Category Archives: Weekly summaries

Each week, a short post that links to the other posts of the week.

Insidious Undermining

Corruption and cronyism can undermine political stability and legitimacy as surely as violence can, albeit more insidiously.

– The Washington Post Editorial Board
The Pandora Papers gave us rare transparency: Is there hope for more?

This week’s featured post is “What to Make of the Pandora Papers?

This week everybody was talking about Congress

Still no reconciliation infrastructure bill, but at least we won’t pointlessly wreck the world economy by hitting the debt ceiling, at least not until December.

I know I keep repeating this, but it needs saying: There is no reason to have a debt ceiling. Other countries don’t. The time to worry about the debt is during the regular budget process, when Congress is appropriating money and setting tax rates, not when the country is borrowing to cover money already committed. In practice, the debt ceiling functions as a self-destruct button that irresponsible legislators can threaten to push.

Mitch McConnell is facing criticism in his caucus for backing down on pushing the self-destruct button, and is pledging to be more irresponsible when it comes up again in December.

It continues to be hard to tell where the reconciliation-bill negotiations are, or to predict where (or when) they will wind up. I’m having trouble even finding a good article about where things stand. We’ll know when we know.

and the Trump coup

The Senate Judiciary Committee issued a 400-page report outlining what we know about Trump’s subversion of the Justice Department in service to his attempt to overturn the 2020 election. The story suffers from the problems of any slowly evolving narrative: We sort of knew all that already, but we didn’t know it in this detail or with this degree of certainty.

For example, stories that the NYT or WaPo published based on anonymous sources are repeated here, but based on testimony under oath. That’s actually new, but it doesn’t feel new.

The Republican minority’s defense of Trump is basically that he didn’t succeed this time. When DoJ officials threatened to resign en masse if he installed Jeffrey Clark as attorney general so he could push the Big Lie, for example, Trump backed down. So no harm, no foul.

Josh Marshall makes an analogy:

You’re in the bank, alarm goes off, cops surround the bank: then you say, okay, I’m not feeling it. I’m calling this off.

A number of Trump’s associates are defying subpoenas from the House January 6 Committee. Trump himself is urging this defiance, and justifying it based on a completely bogus interpretation of executive privilege.

Executive privilege belongs to the office of the presidency, not to the individual who holds that office. And it is exercised by the current president, not the one whose past actions are being investigated. Often presidents will protect past administrations, particularly when the information sought continues to have security implications. But Biden is not going to help Trump cover up his attempt to steal the election from Biden.

This is a point Trump has missed all along: He always treated his power as personal power, and not as the power of his office.

and Facebook

Former Facebook insider Frances Haugen testified to the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection Tuesday, following an appearance on 60 Minutes last week.

Her basic message is that Facebook’s profit motive conflicts with the public good — which is pretty much the definition of when regulation is necessary. In general, Facebook benefits by promoting engagement, and that usually means taking advantage of weaknesses. If you’re obsessed with something, Facebook gives you more of it. If something angers you to the point that you just have to respond, Facebook benefits.

That tendency is most obviously destructive and wrong when it comes to minors — teen girls, say. Haugen told 60 Minutes:

What’s super tragic, is Facebook’s own research says, as these young women begin to consume this eating disorder content, they get more and more depressed, and it actually makes them use the app more

Bad as Facebook (and its subsidiary Instagram) are, I hope they don’t become scapegoats for an entire industry that responds to the same market dynamics. As Shoshana Zuboff described in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, all the social-media companies have the same model: Provide a free service, learn things about people by watching them use the service, and then use that knowledge to manipulate their behavior.

It’s not that Facebook is uniquely evil. But this is a setting where the market rewards evil. Facebook is the current market leader, but the next market leader would be just as bad.

and the Texas abortion law

Now it’s blocked, and now it isn’t, as federal court rulings ping-ponged back and forth this week.

The state law, SB 8, which effectively eliminates abortions after six weeks of pregnancy by allowing private citizens to sue people (other than the pregnant woman herself) who are involved in an abortion after the presence of electrical activity that presages a fetal heartbeat after a heart eventually develops, took effect September 1 after the Supreme Court refused to block it.

The federal Justice Department filed suit against Texas on September 9. Wednesday, a federal judge granted DoJ’s request for an injunction to block enforcement of the law, denouncing the State of Texas for contriving an “unprecedented and transparent statutory scheme” to deprive citizens of their “right under the Constitution to choose to obtain an abortion prior to fetal viability”.

Friday, a federal appeals court put a temporary stay on that injunction, pending its consideration of a more permanent ruling.

