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Saturday Q&A

Happy Halloween to those who will be celebrating tonight or tomorrow night! We end today with a question that is apropos to the occasion.

Current Events

G.W. in Oxnard, CA, asks: In the last mailbag, I commented that the Trump media venture was a self-evident scam and I have zero sympathy for anyone who falls for it. I enjoyed the report in This Week in Schadenfreude that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) is among the suckers who fell for the scam. This raises a question: Is a public stock offering of a company that is a fabrication and of no real value while representing it as having value, perhaps with a false prospectus, a violation of Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulations? Is there some potential crime in doing so? What sort of repercussions could the perpetrators of such an action face? Could Trump have his name all over the venture while remaining immune to repercussions?

V & Z answer: There are all sorts of fraud that can accompany an IPO, and that are punishable by law. Some of the more extreme types involve outright scams, like selling shares in a company that doesn't actually exist, or in a company in which the seller doesn't have the right to sell ownership.

The sort of fraud that the Trump situation is closest to is a more garden-variety type, wherein a company misrepresents its bottom line to drive up the IPO price. There was a somewhat famous case of this a few years ago when the VOIP provider Vonage made the company's financial picture look rosier than it actually was. They offered shares to customers before the IPO, and when the IPO went poorly, those customers were left holding the bag. They filed a class-action lawsuit and got a settlement...of $3.6 million. Since the IPO raised more than $500 million for the company, and the settlement was paid by their insurance, it would be fair to call that a slap on the wrist, we think. Well, actually, a slap on the wrist hurts at least a little bit. This was more like blowing softly on the wrist.

It is improbable that Trump could get in trouble like this, however. It's not a secret that the company isn't in operation yet and doesn't have a cash flow yet. Any investor who says they were doing anything other than speculating wildly doesn't have much of leg to stand on. And even if the former president did get in trouble, he'd drag it out for years in the courts, and then—at most—might pay a small fine. If he's going to relocate to the crowbar hotel, it's not going to be for this.

M.L. in Havertown, PA, asks: Aside from a lawsuit to get Team Trump to cease and desist, what could the good people behind Mastodon do if the terms of their license are violated? Would a favorable ruling for Mastodon actually make the TRUTH people pay up or shut up or would it just be another opportunity for Trump to drag another problem through the courts until there is no one left who is really paying attention? Do software developers put in back doors so that they can pull the plug on users who don't comply?

V & Z answer: Keep in mind that this is open-source software. So there is no money involved, it's just a question of whether Trump & Co. share their code or not. And while there are paid software packages where the creator can flip a switch if a user does not pay up (or otherwise adhere to the terms of service), we don't know of any open-source software that has that feature.

So, if Mastodon wants to play by the rules, a lawsuit is probably their only option. If they want to be a little unethical, well, they are certainly aware of the vulnerabilities of their software, and could share that information with interested parties among the hacking community. Alternatively, they could push out an update that is tailored to poking Trump in the eye, say by disallowing the use of the software from any IP address located in Florida.

From a legal perspective, the software is copyrighted and if Trump is not following the terms of the license, he has no right to use the software and thus has violated the creators' copyright, with all the usual penalties for copyright violation. These can include a court order to either comply with the terms of the license or stop using the software. A fine is also possible. Jail is not possible since this is a civil case.

M.H. in Boston, MA, asks: With a new FCC chair now nominated, it seems that the inexorable death of net neutrality under Ajit Pai was somewhat exaggerated. Was it stopped by politics, market forces, or what?

V & Z answer: It was stopped by politics. A new president installed a new permanent FCC chair, Jessica Rosenworcel, who is not in the pocket of the telecomm companies. She supports net neutrality. The new Commission member, Gigi Sohn, is a very strong supporter of net neutrality. With a Democratic majority on the Commission, net neutrality is safe until the composition of the Commission changes. Sometimes personnel is policy.

R.C. in Des Moines, IA, asks: Wouldn't some kind of consumption tax or value-added tax (VAT) help defuse the problem of the super rich spending lavishly by way of loans on their on-paper wealth and paying very little income taxes?

