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      •  Saturday Q&A

Saturday Q&A

Dividing the Q&A into sections has received almost universally favorable feedback (and the one negative response came from a .ca e-mail address, so it really doesn't count). Anyhow, looks like we'll stick with it.

Current Affairs

H.C. in Santa Cruz, CA, asks: How on earth can we suddenly expand work to 24/7 on the supply line issue when it was already well known there are not enough workers to operate the supply chain pipeline? Where are all these new extra workers going to be found? Queued up at the southern border perhaps?

V & Z answer: Well, there are two ways to approach this problem: (1) hire more workers, or (2) have your existing workers put in more hours. We suspect that both approaches will be used. Folks who work in retail, shipping, long-haul trucking, etc. are already generally accustomed to working longer hours during the holiday season and often count on that overtime as a key part of their annual salaries.

Your last remark hits on something we've considered, but not seen anything written about. Is part of the labor shortage due to the various "crackdowns" on immigration we've seen in the last 20 years or so?

T.C. in Danby, NY, asks: You wrote about the remarkable number of people quitting their jobs. You noted that, "This applies to every sector of the economy, from food service to retail to health care to manufacturing."

If the trend is across all sectors, is it also across all demographics? Are these "quitters" (sorry for the negative implication) mostly younger, perhaps white-collar employees, or older, perhaps blue-collar employees? Is it an artifact of the "me generation" and/or an attitude created by the gig economy or does it arise from workers deciding that the job is just too dangerous, or boring, or paid too poorly to live the life promoted by the advertising and entertainment media?

Speaking of living the life, what are these voluntarily unemployed (if that's what they are) using to finance their choice? How long will that last? What comes next?

V & Z answer: Figuring out the answers to many of these questions will take years, and will be the stuff of doctoral dissertations and conference papers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tends only to collect raw numbers, and not information on exactly why people are leaving the workforce. Further, while BLS notes the industry of the worker, it does not note their white/blue-collar status.

With those caveats, the latest data suggests that the people currently out of work skew young (under 25), minority, and (slightly) male. Any explanation for those patterns would be almost entirely speculative at this point. The one bit of speculation we're comfortable with is that "disproportionately young" is not a product of youthful selfishness, but because people under 25 are less likely to have serious financial obligations (mortgage, children, etc.) and are more likely to have alternate means of support (parents, student aid).

The statistics also make clear that the percentage of unemployed people 55 and over is very low, and is much lower than at this time last year. Keeping in mind that by "unemployed," BLS means "doesn't have a job, but is looking," that statistical trend suggests very strongly that the pandemic pushed a lot of people to take an early retirement. If 55 and older people were just generally less likely to be unemployed, the numbers would be low every year, but they're not. Just this year.

As to finances, there are no statistics yet, but a number of media outlets have written articles documenting that, in addition to the retirees who are now living on 401k funds, Social Security, pensions, etc., some people are dipping into savings, others are living on credit, some have moved in with friends or relatives to cut expenses, and some have gone back to school and are being supported by loans and other aid programs.

C.C. in Saint Paul, MN, asks: Thank you for answering my question about the amount of physical cash vs. virtual cash. On Sunday, P.S. in Plano wrote out a bunch more, but they were actually telling me the part I do understand, which is why I specified to ignore the destabilizing effects of such an event. I realize that's kind of like my high school physics teacher giving me questions about frictionless planes and massless pulleys, but I'm not trying to understand how such an event would play out so much as I'm trying to understand where all that virtual money came from in the first place. Part of the answer is that it never existed in physical form, but what is the mechanism behind the expansion of the pool of virtual money?

V & Z answer: We are going to try to answer this by talking about the purpose of currency. Before currency was developed (and sometimes after, as well), market economies were based on barter. In other words, if Bill produces windows and Steve produces apples, Bill might trade Steve one window for 300 apples.

The problem with this system is that there is an inherent inefficiency, because it requires that the two traders each need things in quantities that work out to whole numbers. In the case above, what if Bill only wants 50 apples? One-sixth of a window isn't much good, assuming that chopping up windows in that way is even possible.

