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      •  Saturday Q&A

Saturday Q&A

In last Saturday's Q&A, A.D. in Las Vegas challenged us to sneak a word into this week's blog postings. We further revealed that the word is 12 letters long, and has appeared only twice in the history of the site, in a letter written for one of the mailbags. We met A.D.'s challenge in one of this week's posts (Monday's through today's). If you care to guess what the word was, feel free. We'll run some of the responses tomorrow, and will also identify what the mystery word was.

Q: Who is Elizabeth MacDonough, and why is she important? K.C., Dallas, TX

A: This is the shortened version of the much longer question you sent in, so we know that you are already aware she is the Senate parliamentarian. The job (along with several assistant parliamentarians) was created in 1935 because parliamentary procedure is often very complicated, and the presiding officer may or may not know what the rules are in any particular situation. Rather than stop everything and waste everyone's time while the presiding officer figures things out, it's easier to just have an expert sitting there on the dais to help navigate whatever needs to be navigated. So, any time the Senate is in session, MacDonough or one of her staffers is on the dais with the presiding officer.

The parliamentarian is nominated by the Senate Majority Leader and is approved by the Senate. Officially, the role is advisory, and the senators are free to ignore the parliamentarian's rulings. In practice, however, this almost never happens. Overruling her might represent a "win" today, but it will inevitably result in a loss in the future, when the other side feels justified in voting to overrule her. It is the same reason that the right of the Majority Leader to control the flow of legislation is rarely challenged, even though it could be. The side who might challenge the majority leader/parliamentarian wants the status quo to remain intact until such time as it works to their benefit.

Q: I had heard that since no reconciliation bill went through the Senate last year, it might be possible to have two of them this year. Is that even true? Is that a possible place to put a 'clean' minimum wage bill?

Either way, the Democrats in the Senate could certainly put up a clean minimum wage bill to put everyone on record. Not great for Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) or Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), but it would get all the Republicans to be on record against paying hourly workers a higher wage. If the Republican brand is changing to be the party of the no-college white-male voter, could they survive the ad blitz targeting those voters in 2022 by Democrats pointing out that the blue team wanted to raise their pay and the red team stopped it ?
E.H., Washington, DC

A: While it is possible to pass multiple reconciliations in a single year, that is not because "unused" reconciliation opportunities roll over to the next year. It is because the rules on reconciliation allow one each of three types of reconciliation bills: spending, revenue, and the debt limit. Usually, however, reconciliation is done as one omnibus bill.

Passing a second reconciliation bill this year is not likely to be a path to getting a minimum wage bill done. If the parliamentarian says it's a no-go, then she says it's a no-go. Taking another bite at the apple isn't going to change that, unless the Democrats change their approach in a manner that passes muster. And if they do that, they would probably just squeeze it into an omnibus reconciliation.

There is probably some political wisdom in passing a clean minimum wage bill. Even better would be to figure out what Manchin and Sinema will go for, and then to pass a bill that has the entire Democratic caucus on board. That would make the narrative as crystal clear as is possible, and would eliminate the need to explain the filibuster to voters, as well as the counter-argument that "the bill was so liberal that even some Democrats didn't support it."

Manchin has said he does not want to abolish the filibuster, but he has never said he is against real filibusters. If the Democrats put together a stand-alone bill for a $12/hr minimum wage and then force the Republicans to actually filibuster it, meaning standing (not sitting) in the well of the Senate reading the Bible, Shakespeare, or the Alabama phone book, with no food, no drinks, and no bathroom breaks, 24/7 (potentially with the lights out and heat off at night), it is doubtful they could last even a week at this. Either the bill would pass or the video footage could be used in 2022 to great effect. This would not bring the Senate to a standstill since no one but the speaker and presiding officer would be in the chamber. Other senators could hold committee hearings and do other work during the filibuster.

