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      •  Saturday Q&A

Saturday Q&A

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Current Events

D.E. in Lancaster, PA, asks: This might require the staff lawyer to stop extorting you guys for bottles of Steel Reserve for a second, but what is the difference between Peter Navarro's indictment on contempt charges and the Department of Justice passing on charging Mark Meadows and Dan Scavino, who both refused to testify to the 1/6 panel? I don't see how one of Trump's flunkies can be charged while two others can't. All three public ally defied a subpoena and have done everything they can to impede the investigation.

V & Z answer: The DoJ doesn't agree that all three have done everything they can to impede the investigation. Navarro has been utterly uncooperative. Meadows and Scavino, by contrast, did surrender some materials to the Committee, and they also engaged in extended negotiations about testifying before bailing out at the last minute. According to the DoJ, that's the difference.

With that said, this seems to send a very bad message, namely that "partway cooperation" is good enough. Any future person of interest who is called by the committee, unless they are as stupid as Navarro, should turn over some amount of information (while keeping the juicy stuff private), and should engage in "negotiations" about testifying before magically deciding that testifying just doesn't feel right for them. We are unfamiliar with any other legal context where "partway cooperation" is acceptable.

One also wonders what Justice will do if and when the ball is in their court, and it's them that the Mark Meadowses and the Dan Scavinos of the world are halfway cooperating with.

M.H. in Boston, MA, asks: You made the case that the 1/6 committee is smart to take advantage of empty news cycles in the summer before election season starts. This is the opposite of the famous "never launch a product in August" strategy from when the Bush White House was propagandizing the Iraq invasion. Wouldn't it be better to have the committee hearings overlap with midterm races, especially where a pro-insurrection candidate is running?

V & Z answer: The Committee hopes people will actually tune in and watch some of the hearings. And that being the case, they are more likely to get eyeballs when there is less competition from sports, network programming, the start of the school year, etc. Further, don't forget that the Committee is a House committee, and that many of the members will be busy running for reelection themselves in September and October.

That said, it is likely that the Committee will time the release of its final report based on having maximal effect prior to the election. Our guess would be early-to-mid-October.

Note that the movie industry makes these sorts of calculations all the time. Sometimes the studios release a movie when they know there will be a lot of people in theaters, but also a lot of competition from other movies (e.g., Memorial Day weekend). Sometimes, the studios release a movie when there will be fewer people in theaters, but when their movie will be the only game in town (e.g., mid-January). It's just an assessment of what makes the most sense for that particular movie.

C.T. in Cape Coral, FL, asks: I haven't taken an economics class since junior high, so I hope you can help me understand changes in gasoline prices. I know you wrote previously about oil futures. What I don't get is how that impacts the gas that's already in the storage tanks, and why every station raises their prices the same day to the same amount. If oat futures rise, the container of oatmeal on the store shelf doesn't go up in price. How can what happens to gas be legal or, if it is, what can the executive or legislative branches do about it? It sure seems like collusion or monopolistic behavior.

V & Z answer: There are a few important dynamics to be aware of here. The first is that gasoline is difficult and expensive to store. Consequently, the average gas station has just 2-3 days' worth of supply at any given time, and their costs/prices are very much influenced by changes in the market. By contrast, oats/oatmeal don't operate on a timeframe anywhere near that narrow, especially since oil can be refined year-round, whereas oats can only be farmed for part of the year.

The second dynamic is that oats/oatmeal can compete on many different dimensions: taste, cost, how "healthy" they allegedly are, brand-name vs. generic, flavoring, ease of preparation, etc. That means there are many plausible price points for a box of oats/oatmeal. By contrast, there is virtually no product differentiation when it comes to brands of gasoline. Yes, some "generic" brands shave a few pennies off per gallon by foregoing additives and/or by being willing to purchase supply from any and all producers. And yes, some people choose a particular brand because they have a credit card or a membership or a rewards program that pushes them toward that brand. But beyond that, the great majority of consumers don't care about Shell vs. Exxon vs. Mobil. And so, if the Shell station on one corner is charging three cents a gallon less than the Exxon station on the opposite corner, consumers will flock to the Shell station. That pretty much forces name-brand gasolines who are near each other to charge the same prices. (The effect weakens considerably as the distance between stations grows, however. In Los Angeles, for example, there are famously several spots where two gas stations within half a mile of each other differ in price by over $1/gallon.)

