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      •  Saturday Q&A

Saturday Q&A

The debt limit looms large, at least around here.

Current Events

J.B. in Williamsburg, VA, asks: You identified two paths that Joe Biden could take to address the debt limit if all else failed. One was to mint coins and place them in the Federal Reserve to cover the debt. The other was to invoke the Fourteenth Amendment and ignore the debt limit and continue paying the bills as always. You pointed out that the second approach would end up in the courts and potentially could lead to the end of the debt limit. Could President Biden actually implement either of these plans or would the political fallout be too great for the administration to try either of them? I haven't seen any of the political pundits discuss either of these approaches. Are these truly realistic? Why do you think they aren't being discussed beyond this site?

V & Z answer: We've certainly seen articles about both approaches, so we don't think we have a monopoly on discussing them. Indeed, the trillion-dollar coin idea even has its own Wikipedia page.

We think both of these plans are entirely realistic. And if Biden implements them just before the U.S. goes over the cliff, we think it would benefit him politically. People like strong, dramatic action. And extra credit, in this case, for poking the MAGA Republicans in the eye.

A.J. in Baltimore, MD, asks: You suggested that Joe Biden could announce that the debt ceiling law is unconstitutional and will be ignored from here on out, and that this announcement could lead to litigation. But who would have standing to bring such a suit? Who would actually be harmed by a decision by the president to decline to follow the debt ceiling law?

V & Z answer: Congress would have standing; they would argue that the President was encroaching on their constitutional duty and right to control the purse strings. Not too likely that such a suit would come from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), but it's right up the alley of Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).

R.P. in Redmond, WA, asks: Since the debt limit is supposed to just get raised each time, if Biden has to mint a trillion dollar coin this time to avert disaster, why wouldn't he just mint a $500 trillion coin, and then there won't be debt limit issues for many years into the future?

V & Z answer: The $1 trillion coin idea is predicated on the notion that the U.S. can sustain the underlying financing, and the coin is effectively just a bookkeeping trick to allow the Treasury to keep things in order. In turn, this comes with the assumption that once Congress takes care of business, the $1 trillion coin will be melted down and removed from the federal reserve's balance sheet.

On the other hand, if the federal government was to grant itself $50 trillion or $100 trillion or $500 trillion out of thin air, it would hyperinflate and crash American currency. Nobody would accept U.S. dollars outside the United States, for fear that $100 today would be worth 50 cents tomorrow. This, in turn, would plunge the U.S., and probably the world, into a depression.

D.J.M. in Salmon Arm, B.C., Canada, asks: It is often said that a solution to the constant debt limit problem is the minting of a number of trillion-dollar platinum coins. Why not just do it? What is the downside? Do you not think that the American people will just go "meh"?

V & Z answer: The downside is that it's never been done before, and it's hard to say how the markets and the world economy would respond. Our guess is that if Joe Biden tried it right now, it would not go over well in the economic sector, as it would be taken as a sign that Congress is no longer capable of managing the U.S. economy. On the other hand, if Biden waited until June 4, after all other options have been exhausted, then the move would likely go over much better in the economic sector, since it would be seen as a vastly superior option to the alternative.

As to the American people, Fox and its audience will go nuts if Biden tries this maneuver, whether it is tomorrow, next week, or on June 4. The majority of Americans would probably respond with "meh" right now, but once they've been subjected to vast coverage of the issue, and the consequences, the response would be positive, we think.

O.Z.H. in Dubai, UAE, asks: I have read that if the debt limit is not raised, the U.S. would still have enough tax revenue coming in on a monthly basis to keep paying interest to its bondholders. So a "default" (if defined as failure to pay principal or interest on bonds) is not necessary if the debt limit is not raised. However, obviously then other debts would go unpaid. My question is, who decides what does and does not get paid?

V & Z answer: At the moment, nobody really knows the answer to that question, as the issue has never come up before. Joe Biden, for his part, would probably order the Treasury to keep paying for certain priorities of his, like food stamps. House Republicans are trying to pass a bill that says that the Treasury has to prioritize repayment of bonds before all other expenses. Of course, that bill is not terribly likely to get past the Senate. So, in the absence of new developments, we have to assume that Biden and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen would decide who gets paid and who doesn't.