Q: I suspected the "Byrd Bath" was a distinct possibility for the $15/hr minimum wage. While I get it that $7.25/hr is too low (at the company I work for, market forces have pushed wages for many positions such as cleaners to over $12/hr), I wonder if a one size fits all approach works in our diverse country where a "living wage" has a different connotation in New York and California than West Virginia or West Texas. Would a more nuanced strategy of indexing the minimum wage by region create better odds of passage of an increased minimum wage? G.T., Truro, MA

A: As soon as a minimum wage bill is passed, there are going to be a dozen lawsuits trying to strike it down. And doing it in this way, while seemingly sensible, would surely open up a line of attack based on discrimination. "The law treats states unequally" or "the law treats different citizens unequally." We don't know if that argument could be overcome.

That said, there are some aspects of military pay, like the Basic Allowance for Housing, that vary based on where a service member is stationed. Perhaps that can be some sort of model for a variable minimum wage. At very least, it might make Republican AGs less likely to sue if their suit might also challenge the money paid to soldiers.

Q: With Joe Manchin basically derailing Joe Biden's nomination of Neera Tanden and, as looks quite possible, the $15/per hour minimum wage, how long do you think Biden, et. al. can or will put up with him and what could they do about it? J.E., Boone, NC

A: They can and will accept that, inasmuch as he represents a state that went 70/30 for Donald Trump, he will have to buck his Party on some votes. Sometimes, they might offer him pork that will make left-leaning votes that he casts more salable to the folks back at home. What they will not do is shun him, or try to primary him when he's up for reelection in 2024. There is zero chance that West Virginians will elect a Democrat more liberal than Manchin. And there is only a tiny chance they will elect any Democrat who is not Manchin. If Democrats weaken Manchin, then in 2024 they will probably get either one of two billionaire coal barons (Gov. Jim Justice, R-WV, or Don Blankenship) as his replacement. Neither would ever side with them, whereas Manchin does most of the time, especially on union issues.

Q: Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) expounds the standard Republican line that if President Biden does not come to them to dicker on the COVID-19 Relief Bill, then Biden is violating his promise of unity. This despite the fact that a new Economist/YouGov poll finds 66% of Americans support the bill, while just 25% oppose it.

My liberal bent "informs" me that this is what the Republicans always do, while the Democrats typically fold or get screwed by trying to attempt bipartisanship (as I truly believe befell Barack Obama several times over; he certainly must not have practiced much law, since you don't give away the store at the start of a negotiation as he did with the ACA).

The question is, what is the historical fact? Is one side worse than the other in this hypocritical dance?
B.B., Pasadena, CA

A: At the moment, the Republicans are indeed the guiltier party. That is not inherent to the Party, per se, it is inherent to the situation they find themselves in right now. They are the minority party, which means they have to keep all factions happy in order to remain competitive in (most) elections. And there are factions within the modern GOP who have no tolerance for compromise (for example, pretty much all the Trumpeters). That leaves someone like Portman with only one viable option, politically: refuse to compromise, and then claim the other party is the guilty one.

For many years, back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the shoe was on the other foot, and it was the Democrats who refused to compromise and then pointed the finger at the Republicans. Today's Republicans and the Democrats of 120 years ago both relied on the votes of white, Southern evangelicals in order to remain nominally viable at a national level. This is not a coincidence.

Q: One of the main arguments that I see from conservatives on social media is that Democrats want transgender females to compete versus cisgender females in high school sports. I've never heard of this actually happening outside of memes I see on Facebook, nor have I ever heard a Democrat support that position. This leads me to believe that this is a pointless argument. To listen to conservatives, you'd think that boys are dressing as girls just to win a high school track meet and stare at naked teenage girls in the locker room. What exactly is the Democratic Party's position on this?

On a personal level, I can't imagine what transgendered kids go through in high school and feel terrible about them being used as this political football to drive a wedge in between two halves of society.
P.S., Arlington, TX

A: We will start by answering your question about the Democratic Party: The Party itself does not have a stated position, in terms of a policy paper or a platform plank, that addresses this particular question. However, the majority of Democratic voters favor allowing student-athletes to compete as a member of the gender they identify with. Further, the Party has broadly embraced trans equality, and certain sub-groups within the party (like the Democratic Party LGBTQ Caucus), have pushed back against bills that would force athletes to compete as a member of the gender they were assigned at birth.

As to the practical reality, you are right that this is another example of conservative talking heads and politicians finding a bugaboo to complain about and distort out of all proportion. There are very few cases of trans athletes trying to compete as a member of the gender they identify with. The examples usually cited (most famously Caster Semenya) are not trans. They are actually folks who were born as female and identify as female, but are deemed to be too "male" for them to compete fairly.