Finally, as a byproduct of these two dynamics, most gas stations operate on very small margins. The average station pays something like $970,000 for every $1 million in gas it sells. So, the money earned by selling the 2-3 days' worth of gas in the tanks right now is used to buy... the next 2-3 days' worth of gas. And that means they are basically charging what the market will bear, based on their best (and usually pretty accurate) guess as to what gasoline will be selling for later in the week.

As you might infer from all of this, most gas stations make most of their money from things other than gas, most obviously the sales of snacks, drinks, and other convenience items. The gasoline is, in effect, a loss leader. And that, in addition to the nature of the market, argues against price gouging. The petroleum producers might well be engaging in monopolistic or other anti-competitive practices, but probably not the gas stations.

G.A. in Berkeley, CA, asks: Why do the U.S. and other countries specify the types, amounts, cost, delivery dates, and often the delivery locations of weapons that they intend to send to Ukraine? Isn't this valuable intelligence provided to Russia for free? Assuming that the supplying countries want bragging rights, why don't they take credit after the deliveries and not specify quantities or other details?

V & Z answer: It is possible that there is information the general public is not yet privy to that could be an important part of the answer. For example, if you announce that you're sending 100 Javelins to Kyiv, and the correct number of trucks needed to carry 100 Javelins travel to Kyiv, it would be pretty easy to sneak a few extra goodies in there without anyone but the Ukrainians knowing.

That said, based on what is publicly known, we would guess that what's going on here is the same thing as what happened more than 150 years ago with Fort Sumter. On taking office in March of 1861, the Lincoln administration knew that if the Fort was not resupplied, it would be compelled to surrender. However, if an attempt to resupply the Fort was made, it would be deemed an act of aggression by the South, and used as a pretext for war. So, President Lincoln, against the advice of much of his Cabinet, decided to resupply but to announce publicly and for all to hear when the supplies would be sent, and what supplies would be included. The point was to back the Confederacy into a corner. Either they would have to allow the supplies through, or they would have to open fire and be the aggressor. They did open fire, of course, and in so doing launched the Civil War. But Lincoln was at least able to extract a PR victory out of the mess, one that caused outraged Northerners to volunteer for service in droves, and that persuaded the U.K. and France to take a "wait and see" approach to recognizing the Confederacy (something those nations ultimately decided not to do).

Anyhow, by announcing exactly what is being delivered and where, it makes the U.S. and other nations appear to be transparent, and evenhanded, and concerned only with maintaining the peace. It's not like Vladimir Putin can do much with the information anyhow.

A.P. in Kitchener, ON, Canada, asks: Can you please speculate as to why Elena Kagan voted to not-stay the Texas social media law with three Conservatives on the court (Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch)? And why the other three conservatives (Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and John Roberts) would vote to stay the law?

V & Z answer: Kavanaugh, Barrett and Roberts either suspect the law is unconstitutional, or they are concerned with the many cans of worms that it might open if allowed to stand. Since none of them explained themselves, and since they don't have all that much jurisprudence under their belts (their robes?) on this particular subject, that's about as precise as we can get. As to Kagan, she didn't explain herself either, but she is generally opposed to the use of the "shadow docket," and has previously voted in a manner consistent with that position (i.e., casting votes that seem to clash with her general philosophy, but that would stop a decision from being made via the shadow docket). So, her vote here seems to be based on process, and not on the underlying legal issues.

C.L. in Boulder, CO, asks: I just got my April/May 2022 copy of Imprimis, published by Hillsdale College. This month's conservative article, adapted from an April 5, 2022, Christopher Rufo speech, has a section on Disney and the "Don't Say Gay" bill. After reading it and looking back on the April 23 posting, the two assessments vary widely. Does Rufo have some valid points? Here are some excerpts with my highlights:

A much bigger controversy began when the Disney Company waded into a political fight with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. DeSantis had signed a bill, passed by the state legislature, that prohibited teaching about gender ideology, sexual orientation, and sexuality in kindergarten, first grade, second grade, and third grade classrooms. Despite the fact that its opponents gave this bill an intentionally misleading name—the "Don't Say Gay" bill—it is supported, depending on the questions used by pollsters, by between 60 and 80 percent of Floridians.