L.R. in Salem, VA, asks: Heather Cox Richardson, in her January 17 "Letters from an American," said this about House Republicans planning to refuse to raise the debt ceiling:

Refusing to raise the debt ceiling means the United States will default, wreaking havoc on international markets and our own global standing. But the right wing appears willing to burn down the global economy and to destroy our place in it to impose their will on the country.

In your opinion, is she over-stating the consequences of failing to raise the debt ceiling?

V & Z answer: No.

The most immediate impact of the default would be to permanently undermine the United States' credit. This would mean that, going forward, the country would have to pay higher rates when it borrows money. It would also mean that U.S. currency would decline in value, as it is backed by the "full faith and credit of the United States." This would roil the U.S. markets and the overall economy.

Meanwhile, much of the world's economy is built upon U.S. currency and U.S. securities. If the value of those things were to drop, then other nations would see their economies take a huge hit. In the short term, they would be able to spend less money on U.S. goods and services, doing considerable damage to America's trade balance with the world. In the long term, they would be less willing to invest in the U.S.

Let's put it this way. The U.S. actually has, technically, defaulted on its debt one time. In 1979, after widespread problems with the check-printing printers in the Treasury Department, the government was unable to pay people who were trying to redeem their treasury securities. It took a little less than 3 weeks to straighten everything out and to get everyone paid. But despite the fact that the problem was technical in nature, and that it only affected a fairly small number of people, and that it was fixed pretty quickly, the economic sector was spooked. The U.S. government's borrowing costs went up $12 billion that year ($40 billion in 2023 dollars), and there was never a correction, meaning that the extra billions were a permanent annual cost. Put another way, the U.S. government has spent about $1.7 trillion extra over the last four decades because of some broken printers during the Carter years. Now imagine what will happen if the U.S. defaults on its whole debt, instead of just a small portion, and does so due to deliberate action by human beings.

R.S. in Bedford, England, UK, asks: Does any other country have a legally mandated debt limited which cannot be breached thus bringing the possibility of automatic default? Has the inferred interest rate on Treasury Bonds increased with the suggested possibility of default thus increasing the deficit as has happened with the UK?

V & Z answer: There are a number of countries, primarily E.U. nations, that have a debt ceiling that is defined in terms of a percentage of GDP. That is to say, if the national debt exceeds 60% of GDP, these nations are supposed to stop spending money until they have rebalanced the books. They do not always stop, though, even if they're supposed to.

The only other nation that has a debt limit that is an absolute amount, as opposed to a percentage of GDP, is... Denmark. This was done in order to sustain people's faith in the Danish economy when management of the debt was transferred from the Danish national bank (Danmarks Nationalbank) to the Danish ministry of finance. However, the Danes have set their debt limit so high, there is virtually no chance of it being reached. The one time they came within a country mile of hitting it (in 2010), the parliament raised the debt limit to a new all-but-unreachable figure.

L.B. in Savannah, GA, asks: It's been five months since the FBI seizure of documents at Mar-a-Lago, and over two years since the events of January 6 and what led up to them, and so far, the only legal action we've seen have been subpoenas and the appointment of Jack Smith as special prosecutor (and, of course, the trials of individual rioters). I realize that Donald Trump presents a unique and complex case, but how much time does DoJ need? The crypto exchange FTX collapsed in November, and Sam Bankman-Fried has already been arrested, even though that case surely involves voluminous records and complex relationships between financial entities. Why was SBF nailed so fast, while we're still waiting to learn if Trump will even be indicted at all?

V & Z answer: We wish we had a better answer, but the fact is that there may well be things that AG Merrick Garland knows that we do not, and that are substantially affecting the timeline. For example, it could be that some of the documents seized at Mar-a-Lago would be problematic to introduce in court, and the DoJ is negotiating the details with the classifying agencies.

That said, federal prosecutors always make sure to dot every "i" and cross every "t," and that's with garden-variety defendants. With a former president, a situation that's never happened before? The caution increases geometrically. Though we bet Garland is wishing, on some level, that he'd been able to charge Trump for the documents before the Biden documents came to light. The Biden news made things that much more complicated.

