Faith and Credit

At a time when American families, communities, and businesses are still suffering from the effects of the ongoing global pandemic, it would be particularly irresponsible to put the full faith and credit of the United States at risk.

– Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen,
urging Congress to raise the debt ceiling before October

This week’s featured post is “Seven Days in January“.

This week everybody was talking about General Milley

He’s the subject of the featured post.

and the California recall election

It was not close. With 84% of the expected vote counted (a lot is still in the mail, I imagine), only 37% voted to recall Governor Gavin Newsom, and 63% voted not to recall him. That’s similar to the margin Joe Biden had over Donald Trump in California in 2020 (63%-34%), and Newsom’s original margin in 2018 (62%-38%).

The original theory of the recall was that anti-Newsom Republicans would be motivated to vote, while Newsom-supporting Democrats would be apathetic. Republicans also hoped for a popular rejection of Newsom’s aggressive approach to fighting Covid (vaccine mandates for state employees and health-care workers). Neither of these ideas panned out. In particular, exit polls showed 47% saying Newsom’s coronavirus policies were “about right”, with another 18% saying “not strict enough”.

Bizarrely, both Trump and leading GOP replacement candidate Larry Elder claimed that the results were fraudulent before there were any results. The day before the election, Elder’s web site said

statistical analyses used to detect fraud in elections held in 3rd-world nations (such as Russia, Venezuela, and Iran) have detected fraud in California resulting in Governor Gavin Newsom being reinstated as governor.

as if the recall’s failure — and its vote-patterns — had already been known before any votes were counted. Former state GOP chair Ron Nehring called the statement “grossly irresponsible” and speculated that Elder’s claim may have discouraged Republicans from voting. (Why vote if the election has already been decided by fraud?)

The election threw a spotlight on California’s strange recall process, which can allow a replacement candidate to squeak into office with a tiny slice of the vote. For example, if we count all the No votes on recall as votes for Newsom, then Newsom has 6.8 million votes counted, while top replacement vote-getter Elder has only 2.8 million. It is not hard to construct a scenario in which a sitting governor has the support of 49% of the electorate, but gets replaced by someone with 25% support or less.

BTW, Elder’s total is being reported as 47%, but that’s only 47% of the people who voted for a replacement candidate. His 2.8 million votes is only 26% of the 10.6 million ballots cast.

The recall is an extreme example of the GOP’s nationwide election strategy: Rather than look for a 2022 candidate moderate enough to compete for a majority of votes in a California governor’s race, Republicans opted to manipulate a process that could allow an extreme conservative to gain power without a majority.

CNN correspondent Josh Campbell:

It was interesting how many California voters I spoke with at the polls said the Texas abortion ban motivated them to come out and vote against the recall of their governor.

Democrats are also counting on the abortion issue to work in their favor in Virginia, which has a gubernatorial election in November.

and the pandemic

Nationwide, the surge seems to be turning around, but the more specific story is that it’s shifting. The current wave started in the Ozark region of Missouri/Arkansas, moved south to the Gulf coast, and now has shifted northeast into the Appalachian region. The most dangerous part of the country right now is Kentucky/Tennessee/West Virginia, where new cases per 100K people are in the vicinity of 100, compared to 45 nationwide.

As a Northeasterner, I worry that the surge is still coming my way: The next likely destination for the wave is central Pennsylvania, where vaccination rates are still below 30% in some counties.

New-infection numbers are also high in rural counties in the mountain West and in Alaska, though their populations are too small to have much influence on the national totals.

Death totals, which tend to lag behind infections, continue to rise nationwide. That average is now over 2000 deaths per day. The peak death totals were around 3300 per day in mid-January, when hardly anyone was vaccinated yet. When you consider how many people are vaccinated now (54% of the total population, including 83% of the most vulnerable over-65 age group), and how effectively the vaccines have prevented death (New Hampshire reported this week that only 24 of its 413 deaths since January 20 have been fully vaccinated people.), it is scary to imagine how many deaths we’d be having if the Delta variant had hit before we had vaccines.

Previously, the Biden administration had been proposing that all recipients of the Pfizer Covid vaccine (like me) get a third booster shot at some point. Friday, a CDC advisory panel endorsed that idea only for people over 65 (me in another month) and those at special risk.

“It’s likely beneficial, in my opinion, for the elderly, and may eventually be indicated for the general population. I just don’t think we’re there yet in terms of the data,” said Dr. Ofer Levy, a vaccine and infectious disease specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Boosters for the other vaccines are under consideration, but the data hasn’t been analyzed yet.

A poll by Fox News (of all people) shows the public getting behind anti-Covid measures like vaccine and mask mandates in ever-increasing numbers.

and a dress

Sometimes I agree with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and sometimes I don’t, but I am consistently in awe of her political talent. If you’re looking for traditional skills, she can give a speech or grill a witness with the best of them. But she can also tweet and troll and manipulate public attention in all the 21st-century ways.

The dress she wore to the Met Gala (an annual high-priced fund-raiser for the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art) was one of the great political stunts. Ordinarily, the Met Gala is a contest in which celebrities dress up to compete for a fairly small amount of attention. (I don’t remember what anybody wore to previous Met Galas. Do you?) AOC didn’t just win that contest this year, she blew past the usual bounds of the event, so that people who ordinarily pay no attention to the Gala are talking about her. And she connected that attention to a popular political slogan: Tax the Rich.

You might be thinking: OMG, she walked into conservative criticism for hypocrisy. (I mean, what’s a socialist doing at a $35,000-a-ticket event anyway?) If so, you don’t understand the current political culture: In order to really command attention, you need to bait your enemies into attacking you in over-the-top ways that force your allies to defend you. That back-and-forth seizes center stage in a way that an unimpeachable statement never could. Trump pioneered the technique in 2016, and so reduced Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio to playing minor roles in his drama. Marjorie Taylor Greene has learned from the master, catapulting herself from obscurity to national prominence.

Among Democrats, only AOC seems to understand how this works. The Tucker Carlsons and Laura Ingrahams can’t get her out of their heads, so she can never be out of the spotlight for long.

BTW, she has good answers to the various questions that have been raised: Like other New York political leaders, she was invited to the gala and did not pay $35K to get in. The dress was borrowed from the designer, a woman of color, who also got significant positive attention from AOC’s stunt.

Finally, given all the attention paid to what women in politics wear, I appreciated seeing AOC turn that attention to her advantage. All those people who were going to stare at her butt anyway could stare at “Tax the Rich”.

An aside: Remember back in 2008 how Republicans went on and on about how hot Sarah Palin was?

and here’s a concept more people should know about

Disney Princess theology. This comes from Erna Kim Hackett’s essay “Why I Stopped Talking About Racial Reconciliation and Started Talking About White Supremacy”.

White Christianity suffers from a bad case of Disney Princess theology. As each individual reads Scripture, they see themselves as the princess in every story. They are Esther, never Xerxes or Haman. They are Peter, but never Judas. They are the woman anointing Jesus, never the Pharisees. They are the Jews escaping slavery, never Egypt.

For citizens of the most powerful country in the world, who enslaved both Native and Black people, to see itself as Israel and not Egypt when studying Scripture is a perfect example of Disney princess theology. And it means that as people in power, they have no lens for locating themselves rightly in Scripture or society — and it has made them blind and utterly ill-equipped to engage issues of power and injustice. It is some very weak Bible work.

I am reminded of something a religious educator at my church once told me: Lots of articles tell you what you should do if your kid is being bullied at school. But hardly any articles address the possibility that your kid is the bully.

You can see a lot of Disney Princess thinking in the way some Christian churches have responded to Covid: Everything is a plot to oppress them, because they are the center of the Universe. Shutting churches wasn’t a byproduct of a reasonable effort to limit crowds, shutting churches was the point! If the government can send people door-to-door to promote vaccines, it can send them door-to-door to confiscate Bibles!

Why should American Christians imagine that anybody wants to confiscate their Bibles? (I have literally never heard anybody propose confiscating Bibles. Even the atheist equivalent of “locker room talk” doesn’t go there.) Because telling the story that way makes them the damsels in distress, when actually they are the villains preventing America from beating this virus.

The Christian anti-vaxxers aren’t the faithful Israelites, they’re the Israelites who complained about manna.

and the Durham investigation finally produced an indictment

Thursday Special Counsel John Durham indicted Michael Sussman, a cybersecurity attorney for the Perkins Coie law firm. The indictment revolves around internet traffic that appeared to imply some back-channel between the 2016 Trump campaign and Putin-connected Alfa Bank. Sussman told the FBI about the traffic and its possible implications, which never panned out. (The Mueller Report, for example, doesn’t mention Alfa Bank.)

During his meeting with the FBI, the indictment says, Sussman claimed not to be representing a client, but simply providing the information as a good citizen concerned about national security. But Perkins Coie represented the Clinton campaign, and Sussman had billed time spent investigating Trump’s Russia connection. The indictment says Sussman lied to the FBI, and was in fact representing Clinton at the time, in an attempt to get the FBI investigating Trump. Sussman has pleaded not guilty; he denies that he said he was not working for a client, and claims he was actually representing a different client at the FBI meeting.

Major editorial pages split on how significant this indictment is. The Wall Street Journal says Durham has “cracked the Russia case” and “delivered on RussiaGate“. The Washington Post disagrees:

This, to put it mildly, is not the confirmation of some broad 2016 deep-state conspiracy against Mr. Trump that the former president apparently desired.

After all, Trump often said Durham’s counter-investigation of the Trump/Russia investigation would uncover “the greatest political crimes in the history of our country” and lead to indictments of Obama and Biden, not to mention high-level co-conspirators like James Comey. There’s no sign of any of that in this indictment.

Reading the indictment itself, I can’t decide whether Durham’s case is weak or he is just a bad writer. The indictment paints a picture of Sussman working with a tech-company executive and various others to research cyber-connections between Trump and Russia. It is clear that the people involved were doing opposition research against Trump. Some worked for the Clinton campaign, while others were acting out of partisan sentiment, without any professional interest. What’s missing is anything sinister: The researchers do not appear to have invented the Alfa Bank data, for example. The larger importance of what they did is also iffy: They gave the FBI a lead that didn’t go anywhere.

From Trump’s point of view, the ultimate goal of the Durham investigation was to show that the Trump/Russia investigation was a hoax from the beginning. This indictment does not do that.

What’s more, nothing Durham turns up could possibly do that, because Trump did in fact collude with Russia. His campaign manager (Paul Manafort) was passing confidential campaign information to a Russian agent. Manafort himself was a longtime contractor for Putin-connected oligarchs, to the tune of many millions of dollars. Roger Stone was involved somehow in WikiLeaks’ release of the Russian-hacked Clinton campaign emails. Don Jr. met with Russians to solicit Russian “dirt” on Clinton.