This is where currency enters the equation. Metal coins have limited intrinsic value, and paper bills have almost no intrinsic value. However, both are a mutually agreed upon abstraction that allows commodities—goods, labor, property—to be converted into an asset that is both portable and that can be used to express nearly any value. In the example above, Bill can sell one window for $60, then turn around and buy 50 apples for $10.

Naturally, Steve can take that $10 to a bank and give it to the bankers. And if they do, the bank makes an entry—it's another abstraction, but one that again represents real value, of something that did exist in physical form as labor, as property, as goods, etc. The thing that you may be having difficulty wrapping your mind around is that the amount of currency in circulation is not meant to be equal to all of the tangible commodities in the nation, nor equal to all of the stored value at banks. The currency is merely meant to approximately cover the amount of value that is in transit, nation-wide, at any given time.


M.R. in Acton, MA, asks: Isn't part of the reason Joe Biden and the Democrats are struggling is that they aren't advertising what they're selling? The right cuts to the chase with pithy phrases: "Make America Great Again" is a retrograde and racist dog-whistle, but it's clear. Same with "America First." In 1981, I remember as a kid in elementary school, watching Reagan give speeches to the nation (yeah I was that kind of kid), with sweeping appeals to emotion—about, of all things, taxes. The right is always great at couching even unpopular policies within emotional appeals. The left will counter with logical arguments and charts—always charts—but all the facts and logic in the world don't matter absent a compelling message. Now that they've been elected, where is the Democrats' sweeping rhetoric?

So many lefty folks I know feel the same way, frustrated that Biden & Co. aren't doing a better sales job. Do they think it's beneath them? Sure, doing the right thing should win. Pursuing justice, helping the poor, building community should be its own electoral reward. But without the right messaging, we know that it fails.

The question is why? Don't the Democrats know about sales, marketing, branding? What's going on over there?

V & Z answer: We're going to start by pointing out that Reagan-level skills are a very rare commodity, indeed. That said, Barack Obama was no slouch in this department, nor was Bill Clinton.

In any event, "the Democrats don't do a good job of selling their policies!" has been a talking point for at least 30 years now, maybe longer. We find it implausible that the people running the party have their heads in the clouds, or are lazy, or are out of touch—and have been for 30 years. These people are pros who have risen to the very top of their profession. They're not incompetent. Oh, and they most certainly employ an army of marketing consultants and advertising agencies.

One possible explanation is the respective parties' audiences. In general, today's Republican voters tend to be much more driven by emotion than Democrats and—importantly—less likely to ask critical questions when they are told what they want to hear. When Donald Trump decreed that building a wall along the Southern border would magically Make America Great Again, did his voters insist that he explain how that would work? Or did they just buy it, because it was what they wanted to hear (i.e., immigrants are bad, and a simple "fix" will make everyone's lives better)?

By contrast, Democratic voters tend to be more skeptical. If Joe Biden decreed that better infrastructure is going to turn America into a 21st century paradise, or that it's going to solve global warming forever, or that it will end racism, or whatever, would his base really buy it? In general, today's Democratic voters want evidence, and lots of it—hence the charts. And even then, many tend to worry, and are cynical, etc.

We will submit a second possible answer for your consideration: Maybe, just maybe, the Democrats are actually better than the Republicans at messaging. Maybe not in the Reagan era, when the Gipper was winning 49 of 50 states, but today. It's true that the GOP messaging is very noticeable and very memorable. But the Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections, have collected more U.S. Senate votes in nine of the last 10 election cycles, and count a considerably larger number of Americans as members of the party than the Republicans do. As a general rule, if you are attracting fewer votes and fewer voters, that is not a sign that your messaging is working well.

Undoubtedly, much of the "Democrats don't sell their policies well" talk comes from the fact that polls reveal their policies to be popular in the abstract, but considerably less popular when they are a "Democratic initiative." That may not be a messaging issue, but instead a product of the unusual psyche of the American voter, and of the willingness of so many voters to vote against their economic interests (see the next question for a bit more on this).