Disney executives had marched into this controversy beating their chests, talking trash to Governor DeSantis, and committing the company to the overthrow of the bill protecting young children. But the leaked videos quickly generated over 100 million media impressions, and with public opinion heavily on the other side—not only in Florida, but nationwide—Disney was pummeled. People started canceling their subscriptions to Disney's streaming service, canceling planned trips to Disney theme parks, canceling Disney cruises, and thinking twice about letting their children watch Disney movies.

Elected officials noticed, too. The Florida legislature and Governor DeSantis have already revoked the special governance and tax status Disney has enjoyed since the 1960s. Disney's stock value plummeted nearly $50 billion in less than two months. And now Members of Congress are asking why Disney deserves automatic copyright extensions on things like Mickey Mouse—copyrights that customarily have a 28-year limit. If Congress lets Disney's various copyrights expire next year, it will cost Disney additional multiple billions of dollars.

V & Z answer: Chris Rufo is a guy who uses his vaguely academic credentials (he works for a couple of think tanks) to add additional "authority" to his ultimately dubious arguments. Ben Shapiro, with his law degree, is another. Dennis Prager, who runs a "university," is a third.

Broadly speaking, Rufo's characterization of Disney's response does not square with the facts, nor does it make sense. He makes it seem as if the corporation simply could not wait to do battle with DeSantis. However, Disney's slow and fairly mild response, delivered mostly courtesy of the company's former CEO, makes clear that they really preferred to stay out of the whole mess. The people who run the Disney Corporation are committed, first and foremost, to the company's financial bottom line. And that's not just a reflection of their values, it's a reflection of their legal duty to shareholders. Michael Jordan supposedly once said that he avoided politics "because Republicans buy shoes, too." That may well be apocryphal, but the sentiment is on target. Like Nike/Jordan, Disney has customers from across the political spectrum, and would prefer not to alienate any of them. The company eventually spoke up because its customers and, in particular, its employees demanded some action. And frankly, when it comes to assessing what's right for the business of Disney, we suspect that Disney executives know a hell of a lot more than Chris Rufo does.

The passages you have highlighted, meanwhile, are all textbook examples of dishonest argumentation. Starting with the claim about polling, well, that one is an outright lie. This particular question is very, very difficult to poll because it's hard to word the question(s) in a way that is not leading. And there is ONE poll that supports Rufo's assertion (of course, he implies that it is ALL polls that produce this result). And that poll was conducted by Alex Alvarado, a 25-year-old who describes himself as a "Republican strategist" and who graduated college... 2 years ago. You surely don't need us to tell you to take that poll with many barrels of salt. Meanwhile, there are many polls, like this one, that suggest a majority of Floridians oppose the bill. If you'd like to read a bit more about the challenges of polling this question, see this article from The Week.

Moving on to the highlighted portion of the second paragraph, you'll notice that Rufo doesn't even bother with evidence, aggressively spun or otherwise. Some of his claims are virtually impossible to prove or disprove. How can you know if there's been a spike in parents "thinking twice about letting their children watch Disney movies"? What does that even mean? Other claims can only be judged with information that would not have been available at the time Rufo made the speech. For example, he asserts that "people started canceling their subscriptions to Disney's streaming service." Undoubtedly, some of them did. However, in the first three months of 2022, Disney actually added 7.9 million subscribers. It's true that period largely predates the whole "Don't say gay" controversy. However, that's the only information that's currently available (it was in Disney's Q2 earnings report), and it certainly doesn't support Rufo's argument.

And that brings us to the third paragraph you excerpted. Since the "Don't say gay" bill became public knowledge, the high point for Disney stock was $156.35/share on Feb. 16. Since the day Disney and DeSantis first butted heads, the high point for Disney stock was $131.90 on April 19. Its low point since was $101.59 on May 24. Disney has 1.82 billion outstanding shares. So, between Feb. 16 and May 24, the company lost $98.6 billion in value. Between April 19 and May 24, the company lost $55 billion in value.

