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Saturday Q&A

Last week, we promised an answer that includes Haiti, Iran, Germany, and Libya. However, that questioner asked a much more time-sensitive question this week that we want to address. So, the Haiti answer will have to wait another week.

Current Events

R.M. in Pensacola, FL, asks: You've talked about John Roberts and his legacy and how he professes to want to leave a positive legacy (and how he just calls balls-and-strikes). However, in his tenure, you (among others), put him in the bottom three of Chief Justices in U.S. history.

My question is, what, if anything, can he do over the rest of his term (however long that may be), to improve that ranking, given the current political climate and things that are both in and out of his control?

V & Z answer: Either due to circumstances or lack of interpersonal/political skills or both, he clearly does not have the potential to be a consensus-builder like John Marshall, Earl Warren or Charles Evans Hughes.

So, if he called us asking for advice, we would tell him to look to the example of William Howard Taft. Taft was persuaded that the federal court system had serious problems, and took it upon himself to lead the way in pressing for reform. The former president worked with Congress and then-AG Harry Daugherty to implement several important changes, like creating the Judicial Conference of the United States. That body oversees federal court procedures to this day, making sure they are up-to-date and are consistent across the land. If our list of top Chief Justices had gone beyond three, Taft would have been the next addition to the list, primarily for his efforts to reform the court system.

Roberts could announce that the Supreme Court has been badly compromised by politics, and that he's convening a group of judges and scholars to propose solutions. Then, he could throw his weight behind those solutions, encouraging Congress to make changes. If he were to do that, and Congress was to agree to changes, then he'd probably elevate himself out of the doghouse. But Roberts is never, ever going to admit that the Court is something less than perfect, nor is he going to do anything that might lessen his power.

If he really wanted a game changer, he could make a speech to Congress asking it to approve a constitutional amendment limiting justices to a single fixed-length term of, say, 15 or 20 years. But that ain't gonna happen.

J.S. in Minneapolis, MN, asks: If it turns out that it was a conservative justice who leaked the draft, can Congress impeach them so Joe Biden can replace them?

V & Z answer: There are, in effect, no limits on the impeachment power. The Constitution merely specifies that judges "shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour." So, Congress can impeach for anything it deems to be "bad Behaviour," whether that is breaking the law, or behaving in an unethical fashion, or leaking a draft decision, or wearing shoes that are not fashion-forward enough.

But there is no realistic chance that, even if a conservative justice is found to be the leaker, they will be impeached, much less convicted. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) & Co. worked way too hard to build that 6-3 majority, and it's hard to imagine an offense a judge might commit that would persuade them to give one of those seats away. Certainly, leaking a draft opinion doesn't clear that bar.

C.Z. in Sacramento, CA, asks: How can I find out which corporations/retail stores are anti-choice?

V & Z answer: This is a very hard question to answer. Corporations generally don't want to touch this issue with a 10-foot pole, given how controversial it is. And if they do want to get involved, they are likely to launder the money through super PACs, so that the link between the corporation and its anti-abortion activism is fuzzy.

That said, about a week ago, Judd Legum and Rebecca Crosby, who worked on Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign, published a list headlined "These 13 corporations have spent $15 million supporting anti-abortion politicians since 2016." However, Legum and Crosby acknowledge that the corporations on their list tend to work both sides of the political aisle, and that if you're going to donate to all the congressional campaign committees, or all the senators, you're necessarily going to be giving money to anti-abortion politicians, even if you're not trying to support their anti-abortion politics.

Beyond that, it's a pretty good guess that companies like Chick-Fil-A, Hobby Lobby, and Tyson Foods—all of them run by outspoken evangelical Christians—are probably anti-abortion. Here is a list of notable very-religious corporations.

R.C. in Des Moines, IA, asks: Noting that political partisanship in the U.S. is off the charts presently, I still wonder why the Congressional delegation to Ukraine didn't include Republican members? Wouldn't it be better to present a somewhat unified presence in this situation? Many Republicans are supportive of U.S. involvement to this point. Did Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) fail to invite any Republicans? Did she in fact invite some and they declined? If so, why might they have declined? Purely out of partisanship or something else?

V & Z answer: Several Republicans, Rep. Peter Meijer (R-MI) probably loudest among them, have made this very complaint. Pelosi says, and others have confirmed this is true, that she did invite Republican members to join the delegation. However, because of the strict security precautions involved, only a very small number of people knew the final destination, while everyone else who was invited on the trip (whether they accepted or not) was told the destination was Poland. The Republicans who were invited probably should have read between the lines and guessed what was going on, but they didn't, and they all decided they did not wish to go to Poland.