V & Z answer: We don't see how. Consumption taxes and VATs tend to be very regressive, since poorer people spend a greater portion of their income on goods and services than rich people do. The only way to plausibly wield such taxes as a tool against the ultra-rich would be to apply them only to things that rich people buy. Congress could try a $1 million tax on Ferraris, diamonds larger than 10 carats, canisters of Beluga caviar, and admissions to USC, but it's not likely to raise much money.


A.R. in Los Angeles, CA, asks: Part of me hates talking so much about Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and giving her the attention she craves, but what was interesting about the clip you shared is that she was walking with Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC). Could it be that her plan is to position herself as a moderate Republican, à la John McCain, for the 2024 election? She could get all the corporate donors' cash and appeal to independents and moderates.

V & Z answer: There may be a letter or two tomorrow from people who disagree with us, but we just don't see how this could possibly make sense to someone who is, by all accounts, a skilled political operator.

First of all, the Republican Party of Arizona is, as we noted this week, in the thrall of Trumpists. And not just any Trumpists, but whack-a-doodle Trumpists. They are never going to vote for Sinema—who voted to convict Trump in both impeachment trials—when they could vote for one of their own. She might attract some Republican votes, but not enough to offset the Democratic votes she'd be losing.

Second, Sinema already won election statewide as a Democrat. And this in a state that's trending blueward. How can she plausibly conclude that she'll do better as a new convert to the Republican Party in 2024 than she did as an actual Democrat in 2018?

J.B. in Radnor, PA, asks: You have written several times that you think Kyrsten Sinema has done severe damage to her re-election chances with her actions this year. How likely is it that she decides to bypass the Democratic primary by running as an independent in 2024, hoping that Arizona's independents and non-MAGA Republicans are enough to carry her to a plurality victory over Ruben Gallego and a (presumably) MAGA Republican? And do you think this is a viable path to re-election for her?

V & Z answer: Again, we fail to see how this would be a savvy political play. Running as a member of a major party is a vastly more effective way to win elections than running as an independent, and she already won as a Democrat.

As a general rule, independent bids for the Senate are only plausible in low-population states with wonky electorates, like Alaska, Maine, or Vermont. The reason that it works for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), for example, is that his state has a lot of people who are left of the Democrats and who dislike the party, and so he's able to get them and the state's registered Democrats (plus a few populist Republicans). But Vermont has a population of 623,989, while Arizona has a population of 7,279,000.

The only plausible independent path for Sinema would be the Joe Lieberman plan. He got the moderate and conservative Democratic votes when he won as an independent and he also got the votes of a lot of Republicans who made a tactical decision that they were better off voting for a viable conservative Democrat than a non-viable Republican. But today's Republican voters, particularly in Arizona, don't generally think like that. It's a Trumper or bust for them.

J.I. in San Francisco, CA, asks: The other day I came up with a thought experiment, in which I was stuck seated next to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) on a plane for a couple hours, and I wanted to try to take that opportunity to say something to try to pull him back from the dark side, but I struggled to figure out what would be the most effective strategy to actually get through to him.

I discarded trying to go near any touchy subjects (insurrection, vaccines, etc.) as that would just result in a bunch of lies that would effectively shut down any discussion. I felt the highest chance of success would be to pick something fairly simple, like his proposal for a two-term limit for senators, and whether he would therefore not run for a third term, regardless of it getting the bill passed or not. But then it doesn't seem very satisfying, either.

So what do you think might be the best approach if given the chance? Or is it just a sort of fool's errand?

V & Z answer: Sorry, but with him, it's a fool's errand.

If you're going to be a United States Senator, you have to be at least somewhat flexible when it comes to your principles, or you'll be unable to get anything done. That said, most of them do have principles and are open to persuasion on some issues.