Rufo's numbers are in the ballpark, then. They may even be on the bullseye, if he had bothered to mention what timeframe he was looking at. The dishonest part is attributing the decline in value to the "Don't say gay" controversy. As anyone who so much as glances at the news each day knows, the market as a whole has done poorly in the last few months. We are unaware of any way to isolate "Don't say gay" from other factors that may have affected Disney's stock price. Although you can see it was already headed downhill when the whole controversy began. And for what it's worth, the price of Disney has tracked the NASDAQ almost exactly, and the Dow Jones almost exactly, but for the last month, when the Dow has recovered at a quicker rate than Disney has.

And finally, there is the bit about Disney's copyrights. The fellow taking the lead here is Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), who has introduced a bill that would promptly end the copyright extensions that have been granted over the years. However, we are not sure what this proves, other than a few ambitious Republicans saw an opportunity to score points with the base. There is little chance the bill comes up for a vote in the Senate and zero chance it passes. Even if it does pass, it's not exactly a mortal blow to Disney, per se. The copyright on the early "Steamboat Willie" Mickey Mouse expires in... 2024. And the copyright on the more familiar version of Mickey expires in... 2030. The other core Disney characters will follow similar timelines. So, the bigger blow to Disney would be failing to secure another extension, not having its current extensions canceled.

To summarize, Rufo argues that Disney made a very bad business decision. And his implicit argument is that anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment is a majority position in America. It is not surprising he would take this position, since anti-LGBTQ+ activism is one of his two main causes, along with anti-CRT activism. However, we do not believe the available evidence supports his assertions about Disney or about anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment. Certainly, the shaky evidence that Rufo provides doesn't support it.


J.A. in Puerto Armuelles, Panama, asks: The United States has nominally been a two-party (at times, one-and-a-half party) system, but until recently both parties were actually coalitions of regional parties that were mostly quite different from each other.

Now, of course, there are two truly national parties. Broadly speaking Republicans will tend to mostly agree with other Republicans, wherever they live, and the same goes for Democrats, although probably to a lesser extent.

Is the current state of play likely to be a long-term prospect or is it unstable, an aberration? You recently wrote several times about what voters who were drowned out in their area could do by say voting in the other party's primary. Is it not likely that sooner or later a party will come along that offers an alternative for these voters? Both the United Kingdom and... Anadacay have first-past-the-post and a lot more than two parties.

V & Z answer: We're going to have to dispute your premise. There are clear wings of the Democratic Party today, namely the moderates (the Hillary wing) and the progressives (the Bernie wing). And there are clear wings of the Republican Party today, namely the Trumpers and the Never Trumpers. It is also the case, as it has been for two centuries, that the more conservative wing of the more conservative party draws most of its power from the Southern states.

Sometimes the major wings of one party or the other are basically equal in power, as was the case with progressive Republicans vs. moderate Republicans in the early decades of the 20th century. Usually, as is the case with both parties right now, one wing is more powerful than the other. The only thing that's somewhat unusual about today is the extent to which members of each party are segregated from members of the other party. There are some really red/blue communities, and some very red/blue cities, and some pretty red/blue states, at a frequency greater than was the case 50/100/150 years ago. Related to this, it is very possible for someone to live their entire lives in an extremist media bubble, particularly if the person's tastes are for an extremist conservative media bubble.

Moving on to the second part of your question, if the study of history has taught (Z) anything about politics, it's this: There isn't going to be a viable third party. The American system, which demands a majority in the Electoral College and in many local races, only leaves room for two major parties. And those major parties have proven adept, over time, at reinventing themselves as necessary. That is why there hasn't been a new major party since 1854, and even that required a major party that was pretty weak (the Whigs) and a divisive issue which offered no middle ground (slavery). We can see no modern issue that would cleave one of the major parties in two, causing many members to join the other party and the remainder to form their own, new party.

The only possibility for a viable third party is if ranked-choice voting catches on nationwide (and then passes constitutional muster). This does not seem a likely development, particularly in the near future.