As to SBF, he was nabbed quickly because he was a serious flight risk. Trump, as we've written numerous times, is much less a flight risk since it's not his style, and since he surely isn't clever enough to evade the U.S. Secret Service.

J.G. in Cushing, ME, asks: Correct me if I am wrong, but doesn't Joe Biden, as president, have the authority to have unlimited access to classified documents?

V & Z answer: Yes. The first problem is that the documents that have been discovered come from a time when he was a private citizen, and so was not entitled to have them. The second problem is that at least one of the Biden documents was labeled SCIF, and even a president is required to follow protocol when handling such documents. It looks like Biden may not have done so.

M.S. in Missouri City, TX, asks: From what I've been reading, both on and elsewhere, I tend to think any documents that were found in Joe Biden's incoming transition offices were left behind inadvertently by staff. Biden just isn't the sort of person who would attempt to deliberately hide federal documents. Trump, on the other hand, is exactly the sort of person whom I would expect to squirrel away documents he isn't supposed to have in the first place (since he's now out of office), deny having them, lie about them after they were discovered, and then place the blame on someone else.

But I have to wonder: How often has this happened in the past? Have any—scratch that, how many previous presidents have had documents turn up like this, either where they weren't supposed to be while the president was in office, or improperly in their possession (or the possession of their staff) after they've left office? Which of these were probably deliberate? Which were simply sloppy staff work, or a misunderstanding of the status of a particular document, or some other regrettable but reasonable explanation?

V & Z answer: This is, unfortunately, unknowable. The U.S. did not get serious about punishing those who might disclose classified information until the passage of the Defense Secrets Act of 1911. So, we can safely say that any president prior to William Howard Taft did not break the rules. But thereafter, if a former president inadvertently broke the rules—and most of them, at least the ones since World War II, did take a few things with them they shouldn't have—the situation would be quietly rectified. Indeed, the Biden document situation almost certainly would not have made the news but for the Trump document situation. Meanwhile, if a president (or one of their subordinates) deliberately broke the rules, then they were likely the type of person to just destroy the documents or otherwise keep them forever hidden.

There is one famous example of a former president knowingly taking documents he shouldn't have, and doing so with intent. That president is... Lyndon B. Johnson, who ordered NSA Walt Rostow to take with him some very problematic documents related to the Vietnam War. Rostow sat on them until LBJ died, then put them in a sealed envelope and gave them to the Johnson presidential library with instructions not to open the envelope until June 2023. In the end, the envelope was opened in the 1990s, and the deception was discovered.

So it is only under very unusual circumstances that a direct act of document theft came to light. How many others were there? Zero? Five? Fifty? We'll probably never know for sure.

K.C. in West Islip, NY, asks: The White House response to the conduct of MAGAt whackadoodle Solomon Peña was to say the allegations were "horrifying and shocking." I understand the optics of stating the obvious, when in a public position you simply must be able to separate what you say publicly from what you believe personally, but to the extent we've devolved as a nation since 2016, how shocking is it really? Do you think this is the opening salvo, if you will, of future failed GOP candidates resorting to this kind of criminality to protest their own failure to win over the electorate when it's time to hit the polling booths, or is it simply a one-off from an unhinged man?

V & Z answer: We have written many times that it's only a matter of time until someone, probably a Democrat, is killed by a person who has been enabled by the divisiveness of American politics in general, and likely by Trumpism in particular. We would say it's somewhat unlikely it will be a failed candidate for office, just because you generally have to be playing with a full deck to mount a viable campaign.

R.B. in Chicago, IL, asks: In "The Abortion Wars Are Heating Up, Part I: Quaker Guns," you describe two measures that Republicans want to take: passing the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act and making the Hyde Amendment permanent. You note that both measures de facto exist already, so the effects would be nil.

In that case, why don't Democrats immediately pass both measures to show that they aren't the monsters that they are made out to be?

