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Sunday Mailbag

Another very eclectic mailbag. Be forewarned, however, that readers had a LOT to say about student loans. We also have letters from both Marysville AND Maryville. How many sites can say that?

The Soul of the Nation

R.J.D. in San Francisco, CA, writes: First off, thank you for the cogent and fast analysis of President Biden's "Soul of the Nation" speech. I noticed that the usual outlets were very quiet that night when it came to "instant analysis." Almost as if his speech was something new and different to them and resisted a "breakdown by canned response" approach.

In reply to the comment from M.M. in San Diego: "Joe Biden just gave the best speech of his life. Too bad he didn't deliver it in January 2021. Still, better late than never." I disagree; he couldn't have given this speech or anything that named Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans explicitly because the audience would only have heard it through partisan filters. With the work of the 1/6 Committee, along with the well-documented efforts of the Department of Justice in collecting evidence showing the mishandling of classified documents by the former President, Americans who live outside the Beltway narrative of innuendo, rumor, and inside baseball are now better able to hear the speech as a call to defend the principles of American democracy. Give this speech in January and it would be received as a partisan ploy from a politician whose legislative agenda and approval ratings were stagnant (to be kind). Consider that nowhere in his speech did the President reference either the 1/6 Committee or the Department of Justice: if he had, he would've undermined their efforts by making them seem partisan by association. In this case, silence was golden.

People have seen the dots connected and with that, along with Biden's ability to take body blows (if I can continue the sports metaphors) from both GOP operatives and from within his own party (thank you, Senators Joe Manchin, D-WV, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-AZ), he's accomplished the equivalent of wearing out a puncher in the early rounds of the fight and left himself (and the Democratic Party) in a situation where they can win at the end. I think the opportunity to maintain the majority in both the House and Senate (or to gain a Manchin-Sinema proof majority) is well within sight.

The most important element of persuasion, like comedy, is timing. I think President Biden understood that very clearly with his speech.

S.K. in Chappaqua, NY, writes: I've been listening to and reading about interviewees' answers to the question: "Whom was President Biden trying to influence?" I believe that all the answers miss the critical point.

Sure, the president wants Democrats and independents to vote for Democrats who oppose Republican candidates for secretary of state and governor. But more specifically, he wants Republicans who, even if they will not vote for any Democrat, to withhold their votes from any Republican who claims that the 2020 presidential vote was "stolen" by Democrats and/or implies that, if elected, they will do whatever may be necessary to ensure that no Democrat gets their state's electoral votes in 2024.

There are enough GOP nominees like that in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Michigan alone to do grave damage to the country if they gain office, and enough non-MAGA Republicans in those states to prevent catastrophic outcomes in 2024 by leaving their votes for their states' highest offices blank.

KH in Maryville, TN (but currently in Ala... er... Jenners Crossroads, PA, where an obscenely large Mastriano sign greets the traveler...), writes: I thought President Biden's speech was very fine, but I question his timing. College football has begun, and Penn State and Pitt both played Thursday night.

I doubt he had very many Pennsylvania viewers.

N.N. in Murray, KY, writes: I believe Crash Davis (Kevin Costner, Bull Durham) said "you don't f*** with a winning streak; a player on a streak has to respect the streak."


S.D. in St Paul, MN, writes: You wrote: "It is not easy to run on 'democracy,' because it's not exactly clear what that means." Despite the complexities you spelled out, it does seem like drawing a connection between the Democrats and democracy makes linguistic and political sense. As we watch the global rise of authoritarianism, why not proudly assert that "Democrats are pro-democracy"? To me, at least, it has more potential than whatever was meant by "Build Back Better."

Also, TFG ran on "Make America Great Again" and "America First." Those are broad, symbolic gestures rather than specific policy packages. Why not capitalize on the symbolism of "democracy"? Sure, democracy (especially democracy with a small "d") is multidimensional and can refer to a lot of things. But I'd venture to guess that most people, if asked to define it, might point to the right to vote for your elected representatives (and not have your vote cast aside by some phony slate of electors). That's not particularly abstract. And the MAGA-inspired attacks on democracy, the franchise, free elections, and even actual people from vice presidents and members of congress to secretaries of state and poll workers, etc.—these are all very tangible concerns.

If TFG runs again, I wonder if anti-TFG ads and campaigns should stress 3 things in particular:

  1. He's directly responsible for an extremist Supreme Court and the Dobbs decision.
  2. He's a liability to the country (1/6 and Mar-a-Lago).
  3. He admires Vladimir Putin.

These all paint TFG with an anti-democracy, authoritarian brush, but you don't necessarily need to connect the dots to formulate an academic "thesis" about democracy.

And this is not to make it a negative campaign that's all about the horrors of TFG. On the positive side, Democrats are FOR certain things (democracy, climate action, the right to choose, some college loan forgiveness, etc). And they can tout their record because, hey, they get legislation passed.

A.S. in Bedford, MA, writes: The Lincoln Project ran this ad before the 2020 election, explicitly calling out the threat to democracy posed by Donald Trump:

I found the ad overblown at the time, but I still remembered it well enough to find it 2 years later, so it must have resonated. I think it could be risky for Democratic candidates to run these types of ads, since the natural initial reaction is to recoil. Outside entities, like the Lincoln Project, may be a better way to get that message out without making the Democratic candidates look negative.

S.R. in Knoxville, TN, writes: K.T. in Oakdale wrote: "If Republicans somehow put up a candidate in 2024 who isn't an election-denying nutcase, and who has real ideas for lowering the deficit to slow the growth of debt (doubtful but I can hope), I'll vote Republican for the first time in my life."

Pleased to hear you'll be voting for Joe Biden again in 2024.

C.R. in Pelham, AL, writes: You wrote: "DeSantis better represents these threats than Trump because he has shown his interest and ability to do a long list of authoritarian things. Trump talked a lot, but did little. DeSantis both talked and acted."

I don't know who was the original source for this quote, but they were exactly right. "The next dictator will not be so incompetent." Hitler followed Anton Drexler. Stalin followed Lenin. And DeFascist will follow Drumpf.

K.N. in Lynchburg, VA, writes: I think it is worth explaining what that "abortion at birth" means. There are few, if any, doctors who would abort a perfectly healthy baby at 35 weeks. Yes, I do say "baby."

However, what if late in the pregnancy it is discovered that the fetus has no skin? Or brain? Or is dying in utero? There have to be a lot of reasons that an ordinary doctor would decide that terminating the pregnancy quickly is the proper medical decision to protect the health of the woman. The problem is the discussion assumes that all fetuses at 8+ months are perfectly healthy and viable. That has left a lot of women facing serious health complications or even death in states where the rights of the fetus to live exceed all other rights. In the most restrictive states, like Indiana, the exception for health of the woman is so vaguely written that most doctors feel they are obligated to wait until death is at the door before acting. What kind of health care is that?

Covering Trump

D.H. in Marysville, WA, writes: You surprised me in this week's Q&A (and I want to give a shout out to D.E. in Lancaster, who always seems to express my own thoughts so well).

