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Saturday Q&A

Two subjects absolutely dominated the Q&A e-mails for the last two weeks, and so two subjects shall dominate today's post.

Current Events: The War in Ukraine

R.H.D. in Webster, NY, asks: From President Biden on down, there has been recent talk about a possible World War III with the Ukraine situation. What would need to happen in this case for it to be called "World War III"? Would it have to directly involve the U.S./NATO vs. Russia? Would it have to be fought in multiple countries? Would the imposed no-fly zone and shooting of planes on each side do it?

In general, what would be considered the requirements needed to be a World War these days?

V & Z answer: There is no IBFAMN (International Bureau for the Adjudication of Martial Nomenclature), of course. Generally speaking, then, it is the media that determine what terminology is used. It was newspapers that decided on the names of most Civil War battles, it was newspapers that decided that Turkey/Austria-Hungary/Germany were the "Central Powers" in World War I, and it was newspapers that decided that Germany/Italy/Japan were the "Axis Powers" in World War II.

Given the modern media's propensity for sensationalism, our guess is that the term World War III would be deployed pretty much automatically if the U.S. or any other major NATO power entered the war. And the term would certainly be deployed if nuclear weapons began to fly. For at least half a century, "World War III" and "nuclear war" have been effectively interchangeable.

That said, if you wanted to be precise, the three wars that have been described as "world wars," namely the French and Indian War (known as the Seven Years' War outside of the U.S.), World War I, and World War II. And what those three wars had in common was that major combat took place on multiple fronts that were located on multiple continents. So, for the Russia-Ukraine situation to really and truly be a world war, it would have to be waged substantially in both Europe and Asia, and probably in Africa (or the Mediterranean) as well.

R.L. in Alameda, CA, asks: What is a tactical nuclear weapon? What can possibly be tactical about flattening a city and polluting a region with radioactive fallout wherever the wind blows? What is this a euphemism for?

V & Z answer: The Russians, in particular, have always been mindful of the propaganda elements of nuclear warfare. When the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were competing in the 1940s and 1950s to see who could build the biggest and scariest nuke, the Russians "won" with Tsar Bomba, a.k.a. "The King of Bombs." It was too large to actually be loaded onto a plane and deployed; its only purpose was to communicate that Russian penises are longer than American penises. In any event, Tsar Bomba produced as much energy as the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined... and then multipled by 1,570. It also produced 10 times as much energy as all of the conventional bombs used in World War II.

"Tactical nuclear weapon" is sort of the flip side of Tsar Bomba. It is an attempt to spin the nukes as, in effect, conventional bombs that just happen to be extra powerful. The purpose is to try to have the benefits of nuclear weapons (mass destruction, achieved quickly and efficiently) without suffering the downsides (other countries are given justification to start lobbing their own nukes, or else to invade Russia). In other words, Vladimir Putin wants to have his yellowcake and eat it, too. But the fact is that "tactical" nukes still have 5 to 25 times the destructive power of the bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There's nothing "conventional" about them.

D.T. in San Jose, CA, asks: Let's assume that Joe Biden's comment, "This man cannot remain in power," was actually a trial balloon, rather than a genuine gaffe. Who is the intended audience for that message?

V & Z answer: Presumably Vladimir Putin. An approximate translation: "If you keep this war going, comrade, you're playing with fire."

J.B. in Hutto, TX, asks: How do you think Donald Trump would have responded to Russia's invasion of Ukraine had he won reelection in 2020?

V & Z answer: The overwhelming likelihood is that he would have looked the other way and would have let it happen.

It is entirely possible that Trump is somehow under Putin's thumb, either due to business concerns, or kompromat, or something else. We don't know, one way or the other, and it's possible the public will never know for sure. However, even if Trump is not in hock to the Russian, there are three other immutable truths. The first is that Trump simply cannot deal with the consequences of unpleasant decisions, and so he would not have been able to cope with the economic and political fallout of responding to Putin. The second is that, as Joe Biden has demonstrated, this is a situation that calls for skillful diplomacy. Trump is the world's worst diplomat, and the people around him weren't much better. And the third is that Trump is fundamentally an isolationist who doesn't want to be involved in foreign conflicts. He has very few consistent principles, but this is one of them; he's been an isolationist for at least 40 years.