And the reason we don’t know more about these Trump/Russian channels is that Trump obstructed Mueller’s investigation of them, not the least by signalling to Manafort and Stone that they could count on pardons, which they ultimately received.

and you also might be interested in …

The demonstration in support of the January 6 insurrectionists fizzled Saturday. CNN’s Ana Navarro-Cárdenas quipped: “More people showed up to my last garage sale.”

Russia had parliamentary elections Friday to Sunday, and Putin’s United Russia Party appears to have won. The opposition to Putin operated under severe constraints, with many opposition leaders in jail, the media effectively under control of the government, and numerous fake candidates running to split the anti-Putin vote.

The opposition compiled a list of the most viable challengers in every district, but of course the government did its best to prevent distribution. The saddest and most reprehensible part of this story is that Apple and Google gave in to Putin and removed an opposition app from their app stores.

The Emmys were announced last night.

We might be headed towards another debt ceiling crisis. Democrats don’t want to push a debt-ceiling increase through on their own, and Mitch McConnell is refusing to cooperate. Something has to happen before the end of October.

As I’ve said many times, having a debt ceiling separate from the ordinary appropriation process is ridiculous. If Congress approves a budget with a deficit, the Treasury should automatically be authorized to borrow the money to cover it. Allowing Congress the option to vote for a deficit but refuse to authorize borrowing, is like installing a big self-destruct button on the government.

America’s top gymnasts testified to the Senate about the FBI’s handling of their sexual abuse complaints against USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. Nassar was eventually removed and went to prison, but only after a long delay, during which he continued sexually abusing female gymnasts.

General Kenneth McKenzie of the US Central Command admitted that a drone strike strike in Kabul on August 29 was a mistake, and that the ten people killed were not terrorists. It is a sadly appropriate ending to the US intervention in Afghanistan, given how many such mistakes we have made in the last 20 years.

A difficult but worthwhile read is “The Other Afghan Women” by The New Yorker’s Anand Gopal.

[T]he U.S. did not attempt to settle … divides and build durable, inclusive institutions; instead, it intervened in a civil war, supporting one side against the other. As a result, like the Soviets, the Americans effectively created two Afghanistans: one mired in endless conflict, the other prosperous and hopeful. It is the hopeful Afghanistan that’s now under threat.

Gopal introduces us to the Afghanistan of the countryside, rather than the cities.

Ohio Congressman Anthony Gonzalez, one of the ten Republican congresspeople to vote for Trump’s second impeachment, will not run for re-election.

His district, OH-16, is a convoluted construction southwest of Cleveland. It is reliably Republican, having been represented by a Democrat only two years out of the last 70. Trump got 56% of the vote there in both 2016 and 2020. Gonzalez himself got 63% of the vote in 2020.

I wish one of these Trump-resisting Republicans would stand and fight for his or her vision of the Party. Every time a Jeff Flake or a Bob Corker surrenders without resistance, Trump’s aura of invincibility within the Republican Party gets stronger. Every time somebody refuses to fight, it feeds the narrative that you can’t fight.

Words I never thought I’d write: Hang in there, Liz Cheney.

Every few days brings a new story of some anti-vax activist dying of Covid. I don’t think it’s healthy to focus on them or take too much satisfaction from them. But it’s useful to keep one in your back pocket in case you find yourself in a social-media argument with someone who thinks all the statistics are fake.

The web site is a long series of such stories. I find it very creepy, and I would not advise hanging out there for long.

This week’s stereotype validation: Three Texas women attacked the hostess at a New York City restaurant when she asked to see proof of vaccination before letting them enter, as the current NYC rules require. They’ve been charged with misdemeanor assault.

In honor of the late comedian Norm MacDonald, who died Tuesday, here’s the moth joke, and the story behind it.

and let’s close with something adventurous

The Instagram page “On Adventure With Dad” chronicles the activities of a Photoshop wizard and his two small children. If you’re not on Instagram, the portfolio is here.

Seven Days in January

Did General Milley take steps to prevent a coup or to participate in one?

On paper, the American chain of command is simple: The Constitution makes the President commander-in-chief. Typically, he exercises that authority through a civilian Secretary of Defense and a hierarchy of generals, but nothing about that is necessary. On paper, the President can give orders to any soldier.

That authority over the entire military is summed up by an LBJ anecdote: As he was preparing to leave a military base, President Johnson walked toward the wrong helicopter until a young officer stopped him, saying “Your helicopter is over there, sir.” Johnson is supposed to have replied, “Son, they’re all my helicopters.”

At any level of the American military, though, there is an exception for illegal orders. If a superior tells you to execute prisoners, for example, you can say no. But you can well imagine that the bigger the gap in authority, the harder that “no” would be. Could a private or a green lieutenant really say no to a president?

And that brings us to the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection. According to accounts from CNN and The Washington Post of the still-unpublished published book Peril by Bob Woodward and Roberta Costa, Joint Chiefs Chair General Mark Milley did two questionable things in the late days of the Trump administration. [1]

  • Milley made two phone calls (October 30, 2020 and January 8, 2021) to his Chinese counterpart to say that America was not planning an attack on China.
  • He instructed military officers not to execute any attack orders from the White House without consulting him.

Critics have a made a big deal about the China calls, but this appears to be fairly normal behavior in crisis situations. American military officers frequently cultivate personal relationships with their counterparts in other countries, and use those connections to smooth over possible misunderstandings. Politico reports:

A defense official familiar with the calls said … the calls were not out of the ordinary, and the chairman was not frantically trying to reassure his counterpart.

The people also said that Milley did not go rogue in placing the call, as the book suggests. In fact, Milley asked permission from acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller before making the call, said one former senior defense official, who was in the room for the meeting. Milley also briefed the secretary’s office after the call, the former official said.

But the second revelation raises more serious issues.

Woodward and Costa write that after January 6, Milley ‘felt no absolute certainty that the military could control or trust Trump and believed it was his job as the senior military officer to think the unthinkable and take any and all necessary precautions.’Milley called it the ‘absolute darkest moment of theoretical possibility,’ the authors write.

Milley’s fear, I surmise, was that Trump would skip over the top military leadership and directly order some junior officer to take extreme (and possibly illegal) military action, which could be either a wag-the-dog foreign attack or a coup at home.

This apparently did not happen. But it was not an unreasonable scenario to plan for, especially given what was going on in the Justice Department, where Trump was going over the head of the Attorney General to push investigations and public statements in support of his stolen-election lie.

What Milley did, though, raises questions about civilian control of the military. Might the generals, at some point, simply refuse to obey presidential orders they disagreed with? And if those orders are illegal, or arise from “serious mental decline” (as the book says Milley believed about Trump), should they?

On paper, responsibility to protect the country from an insane or mentally incapacitated president lies with the vice president and the cabinet, who can remove the president via the 25th Amendment. No military officer plays any role in that process.

But what if they’re not doing their job? If you’re the person getting the crazy orders, does that responsibility fall to you, no matter what the Constitution says?

These questions point to a grey area in our system: If you believe that the train of constitutional government has already jumped its rails (say, because the president is planning or executing a coup), at what point do you take (or prepare to take) extra-constitutional actions yourself?

I don’t have a good answer to that question.

Republicans like Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio have called for Milley to be fired, while President Biden has expressed confidence in him.

I have trouble taking Hawley seriously, given his own treasonous inclinations. But I give more weight the critique of retired Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, who Trump fired (along with his brother) in retribution for Vindman’s testimony at Trump’s first impeachment. He also believes that Milley should resign or be fired.

In recent years, too many leaders have succumbed to situational ethics, and the public has looked the other way when people considered those leaders part of their faction. Doing the wrong thing, even for the right reasons, must have consequences. Many people in the Trump administration — including me — resigned or were fired exactly because they did the right things in the right way. Milley may have done the wrong thing for the right reasons. But the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff does not deserve greater consideration for doing the wrong thing — he deserves greater scrutiny. As my friend and former Pentagon official John Gans tweeted: “You can break norms for a greater good, but that often comes with a price. Paying it is the only way to ensure the norms survive for the next time.”

That do-it-and-face-the-consequences path reminds me of my analysis of the ticking-bomb scenario. Remember? The Bush administration believed CIA agents should be able to torture terrorism suspects, because doing so might save lives if the suspect knew about a ticking bomb. The law, I wrote at the time, should never authorize torture in advance. In the unlikely event that an American official found himself in a ticking-bomb situation, and was certain that torturing a suspect would save many lives, the right move would be to break the law, and then confess and trust the mercy of a jury. Do it if you think you must, but don’t hide from the consequences. An official who isn’t willing to risk a jury disagreeing shouldn’t be torturing anybody.

Similarly, I think Milley should have made a full public confession as soon as the crisis had passed. (After Biden’s inauguration, say.) In a roundabout way, he has done this by talking to Woodward and Costa. [2] He will be appearing before Senate Armed Services Committee a week from tomorrow, where I suspect he will be asked a lot of questions related to the Peril revelations.

However, I think Republicans should approach this hearing carefully. At some point a Democrat might ask, “What specific behavior did you witness personally that convinced you that President Trump had undergone ‘serious mental decline’ after his defeat in the November elections?” Whatever else the hearing might uncover, the answer to that question is likely to be the headline.

[1] When you think about this story, you need to bear in mind how far we are from the root facts: The general public can’t even see the book until tomorrow. CNN and the WaPo are summarizing what Woodward and Costa report that various newsmakers told them. Even if you trust everybody involved, it’s still third-hand information.

[2] I am assuming the quotes attributed to Milley come from direct interviews.

The Monday Morning Teaser

It’s another week where many stories require more than a paragraph or two of attention: General Milley’s fears of what Trump might do in his final days in office, and the precautions he took; the California recall election; AOC’s dress; the Durham investigation’s first indictment; and whether or not the Covid surge is turning. Additionally, there’s the fizzling of Saturday’s demonstration in support of the January 6 terrorists, another anti-Trump Republican retiring, and a few other noteworthy things.

For that reason, there’s no featured post this week. I’ll put out a weekly summary around 11, and nothing else until next Monday.

In addition, the summary will include a brief introduction to the concept of “Disney Princess theology”, and close with a link to the Instagram page of a Dad who likes to appear to be endangering his kids.

Real Liberty

The defendant insists that his liberty is invaded when the State subjects him to fine or imprisonment for neglecting or refusing to submit to vaccination … But the liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint. … Real liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own, whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others.

– Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan,
Jacobson v Massachusetts (1905)

This week’s featured post is “On Doing Your Own Research“.

This week everybody was talking about Biden’s vaccine “mandate”

Which is not even actually a mandate; a company that isn’t a government contractor can avoid penalties by instituting weekly testing for its unvaccinated workers. Anyway, here’s what President Biden announced in his speech Thursday.