Regarding TFG and his criming, you wrote "We also guess—perhaps wrongly—that these items are not especially enjoyable for readers." Uh, duh. But that is not anywhere near the point. TFG has committed unprecedented high crimes. The government and the state of Georgia have him dead to rights. Intent is there and provable. He and his cronies and enablers must be held accountable to the fullest extent possible. Anyone who attempts to subvert democracy or commit violence against our system of government should be held accountable and punished according to the law. No matter what office they held, no matter what office they are running for, no matter how long it takes.

I'm reminded of a line from the musical Hamilton: "If you stand for nothing Burr, what will you fall for?" Or pick your Marvel/Star Wars/Lord of The Rings metaphor. Evil will not rest so neither can we. I think we realize that we are there in real life. We have to keep our collective eye on the ball. We are long past the point where we can or should stop talking and caring about these things because people are depressed, bored or want to "move on." To do so would mean putting the final nails in the coffin of our democracy.

R.T. in Minneapolis, MN, writes: You wrote: "Given the dominant theme of the questions sent in this week, maybe we're wrong about the assumption we make about readers that is discussed in the first answer."

I can only speak for myself, but I am one of those obsessed with news and analysis of Trump's legal problems. I find that man (and his sycophants) so vile and such a threat to our democracy and rule of law that I am desperate to finally see some consequences for his outrageous behavior.

Yes, he's tiresome and we should be bored of the whole Trump saga. But I suspect many of your readers, like me, want to see signs he's heading toward an orange jump suit, and removed from any position of power. Though I suppose he will always have a megaphone of one sort or another.

J.M. in Cottonwood Shores, TX, writes: I don't need to read anything about what TFG has posted anywhere. But please keep the analysis of his legal peril coming! I will be paying attention until the color of his clothing matches the color of his makeup.

This Week in TrumpWorld

U.T. in Stuttgart, Germany, writes: You wrote: "And [Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert] McBurney is running a tight ship, while showing no patience for legal hocus-pocus."

Not only does he run a tight ship—on top of that, he is also running his own youtube channel. And there, you can find the complete recording of the Kemp hearing.

Having watched it for the whole of the 2 hours, I got the impression: Wow, that guy is really into his stuff. While he comes across as quite respectful and mild-mannered towards counsel, he is obviously well prepared and does not let either side get away with half-baked stuff. If someone was looking for a judge who tolerates legalistic jiggery-pokery, this is definitely not the one you want to appear before.

D.E. in Lancaster, PA, writes: While reading the FBI's inventory of items taken from the Orange Menace's Mar-A-Lago store rooms, closets and desk drawers, I found one item listed several times that I think is so far beyond the pale for Trump to have in his possession that I was, as jaded as I am, completely shocked to the point that even I wondered if it was real...

In short, there is just no way that the Treasonweasel has books in his possession... unless the FBI is being overly generous by categorizing old issues of Hustler as "books." Or maybe he was collecting some kindling for an incriminating documents-burning beach luau. But real books that Herr Twitler was interested in—just no way! I need an explanation from the Feds, pronto!

A.S. in Black Mountain, NC, writes: Seems to me that TFG is making a big effort to seem even more crazy than usual. Could he be laying the groundwork for a diminished capacity defense for when he is indicted? Reports are that the feds found classified documents in among other documents. Was he trying to hide them? It just keeps getting weirder and weirder.

E.F. in Baltimore, MD, writes: It got pushed well below the fold on the front page, but Trump's surrender to Rep. Carolyn Maloney's (D-NY) Oversight Committee is highly uncharacteristic behavior, certainly worthy of more attention. Normally, he drags such litigation out 'til the bitter end and back again. I'm hearing nothing about why he caved, and especially, why now. Just a few more months' delay, and he still had a decent chance that a new (GOP) committee chair would suddenly lose interest in seeing those documents.

I have a pair of theories, one of which sort of syncs up with yours. It's always about the grift. Cash may be tight, even Trump has to pay his lawyers sometimes, and the RNC is refusing to pick up his Mar-a-Lago search-related legal bills. I'm thinking, and this is a biggie, he's finally willing to let it leak out that he's not a billionaire any more (if he ever really was), as a way to boost his fundraising. "I neglected my own incredibly successful business to Save America! Send money, NOW, to my trump Legal Defense Fund! 10x matching for the next 24 hours!!!"

Less likely, but still worth considering: Trump wanted to deny Carolyn Maloney any attention-grabbing headlines before her primary loss to Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) last week. Although the problem here is that Trump has hated Nadler for many years, dating back to their NYC real estate battles in the 80s.

Something doesn't make sense here. I'd love to hear a deeper analysis.

H. in Geneva, Switzerland, writes: Since it is now virtually certain that Trump will be indicted in the coming months, it seems to me that a discussion of the next step in the judicial process following his indictment, i.e. his bail hearing before the trial judge, is in order. Now, we know that the only legitimate reasons for a defendant to be denied bail is because he presents a risk of flight or a danger to the community. Since Trump clearly checks both boxes, the judge should remand him into custody pending trial.

We have the independent assessments of two former long-time associates of Trump's, Michael Cohen and Barbara Res, that faced with prosecution Trump is most likely to flee the country. So, the question arises when exactly Trump should get into his jet or a friend's jet bound for Riyadh or Moscow? If he were to attend his bail hearing and thence be remanded directly into custody, he might never see the free light of day again following a conviction, as the case of Ghislaine Maxwell demonstrates. Therefore, the last moment when he can be assured of a flight to safety would be before his bail hearing or even before his indictment.

Anyone who imagines that seizing his passports or putting an electronic bracelet on him would assure his attendance at trial should consider the case of Carlos Ghosn, who escaped Japan and certain conviction even while under both those restraints.

J.L. in Chicago, IL, writes: I can give another reason Trump will not be executed. Death sentences often result in many years of appeals. Trump is 76 and could delay a parking ticket 5 years with his typical legal moves. There is no way he would live long enough to be executed.

S.K. in Sunnyvale, CA, writes: Regarding this week's schadenfreude entry—I know the Internet is already rife with comparisons of DJT to Biff Tannen, but I cannot in good conscience not share this:

Biff Tannen, as he appeared
in 'Back to the Future, Part II,' standing in front of a mural of himself.

The only question I have is whether Trump, too, used his portrait to conceal his "secret" safe.

All Politics is Local

S.C. in Mountain View, CA, writes: FairVote has a good analysis of the Alaska special election. As far as I can tell, it is the only online article with a graphic that shows how votes for Nick Begich (R) transferred when he was eliminated.

One point the article makes is that Sarah Palin's (R) anti-RCV stance may have hurt her, as she apparently made no attempt to reach out to Begich supporters to rank her second (even though half of them did). Had she gotten half of the Begich supporters who made no second choice to rank her second, she would have won. We'll have to see if she learns that lesson and applies it in the November rematch. (This does not mean I am a fan of hers; as a partisan Democrat I'm glad Mary Peltola, D, won. But as an RCV advocate I want to see all candidates understanding how to campaign effectively under RCV.)

P.F. in Fairbanks, AK, writes: S.R. in Kansas City asked: "Are the November election dynamics in Alaska enough different from the primary for Palin to win the full term?"