In any event, those are the thoughts that occur to us. We are happy to run ideas from readers, should they care to send them along.

C.L. in Durham, England, UK, asks: Can you recommend a book that discusses why some low-paid workers vote against their own self-interest?

V & Z answer: There are a lot of books (and articles, and dissertations, and blog posts) about this. We are going to direct your attention to What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, which was a runaway bestseller, and which examines why the previously very liberal-populist Kansas electorate became very conservative and reactionary. The book is 17 years old now, but is still relevant, and is prescient in many ways. For example, the afterword is entitled "Culture War Armageddon."

If you want something more recent, then your question was a main concern of The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It, published last year by former labor secretary Robert Reich.

J.K. in Boston, MA, asks: Curious if you folks would be willing to rank the various political platitudes we so often hear each day. From a nominee "facing tough questions" to a politician having "grave concerns" about a bill to the ubiquitous "thoughts and prayers" to the committee hearing grandstanders referring to "this experiment we call America," I'm curious which of these are the most annoying/ridiculous/cringe-worthy to you? I recall (V) getting a lot of mileage out of politicians having to make "tough decisions," but that was back in the halcyon days of Obama's first term.

V & Z answer: We are going to give you five that we find really annoying, from least to most, with explanations:

  1. "Career politician": Yes, there are corrupt and venal politicians. There are also corrupt and venal lawyers, doctors, college professors, business executives, farmers, and factory workers. In no other profession does that reality argue against the value of experience. Indeed, people and businesses compete for the time and attention of skilled, veteran professionals in nearly every trade. In politics, by contrast, many Americans are somehow persuaded that rank amateurs are somehow best.

  2. "Our friends across the aisle": There are definitely politicians who regard members of the other party with respect. And we have never heard any of those politicians use this particular phrasing. Anyone who says this—and it's a favorite of a particular Senate Minority Leader from Kentucky—is being as phony and patronizing as the day is long.

  3. "People keep telling me...": This was obviously a favorite of Donald Trump, who used it to make it seem as if his ideas had broad support beyond him, even if those ideas were things like "Joe Biden is a poo-poo head." That said, lots of politicians use this incredibly dishonest framing, which allows them to avoid providing any evidence, and often to frame themselves as a neutral messenger, and not an advocate. In particular, variants of this are used by folks like Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) to make it seem like they might not run for office, if not for the fact that people want them to run so very badly. Can't let the fans down, can we?

  4. "Thoughts and prayers": This was in your question, of course, because it's just awful, awful, awful. It's a reflexive, empty expression of faux sentiment, and at a time when real sentiment is called for. If a politician doesn't have anything meaningful to say after a tragedy, then they should just button their lip.

  5. "Liberal media": Everyone who covers politics has their biases and their blind spots. Well, except for us, of course. However, the implied presumption that all media outlets have a liberal bias overlooks the facts that (1) other biases, like a bias towards sensationalism, and a bias towards pot-stirring, are far more significant, and (2) "the media" includes Fox, Breitbart, WND, Ben Shapiro, Clay Travis, Candace Owens, etc. Also encapsulated in this platitude is the notion that, say, CNN or The New York Times, are just as skewed in a liberal direction as Fox is in a conservative direction, which is simply not true.

That's ours. If we missed some, we'd certainly run additional platitudes in the mailbag.

K.A. in Miami Beach, FL, asks: I would like to know your take on the suggestion from M.P. in Lund, that a newly sworn in President Harris picks Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) as her VP. Is this brilliant scenario plausible? If so, is there any downside?

V & Z answer: M.P.'s presumption is that Harris would use Manchin to achieve the entire Democratic agenda in a few weeks, then would reward him with a "promotion" to vice president. He may not be too interested in that promotion, and even if he is, the Democrats would never willingly hand control of the Senate over to the Republicans like that. And that is what would happen, because Manchin would be replaced by a Republican.