V & Z answer: The people who are strongly anti-abortion would not change their views of Democrats in this scenario. Meanwhile, many Democratic voters would be furious if their elected representatives voted for these things. Recall that even in ruby-red Montana, a majority of voters found a version of the Born-Alive act to be objectionable.


D.V. in Columbus, OH, asks: In recent years, I have been slightly relieved that the conversation on the long-term viability of the ultimately disadvantageous filibuster has picked up a bit of traction. With all of the predictions currently going around on the site for this year, I thought I'd ask a longer term question, name: When is the earliest time you could see us as a nation finally hearing the filibuster's death knell?

V & Z answer: The earliest plausible date is... January of 2025. It would require that all of the following things happen in 2024:

  1. The Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives
  2. The Democrats hold the White House
  3. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) is defeated by Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) or some other Democrat
  4. The Democrats don't lose any seats in the Senate (or, they lose one, but it's the one in West Virginia)

All of these things are plausible. They probably won't all happen, but they could.

If not 2025, then it could be a while, unless the Democrats manage to establish an FDR-style monopoly on the White House for 20 years.

M.G. in Boulder, CO, asks: Speaking of Gov. Phil Scott (R-VT), (V) wrote: "Scott was a very special candidate and there aren't a lot of them around." Not being up on Vermont's political situation, I hoped you'd expand on this.

V & Z answer: We don't have that much to add. Scott's talent is that he's pretty popular with Republicans and he's also pretty popular with Democrats. There are a handful of politicians that have managed to pull that off in the 21st century, but not too many. It seems to be much easier for statewide officials than it is for federal officeholders. And it also helps if there is a sizable population of non-MAGA Republican voters, as is the case in Vermont.

M.M. in Leonardtown, MD, asks: In response to the question from C.L. in Boulder, you mention intelligence as but one item among the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) that are assets to elected officials. You also name-drop several individuals as being "dumb." Firstly, how do you define "dumb" (both generally and in the context of American politics); is it simply lacking the KSAs needed to be considered "smart," or is it something more innate to a person that can never be overcome? Secondly, on what basis did you conclude that the individuals you named are, in fact, dumb?

V & Z answer: There are many different models that try to situate the various types of intelligence; the most famous is probably Bloom's taxonomy. And when it comes to cognitive intelligence (as opposed to emotional intelligence), the models largely agree that knowledge of factual information is a form of cognitive intelligence, but the lowest form. Above that is the ability to synthesize and communicate information. And above that is the ability to take information, analyze it, and create new information and insights.

It is possible to be able to be weak in one of these areas without being weak in all of them. For example, if a person can't tell you who won World War II, or what the capital of France is, that's not a great sign, but it doesn't necessarily mean they are incapable of effective communication or of insightful analysis. In fact, it has been our general experience as teachers that people are more capable of developing the higher levels of intelligence than they are their ability to store factual information. That is to say, if you're not good at memorizing, you're not likely to appear on Jeopardy!, no matter what you do (in other words, the plot of White Men Can't Jump is not realistic). On the other hand, most people can learn to express themselves well or to synthesize and analyze information, if they put their minds to it.

When one encounters, say, a Marjorie Taylor Greene or a Louie Gohmert, it's clear that they have none of these skills. Their knowledge base is shaky. Their self-expression is poor. And their analysis is non-existent; replaced with fantastical assumptions unsupported by even the slightest evidence. Maybe they aren't capable of doing better, or maybe they just don't care. But until they show some sort of improvement, "dumb" is a correct descriptor. And by "dumb," we do mean "of well-below-average intelligence" and not just "not smart." We have even greater confidence in our assessments when we learn that colleagues who have worked with these folks on a daily basis have reached the same conclusion.

L.B.K. in Cle Elum, WA, asks: If Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) is so bad at retail politics, how did he become governor? I'm not doubting your comments about him, just curious about the backstory.

V & Z answer: He's pretty good at backroom deal-making, and he's very good at getting attention for himself, as he's demonstrated many times in the last year or two.

There are many high-profile politicians who are, or were, very bad at retail politics. Perhaps most famously, at least among historians, was Benjamin Harrison. His handshake was described by one supporter as being "like a wilted petunia," and during his successful presidential campaign, his managers would warn people in advance not to be offended by Harrison's personality. Other politicians known for being less-than-gifted in their interpersonal interactions include Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Richard Nixon and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).

