks at the employees. One middle-age white aggrieved male, when told he could only redeem one coupon, called the teenage cashier a cunt. These are not isolated incidents—one day one of my nice customers asked how my day was, I replied "Pretty good, I've only been called asshole twice so far." I look at these angry middle age/class white males going into a nuclear meltdown because of a lack of toilet paper or box wine and I wonder how they would ever survive any type of apocalypse—zombie, racial or otherwise.
I also remember stories my Grandmother and Mother told me about what it was like to live through the Great Depression and through WWII, with rationing and shortages. Then I look at the Boomers, our current generation of 50-60 year olds (for the record I'm one of the white male Boomers but always identified more with Gen X) who are the product of the previous generation's survival of the hardest times, and I have to shake my head. Yes, I know the American middle class is only a couple of paychecks from financial ruin (I know because I've been there and am still recovering from having lost everything) but so far the wearing of masks and social distancing come nowhere near the hardships people suffered through during the Depression. Having to enter and exit through designated doors to keep the number of patrons low is light-years distance from the fear of jailing and lynching African Americans lived through for many decades in the South. What we have experienced so far with this pandemic can only be rated as an inconvenience. Yet the modern Republicans have lost their collective minds like it was the end of civilization. God help them if this pandemic increases and they have to experience true deprivation, or that these angry middle age white men ever get to experience life without white male privilege! While these folk make a lot of noise, I was pleased to read that their noisy protests are not as well attended as some would like us to believe. Because of the racist/Nazi/gun-worship paraphernalia and Trump's/Fox's insistence of their importance, the media is giving them more attention then they deserve.
V & Z respond: Normally, we mildly censor curse words, e.g. pu**y-grabber. In this case, it seemed more apropos to leave them intact.
N.T. in Dallas, TX, writes: R.M. in Brooklyn speculated: "The U.S. population is 330 million, so herd immunity will be achieved when somewhere between 198 million and 231 million people have been infected."
The course of the epidemic is quite sensitive to what is called R0, which is, simply put, the number of people an infected person will infect in turn. Herd immunity influences R0 by 'removing' potential persons one can infect: the ones that already have had the disease. It is important but not the only factor, so depending on other factors, the level of Herd Immunity needed to get an R0 below 1 (which leads to the disease 'disappearing') varies a lot. Imperial College London currently places the U.S. R0 very slightly above 1. In other words, all other dispositions being equal, it would not take that much more herd immunity to get that number below 1.
In France, hospitals have been looking through their case archives and found that they actually treated patients with presentation that would now be considered typical COVID-19 back in December and even November 2019, 2-3 months before the official first case was detected there. They are now, country wide, digging in their files to re-test samples they may still have and look closely to scanners. They have learned in the past months that COVID-19 patients exhibit lung lesions that are apparently very specific to the disease.
If the disease was circulating that early, that would impact the models with regard to the virus contagion, and influence what we initially thought the R0 of the virus was.
R.M's off-the-cuff mortality rate for N.Y. was pretty good, as confirmed by P.D.'s earlier post, but numbers from other places and countries seem to point to a overall lower value. New York's rates were probably exacerbated by being first, so folks there needed to discover "best practice" the hard way, especially with regards to handling severe cases. My layman guesstimate is that R.M.'s death toll estimate is probably one order of magnitude too high, and seems more likely to be in the 250,000 range than 2.5 million.
As P.D indicated in his report, The amount of virus you get (viral charge) influences the outcome a lot. That amount can be stuff you collect from the outside, but also stuff you produce internally once you get infected. Studies so far point to the idea that if you manage to control/reduce the viral charge in the early stages, you have a much better outcome. But when you are reaching late stage, the virus damage is mostly done, and it is the body over-reaction—cytokine storms—that is the main danger. At that stage attacking the virus itself is not really helping the outcome anymore, at this stage the viral charge is already way down.
Anti-virals like remdesivir and quinine (aka chloroquine) are meant to act on the ability of the virus to reproduce, either by trying to prevent the virus from getting into cells, or interfering with the ability of the virus to take control of the production apparatus of the cell, hence preventing the virus from making copies of itself. So, they would be more useful in the early-mid stage and, not surprisingly, are not shown to be effective in late stage. (There's some good, albeit dry, presentations about the underlying biology here and here).
While on the topic of Chloroquine: That medication got a bad rap by association with Donald Trump. Has it been properly shown to be effective against COVID-19? No. Is it the Dangerous drug it is suddenly presented to be: Absolutely not. In France, a global study over the period of 3 years (2017-19) shows that over 120 millions pills of hydroxy-chloroquine were sold, which resulted in 312 reported side-effects cases, of which 2 are linked to a fatal outcome.
Yes, Hydroxy-Chloroquine and related compounds can be very dangerous in overdoses. And yes, using a fungicide for a fish tank to get a dose of it is a dumb idea, worthy of a Darwin award, but that does not justify the fearmongering we saw.
S.R. in Wyomissing, PA, writes: A.D. from Toronto wrote last week about the overestimated impact of unprecedented events. S/he makes the mistake of assuming that the lessons we think we will learn from an event are the ones that actually happen. Many thought an outcome of World War I would be no more wars, but it was instead other things like the collapse of monarchies and end of four European empires. Many thought an outcome of 9/11 would be more terrorist attacks, but it was instead things like increased paranoia and Islamophobia. We could go on and on about lessons, many of which could be contradictory. I had a history professor in college that infamously said "history is a whore," because "you could get her to do anything you wanted." (Z) probably has more good examples to add. I'd also recommend Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan on the impact of unexpected events.
The 2020 Elections
B.M. in Hamamatsu, Japan, writes: Japan's national broadcasting organization (NHK) recently conducted a survey asking Japanese citizens what effect a Donald Trump re-election might have on Japan. The survey was conducted by mail between February and March and had 2,195 respondents. The results were:
Rating Percentage Very Positive 10% Very Negative 57% No Particular Effect 32%
In addition, only a combined 16% thought Trump would be of any use in negotiations with Kim Jong-Un, with 30% saying he'd be "absolutely useless." On a positive note, a combined 73% of respondents feel it is important for Japan to strengthen, or at least maintain, the current state of relations with the U.S.
Some people are concerned that Trump could irreversibly weaken the U.S. as a world power and damage trust beyond his presidency. Why negotiate in good faith with the U.S. when another Trump could come along? These results hopefully show that perhaps our allies in the world haven't counted us out quite yet.
G.L. in Oviedo, FL, writes: Joe Biden and the Democrats should emphasize the rule of law as a campaign issue. This is something that independent voters and mainstream (old school) Republicans should all be in favor of. Given the way the Justice Dept. has been acting under AG William Barr, this should be an important and fundamental issue for everyone.