Conservatives were staunchly against ranked choice voting because it would break up their lock on the state. It's important to note how many Republicans "protested" ranked choice voting by leaving their next choices blank. Nearly half of Begich voters listed Peltola second, but over 11,000 Begich voters threw away their second choice—enough to have changed the outcome of the final tabulation had they gone to Palin. If, in November, Republicans convince their voters to adopt ranked choice, it's possible Palin makes a comeback.

That said, Palin is blaming ranked choice voting for her loss and may throw a big enough fit as to become unpalatable, but that may just pave the way for Begich.

V.S. in Charlottesville, VA, writes: I happened across this poll from Trafalgar for the Washington Senate race between Patty Murray (D-WA) and Tiffany Smiley (R) that has the race as only a 3-point lead for the incumbent. Another Republican pollster (McLaughlin and Associates) has a 6-point lead for Murray. Other pollsters, such as SurveyUSA and Elway Research, have Smiley down closer to 20 points. If Trafalgar has its finger on the scale for the Washington Senate race that far, it makes me ponder how off its polls might be for other states. I doubt the race in Washington is only a few points, when Trafalgar has Warnock down by one in Georgia and Bennet up by five in Colorado. Trafalgar has a good reputation for their polls of Midwest states such as Michigan and Wisconsin, but they seem to have issues with states that have large, diverse populations such as Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada.

I'd be surprised if Murray doesn't win by at least double digits and more likely by at least 15 points in the end. In the primary election in early August, she got over 52% of the vote. If one adds up all the votes for all Democrats or likely Democratic voters that were on the ballot, the total is over 56%. Turnout in the general election will be considerably higher. I suppose Trafalgar and McLaughlin are trying to get Republicans to dump money in Washington state, but they are doing their preferred party a great disservice by wasting valuable resources on an unwinnable race.

P.W. in Tulalip Nation, WA, writes: I've seen the ads featuring Washington State Senatorial Republican nominee Tiffany Smiley's pivot on abortion. She now claims to be against a ban at the federal level. I hope and believe that other independent voters in the state will see this for what it's worth, and perhaps even ask, "Isn't that essentially what the Republican Supreme Court nominees claimed, too?"

C.F. in Nashua, NH, writes: Seeing the speech by Arizona U.S. Senate candidate Blake Masters (R) was truly stunning. Perhaps I misinterpreted what he was saying, but I think he made is clear that white men are the only people who were hired because of competence (not connections, more opportunity, etc.) and that both women and people who have skin that isn't white were only hired because of quotas (did I miss any exception to the hired people he made in his video?). Truly stunning that he claims to not be racist because he believes at least some white men are incompetent. Huh?

R.L.D. in Sundance, WY, writes: I can tell you why the Wyoming GOP isn't following the Democrats' lead in letting certain 17-year-olds vote in the primaries. It's because they know that the Democrats pose no threat.

On January 1, 2021, registered Republicans outnumbered registered Democrats a little over 4:1. By January 2022, it was 4.28 Republicans for every Democrat. On Primary Day (August 16) it was almost 6:1. As of this week, it's 7.77 Republicans for every registered Democrat. Now, it may well be true that Democrats have been re-registering so they could vote for Liz Cheney, but that ratio has been getting worse and worse for the Democrats every year since 2008, which is as far back as the Wyoming Secretary of State's website goes. We can see the "Democrats are through" handwriting on whatever wall the hand writes on.

Also, I don't recommend suggesting to a Wyoming Republican that they should emulate anything the Democrats are doing. You'd have better luck telling them "Can you believe the Democrats won't let 17-year-olds vote in their primary even if they will be 18 by the general election? Those commie bastards, trying to disenfranchise our youth!" Yes, it's a flat out lie, but they'll never question you on criticizing the Democrats, and might very well get a bug up their butt about the whole thing and do something about it. You know, to "own the libs."

E.H. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: You need to check out what is happening in your back yard. Culver City will be voting in November for 16-year-olds to vote in municipal elections and school board elections. This was a multiyear project by students to get the buy-in from all the players, make their case, and get the job done. Federal is off the table, but this is a pretty big deal.

One of the leaders of the group is my daughter, Sarah. She is now a junior at Berkeley studying economics.

Student Loans...

P.D. in Woodbridge, NJ, writes: I absolutely disagree with loan forgiveness for higher education loans. This primary effect, after the short-term benefit, will be increasing tuition costs for future college students.

The U.S. pays more for higher education than every country in the world (OK, Luxembourg is a little worse).

The government underfunded and then deregulated higher education, forcing it into a for-profit model. Then the government exacerbated the problem with grants and loans that eased the burden on the student and their families, but did nothing to control the costs. Higher education will charge what students are willing to pay. Every time the government made a new program, higher education responded with higher prices. My years as a professor taught me that higher education is a business and acts like it. Giving students loans and grants simply increases the amount that institutions can charge.

By forgiving education debt, without considering the cost side of the problem, the government has made the problem worse. Schools will correctly infer they can raise prices again and the government will respond to help students struggling to meet the ever increasing prices.

What should have been done is to control the cost side of higher education. If the government re-nationalized the state school systems and turned them into educational institutions, we could provide education at a reasonable price. Leading institutions (including public schools) are primarily research institutions where professors have limited teaching responsibilities and are rewarded for publishing articles. Let the private institutions play the research game. Public institutions should be providing a great education for a reasonable price.

Grants and loans should only support students in public institutions where costs are well managed. Otherwise, we are just feeding the beast.

S.H. in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, writes: You wrote: "This formula for debt cancellation addresses one of the objections there has been to canceling student loan debt: Why should a doctor or lawyer who went to Harvard with a student loan and is now making big bucks have the government pay off his or her debt? Under the Biden plan, people now making boatloads of money aren't eligible for debt cancellation, so the bulk of the relief goes to poor and middle class families."

Before I push back just a little at the assumptions about the salaries of physicians or lawyers embedded in this paragraph, let me say that I completely support targeting debt relief toward people whose incomes are lower than those of the average doctor. I'm also aware that (V) and (Z), in writing their analysis, have to come up with relatively pithy phrases to express a general concept rather than explain every nuance, so the shorthand of "highly compensated physician with loans but the means to pay them" has much truth to it.

But with that said, I want to point out that the size of medical school debt has created perverse incentives that have a major impact on health care in the U.S., especially for the most disadvantaged patients. According to Forbes, average medical school debt is just above $200,000, and about 15 percent of students carry more than $300,000 at the time of graduation. (To be honest, those numbers feel low to me, as I graduated 20 years ago from a relatively inexpensive state medical school owing $165,000.) Following graduation, all physicians bound for clinical practice require a minimum of 3, and up to as many as 7 or 8, years of residency and fellowship training, whose salaries remain in the five figures except for a few expensive markets like New York City, so it can be decades before those loans can be paid in full.

This debt pushes students and residents toward more lucrative specialties: radiology, orthopedic surgery, anesthesiology, gastroenterology, cardiology, critical care, and emergency medicine, as well as some boutique specialties like dermatology, ophthalmology, and plastic surgery. Not on that list, of course, are all the primary care specialties of internal medicine, pediatrics, and family medicine, as well as some subspecialties like geriatrics, nephrology (kidney disease), and infectious diseases (which is what I do).