J.H. in Boston, MA, asks: Here in the West, we live in a very strong pro-Ukraine media bubble. As you have listed sources for news on the war in Ukraine, I think most or all of them have been pro-Ukraine. I personally have a hard time understanding Vladimir Putin's motivation for the war and would like to see the pro-Russian side better. I'm also leery that some of the stuff we're seeing may be propaganda by the Ukrainian side. Are there any Russian-sympathetic sources that aren't lies or propaganda by the Russian government?

I tried talking to a Russian colleague who said he saw both sides, to get a feeling for why Russians might support the war, and I received a Gish gallop of talking points (Ukraine has Nazis, Putin wants to rebuild the empire) that didn't really make sense to me.

V & Z answer: Russia is so clearly in the wrong here that it basically eliminates the possibility that a site could give the Russian perspective without being propagandistic. The best suggestion we have for you is the obvious one, namely RT (Russia Today). It's owned by the Russian government, and its reach has been significantly limited in most Western nations because it's propaganda (for example, Apple removed the RT app from the App Store). However, looking at that site, and in particular the op-ed page, does give some insight into what the Russians are telling themselves (and trying to tell others).

R.E.M., Brooklyn, NY, asks: Although total COVID deaths are a useful illustration for the severity of the pandemic, the more interesting question to me is "excess deaths." That is, some number of people who died from COVID would have died from something else—cancer, diabetes, heart disease, auto accidents or gunshot wounds, for example. "Excess deaths" are calculated by looking at historical death rates and subtracting them the deaths during the pandemic, which has the added benefit of likely picking up people who died from COVID, but who weren't labeled as such. Do you have those numbers from March 2020 to as close to the present as is available?

V & Z answer: The CDC actually considers the pandemic to have begun at the start of February 2020 (not March), and reports that the number of excess deaths in the United States since then is 1,119,908. You can click here to examine the data for yourself, including more fine-grained reports (like excess deaths by state, or by week).

O.Z.H. in Dubai, UAE, asks: I recall that when discussing the super-gerrymandered map that Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) forced through the Florida legislature, you wrote that DeSantis is probably hoping that SCOTUS upholds the map. My U.S. are: (1) why would the question of whether or not an electoral map violates a state's constitution go to the federal Supreme Court? Wouldn't the State Supreme Court have ultimate jurisdiction over such a question? And (2) if DeSantis can appeal all the way up to SCOTUS, why aren't New York Democrats doing the same thing (thereby either winning the case or by losing, perhaps setting a precedent that would lead to defeat for DeSantis at the SCOTUS level)?

V & Z answer: To start, unless we got sloppy in our writing, we don't believe we said that DeSantis is targeting the U.S. Supreme Court. This week, for example, we wrote: "The Governor will appeal, of course. He hopes and expects to get the case before the Florida Supreme Court, where all seven judges are Republicans."

That said, the federal courts can get involved if the legal question involves violation of federal law. There is a pretty good argument that DeSantis' map violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which contains a still-in-effect provision forbidding racial gerrymanders. The New York map, by contrast, does not appear to violate any federal laws, just state laws.

P.S. in Arlington, TN, asks: Over the past few days, the shortage of baby formula has started to become an issue nationwide. One economist that I was listening to mentioned that part of the supply issue is that Canada no longer ships us as much formula because of the tariffs enacted by Donald Trump. Meanwhile, the tariffs are almost certainly contributing to our inflation issues as those taxes are passed on to consumers.

Why doesn't Joe Biden simply end these harmful tariffs? It'd be positively viewed by Never Trump Republicans such as myself who bolted the party over Trump and his big government policies. It'd probably help reduce inflation and prevent more shortages from arising in the future. It doesn't seem as if the Democrats are married to the issue of tariffs as Barack Obama struck me as a free trader and when exactly has a trade tariff ever helped our economy? I can name several instances where they've had disastrous results, such as the Smoot-Hawley tariffs.

V & Z answer: If the economist you were listening to said that, then they were talking out of their rear end. Because formula is heavy (and thus expensive to transport) and somewhat perishable. 98% of it is made domestically. The problem is that, like so many producers, the companies that make formula operate with very little margin of error in terms of inventory. And so, take the labor shortage and add in a couple of recalls and all of a sudden there's not enough of it. It is true that the Biden administration is talking with Canada about helping to pick up the shortfall, but that would be an extraordinary measure, not the usual state of affairs. Oh, and whatever is going on, tariffs on Canada have nothing to do with it. The Trump administration lifted those on May 20, 2019.

And while you are generally right that free trade generally works out best, there are some upsides to tariffs. For example, they can be used to punish problematic labor practices or anti-competitive behavior or environmentally harmful production methods or crimes against humanity (like the ongoing situation in Uyghur). Another issue is that the industries benefiting from protectionist measures tend to make noise when their safety blanket is taken away. That said, the Biden administration is currently reviewing the tariffs, and the general consensus is that the President will lift most of them in the near future.