It is not surprising that conservatives have settled on this particular bugaboo. It involves one of the few situations in the U.S. where gender roles are still rigidly and legally maintained. It also involves, in theory, offenses against people's children, which thus has the potential to get parents' blood boiling. At the same time, trans athletes are rare enough that most people who might be angered by their participation will never actually get to know a trans athlete. As we know, when people actually get to know a person of color, they get less racist. When they actually get to know an immigrant, they become less xenophobic. When they actually get to know an LGBTQ person, they become less homophobic. Trans athletes are rare to the point that this dynamic generally won't come into play (especially because many trans high school kids who might be tempted to out themselves would be at risk of ostracism or much worse).

We are reminded of the latest bugaboo that has been in the news today. The AP misreported that "Mr. Potato Head" is going to become just "Potato Head." In fact, it's the product line that is being renamed, since Hasbro intends to expand it to include pets and things like that. You will still be able to buy a Mr. Potato Head or a Mrs. Potato Head. Oh, and as you may have noted, the kits come with detachable glasses and hair and mustaches and things like that, but they do not come with penises or vaginas.

Anyhow, conservative talking heads went nuts over the (misunderstood) AP story. For example, noted transphobe and windbag Ben Shapiro thought it would be funny to wonder what happens if Mr. Potato Head decides he identifies as a squash. Benny is quite impressed with his own wit. He's the only one, though.

Q: I thought repealing the Trump Tax bill (or at least the benefits to the very rich) was a major campaign goal of the Democrats. Yet I hear nothing about it in connection with the budget reconciliation bill, even though now Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is exploring a tax on non-$15/hr. minimum wage employers. Do you have any thoughts on why no one is even talking about repealing the Trump Tax bill now? R.E.M., Brooklyn, N.Y.

A: The immediate reason is that the pandemic and the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 bill have introduced enough uncertainty into the economy without adding any further boat-rocking. So, the Biden Administration says they don't even want to think about this until COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror.

The longer-term problem is that Biden and the Democrats want to retain some of the popular aspects of the tax bill while getting rid of the unpopular aspects. For example, some of the provisions that help poorer Americans are set to expire in 2025, and the blue team would like to figure out a way to save those. Similarly, they want to make sure corporations pay up without encouraging them to move operations overseas. That probably means paring back the Trump giveaway, but not killing it entirely.

Q: I wrote in a letter that if the Republicans acquitted Donald Trump, which of course they did, it would haunt them in the form of hopeless party division, as many Republicans—at least the ones that have not succumbed to the Trump cult mentality—would not now support him even if they did in the past. And, primary challenges from nutty Trumpy candidates (e.g., Marjorie Taylor Greene) would also splinter the GOP in Senate and House races for 2022 and 2024. I submit that this party division consigns them to the sidelines for the next few cycles.

What's the best way to gauge this division? Thinking only of Trump, I've seen polls that a majority of Republicans would support him in 2024 (if he escapes imprisonment, and even if not, who knows), yesterday you wrote that Yertle will support him if he is the nominee, but we've also seen that large numbers of folks are exiting the GOP. Could the GOP ever rally enough around Trump again to win in 2024? Or, do you agree with my theory that the GOP is toast, and what is the best data available to test this theory?
B.H., Westborough, MA

A: We basically accept your argument. On a national level, the GOP is going to have a hard time winning elections. In fact, the situation in 2024 is likely to be like the one in 2020—the Party's only real hope is voter suppression, lawsuits, and other schemes of dubious legality—except with an even smaller margin of error.

As to gauging this, we don't think it's possible right now. The interesting question, in the end, is what the 45% or so of Republicans who don't want Trump will do if he's the candidate. Will they suck it up and vote for him anyhow? Will they vote third party? Will they vote Democratic? The traditional ways of measuring this—polls, fundraising totals—aren't really in effect right now in a meaningful way. And even if they were, there is just so much time left for things to happen and for people to shift their feelings in one direction or another.

That said, if Joe Biden's approval rating stays in the mid-50s, where it's been for pretty much his whole term, that is bad news for the Republicans.