A.B. in Oviedo, FL, writes: I am writing today to share my thoughts about the situation with the insider trading in the Senate. It is my deep belief that the Bill Barr-headed Justice Dept. won't lift a finger these days without an explicit approval from Donald Trump. And yet, they are apparently moving ahead with the investigation of Sens. Richard Burr (R-NC), Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), and possibly others. How could that benefit Donald Trump? The more I think of it the more I realize what a powerful electoral move it could become.
For starters, it will switch the election narrative from the coronavirus unpleasantries to corruption fighting, showing Trump off as the bipartisan anti-corruptioner in chief. Remember "Drain the Swamp"? What could more forcefully support that narrative than pushing out (and perhaps locking up) two senators from his own party, together with, perhaps, Diane Feinstein?
At the same time, it will smear Joe Biden as the member of the corrupt elites, by bringing back to light the Hunter Biden story and reminding voters of the fact that the Obama/Biden administration never prosecuted any big fish following the 2008 crisis.
The base is going to lap up the narrative, and many independents, I am afraid, will too. Besides, Trump will satisfy his vindictive grudges against Burr and Loeffler, and get a chance to replace both of them with more loyal Republicans. The GOP elites would be very unhappy with such a sacrifice, but what could they do? Their base is in Trump's pocket, and they will have to fall in line, just as they have been doing over the last 3 years.
L.L. in Westborough, MA, writes: You mentioned that Richard Burr was the first senator to be charged, although Kelly Loeffler's transactions looked "fishiest." So why was Burr charged first? The indispensable Heather Cox Richardson offers the following:Burr was also the chair of a bipartisan committee that had endorsed the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, concluding that Russians did, in fact, attack America in 2016. The committee went beyond Mueller's conclusions to suggest that members of the Trump campaign had welcomed that intervention. The committee is due to issue its final report soon. Now, with Burr out of the chairmanship, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will appoint a successor. It seems likely that the new chair will change the forthcoming report to support Trump's new narrative that the Russian investigation was illegitimate rather than to accept the findings of the intelligence community and Robert Mueller's team.
P.M. in Albany, CA, writes: You wrote that "in 2016, with two historically unpopular candidates, Trump won the "hater" vote by 17 points. This year, with Trump still historically unpopular, but the response to Joe Biden being mostly tepid, the President is trailing among the 'haters' by a whopping 40 points. We will have to double-check our math on this, but that looks like a 57-point swing to us."
How exactly do you calculate a swing? It may be different in sports. In a soccer game, say, if the red team is 2 points ahead of the blue team at half-time, but then the blue team ends up winning by 3 points, then it makes sense to call that a swing of 5 points, because the blue team scored 5 more goals than the red team did in the second half. But if you survey 100 haters in a room, and 41 of them vote D and 58 vote R, and then you do another survey of the same 100 haters and find that 70 vote D and 30 vote R, does it make sense to call that a 57-vote swing, as opposed to a 28- or 29-point swing? If it does, then you're double-counting every changed vote. By this understanding, it is even possible to have a "swing" that exceeds the number of voters, say if the first survey results in 80 D and 20 R votes, and the second survey results in 20 D and 80 R votes, that would be a swing from a 60-vote D lead to a 60-vote R lead, for a total of 120 votes.
V & Z respond: Actually, it is appropriate to double-count votes in this case, because a Trump voter, for example, can become a non-voter, or they can become a Biden voter. If 1% of Trump voters from 2016 stay home in 2020, that's a swing of 1%. If 1% of Trump voters from 2016 vote for Biden, that is -1% for Trump and +1% for Biden, which is a 2% swing.
G.W. in Oxnard, CA, writes: You wrote: "How much will a general election electorate, particularly one where each voter is armed with a mail-in ballot, change things?
Ballots were mailed to all the registered voters in CA-25 for the special election with a postage-paid envelope. The election board did decide to open some polling places for Election Day a few days before the date. Republicans decried this as an effort to steal the election, because most of the ballots returned up to that point were from voters registered Republican. The end result of CA-25 may not be a useful indicator of the general election, but it does show that all-mail-in elections may not be as disastrous for Republicans as some had supposed, and that Republicans may even benefit from all-mail-in elections in some cases. There may be lessons learned for both sides from CA-25 to apply to the general election and the remaining primary elections.
S.C. in Mountain View, CA, writes: You wrote "There are four plausible runoff combos here: Lieberman-Loeffler, Lieberman-Collins, Warnock-Loeffler, and Warnock-Collins, and maybe a couple of implausible ones as well."
There is a fifth plausible runoff combo: Collins-Loeffler. This is not a special primary election where the top vote-getting Democrat and the top vote-getting Republican face each other in a special general election. It is a special general election where, if no one gets a majority, the top two vote-getters, irrespective of party, face each other in a January 5, 2021 runoff. That's why the polling data on the race at Wikipedia is not organized by party.
V & Z respond: We noted that it is a jungle primary. However, we don't think it's plausible that the Republican vote could be split in such a way that both Republican candidates outpace the top Democratic candidate.
A.S. in Johnstown, PA, writes: I do think that an organized Republican-led effort to defeat Donald Trump can move the needle. I can imagine that there are folks out there who might be motivated to get out there and actually vote for Bide, who might've otherwise stayed home had these groups not done some sort of outreach effort.
Perhaps these folks could get mailers/phone calls/materials to disenchanted Republicans arguing that "Biden is better for conservative principles, here's some policies he's done that reflect that. Here are some things that Trump has definitely done that aren't in line with our traditional Republican beliefs." Something like that might motivate these folks to vote rather than stay home. "Get Trump out for a more traditional politician and try again in four years."
These folks not voting at all hurt Trump as it reduces his numbers. These folks voting for Biden hurt Trump even more because they reduce his numbers and increase Biden's.
A.H. in Dayton, OH, writes: Your item entitled "Biden Campaign Working on Republican Outreach" got me to thinking. Well, to be more accurate, I should say "fantasizing."
Gov. Mike DeWine (R-OH) is popular not just with most Republicans but also many moderate (and even some lefty) Democrats thanks to his handling of COVID-19. He is only unpopular with the far right, and even they tend to aim their disdain more at Dr. Amy Acton than DeWine himself. This I put down to her being a Democrat, a scientist, Jewish, and a woman in a position of authority, all of which are right-wing bugaboos.
Anyway, if (and it's a mighty big "if") Joe Biden were to get DeWine's support, that should scare Trump "bigly", as it would likely secure Ohio for Biden. However, I just can't see DeWine doing it. He has been masterful in his diplomatic handling of all things Trump, not exactly embracing him, but carefully avoiding provoking him. Supporting Biden while Ohio still needs assistance from the Trump administration to fight the health and economic impacts of COVID-19 would not be in character. This won't happen unless there's already been a bad break with Trump and DeWine sees no other way to help Ohio (and himself).
John Kasich, Ohio's former governor, who won Ohio's primary in 2016, remains popular with all but the most extremist of extreme Trump supporters. If Biden were to get his support, that would be less of a big deal but still could have an impact on the outcome of the election in Ohio, so Trump should be concerned, if to a lesser extent.