H.F. in Pittsburgh, PA, asks: President Biden's approval rating currently hovers around 40%. His only major legislative accomplishments were in the first year of his administration: The American Rescue Plan Act and the "hard infrastructure" bill. The election of 2020 was Biden's third bite at the apple; he had unsuccessful primary campaigns in 2008, and way back in 1988 (in the days when Chevy Cavaliers roamed the land). If Sen. Biden had been elected president in either of those previous tries, would those administrations have fared better? Congressional Republicans and the environment of Washington were profoundly changed by the rise of Speaker Newt Gingrich, and then by the backlash against Obama's presidency.

V & Z answer: We are inclined to doubt it. When Americans headed to the polls in 1988, a major recession was on the horizon, thanks in no small part to the economic policies of the Reagan years. So, Biden would have ended up with a situation not all that different from the one he's got now, namely a foreign policy headache (Iraq/Ukraine) and an economy that pisses off voters.

As to 2008, Obama entered office with the view that bipartisanship was possible. And so, while he secured passage of the Affordable Care Act, he failed to achieve other goals because of his constant efforts to reach across the aisle. Biden tends to fetishize bipartisanship, too, despite having knowledge of 8 years of Obama (and 4 of Trump). We see no reason, then, that Biden wouldn't have fallen victim to the same mistakes Obama did. And maybe Biden wouldn't have had the skills to get the ACA passed, so he'd actually be worse off than Obama was, résumé-wise.

M.C. in Plymouth, NH, asks: Three years ago, after a significant polling fail in the 2019 Australian election I write to you bemoaning whether polls can be trusted anymore.

This time around they appear to have hit the statistical bullseye—the last polls had Labor at 51.5-53.0% (two-party preferred) and the counting to date is settling at around 52%.

So my question then is do you, with a more global perspective, think polling methodology has improved in recent times or is it just that nature of the beast that sometimes it will miss?

V & Z answer: Polling is like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Once you have evidence that the pollsters are doing well, it's time for a new election cycle and you can't be certain anymore that their methods are still up to date. Our guess is that the pollsters have indeed figured some things out in the past few years, though that's just a guess. We can also say that the success in Australia doesn't necessarily presage better success in the U.S., since the apparent issue with U.S. polls in the last couple of cycles has been properly accounting for Trumpy voters. That's a distinctly American phenomenon.


J.A. in Madrid, Spain, asks: My question is regarding this Friday's piece on Michigan's gubernatorial candidates. You mentioned, as you have done in the past, the concept of write-in voting. What I find puzzling about this option of voting is that, say, if a certain person with a very common name and surname (e.g., "John Smith") is able to win the election solely through write-in ballots, then who can tell which "John Smith" gets to become Governor of Michigan, out of the many that must be alive in that state? Given that it is very likely that there is at least more than one "John Smith" in Michigan, shouldn't this be an issue?

V & Z answer: Michigan, like most of the forty or so states that allow write-ins, requires would-be write-in candidates to file a statement of intent that they are a write-in candidate. Not only that, but that candidate must declare a party affiliation and an office. So, if you write in John Smith in Michigan, your vote gets tossed out. And if you write in John Smith, Republican, for governor, then your vote goes to the one John Smith whose write-in paperwork matches that combination. If you intended to vote for a different Republican John Smith for governor, then too bad for you. And if there are multiple John Smiths running for governor in Michigan as a write-in Republican, then the second one to file has to use a middle initial.

In circumstances where write-in candidates are not required to declare themselves, it is assumed that the "correct" John Smith will be obvious, should it become relevant. For example, if you are running a write-in campaign for president in New Jersey, the folks in the Garden State assume that if you get enough votes (about 2.5 million) to win the state's electoral votes, then everyone knew which John Smith it was they were voting for.

R.M. in Norwich, CT, asks: I read your item on the Pennsylvania mail-in-ballot counting being stopped. You mentioned the two candidates it affected and called out Mehmet Oz as a "celebrity quack." I certainly can't disagree with you, but remind me again the difference between libel and slander and how/why the bar is set differently for public figures. I seriously doubt the good doctor reads this site with his morning coffee, but does he have a beef with the comment if it did come to his attention?