P.C. in Austin, TX, asks: I find it surprising that the former president, known for switching horses mid-race to get the "win," hasn't emphatically switched to the non-Putin camp. ("Worst leader Russia has EVER SEEN!")

To me, this looks suspiciously like a "tell," a confirmation that Putin does indeed have something that could significantly benefit him (Trump Tower Moscow?), or something that could significantly harm him (pee-pee tape?), or both. Given his M.O., I just can't come up with a plausible alternative explanation. Putin is a losing horse no matter the outcome. What else could be the reason for not switching the winning team? Is it simply because Biden is in the same camp, and the former president suffers from Oppositional-Defiance Disorder?

Any comments on this?

V & Z answer: "Trump is in the thrall of Putin" is one possible explanation, but we can think of three others. The first of those is that the former president hates, hates, hates to admit he was wrong, and switching sides on Putin would force him to do that in very high profile fashion. The second is that Trump, especially these days, tends to follow rather than lead, and the people who are leading the Republican Party (e.g. Tucker Carlson) are pro-Putin. And the third is that opposing Putin means implicitly supporting Volodymyr Zelenskyy. That is the same Volodymyr Zelenskyy who refused to play ball in 2020 and pretend that he was digging up dirt on Hunter Biden. And as we've seen in the case of Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA), Trump is a man who holds grudges, particularly against those he thinks cheated him out of being reelected.

P.B. in Chicago, IL, asks: You mentioned that Joe Biden is going to release 1 million barrels per day from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). How does that work? Who gets that oil and at what price?

I am hoping that the big oil companies don't get it at a cheap price and then make even more profit by turning it into gasoline and selling it at a premium to U.S. consumers, but how else could the process work? They have all the infrastructure to do that.

V & Z answer: Actually, the way it's set up is pretty clever. The government holds an auction, usually via the Internet, at which all the major petroleum conglomerates are welcome to bid. However, the bids are not in the form of money, they are in the form of future barrels of oil, to be delivered to the U.S. government. Imagine, for example, that the government is selling 500,000 barrels of crude oil. In that case, the opening bid is 500,000 barrels of equivalent quality crude oil, payable on some set timeline (usually 6 months or a year in the future), along with X barrels of premium oil. Whichever bidder agrees to include the largest amount of premium oil in their repayment is the winner of the auction.

Undoubtedly, the petroleum companies will make money on these deals, or they wouldn't bid. However, the situation is not set up for profiteering, particularly given that there are competing bids. And once the crisis has passed, the government gets back its oil, for use the next time a crisis rolls around, along with premium oil it can sell in order to cover the costs of running the SPR.

D.M. in Shallotte, NC, asks: I have a simple question when it comes to oil production: Seems to me we kinda saved the country of Kuwait in 1991 from Saddam Hussein. So, why can't we encourage the Kuwaitis to increase their production?

V & Z answer: There are two problems with this plan. The first is that Kuwait, while oil rich, is ultimately pretty small. They currently produce 3.5 million barrels of oil a day, and they have a long-term plan that they hope, by 2040, will get that up to maybe 4.25 million barrels a day. In other words, whatever additional production the Kuwaitis might pull off in the next 6-12 months would be a relative drop in the barrel.

The other issue is that Kuwait is a part of OPEC, and is not going to be enthusiastic about defying the organization's set limits on oil production.

J.K. in Freehold, NJ, asks: What is the criteria for entry into the G20 and, more importantly just now, what is the criteria for removal from the G20? Any democratic consideration here?

V & Z answer: The answer is: nobody really knows.