Now, if Biden could get both of their support—again, mostly dependent on getting DeWine because if he can get him, Kasich would basically be a given—Ohio would be all but lost for Trump.
S.Z. in New Haven, CT, writes: Could not Gov. Roy Cooper (D-NC) split the difference by allowing the GOP National Committee to do whatever it wants about its National Convention, but ordering closure of all restaurants, bars, etc., whenever a major event is in town? This would show respect for the rights of freedom-loving political parties but also safeguard the good people of Charlotte during and after the Suicide Party's suicide party.
L.E. in Santa Barbara, CA, writes: As much as you dislike conspiracy theories, since we cannot attend (Z)'s class on these phenomena, it might be helpful for the readers of your site to take time to read "Welcome to Shadowland" from The Atlantic.
This is a new series published this week, and all of the articles have been very informative. They have provided historical perspective, as well as helping me understand the psychology behind my own mild fascination in looking at such claims. Additionally, it also helped me realize how some former colleagues followed conspiracy theories as long ago as the 2008 stock market crash. And until I read this series, I had forgotten how my grandparents (who lived in San Clemente and volunteered at the "Western White House" for then-president Nixon) made many wild claims about the Trilateral Commission.
M.S. in Annapolis, MD, writes: From your description of Obamagate, I gather that you do not read many right-wing sites, where the subject has been discussed in great depth. For an example, read this article on ZeroHedge. Briefly, the alleged crime is that Obama used NSA's FISA queries to investigate Republican presidential candidates, including Trump, and made the results available to contractors, supposedly working for Democratic campaigns. The article goes into some detail about the event timeline, alleged cover-ups, and the available evidence.
V & Z respond: We do peruse right-wing sites. And our points (supported by the links in that item) were that the story keeps changing, and that it's vastly too convoluted to actually hang together.
S.C. in Minneapolis, MN, writes: Historically, Minnesota has not been a reliably Blue state. From 1858 to 1928, Minnesota voted 17 consecutive times for the Republican candidate for President. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman were the first Democratic Presidential candidates who won Minnesota's electoral votes. In 1960, John F. Kennedy won Minnesota, but only by 22,000 votes out of over 1.5 million cast. From 1964 through 1984, the presence of favorite sons Humphrey and Mondale on the national ticket made Democratic victories likely. Since 1988, Democrats have won Minnesota by margins of 7% (Dukakis), 11% and 16% (Clinton), 3% (Gore), 3% (Kerry), 10% and 8% (Obama), and 1.5% (the other Clinton).
Neither has Minnesota been reliably blue on a local level. From 1858 to 1928, Minnesota elected only 3 Democratic Governors for a total of 7 years, versus 21 Republicans. After the merger of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party with the Democratic Party in 1944, the DFL won their first Governorship in 1954. Since then the DFL has elected a total of six Governors versus five for the GOP and one Independent. The Democratic Party must not take Minnesota for granted!
V & Z respond: Nobody claims that Minnesota has always been blue. The assertion is that Minnesota has consistently been left-leaning, which means that it was a red state in the years when the Republican Party was the more liberal one. And note that description applies post-1950 labels (red state/blue state) to pre-1950 politics.
P.M. in Currituck, NC, writes: As a proud native-born Pennsylvanian, I would ask that you refrain from referring to my birth state as "Midwest." It is really grating to see Pennsylvania characterized as such. The voters that Biden are trying to win in Pennsylvania are folks like me: we work(ed) at blue collar jobs, are proud of our accomplishments, and we have little interest in some issues that are cherished by certain wings of the Democratic party (transgender rights, as an example). Part of the reason why many people like me voted in 2016 for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton is because the Democratic party failed to recognize what was important to us. Lumping in Pennsylvania as part of the Midwest is a (very minor) example of not seeing something the way we do. Biden was born in neighboring Lackawanna County, and he also would never refer to his native city of Scranton as "Midwest".
C.M. in Spring Brook, PA, writes: Please stop referring to Pennsylvania as part of the Midwest. I grew up in rural Northeast PA, outside Scranton. I've lived in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and I've spent 23 years of my life in PA. (We almost always refer to it that way, pronounced "Pea Ei.") I've also lived in Upstate New York, Arizona, and California, which helps put PA in context. I've spent plenty of time in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota for work and for fun. I have close friends from Michigan, and less close friends from Wisconsin. So I am presumptuous enough to claim to have some understanding of the Midwest, at least enough to know that we are not part of it.
It might be tempting to think that folks in Western PA may be close to Midwestern, but I've never encountered a Yinzer who thought of themselves that way. Most Pittsburghers despise Ohio (especially Cleveland, of course), and feel more of a cultural connection to West Virginia. I think we can all agree that West Virginia is not Midwestern, so we shouldn't conceive of Western PA that way either. And as far as I can ascertain, the feeling is mutual. I submit a piece of anecdotal evidence, my former long-term girlfriend from Minnesota who was insulted by the idea that some people might even hypothetically consider Western PA part of the Midwest.
I understand the need to have a shorthand to lump together Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin (and occasionally Minnesota and/or Ohio) when talking about politics, especially in reference to the 2016 election. I have a proposal for a term that does the job just as well and may even prove more flexible for the future: the Rust Belt. We do not object to having this in common with most places in the Midwest, as well as most of Upstate New York and parts of New England and the Mid-Atlantic.
I understand PA is a difficult place to categorize. We are indeed the Keystone State, the central point bonding disparate regions of the country. But a different angle to look at that is that we aren't exactly like our neighbors. We are a gradient between the Midwest and the East Coast, but none of them really wants to associate with us. As is the new motto of the City of Brotherly Love (with thanks to Jason Kelce for the best Super Bowl speech in history), no one likes us, and we don't care.
Ok, we do care a little bit.
V & Z respond: We have no problem with the Rust Belt suggestion, but we are confused about the Jason Kelce point. He never played for the Packers, as far as we can tell.
E.W. in Skaneateles, NY, writes: All of this talk about certain states' political leanings reminded me of an excellent series of political reports that I wanted to draw your attention to. The website 270towin.com is publishing a whole series of them on all 50 states plus DC ahead of this November's election. They are starting with the least-contested states and moving toward the most-contested states. They have not covered Minnesota, Indiana, or New Hampshire yet, but they have covered Vermont. I couldn't find a link to the overall list of reports, but they do have a clickable map at the bottom that shows all of the previous ones.
Hope you and your readers find them interesting!
The Third Way
D.T. in San Jose, CA, writes: In this week's Q&A, you described different scenarios in which a third-party candidate might influence the outcome of an election. I'd like to suggest an additional scenario for that list: downticket impact on other races.
I theorize that the presence of a third-party candidate may encourage participation of voters who are unhappy with their party's choice of candidates. While casting a "protest" vote in one race, these voters may otherwise vote the party line for other offices.