  • Federal employees and contractors have to get vaccinated to keep their jobs and contracts. “If you want to do business with the federal government, vaccinate your workforce.”
  • Workers at health-care facilities have to get vaccinated if the facilities receive government funds (i.e., Medicare or Medicaid). “If you’re seeking care at a health-care facility, you should be able to know that the people treating you are vaccinated.”
  • Even companies that don’t do business with the federal government (if they have more than 100 employees) have to mandate vaccines for their workers. Workers can claim a religious or health exemption, but if they do, they have to be tested for Covid weekly.

In all, about 100 million Americans will be affected by the order. If we assume that they’re typical of the total American adult population (about 75% vaccinated already), that would mean that 25 million unvaccinated Americans are now facing the options of (1) get vaccinated (and maybe save your own life); (2) get tested every week; or (3) look for a job at a smaller company.

Republicans, who in general have fought any effort to control the virus, were quick to denounce Biden’s move.

Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves, for example, said the mandate was “tyranny” and “unconstitutional”. He charged that Biden was only doing it to distract attention from Afghanistan. (Because why else would an American president respond to a plague that had killed 677,000 Americans and was adding to that total at the rate of 3K every two days?)

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey called it “dictatorial” and predicted “This will never stand up in court.” South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem was one of several GOP governors pledging to challenge the rule in court. When asked about these threatened lawsuits, Biden said, “Have at it.

Assuming that the Supreme Court will uphold the laws and long-established precedents — always a dangerous assumption with this highly political court — Biden is on pretty firm ground.

The authority for the mandate comes from the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970 (which was signed by that flaming liberal Richard Nixon). OSHA has never been used to mandate a vaccine before, but gives the government broad powers to enforce workplace safety.

As to whether individuals have an inherent right to refuse vaccination, that was decided back in 1905, when Massachusetts (among other states) mandated a smallpox vaccine. Supreme Court Justice John Harlan (the greatest justice you’ve probably never heard of; among other claims to fame, he was the lone dissenter in both Plessy v Ferguson and in the Civil Rights Cases that opened the door for Jim Crow) reasoned that a community’s power to protect itself against an epidemic would violate an individual’s 14th Amendment rights only if it went “far beyond what was reasonably required for the safety of the public”.

In order to prevail, then, a challenge would have to argue on fairly narrow grounds. Either:

  • Individuals have more extensive rights to resist a federal mandate than a state mandate.
  • OSHA’s sweeping grant of power to regulate workplace safety has an invisible vaccine exception.
  • Increasing vaccinations does not increase workplace safety, and is not a reasonable measure to protect the public from Covid.
  • OSHA itself is unconstitutional.

CNN reports that corporate America is actually pretty pleased with this government interference: Companies want a vaccinated workforce, but don’t want to appear heavy-handed. So they’re happy to demand vaccination and blame Biden for it. That’s why groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, who are knee-jerk opponents of all other government regulation, are on board.

This Texas Dad creatively lampoons the masks-violate-my-freedom crowd by stripping down during a school board meeting. Who’s free now?

With characteristic cruelty, anti-maskers laugh at a teen as he talks about his grandmother dying of Covid.

Last week I was uncertain whether the new-case numbers were peaking, or if Ida had disrupted the statistics. This week confirms the peak. New cases are down 7% over the last two weeks, though deaths (which usually run two weeks behind new cases) are still increasing. New cases are averaging 145K per day in the US, and deaths are averaging 1648 per day. The total American death total since the start of the pandemic is up to 677,988.

I continue to be amazed at the reactions of people who resist vaccines and masking and anything else that might mitigate the spread. 677K Americans are dead, with three thousand more every two days. You’d think that kind of impact would justify a little inconvenience. But no.

and the 20th anniversary of 9-11

The anniversary was Saturday. I noticed two main trends in the commentary. First, acknowledging again the human impact: the losses people suffered on that day, the long-term suffering of people exposed to whatever got into the air, and the heroism of people who tried to help others at great risk to themselves.

The second major trend was to take a step back and recognize just how badly we screwed up our national response. After 9-11, the public was united in a way it hadn’t been since World War II. The country wanted to do something, and even people who believed that George W. Bush hadn’t legitimately been elected the previous November recognized that he was the only leader available to rally behind. For the next year or two, President Bush could have done just about anything he wanted, if he could claim it had some reasonable connection to 9-11.

What he did, largely under the influence of Vice President Cheney, was to start two wars that were unwinnable because they lacked reasonable goals. American military power could topple the the Taliban and Saddam governments fairly quickly, but Bush and Cheney had no clear notion of how to replace them, or what they wanted out of the new governments.

Many of the prisoners from those wars wound up in a lawless zone in Guantanamo, where they were tortured in violation of both our treaty agreements and longstanding American values. Once introduced, torture spread to other US facilities. In addition, the US government claimed enormous new powers to spy on its own citizens, and even to whisk them into military brigs indefinitely by declaring them “enemy combatants”. Internationally, America claimed the right to launch attacks on the soil of any country where we believed terrorists were hiding.

Subsequent administrations could have reversed these policies, but didn’t (unless forced to by the Supreme Court). They could have leveled with the American people about how little we were accomplishing in Iraq and Afghanistan, but didn’t.

The mainstream media was largely complicit in these efforts, and remains complicit today — as we saw recently when it savaged President Biden for ending the Afghan War. Twenty years of wasting money and misusing power never aroused a fraction of the ire that was unleashed when a president reversed that foolish course.

And while our troops are no longer fighting in Afghanistan, and President Biden claims the combat mission of our remaining 2500 troops in Iraq will end this year, the internal spying powers remain, and 39 prisoners are still at Guantanamo. The Biden administration may have tightened up control over drone strikes, but, like all post-911 administrations, it claims the right to attack anywhere in the world on a moment’s notice.

Every surviving president but Carter appeared at ceremonies to mark 9-11. Biden, Obama, and Clinton were all in New York, and Biden and Bush were at the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Carter’s absence is understandable. He’s 96 and has a variety of health problems. Also, his presidency ended two decades before 9-11, so he neither caused nor responded to it.

Trump took heat for not attending, and for marking 9-11 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel in Hollywood, Florida, where he was a guest commentator for a boxing match. He did, however, address by video a Day of Prayer event on the National Mall organized by the Let Us Worship organization. Trump never tried to be the president of all the people, so it’s not surprising that he acts as ex-president only for crowds of his supporters.

In The Guardian, Harvard Professor Linda Bilmes examines where the $5 trillion spent on Afghanistan and Iraq went: mostly to military contractors.

Ross Douthat owns up to being part of a misguided post-911 consensus, and now sees the War on Terror as a 20-year distraction from our real foreign-policy challenge: the rise of China.

Kurt Andersen notes that the 20th anniversary of Pearl Harbor was not a big deal.

Paul Krugman recalls how willing Republicans were to exploit 9-11 to push an unrelated political agenda (“Nothing is more important in a time of war than cutting taxes,” said Tom DeLay), and how this foreshadowed the party-over-country trend that has characterized the GOP ever since.

and the Texas abortion law

After a week of speculation about how the Biden administration would respond to the law, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a lawsuit. (The text of the suit is here.) The approach AG Garland chose was to sue the State of Texas in federal court, seeking “an order preliminarily and permanently enjoining the State of Texas, including its officers, employees, and agents, including private parties who would bring suit under the law, from implementing or enforcing S.B. 8.”

Because SB8 specifically does what Supreme Court precedents say laws cannot do (substantially burden a woman’s right to choose an abortion before a fetus is viable), the suit says SB8 is “in open defiance of the Constitution”.

The United States therefore may sue a State to vindicate the rights of individuals when a state infringes on rights protected by the Constitution. … The United States has the authority and responsibility to ensure that Texas cannot evade its obligations under the Constitution and deprive individuals of their constitutional rights by adopting a statutory scheme designed specifically to evade traditional mechanisms of federal judicial review.

The suit notes that while Texas executive-branch officials may not be involved in enforcing the law, Texas judges are.

while Texas has gone to unprecedented lengths to cloak its attack on constitutionally protected rights behind a nominally private cause of action, it nonetheless has compelled its judicial branch to serve an enforcer’s role.

And when private individuals file suit to enforce the law, they also become agents of the state “and thus are bound by the Constitution”. (One indication of their state-actor status is that the people who sue under SB8 can collect a payment even though they have not personally suffered damages. Clearly they are not suing in their private capacity.)

The suit also notes an impact on the federal government: Whenever a government program requires it to cover someone’s health care, the government might wind up paying for an abortion — and thus itself being liable for damages under SB8. (Job Corps, Refugee Resettlement, Bureau of Prisons, Office of Personnel Management, Medicaid, and Department of Defense are examples.)

AP reports that yesterday Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett “spoke at length about her desire for others to see the Supreme Court as nonpartisan”.

Maybe she should worry first about what she is, and then worry about how she appears.

Texas Governor Abbott was asked about forcing women to have their rapists’ babies, and he responded in ways that make it clear he doesn’t take the problem seriously: First, he claimed the law gives women “six weeks” to get an abortion, when most women will not know they are pregnant by then, and most pregnancy tests are unreliable until after a missed period. And then he went to Fantasyland:

Rape is a crime and Texas will work tirelessly that we eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas by aggressively going out and arresting them and prosecuting them and getting them off the streets.

So: Nothing to worry about, because there aren’t going to be any more rapes in Texas. Sadly, though, Texas had nearly 15,000 reported rapes in 2019 (the most recent numbers I could find), and some unknown number of unreported rapes. Abbott did not reveal his magic plan to eliminate rape, or explain why he has not implemented it during the six years he has been governor. And what will he do when accused rapist Donald Trump comes back to the state?

And so Abbott joins the long list of Republican politicians who have said stupid and/or heartless things about rape.

and Lee’s statue

A giant Robert E. Lee statue came down in Richmond Wednesday, provoking all kinds of discussion of Lee’s place in history.

Probably no American historical figure has been as thoroughly mythologized as Lee, who in Southern hindsight became the great saint of the Lost Cause. The glorification of Lee was so extreme that in 1996 a biography was titled Lee, Considered because it claimed that the Southern general had never been realistically evaluated by historians. So “considered”, not “reconsidered”.

The two main points of contention are (1) Lee’s relationship to slavery, and (2) how good a general he really was. The first was discussed by Gillian Brockwell in the Washington Post. As for the second, Lee, Considered makes a convincing case that Lee was a brilliant tactician, but not much of a strategist.

As Rhett Butler explained in Gone With the Wind, the South went into the war over-matched in manufacturing capacity and potential manpower. So there were basically only two ways the South could have defeated the North:

  • A “bloody nose” strategy, where a quick Southern strike would convince the North that it didn’t really want to pursue this war.
  • A Fabian strategy that would avoid pitched battles, drag out the war, and frustrate the North’s desire for a decisive victory until its electorate lost patience.