M.G. in Boulder, CO, asks: Last week, in your reply to R.C. in Des Moines, you wrote:

Currently, the projected inflation for 2022 is... 3.9%. And inflation last year checked in at... 7.0%. Did you know that? Did anyone who is not an economist or in the financial sector know that? Put another way, inflation was nearly twice as bad last year as it's projected to be this year. And yet it's this year that we see all the Chicken Little "the sky is falling" inflation news.
A friend, a fervent Evangelical Trumpster, says the rate is 8.26%, and I found the same number on Google. I'm quite sure the problem is the difference between "inflation rate" and "projected inflation rate," but economics is not my field (or his). I'd like to be able to explain this simply and sensibly, if I'm given the opportunity to get a word in edgewise. Help, please.

V & Z answer: Every month, around the 10th of the month, the U.S. Department of Labor announces the rate of inflation for the previous 12 months. Here are the figures for this year (so far), and for the 5 years previous, rounded to one decimal place:

Year Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
2022 7.5 7.9 8.5 8.3                
2021 1.4 1.7 2.6 4.2 5.0 5.4 5.4 5.3 5.4 6.2 6.8 7.0
2020 2.5 2.3 1.5 0.3 0.1 0.6 1.0 1.3 1.4 1.2 1.2 1.4
2019 1.6 1.5 1.9 2.0 1.8 1.6 1.8 1.7 1.7 1.8 2.1 2.3
2018 2.1 2.2 2.4 2.5 2.8 2.9 2.9 2.7 2.3 2.5 2.2 1.9
2017 2.5 2.7 2.4 2.2 1.9 1.6 1.7 1.9 2.2 2.0 2.2 2.1

So, the 8.26% figure is a rolling total from May of last year through April of this year. The projection, by contrast, is an estimate for January of this year through December of this year, and reflects expectations that many supply chain and other issues will be worked out by the end of the summer. You'll notice, incidentally, that the rate declined in April, and for the first time since August of last year. It was only a small decline (0.2%), but that does support, ever-so-slightly, the speculation that inflation will begin trending downward soon.


T.J.R. in Metuchen, NJ, asks: Is there a point beyond which the amount of money a campaign has doesn't matter? Basically, a saturation point? I assume it varies from state to state and, of course, nationally. I'm reminded of the plot for Brewster's Millions (of which there seems to be 13 versions, which I managed to miss all of) where it becomes difficult to spend the money. You get the best hired guns, you buy all the ads, you fully fund your Election Day ground operation. It must hit the point of diminishing returns.

Are any campaigns these days losing due mainly to a lack of funds? You can pour all the money in the world into a Democratic Wyoming Senate race or a Republican New York Senate race and it's unlikely to matter. And in a competitive race, say Wisconsin or Pennsylvania Senate, it seems both sides will have more than enough funding.

V & Z answer: Having a lot of money helps in terms of ad buys, ground game, staffing, get-out-the-vote operations, and the like. That's especially true in a state like Pennsylvania, which has expensive media markets and a lot of people. However, you're right about diminishing returns, and also in your implication that money can't overcome poor fundamentals for a candidate (the candidate isn't a good fit, or they have skeletons in the closet, or they are running against a stronger candidate, etc.). The very best proof of concept here is Michael Bloomberg. His presidential campaign had basically unlimited funds, and took advantage of that fact, and yet went nowhere. Billionaire Tom Steyer didn't do so great either.

M.M. in Plano, TX, asks: If Mehmet Oz is a citizen of Turkey, should that not disqualify him from seeking office? I thought that one had to be a U.S. citizen to run!

V & Z answer: One does have to be a U.S. citizen, for at least 9 years, to run. However, this does not disqualify Oz because he is a U.S. citizen. He also has dual citizenship with Turkey.

C.C. in Dresden, Germany, asks: Politico has a new tracker for the House and Senate races.

I was quite surprised that Politico (and other pundits) regard the races in Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania as toss-up. How come, when you have strong Democratic incumbents in Arizona and George who also raked in tons of money for their campaigns, while in Pennsylvania there are extraordinary Democratic recruits? To me all this points to, at very least, likely Democratic victories instead of toss-ups. Is it just too early in the cycle, which means before the primaries or is Politico extremely careful, or... what?

V & Z answer: Wikipedia aggregates the major predictors, and you will see that at the moment, all six of the predictors they track (Cook, Inside Elections, Sabato, Politico, RealClearPolitics, and Fox) have those three races as tossups, excepting that Inside Elections has Pennsylvania leaning slightly Republican.

So, Politico is not an outlier. We would guess there are two reasons that pretty much all outlets are non-committal at this point, and they are the exact ones you hit on. There are a lot of known unknowns right now, including exactly how bad the environment/economy will be in 5-6 months, what will happen in Ukraine, who exactly the candidates will be in each race, how the respective campaigns will unfold, what the impact of the SCOTUS decision will be, etc. There's also time for plenty of unknown unknowns.