V & Z answer: Well, to start, the difference between libel and slander is that the former is written and the latter is spoken. So, if Oz were to sue us, it would be a libel complaint.

And we are safe from such a suit. Calling him a "quack," like calling him a moron, or calling him ugly, is a subjective judgment. It cannot be proven or disproven. Ergo, Oz's attorneys would not be able to prove that we had written something about him that is demonstrably false. And if they attempted to argue that "quack" is actually objective, then our lawyer would point out that the dictionary definition of quack medicine is "presented falsely as having curative powers," and would show the jury a dozen segments from Oz's show in which he peddled snake-oil "cures" that have no evidenciary basis. Truth is an absolute defense against a libel claim.

S.B. in Hadley, MA, asks: What would it actually take for a state to leave the union? Texas has, I believe, made mild threats to do so before. (Damn, I wish they would follow through on the threat!) I know how you feel about Canada, and I know this is just a "grass is greener on the other side" fantasy of mine, but how would a U.S. state actually go about leaving the union and could it then join another country like Canada?

V & Z answer: Well, the Civil War pretty much established that states cannot leave the union. Once they are in, they are in forever. That said, the only way it would be possible is if the residents of the state asked to leave the union, Congress passed a bill granting the request, and the president signed it. Even then, the courts might say "no," but that's the only possible path.

J.D. in Rohnert Park, CA, asks: If, hypothetically, Donald Trump (or for that matter, anyone else) managed to "win" the 2024 election by clearly fraudulent means (say, "alternate slates of electors"), what would happen if the Chief Justice refused to swear them in? What if there were a majority of the Supreme Court who objected to the election?

V & Z answer: Legally speaking, it would not matter if John Roberts was willing to perform the ceremony or not. If he refused, there are literally millions of people who have the authority to do it. Calvin Coolidge was sworn in, quite famously, by his father, by virtue of dad being a notary public. So, Trump would just find some Trumpy individual who was qualified and willing. Neomi Rao seems an obvious choice, but there are undoubtedly hundreds of thousands of others.

It would also not matter, legally speaking, what the collective opinion of the Supreme Court was. They only matter if there is a specific legal case before them. In your scenario, it has to be assumed that the Trumpers avoided filing such cases, or that they filed them and the Supremes ruled in Trump's favor.

That said, if Trump obviously gained the presidency through fraudulent means, and the Chief Justice and his colleagues openly declared him to be a fraud, that would likely have a pretty big effect in terms of encouraging resistance to, and very probably rebellion against, the second Trump administration.

M.M. in San Diego, CA, asks: If Congressional Republicans choose to abuse their powers to investigate (Benghazi, Clinton e-mail server), is there no legal recourse? Has anyone standing to sue them because of their bad faith activities? Is voting the miscreants out office the only option? Is there no other mechanism to check such corruption?

V & Z answer: The people who built the government were leery of interfering with unpopular but legitimate uses of Congressional power. And the other two branches of the government are leery of violating the separation of powers. And so, Congress is relied upon to police itself when it comes to things like this. And if they don't, the voters can toss the members out on their rear ends.

So there is no legal recourse, we are sorry to say. If there were, you can bet that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and his colleagues would be pursuing it right now in an effort to discredit the 1/6 Committee, even if they did not expect to win their case.


K.F.K. in CleElum, WA, asks: I read somewhere that the Second Amendment was added at the behest of slave-owning states because slave owners wanted to be able to form militias to put down rebellions. It was a way to get Southern states on board to sign the Constitution. Perhaps your resident historian could give more background as to whether or not this is true, or kind of true, or not true at all.

V & Z answer: There is no question that maintaining racial control was one motivation (among many) for establishing the right to bear arms. And there is no question that many Southerners were therefore pleased when that Amendment was enshrined into the Constitution. However, the causal relationship you described does not exist.

The Constitution was ratified in 1789. Among the first states to ratify was Virginia, which did not place any prerequisites on its support. That is to say, the Virginians did not demand that a Bill of Rights be added to the document, nor did they demand protections for any specific right. And most of the other, smaller Southern states took their cues from Virginia. The handful of states whose ratification was contingent on a Bill of Rights did not specify one particular right, nor was their demand for a Bill of Rights tied to one particular concern or goal.