S.B. in New Castle, DE, asks: In your item, "McConnell is Unpopular - with Republicans," you wrote: "The anti-McConnell group doesn't have a leader, and although [Sen. Ted] Cruz [R-TX] is making the most noise, he is not going to lead anything, since the other 49 Republican senators (and all 50 Democratic/independent senators) hate him." I've often read that Ted Cruz is the most hated senator from various sources, including yours. I detest him, but my liberal political views easily bias me in that direction.

My question is this: "Why do Senate Republicans and others in his party despise him so much?"

V & Z answer: There are three major reasons:

  1. He's a jerk: People who have dealt with Cruz over the course of his life, from his college roommate to his present-day colleagues, have nothing but venom when it comes to him. Famously, former speaker John Boehner—who got along with just about everyone—described the Texas Senator as "Lucifer in the flesh."

  2. He's no Reagan: Cruz tries to present himself as a latter-day Gipper. Beyond the fact that they don't have all that much in common in terms of policy or personality, the Texan seems to have missed Ronnie's 11th Commandment of Politics: "Never speak ill of another Republican." Long ago, Cruz decided that while attacking Democrats is great, attacking his fellow Republicans is nearly as good. And so, there may not be a single person in the Senate that he hasn't thrown under the bus at some point in a speech, or at a rally, or during a TV appearance.

  3. He walks the walk: Not only is Cruz not a team player in his verbiage, he backs that up with his actions. He places his needs first and foremost, and if that means he goes against the needs of his party, or of the country, so be it. The most notable example of this was his leading role in shutting the government down in 2013, during which he had no real endgame strategy in mind, nor any concern that the Republican Party was going to take most of the blame (which it did).

We are not sure there's ever been a member of Congress more roundly despised by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle.


W.S. in Norfolk, VA asks: In "Appeals Court Reinstates Texas Abortion Ban," you wrote that if the Supreme Court rescinds Roe vs. Wade, "then there will no longer be a constitutional right to abortions...". Is any right that is codified into law considered a constitutional right?

V & Z answer: No. However, initially in Roe, and then again in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the court based its ruling on the notion that the right to an abortion is protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In other words, that right has a clear and specific constitutional basis, and so is, in the court's own words, a constitutional right.

G.H. in Chicago, IL, asks: I know you were only giving an example of an amendment proposal that would have popular support, but no way of being approved by three-fourths of the states. But why would you even need an amendment to protect abortion rights? The House has already passed a bill with a simple majority that would turn the Roe holding into a federal statute if it also passes the Senate. How could the Supreme Court, even if it included 8 Robert Borks and a Clarence Thomas, opine that any state law is superior to a federal statute? Conservative scholars have never argued that laws protecting abortion rights would be unconstitutional, only that whether abortion is legal, illegal, or restricted should be a legislative determination. How could this federal statute not satisfy them?

V & Z answer: As a general rule, amendments are adopted because the text of the Constitution is being modified in some way, and an amendment is the only legal way to do it. However, they are sometimes adopted to give a particular law a little extra oomph, and to make it harder to contravene. The obvious example is the Eighteenth Amendment—prohibition. That did not need to be an amendment; we've reviewed our copy of the Constitution, and nowhere does it enumerate an inalienable right to get soused. However, the temperance people really wanted to make sure it took hold. Of course, it didn't work, which actually validates their judgment that a straightforward law would have been at risk of being overturned.

As to 8 Robert Borks and a Clarence Thomas, perhaps you haven't noticed, but there are some justices who are very good at getting to the result they want, no matter how much they have to stand on their heads in their rulings.

R.C. in Des Moines, IA, asks: You wrote that some Senate Democrats are begging President Biden to send them a nominee to the FCC Commission to confirm. In instances like this, does the Senate have any power to nominate someone when a president fails to do so?

V & Z answer: No, they don't. The Constitution makes clear that naming appointees to executive-branch positions is solely the prerogative of the executive branch.