Q: Why is it that Lara Trump is being talked about as a possible North Carolina Senate candidate, rather than her husband Eric, who is after all a presidential son? Would some percentage of Trump's base think it is emasculating for a wife to run for a Senate seat rather than her husband? Although most liberals, like myself, would be in full support of a woman running, do you think that Lara would get any crossover Democratic votes due to her gender or would her last name cancel that out? E.W., Skaneateles, NY

A: To start, Lara has some actual charisma, while Eric has the charisma of a dish towel. That is one thing he did not get from his old man. Beyond that, Lara (née Yunaska) has a legitimate claim to being a North Carolinian, having been born and raised there. She also graduated cum laude from North Carolina State University. Eric has no connection whatsoever to North Carolina. Folks in the Tar Heel State do not care for carpetbaggers.

If she runs, she's not going to get very many crossover votes based on her gender. Her policy ideas (or lack thereof), her lack of political experience, and her last name will be far, far more important.

Q: At the very top of your main webpage, to the right of the date and name, there's a link to voting-related websites. For a long time it was only, but now it rotates between an assortment of organizations, some activist and some academic. From their names and descriptions, none of the websites seem to be from the conservative wing (such as TrueTheVote, The Federalist Society, or ALEC).

You write that you "chose these organizations so as to give readers of the site awareness of a broad range of groups that might be of interest." If I may play devil's advocate, why did only non-partisan, moderate and progressive groups make the cut? I'm not affiliated with any of the organizations I asked about. As Groucho Marx (and later, Woody Allen) said, I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.
H.F., Pittsburgh, PA

A: Most of those banners were chosen based on reader suggestions. And as we chose, we had two basic guidelines: (1) the organization must have something related to voting as a meaningful part of its profile, (2) their mission doesn't have to be something we support, but it can't be something we find to be offensive.

Recognizing that some of the organizations we linked are pretty lefty, we specifically went looking for at least one or two right-leaning organizations that met our requirements and we could not find any. For example, the very first line of TrueTheVote's mission statement is "Election law experts have long held that the margin of election fraud is 3-5%." That is a lie that exists to justify more restrictive voting rules, and we will not use our site to help propagate it. Every other right-leaning voting-related site was similarly dedicated to spreading falsehoods, or restricting voting rights, or both. We find these things to be offensive, and so they failed our second test.

Other organizations do not seem to be doing anything voting-related, and failed our first test. For example, The Federalist Society is mostly interested in cultivating conservative lawyers and judges. ALEC basically lobbies for libertarian-Republican political positions. Neither seem to be concerned about voting at all, one way or another. At very least, neither lists "voting" among their main areas of focus.

If someone can suggest a right-leaning or libertarian-leaning site that passes our two tests, we are happy to add it to the rotation.

Q: I wonder if you're reference to President Obama bouncing a check in Thursday's item was an intentional reference to George Floyd? And if it was, well, I'm not sure, but was it maybe a bit impolite or offensive, at least without further context? P.N., Austin, TX

A: George Floyd was accused of passing a counterfeit $20, not bouncing a check. Further, we would not joke about something like that.

We chose bouncing a check because it was the silliest felony-level crime we could think of, and we chose Obama because he seemed the least likely to commit that particular crime. That's all there was to it.

Q: The subject of D.C. statehood is still up in the air and it occurred to me that former President Obama lives in D.C. and would be a popular candidate to represent the new state in the Senate. Do you think that's a possibility? Has anyone ever represented two different states in the Senate? W.S., Green Township, PA

A: Only two people have represented multiple states in the Senate, and one of those really comes with an asterisk. The first is James Shields, who actually represented three states as a U.S. senator, namely Illinois, Minnesota, and Missouri. The second, and the one who comes with an asterisk, is Waitman Thomas Willey, who represented Virginia and then was chosen to represent West Virginia when that state was split off during the Civil War.

In any case, there is zero chance that Obama is interested in being a U.S. Senator again. He's got a great life, and enormous influence, even if it's "soft" influence. Being one voice among 102 is not going to be very interesting to someone like that, especially with his having already spent 8 years in the big chair. And even if Obama was tempted, his wife would put the kibosh on it. She doesn't want her family exposed to any more of the risks that come with holding high political office as a Black person.