K.C. in Los Angeles, CA, asks: In the past (for instance, here), you've argued that being telegenic is a political advantage for Ron DeSantis, while this week you opined: "It has been a very long time since a politician had as much political skill, and yet as little charisma and telegenicity as DeSantis." What has caused you to change your mind on this?

V & Z answer: We've seen much more of him since 2021, and much more of how people respond to him. Also, once you've watched him and seen shades of Joe McCarthy, or shades of Dick Nixon, it's hard to un-see that.

J.D. in Fennimore, WI, asks: I read this week that U.S. citizens over 65 years old die at a rate of about 2 million per year. That's 8 million less potential voters in 2024 than there were in 2020. Since this group contains the largest percentage of Republican voters, how does the GOP plan to compensate for this loss? They don't seem to be too worried about it.

V & Z answer: They certainly are worried, even if they don't often say so openly. Their hope is that they will make up for the losses by: (1) taking advantage of the systemic factors that give the minority party disproportionate power, (2) flipping blue-collar white men, and (3) flipping Latinos. If we ran the RNC, we would not be optimistic about this road map, long-term.


S.W. in New York City, NY, asks: When a court orders monetary fines (as in the Trump Organization's $1.6 million fine), do these funds go to the general fund of a city, county, district or state, or are they placed in the court's accounts? Are the funds shared between government agencies?

V & Z answer: As you might imagine, it depends on the state. Some states direct the money to victims' funds or other seemingly worthy causes. Others use the money to help cover the costs of operating the courts or the police departments. Some states do all of these things.

New York, where the $1.6 million fine was levied, is notoriously opaque about what it does with the money, but in general there it just goes into the state's coffers to be used as the legislature sees fit.

Note that the nearly $1 million assessment that Trump and his lawyer were hit with this week, which we wrote about in "This Week in Schadenfreude: Clinton Finally Defeats Trump," did not go to the state of Florida. It went to Hillary Clinton and the other defendants, to help cover the expenses they incurred in defending themselves.

S.C. in Mountain View, CA, asks: With the removal of the metal detectors from outside the House floor, what (besides conscience or a concern about being punished) would prevent one or more pistol-packing members of the House from killing both President Biden and Vice President Harris at the State of the Union address, making Kevin McCarthy President?

V & Z answer: This might well be the grimmest question we've answered. In any event, the House is free to make whatever rules it wants when it comes to its normal, daily operations. However, once the president is involved, the U.S. Secret Service calls the shots, security-wise. So, everyone who is there for the State of the Union, except for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, will either be required to pass through a metal detector or will be subject to a search.

It is also worth noting that if Republicans seized power in this way, the resulting government would be wholly illegitimate, and would have an instant rebellion on its hands. After all, what you've described is a coup.

D.K. in Iowa City, IA, asks: If Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were killed and Kevin McCarthy became President, what could Democrats do to replace him? Is there some way a new President can be elected or somehow installed? Or is there a way to change the line of succession so that the Speaker of the House is not in line after the VP?

V & Z answer: The line of succession can be changed any time that Congress sees fit, by updating the Presidential Succession Act. That bill was passed in 1947, and was last updated in 2006, to add the DHS Secretary to the list.

However, those changes would have to come before McCarthy was elevated to the presidency. Once he assumed office, the only way Congress could remove him would be to impeach and convict him. Failing that, he would have to die, resign, or fail to be reelected.

D.C. in Teaneck, NJ, asks: I'd like a bit of enlightenment about the California Senate primary. The recent announcements from Reps. Katie Porter and Barbara Lee (both D-CA) of their candidacies put this issue into play way earlier than usual. California has: (1) an open primary in which the two top vote-getters go onto the General Election ballot, regardless their parties; (2) an abundance of quite capable, ambitious and well-heeled Democratic candidates who are eager to shoot for this very rare opportunity for a promotion. The question is whether California has—I think I am using this term correctly—a "sore-loser" law. That is, can a person run for both a Senate seat and a House seat simultaneously, or must that person relinquish a House seat in order to run for Senate? I am picturing a primary in which, say, Adam Schiff and Katie Porter emerge as the top vote-getters. Would each be risking their House seat by running for Senate against the other?