Cruz, by contrast, is a man without principles, beyond the pursuit of power. When he decides what to do, what to say, how to vote on a bill, etc., his sole concern is what choice will do the most to advance his political prospects. Consider, for example, the 180 on Donald Trump once the Senator figured out which way the winds were blowing. This is the same Trump who insulted Cruz's wife and implied that Cruz's father helped assassinate John F. Kennedy.

There are a few other senators like this right now, most obviously Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and, it would appear, Kyrsten Sinema. However, Cruz leaves even that duo in the dust. If you were absolutely determined to engage him—and remember that everyone says he's incredibly unpleasant—your only angle would be to say, "Senator, I support you and want to see you become president, but I think you're making a tactical error on [whatever issue]; you have taken position X, but I think your needs are actually better served by position Y."

D.M. in Highland Park, IL, asks: I realize your crystal ball is often broken, but I'm curious to see if you would be willing to make a prediction about the future of the Republican Party. What's the status of the party a decade from now—say, as we're gearing up for the 2032 election?

V & Z answer: It is very difficult to maintain cults of personality and proto-fascist (or just fascist) movements, long-term. That's doubly true if the cult/movement's Dear Leader shuffles off the political stage due to being in prison or dead.

We also imagine that the Republicans couldn't get much more extreme than they are right now. So, if they can't do that, and they can't maintain their current course, then that leaves movement back to a more normal/centrist direction. One thinks of the Democratic Party, which was gripped by the William Jennings Bryan cult of personality for about 15 years, and then the grown-ups (as it were) regained control of the Party.

But we don't expect it to go back to being the party of Ronald Reagan. The party of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) or Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) seems more likely. These folks are much farther to the right than Reagan. That's where the base is now.

J.C. in St. Louis, MO, asks: You wrote about evangelicals, taking me back to some enjoyable days in my History of American Religion grad readings seminar. I was struck by your application of the term to non-Protestant groups. So I went wandering the byways of the internet seeking clarity, and I found an Atlantic article from Jonathan Merritt in 2015 claiming that "Depending on how you define the term, evangelicals comprise between 7 percent and 47 percent of the American population." Even in that broad range, though, I think he was including only Protestant Christians.

So I'm curious for your take on what usefulness the term might have at this point, and what if any common features you would say public discourse ascribes to this group.

V & Z answer: There are, in effect, three different definitions of the term.

The historical definition, which dates back to the early 1700s, is something like this: "Protestant who shares the gospel (which means "good news") with non-believers."

The modern, precise definition focuses on certain key beliefs. The most commonly cited description of those beliefs comes from the historian David Bebbington, who argues there are four key tenets of evangelicalism:

  1. Conversionism: The belief that lives need to be transformed through a "born-again" experience and a life long process of following Jesus

  2. Activism: The expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts

  3. Biblicism: A high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority

  4. Crucicentrism: A stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity

And finally, the modern, imprecise definition, used mostly in the context of American politics, is something like this: "person who supports conservative political candidates primarily because of their stands on certain key social issues."

Note that there are many Americans who meet the second definition but not the third. Most obviously, a lot of Black evangelicals do not vote for conservative candidates. And so, when you hear a low number for "percentage of the American population," it's likely because the more precise definition is being used. And when you hear a high number, it's likely because a looser definition is being used (and because respondents are being asked to self-identify). But again, note that there may be people who are in the 7 percent but are not in the 47 percent.

D.C. in Brentwood, CA, asks: If Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) does retire, what are the chances of the various potential candidates to take over her seat? I hear her daughter is being groomed for the role. There's also the progressive Shahid Buttar, who got more than 20% of the vote in the general election against Pelosi last cycle after weathering some clearly fictional scandals. Are there any other likely candidates? Maybe the mayor of San Francisco, London Breed (D)? What are your thoughts on what happens when the titan is no longer directly in the election?

V & Z answer: Pelosi is very popular in her district, and so her endorsement is almost certain to determine who replaces her. That's especially true if it's her daughter.