Again, many Southerners were pleased when the Second Amendment was written in 1790 and was adopted in 1791. But their support for the Constitution was not conditional on that one addition.

R.E.M. in Brooklyn, NY, asks: This New York Times story states that Donald Trump's Head of Personnel, John McEntee, wrote a memo claiming that Thomas Jefferson "used his position as VP" to win the election of 1800. I assume that's a lie because I have only heard that the issue was an even number of Federalist and Democratic-Republican state delegations in the House (Jefferson, as the then Vice President was President of the Senate and had no role in the House), and a Federalist finally switched his vote to give Jefferson the presidency and Aaron Burr the vice-presidency. Am I missing something, or otherwise misinformed, or is this just another load of nonsense from a Trump flunky?

V & Z answer: Yes, and yes. You are missing something AND this is just another load of nonsense from a Trump flunky. Maggie Haberman does not explain this in the linked piece, but the McEntee memo did not refer to the process you describe and are familiar with. It referred to the fact that Georgia's certification of the results was not formatted properly. So, when Congress met to certify the results on Feb. 11, 1801, Jefferson read it aloud and noted the problem. No objections were raised, since there was no doubt that Georgia had gone for the Democratic-Republican ticket, and that was that.

From this, McEntee concluded that the vice president has the power to decide which EVs are, and are not, valid. But, of course, this is not what the Jefferson precedent illustrates. What it illustrates is that it's up to Congress to assess problematic slates of voters, and if they choose not to do so, then there's no issue. What the Jefferson precedent most certainly does not illustrate is that the VP has the power to discard EVs at their own discretion. And when a person invokes a dubious precedent from well over 200 years ago, well, that's pretty much the textbook definition of grasping at straws.

J.B. in Hutto, TX, asks: I recently read the book The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century. I was struck by the description of so many Ivy League-educated members of wealthy and elite American families—the de facto nobility of American society—casting everything aside and rushing to join the army during the Spanish-American War. It reminded me of similar stories of Boston Brahmins from abolitionist families fighting in the Union army during the Civil War, when they might easily have remained at home and even hired a substitute in the event they were drafted. Going farther back, we see similar stories during the Revolution of Northern merchants and Southern planters raising and equipping units at their own expense and putting their own lives on the line for the American cause.

It seems to me that the American upper class once possessed a sense of noblesse oblige and civic responsibility, which has largely vanished in our own time. Am I seeing the past through rose-tinted glasses or is there something to this perspective?

V & Z answer: There is certainly something to this perspective. In Western nations, there was a longstanding tradition that the "nobles" are expected to be front and center when it is time to fight a war. In Europe, for many centuries, that meant kings and dukes and counts and knights of the realm. Since the U.S. doesn't have a hereditary nobility, it meant people like Theodore Roosevelt.

That said, there are a couple of other dynamics worth pointing out. Prior to Vietnam, service in a war was seen by many American men as a rite of passage and a way to demonstrate one's masculinity. So, while TR was motivated by the demands of his social class, as he perceived them, he was also motivated by the demands of his gender, as he perceived them. Also, and in a related point, any aspiring politician before Vietnam benefited enormously from having military service on his résumé. So, TR was also motivated by his future career goals.

It's probably also worth noting that the George W. Bush trick of arranging for military service, but not-too-dangerous military service, is nothing new. Part of the reason that so many elites hustled to sign up for the Spanish-American War was that they believed it would be a short and easy fight. And they were right about that. For example, while it's true that TR did participate in an actual battle, the whole of his combat career lasted about 65 minutes. That's not quite the same thing as spending 6 months in the rice paddies of Vietnam. Similarly, a lot of American elites got their Civil War service in relatively safe command or administrative posts. The famous example here is Robert Lincoln, who actually wanted to serve in a forward post, but whose father used his influence to get his son assigned to a job on Ulysses S. Grant's staff.