I've been involved in medical education for two decades and I have repeatedly seen students and residents join interest clubs in infectious diseases or geriatrics or peds, only to discover as I touch base with them as they near graduation that they have decided they really love gastroenterology. Depending on what report you cite, gastroenterologists earn on average roughly twice the salary of a primary care physician. I have watched many of the best and brightest students routinely start out passionate about pursuing careers in "underserved" communities, and end up in practice at a wealthy suburban hospital. There is little doubt in my mind that, while the lucrative salaries play a central part in this process, students start shying away from less-well-compensated careers because of their debt, and if they didn't have such a huge debt burden in the first place, they might be more interested in lower-paying jobs that match their initial interests.

U.S. medical students disproportionately pursue "prestige" specialties, leaving a labor gap in primary care and less well-compensated specialties that must be filled by international medical graduates. I have worked with many of these "IMGs" and while some of them are among the most outstanding physicians I have ever trained, many others lack a complete skill set, a few of them glaringly so. The jobs open to them are on the front lines of the U.S. healthcare system and often serve the most vulnerable people.

It's not that I don't think professions like gastroenterology or orthopedic surgery aren't important and that there shouldn't be highly talented students pursuing these careers. My point is that the significant debt incurred by U.S. medical students shapes the physician workforce in ways that do not necessarily benefit the average American, and that's borne of the U.S.'s inability to support its institutions of higher education. You do not see this effect in places like Canada, Europe, or Australia. What the debt relief debate exposes is how badly our system functions in the first place, and just because physicians are on average much better compensated than other Americans, there are negative effects in medicine as well, and if we don't address the debt problem in some way for doctors (and almost certainly for lawyers as well), we'll continue to suffer its ill effects.

R.L. in Alameda, CA, writes: This one is for P.M. in Edenton and K.T. in Oakdale, both of whom are complaining, for different reasons, that student loan forgiveness is unfair.

I'm going to set aside ridiculously expensive college tuition for another day (as a parent of two college students, this is top-of-mind for me). It's an argument that needs to be had and a system that needs to be fixed. For this letter I'm going to focus on the student loan system.

First of all, I fail to understand why helping people in need is such a non-starter for so many. Where is their humanity? Why is helping people thought to be such a bad thing by so many? This is kind of a philosophical question that could be fleshed out in a different letter. I'll leave that thought here for now.

More questions. Why is it OK for Republicans to give away huge, unfunded tax breaks to corporations and the uber-wealthy but not OK to reduce the balances of millions of actual people by a small amount? I know this is a Whataboutism argument, but, I think, a valid one.

Moving on. I have no patience for the argument that, "I went to college and paid off my loans." Good for you. So did I. But are you really proposing that we sit on our hands as a nation just because you missed the boat on this? There are 300 million people in this country. No program is going to impact everybody, some will get left out and others who don't need the aid will get it. You can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs. My point is that, as far as the reporting goes, this will be well enough targeted to impact mostly people who need it the most. No government program will be perfect. I believe the goal is "good enough." Can we agree to not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good?

What about the plumber who would like his truck loan to be paid off, people argue? First of all, we don't know that the plumber doesn't have student loans. I'm an electrician and I took out $80K in a student loan to go to trade school. I was fortunate to be able to pay it off with my inheritance after my father died. (And I'm not bitter that my balance wasn't reduced by $10K either). Secondly, a truck or auto loan is very different than a student loan. The truck loan is limited, affordable, a business write-off, and can be included in bankruptcy as a failsafe. A student loan is none of these. The truck loan does something productive. It allows the plumber to do his work. A student loan provided an education (maybe), but is backwards-looking in this regard. And there is no guarantee that a recent graduate, working an entry-level position, can afford the payments. Not to mention the millions of student loan recipients who didn't finish their degrees.

I don't know how student loans work, but they are not the same as an auto loan or a mortgage. When I make my mortgage payment, I can see the principal reduced every month. Because of how compound interest works, the principal goes down by a miniscule amount in the early years of the mortgage, but it does go down every month. Somehow (and maybe a finance expert can explain this for us) student loans don't work that way. I've seen story after story of people who, for example, took out $50K, made payments for 10 years, and somehow still owe $50K. How is this OK?

I've heard complaints about how this will fuel inflation. I think (V) explained it well, but I'll repeat here that this does not dump cash into the economy. It reduces loan balances and therefore, monthly payment amounts. No one is getting a $10K windfall. The extra money in people's pockets will likely go towards necessities such as food, transportation and shelter. It will help to alleviate the pain that people have been feeling when making these purchases.

Let's zoom out to the macro level. After all, part of the point of government is to lift up society as a whole. Student loans are an albatross hanging around the necks of everyone who has them. People are delaying major life decisions because of them. They aren't getting married. They aren't having children. They aren't purchasing homes. They aren't going on vacations. Think of all the industries connected to these activities that are suffering as a result. Think about a decimated future workforce if the population isn't growing. Think about all the people who can't get into apartments because they are still occupied by people burdened by student loan debt who aren't buying homes.

I agree that there are people who never went to college who need a hand, too. So let's help them! The child tax credits that were paid out for about a year during the pandemic were great and covered a lot of people. Let's do that again! Let's get some more assistance programs up and running. Let's convert more apartments into low-income housing and get Gen Z young adults out of their parents' basements and into apartments. Not to mention helping unhoused people to get off the streets. We can do more than one thing at a time and I trust that student loan debt forgiveness is the beginning, not the end, of helping people to need help the most.

What is clear is that even with a razor-thin majority, the Democrats have been able to get a lot done to help regular people while the GOP is in the thrall of the TFG disease and has proposed nothing useful. It appears that people may be noticing and I believe (and hope) that there is a real chance at bucking the president's-party-loses-seat-in-the-first-midterm trend. Elect more Democrats and we'll get more of this good stuff!

G.T.M. in Vancouver, BC, Canada, writes: K.T. in Oakdale writes: "The whataboutism that floods this particular issue is mind-numbing, I haven't heard a single argument about why non-college-educated people should pay for the college education of others." This would be a good point if it weren't for one "minor" detail and that is: The taxpayers are already paying for at least 2/3 of the cost of post-secondary education and are doing so regardless of the student's own ability to pay.

This is because the tuition that the student pays doesn't come anywhere near covering the actual operating cost of the post-secondary education. (Well, except for such interesting "schools" as Trump University, which are set up purely as cash cows and which deliver, on a good day, a fourth-rate education.)

One interesting way of funding post-secondary education would be to simply stop charging "up front" tuition at all and to replace it with a life-time (non-evadable) "Education Tax" of X% of gross income for each and every year of post-secondary education undertaken. If that "X%" was to be 0.5%, that would mean that:

Would some people pay more than it cost to educate them? Indeed they would, but they are also paying more than it costs to educate them now (especially if they aren't undergoing any post-secondary training/education).

One thing that I learned while on both the academic and financial governing bodies of a major university is that only about 10% of the people who attend university actually increase their income sufficiently so that the increased taxes that they pay actually covers the cost of educating them. Another thing that I learned is that there is no reliable way of knowing which of the incoming students is going to be in that 10%.