Even if the injunction is eventually upheld, abortions in Texas may still be limited by the slippery nature of SB 8. The injunction prevented Texas courts from processing lawsuits filed under SB 8, but can’t eliminate abortion providers’ liability if the law is eventually upheld, which could take years to determine. (SB 8 allows lawsuits to be filed up to four years after the abortion.)

I continue to wish that a blue state would concoct some similar civil-lawsuit scheme to ban gun sales — not in order to ban gun sales, but to see how fast the partisan Supreme Court would act to defend a constitutional right that Republican voters care about.

and the pandemic

Average new cases per day in the US have gone back below 100K, down from 175K in mid-September. Deaths have declined less sharply, from over 2000 per day to around 1750. But we’re still well above the mid-June lows, when new cases fell to around 12K per day, with daily deaths in the 200s.

In general, regional differences are evening out, with a few high-risk areas in Alaska, Appalachia, and counties along the northern border.

I’ll make a wild guess and predict that cases and deaths will continue to drop at least until Thanksgiving.

Merck has filed for FDA emergency use authorization of its new anti-Covid pill.

Right-wing politician and commentator Allen West, who is challenging Gov. Greg Abbott in the Republican primary, took hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin rather than get vaccinated. He’s going into the hospital with low oxygen levels after catching Covid.

Chris Hayes won’t let up on the Fox News hosts who challenge every vaccine mandate except the one that actually applies to them at Fox News. I think he’s enjoying himself.

and you also might be interested in …

Climate change destroyed 14% of the world’s coral reefs between 2009 and 2018. The root problem is that the increased carbon in the atmosphere gets absorbed into the ocean, making it more acidic.

September’s jobs report was positive, but still fell well short of economists’ expectations as the economy added 194K jobs rather than the predicted 500K. The unemployment rate dropped to 4.8%, indicating that the weakness was due more to people staying out of the job market than to a lack of jobs for them to find.

The theory that extended unemployment benefits were keeping people from looking for jobs — and so they would flood back into the market when those benefits ended in early September — failed, just as it failed when most red states cut benefits inJuly.

“Many people had Sept. 1 marked on their calendars as the day when things would go back to normal — when they would return to their offices, their kids would return to school and they’d head back to their favorite bars. But instead, the recovery sputtered,” said Julia Pollak, a labor economist with hiring site ZipRecruiter.

As has been true all along, the economic problem is the pandemic itself (which surged in September, but now is receding again) not government responses to it. Workers (particularly women) are reluctant to go back to high-risk, low-pay, public-facing jobs, or to return their unvaccinated small children to group daycare centers (which are having trouble staffing up anyway). And as far as “favorite bars”, I’m still only going to restaurants with outdoor seating. Apparently it’s not just me:

the recent surge in covid cases, which is slowly abating, spooked many diners who earlier this summer had embraced going to restaurants in record levels. Restaurant attendance has been inching down in August and September, according to the reservation app Open Table.

The overall number of restaurants has fallen 13% since the spring of 2020 and restaurant employment is about a million jobs short of pre-pandemic levels.

Speaking of childcare, and the portion of Biden’s proposed $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill that tries to improve it (and make us more like other first-world countries), the NYT describes the situation faced by a couple in Greensboro, North Carolina:

Until their elder son started kindergarten this fall, Jessica and Matt Lolley paid almost $2,000 a month for their two boys’ care — roughly a third of their income and far more than their payments on their three-bedroom house. But one of the teachers who watched the boys earns so little — $10 an hour — that she spends half her time working at Starbucks, where the pay is 50 percent higher and includes health insurance.

… The huge social policy bill being pushed by President Biden would cap families’ child care expenses at 7 percent of their income, offer large subsidies to child care centers, and require the centers to raise wages in hopes of improving teacher quality. A version before the House would cost $250 billion over a decade and raise annual spending fivefold or more within a few years. An additional $200 billion would provide universal prekindergarten.

One aspect of the child-care problem that doesn’t get enough attention is that it’s yet another poverty trap: If child care costs more than a couple’s second paycheck, the short-term economic incentive is for the lower-earning parent to stay home. But parents who can afford to stay in the job market anyway might improve their career prospects in ways that make long-term economic sense. This poverty-trapping effect hits even harder when one parent is investing in a career, either by going to school or working an internship, rather than earning an immediate paycheck.

Saturday, the NYT’s top-of-the-web-page article examined China’s potential military threat to Taiwan, and whether either the Taiwanese or the Americans are adequately prepared for it.

The article makes me wish I could trust the Pentagon (and the Times’ relationship to the Pentagon) more than I do. Maybe the concerns expressed there are completely legit and as worrisome as they sound. Or the article could be defense-budget propaganda: Maybe the Chinese military threat has to be emphasized now that the American people have lost interest in Afghanistan and the Islamic threat more generally.