The G20 is a somewhat informal consortium, and is not governed by a charter. That means there is no set procedure for admission to the group, or for expulsion from the group. In turn, that likely means that to boot Russia, it would require the entire group to reach agreement on that decision. Yes, in theory, 11 of the Gs could outvote 9 of the Gs, but some of the outvoted Gs (China, India) might quit the group in protest. So, the costs of "majority rules, nyah, nyah, nyah!" could outweigh the benefits.

Incidentally, the G8 is also an informal consortium that is not governed by a charter. However, its members, in addition to the U.S., are the U.K., Germany, France, Japan, Italy, and Canada. You will notice that China and India are not included. And that is why the G8 was able to agree to kick Russia out and become the G7 (which is also what it was before Russia joined).

B.J.L. in Ann Arbor, MI, asks: It's been heartening to track the progress of the Ukrainians as they fight back against the Russian attacks. In recent days, it appears that the Russians have been retreating to defensible positions further away from Kyiv in the northwest, maybe in other places as well. I wonder whether you have any recommendations for news services that have more granular details of war's progress on the battlefield. The American news services have very little to offer, and they appear to have few stringers. They're mainly rehashing what's created elsewhere. I have found France24 seems to have some pretty harrowing details of the current conflict in Irpin, but beyond that, where would you go to find more granular assessments of day-by-day progress?

And bravo to the Ukrainians. They've struck a chord of solidarity that never happened in Afghanistan.

V & Z answer: You might want to take a look at Al Jazeera's coverage. Beyond that, we will open the floor to suggestions from readers, which we'll run tomorrow.

B.R. in Helena, MT, asks: How many years do you think it will be before the Russian (general) public understands the fundamental truths of the Ukranian invasion? That is, how long can the disinformation and censorship hold sway on perceived "history"?

V & Z answer: There are many, many Russians who already understand what's going on. And there will be some who spend the rest of their lives choosing not to understand, and passing that on to subsequent generations. Consider how many Americans today—many in the South, many not—still have a propagandistic understanding of the Civil War ("It wasn't about slavery!"), which ended nearly 160 years ago.

Current Events: The Supreme Court

E.W. in Skaneateles, NY, asks: Could Senate Democrats make a deal with Senate Republicans that they would impeach and remove Associate Justice Clarence Thomas to assert congressional power and punish blatant conflicts of interest, and in exchange get President Biden to nominate and the Senate to confirm a still-conservative-but-not-scandal-tainted replacement? If that were to happen, should the Democrats renege on that deal and nominate and confirm moderate Merrick Garland? One can dream...

V & Z answer: There is absolutely no way the Democrats go for this. They would never say it openly, but they are really, really hoping that Thomas leaves the Court very soon, either due to his age, or due to his health or... how shall we say it, due to having kicked the oxygen habit. There's no way they participate in a scheme that puts someone younger in Thomas' place.

Meanwhile, there's no way that Republicans participate in a scheme that puts someone older in Thomas' place. They would also be loath to call into question the ethics and conduct of the most influential conservative jurist of the last half century. And finally, they would be worried that the Democrats would go scorched earth and would renege on the deal, just as you propose. The Democrats almost certainly don't have the sand for that, but it's exactly what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would do, so he's gonna be worried about it being done to him.

R.L. in Tucson, AZ, asks: I was wondering if Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is confirmed to the Supreme Court and then Justice Clarence Thomas dies, will she be able to take his place on the Court instead, and would Justice Stephen Breyer then be able to rescind his resignation, resulting in a new Democratic majority?

V & Z answer: Justices are nominated to fill "a vacancy," not any specific vacancy. So, if the first seat to come open was Thomas', then Jackson would assume that seat. Breyer could rescind his resignation if he so desired, but it's more probable that Joe Biden would just name another nominee. That said, even if Jackson replaces Thomas, it would still be 5-4 for the conservatives—John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett—and would not be a Democratic majority.

The only circumstance in which nominations might need to be shuffled a bit would be if the unexpected vacancy was the chief justiceship. When Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement, George W. Bush tapped Roberts as her replacement. But while the nomination was pending, William Rehnquist unexpectedly... kicked his oxygen habit. So, Bush withdrew the nomination of Roberts as an associate justice and renominated him for the chief justiceship. Then, Bush nominated Alito to fill O'Connor's seat.