Q: You seem pretty sure that D.C. will be granted statehood, but you dodged the trickiest question: What will the name of the new state be? R.N., Redmond, WA

A: Note that our position is "more likely than not," which isn't quite "pretty sure." In any case, every single statehood bill that has been proposed in Congress has addressed this question. For decades, the proposed name was "New Columbia." Now, in the Black Lives Matter era, the proposed name is "Washington, Douglass Commonwealth." Given that the District is nearly 50% Black, and given that Frederick Douglass was a longtime resident, his name will certainly be incorporated in some way. It's certainly possible, given that there's already a tradition of this, that a directional adjective will also be added. For example, "North Washington, District of Columbia" for the remaining federal capital, and "South Washington, Douglass Commonwealth" for the new state.

Q: Concerning your item on the Virginia gubernatorial election, you wrote that the "Black vote" could be badly split as there are four Black candidates. I struggle to understand why you repeat the trope that Black voters vote for Black candidates. Didn't the last Democratic presidential primary demonstrate that identity politics may be an obsession of many party pooh-bahs and many commentators but that most voters do not share it? C.S., Newport, UK

A: It is certainly common to overstate the importance of identity politics, but that doesn't mean that identity politics doesn't exist at all. First, identity is often a tiebreaker when dealing with multiple, similar candidates (for example, a six-way gubernatorial primary with three progressives, two of them Black, and three moderates, two of them Black). It is also the case that identity politics generally becomes more important the more local the office is. So, it's more significant in gubernatorial elections than in presidential elections. And it's more significant still in mayoral elections than in gubernatorial elections. And it's more significant still in city council elections than it is in mayoral elections. There is a reason, for example, that L.A. City Council District 8, which covers southwest Los Angeles, has been represented by a Black councilperson for 60 straight years.

Q: In your item "DNC Will Get Involved in Midterms," one of the key assertions, which you've made a few times since Joe Biden's election, was that Barack Obama's governance strategy was largely focused on his immediate circle, as opposed to the whole Democratic Party, and he didn't show much interest in helping the DNC in supporting state and congressional candidates.

This strikes me as odd, as my impression of Obama was always that he was a very pragmatic and detail-focused leader, who was aware that to get stuff done you need to be able to get legislation through Congress, etc., and I thought he'd have known that it isn't enough for him to be personally popular or for his office to be doing the right things, if you're not working on the other branches of government as well. Dare I say it, the description you give of Obama's lack of interest in the DNC seems to be more consistent with my impression of Donald Trump's style of governance than Obama's.

What explains this inconsistency? Was my impression of Obama's style of governance wrong, or did he only discover the importance of having Congress work with you after the 2010 midterms?
T.J., Edinburgh, Scotland

A: Obama understood the importance of having a friendly Congress, and he certainly campaigned and fundraised for individual candidates, but he did not (initially) place a lot of value on the underlying party machinery, nor on local officeholders.

As to the reason for this, we think a comparison with the other Illinois president is helpful. Abraham Lincoln, like Obama, served in the state legislature, and then briefly in Congress, and then became president. However, Lincoln spent much of his time in office (and out of office) trying to hold the Whig Party together, and then trying to help create the new Republican Party. He had firsthand experience with the necessity and the utility of building from the ground up. So, for that matter, does Joe Biden, by virtue of his half-century as a Democratic officeholder. Obama, by contrast, did not have much of that sort of experience.

To Obama's credit, he—unlike Trump—tends to learn from the error of his ways. And by the end of his term, he knew that a failure to help the DNC and a failure to focus on local-level officeholders were mistakes. So, he's spent time working with his former AG Eric Holder to help build up the Party's infrastructure and to help get Democrats elected at all levels of the political world.

Q: Does Biden's intent to hand over $40 million left over from his campaign to the DNCC indicate that he does not intend to run for re-election? L.S., Grand Rapids, MI

A: No. The money is more useful to him, right now, in trying to secure a Congress more friendly to his legislative agenda. If he needs to replace the funds, $40 million is pretty easy for a sitting president to raise.