But no matter how clever its generals were from battle to battle, the South couldn’t possibly win the kind of war Lee got them into: a multi-year war of attrition. Bad strategy. The strategy by which Grant ultimately defeated Lee was to stop worrying about his own casualties and focus instead on inflicting as many as possible. Grant understood that he could replenish his forces, but Lee couldn’t.

How the South ultimately did win (in 1877) was through an endless terrorist campaign, not a second try at Gettysburg.

Connecting this note with the 9-11 retrospective: If Americans understood our own history, we would never have tried to remake Afghanistan. Even after the victories of Sherman and Grant, and a decade of military occupation, the North was never able to remake the South in its own image. Like the Taliban, the White supremacist aristocracy reestablished itself as soon as the Union troops left.

and you also might be interested in …

Tuesday is election day for the California recall. Polls on recalling Newsom were tight a month ago, but Keep now has a wide lead over Remove. Consequently, Republicans are already preparing to accuse Governor Gavin Newsom of fraud, because no elections they lose can possibly be legit.

Someday I want to hear their theory on how Newsom managed to coordinate this election fraud with all the polling operations.

Nate Silver does a quick analysis of the decline in President Biden’s approval rating. It corresponds to two events: the Afghanistan withdrawal and the rise in Delta variant cases. Like Nate, I think the Afghan situation will either fade from public attention or look better in hindsight. If this Covid wave is also peaking, Biden might bounce back, though Nate isn’t sold on that as a likelihood.

The negotiations over the Democrats’ reconciliation infrastructure package is getting serious, with Bernie Sanders on one side and Joe Manchin on the other.

James Fallows describes efforts to rethink college rating systems. The traditional US News approach measures inputs: how accomplished students are when they enter college. It would be better to measure what students gain while they’re there.

In line with this week’s historical themes, an actual historian debunks the Molon Labe slogan favored by gun-rights extremists. After all, according to the story, the Persians did come and take the Spartan weapons, after killing the Spartan king and all his warriors. Persian casualties were likely larger, but Thermopylae was merely “a speed bump under the wheels of the Persian war machine”, which went on to burn Athens before losing the naval battle of Salamis.

Probably, though, the whole Thermopylae myth was Greek propaganda intended to spin a disastrous defeat as a moral victory. (The Alamo myth serves a similar purpose.) It persists today for a different reason:

[The pro-gun] right-wing fringe favors Molon Labe, and by extension the larger toxic myth of Spartan badassery, primarily because it dovetails with other ideas they favor—namely, the advancement of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim causes. … In the film version, a hunky 36-year-old Gerard Butler (the real Leonidas was 60 at the time of this battle) led a tiny, beleaguered force composed entirely of musclebound white men to defend the gates of Europe against a brown-skinned tide of decadent foreigners. This wildly false take on Thermopylae, and by extension Sparta, has become a constant reference point for right-wing fringe groups in slogan after poster after stump speech.

and let’s close with something wild

Back in 2015, Paul Joynson-Hicks and Tom Sullam started the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards. Last year’s winner was “Terry the Turtle flipping the bird“.

This year’s finalists are now posted. The whole gallery is worth a look, but my favorite is this undersea choir.

On Doing Your Own Research

It’s easy to laugh at the conspiracy theorists. But our expert classes aren’t entitled to blind trust.

One common mantra among anti-vaxxers, Q-Anoners, ivermectin advocates, and conspiracy theorists of all stripes is that people need to “do their own research”. Don’t be a sheep who believes whatever the CDC or the New York Times or some other variety of “expert” tells you. If something is important, you need to look into it yourself.

Recently, I’ve been seeing a lot of pushback memes. This one takes a humorous poke at the inflated view many people have of their intellectual abilities.

While this one is a bit more intimidating:

And this one is pretty in-your-face:

I understand and mostly agree with the point these memes are trying to make: There is such a thing as expertise, and watching a YouTube video is no substitute for a lifetime of study. In fact, few ideas are so absurd that you can’t make a case for them that is good enough to sound convincing for half an hour — as I remember from reading Erich von Daniken’s “ancient astronaut” books back in the 1970s.

Medical issues are particularly tricky, because sometimes people just get well (or die) for no apparent reason. Whatever they happened to be doing at the time looks brilliant (or stupid), when in fact it might have had nothing to do with anything. That’s why scientists invented statistics and double-blind studies and so forth — so they wouldn’t be fooled by a handful of fluky cases, or by their own desire to see some pattern that isn’t really there.

All the same, I cringe when one of these memes appears on my social media feed, because I know how they’ll be received by the people they target. The experts are telling them: “Shut up, you dummy, and believe what you’re told.”

They’re going to take that message badly, and I actually don’t blame them. Because there is a real crisis of expertise in the world today, and it didn’t appear out of nowhere during the pandemic. It’s been building for a long time.

Liberal skepticism. Because the Trump administration was so hostile to expertise, we now tend to think of viewing experts skeptically as a left/right issue. But it’s not. Go back, for example, and look at liberal Chris Hayes’ 2012 book The Twilight of the Elites. Each chapter of that book covers a different area in which some trusted corps of experts failed the public that put its faith them: Intelligence experts (and the journalists who covered them) assured us that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Bankers drove the world economy into a ditch in 2008, largely because paper that turned out to be worthless was rated AAA. The Catholic priesthood, supposedly a guardian of morality for millions of Americans, was raping children and then covering it up.

Experts, it turns out, do have training and experience. But they also have class interests. Sometimes they’re looking out for themselves rather than for the rest of us.

More recently, we have discovered that military experts have been lying to us for years about the “progress” they’d made in promoting Afghan democracy and training an Afghan army to defend that democratic government.

It’s not hard to find economists who present capitalism as the only viable option for a modern economy, or who explain why we can’t afford to take care of all the sick people, or to prevent climate change from producing some apocalyptic future.

Such people are very good at talking down to the rest of us. But ordinary folks are less and less likely to take them seriously. And that’s good, sort of. You shouldn’t believe what people say just because they have a title or a degree.

If not expertise, what? So it’s not true that if you argue with a recognized expert, you’re automatically wrong. Unfortunately, though, recent events have shown us that a reflexive distrust of all experts creates even worse problems.

  • It’s hard to estimate how many Americans have died of Covid because we haven’t been willing to follow expert advice about vaccination, masking, quarantining, and so on. Constructing such an estimate would itself require expertise I don’t have. But simply comparing our death totals to Canada’s (713 deaths per million people versus our 2034) indicates it’s probably in the hundreds of thousands.
  • Our democracy is in trouble because large numbers of Americans are unwilling to accept election results, no matter how many times they get recounted by bipartisan panels of election supervisors.
  • The growing menace of hurricanes and wildfires is the price we pay because the world (of which the US is a major part, and needs to play a leading role) refuses to act on what climate scientists have been telling us since the 1970s.

Without widespread belief in experts, the truth becomes a matter of tribalism (one side believes in fighting Covid and the other doesn’t), intimidation (Republicans who know better don’t dare tell Trump’s personality cult that he lost), or wishful thinking (nobody wants to believe we have to change our lives to cut carbon emissions).

Which one of us is Galileo? The foundational myth of modern science (Galileo saying “and yet it moves“) expresses faith in a reality beyond the power of kings and popes. People who have trained their minds to be objective can see that reality, while others are stuck either following or rebelling against authority.

The question is: Who is Galileo in the current controversies? Is it the scientific experts who have spent their lives training to see clearly in these situations? Or is it the populists, who refuse to bow to the authority of the expert class, and insist on “doing their own research”?

Simply raising that question points to a more nuanced answer than just “Shut up and believe what you’re told.”

Take me, for example. This blog arises from distrust of experts. After the Saddam’s-weapons-of-mass-destruction fiasco, I started looking deeper into the stories in the headlines. Because I was living in New Hampshire at the time, it was easy to go listen to the 2004 presidential candidates. Once I did, I noticed the media’s habit of fitting a speech into a predetermined narrative, rather than reporting what a candidate was actually saying. Then I started reading major court decisions (like the Massachusetts same-sex marriage decision of 2003), and interpreting them for myself.

In short, I was doing my own research. Some guy at CNN may have spent his whole life reporting on legal issues, but I was going to read the cases for myself.

When social media became a thing, and turned into an even bigger source of misinformation than the mainstream media had ever been, I began to look on this blog as a model for individual behavior: Don’t amplify claims without some amount of checking. (For example: In this weeks’ summary — the next post after this one — I was ready to blast Trump for ignoring all observances of 9-11. But then I discovered that he appeared by video at a rally organized by one of his supporters on the National Mall. I’m not shy about criticizing Trump, but facts are facts.) Listen to criticism from commenters and thank them when they catch one of your mistakes. Change your opinions when the facts change.

But also notice the things that I don’t do: When my wife got cancer, we didn’t design her treatment program by ourselves. We made value judgments about what kinds of sacrifices we were willing to make for her treatment (a lot, as it turned out), but left the technical details to our doctors. At one point we felt that a doctor was a little too eager to get my wife into his favorite clinical trial, so we got a second opinion and ultimately changed doctors. But we didn’t ditch Western medicine and count on Chinese herbs or something. (She’s still doing fine 25 years after the original diagnosis.)

On this blog, I may not trust the New York Times and Washington Post to decide what stories are important and what they mean, but I do trust them on basic facts. If the NYT puts quotes around some words, I believe that the named person actually said those words (though I may check the context). If the WaPo publishes the text of a court decision, I believe that really is the text. And so on.

I also trust the career people in the government to report statistics accurately. The political appointees may spin those numbers in all sorts of ways, but the bureaucrats in the cubicles are doing their best.

In the 18 years I’ve been blogging, that level of trust has never burned me.

Where I come from. So the question isn’t “Do you trust anybody?” You have to; the world is just too big to figure it all out for yourself. Instead, the question is who you trust, and what you trust them to do.

My background gives me certain advantages in answering those questions, because I have a foot in both camps. Originally, I was a mathematician. I got a Ph.D. from a big-name university and published a few articles in some prestigious research journals (though not for many years now). So I understand what it means to do actual research, and to know things that only a handful of other people know. At the same time, I am not a lawyer, a doctor, a political scientist, an economist, a climate scientist, or a professional journalist. So just about everything I discuss in this blog is something I view from the outside.

I don’t, for example, have any inside knowledge about public health or infectious diseases or climate science. But I do know a lot about the kind of people who go into the sciences, and about the social mores of the scientific community. So when I hear about some vast conspiracy to inflate the threat of Covid or climate change, I can only shake my head. I can picture how many people would necessarily be involved in such a conspiracy, and who many of them would have to be. It’s absurd.

In universities and labs all over the world, there are people who would love to be the one to expose the “hoax” of climate change, or to discover the simple solution that means none of us have to change our lifestyle. You couldn’t shut them up by shifting research funding, you’d need physical concentration camps, and maybe gas chambers. The rumors of people vanishing into those camps would spread far enough that I would hear them.

I haven’t.