J.N. in Freeland, WA, asks: Suppose Clarence Thomas retires, or his recent "illness" is more serious and he has to resign for health reasons. Or the same scenario for any of the other conservative justices; Thomas is just the most likely.

The red team, of course, will try to delay any confirmation for a replacement until at least after the 2022 midterms, in their hopes of reclaiming the Senate, and perhaps will even try to argue that even 2 years is "too close" to the next presidential election to allow a Supreme Court nomination.

All that notwithstanding, who, either as a specific person, or in terms of an overall demographic/political profile, would Biden be most likely seek to make his second Supreme Court nomination, one that would presumably shift the political/judicial philosophy of the court?

V & Z answer: Only one white, male Supreme Court justice in the last 60 years was chosen by a Democratic president (Stephen Breyer, nominated by Bill Clinton). A couple of others were nominated (Merrick Garland, by Barack Obama, and Homer Thornberry, by Lyndon Johnson) but they weren't seated.

Given this history, as well as his oft-stated commitment to diversity, we thus assume that Biden would be likely to select a member of a minority group. There has never been an Asian Supreme Court justice, and if Biden were to pick an Asian woman, then he would break that particular glass ceiling, and would also be able to point out that he had made the Supreme Court majority-female. Federal judge Kenly Kiya Kato (50), who has been on the bench for 8 years and has just been nominated for a promotion by Biden, is a possibility here. So too is Florence Y. Pan (55), who has 13 years of experience as a federal judge, and who was just picked by Biden to fill the seat left vacant by... Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Alternatively, while the Supreme Court has a Latina in Sonia Sotomayor, it's never had a Latino (unless you count Benjamin Cardozo, who was of Spanish and Portuguese descent, but did not identify in any way as Latino). And Biden might like to make nice with a constituency the Democrats would really like to bring further into the tent. If he were to go in this direction, Armando Bonilla (55) was just named to the federal bench by Biden, and served in the Department of Justice before that. Or maybe David Estudillo (49), who served for several years on Washington state courts before being elevated to the federal bench by Biden in October of next year. There's also Gabriel P. Sanchez (46), who served as a judge in California before being tapped for a seat on the Ninth Circuit by Biden.

All of these judges are plenty liberal, have excellent credentials, have already been nominated by Biden to a seat on the federal bench, and have already been approved by the Senate. And they're all young enough to be considered (Jackson, for comparison purposes, is 51).

N.H.R. in London, England, UK, asks: News just broke that Associate Justice Clarence Thomas has been discharged from hospital—to many liberals' disappointment, I'm sure. Why no mention of his hospitalization this week on

V & Z answer: First, while the story did make the front pages, we didn't see "Thomas has the sniffles" as all that newsworthy. If he'd had a seizure or a stroke or something more debilitating, then maybe. Second, we had nothing to add to that story. There is nobody who reads this site who does not know that his demise/retirement would open up another Supreme Court seat for Joe Biden to fill, which would leave Democrats dancing in the streets. Third, if we had pointed out the obvious ("You know, if Thomas dies..."), it would have been crass, and would have had a somewhat grim reaper-ish feel. So, we let the story pass without notice.

K.L. in Jersey City, NJ, asks: Other than lacking the necessary racial qualifications for 1787, do you think Clarence Thomas represents the sort of Supreme Court justice the Founders intended when they wrote the Constitution?

V & Z answer: No. The Founders hoped and expected, perhaps naively, that judges would be above partisan politics. In Federalist #78, for example, Alexander Hamilton wrote: "[L]iberty can have nothing to fear from the judiciary alone, but would have everything to fear from its union with either of the other departments." And by the 1810s and 1820s, Thomas Jefferson was regularly complaining to friends that the judicial branch had become far too partisan. For example, in a September 6, 1819, letter to Spencer Roane, the former president wrote: "The Constitution is a mere thing of wax in the hands of the judiciary, which they may twist and shape into any from they please."