M.S. in Las Vegas, NV, writes: I felt compelled to write responses to P.M. in Edenton on two occasions; this is the second one.

When Jesus died for our sins, wasn't that unfair to all the people who paid for their own sins before that? Was his action retroactive? Did people in hell get a letter in the mail that they're now being upgraded to heaven as long as they believe in Jesus? How unfair it all seems to those burning in hell who never had the chance or option of just believing in Jesus and getting a free pass into heaven.

I know sinning and heathenism are out of control, but giving free passes to heaven to people who are just fortunate enough to be born after Jesus and benefit from it is not only unfair, it's simply stupid, especially given the already ongoing problem with overcrowding in heaven. It's going to result in a backlash against Jesus and his father. Let's hope they find the cost of that worth it.

J.K. in Auckland, New Zealand, writes: My wife and I fled the United States because we could no longer afford to pay our student loans.

An unfortunate layoff resulted in us being hounded by debt collectors. It was a vicious circle of debt and bad credit that meant we struggled to find work, had to pay enormous fees for everything requiring a credit report and ultimately made continuing in the U.S. untenable.

We fled in 2008 and moved to New Zealand. We both have good jobs, have great credit, and own a house. Our student loans are on an income-dependent repayment plan and because our AGI, with Foreign Earned Income Exclusion is $0, our monthly student loan payments are $0. In 7 years we will have been paying $0 for 20 years are our loans will be forgiven.

While I feel bad that we are effectively stiffing the government, there is no way we could have done it any other way. There is a community of expats here who are doing the same thing.

You shouldn't have to flee to afford school.

...And Rising College Costs

B.R.D. in Columbus, OH, writes: Just to flesh out some of your answer to L.B. in Atlanta: States started cutting funding to higher education starting in the 80s. Call it the Reagan effect. A colleague told me the other day that when she started teaching at a land-grant institution three decades ago, the state's funding amounted to 73% of the university's budget. (Perhaps it's also useful to point out to readers that accredited colleges and universities are non-profit. They must balance their budgets every year, and they are overseen by pretty strict accrediting bodies.) When she retired a few years ago, that funding amounted to 7% of the university's budget. At the same time, funding to Pell grants has been cut. A Pell grant used to cover about 80% of a student's educational costs (and of course, that student and student's family had to prove very high need). Now, a Pell grant covers about 30% of a student's costs.

One of the best explanations for the student loan crisis I've seen recently is by Susan Dynarski, "Why I Changed My Mind on Student Debt Forgiveness." It is useful because it includes a lot of background to the current problem from a person who used to have the "band-aid" opinion about debt forgivenessa. She pointed out something I have pointed out before: Summer wages for students (not to mention wages during an academic year) have not kept pace with inflation.

You are absolutely right about costs for colleges and universities rising, too—when I started teaching long ago, who knew an IT department would be needed? That dorms and classrooms would need to have wi-fi? That faculty would need computers, that those computers would need to be upgraded and fixed when needed, that faculty would need training and re-training so they could keep up with the latest technology? That technological change involved a completely new line item in the budget, and it was not a one-time expense. It's only increased over time. Who knew we would need better student health facilities and staff, including more mental health counselors? Who knew we would need staff who could explain student aid and debt to students and their families and try to provide enough education to help them avoid the worst problems we're now facing? Much aid and loans come from the federal government, but private companies administer the loans themselves and their collection. They have led many, many students and alumni (of technical schools, community colleges, and colleges and universities) astray about the best ways to tackle their debt.

But from where I sit, the main driver behind higher tuition has been cuts to state funding. Funny, too, how when states are awash in cash, like they are now because of the Rescue Act, they never think about perhaps restoring at least some of that funding or improving public health services or providing more funding for public education so it was not so dependent on property taxes or improving pension plans. Some don't even think about replenishing their rainy day funds. You know, so there might be some money available during the next emergency? Oh, no. Let's try another tax cut, shall we?

E.D. in Saddle Brook, NJ, writes: All the talking about college costs seems to consistently miss the things that directly impact me and everyone I know. I started college at the end of Bill Clinton's term, with George W. Bush's federal budgets taking over halfway through. For my first two years of college, my financial aid package covered almost the entire cost, and the package was mostly made up of grants. The loans I received were mostly federal subsidized loans (about 2% interest rate). Once the Bush budgets took effect, my federal grants almost entirely disappeared, replaced by federal unsubsidized loans (about 5.5% interest rate). The total aid package per semester also went down, requiring more out of pocket spending. I think 80-90% of both my student loan debt and my out of pocket expenses were accumulated during the last 2 years. Everyone I've talked to about it that went to school at the same time had similar experiences. The younger people I've talked to all seem to have come out much worse, with both higher loan balances and higher interest rates.

Even before I started college, there was plenty of talk about how much more expensive it was than it used to be. There's just been a steady trend for several decades (since Reagan?) of changing college from mostly government funded to mostly paid for by students. I don't think most people have any idea how much the cost of college has changed over time, which leads to much of the resistance to doing anything about it. I have no idea how my children will afford to attend college.

I don't think the loan forgiveness is a fix for the problem, but it's the only band-aid Biden has available to him to place on a massive wound. My loans have long been paid off, but I'm happy for the people who can get some aid. I just wish more could be done to improve the situation, especially for future students.

Lieutenant Governors (NOT Lieutenants Governor)

A.B. in Wendell, NC, writes: For reasons I may not need to articulate to you, the answer about lieutenant governors, in response to the question from M.D. in Sun Tan Valley,immediately had my full attention!

I have lived in seven different U.S. states in my life, and in every state, I have been active politically (except Florida where I lived only as a child). I have always taken an interest in learning the history and workings of the places I have lived.

Of these states, four jointly elect the governor and lieutenant governor on one ticket, from the primary through the general: Illinois, Florida, New Jersey and Kentucky. One of these states has separate primaries for governor and lieutenant governor, but then the winners run as a pair in the general: Pennsylvania.

The remaining two states I have lived in elect the governor and lieutenant governor entirely separately: Texas, and my current home of North Carolina. And North Carolina currently has a situation in which the lieutenant governor and governor are of opposite political parties. Gov. Roy Cooper is marginally Democratic (in my view), while lieutenant governor Mark Robinson is a Republican (and there is little else I can say about him that would be acceptable on a family-friendly blog such as yours... to put it mildly).

Both Texas and North Carolina assign the role of President of the Senate to their Lt Governors. However, North Carolina's lieutenant governor does not have the right to appoint committees in the North Carolina Senate, nor to assign bills to committees, as his Texas counterpart can. It used to be that the lieutenant governor of North Carolina could do this, but that power was taken away in the 1980s.

Also, in both states, the lieutenant governor assumes the role of acting governor when the governor is out of state or in some way incapacitated, and in the event of a permanent vacancy, advances to the office of governor... which would be really bad right now in North Carolina, as it would give a different political party the governorship. Not to mention, Mark Robinson is wholly unqualified to be governor, in my view, as he not only fails to represent all North Carolinians equally, but in fact acts with animus towards and antipathy for certain groups of North Carolina citizens... including my group.