C.T.P. in Lancaster, PA, asks: There is something dead and that stinks, really bad, in my attic! This reminded me of this question I have been meaning to ask both of you, (V) and (Z), concerning fake Facebook accounts. I believe a number of commentators on the Facebook page of my U.S. Representative, Lloyd Smucker (R-PA), are "fake." How can I determine if this is the case?

V & Z answer: You have to do a little detective work. The first thing you should do is search their profile picture using Google images (usually, right-clicking on the picture will give you this option). If the image is a stock photo, or appears hundreds of times on Google images, then it's probably a fake account. The second thing you should so, if the first trick does not produce results, is look at the person's friend list. If they have very few friends (less than 20 or 30), that's usually a bad sign. Similarly, if they have friends from all over the world, or a majority of their friends are on a different continent, that is also a bad sign. Finally, you can look at their timeline. Fake accounts usually have a pretty empty timeline because they are not regularly engaging with the site the way normal users do.

A.N. in Tempe, AZ, asks: You wrote, in reference to a question on grade adjustments: "At UCLA, for example, 90% of students, at the time of their enrollment, are planning to attend either law or medical school."

I know UCLA has large engineering, physics, chemistry, geology, music, fine arts and other schools whose majority of students are unlikely to be entering these fields intending them to serve as pre-med or pre-law (with significant exceptions for biomedical engineering). Where does the 90% number come from?

V & Z answer: It comes from the speech that they give at orientation, as a means of encouraging people to expand their horizons and to consider new possibilities. It's possible that number has gotten a little bit out-of-date over the years but, based on (Z)'s interactions with students, it's not very much out-of-date.

Note also that is no "right" major for aspiring lawyers and doctors, and that UCLA does not offer pre-med or pre-law majors. So, a lot of the students in chemistry, physics, etc. are aspiring doctors. And a lot of the students in history, philosophy, poli sci, etc. are aspiring lawyers. And (Z) has also known history majors who went to med school and geologists who went to law school, among other unexpected combinations.

T.I. in Oceanside, CA, asks: You wrote: "...when (Z) was a teaching assistant, he once had a student tell him that the professor had excused the student from attending discussion section. Since discussion was 25% of the grade, this created an interesting problem. And when (Z) asked the professor how he wanted that problem handled, the professor said that he had not excused the student from discussion section."

When I was doing my Ph.D. at Illinois in the mid-1960s, I was a TA for professors doing a combined course in the English and Psychology departments based on their work in Programmed Instruction. The lead was Dr. Susan Markle, a protege of B.F. Skinner. Much of the classroom work was done by TAs since the professor was deep into research/observation and writing (Good Frames and Bad was being written at that time). I gave her lectures, to 400+ students, twice a week, and held small group meetings and produced some AV (hey, remember AV?).

The "inner city" students (this was the Chicago campus) were in an experimental class for teaching remedial English (EN-95). Like (Z), I would be challenged by students, not used to actually doing college level work, to excuse absences and missed assignments with references to the professor saying it was okay. Embarrassingly, some didn't even recall the professor's name when asked.

What was perhaps more disturbing was the number of young women who assumed they would get better grades by... I think the euphemism would be "flirting" with the TA. Me. In openly discussing this with several, it seemed that it was sort of a "traditional method" to improve grades in certain high schools at that time. Have either of you been confronted with this, an expectation that all it takes is an offer to... fill in the blank?

V & Z answer: No. It's been a while since you were at Illinois, and one of the things that has changed in that time is that campuses are hypervigilant about sexual harassment and other such misdeeds. Indeed, at UCLA, professors are encouraged to never, ever have their door closed if they have a single student in their office. That makes it challenging when something confidential needs to be discussed, like special accommodations for disabilities.

This is not to say that sex-for-grades, or other such exchanges, is unknown. But to avoid potential consequences, the negotiations would have to be in code. "Is there ANYTHING I can do to pass the class?" "Well, what were you thinking?" "Maybe some sort of... extracurricular research?" And so forth. That means that both parties have to be aware of what is going on, and have to play along. Since (V) and (Z) would never, ever be open to this, the opening salvo ("Is there ANYTHING I can do to pass the class?") would not get the correct encoded response from them, and that would be that.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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