B.S.M. in London, England, UK, asks: If the former president was re-elected in 2024, could he be re-impeached for his involvement in the events related to January 6th?

Could there be enough Republican Senate votes to reach a total of 67, since some of them would not be up for re-election until 2030? I could not find a list of the states that have Senate elections in 2030.

V & Z answer: There is no double jeopardy when it comes to impeachment. Congress could impeach Trump for what happened on Jan. 6 every single day, and twice on Sundays, for the next 10 years, if that is what they wanted to do.

That said, it isn't going to happen. The Republicans in the Senate are terrified of Trump right now, and that is with the distinct possibility that by 2024 he'll be indicted, or permanently retired from politics, or dead. If he was to be reelected? They would all do their best impression of Kevin Bacon in Animal House.

If you want to do your own assessment of the GOP senators who would be "safe" until 2030, it's Class I that will be up. There are currently only 10 Republicans in the group, including several of the Trump fanatics, like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley (R-MO).

J.D. in Fennimore, WI, asks: I saw an article about Donald Trump that said that he is urging Republicans not to vote in the upcoming elections until his 2020 fraud claims are confirmed. Could this be true? Are you going to comment on this and what it means for the GOP?

V & Z answer: He had been passively encouraging Republicans to withhold their votes from an allegedly corrupt process, and late Thursday, he came right out and said it in a statement released by his office:

If we don't solve the Presidential Election Fraud of 2020 (which we have thoroughly and conclusively documented), Republicans will not be voting in '22 or '24. It is the single most important thing for Republicans to do.

If some meaningful percentage of Trump's base were to take his advice, it would be disastrous for the Republican Party. In 2022, the loss of one Trumper in 20 would likely put the House beyond reach while giving the Democrats the Senate seats in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, and Wisconsin. The loss of one Trumper in 10 would all of a sudden put Senate seats in places like Iowa, Indiana, and Missouri in play.

It was a very stupid thing for Trump to say, and adds to the mounting evidence that something is not right with him. Republicans are already bending over backwards to accommodate him, and there isn't a lot more they can do. He's not going to be "restored" to the White House. His purpose here is to flex his muscles and to demonstrate that Republican voters follow his commands without question, but the only possible outcomes are (1) disaster for the party, as noted, or (2) a demonstration that he's not as powerful as he says.

R.K. in Highlands, NC, asks: Can you weigh in on Donald Trump having his knickers in a twist over 2nd1st using his image and other materials to market their $4.99-per-month uncensored app? What is the distinction between those images from when he was President as opposed to his current status as an ordinary citizen?

V & Z answer: For those who are not familiar, 2nd1st is yet another attempt to create a right-wing social media platform along the lines of Parler or Gab. And they have created accounts, with profile pictures, for Trump and other notable Republicans, which implies (incorrectly) that Trump, et al. use and support the service.

The former president has an excellent case here, though "president" vs. "private citizen" has little to do with it. Generally speaking, photographs of a person belong to the photographer, and can be used by that person as they see fit. There are four pretty well established exceptions, however, and they are known as "Prosser's Torts," after legal scholar William Lloyd Prosser. He wrote a very influential 1960 law review article entitled "Privacy," in which he laid out four different violations of privacy that someone might be sued for, establishing a rubric that was pretty quickly adopted by the American legal system. Here are the four:

  1. Intrusion upon seclusion: You can't publish a photograph, or any other information, that invades someone's right to privacy. For example, you can't peek through the window, and take a picture of someone showering in their bathroom and publish it.

  2. Public disclosure of private facts: You can't share information that is meant to be kept secret, where publication will harm the subject. For example, you can't print a picture of someone's bank statement or details about their medical records.

  3. False light: You can't publish a photograph, or any other information, that is defamatory. For example, if you had a picture of someone walking past a clinic where pedophiles are treated, and you shot it from an angle that makes it look like they are entering the clinic, that would be a no-no.