Again, I will say that my mother taught me if you don't have something nice to say, say nothing... and so I will say nothing further about Mr. Robinson, except to note that it is weird how, only in America, can any charlatan, crank, crook or generally all-around horrible human being add "Pastor," "Minister", or "Reverend" in front of their name and gain instant credibility.

Texas's lieutenant governor is the most powerful of all state lieutenant governors, but North Carolina isn't terribly far behind, as our lieutenant governor also serves as a member of the State Board of Education. You may be able to understand why I find this problematic, given Mr. Robinson's very publicly stated views on some issues!

J.H. in Boston, MA, writes: When you wrote "Some states allow the lieutenant governor to run the state if the governor is away, but that can lead to problems if the lieutenant governor and governor don't see eye-to-eye on things," surely you must have been thinking of lieutenant gov. Janice McGeachin (R-ID). On two separate occasions when Gov. Brad Little (R-ID) went out of state to attend conservative conferences, McGeachin issued executive orders overriding Little's policies on COVID mandates and CRT teaching in schools. Little is quite conservative, but McGeachin is trying to claim the ultra-Trump lane. We followed the Idaho primaries on, so we know that McGeachin tried and failed to primary Little, and is now out of a job. Presumably Little will cruise to reelection in the general, as will the Republican running for lieutenant governor, Scott Bedke.

As you wrote, many states make their lieutenant governor the presiding officer of the state Senate. In fact, according to Ballotpedia, 24 states do this, almost exactly half of the 50 states. However, almost all of them make the role ceremonial, like it is for the U.S. senate. We saw how toothless that ceremonial role was in 2020, both when Mike Pence refused to throw out Joe Biden's electors, and in Pennsylvania, when lieutenant gov. John Fetterman (D) tried to seize control of the floor to seat a newly elected Democratic senator that was being blocked over election fraud claims, and was ejected by the acting President of the Senate. Control of that chamber is divided between a speaker/president pro tem, a majority leader, and a parliamentarian.

In Texas, all those roles are vested in the lieutenant governor. In this, Texas stands alone among all states. Texas also gives other executive and legislative roles to their lieutenant governor, so it's no wonder that it's considered a more powerful role than the governorship.

R.M. in Williamstown, WV, writes: In your reply to M.D. in San Tan Valley, you indicated: "For these reasons, five states don't have a lieutenant governor. In those cases, the primary purpose of the lieutenant governor (succeeding the governor) is assigned to some other officeholder. The five are Arizona (secretary of state), Maine (Senate president), New Hampshire (Senate president), Oregon (secretary of state) and Wyoming (secretary of state)."

If you stretch things a fair distance, one can support that statement. But it's quite a stretch. Here's why: West Virginia elects no lieutenant governor, nor is one appointed. The West Virginia code provides that in case of vacancy or incapacitation of the governor, the president of the state Senate shall act as governor. That would seem to mean that there is, in fact, no lieutenant governor in West Virginia, and as a practical matter, that is the case. There is, however, a final sentence in the code that muddies the water just a bit. It reads: "Therefore, the Legislature determines that the President of the Senate shall be additionally designated the title of 'lieutenant Governor' in acknowledgment of the president's responsibility as first successor to the Governor." So it sort of boils down to "we don't have one, but we'll pretend that we do."

As a footnote, the last vacancy in the West Virginia governor's office was in November, 2010, when Gov. Joe Manchin (the name may ring a bell) resigned to take the seat in the U.S. Senate to which he had been elected. At that time, the President of the Senate, Earl Ray Tomlin became the "acting" governor. He was subsequently elected to the job a year later.

Legal Matters

J.M. in Silver Spring, MD, writes: You wrote: "If [Trump lawyer Alina Habba] did [search classified documents], she certainly violated the law since she does not have a Top Secret security clearance."

This is completely false. When one obtains a security clearance, one signs documents promising, under criminal penalty, to protect them. If one does not hold a clearance, one has no such obligations.

The classic case is this: When a leaker (in some rare cases, it is actually a whistleblower but more often, it is just a leaker) gives classified documents to a reporter, the leaker (who holds a clearance) has committed a crime. The reporter, however, has done nothing wrong. In fact, the government can only "ask nicely" for the return and non-publication of the materials. The report is under no obligation to comply.

Now, by failing to report Trump's obvious mishandling of classified documents, is the attorney guilty of being an accessory to his crimes? Possibly, but that is much less clear.

T.M.M. in Odessa, MO, writes: There were several questions about legal issues related to Donald Trump.

First, on how the classified nature of the evidence impacts the process—with the caution that there are very few uniform rules of discovery as each state has its own rules (some requiring more discovery and others limiting discovery)—something similar happens in child pornography cases. Because the nature of the evidence is such that the goal is to limit the number of copies that exist, the defense typically does not get a copy of the actual child porn but instead has to view the material which is the basis of the charge at the prosecutor's office. Similarly, when it comes to trial, while the defense can insist that the prosecution play the child porn for the jury so that the jury can determine if it is actually child porn, most defendants will agree to some other option as the defense is typically "I don't know how it ended up on my computer" rather than whether it is child porn. Playing the child porn to the jury is actually likely to hurt the defense. If the Trump case were to go to trial, one option would be to have an FBI agent basically give a summary of the number and type of classified documents that were recovered during the search with only vague summaries of the contents. (For example, "We found twenty-five documents marked top secret. Five of those concerned weapons development programs in potentially hostile countries.")

Second, while the assertion of executive privilege borders on frivolous, the claim of attorney-client privilege may have more substance. The nature of a search for documents is that agents will have to look through all of the documents that Trump had with him to determine which ones belong to Trump (e.g., a draft contract for pro golf events at one of Trump's courses) and what are presidential records. For a person like Trump, some of the personal records may include communications with his attorneys. It is for this reason that cases like this typically involve (as this one did) a "taint team." A taint team is a group of agents and attorneys who are not involved in the actual investigation who review the materials to separate out the privileged documents. The only communication that the taint team has with the actual team working the case is to forward them the unprivileged documents at the end of the review.

Third, on charging vs. indictment, "charging" is a broader term which covers several different ways that a case can start. While a prosecutor can charge that a defendant committed a crime, a grand jury also charges that a defendant committed a crime. An indictment is one type of charging document. Typically, a complaint or information is issued by a prosecutor. As you noted, an indictment is only issued by the grand jury.

A.R. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: Just a point of clarification. The grand jury in Fulton County is a special purpose grand jury that is seated for a year for the sole purpose of investigating the allegations of interference in the Georgia election. This grand jury can't issue indictments but will issue a report that may recommend charges. At that point, Willis can present those recommendations to a regular grand jury to issue indictments. It doesn't say this in this FAQ-style article, but I don't think she's required to use a grand jury before bringing charges. Still, for something like this case, I'm sure she would take that extra step.

E.G.G-C. in Syracuse, NY, writes: While reading the item about Gov. Brian Kemp's (R-GA) claim of sovereign immunity, I could not help thinking about the same legal argument that Augusto Pinochet used in England back in the late 90s... I guess certain minds think alike?