Not all experts deserve our skepticism. Similarly, one of my best friends and two of my cousins are nurses. I know the mindset of people who go into medicine. So the idea that hospitals all over the country are faking deaths by the hundreds of thousands, or that ICUs are only pretending to be jammed with patients — it’s nuts.

If you’ve ever planned a surprise party, you know that conspiracies of just a dozen or so people can be hard to manage. Now imagine conspiracies that involve tens of thousands, most of whom were once motivated by ideals completely opposite to the goals of the conspiracy.

It doesn’t happen.

I have a rule of thumb that has served me well over the years: You don’t always have to follow the conventional wisdom, but when you don’t you should know why.

Lots of expert classes have earned our distrust. But some haven’t. They’re not all the same. And even the bankers and the priests have motives more specific than pure evil. If they wouldn’t benefit from some conspiracy, they’re probably not involved.

Know thyself. As you divide up the world between things you’re going to research yourself and things you’re going to trust to someone else, the most important question you need to answer is: What kind of research can you reasonably do? (Being trained to read mathematical proofs made it easy for me to read judicial opinions. I wouldn’t have guessed that, but it turned out that way.)

That’s what’s funny about the cartoon at the top: This guy thinks he credibly competes with the entire scientific community (and expects his wife to share that assessment of his abilities).

My Dad (who I think suspected from early in my life that he was raising a know-it-all) often said to me: “Everybody in the world knows something you don’t.” As I got older, I realized that the reverse is also true: Just about all of us have some experience that gives us a unique window on the world. You don’t necessarily need a Ph.D. to see something most other people miss.

But at the same time, often our unique windows point in the wrong direction entirely. My window, for example, tells me very little about what Afghans are thinking right now. If I want to know, I’m going to have to trust somebody a little closer to the topic.

And if I’m going to be a source of information rather than misinformation, I’ll need to account for my biases. Tribalism, intimidation, and wishful thinking affect everybody. A factoid that matches my prior assumptions a little too closely is exactly the kind of thing I need to check before I pass it on. Puzzle pieces that fit together too easily have maybe been shaved a little; check it out.

So sure: Do your own research. But also learn your limitations, and train yourself to be a good researcher within those boundaries. Otherwise, you might be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week, Biden upped the pressure on vaccine refusers, and Republicans freaked out about it. The new-case numbers finally started going down. We marked the 20th anniversary of 9-11. The Justice Department started fighting back against the Texas abortion law. And a big Robert E. Lee statue came down in Richmond.

This week’s featured post, though, backs up a little to address a more general question: Whether or not ordinary people should “do our own research” on the issues of the day. It’s easy to shake your head at the people eating horse paste to guard against Covid and say “Obviously not.” But the issue is actually more nuanced than that. This blog, for instance, is an example of someone doing his own research up to a point. I don’t run my own clinical trials, but if I totally trusted mainstream journalists to turn my attention in the right directions, there’d be no purpose in most of what I do.

So “On Doing Your Own Research” is a bit more sympathetic to the populist view than you might expect. It should appear around 10 EDT.

The weekly summary discusses the developments mentioned in the first paragraph, with particular attention to the legal basis for Biden’s “mandate” order, and for DoJ’s lawsuit against Texas. I’ll also go off on historical tangents about General Lee’s weakness as a strategist, and the similarity of the Thermopylae and Alamo myths. Let’s say that posts around noon.


It’s almost impossible to get your mind around how much is currently being sacrificed in favor of a Senate procedural rule that appears nowhere in the Constitution and emerged to buttress segregation.

Ben Rhodes

This week’s featured post is “A Dozen Observations about Texas, Abortion, and the Supreme Court“.

This week everybody was talking about the Texas abortion law

That’s the subject of the featured post.

and the cost of the filibuster

The Texas abortion law could be undone if Congress passed the Women’s Health Protection Act. But it won’t, of course, because the WHPA can’t muster 60 votes to get past a Republican filibuster.

So we can add one more item to the bill America pays to maintain the filibuster. Similarly, all the hoops and hurdles Republican legislatures have put in the way of voting could be reversed if Congress passed the For the People Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, or some watered-down version of either bill. Even Joe Manchin claims to want to pass something to protect voting rights, but again, unified Republican opposition makes the filibuster an insuperable roadblock.

Similarly, the filibuster dooms the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a $15 minimum wage, and statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico. It’s the reason January 6 is being investigated by a House committee rather than a bipartisan commission.

Historically, the filibuster protected segregation in the South, preserving Jim Crow for decades.

Filibuster defenders need to be challenged to answer: What victories balance all these losses? At what moment in American history was the Republic saved from a catastrophic mistake because some prescient minority filibustered? I don’t know of one.

and the growing Republican acceptance of gangsterism and violence

Thursday, CNN reported that the House committee investigating the January 6 insurrection had asked telecommunication companies to preserve the phone records of a number of Republican congresspeople, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

Notice: preserve, not turn over. If the committee eventually decides that it needs some of those records, it will presumably subpoena them. At that point, McCarthy et al might challenge the subpoenas in court, and I assume the companies will do whatever the courts tell them. All perfectly normal.

Kevin McCarthy responded like a Mafia don.

If these companies comply with the Democrat order to turn over private information, they are in violation of federal law and subject to losing their ability to operate in the United States. If companies still choose to violate a federal law, a Republican majority will not forget and will stand with Americans to hold them fully accountable under the law.

An appropriate response to this tweet might be: WTF? Or more specifically, WFL: what federal law?

McCarthy’s office has not responded to CNN’s request for clarification on what law McCarthy believes the telecommunication companies would be violating.

Marjorie Taylor Greene was more explicit about the threat, if not the law:

These cell phone companies, they better not play with these Democrats, because Republicans are coming back into the majority in 2022, and we will take this very serious.

When you warn people not to cooperate with investigators, or else — that’s pretty much the definition of obstruction. But for congressional Republicans, it’s just Tuesday.

A week ago yesterday, North Carolina Republican Congressman Madison Cawthorn issued this threat:

If our election systems continue to be rigged, and continue to be stolen, then it’s going to lead to one place, and it’s bloodshed.

He went on to say that he dreads “having to pick up arms against a fellow American.” Not that he wouldn’t do it, but that he doesn’t look forward to it. You don’t “dread” things that you know you aren’t going to do.

Cawthorn’s spokesman claimed he was opposing violence. But when a conditional threat is based on a lie, the result is just a naked threat. Democrats can’t stop rigging and stealing elections, because they haven’t done that in the first place. If I tell you I’m going to burn your house down unless your dog stops peeing on my lawn, and you don’t have a dog, then the bottom line is that I’m threatening to burn your house down.

As we’ve seen again and again, Trump claims fraud whenever he loses. He claimed that fraud prevented him from winning the popular vote against Hillary Clinton in 2016, and he also claimed Ted Cruz committed fraud when he beat Trump in the 2016 Iowa caucuses, tweeting: “Based on the fraud committed by Senator Ted Cruz during the Iowa Caucus, either a new election should take place or Cruz results nullified.”

Given that history and Cawthorn’s devoted Trumpism, the only conclusion to draw is that Cawthorn is regretting in advance all the Americans he will kill if his side loses again. If they lose, they will claim fraud again and get violent again, but with more bloodshed this time.

A Republican candidate for county executive in Northampton County, Pennsylvania, explained how he plans to handle schools boards that impose mask mandates.

Forget going into these school boards with frigging data. You go into school boards to remove ’em! That’s what you do! They don’t follow the law! You go in and you remove ’em. I’m going in there with 20 strong men, I’m going to speak to the school board and I’m going to give them an option. They can leave or they can be removed.

No attempt to convince, no organizing for the next election, no petitions or marches or sit-ins. Just “20 strong men”. Increasingly, that’s how the GOP wants to handle things.

All across the country, there are reports of the Proud Boys joining anti-mask protests outside of schools and school board meetings. Explicit threats are often part of these demonstrations.

and the pandemic

I’m not sure I trust this week’s numbers. On the one hand, they follow the recent trend of slowing growth: New cases are up only 8% over the last two weeks, compared to last week’s 20%, preceded by 36% and 60%. On the other hand, the biggest drop is 51% in Louisiana, with even bigger drops in the coastal counties where Ida hit. It could just be that the hurricane interrupted testing and reporting of new cases. But if these numbers are accurate, we could hit a peak this week.

and you also might be interested in …

It’s weirdly ironic that Covid-related unemployment benefits are expiring on Labor Day.

My part of the northeast got some rain, but no serious flooding when the remnants of Ida blew through Wednesday night and Thursday morning. South of here, though, particularly in Philadelphia and New York, things got ugly, and more than 40 people died.

Meanwhile, Louisiana is still recovering from when Ida hit there eight days ago.

In addition to the abortion ban, Texas now has open carry of firearms, without permits or training. So if you want to shoot up a Texas school or shopping mall, you aren’t breaking any laws until you pull the trigger.

The anti-voting law that Texas Democrats delayed by leaving the state? It passed. Harris County is suing to keep it from being enforced.

You’ll be pleased to know that Rudy Giuliani reports that he is “not an alcoholic” and functions “more effectively than 90% of the population”.

Trump Tower is having trouble finding tenants, but it has one really reliable, deep-pocketed one: the Make America Great Again PAC that Trump runs himself. It rents a space that could accommodate 30 employees, but it only lists three, and they’re not there most days. The high-priced lease appears to be a simple way to turn donors’ money into personal income for Trump, but it’s all perfectly legal.

and let’s close with something explosive

I’ve previously closed with videos of elaborate domino constructions that fall in amazing and beautiful ways. An even more kinetic version of the same basic idea is the stick bomb. The elasticity of tongue depressors is used to store potential energy, which can be released in a chain reaction.

If you want to build your own, here’s a tutorial.

A Dozen Observations about Abortion, Texas, and the Supreme Court

As you undoubtedly already know, the Supreme Court refused to interfere with the new Texas abortion ban, which took effect Wednesday. In brief, the law bans abortion after a “heartbeat” is detectable in the embryo, which happens (not really, but sort of, more below) at around six weeks. That’s usually before a woman knows she’s pregnant, so most pregnant Texas women will not, at any point in the process, have legal options other than carrying their fetus to term.

What makes this law different from dozens of other anti-abortion laws (that routinely get voided by the federal courts) is its method of enforcement: Abortion is illegal, but not criminal. No one is arrested or sent to jail. But private citizens can sue people (other than the pregnant woman herself) who perform or “abet” a post-heartbeat abortion. If they win, they get attorneys fees plus $10,000.

That enforcement method makes it tricky for a federal court to block the law. Ordinarily, a court would enjoin state officials not to enforce a law that violates established constitutional standards, but here Texas can say: “We don’t enforce it. Private citizens and the state courts enforce it.” Five conservative judges (three of them appointed by Trump) decided to take advantage of that loophole. So the law stands and abortion is effectively banned in Texas.