As an extreme example, consider Utah in 2016. Republican Evan McMullin, running as an independent, got 243,690 votes, or about half as many as the official Republican candidate, Donald Trump (515,231 votes). Clearly a significant number of Utah Republicans were dissatisfied with Donald Trump as their candidate. Without McMullin as an option, some of those voters would have begrudgingly voted for Trump, others would have voted for Clinton, or would have left the presidential race blank. And some number of those McMullin voters would have, instead, stayed home on Election Day.
Were there any downticket races where a Republican mayor, state representative, or city councilman won by a margin smaller than the number of McMullin voters in their district? If so, then it is at least plausible that the presence of a non-Trump third party may have boosted turnout enough to impact other races.
J.E. in New York, New York, writes: I saw that, in this week's mailbag, you mentioned Al Gore and George Bush (election of 2000) as one case where a third party might have made a difference. As usual, you mentioned Florida. But there was another state where Nader made a difference—a large one that would have flipped the election to Gore. The state is New Hampshire, where Nader got 3.9% of the vote:
Candidate Votes George W. Bush 273,559 Al Gore 266,348 Ralph Nader 22,198
You can see here that, assuming the majority of Nader's vote would have gone to the Democrat, Gore would have carried New Hampshire. If that had happened, Florida would not have mattered, since that would have given Gore 270 electoral votes and Bush 267.
Another interesting point is that Gore did not carry his home state of Tennessee, despite having won statewide election there before. Had Gore carried Tennessee, neither Florida nor New Hampshire would have mattered.
P.M. in Albany, CA, writes: I object to your biased treatment of Ken Cuccinelli's tweet about section 191203 of the HEROES Act.
First, you soften up your readers by writing about the mistreatment of 19th-century Chinese immigrant workers—who, by the way, arrived legally and were working here legally. Then you introduce the "angry" tweet with the description that it's "a pretty clear sign of desperation." After the tweet, you list "The major immigration-related things the bill would do" and note that "only one element of the bill deals directly with undocumented immigrants." Yes, and that is the only part that Ken Cuccinnelli's tweet is about! It doesn't matter how "nuanced" the other immigration-related things in the bill are, because he's not talking about them in this tweet.
You are correct that section 191203 would give legal employment authorization to all foreigners who do not have work permits, but are nevertheless "engaged in essential critical infrastructure labor or services in the United States" (as long as they started working by January 27). Employers would also be made exempt from penalties for hiring such foreign workers. But what are "essential critical infrastructure labor or services"? You name "first responders, health workers, and farm and food processing employees," but the full list includes employees of grocery stores, restaurants, convenience stores, gas stations, funeral homes, banks, airlines and airports; laundry workers, security guards, IT workers, gardeners, construction workers, bus drivers, and many others.
As I'm sure you've noticed, in the past couple of months, millions of jobs like these have been lost by American citizens as well as others who are authorized to work in the U.S. By your account, section 191203 is essentially saying "if we don't have enough American citizens to keep the country running in this time of crisis, then we are willing to utilize whatever labor we do have." Labor is certainly not in short supply at the moment, with the official unemployment rate being the highest it's been in 80 years. I might be inclined to agree with your suggestion that "Americans should be grateful these folks [foreigners without proper work permits] are willing to do jobs that have become both more essential and more dangerous due to COVID-19," were it not for the fact that I know there are plenty of unemployed Americans who are actively seeking these same jobs.
V & Z respond: Note that many of the Chinese who were scapegoated were, in fact, in the country illegally, or were working in jobs legally forbidden to them, or both. This is covered in the last three chapters of the Saxton book we referenced.
B.B. in Panama City Beach, FL, writes: Doing some genealogy this week, I came across this discussion of American attitudes toward Polish immigrants:Polish immigrants congregated together partly out of camaraderie but also out of fear. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many native-born Americans feared outsiders. Some of these people objected to the immigrants' religious and cultural beliefs, while others believed that the foreigners would corrupt the morals of United States citizens. These people also contended that the quality of life within the United States would decline, as there were not enough jobs to employ the millions of people migrating to America. Many native-born Americans hoped either to limit immigration or to force foreigners to convert to American customs and beliefs. The leaders of this movement were the Progressives of the late 1800s and the early 1900s. To accomplish their goals, the Progressives implemented numerous reforms, including settlement houses, which taught foreigners American practices. The Progressives also called for laws that would either limit or ban the cultural practices of recently arrived immigrants. It would take several generations before the immigrants became truly accepted by the vast majority of white (sic) Ohioans."
I was surprised to note how previous generations' beliefs were so strikingly similar to those today (growing up, I had always assumed that those of us of Polish descent were "Americans"). I had known that other groups, such as Irish, were discriminated against, but I didn't know the arguments against them were the same. The only difference I can see is that today, we spend no effort assimilating "the other."
D.S. in Wellington, New Zealand, writes: No more asylum seekers allowed in due to virus risk? Bogus. The solution is quite simple: "Anyone seeking, and being accepted for, asylum is required upon entry/admission to the US, to go into supervised quarantine for 14, 21, or 28 days (based on CDC and WHO recommendations at the time), and test negative twice in the last few days of quarantine."
Of course, this is simple and would remove all risk of incoming infections. So it will not be done, because disease prevention is not the actual goal.
For that matter, anyone entering the U.S. from abroad should be self-quarantining for 14 days, but that has not been done either. In New Zealand, currently with borders closed to all but returning Kiwis, all returnees go into 14 days of solitude at an airport hotel, at government expense. It works.
Meet the New Left...Same as the Old Left?
J.P. in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, writes: I appreciated the link from your item "Will Young Progressives Back Biden?" to the article from The Nation that contained the letter from some older 60s radicals, entitled "To the New New Left from the Old New Left."
I'm from the same era as those folks, having "come of age" in the late 60's and early 70s, an original Chicago hippie (we mostly called ourselves "freaks" back then, rather than hippies). The first election I could vote in—just two months after my 21st birthday—was the '72 Nixon-McGovern election, in which McGovern (a progressive) only won one state, Massachusetts, plus DC.
During that period, a lot of us were moving to the progressive capitals of our peaceful "so-called" revolution—Berkeley, Boulder, Antioch, Ann Arbor and other university towns where our views were shared and we weren't being denigrated as "longhairs" and other less-user-friendly terms. I was one of them, moving out from Chicago with my wife to Boulder in 1974, still believing in a purist approach to political idealism, looking down my nose at "compromise." Boulder was the perfect place for young hippie couples—progressive, scenic, university town, young, environmentally-aware, racial- and gender-progressive.
That time of protests, the keystone of which was US presence in Vietnam, was the only period of my lifetime that I saw a true landslide of protest actually have a life-altering effect on the attitudes of an entire nation, and this in a relatively condensed timeframe. Issues such as environmental protection, women's rights, gay rights, racial equality and other basic issues which, at the time, were considered progressive, were pushed into the spotlight.