V & Z answer: Sore-loser laws prevent someone who has been defeated in the primaries from getting themselves onto the general election ballot by changing their registration to independent or a third party. In other words, in a sore-loser state, John Smith can't be defeated in the Republican primary and then turn around and run as a Libertarian in the general. California does not have a sore-loser law, as it is not necessary. The only way to get on the general-election ballot is to finish in the top two in the jungle-style primary. If you fail to do that, it doesn't matter if you change to some other party.

What you are actually referring to is dual-candidacy laws. These forbid someone from running for more than one office at a time. A few states—specifically, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, Oregon and Utah—have them, but California does not. The relevant California codes do prohibit a candidate from holding multiple offices, but not from running for multiple office. So, if Porter or Lee want to also run for their House seat as an insurance policy, they can. However, voters tend to be displeased by such shenanigans.


P.R. in Arvada, CO, asks: Thursday was an absolute shocker for you guys. First you implied that jogging isn't a sport. I'll have you know my toenails are still growing back from my last bout of jogging. Then you suggested that a batting average of 0.087 would almost be good enough for the Pirates. The Pirates take great pride in having players capable of much greater things... who don't actually achieve their potential until they leave. Nothing about my fellow readers' predictions suggest underachievers. They are squarely Oakland-bound.

I digress, though. Presidents playing sports? What sports did past presidents play? Please don't say cycling. Here in Colorado, half the time they are just sitting there watching the world go by.

V & Z answer: Far and away, the most popular presidential sport is golf, assuming you regard golf as a sport and not a game. You would have to go pretty far back in time to find a president who wasn't a golfer, at least occasionally. And in case you are wondering, FDR was an excellent golfer until he lost the full use of his legs.

We assume that you are asking about sporting activities while the person was president, which means that things like Gerald Ford's football playing and Abraham Lincoln's wrestling are off the board. Operating with that limitation, here are some of the presidents who were well known for participating in a particular sport while in the Oval Office: Theodore Roosevelt (boxing), Calvin Coolidge (tennis), Herbert Hoover (fishing), FDR (swimming), JFK (sailing, flag football), Richard Nixon (bowling), Gerald Ford (swimming and skiing), Jimmy Carter (tennis), Ronald Reagan (chopping wood/calisthenics), Barack Obama (basketball) and Donald Trump (ketchup hurling).

M.T. in Bay Village, OH, asks: This week, you referred to "the five states (Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware) that allowed slavery but did not secede and that (primarily) fought on the side of the Union during the Civil War."

My understanding is that, for Kentucky, roughly an equal number fought for each side. I've never heard about how many fought for either side from the other four. Is there a source that records or estimates the number of recruits from these border states that ended up fighting for one side or the other?

V & Z answer: There is no great sources because the underlying evidence is very shaky. That is to say, there are lots of reasons that the number of soldiers serving a state might be miscounted. Among them: (1) some soldiers enlisted under many different names, so as to collect multiple bounties for enlisting; (2) some soldiers were irregular/guerrilla soldiers, like Quantrill's raiders; (3) some soldiers were mercenaries who fought for multiple states, sometimes even on both sides of the war; (4) states sometimes overstated how many soldiers they had actually sent, so as to avoid draft quotas; and (5) many Confederate records were destroyed at the end of the war.

That said, there's enough evidence to say that roughly 100,000 Kentuckians fought for the Union, including about 30,000 formerly enslaved people, while roughly 35,000 Kentuckians fought for the Confederacy.

D.A. in Brooklyn, NY, asks: You wrote: "The only party in U.S. history that had national success without having much of a platform was the Whigs, who were around for about two decades, from 1833 to the mid-1850s."

I had thought that the Whig Party did have a consistent platform, namely government-financed/enabled internal improvements, protectionism. It also had "tendencies" namely a reluctance to go to war, less racist/pro-slavery (ranging from abolitionist Whigs in the North to non-fire-eaters in the South), and support for a relatively strong national government. It also had, in varying degrees, in different times and places hostility to immigrants, alcohol, and Catholicism.