Much has been written about this situation in the last week, so rather than add another article to the stack, I want to organize what’s already out there. That’s why this post is a list of short observations rather than a single essay. In each case, I’ll point you to other sources that do the elaboration.

Let’s start with some basic references.

The law itself (Senate Bill 8) is here. It’s written for lawyers, and I don’t recommend reading it unless you’re really getting down into the weeds.

The Supreme Court’s rejection of the request to intervene is only 12 pages, and is much more readable. The majority’s statement is barely more than a page. Chief Justice Roberts wrote a three-page dissent. Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan also wrote dissents, each of which was co-signed by the other two. So the Court published roughly ten times as much material explaining why it shouldn’t have done this than justifying why it did.

Slate has a good FAQ about what the law covers and how it might be interpreted. Some of the issues will depend on what judges do, and even if the law is technically on your side, you still will have to respond if someone sues you.

The bill is named the Texas Heartbeat Act, but a six-week embryo doesn’t have a heart. explains:

Rather, at six weeks of pregnancy, an ultrasound can detect “a little flutter in the area that will become the future heart of the baby,” said Dr. Saima Aftab, medical director of the Fetal Care Center at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami. This flutter happens because the group of cells that will become the future “pacemaker” of the heart gain the capacity to fire electrical signals, she said.

NPR goes into more detail:

“When I use a stethoscope to listen to an [adult] patient’s heart, the sound that I’m hearing is caused by the opening and closing of the cardiac valves,” says Dr. Nisha Verma, an OB-GYN who specializes in abortion care and works at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

The sound generated by an ultrasound in very early pregnancy is quite different, she says.

“At six weeks of gestation, those valves don’t exist,” she explains. “The flickering that we’re seeing on the ultrasound that early in the development of the pregnancy is actually electrical activity, and the sound that you ‘hear’ is actually manufactured by the ultrasound machine.” says that at six weeks, an embryo is “about the size of a grain of rice”.

You might be wondering why anti-abortion activists lie so blatantly about this rather obscure point of biology (or perhaps how they can call themselves Christians while they do). Similarly, they make bogus claims about a fetus’ ability to feel pain at 20 weeks. Neither of these thresholds have any legal significance. (After all, farm animals have heartbeats and feel pain, but they are killed by the millions without any political backlash.)

What activists are trying to suggest with heartbeats and suffering is the presence of a human soul, which many of them say enters the embryo at conception. (In National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters writes: “That heartbeat should strike the consciences of anyone with an open mind about the morality of the issue.” Sorry, but that shot just goes right past me; I am neither engaged nor shamed by it.)

They may describe this theological speculation as “Biblical”, but in fact it is not, as I’ve explained before. In Catholic circles, this teaching was virtually unknown before the 1600s, and it didn’t become orthodox among conservative Protestants until after Roe. For Evangelicals, the politics motivated the theology, not the other way around.

In any case, one American’s theology does not bind other Americans, because the Founders very explicitly did not set up a theocracy.

Complete bans on abortion are not popular now, and never have been.

Gallup has been asking about abortion for nearly half a century, and the numbers have been remarkably stable. Less than 1-in-5 Americans believe abortion should be “illegal in all circumstances”, and that’s been true consistently since 1975. The split between those who want abortion legal in “any circumstances” or “certain circumstances” bounces around a bit more. Even that may not represent an actual change of opinion, but could correspond to a change in the circumstances that came to mind when the question was raised.

On the specific question of overturning Roe v Wade, public opinion has long supported leaving Roe alone. In 1989 the public was against overturning Roe 58%-31%, and the most recent survey was 58%-32%.

I sum up my reading of public opinion with a quip. Most Americans, whether we are conservative or liberal, have exactly the same opinion about both abortion and guns: “I am appalled by the sheer number of them in this country, and wish there were fewer. But if my family gets into some extraordinary situation and decides that we need one, I don’t want the government to stand in our way.”

The court majority is acting in bad faith.

The majority purports to be stymied by the complexity of the situation: No one knows exactly who will decide to enforce the Texas law, so how can they craft an injunction?

it is unclear whether the named defendants in this lawsuit can or will seek to enforce the Texas law against the applicants in a manner that might permit our intervention.

Will Wilkinson points out the obvious:

you know that the conservative majority would not affirm this principle in general. There is zero chance that Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Barrett and Thomas would offer the same deferential treatment to a formally identical California law designed to frustrate citizens’ 2nd Amendment rights by incentivizing civil lawsuits against anyone who gives away or sells or in any way aids or abets the possession or ownership of a firearm.

Justice Sotomayor’s dissent is blunt and direct:

It cannot be the case that a State can evade federal judicial scrutiny by outsourcing the enforcement of unconstitutional laws to its citizenry.

But of course, it’s not the case in general. This is a one-time-only principle that applies solely to abortion.

A decision this consequential shouldn’t happen through the shadow docket.

Essentially, the Court has reversed Roe v Wade: Texas has made nearly all abortions illegal; the Court has refused to protect a woman’s previously recognized constitutional right; and now other red states are scrambling to pass their own bounty-hunter law.

It is certainly within the Court’s power to reverse previous precedents and thereby reinterpret the Constitution. But the typical way for a reversal to happen is through the regular docket (known to lawyers as the “merits” docket): A case challenging the precedent works its way up through the federal courts. Through that process, the lower courts develop a body of publicly available evidence and reasoning. Then the Supreme Court hears lawyers for both sides argue the case, and interested third parties submit briefs supporting one side or the other. The justices withdraw for weeks or months to consider it all, and then a decision is announced, supported by a written majority opinion (which may be critiqued by dissents from judges outside the majority). When Brown v Board of Education reversed Plessey v Ferguson in 1954, that was the lengthy process it went through. (The original lawsuit was filed in 1951.)

A case challenging Roe is already on the Court’s calendar for this term. We should get a decision by June at the latest. If a majority wants to reverse Roe — and apparently it does — that is the proper way to do so.

One key virtue of the regular process is transparency: The Court’s power may be mostly unchecked, but when it does something, we at least know what it did and why. Five justices can’t just say “Do this” and go home; they have to spell out the new interpretation in enough detail that lower courts and the various levels of state and federal government know what the law is now. The Court’s reasoning is available for legal scholars to examine and criticize, and Congress knows exactly what it must do if it wants to achieve a different outcome.

But the Court also has what is called the “shadow docket”. Wikipedia explains:

Shadow docket decisions are made when the Court believes an applicant will suffer “irreparable harm” if the request is not immediately granted. These decisions are generally terse (often only a few sentences), unsigned, and are preceded by little to no oral arguments. Historically, the shadow docket was used only rarely for rulings of serious legal or political significance, but since 2017 it has been increasingly utilized for consequential rulings, especially for requests by the Department of Justice for emergency stays of lower-court rulings.

So, for example, you might ask the Court to intervene if a law was about to go into effect that would remove one of your previously recognized constitutional rights. If, say, you had to give birth to your rapist’s baby because all the abortion providers in your state had to turn you away, you might reasonably claim to face irreparable harm. The no-longer-viable clinics might also reasonably claim irreparable harm.

By not acting, the Court is basically announcing: “Not so fast about thinking you have a constitutional right.” It has made women’s rights evaporate without any kind of transparent process. Or maybe that’s not the Court’s intention at all. Who can say, when the majority barely wrote a page of explanation?

Chief Justice Roberts, who is usually thought of as one of the conservative justices, complained about this lack of process:

I would grant preliminary relief to preserve the status quo ante—before the law went into effect—so that the courts may consider whether a state can avoid responsibility for its laws in such a manner. … We are at this point asked to resolve these novel questions—at least preliminarily—in the first instance, in the course of two days, without the benefit of consideration by the District Court or Court of Appeals. We are also asked to do so without ordinary merits briefing and without oral argument. … I would accordingly preclude enforcement of S. B. 8 by the respondents to afford the District Court and the Court of Appeals the opportunity to consider the propriety of judicial action and preliminary relief pending consideration of the plaintiffs’ claims

Translating from the legalese: If we don’t know what to do, we should freeze the situation as best we can until we have time to figure it out. But the other five conservative justices rejected that reasoning.

The Senate’s hearings on recent Supreme Court nominees have been a charade. The nominees lied, and the senators who credited those lies were either naive or complicit.

Numerous examples are possible, but the most ridiculous one was the 45-minute speech Susan Collins gave defending her vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh. For eight paragraphs she addressed “the concern that Judge Kavanaugh would seek to overturn Roe v. Wade”, assuring the country that the constitutional right established in Roe “is important to me”, and extolling Kavanaugh’s reverence for long-established precedents.

Naive? Complicit? Hard to say.

The 6-3 conservative majority is the result of a system rigged to over-represent White rural voters. The Court’s current conservatism does not and never has represented the will of the American people.

Supreme Court justices are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Both of these institutions are rigged in favor of White rural voters.

Three of the current justices (Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett) were nominated by Donald Trump, who was chosen by the Electoral College in defiance of the American people. (Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by 2.8 million votes, but won a 304-227 victory in the Electoral College.)

Sometimes Roberts and Alito are included on this list of minority justices, because George W. Bush also lost the popular vote in 2000. However, they were nominated in Bush’s second term, after he won re-election democratically.

Recent Republican majorities in the Senate have also not represented the American people. The principle that each state has two senators means that blue (and racially diverse) California’s 39 million residents have the same power as red (and almost entirely White) Wyoming’s 581 thousand. Combined with the successful attempt to stack the Senate by admitting tiny Northwestern states in 1889-1890, Republicans have a consistent structural advantage: For the last quarter-century, Republican senators have neither represented a majority of voters nor received a majority of votes, and yet they have held the majority of Senate seats about half the time.

This includes the term when Mitch McConnell refused to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, as well as the next term when McConnell and popular-vote-loser Donald Trump awarded that Court seat to Neil Gorsuch.

Senate Republicans use their artificially inflated numbers, together with the filibuster, to make sure the system stays rigged in their favor by denying statehood to (largely Black and urban) District of Columbia and (Hispanic) Puerto Rico.

Now that abortion rights have actually been lost, the Republican dog has caught the car.

Somewhere in Islands in the Stream, Ernest Hemingway describes a bridge that is much desired but (precisely for that reason) can never be completed: As long as the bridge is in the future, corrupt politicians can raise funds to build it. But if it is ever finished, the money will dry up.

For decades, anti-abortion politics has been a similar scam, as David Frum explains:

Pre-Texas, opposition to abortion offered Republican politicians a lucrative, no-risk political option. They could use pro-life rhetoric to win support from socially conservative voters who disliked Republican economic policy, and pay little price for it with less socially conservative voters who counted on the courts to protect abortion rights for them.

That dynamic played out most clearly in 2016, when Trump dominated the anti-abortion vote, while pro-choice people assured each other that they could stay home or vote for Jill Stein.