Q: Is there any way that President Biden could use an executive order to set up the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, in anticipation that the House and Senate will eventually come through and pass the legislation? C.D., Mercer Island, WA

A: Not really. Only Congress can pass laws. Executive orders merely instruct executive branch employees how to interpret and enforce existing laws (or how not to enforce them). Biden could try to do something based on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but the Supreme Court has pretty well defanged that, so his hands are kinda tied.

Q: Since we are staring down the barrel of a new Jim Crow era (if the 200+ voter restriction laws that are proposed pass both Republican legislatures and judicial review), I'd be interested in hearing more about the original Jim Crow era, starting with who Jim Crow was and how this became that name associated with the suppression of Black votes. R.L., Alameda, CA

A: "Jim Crow" was a character created and performed by blackface minstrelsy actor Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice, based somewhat on slave folklore. Rice's Jim Crow was, of course, a stereotype that played up white perceptions that Black people were dumb, unable to speak English properly, easily manipulated, etc. White audiences were so delighted by Rice's performances that "Jim Crow" entered the lexicon as a synonym for "Black." Everything here is also true of "Sambo," excepting that Sambo was a stock minstrel character, as opposed to being associated with a particular performer.

Immediately following the Civil War, the South adopted a large number of discriminatory laws called Black Codes, and were smacked down by the Radical-Republican-led Congress. 25 years later, the Southern states took another shot at it, this time relying on the name "Jim Crow laws," which was useful spin meant to suggest that they were doing something different from the problematic "Black Codes" (they weren't, it was just spin). Note also that while Jim Crow laws did restrict voting rights, they also covered other areas, most obviously segregation in various public accommodations, anti-miscegenation laws, and restrictions on jury service.

Q: Great item on Henry Ward Beecher. Just a quick question about him: I find it interesting that he was a preacher and yet supported Darwin's theory of evolution. Any insight as to how that played in the Church, or was that duality of support common back then? S.S., Elizabethtown, KY

A: Since the Protestant Reformation, if not before, one of the key issues facing various Christian denominations is: Which of our doctrines is non-negotiable, and which are open to re-interpretation in the interest of keeping as many adherents as is possible? For example, the Catholic Church eventually decided that conducting services in Latin, while pleasant and historical, was not essential to the religion and was costing the Church followers. So the Latin went de fenestra ("out the window," for those who are not Catholic and/or at least 70 years old). On the other hand, they've stuck to the position that a female priesthood cannot be reconciled with the Church's theology.

Inasmuch as Beecher lived in the midst of a revolution in science and technology, there was a robust debate as to how Christians should respond. As a liberal who tended to be more concerned about the needs and desires of adherents, and less concerned about strict adherence to dogma, he took the minority position (then, and now) that Darwin and The Bible are compatible. Given that his flock included many folks who would go on to create the theology-and-science-blending Progressive Movement, and so were quite theologically liberal, they thought that conclusion was fine and dandy. Many of Beecher's peers, particularly in the South, did not agree. This is part of the reason he had to have bodyguards.

Q: Most of the incidents you list in your deaths chart are either known to me or self-explanatory (1556 Shaanxi Earthquake). But what is the "Great Leap Forward" and who named such a deadly event so inappropriately? E.S., Cincinnati, OH

A: In retrospect, we probably should have linked all the events to their respective Wikipedia articles. We did go back and change it to "Mao's Great Leap Forward." And as you can now probably guess, it refers to Mao Zedong's attempt to rapidly and forcibly transform the agrarian nation of China into a modern, fully communist economy.

Q: Thank you for the informative table putting COVID deaths in context. As terrible as the death toll is, I think it feels less terrible to many people than the numbers indicate. I was wondering if part of that feeling could be the years of life expectancy lost. With World War II or Vietnam, for example, most people who died may have had 50 years or more of life expectancy left. Although it's also terrible for an 80-year-old to die before their time, I think most people, if they're honest with themselves, would find the death of a healthy 20-year-old loved one to feel more tragic than the death of an 86-year-old loved one who has been in a nursing home for two years.