Sadly, I don't really think I've seen a true "revolution of thought" that crossed so many demographic boundaries since that time. We've seen seminal changes of attitude since then with some individual issues, such as women's right to choose and gay marriage, but not to the extent of a generation of young people changing how a groundswell of people from diverse backgrounds and ideologies—not just in the US, but worldwide—viewed a whole slate of progressive issues.
Now pushing 70, I can echo the thoughts of the "Old New Left" to the "New New Left," young progressive millennials that share the ideology that I've held dear for half a century. I had such high hopes during the 60's, the decade that I thought had changed our attitudes forever. But societal attitudes swing like a pendulum over time. How else can we explain a George W. Bush followed by a Barack Obama followed by a Donald Trump?
Maybe it sounds compromising, but to institute real change, we must be in a position to make the changes that are important to us, the planet, and, above all, our children. We can't sit at home and sulk because Bernie or Ralph didn't get the Democratic nomination. When considering my purity protest vote, I'll never in my life have to think any further back than 2000 when Gore lost Florida by 360-some votes and how Ralph Nader took almost all of his several thousand votes from Gore and probably none from Bush, subjecting us to eight years of a Bush administration. And worst of all, the Bush and Reagan years, and even to some extent, the Nixon years, now seem like the good old days compared to the cesspool which seems to be our new home.
Young progressive voters, please don't sit at home or vote for someone else that has no chance of winning just to make a statement, like I did. Not if you're in a swing state. And remember what (V) and (Z) have stressed for years. That there are other elections that matter—Senate, House, Governor, state legislatures (who draw congressional district boundaries every ten years). When you consider down-ballot races, I see why (V) and (Z) put the emphasis now on not sitting at home and sulking because Bernie (or Jill or Ralph or whoever else was a "pure" progressive) would have been our perfect choice, but didn't get it because the establishment Democrats rigged it.
We have to play the long game. The Republicans have shown no compunctions against trying to repress your vote to keep themselves in power, even though their numbers place them further and further into the true minority every election cycle.
We need trifectas, wherever they can be gained. We need to defeat gerrymandering state legislatures (from either side) and governors to be sure that we will be fairly and proportionally represented. We need 50 or 51 Senators to stop the Mitch McConnells of the world from packing the courts with partisan hacks for another generation. Maybe in the Presidential ballot in your state, your candidate is either a shoo-in or doesn't have a prayer. But there are other races even in red states, where some candidates who share your core values have real chances.
If you're in a Presidential swing state, Vote! If you're not, vote anyway! It seems like every election gets billed as the most important election of your lifetime. This one may very well be.
G.H. in Chicago, IL, writes: Let me preface this by saying I have no intention of voting for anybody but Biden.
Anyhow, there is a very good reason why most students in SDS didn't vote for Hubert Humphrey in 1968: They couldn't vote! Most college students at that time were under 21, the minimum voting age in most states. I didn't vote until I was 22 because I couldn't when I was 18 and couldn't when I was 20. Whether I would have voted for Humphrey is another matter.
SDS had a Progressive Labor faction, which was indeed anti-capitalist, and a nutty "Weather" faction that probably was too. I admit to having participated in SDS as a member of neither of those factions. The real focus of dissent was something called the war in Vietnam: Humphrey and Nixon both supported it; the third choice was George Wallace! All others accounted for 1/3 of 1 percent of the national vote, and you're suggesting that votes for Eldridge Cleaver cost Humphrey the election?
The main vote-getter in the Democratic primaries was Senator Eugene McCarthy, an anti-war candidate from Humphrey's own state. His campaign workers were tear-gassed and beaten in their hotel rooms during the convention; his delegates and family were harassed and manhandled on the convention floor. Humphrey offered no apology, much less expressing any outrage over this. He was every bit as cowed by LBJ as today's Republicans are by DJT.
There was also this thing called the Selective Service System, aka the Draft that you had to register for within 10 days of your 18th birthday, even though you couldn't vote. You were expected to fight in that war, or go to federal prison, whether you supported it or not. Try telling someone in that predicament: "Well yes, but Humphrey is better than Nixon in so many other respects." If you were born in 1962, gentlemen, you never experienced this. Don't preach.
V & Z respond: We are happy to have your perspective but, as regards the site, we must note that we never argued that Eldridge Cleaver affected the outcome in 1968, and also that one of us (V) was most certainly alive in 1962. As to the historical narrative, it may be correct to say that Nixon and Humphrey were pro-war at the start of 1968, but they changed their tunes after the Tet Offensive and other reverses, such that the Democratic platform of that year declared "Our most urgent task in Southeast Asia is to end the war in Vietnam" and the Republican platform said "We pledge a program for peace in Vietnam."
B.T. in Cove, UT, writes: You wrote: "The reason the DSA and Jacobin will not back Biden is the same reason the Students for a Democratic Society did not back Humphrey in 1968, despite his years of being one of the most progressive politicians in America: doctrinal purity."
That is a flat out lie right there.
- Biden isn't even vaguely progressive. Policy-wise he is on the far right of the Democratic party. Almost to the point of being a Republican, really. Historically, he was known for pushing policies farther to the right than Ronald Reagan and voted against Social Security multiple times!
- Doctrinal purity has nothing to do with it. The guy flat-out isn't going to do anything actual Leftists desire. He can make all the campaign promises he wants to the contrary of his prior voting record but its actions that count here, not words.
- He is probably a rapey scumbag. Definitely did some unsavory things to women back in the day and clearly isn't sorry about it in the least. Why would you expect Lefties to vote for someone like that?
- The DSA and Jacobin types want and back fairly Leftist policies so why in the world should they get behind someone like Biden? It'd be like expecting Republicans to vote for Sanders, it's not happening because he wouldn't do what they want.
- The lefty portion of the Democratic party has been told to shut up and vote the party line over and over and over again and has gotten nothing but screwed for quite a while now. Years at least. Did you really think there would never be any sort of fallout from that?
There are plenty of other things to consider or address here but this is just what immediately comes to mind reading your article. No one, including me, is bias free but at least you can try to be honest about what you put out there.
D.A. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: I was surprised to see a section on May 14 devoted to the electoral leanings of the readers of The Nation and Jacobin. Do those folks really matter? My sense is that they are concentrated in New York, New England, and the West Coast, all of which will be deep blue in any case. Is there some subset of them, located perhaps in Madison or Austin, that could tip the balance in Wisconsin or Texas? Seems unlikely, but maybe (V) or (Z) knows better. The Democratic Socialists of America is another story. Organizationally, it declined to back Biden but rather is leaving that to its members to decide. For whatever it's worth, the DSA activists I know are working hard for Joe Biden.