But now, after years and years of warnings and an ever-increasing set of hoops women have had to jump through, abortion rights really are vanishing, even for women who are privileged in every way other than gender. If you live in a professional-class suburb of Dallas, and if your U of T freshman daughter gets roofied at a frat party and comes home pregnant, she either carries the baby to term or your family has to break the law — and maybe get sued.

If this possible impact on their lives means that the complacent majority will get riled now, the jig is up. That’s why national Republicans haven’t been spiking the football to celebrate an achievement they’ve been promising for decades.

Congress could fix this, if Democrats thought women’s rights were more important than the filibuster.

The Texas abortion law would be undone if Congress passed the Women’s Health Protection Act, which reinstates the protections of Roe v Wade nationally. Speaker Pelosi believes she can get the bill through the House. It’s unclear whether all 50 Democrats in the Senate would vote for it. But a handful of Republicans also claim to be pro-choice — here’s a chance to redeem yourself, Senator Collins — so the bill should get a majority, if it comes to a vote.

But it won’t come to a vote, because of the filibuster. A woman’s right to choose is yet another price the country must pay for Senator Manchin’s and Senator Sinema’s attachment to this time-dishonored Senate tradition, because the WHPA clearly can’t muster a 60-vote supermajority.

The Department of Justice could also do something.

Law professor Lawrence Tribe explains: It turns out the country has previously faced the problem of states turning a blind eye to (or even encouraging) vigilantes trying to intimidate Americans out of exercising their constitutional rights. In that previous era, Congress responded by passing the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which is still on the books.

Section 242 of the federal criminal code makes it a crime for those who, “under color of law,” willfully deprive individuals “of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.” … In addition, Section 241 of the federal criminal code makes it an even more serious crime for “two or more persons” to agree to “oppress, threaten, or intimidate” anyone “in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same.” This crime may be committed even by individuals not found to be acting “under color of law” but as purely private vigilantes, as long as they’re acting in concert with others.

Tribe believes that using the KKK Act to protect abortion rights in Texas would be “in tune not just with the letter but the spirit the law”. He asserts that we have now reached the point where “the need to disarm those who cynically undermine constitutional rights while ducking all normal avenues for challenging their assault on the rule of law becomes paramount.”

Ordinary people can monkey-wrench the enforcement process.

A campaign to spam websites asking for tips on Texas abortions is taking off. We’ll see if this is just a snap reaction or if it has staying power.

If any pro-life folks think women’s-rights defenders are playing dirty, let me point out that so far no one is using the kinds of tactics the pro-life movement has long used against abortion clinics. No one is bombing their offices or threatening their workers with violence, because (unlike the pro-life movement) the pro-choice movement doesn’t have a terrorist wing.

As satisfying as monkey-wrenching might be, though, it probably won’t make much difference. Even if monkey-wrenchers make vigilante lawsuits harder to assemble, abortion clinics and other support services are already being shut down by the threat of such lawsuits, even if suits have not yet been filed.

Texas has made rape a viable reproduction strategy.

If you are a man who is unable or unwilling to convince any woman to bear your children voluntarily, you can still win the evolutionary battle to pass on your genes by committing enough rapes. Eventually you may wind up in jail, but your descendants will thank you. They will also thank the Evangelical Christians who paved the way for you.

The Monday Morning Teaser

The big news this week was the Supreme Court’s refusal to block Texas’ abortion-banning law. This was a backhanded way to subvert Roe v Wade, and other red states are already moving to copy Texas. There’s a lot to say about this situation — legally, politically, and socially — and there is no shortage of people already writing about it.

With that in mind, I have decided to take this blog’s name literally and do some sifting. Rather than write a long essay of my own, I’m pulling together what other people are saying as concisely as I can. So the featured post will be “[N] Observations about Abortion, Texas, and the Supreme Court”. N is currently up to 12, and I think I may stop there. The post should be out shortly.

Restoring the Roe rights is now another thing Democrats could do, if not for the filibuster. The weekly summary will make a list of these costs of the filibuster.

The summary will also examine the growing number of examples of Republican leaders embracing gangsterism and violence, including Kevin McCarthy threatening telecommunication companies with vague consequences if they cooperate with the investigation of January 6, and Rep. Madison Cawthorn’s threat of “bloodshed” if elections “continue to be stolen”. (Since no elections have been stolen, Democrats can’t avoid this bloodshed by not stealing them. But they could avoid it by not winning, which seems to be Cawthorn’s point.)

Hurricane Ida ravaging the Gulf coast makes this week’s Covid numbers hard to interpret. (Reported infections on the coast are down, but what does that mean?) The summary will include a few other odds and ends, before closing with a more kinetic variation on the domino principle: stick bomb explosions. That should be out before noon.

Innocence and Folly

To state the obvious: There was no good way to lose Afghanistan to the Taliban. A better withdrawal was possible — and our stingy, chaotic visa process was unforgivable — but so was a worse one. Either way, there was no hope of an end to the war that didn’t reveal our decades of folly, no matter how deeply America’s belief in its own enduring innocence demanded one.

– Ezra Klein, “Let’s Not Pretend That the Way We Withdrew from Afghanistan Was the Problem

This week’s featured post is “Power Move“, a review of Charles Blow’s book The Devil You Know.

This week everybody was talking about Afghanistan

Tomorrow is President Biden’s deadline for getting American forces out of Afghanistan. The US announced yesterday that it was ending its airlift of Afghans from the Kabul airport. It estimates that about 250 Americans are still to be removed, plus the forces protecting the airport, and that around 280 Americans have decided to stay for now. (Don’t ask me what they’re thinking.) 117,000 people, most of them Afghans, have been airlifted out of Afghanistan since August 14.

The Taliban has largely cooperated with this effort, but a suicide bomber from a rival Islamist group, ISIS-K, killed 180 people outside the airport Thursday, including 13 members of the US military. An American drone strike destroyed a suspected car bomb Sunday; at least nine civilians died in the explosion. Rockets were fired at the airport today, but no casualties were reported.

The reason there’s no featured post about Afghanistan this week is that I can’t improve on what Ezra Klein said.

As I discussed last week, it’s been maddening to watch so many of the architects of this 20-year disaster go unchallenged on TV while they pretend the only problem is the “competence” of the Biden administration. Apparently, everything would be fine if Biden had just kept the war going for a while longer. And even if he had to end it, there was some clean and clever way to get all the right people out before the roof fell in.

Klein isn’t buying it:

American policymakers and pundits routinely try to rescue the reputation of bad ideas by attributing their failure to poor execution. … Focusing on the execution of the withdrawal is giving virtually everyone who insisted we could remake Afghanistan the opportunity to obscure their failures by pretending to believe in the possibility of a graceful departure.

… I will not pretend that I know how we should have left Afghanistan. But neither do a lot of people dominating the airwaves right now. And the confident pronouncements to the contrary over the past two weeks leave me worried that America has learned little. We are still holding not just to the illusion of our control, but to the illusion of our knowledge.

He points out something I don’t hear anyone else saying: Afghanistan is an example of too much bipartisanship, rather than too much polarization.

At least for my adult life, on foreign policy, our political problem has been that the parties have agreed on too much, and dissenting voices have been shut out. That has allowed too much to go unquestioned, and too many failures to go uncorrected. It is telling that it is Biden who is taking the blame for America’s defeat in Afghanistan. The consequences come for those who admit America’s foreign policy failures and try to change course, not for those who instigate or perpetuate them.

The bipartisan trust in American power and good intentions leads us to imagine that our intervention can only do good, and that any part of the world that captures our attention will benefit. But Klein quotes Ben Rhodes’ observation that Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya are all arguably worse off than when we stepped in.

This is the deep lacuna in America’s foreign policy conversation: The American foreign policy establishment obsesses over the harms caused by our absence or withdrawal. But there’s no similar culpability for the harms we commit or that our presence creates. We are much quicker to blame ourselves for what we don’t do than what we do.

And finally, our fixation on military power causes us to overlook the non-military ways we could help others: We could aggressively vaccinate the people of poorer countries against Covid-19, or fight the perpetual plague of malaria. We could open our doors to refugees fleeing oppression. We could build schools. And we could do it all at a fraction of the cost of fighting a war.

If foreign-policy bipartisanship was to blame for getting us into Afghanistan, it’s gone now. Republicans have taken any cheap shots at Biden they could find, including calling for his resignation after Thursday’s suicide bombing.

Political leaders used to unite behind the president during foreign crises. (Recall the post 9-11 consensus, when President Bush’s approval briefly went over 90%.) Even moreso, former presidents used to avoid direct criticism of their successors. With that in mind, it’s hard to know how to respond to Trump’s current shamelessness. We expect it by now, so it’s not news. And yet, ignoring it doesn’t seem right either.

This week, Trump and his people have been doing everything they can to distance themselves from their own Afghan policy. Biden, after all, is just carrying out the agreement Mike Pompeo signed with the Taliban. If Biden’s withdrawal seems too abrupt, Trump wanted to leave even more abruptly: Last October he called for all our troops to be home by Christmas.

Now, of course, Trump is imagining that he would have handled all this differently. Not only would everyone have gotten out safely, without leaving any equipment behind, but we wouldn’t have given up the Bagram Air Base at all. “We would have had Bagram open because we always intended to keep it. … We should have kept Bagram because Bagram is between China. It has total access to China, Iran, and Afghanistan.”

Trump’s immaculate withdrawal plan is like his “beautiful” healthcare plan that would have covered everyone and been better and cheaper than Obamacare. It exists only in his fantasies, and in the minds of his gullible followers.

Remember: When Trump pulled our troops out of Syria, he didn’t rescue any of the Kurds who had helped us. He left equipment behind and abandoned bases which were then occupied by the Russians.

When you heard about Rep. Seth Moulton’s quick trip to Afghanistan, you may have thought, “I wonder if his constituents understand what that was all about.” Answer: No, we don’t. We also didn’t know what he was thinking when he ran for president or tried to oust Speaker Pelosi. My best theory is that some oracle once told him he had a grand destiny, and he’s been acting on that assumption ever since. But he should have gotten a second opinion.

and the pandemic

The summer surge of new cases continues to round off, as if approaching a peak. The two-week increase is now 20%, compared to 36% last week and over 60% the week before. The total number of Americans hospitalized is now over 100K, and still rising at the rate of 24% over two weeks. 30K of those are in either Florida or Texas, whose governors seem to be doing everything they can to help the virus spread.

Deaths are averaging just under 1300 per day, with about 450 in Florida or Texas. The death toll from the beginning of the pandemic is 637K, a number that resembles a major war.

The question now is whether the start of school (and the filling of college football stadiums throughout the land) will give the surge a new boost. Consider this anecdote from California:

An unvaccinated elementary school teacher who took off their mask to read to students ended up infecting more than half of them last May — and they went on to infect other students, family members and community members … In the classroom of 22 students, 12 became infected — including eight out of 10 students in the two front rows.