Meanwhile, it behooves all of these outlets to be very cautious in making their predictions. Not only is constant shifting of the races a bad look that makes the outlet seem indecisive, but the political parties are now in the habit of using those shifts as ammunition ("Politico just shifted FOUR races in our direction! Donate now!").

The various predictors will get more assertive as the elections draw nearer, and as there is more information available, and as there is less time for unknowns to influence the race. So, it is not likely that the tossup near-consensus will remain intact 3 months from now.


S.B. in Hood River, OR, asks: I ran across this article from one of my feeds. It seems a bit revisionist to me—for example, the very negative evaluation of the New Deal: "At best, the New Deal policies were ineffective, and at worst they actually lengthened the Depression." The YouTube video they linked was by a historian who is associated with the Cato Institute, which has never seemed terribly neutral to me. What do you think?

V & Z answer: We have never found any use for analysis from the Cato Institute, as they tend to perform whatever contortions necessary to fit things into their ideological framework (libertarianism). We don't have any use for analysis from, say, the World Forum on Alternatives (Marxist) for the same reason. Though the historian in question here (Stephen Davies) is actually primarily affiliated with Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). That's basically the British equivalent of Cato, except that IEA is primarily funded by tobacco money, which is always a good sign.

As to the linked article, it's pretty bad, as articles like this ("12 myths" about [X]") tend to be. Some of the stuff is not too awful, but some of it neglects important context, some of it is framed in a misleading way, some of the "myths" are not actually things that people believe, and some of the content is outright wrong. To take an example, the article asserts that it's a myth that "FDR Ran On The Platform Of The New Deal," pointing to the Democratic platform of 1932, which actually called for reduced federal spending. The part about the Democratic platform is true, but the next time a president feels bound by his party's platform will be the first time. Further, not all New Deal programs (particularly the early ones) involved spending more money (see, for example, the bank holiday). And finally, in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in 1932, FDR declared: "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people." If FDR's campaign was not based on the promise of the New Deal, then someone forgot to tell FDR.

And as to the impact of the New Deal, we've addressed this a bit in previous Q&As, but it's true that it did not end the Great Depression in the United States. There is an argument that it made things worse, economically, but that's ultimately unknowable, and is not a majority opinion. Further, at a very dark time in U.S. history, FDR's efforts gave people hope and made them feel like someone was fighting for them. That's no small thing, even if it's easily dismissed by those who didn't have to live through it.

P.S. in Gloucester, MA, asks: Deep Throat! No, not a famous item from that 30% of Internet content, but rather Mark Felt: exactly how was what he did unlawful?

As an aside, when visiting my daughter in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, VA, when she lived there a few years ago, we came across a historical marker identifying (at least one location) where Felt met with his media contact(s). That made me feel old... here in Massachusetts, the historical markers tend to commemorate goings-on in the 17th and 18th centuries for the most part.

V & Z answer: If it makes you feel better, England is much older than Massachusetts, and their Blue plaque markers often commemorate events less than 50 years in the past.

As to Mark Felt, some of the information he gave to Woodward and Bernstein was classified, and so he violated the Espionage Act of 1917. What he did wasn't all that different from what Edward Snowden did, and the Espionage Act is the law Snowden would be prosecuted under if he were to return to the U.S.

In addition, Felt probably gave false statements to law enforcement to throw people off his trail. And he launched a phony investigation of his own, which is a potentially criminal misuse of federal resources.


K.H, in Maryville, TN, asks: There doesn't seem to be an end to the heavy topics, so here's a light question. And since it's baseball, I'll toss it to (Z): We're making our first trip to California next week to visit my sister and nephews. On Friday we'll be going to the Los Angeles Angels/Oakland A's game. (Sadly, the reason for going is it's Laguna Beach family night—the Laguna Beach High School baseball coach passed away in January, and he will be honored during the game.)

My question is—as a Pirates fan, who should I root for?

V & Z answer: The Angels. First, it's generally more fun to root for the home team. Second, the Angels have the two most interesting players in the game right now in Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout. Third, as a Pirates fan, you might enjoy seeing what it's like to root for the winning team. Fourth, and finally, even A's fans don't root for the A's right now, given how odious the ownership group is, and how obviously they are trying to clear the way for a move to Las Vegas.

B.C., Walpole, ME, asks: You wrote: "snark-wise, it would be like shooting fish in a barrel." Now you've got me sitting here in coastal Maine, wondering what a snark-gun looks like. Diver's spear gun? Marine's sniper rifle? Sawed off double-barreled shotgun?

V & Z answer: Here you go:

A man in a skull mask fires vast plumes of fire out of both of his hands

That's actually a picture of (Z) working on today's posting.

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