We think Shahid Buttar is unlikely. Although Pelosi's district (CA-12) is very blue, it's mostly moderate Democrats who live there. We also think London Breed is unlikely, mostly because San Francisco mayors who continue their political careers tend to aim a bit higher than the House of Representatives. Several of them have become U.S. senators (like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D), and several have become governor of California (like Gov. Gavin Newsom, D), and one even became governor of... Pennsylvania (John W. Geary, back in the 19th century). However, the only San Francisco mayor to serve in the U.S. House was John F. Shelley, who did so prior to his mayoralty, not after.

If you want a possible contender beyond Pelosi's daughter, how about City Supervisor Connie Chan? Chan represents City District 1, which forms part of CA-12, and is also the location of Pelosi's residence and her San Francisco office. Further, the district has nearly as many Asian voters (31.9%) as it does white voters (43.5%), so a popular young (43) candidate who speaks fluent Chinese could be a serious contender. Chan is progressive-adjacent, but not as far left as Buttar, and so is around the same place on the spectrum as Pelosi is.

J.M. in New Glasgow, NS, Canada, asks: Who are the 5 richest and 5 poorest senators? Can you comment on where their money (or lack thereof) came from?

V & Z answer: Note that it is that calculates these figures, and they do so by making their best guesses based on senators' disclosure forms, which only list assets within broad ranges (e.g., "I have stock in IBM worth between $50,001 and $100,000). Anyhow, here are the Top 5, according to OpenSecrets:

  1. John Hoeven (R-ND), $93 million
  2. Mike Braun (R-IN), $137 million
  3. Mitt Romney (R-UT), $174 million
  4. Mark Warner (D-VA), $214 million
  5. Rick Scott (R-FL), $260 million

Hoeven's wealth comes from the banks he inherited from his father, Braun's comes from the truck-accessory-manufacturing concern he inherited from his father, Romney's comes from his career as a venture capitalist (and in particular his taste for leveraged buyouts), Warner's also comes from his career as a venture capitalist (and in particular his partnerships with cellular phone providers), and Scott's also comes from his career as a venture capitalist (and in particular his ownership of various hospitals and health-related concerns).

And here are the Bottom 5:

  1. Brian Schatz (D-HI), -$554,493
  2. Tim Scott (R-SC), -$1,053,997
  3. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), -$1,115,970
  4. Marco Rubio (R-FL), -$1,262,995
  5. Todd Young (R-IN), -$1,392,999

In all of these cases, the story is basically the same: They have one or two big-time mortgages, which they secured thanks to their fairly generous and very reliable government salary (senators are paid $174,000 a year). Some of the younger senators also have student loans that are unpaid.

D.B. in Midlothian, Scotland, UK, asks: In recent conversation with an employee of a U.S. law enforcement agency, it was clear to me that the main concern of the person was investigation of rioters associated with the Black Lives Matters protests. While we mentioned the January 6 insurrection, it clearly was of limited interest. It was commented that you can protest without rioting. Other contacts from the US give a similar impression.

I get 90% of US political news from this site, and I wonder to what extent I am only learning the thoughts inside a left-wing bubble, while the real Americans see the BLM activity as the big problem. Would you please let me have your thoughts on this?

V & Z answer: We would propose that this conversation exposed this person's conservative bubble, and not your own liberal bubble.

We suggest two questions for your consideration, and that you might also pose to this person. The first is: "What enduring harm was done by the BLM protests?" Because that's an easy question to answer for the 1/6 insurrection; it weakened the U.S. democracy in a profound way and possibly laid the groundwork for a future, more successful coup.

The second question is: "Why does it have to be one or the other?" That is to say, if someone is asked whether or not the events of 1/6 were problematic, "B...b....b...but the BLM protests were really bad" is not actually an answer. The 1/6 insurrection can be evaluated independently of other events, and the drawing of a largely false equivalency to some other big-angry-crowd event suggests that the primary goal is misdirection.

The person's answers to these questions, or their inability to provide an answer, should indicate that their goal is merely to advance a political agenda and, in particular, to excuse the events of 1/6.