V & Z respond: We can make no claim as to what groups those publications do, or do not, speak for. With that item, and with many of the items we run (especially on Sundays), we thought it was an interesting perspective worth bringing to readers' attention.
K.B. in Dallas, TX, writes: As R.M.S. in Lebanon, CT, points out, many Americans do have a bias against science.
On the subject of Creationism, however, there may need to be further thought. If we step back a bit and look at the events in the order they appear in the Bible, it very closely aligns with evolution. And if you believe God created the universe, then probably a million of our years is like a day to him, so no biggie there. That said, telling a people that God did X or Y or Z in a million years really is not gonna work. And actually, that should be billions and not millions, but folks tend to not understand big numbers.
Your ultimate assessment is correct, though. People are going to think how they think, and it is very hard to change that. Sometimes even contrary evidence strengthens the bias. This is part of confirmation bias and is largely what you were communicating in your response.
C.C. in Nashville, TN, writes: The question from R.M.S. rankled me a bit, namely the presumption that there is a choice between believing in science and believing in a creator. That's a false choice. Not every "creationist" believes in the literal creation story or believes that the earth is only 6,000 years old. And let's be clear—believing in "the Big Bang" is just as major a leap of faith as believing that an omniscient being created everything. Is believing in a creator crazier than believing that the universe created itself out of nothing? Think about that. Where and how did the physical elements that existed before the Big Bang originate? Sorry, nobody has answered that question. I can believe that we are in a man-made climate crisis and I can believe that the age of the earth is hundreds of millions of years old. I can believe in vaccines and the advice of medical doctors. I can believe in some form of evolution, even if I don't think the evidence supports humans originating from single-cell organisms. And I also think that "creationism" is less far-fetched than life originating miraculously from nothing. By the way, "Christian" fundamentalists drive me crazy also.
V & Z respond: The evidence of God's existence and the evidence in support of the Big Bang are very different kinds of evidence, and are not comparable. That said, the Big Bang is not merely a matter of faith; there is hard evidence in support of the theory. Further, scientists do have an answer as to what came before the Big Bang; it's the initial singularity.
J.C. in Binan, Laguna, Philippines, writes: In response to R.M.S., you wrote, "People who insist on creationism want to believe there is something beyond this life, and have become invested in a cosmology that tells them there is. Once they question one element of that cosmology, the whole thing is potentially thrown into doubt."
I'd like to suggest a slightly different take. As a high school biology teacher who's twice now had to leave his position because the school was against the teaching of evolution, I take this issue very seriously. I spend a significant part of my teaching on the subject focused on helping students understand that there are alternative perspectives that don't require them giving up their beliefs. It is quite easy to have a metaphysical cosmology—even a Christian one—and yet to still fully embrace evolution. In my opinion, besides the obvious scientific error, there is also a misreading of the texts, seeking to see in them a literal interpretation that was never intended by the author(s). And I think this is the crux of the matter—fundamentalists have a cosmology that there is something beyond life, but also that says the world is a safer place when we have absolute knowledge from a literal interpretation of texts. They're right of course. It is a safer place. But not as fun. Not as interesting. And not as truthful. And, in the end, when you have your metaphysics built on such sand, when the literal interpretation is removed as an option, the whole thing is indeed potentially thrown into doubt.
R.T. in Arlington, TX, writes: I was going to leave a premise in this question alone until it was repeated in the reply. But bad facts lead to bad analysis and then bad conclusions.
The data for "creationists" cited in the question was assumed to mean what would be more accurately called "young earth creationists," which represent a minority view within most Judeo-Christian faith communities. There are many more, including myself, who reconcile the evidence of evolutionary processes. As a matter of logic, the existence of evolution processes does not disprove that a higher power is guiding the process. Belief in a higher power is not a sign of poor intelligence, nor is atheism a sign that one cannot have faith.
V & Z respond: We looked into this before printing that item, to make sure we did not misrepresent the data. According to several polls we looked at, like this one, about 40% of Americans take a young-earth perspective, while another 30% take an evolution-guided-by-God view. At very least, it was clear that the young-earth, Bible-as-literal-truth view is not just a small minority.
J.V. in Sámara, Costa Rica, writes: R.M.S. made some observations about people rejecting science. As I recall back in the 60's and 70's, the U.S. was really worried about those Ruskies with their A-bombs and the space race, etc. At that time the Dept of Defense dumped a huge amount of money into the U.S. education system. Math, chemistry, and physics were emphasized.
And we lurned sciunce real good.
The problem is that once we landed on the moon it all came to a halt.
V & Z respond: Maybe if the Russians become a threat to the U.S. democracy again. Oh, wait...
P.S. in Portland, ME, writes: The question on why so many refuse to believe in science and facts reminded me once again of my favorite line from the movie American Beauty: "Never doubt the power of denial." If you are right and the other person is wrong, and they are neither evil (lying) nor stupid (just not smart enough to understand the truth), then denial is the only reasonable explanation. In the answer, you wrote that "we are not in the persuasion business." However, I suspect many of your readers (like me) are finding themselves in some pretty heated discussions where they are indeed trying to be persuasive. I have found that it is helpful to recognize that the other person has to be in a state of denial.
Also, something my mother always said to me comes to mind: "You cannot help how you feel, only what you do about it." Perhaps the first step in changing someone's mind is recognizing that they can't help how they feel either.
M.H. in Auckland, New Zealand, writes: As regards the question from L.M.S. in Harbin, China, about vaccines that did more harm than good, there is a phenomenon called antigen dependent enhancement (ADE) in which antibodies produced by the immune system act as receptors to which a virus can bind and then use to infect a cell. It has been documented with several types of virus including the coronaviruses that cause SARS and MERS. Wikipedia has a good write-up on it.
Vaccine development programs have run into this problem before (see the sections on Dengue and FIV), so vaccine developers and FDA regulators are definitely looking out for it. The hope is that with over 70 programs in development, one of them might avoid this, along with the myriad other problems that can bring a project to ruin. There is a well-written overview of the development process from an industry expert at my other favorite blog.
It is also true that injecting any antigen from a pathogen can cause a violent immune response that can cause far more harm than good; however, such antigens are quickly identified in the pre-clinical or early clinical stages of development and further trials are halted. Since those projects never get approved by the FDA, it's wrong to call them vaccines. The difference between a "drug" and a "random bit of chemical matter" is FDA approval which, as you rightly point out, requires a whole bunch of data on safety and efficacy. That body of evidence gives us confidence that while adverse events might still occur, they should at least be rare.
S.C. in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada writes: I spent years not understanding how well educated people could be anti-vaccine; then I read a paper on nature vs. nurture and autism, and I finally understood.
Consider a mother with an autistic child. The cause of the autism will potentially be either her genes or her nurture. We can explain that as chance but that is a difficult thing to accept, especially for a caring and conscientious mother!
Instead, the cause is that damn vaccine! Not my fault at all.