Media Matters

A.A. in Branchport, NY, writes: When I was a mere lad, half a century ago, the news divisions of the various networks were considered to be a public service and were not expected to be profitable. They were, however, quite prestigious and each competed for various honors. I was fortunate to have grown up with Edward Murrow, Cronkite, Edwin Newman, David Brinkley, Harry Reasoner, John Chancellor and many other fine TV correspondents.

Back then reporters strove to separate the wheat from the chaff, as subjects of their reporting spun facts to suit their immediate purpose. I am thinking of the Vietnam War and the government's massaging of events to portray everything as rainbows and unicorns. It was our good fortune that back in the day reporters had enough integrity to ferret facts and report them as they were found.

It is with great concern that I note the state of TV news today. News divisions are now profit centers and as a result are no longer driven by any sort of objective standard. They simply pursue profits, in the form of ratings. This week, President Biden gave a speech concerning what kind of country we will have going forward. The three major networks declined to show it, citing an aversion to a political speech. As far as I can tell, only MSNBC and one other cable network carried the speech live. So, many millions of Americans were treated to reruns instead of hearing our President issue warnings of the many dangers facing our democracy.

And now I see that CNN is remaking its staff, one must assume in the pursuit of ratings. John Harwood was the latest casualty, his choice of words describing Trump as a "dishonest demagogue" being the proximate cause. I find myself wondering if these news organizations are so immersed in their commercial quest that they've decided to pander to the great many Americans who are not interested in having their daily lives disturbed by distasteful news, but would rather provide rainbows and unicorns so as to not penetrate anyone's comfort zone, guaranteeing further profits.

We don't have a formal Ministry of Propaganda, yet. Given the way things are moving, maybe we will never need to establish one.

M.M. in San Diego, CA, writes: It's readily apparent where a particular outlet's bias lies in politics, if you look at the photos they choose to run of politicians. A flattering photo is pro, an unflattering photo is con. This is especially true for women in politics. Try comparing New York Times photos of Hillary Clinton with the ones Fox publishes or broadcasts, or, on the flip side, those of Sarah Palin.

B.S. in Chicago, IL, writes: S.W. in Omaha asked about's ratings for bias in different media sources. I've found that has what appear to be reasonable ratings. They rate thousands of publishers on both bias and factual accuracy.

V & Z respond: They are OK, and are better than, but they try to cover more outlets than their staffing allows for, meaning their assessments are often shallow and imprecise. If you look at their assessment of our site, for example, they have reached their conclusions on a single, three-paragraph item written 4 years ago. It wasn't even the lead item; it was the fifth item of the day. The site also makes some assertions about us that it cannot possibly support because it cannot possibly have the necessary information to support those assertions.

A.K. in Alexandria, VA, writes: In the late 1950s, my mother worked traffic at a radio station. At the time and in this context, "traffic" had nothing to do with congestion on the roadways and instead referred to scheduling ads. Scheduling required juggling ad placement so that listeners always heard a variety. If a business had more than one ad running, those ads were scheduled so that one would run one hour, the other the next. Two ads for the same type of business—for example, two different car dealers—could not run in the same ad block. Nowadays TV and radio frequently break these rules, if they follow them at all.

Mikhail Fellow, Well Met

J.A. in Redwood City, CA, writes: In the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the local community colleges on the peninsula used to sponsor a speaker series called "Celebrity Forum." In late 2004, I was offered a chance to attend an evening session with Mikhail Gorbachev. Hmmm. An opportunity to see a historic world figure, live in person? Of course I went.

At that point, Gorbachev had been out of office for well over a decade, succeeded at first by his nemesis Boris Yeltsin, and then by Vladimir Putin. A subsequent attempt at a political comeback in the new Russian Federation proved unsuccessful, and he remained politically sidelined thereafter. But he was always much better regarded in the West, and so he spent a lot of time back then funding his political foundation by traveling around on the lecture circuit.

As such, he was well prepared for his liberal California audience that night. He opened with some scripted remarks (in Russian, but ably translated by his long-standing English interpreter), and immediately came across as the charismatic and urbane world-class statesman that he was.

Following his speech, he took some questions from the audience. One person asked for his thoughts on his own legacy. He responded with hope—hope that the U.S. and Russia would continue to maintain a more cooperative and less confrontational stance with each other in world affairs. But he also remained a champion for his home team: He hoped that Russia would be better able to compete on the world stage, both economically and politically, as a result of his time in office.

Afterwards, I remember thinking that here was an enormously influential man, who overall held good intentions for his country and for the world. At a time when U.S. domestic politics had started turning openly cynical and nasty, one could still find a splash of political optimism in the heart and mind of a former world leader. The contrast was startling, even then.

All in all, a memorable event in my life. What a thrill to spend a cool autumnal evening in the lively company of such a person, even if I was just one of several hundred nameless faces in a crowd of like-minded political junkies.

A.S. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: I think readers might be interested in knowing about the William Taubman biography of Gorbachev, Gorbachev: His Life and Times. I thought it was fabulous and even breathtaking at times...

G.W. in Framingham, MA, writes: It is interesting to see all the different views of Mikhail Gorbachev since his passing. One of the most interesting viewpoints is that of an advisor who predeceased him, Anatoly Chernyaev, who was his chief foreign policy advisor and a close confidant. Chernyaev donated his contemporary diaries to the National Security Archive at George Washington University, and these (along with other archival documents) form the central part of a 2010 book from Central European University Press, Masterpieces of History: The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Europe, 1989.

If I may summarize my impression of these sources: In his second term, Ronald Reagan's policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union had become quite dovish, and Gorbachev's inner circle were hopeful that they could achieve substantial defense cuts soon enough to rescue the Soviet economy from collapse, and their government with it. However, with Reagan being term-limited, they were unable to secure the agreements that they were negotiating before the election of 1988. Reagan's people were not willing to sign an agreement during the election or the lame-duck period, and the Bushies, led by James Baker, decreed a "pause" in negotiations while they worked out the new administration's (more hawkish) policy direction. Meanwhile, the Soviet leadership was unable to deliver tangible economic improvements for their citizens, for fear of appearing weak by cutting military spending without obtaining any U.S. concessions at all. Of course, there ultimately was a military coup against Gorbachev—which, while it failed, firmly discredited the old Soviet regime and gave the upper hand to nationalist movements throughout the USSR.

S.K. in Bethesda, MD, writes: In your item on the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, you made a point that with his death, Jimmy Carter and Henry Kissinger are the last remaining major players from the Cold War. I would argue that James Baker, still living, earned a place on that list. Though not as much of a publicity hound as Kissinger, Baker was Secretary of State for longer, and at a time that was arguably more consequential. Baker was also Chief of Staff for both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and generally considered one of, if not the most trusted adviser to both presidents in the critical waning days of the Soviet Union. Kissinger got more press and Carter was President, but Baker had as much impact as either one of them.

Other International Matters

B.J.L. in Ann Arbor, MI, writes: Hats off to Sky News for some really deep insights on the Ukraine war:

The current offensive is a long line, primarily east of Kherson, designed to choke off the Russian forces north of the Dnipro river. The evidence seems to suggest that things are working, although what's reality and what's propaganda is murky. Sky News has some other interviews recently on this, as well.