It's probably impossible to get the information, but it would be interesting to see the "years of life expectancy lost" by each of the events on the table.
K.J., Austin, TX

A: You're right, the information is basically impossible to get. It would be plausible to come up with a reasonably accurate average age for the soldiers who died in the Civil War or the victims of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the further back in time you go, and the greater the extent to which the dead were seen as "not valuable" and so not worthy of documenting, the more you would be left with basically random guesses. Who knows what the average age of Bubonic Plague victims or those who died in the Crusades was?

There are also some pretty serious challenges on the other side of that equation, namely determining life expectancy. Not only would it be hard to get that information in many cases, but even if you had it, you've got two additional problems. The first is that the mass death in question was generally enough to change life expectancy population-wide. So, how do you correct for that? The second is that life expectancies were much lower before 1900 or so because so many people died before turning 5 (or, for that matter, turning 1). If you remove the infant deaths, life expectancy goes way up in most places and times. So that is also hard to correct for, because either way you're making a pretty bold choice.

Q: In the item "Putting 500,000 in Context," the only mention of Indigenous people from the United States is the listing of the Trail of Tears at 4,000. This is just one small reporting of the genocide of native peoples by Europeans in the "settling" of the area now known as the United States. Is there any attempt to estimate the number of human lives sacrificed by the European manifest destiny mindset that allowed the eventual domination and in some cases the extinction of native peoples throughout the USA? Has such a statistic ever been attempted or recorded? A.W., Southfield, MI

A: There have been many attempts, but the numbers are all over the map, and are very much reliant on guesswork. That said, there is considerably more precision when it comes to the genocide of California's native population, which we really should have included. We can say, with confidence, that the U.S. government reduced a population of 150,000 to 30,000 in 12 years (1848-60), primarily through military "search and destroy" missions, but also by paying bounties to private citizens for every Native they killed. Using our method from Wednesday, that would give what happened in California a 1-Year Index of 66.6, comparable to the Bubonic Plague. And it would give an Overall Index of 800.0, comparable to the Holocaust or the Spanish conquest of the Inca.

Q: My question is about where the Irish Famine would be in your chart of major event-caused fatalities? I know the basics, about 8 million population before, 1.5 million dead from starvation and starvation-caused disease between 1845-1852. What adds to the impact was the additional 2 million who emigrated during the famine, and its effect on both Ireland and places where the Irish fled to. C.M., Hartford, CT

A: Generally speaking, most historians suggest that 1 million people died during the main part of the Irish Famine (1845-49), from a population of (as you note) 8 million. That gives us a 1-Year index of 31.2, comparable to the Spanish conquest of the Inca, and an Overall Index of 125, comparable to the Vietnam War (for all participants). As we noted, the secondary effects of things like this, such as mass population relocations, are hard to account for, and require their own book(s).

Q: In your answers on ranking best and worst laws ever passed, you've disqualified laws that laid the groundwork for Constitutional amendments. You must have seen this one coming, then: Using similar criteria to your prior items, how would you rank the best and worst of the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution? (Since there are fewer of them compared to run-of-the-mill federal laws, maybe just the top and bottom three.) S.K., Sunnyvale, CA

A: Ok. As per usual, we're going to define "best" and "worst" primarily in terms of positive/negative impact on the largest number of people.


  1. 12th Amendment: The Founders figured out there was something not quite right with the Electoral College, and so tweaked it. What they should have realized is that it doesn't do what it was meant to do, and promptly killed it.

  2. 2nd Amendment: Most Americans accept that some guns can be a useful thing. Most Americans also accept that civilians don't need military-grade weapons. Whether it is the fault of the fellows who wrote the amendment, or the courts that have interpreted it, it is a shame that the 2nd Amendment has been the basis for a gun policy that satisfies a gun-fanatic fringe, and not the majority of the voting public. Oh, and by the way, there have already been 65 mass shootings in the United States this year. Assuming you're reading this Saturday morning, and not Saturday afternoon or evening.

  3. 18th Amendment: This solved zero problems while giving organized crime a shot in the arm that it's still benefiting from.


  1. 19th Amendment: As we've made clear many times, including other places in today's post (and also including other places in this answer), we think that extending the franchise is a good thing. Particularly when we are talking about extending it to (roughly) half the population.

  2. 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments: Feel free to call us cheaters, but the three Reconstruction Amendments are always grouped together, because ending slavery, extending citizenship to non-whites, and extending the vote to non-white men were all essential steps in living up to the promise of the Declaration of Independence.