  4. Misappropriation of name and likeness: You can't use a person's image, words, or name to imply endorsement of you, your product, your service, etc., or to make money in general, if they did not consent to it. So, no t-shirts with Trump's picture, no Donald Trump-branded erectile dysfunction pills, no "Trump eats here" without the former president's permission. The term often used here is personality rights.

It is the fourth tort that applies in this instance, obviously. But again, the issue is not when the photograph was taken, or even who took it. It's that Trump didn't approve the implied endorsement of the service.

History Matters

J.H. in Camano Island, WA, asks: In the past two decades, a Portuguese part-time historian, Manuel Rosa, has published several books addressing who Christopher Columbus really was (only one of those has been translated into English, so far). Rosa asserts—examining long overlooked, forgotten or deliberately hidden documents—that Columbus was not the son of a poor Genoese family, but rather from an aristocratic family secretly dispatched by the Portuguese government to deflect and distract Spanish intentions from their developing trade routes around Africa to India.

Talking with Portuguese friends, these assertions are gaining traction there. So, has the in-house historian heard these arguments, and if so, does he have any opinions? I also wonder: Does it matter? The man did take the actions known to history, even being brought back to Spain in chains after one voyage. Is this just another argument like "someone else named Homer wrote the Odyssey and Iliad," or "Shakespeare did not write all of the works attributed to him"?

V & Z answer: In one of the items we wrote about Columbus this week, we noted that we don't actually know what he looks like because no portrait was done during his lifetime. Here's something else pretty basic that we don't actually know: his name. There was very limited record-keeping back then, of course. Further, it was not uncommon for people to change names for various reasons, some savory and some less so. On top of that, spellings were not standardized, and names were often translated into the local language, such that someone might be Miguel Blanco in Spain, but Michel Blanc in France. Columbus did sign his name to a few documents that are still extant, but that clue does not help too much. Here's his signature:

It's a mess of squiggles;
there is a clear 's' at the very top, then an 's.a.s.' below that, then something that looks like 'amy' and then something
that looks like ;holmes'

The point is that there are so many gaps in his story that it's not too hard to take the things about him that are known, along with what is generally known about his time period, and to make a case for many possible back stories. And so, there are not-crazy theories that he was actually Spanish, or Portuguese, or French, or Jewish, or even Scottish. Barring the discovery of new evidence, the truth is unknowable.

And you are right to think that the truth of his background isn't really all that important. It might help us to understand his era a little bit better, particularly if he turned out to be a secret Jew (the term for an observant Jew who pretended to be Catholic back then to avoid persecution is Marrano). However, it wouldn't radically alter our understanding of his significance.

R.C. in Des Moines, IA, asks: Thanks for the material on Christopher Columbus. Can you recommend a book(s) that covers the full story of the man without any political invective/mythology?

V & Z answer: Are you familiar with Walter Isaacson? He's made a name for himself writing books about prominent figures in the history of science and technology, among them Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and Steve Jobs. Well, there's also a guy like that for notable explorers. His name is Laurence Bergreen, and he's written books about Francis Drake, Ferdinand Magellan and, of course, Columbus. His Columbus: The Four Voyages is the standard biography these days. It's accessible, reasonable in terms of length (423 pages), and gives a pretty full accounting of the man.

Alternatively, taking Columbus down several pegs is the main point of the opening chapter of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, though that probably qualifies as "political invective." You might like Paul Boller's Not So!: Popular Myths About America From Columbus to Clinton. It's a series of very short chapters, and so Columbus only gets a half-dozen pages, but Boller covers a total of 44 subjects, at least some of which are sure to be of interest.

D.M. in Spokane, WA asks: You wrote about Ted Cruz's reactions to complaints about Christopher Columbus. One of his comments related to the practice of scalping victims. Native Americans certainly scalped victims and displayed the scalps. But I have read elsewhere that the practice did not originate with Natives, and instead was copied from Europeans and European Americans.

What is the truth of the matter?