Doesn't that constitute a platform of sorts?

V & Z answer: Except that the platform varied wildly by the particular Whig Party member and, more importantly, by locality. The party was protectionist in the North, but not so much in the South. It was much more pro-war in the South than it was in the North. That is why the Whigs' national campaigns were personality driven rather than issue-driven, because that was the only way to keep all the Whig voters on the same page.


C.P. in Silver Spring, MD, asks: After reading the site for nineteen years, getting that ticket to ride, I have to ask...what is each staff member's favorite Beatles' album? Inquiring minds want to know!

V & Z answer: (V) is a folk music fan, and never acquired a taste for the Beatles. (Z)'s favorite albums, starting at the top of the list, are "The Beatles" (a.k.a. The White Album), "Abbey Road," "Let It Be" and "Rubber Soul." The staff dachshunds prefer "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" because the final track, "A Day in the Life," has sounds that only dogs can hear.

D.C. in Toronto, ON, Canada, asks: Could you please explain why your site seems insistent on publishing the "real" names of women, even when such a detail is completely irrelevant to the discussion?

Very often when Nikki Haley is mentioned, you spell her name out as Nimrata "Nikki" Haley for no apparent reason. You always refer to Ronna McDaniel as Ronna Romney McDaniel, despite being the only publication (that I know of) that names her in such a fashion at all. And just today you inserted "her real name is Jill" after a very brief mention of Casey DeSantis, even though she is never mentioned again in the piece, and her "real" name bears absolutely no relevance to the rest of the piece at all.

So what gives? Do you have a reason for doing this so consistently? As it stands, it smacks a little of Tucker Carlson and Fox News insisting on adding "Hussein" every time Barack Obama's name is mentioned. And I don't recall you doing it very often (if at all) to men's names.

Please explain why this is done.

V & Z answer: In the case of Haley, it's hard to explain in precise terms, but sometimes rendering a name in that way just works better for the rhythm of the sentence. It has nothing to do with gender, though. We often refer to Donald John Trump and Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. And in terms of alternate given names, we also sometimes refer to Addison Mitchell "Mitch" McConnell, including several times last year. The last time we rendered Haley's name as "Nimrata 'Nikki' Haley," by contrast, was on February 17, 2021.

As to McDaniel, she was compelled to downplay her middle name under duress, in order to accommodate the petulance of Donald Trump. (V) and (Z) discussed it at the time, and decided that we had no duty to honor Trump's petulance. So, we stuck with the version of her name that we believe she actually prefers, since she preferred it for 15 years before Trump came along. The AP style guide concurs that either usage is acceptable.

As to DeSantis, that was the first time we made substantive mention of her on this site. In the event that people decided to Google her, we wanted them to know that she might plausibly be found under two different names.

Reader Question of the Week

Here is the question we put before readers last week:

K.C. in West Islip, NY, asks: I enjoyed "This Week in Freudenfreude: This Bugs Me," though I do wonder about your overall opinion (and the opinion of the readers) on this topic. I often ask my students: Do you believe social media, and the Internet in general, has had an overall positive or an overall negative effect on intelligence?

A selection of the answers we got in response:

J.T. in Greensboro, NC: As an educator who teaches students how to write and to communicate using evidence I would say that I do not think that social media has led to a decline in intelligence. Students are still great at accumulating knowledge.

What I do think it has led to—in the population at large not just in young people—is an increase in credulity: the willingness to simply believe the last thing you saw; it has led to a devaluing of evidence; and it has led to a terrible amount of unjustifiable confidence after having consumed a small amount of information.

I think social media has led to a great big Dunning-Kruger effect, where people vastly overestimate their own knowledge because they've consumed a vast amount of "information" without regard to its quality.

As an elder millennial I remember being a young nerd and early Internet adopter being told by my elders that I couldn't trust anything or anyone on the Internet. Web 2.0 seems to have turned that generation of Internet skeptics into uncritical Internet partisans!