We don't think that even Thomas' most fervent supporters would argue that he is neutral and non-partisan. And so, he's not the type of judge the Founders hoped for.

B.P. in Cheshire, NY, asks: Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) explained this week that: "Judge Jackson has impeccable credentials and a deep knowledge of the law," but she "refused to embrace" the judicial philosophy of originalism.

"Originalism" is defined as "a legal philosophy that the words in documents and especially the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted as they were understood at the time they were written. Originalists believe that the constitutional text ought to be given the original public meaning that it would have had at the time that it became law."

Is originalism, as it pertains to U.S. Constitution, therefore inherently racist and misogynistic?

V & Z answer: Let's put it this way. If you got in your time machine and traveled back to 1940, and you visited the best law school in the land and asked them to tell you about originalism, they would have little idea what you were talking about.

Originalism, as a legal philosophy, first emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It came from conservative legal circles in response to the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and was given wide circulation thanks to Barry Goldwater's 1960 book The Conscience of a Conservative. By all indications, Goldwater was legitimately a libertarian by philosophy who objected to Brown on the grounds that it extended federal power. But there were plenty of folks who seized upon the book and its ideas as part of an organized effort to oppose racial equality.

So yes, originalism had its origins in racism. And it got another big boost from opponents of Roe v. Wade, after that decision was rendered in 1973. That means that if you want to say there's also a sexist and/or misogynist element there, you won't get any disagreement from us.

A.S. in Bedford, MA, asks: I watched almost all of the hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, and just the highlights so far for Ketanji Brown Jackson. Both involved mostly grandstanding with few questions about qualifications. I was impressed by both women's poise in answering (and not answering) the questions. However, I found the Jackson hearings extremely uncomfortable and inappropriate. I didn't have the same reaction to the Barrett hearings, which I found largely off-topic but not upsetting. I can't tell if this is because there was an objective difference or because my politics align more with Jackson and very much not with Barrett. Do you have a methodology you can share for cutting through those biases to compare the situations objectively?

V & Z answer: Maybe this will help, and maybe it won't, but our general standard is that if the question or the behavior would not be acceptable in a job interview, then it shouldn't be OK in a Senate hearing.

In academia, for example, it is apropos to ask someone about their scholarly work. That can include probing and even highly critical questions. And for a judge, the equivalent of their scholarly work is their jurisprudence, so that's fair game.

However, in an academic interview, it would be extremely unethical to deliberately misrepresent the candidate's past work, and to refuse to allow them to clarify, as Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) did with Jackson. It would also be extremely unethical to ask them questions about their religious views, with the idea that "I'll get away with it, because the candidate can't afford to object," as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) did with Jackson. And finally, it would be extremely unethical to ask questions implying that the person's work will primarily be a reflection of their racial background, as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) did with Jackson.

Incidentally, in academia, particularly these days, a candidate's service in volunteer/activist roles, and their engagement with the larger community, are now a part of their curriculum vitae and therefore a part of the hiring process. And so, if a candidate writes regularly for a politically focused website, or if they are an officer of a civil rights group, or if they are a board member of a charity, that can open up lines of questioning that would otherwise be inappropriate. In the case of Amy Coney Barrett, she has been involved in public activism explicitly connected to her Catholic beliefs. That means that her religious views are "in play" in a way that they would not be for most justices, who keep their churchgoing to themselves.

M.B. in Menlo Park, CA, asks: In the item "Braun Takes Things to Extremes," you wrote that "there is zero chance of abortion being outlawed nationwide." Is that really correct? Suppose the Supreme Court's Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health decision strikes down Roe v. Wade. Then suppose that the Republicans gain control of both houses of Congress and the White House in 2024. What would stop Congress from passing a law outlawing abortion nationwide? If that's too much for even the current Supreme Court, how about a law cutting off all federal funding to any state that continues to allow legal abortions?

V & Z answer: Under present circumstances, there is no way the Republican Party can win 60 seats in the Senate. And so, as long as the filibuster is in place, there is no way that a nationwide ban on abortion becomes law.