I can see how many mothers (and their friends and sympathizers) are ardent anti-vaxxers.
E.H. in Dublin, Ireland, writes: Allow me to recommend a book by Paul Offit, Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure, and an excellent podcast with him entitled "Vaccines DO NOT Cause Autism."
R.M. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: A couple of comments about your item on Michael Flynn. First, there was no underlying crime in connection with the FBI interviewing Flynn regarding his communications with the Russian ambassador; instead, it was part of the FBI's counter-intelligence investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Flynn did plead to facts that would support a conviction under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, but that was for his relationship with Turkey, not Russia. That said, if his plea deal is vacated, if the court then dismisses the case without prejudice, and there is regime change at DOJ, Flynn could still be prosecuted for both crimes in 2021 before the statute of limitations runs out.
Second, I don't think the Sineneng-Smith case is on point. There, a court of appeals reached out and opined on an issue neither party had raised before. That's different than the DOJ motion to dismiss the Flynn case. All the issues in the case have been raised before (indeed, by Flynn's own, repeated guilty pleas), and the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure require the court's permission to drop a case at this stage. That's quite a different posture than Sineneng-Smith.
T.H.W. in Marlboro, VT, writes: I am not a lawyer, but I have read Judge Emmet Sullivan's Order with regard to the Dept. of Justice motion to dismiss the charges against Michael Flynn. I do not think he is soliciting amicus curiae briefs, as several news outlets, and your item, suggested. Rather, I believe that he is responding to a request from an interested party to submit such a brief, and his order lays out, with some skepticism, the circumstances in which a court may or may not entertain such briefs.
G.A. in Berkeley, CA, writes: The Supreme Court just heard oral arguments about whether Trump's tax returns can be kept secret, despite existing law and state and federal subpoenas. The Republican court majority can easily present itself as "neutral" and yet help Trump. The court majority can simply issue an opinion imposing a list of criteria for "balancing" the need for the subpoenaed information against the burden on a sitting president. The Supreme Court would then send the case(s) back to a lower court for application of the newly concocted balancing criteria. If a lower court "balanced" in favor of enforcing a particular subpoena for Trump's tax returns, Trump would again appeal, claiming improper application of the criteria. The game could continue well into Trump's second term.
J.W. in Indianapolis, IN, writes: You wrote: "In short, the entire concept that everyone is subject to the law, even the president, is on trial tomorrow. And it will be rather hard for the five conservative justices to rule in Trump's favor, as that would loudly proclaim that they are just hatchet men for the Republican Party."
At least four of them are just hatchet men for the Republican Party. At least three of them don't really even bother to pretend otherwise. Being a partisan hack is a prerequisite for being appointed to the Supreme Court by a Republican. If they appoint someone who is intellectually honest, they run the risk of another David Souter or John Paul Stevens.
R.W. in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, writes: You have cited Chief Justice John Roberts' assertion that he's just "calling balls and strikes" on a number of occasions. I would agree with him, but only because, philosophically speaking, there are three kinds of umpires:
- "I calls 'em as they are!"
- "I calls 'em as I sees 'em!"
- "They ain't nothin' 'til I calls 'em!"
Roberts is the third kind of umpire.
J.G. in Holland, MI, writes: I found myself sitting here in horror after reading your item entitled "Betting Markets Like Trump,: until I decided to google what the markets were saying back in May of 2016. To my great relief, I read that the bookies were giving Clinton a nearly 70% chance of winning. Look up the odds on November 1, 2016, and you read that she was given an over 80% chance and we all know what happened there!
V & Z respond: Actually, that pretty much corresponds with the final polls of 2016. Remember, a 70% chance of winning for the favorite means that the underdog will win about one out of three.
J.L. in Paterson, NJ, writes: I agree with your list of possibilities explaining the discrepancies between betting-market odds and current polling, a list that focuses on reasons to doubt the bettors. I'd add, however, that the bettors may be rationally taking account of factors not captured by the polls. Obvious possibilities are voter suppression, which probably swung Michigan from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump, and the manipulation of electronic voting systems, which may or may not have occurred in the past and which many IT experts (including the Votemaster) have warned about.
Just because someone tells a pollster "I plan to vote for Joe Biden" doesn't mean that person will be able to cast a vote for Biden that will be counted accurately.
S.B. in Boston, MA, writes: You missed a possible (but perhaps unlikely) bullet point in your list of reasons that Donald Trump is ahead of Joe Biden in the betting markets: A Democrat may decide to place a large bet that Trump will win, thereby hedging the November election. That way, even if Biden loses, you can at least get some cash out of the deal.
M.T.E. in Seaside, CA, writes: A different explanation that I would proffer for the seeming betting market bias in favor of Donald Trump has to do with financial securities as insurance. This is how I try to manage my holdings.
Arrow-Debreu securities are expected to pay off only in specified states of the world. See this explanation, especially the peace vs. war example and the bullet point on preferences of the agent.
Given that betting restrictions would bias the markets towards non-U.S. actors, and that these actors very likely view a Trump 2020 victory even less favorably than does the Electoral-College-weighted average American poll respondent, the betting market participants could rationally be outbidding each other to be remunerated for a perceived relatively unfavorable state of the world in which Trump is victorious.
Of course my own conduct, and hence my viewpoint on this, could be criticized as being hyper-rational. In any case, if the outcome is binary, I like to view the method of wagering as: How much would I be willing to pay if I could make Biden president vs. how much would I need to be compensated for having to endure a 2nd Trump term?
The $500 limit in the IEM might work to counter the effect of vast sums being wagered to insure preferences in the other markets. Such preferences of bettors can get the markets out of line with rational expectations based purely on probabilities. The stronger the preferences and the more vast the sums, the more out of line things can get.
M.K. in London, England, writes: When I was younger, I worked for a high street bookmaker, first as a shop assistant and then as a gofer in the race room (which is the place at HQ that sets what the odds are; there were already a lot of computers in my day and there's even more now, but the human factor is still involved). I love your site, but every time you say something like "the odds are 11/10, so that means Donald Trump is rated about a 52% chance of winning," it sets my teeth on edge because there's a fundamental misunderstanding going on here of how odds are set.
As you probably know, odds are *not* set to predict how likely someone is to win. Odds are set so that the bookmaker covers their own arse and takes enough money on all possible outcomes to hedge as far as possible against all possible results and ensure the house always wins. When a lot of money is being put on, the odds will be deliberately set out of proportion (and it's often a long way out of proportion) to how much money is coming in for Outcome A because what they need to do is to encourage as many people as possible to bet on Outcome B to balance the book.
For instance, at time of writing, most bookies currently make Trump an odds-on favorite, but at GentingBet they're still offering evens for him. This is because they think they're slightly over-exposed to a Biden win, and they need to take a bit more money on Trump. Unfortunately, this sort of thing means it's really hard to make any more than the broadest inferences about how likely something is based on where the money's going. And I'd also caution you against saying "well, but at least we know that more people are betting on Trump than Biden right now."