P.F. in Stevens Point, WI: I believe the Internet has caused the higher intelligent among us to realize that there is still much to learn no matter how educated one becomes. I believe the Internet has also caused the lower intelligent among us to think that they are much smarter than they really are...

G. W. in Oxnard, CA: I'm an old man and I was around when there was no such thing as a personal computer. I'm an engineer who worked for the Navy and I used e-mail as my primary communications before most Americans had heard of the Internet. It is certain that some intellectual skills have fallen off with the rise of technology. Before there was GPS readily available people used to be much better at reading paper maps and used to be much better at giving and following directions. I see the atrophy in my own skills in getting around as I have come to rely on GPS. People used to be better at remembering things before they could simply look it up on the Internet pretty much anywhere they are. This reliance for the Internet for knowledge has led to a rise in gullibility and accepting things as fact that are objectively wrong.

On the positive side, access to the vast knowledge on the Internet does allow people to get smarter is they use it properly. For example, I have a part-time job writing and reviewing material for a publisher of review materials for engineering licensing exams. I encounter things that are out of my expertise. For example, a problem to determine the distance from an electrical panel to mark on the floor that this space is to be empty. I had no professional experience with this, but I was able to find the answer. On the whole, the reliance on technology has made the average intelligence of individuals decline, but has also created a population of people who are more intelligent than their peers of times past.

J.E. in San Jose, CA: The Internet exacerbates people's tendencies the same way that it adds volatility to everything. So it can make intelligent people smarter, and it can make dumb people stupider. But similar to artificial intelligence, it can only work with what's already there.

C.D. in Guernsey, England, UK: I think of intelligence as the ability to quickly and comprehensively understand information. I think of knowledgeability as the ability to absorb and retain large amounts of information. I think of wisdom as the ability to discern useful and reliable information from the rest.

The Internet has made available a huge quantity of information with few filters for reliability or usefulness. So to me, the Internet has had no effect at all on intelligence, has been a huge boon for knowledgeability, and has a decidedly mixed record on wisdom.

S.C-M. in Scottsdale, AZ: I am a 2nd generation Internaut. I self-taught networking in the early 1980s when it was just the ARPANET and TCP/IP and the Internet was just starting to be deployed.

The Internet has certainly opened up communications to a lot of people and created a lot of content publishers. Has it made us smarter? I am not sure it has. It has certainly allowed people to access a wide variety of information more easily.

The old information gatekeepers such as newspapers or broadcast media are still around, but they have a lot less influence than they had before the Internet. In the past I was a regular listener of national news and always read the local paper. Today I get most of my news online from a number of blogs like

In the back of my mind is always the question of trust. How do I know the information I choose to receive is accurate? Or have I succumbed to confirmation bias? I do try to read a wide variety of pundits to get a feel for a wide spectrum of opinions and the Internet has made that task a lot easier.

I am certainly troubled by the large amount of disinformation the Internet has made possible and I do not have a good solution for how we can vet such information.

P.D. in Menomonie, WI: The effects of social media and the Internet on intelligence are a topic of ongoing debate and research. On one hand, the Internet provides access to a vast amount of information and resources, which can facilitate learning and knowledge acquisition. Social media can also provide a platform for people to connect with others and share information, potentially leading to the exchange of new ideas and perspectives.

On the other hand, there are concerns that excessive use of social media and the Internet can lead to distractions and can negatively impact attention span and critical thinking skills. There is also evidence that the use of social media can be associated with feelings of low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety.

Overall, it can be said that the impact of social media and the Internet on intelligence is likely to be complex and multifaceted. While it can have some positive effects, it is important to use these tools in moderation and to be mindful of the potential negative consequences.

ChatGPT Jan 9 Version, reply generated on 01/17/2023.

Here is the question for next week:

A.L. in New Brunswick, NJ, asks: I had a similar reaction to the Bret Stephens and David Brooks lament in The New York Times as D.C. in Portland OR. To summarize: Now? Only now you realize your fellow travelers are racists, xenophobes, homophobes and "whackadoodle"? Where was this critical thinking five or ten years ago?

So, here is my question: At what point should a sane Republican have realized that their party was being steered down abominable paths?

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