Examples like this point out the common sense behind masking: If some barrier had just slowed down the virus particles coming out of the teacher’s mouth, maybe at least the kids in the second row would have been safe.

But why mask or vaccinate when you can use a “miracle cure” intended for farm animals? The ivermectin craze has really gotten out of hand. It’s always hard to get reliable estimates of the number of people who try an underground remedy, but it looks like a lot of folks.

A recent study examining trends in ivermectin dispensing from outpatient retail pharmacies in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic showed an increase from an average of 3,600 prescriptions per week at the prepandemic baseline (March 16, 2019–March 13, 2020) to a peak of 39,000 prescriptions in the week ending on January 8, 2021.1 Since early July 2021, outpatient ivermectin dispensing has again begun to rapidly increase, reaching more than 88,000 prescriptions in the week ending August 13, 2021. This represents a 24-fold increase from the pre-pandemic baseline.

And that’s just the people who are getting the human version. (Ivermectin has a legitimate use as an anti-parasitic drug; that’s probably what the pre-pandemic 3,600 prescriptions per week were.) The drug is also sold as a de-wormer for farm animals — and it’s flying off the shelves.

Many feed stores across North Texas told WFAA they are sold out of ivermectin. [farm store operator Matt] Meredith said his supplier told him they can’t get it for him. “Nobody’s got it,” Meredith said. “You can’t even order it online.”

Poison-control centers in Texas say their ivermectin calls have more than quintupled. That’s probably because:

The drugs produced for humans are different than the drug made for livestock, which is “highly concentrated and is toxic to people, and can cause serious harm,” the Mississippi State Department of Health said in an alert Monday.

If it has never occurred to you to dose yourself with some veterinary concoction, you may wonder what this is all about. Simply this: right-wing stupidity. Apparently, the people who think vaccines are unsafe and masks are a Marxist plot also think “Good old pig de-wormer. What harm could that do?”

The thought that ivermectin could have some use against Covid is not crazy in itself. The drug has anti-viral effects in a petri dish, but unfortunately tests on people haven’t panned out.

A quick look at this data suggests a reason why: The doses and concentrations necessary for antiviral activity are much higher than are safe for humans, and would be toxic to human life as well as viruses. If this sounds familiar it’s because the same misapplication of in vitro science has been used to promote hydroxychloroquine and disinfectants like bleach.

Funny that this article mentions hydroxychloroquine. The same group that pushed hydroxychloraquine — American’s Frontline Doctors (though their “About Us” page just mentions one doctor: founder Simone Gold; I don’t know who those other white-coated people are) — started pushing this too. Then Fox News chimed in, and Senator Ron Johnson, and the usual collection of know-nothings that your cousin Jerry follows on Facebook. And now people are stealing drugs from their sheep.

If there’s one thing conservatives hate, it’s when liberals imply that they’re stupid. But you know what? Liberals don’t do stupid shit like this. We just don’t. Back in the early days of the pandemic, we acted out our panic by wiping down our groceries before we put them away. It turned out to be a waste of effort, but at least it didn’t hurt anybody or stop us from doing sensible things too. I’ve never heard a Democrat say “I don’t need a vaccine, because I wipe down my groceries.”

So if you’re the kind of clear-thinking Republican who doesn’t like being lumped together with these yahoos, let me point something out: Hillary Clinton warned you. The point of her infamous “deplorables” speech was never that all Trump voters were deplorable. (Fox News turned it into that, but that wasn’t what she said.) That speech was targeted at people like you, and the point was: Look who you’re associating yourself with. In another 2016 campaign speech, she quoted a Mexican proverb: “Tell me with whom you walk, and I will tell you who you are.”

So look at the horse-paste eaters, you smart, sophisticated Republicans. Those are your people.

Matt Yglesias calls attention to some interesting data from the Federal Reserve: Restaurant sales are now above pre-pandemic levels, but restaurant employment is still below pre-pandemic levels.

and the hurricane

Ida hit the Louisiana coast yesterday on the 16th anniversary of Katrina. CNN covers this kind of news much better than I do.

and the Supreme Court

As it had signaled it would do, the Supreme Court tossed out the Biden administration’s attempt to extend the pandemic eviction moratorium. The ruling doesn’t address the questions of whether a moratorium is a good idea, or is constitutional. It just disputes that existing law gives the CDC the power to declare one.

The Government contends that the first sentence of §361(a) gives the CDC broad authority to take whatever measures it deems necessary to control the spread of COVID–19, including issuing the moratorium. But the second sentence informs the grant of authority by illustrating the kinds of measures that could be necessary: inspection, fumigation, disinfection, sanitation, pest extermination, and destruction of contaminated animals and articles. These measures directly relate to preventing the interstate spread of disease by identifying, isolating, and destroying the disease itself. The CDC’s moratorium, on the other hand, relates to interstate infection far more indirectly: If evictions occur, some subset of tenants might move from one State to another, and some subset of that group might do so while infected with COVID–19. …

We expect Congress to speak clearly when authorizing an agency to exercise powers of “vast ‘economic and political significance.’ ”

I’m not in the habit of agreeing with the Court’s conservative majority, but I think they’ve got a point here. A year and a half into the pandemic, Congress has had plenty of time to either declare a long-term eviction moratorium itself, or to delegate that power to the CDC or some other agency. It hasn’t done so. The problem here isn’t the Supreme Court and it isn’t the Biden administration. As I’ve observed before, the dysfunction of Congress forces the other two branches to over-reach.

When considering an executive branch claim of power, it’s worth asking this hypothetical question: How would I feel about this power in the hands of an administration I didn’t like? If the CDC has broad authority to do whatever it finds necessary to deal with a public-health emergency, could a Trump-appointed CDC head have used that authority to, say, cancel the 2020 elections? I’m not sure, but the possibility creeps me out.

Also, we tend to think of landlords as rich corporations, and probably the owners of most rental properties are. But a lot of landlords are middle-class people who have a large chunk of their net worth invested in properties they rent to one or two households. (I live in an apartment attached to the back of a friend’s house. My wife and I are their only tenants. After moving to town when I was a toddler, my parents rented out the house on their 160-acre farm.) A nationwide eviction moratorium does a lot more than just stick it to the fat cats.

This week’s second important case concerned the Trump administration’s remain-in-Mexico plan for people seeking asylum at our Southern border. I’ve thought it was always questionable whether that policy really meets our treaty obligations to give refugees a hearing, but that wasn’t the issue here. The Biden administration has tried to end the program, but the State of Texas sued to keep it in place. Technically, the policy has been on hold anyway since March, 2020, due to Trump administration Covid restrictions at the border.

A district court granted Texas an injunction, keeping the policy in place while the legal process plays out. The administration asked for a stay of that injunction, and the Court denied it. The denial is just a paragraph, so there’s not a lot to go on here. Vox tries to flesh out what it all means, but comes to the conclusion that the decision makes no sense.

but I want to tell you about a book

The featured post reviews Charles Blow’s recent The Devil You Know: a Black power manifesto.

and you also might be interested in …

The House Select Committee investigating the January 6 insurrection is taking an aggressive approach. Wednesday it asked for documents from eight federal agencies. The word “sweeping” appeared in many articles about the requests, which centered on “archived communications from the Trump White House“. The Committee is also seeking records from Facebook and Google “on policy changes social media companies made, or failed to make, to address the spread of misinformation, violent extremism and foreign influence, including decisions to ban content.”

We don’t know yet whether anyone is going to fight these orders, and if so on what grounds.

The effort to sanction lawyers who filed baseless lawsuits in support of Trump’s Big Lie continues. Wednesday, a federal judge in Michigan ruled against seven Trump lawyers, including Sidney Powell and Lin Wood.

[US District Judge Linda] Parker is ordering the lawyers to reimburse the attorneys’ fees that the city of Detroit and Michigan state officials paid in seeking the sanctions. The lawyers must also take legal education classes, the judge said, and she is referring her decision to the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission, and “the appropriate disciplinary authority for the jurisdiction(s) where each attorney is admitted,” for potential disciplinary action.

Rudy Giuliani has already had his license suspended in DC and New York.

The gist of the judge’s opinion is that the lawyers made claims their affidavits didn’t support, failed to vet their affidavits for credibility, and made false claims about the laws they were invoking. Judge Parker wasn’t buying the lawyers claims of ignorance about the complaint they signed their names to or the flimsiness of the evidence they provided.

Plaintiffs’ counsel may not bury their heads in the sand and thereafter make affirmative proclamations about what occurred above ground.

… Although the First Amendment may allow Plaintiffs’ counsel to say what they desire on social media, in press conferences, or on television, federal courts are reserved for hearing genuine legal disputes which are well-grounded in fact and law.

The officer who shot Ashli Babbitt revealed his identity for the first time and did an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt.

Babbitt, the only person killed by police during the January 6 riot, has become the Horst Wessel of the violent Trumpists. Her shooting was captured on video, so there is no doubt what happened. She was part of a violent mob trying to break down a door to get into the House chamber, where many congresspeople were still present. Officer Michael Byrd was behind the door with gun drawn and clearly visible through the glass, when the window was broken and Babbitt began to climb through.

But Trump called the shooting a “murder” — so much for “Back the Blue” — and Babbitt is considered a martyr for the Trumpist cause.

Byrd argues that the shooting saved lives, which seems obvious to me.

The Boston Globe’s list of the 25 best TV episodes of the 21st century is a conversation starter. Your list may differ, but the main thing I gleaned from their list was an appreciation of just how much amazing TV there has been these last 21 years. I can’t think of any TV series from my youth that could compete with “The Wire”, “Mad Men”, “The Americans”, “Game of Thrones”, or “The Sopranos”.

One federally funded Covid program makes the “seamless summer” school lunch option available year-round. Rather than paying for free lunches for low-income students, the government offers free lunches to everyone. The program has a variety of goals, mostly relating to the unpredictability of food insecurity during the pandemic, but one effect is to remove the stigma of free lunches. You don’t have to announce that you’re poor in order to get one.

408 school districts in Wisconsin are eligible for the program, and one is opting out. Waukesha wants to go back to a system where 36% of kids get free lunches and the rest don’t.

Karin Rajnicek, a school board member, said the free program made it easy for families to “become spoiled.” Darren Clark, assistant superintendent for business services, said there could be a “slow addiction” to the service.

As a taxpayer, I suppose I ought to be horrified that some hedge-fund manager’s kid might be eating free fish sticks or sloppy joes on my dime. Strangely, I’m not.

and let’s close with something timely

The Holderness Family’s music parodies have been a great help in staying sane during the pandemic. As a body of work, their songs express the mood swings of an ordinary family muddling through a historically difficult time. This video makes Katy Perry’s “Firework” the platform for a rant against the paperwork parents have to fill out if they want to get their kids back into school.

And if you’ve forgotten what school at home was like, there’s a video for that too, based on Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week”.