V & Z answer: In the world of evolutionary biology, scientists draw a distinction between "homologous" traits and "analogous" traits. Homologous traits are those that two or more species have in common because they inherited the trait from a shared ancestor. For example, humans have ears and gorillas have ears and chimpanzees have ears because they share a common ancestor that had ears.

Analogous traits, by contrast, are those that two or more species have in common, not because they have a common ancestor, but because they were affected by similar evolutionary pressures. For example, bats, birds, and insects do not share a common, winged ancestor, but they all have wings because that was an advantageous adaptation in the various environments in which those species evolved.

Your question is based on the presumption that scalping is, to borrow the concept from the biologists, homologous. That is to say, that it originated with one people or culture and then spread from there. However, scalping is actually analogous. It developed independently in multiple cultures; we have accounts of Europeans doing it before they ever met any Native cultures, and we have accounts of Natives doing it before they met any European cultures.

It makes sense that such a practice would develop in many places. For a very long time, soldiers have desired war trophies, sometimes very gruesome ones. If you are going to take a piece of your defeated enemy's body, and you want it to be easy to transport and not at risk of rotting and becoming disease-ridden, there are only a small number of possibilities. The range of possibilities becomes even narrower if the goal of taking the trophy is to prove bravery by getting close enough to kill, but not actually doing so, à la counting coup.

J.P. in Horsham, PA, asks: What can you tell us about the history of this tradition of the flag being at half-staff for a month following the death of a president? I'm assuming it goes back to John Adams, after George Washington died. And I think I read somewhere that the honor was never bestowed on John Tyler because of his allegiance with the Confederacy. (At least, not outside of the Confederacy...) Are there any other controversies surrounding this tradition?

Second, what would happen if Donald Trump lives long enough to be found guilty of any of the various crimes, at any level, and then dies? Would it make a difference if the president at the time was a Democrat or a Republican? Is this something else that will have become unnecessarily partisan?

V & Z answer: The tradition of flying the flag at half-mast after someone's death began with sailors about 400 years ago. And so, when Washington died, American ships did fly their flags at half-mast; not because John Adams issued a proclamation, but because that was the customary sign of respect among sailors of that era. Generally speaking, flags on land did not fly at half-staff (that's the term used in the U.S. flag code for land-based flags) following Washington's demise.

A "customary" manner of recognizing the death of a former president (or any other prominent person) did not emerge until the 20th century. In the 19th century, things were done on a case-by-case basis, and took into consideration the decedent's wishes. Sometimes there were big funerals, sometimes not. Sometimes there were lowered flags, sometimes not. With John Tyler, it's not that the flags weren't lowered (although they weren't), it's that there was no recognition of his passing whatsoever—no proclamation, no state funeral, no bells ringing, no cannon salute, no day of mourning, no adjournment of Congress, none of it.

The lowering of flags was formalized with the adoption of the U.S. Flag Code in 1923. It suggests how long the flag should be flown at half-mast after various deaths, from 30 days for a sitting president to 2 days for a member of Congress. It is not true that the latter portion has been amended to include the phrase "except Ted Cruz," but check back with us in a year or two. The Code also makes clear that the president can make changes as he sees fit. Furthermore, the code is entirely advisory, and is not binding.

There are no real controversies as regards commemoration of presidential deaths; even the Tyler situation was understandable for pretty much everyone. When Trump perishes, he will presumably get the standard treatment, regardless of who is in the White House. This will be done out of respect for the presidency, if not respect for him. The only exception would be if he is somehow found guilty of fomenting insurrection. Not likely to happen, but if it does, he'd basically be guilty of the same thing as Tyler was, and would presumably be handled in the same manner.

S.W. in Harrisburg, PA, asks: I was recently watching an episode of American Horror Story, in which a fictionalized Mamie Eisenhower states that she popularized the custom of American adults celebrating birthdays. When I searched Google, it was a question that was asked enough that autocomplete chimed in, but there weren't any obvious hits answering it. Is this true?