So, it's fun to look at the odds and try to read the runes and toss the chicken bones and arrange the entrails and riddle out what they might mean; but I beg of you, please stop saying that 11/10 means the bookie thinks someone has a 52% chance of winning, or even that more people than not are betting on that person to win.
V & Z respond: Because we know that the odds don't necessarily make a real-world prediction, we try to be careful to use the word "implied," to make clear that the "meaning" derived from the odds is only indirect.
It Takes Some Balls
E.W. in Skaneateles, NY, writes: This opinion is probably going to be really unpopular and you might get some letters in response, but here goes: I think that this pandemic has exposed how utterly trivial the world of sports truly is, especially relative to the world of politics. Although I went to college at a football powerhouse and still root for a few sports teams, I follow sports the way most people follow politics and follow politics the way most people follow sports. My test of how important a line of work is comes from the hypothetical situation where every element of that line of work disappears overnight. In the case of sports, this has essentially happened—and we have all survived and figured out new ways to amuse ourselves. Contrast that to what would happen if all of the government officials and scientists suddenly vanished without a trace.
I get frustrated when I see many student-athletes at the Division III school where I work make counterproductive academic choices based on being able to play their sport. The idea that sports are even associated with colleges at all is somewhat ludicrous because one could just as easily have a team of students competing against other schools in more academic pursuits, such as technology design, or chess, or debate, or...oh wait, we do have those and no one cares!
Many of these arguments can be applied to the world of entertainment and celebrities. Of course I like movies and TV, but I also like to watch non-fiction content about science, history, nature, etc. I think our society significantly overvalues actors, directors, and other celebrities while significantly undervaluing our scientists like Dr. Fauci, save for a few exceptions such as Stephen Hawking and Neil DeGrasse Tyson (and maybe now Fauci, due to this pandemic). I totally realize that it makes me sound elitist, but I cannot stand the gossip rags in the supermarkets because I see celebrity obsession as high school lunch-table drama all over again writ large.
I prefer to read and follow developments in the worlds of politics and science because they will actually have a real world impact on both my life and society as a whole. If So-and-So gets traded to WhereverCity or the WhateverTeam beats the WhoeverTeam, that doesn't change my life in literally any way. However, if a narcissistic sociopath gets elected president or if someone invents a vaccine to cure a deadly pandemic, these are actually important occurrences worth learning about. I am, of course, not saying that we should ban sports or pop culture, just that in the end they are really unimportant. If more people cared about politics and science the way they care about sports and entertainment, we'd have a lot better society. As a species, our priorities are ridiculous and will probably get us all killed in the end. It's well past time for humanity to grow up.
Testing is not all that common in the UK, and using valuable tests for athletes is not going to be a popular thing if we keep having people dying by the thousands/week as is currently happening.
K.P. in Resort Township, MI, writes: I was shocked to learn that an independent who has voted for Bernie Sanders, and has Republican friends would be described as a "Hater." At least I take comfort that I am a smart, good-looking Packers fan.
R.C. in Andover, MA, writes: Hello. I read everything you publish on your site daily, from beginning to end, and usually find your perspective to be logical and highly-informed. But not this:We also know that lightning most certainly does strike twice sometimes, that it is possible to make an omelet without breaking some eggs, and that the New York Yankees aren't actually Satan's representative on Earth. They are merely his representative for the Eastern U.S."
As a lifelong Red Sox fan and die-hard New Englander, I must tell you that for the vast majority of us in Red Sox Nation (all of New England except for southwestern CT, and including the Canadian Maritimes), the Yankees don't represent 95% of New England in any way, shape, or form! That said, Mickey Rivers and Graig Nettles, who effectively ended Bill Lee's career as an effective pitcher by sucker-punching him and breaking his shoulder from behind, may possibly have been representatives of Satan.
V & Z respond: Oops, we completely forgot that the Dark Prince hired Bill Belichick to be His representative for the New England region. Our apologies!
R.G. in Portland, OR, writes: You wrote: "[T]he New York Yankees aren't actually Satan's representative on Earth."
Yes we are and we will burn your house down if we ever can play ball again.
V & Z respond: Uh oh, we'll have to put a third base in the front yard. Then the Yankees won't get close.
Noms de Plume
B.P. in Salt Lake City, UT, writes: Of all the options considered, Zenger was the bullseye. I might have thought (P) Paine could have been a runner up, though the homonym might have been paine-ful.
G.K. in South Bend, IN, writes: I can appreciate the cognitive dissonance in referencing a cartoonist, rather than a newspaperman. But, given (Z)'s propensity for snark, a few Nast-y comments might have been appreciated, in retrospect.
About Our Ocasional Grammar, and Speling Error's
J.U. in Farmville, VA, writes: I thought S.I. in Philadelphia's comments, about blog errors were fun to think about. It reminded me of scribal errors when copying manuscripts by hand. The study of these errors is called haplography. And as it turns out, there are common errors that occur because of the medium of transmission. For example, transposition, when a scribe would take a phrase like "The king exclaimed ominously..." and then transpose it to read: "The king ominously exclaimed..." Others are even more fascinating, such as a scribe skipping whole lines because the scribe looks up from the page and returns to copying the same word later on in the passage (thus deleting an entire part of the passage). These kinds of errors have fancy names depending on the positioning of the error compared to the original document being copied. The most common are homeo teleuton (the eye skips because of similarity at the end of a sentence) and homeo arcton (eye skips because of similarity in the beginning of a sentence).
Similarly, I imagine that there are common errors that come from the medium of computer typing, especially from those of us who essentially trained ourselves on the keyboard. For example, it seems that letter transposition is quite easy to do if you get your fingers out of sync while typing and thinking at the same time. For that matter, typing while thinking at the same time might be the most common issue that leads to typing errors. This problem can lead to word omissions, often with unfortunate results (such as forgetting "not" and negating your whole point). I hypothesize that this is what happens with homophone errors. Homophone errors may be the equivalent of a mental "muscle memory" that asserts itself while one is thinking while typing. Regardless, this surely has little, if anything, to do with ignorance.
R.C. in Des Moines, IA, writes: The question and response about how grammatical mistakes make it into your writing reminded me of something my old journalism professor in college taught me. When proofreading, try reading backwards. It slows you down and it focuses in such a way that if there's something wrong you tend to catch it.
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---The Votemaster and Zenger
May16 Saturday Q&A
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May15 House Democrats Expected to Vote on $3 Trillion COVID-19 Relief Bill Today
May15 Bright Testifies Before Congress
May15 "Obamagate" Roars Back to Life
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May12 Apparently, the Crisis Is Over
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May12 Sanders Is Done Running for President
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May11 ...And Mike Pence Isn't
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May11 Supreme Court to Hear a Case Tomorrow about Whether the President is Like a King