Of course, the filibuster might be done away with one of these days. But there are still some serious obstacles for the Republican Party. First of all, many of their voters don't care about abortion and/or want abortion to remain legal. So, a total ban would divide the GOP while also making them look like hypocrites (since their argument, for 50 years, has been that this is a states' rights issue). Meanwhile, the blowback nationwide, particularly from women voters, would be intense. The Party would be swept out of the White House and out of both chambers of Congress at the first opportunity. Finally, the GOP pooh-bahs want abortion to remain available as an issue for as long as is possible because it's one of the few things they can rally the base (especially evangelicals) around.

In short, there are just too many bumps in the road for this to be plausible.


H.S. in Lake Forest, CA, asks: In the light of the Russians transforming the letter Z into a symbol reminiscent of the Hakenkreuz, is it time to change your acronym, Z? After all, you might be banned from Germany.

Quoting one of my favorite movies of all time, your response should probably be: "Why should I be the one to change my name when they are the ones who suck?" Can you guess the movie?

V & Z answer: As to the movie, (Z) has seen that one at least a dozen times, so that question is kind of a layup for him (the answer appears at the bottom of the page for those who would like to guess). In any case, it certainly captures the right sentiment. When (Z) was in high school, he often wore an Angels cap. And at the start of his senior year, red caps of any sort were banned because red was/is a "gang color." He sure as hell wasn't going to give up that hat because of the Bloods, and he's not going to give up (Z) because of Putin.

The bad news is that defiance of that policy resulted in several dozen hours of detention being assigned to (Z). The good news is that there was another Christopher Bates in the school, and he was a troublemaker while (Z) was an honors student. So, when it came time to process the paperwork, the school office invariably added the detention to the other Christopher Bates' ledger, and he was never the wiser since he always had a backlog of 50-100 hours anyhow.

B.C. in Soldotna, AK, asks: I, like many of your readers, spend too much time reading about national politics. Today I made my rounds to the various political websites and, after reading an article that I probably skimmed too quickly, I wanted my fix of strangers confidently capslocking falsehoods past each other. But then I saw that removed their comment section. As a citizen, I rejoiced. Let's be honest, few places on the internet that don't start with "thedailywire" or end with "chan" are as terrible as The Hill. I'll find another unhealthy outlet, but this seemed like a good subject for a question.

Is there any academic research that there is anything healthy about participating in these kind of things? I know anger drives engagement (see Meta, Inc.), but why would The Hill ditch Disqus? I doubt they care about our collective digital well-being. With Russian sanctions, are the trolls unable to be fed? Any insight would be appreciated.

V & Z answer: Starting with The Hill, those comment sections were really, really nasty. It's one thing when it's basically the choir preaching nastiness and everyone nodding in agreement, as is the case with The Daily Wire. But The Hill had really vicious, really personal arguments. It was undoubtedly driving people from the site, and was also probably getting pretty costly to police.

As to the research, it's an emerging area of scholarship, but there's certainly some. You might, for example, be interested in the book Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web. The general thesis: There is some value to reading comments, but there's also a lot more downside, and you really should only read the comments on sites that are very well curated, or that attract a non-Neanderthal readership.

J.K. in Seoul, South Korea, asks: Would (Z) be willing to share which Star Trek-themed podcasts he listens to? There must be hundreds out there, and I'm afraid of picking one spreading Romulan propaganda.

V & Z answer: Better than one spreading Canadian propaganda, right? And, by the way, note that you can't spell C-a-r-d-a-s-s-i-a-n without C-a-n-a-d-i-a-n. Coincidence? We think not.

Anyhow, the two he listens to most regularly are Star Trek: The Next Conversation and Gates McFadden Investigates: Who do you think you are?

That said, we have several readers for whom this question is right in their wheelhouse. So, if anyone cares to weigh in with suggestions, we'll run them tomorrow.

Answer to the question from above: The quote is from Office Space; the relevant clip is here, after which you should consider watching this.
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