J.C. in al Wakrah, Qatar, writes: The Chinese Social Credit Score you mentioned is not just about praise or criticism of the government. It also involves your beliefs and origin and sexuality. If you are a gay Tibetan Christian, it's going to be awfully hard to find a decent apartment or job with such a low score, no matter how much you praise the Central Committee.

C.J.L. in Bristol, England, UK, writes: I have to take issue with this week's "This Week in Freudenfreude." While being a 95-year-old committed to public service may indeed be noteworthy, the quote from Gina Lollobrigida about being tired of hearing politicians argue, and wanting to fight instead for the people, is reminiscent solely of local Facebook groups where people loudly scream how everyone's in it for themselves, and all we need is "real people" (typically in the model of uneducated reactionaries) in politics to make the world good again.

Not surprisingly, Lollobrigida is running for a party which opposes COVID vaccines, NATO, Italian membership in the EU (I guess they think Brexit is going so well), and supports the Russian side of the invasion of Ukraine.

I'm not sure this is something that should be cheered, never mind listed as something to make people happy.

V & Z respond: Fair enough. We relied on Wikipedia's characterization of the party, and should have dug into it a little deeper.

The Great American Novel, Part VI: Moby-Dick

L.R.H. in Oakland, CA, writes: I should not have been surprised by the enthusiasm for Tom Sawyer and The Grapes of Wrath, but my own nominee is the real Great American Novel: Moby-Dick, which one of your correspondents called "boring."

No, it is not at all boring, unless you were forced to read it as a teenager or before you were ready for its beauties and its weirdness. It is a strange and wonderful book, half sea-faring adventure, half treatise on whaling and whales. It is also quintessentially American, so very much of the northeast and whaling communities. It's a story of obsession, but also deep friendship. Race plays a role in the book, as does 19th century American commerce. Moby-Dick is as beautifully written, and as wryly human, as anything in American literature.

M.M. in San Diego, CA, writes: Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, hands down, though I wouldn't want aliens to read it as an introduction to us.

The symbolism is so profound and so ahead of its time that the Melville scholars of his time got it wrong. This is Melville's diatribe against God—an evil, malign presence who ruins its worshippers' lives. Moby-Dick, the Great White Whale, is God; Captain Ahab is Melville, tortured and scarred by his struggles with this universal god and Melville's particular religion, Christian Protestantism. The chapters of whale lore are the books of the Bible, and there are a tremendous number of Old Testament references throughout the narrative chapters that point back to an angry and jealous god.

As for an illustration of early American life, it was fishing and whaling that made the New England colonists wealthy. Moby-Dick portrays the hard life aboard a whaler in intricate detail. If one had no sailing experience, one could always sign on to a whaler, at the very bottom of the maritime fleet. Because of the unexpected wealth whaling generated, our Puritan forebears altered their religious perspective, in that their wealth was God's providence and reward. Therefore, God clearly disfavored the poor, which turned the basic Christian tenet of caring for the sick and the poor on its head. This gave rise to the notion of the deserving poor and the undeserving poor, which is still woven deeply into the fabric of our society, much to our shame.

There's an immigrant angle also, as all the crew are of different races, nationalities and, most importantly, religions. There's even a secret harpoon crew of Chinese who live in the deepest bowels of the ship—an early example of the American fascination with "inscrutable Asians."

So what happens to Ahab's obsessive hunt to kill Moby Dick to avenge himself? Yeah, as you might expect, it doesn't go well. The entire crew drowns, even the innocent cabin boy, with the one exception of Ishmael—saved by the buoyant coffin he's able to stay afloat upon until he's rescued by another ship. He is spared so he might bear witness to the hubris and folly of men confronting and challenging almighty God. Melville's lesson is that while you may have legitimate grievances with the religion of the community, it's best for all to make peace with it or suffer at the hands of your deity.

I ask you, can you get any more American than that?

P.S. in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, UK, writes: I vote for Moby-Dick. It's got an aging, aggrieved megalomaniac leader who takes his society down with him as he seeks to avenge a perceived insult; a constant theme of yearning for an innocent, agricultural past where America exported grains and imported white people; an ongoing flirtation with multicutluralism that nonetheless leaves the people of color doing the most dangerous jobs; and an overall assertion that Americans have a right to roam the world without actually having to deal with any of the societies that are out there (except, of course, to hire some of their strongest men as workers). Sound familiar?

V & Z respond: (Z) may have to work that into his lecture on allegory. And in response to all three letters here, note that the title of the book is Moby-Dick, but the name of the whale is Moby Dick. When (Z) edited an encyclopedia on mid-19th century America, neither he nor the author of the article on Herman Melville could find out the reason for the difference.


A.J. in Baltimore, MD, writes: I agree with your policy of not rejecting questions for grammatical reasons, but I still feel the need to correct the description of the abstruse grammar issues raised in the question from J.E. in Boone. Ending a sentence in a preposition (such as "for") is not the same thing as a dangling participle. It is sometimes considered less formal to end a sentence in a preposition, but the rule strikes many as fairly stuffy and antiquated, which is perhaps why there is a line (probably apocryphally) attributed to Winston Churchill as a response to being corrected on this point: "That is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put."

A participle is a verb form used as an adjective; for example, in the phrase "finishing touches," "finishing" is a participle. A dangling participle is the use of a participle to refer to a noun that is not in the sentence. For example, there is a dangling participle in the second sentence here: "The FBI agent walked down the hall of Mar-a-Lago. Turning the corner, the TOP SECRET designation emblazoned on the documents was immediately apparent." The participle "turning the corner" is dangling because the noun which it modifies (i.e., the FBI agent) isn't actually in the sentence. Without context, the sentence construction would suggest that "the TOP SECRET designation" was "turning the corner." Obviously, in context, you can infer what the sentence actually means. At least in theory, dangling participles can create ambiguity.

S.Z. in New Haven, CT, writes: I was greatly moved by the praise of Memphis, TN, by B.C. in Walpole. Especially the comment that " is official: Memphis is mentioned in over 1,074 songs, more than any other town." But this did not ring true to me, so I Googled "how many songs mention New York?", and number 1 on the list was List of songs about New York City.

I quantified the Wikipedia list by copying it into a spreadsheet file and deleting blank lines. The file contains 4,416 lines, more than four times the number claimed for Memphis by B.C.

While I cannot verify that all the songs listed in Wikipedia do relate to New York, I suspect that Wikipedia is as reliable as B.C.'s source.

V & Z respond: But remember, the five boroughs all used to be independent cities. And if you divide 4,416 by 5, you get a mere 883.2 songs per borough. Though we're kind of guessing that's on the high side for Staten Island.

S.M. in Louisville, KY, writes: With all the crazy stuff in our country, you guys are good at putting in a lot of humor to lighten the mood. Here is my fun college football betting guide. I usually lose but I think I'm onto something:

Everything is political.

V & Z respond: That's going to result in a lot of bets against Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Utah and Oklahoma, which may prove to be... less than profitable.

Also, if someone does adopt your system, it won't help with games played by teams in the same state. So, if any such person plans to bet UCLA-USC, we will point out that it's most certainly instructive that the Bruins wear blue and the Trojans wear red.

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