There are many Americans who are deeply concerned by the insurrection. There are many Americans who are deeply concerned by the insurrection and who also have concerns about BLM activities. There are many Americans who are basically dialed out and don't have much of an opinion on either. But it is only among Trumpers that there is enormous concern about BLM and none about 1/6.


F.L. in Denton, TX, asks: We've been talking about the wealth tax—a concept Huey Long (Russell's father) espoused long ago—and whether it would be constitutional. At any rate, before the 16th amendment was passed, I wonder how our government funded itself. I know that there was a temporary income tax after the Civil War and some revenue was generated by tariffs, but was there any other source of income? Did the U.S. sell land in new territories and the Louisiana purchase and the Alaska purchase? And did that offset the purchase price? It had to come from somewhere. Could you elaborate on this a bit, please?

V & Z answer: There are three eras in the history of government revenue. Prior to the Civil War, 90% of federal revenues came from tariffs.

The Civil War, of course, placed enormous financial burdens on the government that could not be met by its previous revenue streams. And so, the Lincoln administration deployed a number of approaches to raising the needed funds. There was the nation's first income tax. There were war bonds. And there were excise taxes (taxes charged at the point of manufacture, rather than the point of sale). The income taxes and war bonds were largely put aside after the war, but the excise taxes were not. And so, from 1863 to 1913, the federal government derived its income in roughly equal measure from tariffs (about 45%) and excise taxes (about 40%). Land sales were a part of the equation, but a fairly small part, as the primary goal in such sales was to get people to settle the continent, and not to make money for the government. That meant that land was sold cheaply.

The income tax became official in 1913, and since then, it has been the primary source of government revenue (about 56%). Today, second on the list is social insurance (e.g., Social Security), which is another form of tax, and provides about 20% of federal intake. Excises are down to about 15% and tariffs are down to about 5%.

J.F. in Fort Worth, TX, asks: (Z) wrote about files from the Kennedy assassination being kept secret. It is astounding to me that documents from 58 years ago are still classified. How are we (the public, journalists, historians, etc.) supposed to ever have a true understanding of that era if things are still officially kept secret?

Are there even older documents (that we know of) that are still secret? Things from the Taft or Wilson administrations perhaps? If so, how can that be justified after all this time? Do we need to get Benjamin Gates on the case?

V & Z answer: There are few problems that a heaping helping of Nicolas Cage will not solve.

Anyhow, a few years ago, the CIA made a bit of a show of declassifying and revealing the federal government's "six oldest classified documents." All of them were from World War I, and all involved techniques for the use of invisible ink.

Ultimately, though, even the CIA doesn't really know what the oldest classified document is, or was. The federal government is a behemoth, and many documents can only be seen by a very small number of eyes. So, no single person or agency could have a complete picture. There is also the possibility that a highly classified document was lost in the shuffle, and that everyone who knew about it has forgotten it or is dead, such that the document will remain eternally classified.

That said, the oldest publicly known still-classified documents date to the late 1950s and early 1960s, and primarily involve interactions with Cuba. Indeed, there is speculation that sensitive details about Cuba-U.S. relations are the reason the Kennedy documents are being kept secret.

P.M. in Currituck, NC, asks: I just covered the Civil War in my class. As part of my lessons, I showed numerous clips from the 1993 film Gettysburg. Could resident historian (Z) give his opinion of that film? How accurate is it?

V & Z answer: It's accurate in a very Michael Shaara-Ron Maxwell sort of way.

To start, Shaara (who wrote the book the movie is based upon) and Maxwell (the director) were deeply concerned with details, like troop movements and (in Maxwell's case) visual details like how the soldiers' uniforms looked. If you want your students to get a sense of what it was like to witness, for example, Pickett's Charge, you're not going to do much better than Gettysburg (assuming you overlook some of the atrocious makeup and hairstyling, particularly that on Martin "Robert E. Lee" Sheen, along with the fact that most of the extras were too old and too well-fed to be real Civil War soliders).