V & Z answer: With customs like this, it's somewhat hard to trace their history in a precise fashion. That said, the following things are not in dispute:

  • People have been celebrating birthdays, particularly milestone birthdays, for millennia.

  • By the early twentieth century, birthday celebrations were fairly common for both adults and for children. The song "Happy Birthday to You" was copyrighted in 1935, for example, and was written decades earlier.

  • In the 1950s, birthday celebrations became nearly universal among Americans, and generally more extravagant as well. This was a byproduct of the prosperity of that era.

  • Presidential birthdays had been celebrated for many years before the 1950s, but Mamie Eisenhower was the first First Lady to have high-profile, public celebrations. This was not out of vanity; her birthday "party" was used to raise funds for the Republican Party. In 1956, her birthday celebration was even televised nationally on CBS (you can see a portion of the broadcast here).

Eisenhower might well have hastened and legitimized the trend of adult birthdays being celebrated. But she certainly didn't create the trend, which was underway before she ever came to the White House, and which was much more related to the economic and cultural milieu of the 1950s.

R.H.D. in Webster, NY, asks: Had President Gerald Ford won the 1976 race, he wouldn't have been eligible to run again in 1980 because of the Twenty-Second Amendment, as he served more than half of Richard Nixon's second term. Therefore, it would have been an open seat election. What do you think would have happened? Would a VP Bob Dole have been in the running, or would Ronald Reagan have tried again? As for the Democrats, who would they have nominated? Would Teddy Kennedy have been the front runner? In the end, who do you think would have been elected in '80?

V & Z answer: There is no question that Ronald Reagan would have run. However, he won the governorship of California in 1966 by arguing that Gov. Pat Brown (D) was a well-meaning fellow, but that he was incompetent and out of touch. Reagan ran the same playbook in 1980, just subbing in "Jimmy Carter" for "Pat Brown." But in this alternate history, that option would not be available, and there wouldn't be an anti-Democratic/anti-liberal backlash for Ronnie to ride. So, we'll guess that he doesn't land the nomination.

It is likely that Bob Dole would have run, since he clearly had presidential ambitions. However, he was not especially well known back then, and he likely would have spent his 4 years as VP in the background (as was customary for VPs back then; how much did VP Nelson Rockefeller really do before exiting the Ford administration?) Meanwhile, the general presumption with alternate histories is that you change one variable, but everything else stays the same. So, we operate under the assumption that the economic and foreign policy issues that plagued the Carter administration would have plagued the Ford administration in its 1977-81 term. If so, then Dole would have been damaged, which is why he is not our pick as the likely Republican nominee.

As an alternative to Reagan and Dole, we will propose that the Republican nomination goes to...Tennessee Senator Howard Baker. He was on the Watergate Commission, and so would not be harmed by any lingering resentment over the Nixon pardon. He was a moderate Southerner, which has often been electoral gold since World War II. He was a foreign policy expert, and could campaign on the argument that he'd be able to deal with Iran, and the U.S.S.R., and other foreign adversaries. And, by virtue of his service in Senate leadership, he was nationally known. Baker did actually run in 1980, and so all we're presuming here is that, under different circumstances, his candidacy would have taken off.

On the Democratic side, we see no reason to believe that Ted Kennedy could have overcome the Chappaquiddick incident, regardless of the state of the Democratic field. As to the candidate who would have landed the blue team's nomination, we presume that voters would have been looking for someone who was incorruptible, competent, and something of an outsider. So, how about the Bernie Sanders-like Jerry Brown? He ran several times, and almost caught fire in 1992, so he very well could have done so in 1980. In fact, he really did catch fire in 1992, but that fire was doused by a few missteps, most obviously his association with Jesse Jackson, who uttered antisemitic remarks at a Brown campaign rally. But Jesse Jackson wasn't a national figure in 1980, so that presumably wouldn't have happened in our alternate scenario.

In the general election, our guess is that it would have been close, but that voters would be a little weary of Republicans after 12 years of GOP rule, and so would give the White House to Brown.

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