  3. 1st Amendment: Clearly, a vigorous public dialogue, the right to assemble, the right to petition the government for redress, and a healthy free press have played key roles in keeping the United States strong. But we think the biggie here might just be the prohibition on state-sponsored religion. Obviously, freedom of choice in this regard means a great deal for the religiously inclined. But even for non-adherents, have you seen what happens when the church and the state become intertwined? It's usually not pretty.

Q: Reading the letters about John Quincy Adams, especially the one from D.V. in Derry, reminded me how I've been feeling an itch to read a really good history on either a president or the U.S. in general. To give you an idea of my tastes, my favorite historical biographies are The Years of Lyndon Johnson and The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro. If you would have told me that I would eagerly devour over 3,000 pages on LBJ or over 1,000 pages on Robert Moses, a man I had never heard of, I would have said you were crazy.

Over the years, I have also enjoyed Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II, David McCullough's The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge, Truman, John Adams, and 1776, Edmund Morris' books on Theodore Roosevelt and Joseph Ellis' American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, to name a few. On the other hand, I have experienced some history books so dry and boring that thoughts of death flit through my mind. Prime among those is David Herbert Donald's Lincoln. Donald holds a dubious distinction as possibly the only writer to make watching paint dry more preferable than reading about the greatest American ever! With that in mind are there any histories that you would recommend for a non-historian fan of history?
D.E., Lancaster, PA

A:To start, the endorsement of David McCullough is a good one, but (Z) would add his book on the Johnstown Flood to the list. You might also like the works of T.J. Stiles, who has written excellent books on Cornelius Vanderbilt, George Armstrong Custer, and Jesse James. Another biographer that (Z) often endorses, including in the past on this site, is Ron Chernow. His book on Alexander Hamilton inspired a famous musical ("Cats," we think, though our staff researchers are looking into it), and he's also written fine books on Ulysses S. Grant, George Washington, John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and others.

For those who like the humor and sensibilities of NPR, contributor Sarah Vowell has written numerous themed collections of essays that are worth a look. Tony Horwitz is somewhat similar to Vowell or, to be a bit more precise, he's what you would get if you mixed Vowell with Michael Lewis. Horwitz has written books on Civil War reenactors, Captain James Cook, John Brown, America before the pilgrims, and a bunch of other subjects. Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America is a great little book about late 19th century America, the Chicago World's Fair, and the serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims. If you like reading about TR, Candice Millard's The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey tells the story of his last adventure, exploring the final unmapped river of South America when he was in his fifties.

Anyhow, those are a few thoughts off the top of (Z)'s head. Oh, and if it makes you feel better, Donald was boring in person, too. May he rest in peace, of course.

Q: Since you seem very knowledgeable about the show "Jeopardy!," perhaps you can answer something that has always bothered me. According to the show's rules, the contestants are supposed to present their responses in the form of a question. Yet in all the times I've watched the show I've never once seen this rule obeyed.

In English, questions are not indicated by the words used but rather by vocal inflections. For example:

"WHO is Benjamin Franklin?," "Who IS Benjamin Franklin?," "Who is BENJAMIN Franklin?," and "Who is Benjamin FRANKLIN?," are all questions. "Who is Benjamin Franklin," spoken in a monotone, is a statement, not a question.

So why isn't that rule enforced? Aren't they teaching impressionable young people that vocal inflections don't matter in the English language?
L.S., Greensboro, NC

A: They don't want to be in the business of having an inflection judge, especially since some contestants are non-native speakers.

On top of that, repeating the same answer to a question is much more boring than moving on to a new question. And so, their liberal policy goes beyond mere inflection. They will accept any question word at the beginning, even if it doesn't make sense (e.g. "Where is Benjamin Franklin?," or "What is Benjamin Franklin?" or "When is Benjamin Franklin?"). It also used to be the case that, in the first round, Alex Trebek would allow contestants who forgot to answer in the form of a question to go back and get it right.

Interestingly, the rather less intellectual "Wheel of Fortune" is much more strict about proper pronunciation and inflection (see here and here and here for three famous examples).

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