At the same time, Shaara (who died when Z was in junior high) and Maxwell (who Z has had dealings with) were interested in making a mainstream product that would appeal to all audiences. And so, anything that might be controversial or problematic was excised. There are no bad guys in the film. As little attention as is possible is given over to the causes of the war. The homefront, and the suffering therein, largely does not exist in the movie (and, in fact, there is only one woman in the cast, and she has a grand total of one line). All of this is consistent with a school of interpretation called the "Reconciliationist" version of the Civil War, which essentially posits that the war was an unfortunate thing that, at very least, allowed a bunch of heroic guys to do a bunch of heroic things (and pay no attention to that slave behind the curtain).

And while most of the characters were real historical figures, the Sgt. Buster Kilrain character is an invention, so that Shaara (and later Maxwell) would have one character to represent "the common man."

E.W. in Skaneateles, NY asks: The question from D.T. in San Jose, about historians' ability to identify which current events are likely to be significant reminded me about a long standing question I had. Which events in American history and politics were considered to be Important Pivotal Events at the time but later turned out to be mere historical footnotes?

V & Z answer: There are hundreds of possibilities, we would say. So, instead of trying to make a list, we'll highlight some general categories, with an example for each:

If readers have additional suggestions, send them in, along with a brief explanation, and we'll run some tomorrow.


S.I. in Philadelphia, PA, asks: I was puzzled on reading (Z)'s personal anecdote on Wednesday about a professor in graduate school who considered politics and culture to be "great-white-man history" and turned against (Z) for having an interest in them. Could you expand? Why was having an interest in topics that are "great-white-man history" a problem for that professor?

V & Z answer: There is a general dynamic, at least in many disciplines, that scholarship comes in "generations." And generally, members of a particular "generation" of scholarship see the previous generations as old-fashioned, trite, and narrow-minded. They also tend to see subsequent generations as doing work that is of dubious merit, that isn't rigorous enough, and that doesn't use the right kinds of tools and/or evidence.

The preeminent historians of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s primarily concerned themselves with narrative works and biographical sketches of great men. When this particular professor attended graduate school in the 1970s, their research focused on women's history. They felt that women had been too often excluded from the historical narrative (true) and that the reason was sexism (sometimes true, sometimes not). Undoubtedly, in this professor's graduate career, there were many confrontations with "old school" historians in which the two sides looked askance at the work of the other side.

The particular issue with this professor, though, was that their sense of pretty much everything—scholarship, race, politics, feminism, etc.—basically froze circa 1978. And so they were unable, for example, to wrap their minds around the possibility that the political and cultural history of the 2000s might be quite different from the much-more-sexist political and cultural work done in the 1950s.

Ultimately, the conflict between (Z) and this professor was, for the professor, a relatively minor battle in a career that was full of them. More famously, this person went to war against Robert Dallek, who did several notable political biographies, won the Bancroft Prize (as big a deal as the Pulitzer, for historians), and was one of the two or three most famous people in the UCLA history department. Dallek got so sick of it that he left UCLA for a post at Boston University.

B.B. in St. Louis, MO, asks: This week, one of the dancers on Dancing With the Stars described Devil's Night in Detroit as the night before Halloween when hundreds of empty buildings, which the city refused to demolish, were set on fire, almost like an extreme form of urban renewal. I had always heard Devil's Night described as a night of vandalism and arson. Is there any basis in viewing these pyro-shenanigans in a positive light?

V & Z answer: Does it strike you as implausible that a city would refuse to demolish hundreds of buildings, for some unstated reason? And even if you grant that, does it strike you as implausible that roving bands of troublemakers would be in a position to discern the difference between "still useful, but empty" and "in need of destruction"? What did they do, spend Halloween at the city planner's office? None of this passes the smell test for us.

In any event, fire has a nasty habit of spreading. And arson has a nasty habit of turning into other crimes. So, after taking a somewhat permissive attitude for a few decades, the city cracked down on Devil's Night, and it's basically a memory now. Under those circumstances, people tend to get romantic and nostalgic for that which is past. In this particular case, that nostalgia was helped along by movies like The Crow. In any event, there's no argument that this custom was somehow productive or admirable.

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