A New Yorker article from August raised that point in response to a different China hawk:

A smart liberal’s reply to Colby might be: Is this for real? Americans have spent much of the past two decades trying to find some way through the disastrous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan that political hawks urged on them. Now that the full depth of the latter debacle has become so impossible to deny that the V.A. is issuing suicide-awareness bulletins for former soldiers suffering from “moral distress,” the hawks want to urge another generation-defining conflict on Americans?

A bunch of thoughts complicate my layman’s analysis (which is all you’re left with when you don’t trust the experts): As the article points out, the US already spends three times as much on defense as China does. However, given the inefficiencies and pork-barrel spending built into our defense budget, plus the fact that things are just cheaper in China, we probably don’t have a 3-to-1 advantage in real military resources.

And then there’s the fact that China hasn’t fought a war in a very long time. From generals down to privates, just about everybody involved in a hypothetical Taiwan invasion would be seeing their first combat. Would President Xi really trust the results of his war games that much?

And finally, if I were running China, I would see many long-term global trends running in my favor, and be worried about screwing them up. (This WaPo columnist disagrees: What if pro-China trends are about to turn, as its economy becomes more government-centered and its politics more tyrannical?) War is always a throw of the dice. So I hope Xi knows the story of King Croesus of Lydia and the Oracle of Delphi. “If Croesus attacks Persia,” the Oracle pronounced, “he will destroy a great empire.”

He did attack, and the empire he destroyed was his own.

Mike Pence is laying the groundwork for a 2024 presidential campaign. He truly does not seem to understand that January 6 ended his political career. He didn’t do everything he could to steal the election for Trump, so diehard Trumpists will always see him as disloyal. But at the same time, he will never be able to separate himself from his four years of enabling and defending Trump.

When it comes to replacing democracy with a fascist personality cult, you can’t be half committed.

Trump and his followers are rallying behind Max Miller’s primary campaign against Ohio Republican Congressman Anthony Gonzalez, who committed the unforgivable sin of voting for Trump’s second impeachment. The domestic violence charges made by Miller’s former girlfriend, Trump’s former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, don’t seem to be regarded as a big deal by comparison.

This kind of thing was inevitable once Republicans decided to ignore the Access Hollywood tape (where Trump bragged about a pattern of sexual assaults), as well as the corroborating testimony from dozens of his victims. In Republican circles, assaulting women is now just something that manly men do, and that women are understood to routinely lie about.

Here’s what one guy learned from working in a California gun shop.

Guns in America require a fix that isn’t written into law. It’s something deeper, something in society that causes men to turn to weapons as their last vestiges of manhood.

and let’s close with something sexy

If you think it’s hard to attract a human mate, watch what this puffer fish has to do.

Who Benefits?

The Pandora Papers … mostly demonstrates that the people that could end the secrecy of off-shore, end what’s going on, are themselves benefiting from it.

Gerard Ryle,
Director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists

This week’s featured post is “Pandemics Are Beaten By Communities, Not Individuals“.

This week everybody was talking about Congress

Some important stuff got done this week and other important stuff got delayed, but at least complete disaster was avoided for now.

in general, we’re still in the same situation I talked about last week: The public can see what has gotten done and what hasn’t gotten done. But the negotiations over the stuff that still needs doing are private, so we don’t really know what’s going to happen.

We’re talking about trillions of dollars and very important decisions, though, so everybody wants to know what’s going to happen. Consequently, commentators are speculating like mad. And that’s fine, as long as we all understand that none of us really know anything.

So I want to caution everybody not to get too spun up about Manchin and Sinema, or the Congressional Progressive Caucus, or the Democratic leadership, or President Biden, or whoever you plan to blame for whatever bad things you think are going to happen. Wait and see how it all comes out.

What got done was keeping the government running until December 3. The new fiscal year began Friday, and the government did not shut down. That seems like a relatively low hurdle, but with one of the major parties committed to sabotage, it was an accomplishment.

Beyond that, stay tuned. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warns that she will run out of wiggle room later this month if the debt ceiling isn’t raised.

The new estimate from Yellen raises the risk that the United States could default on its debt in a matter of weeks if Washington fails to act. A default would likely be catastrophic, tanking markets and the economy, and delaying payments to millions of Americans.

A bill to raise the debt ceiling passed the House but was filibustered by Republicans in the Senate last Monday. Mitch McConnell insisted that “Republicans are not rooting for … a debt limit breach.” They’re just not willing to vote to prevent one as long as a Democrat is president. Democrats did not act this way during the recent Republican administration.

And then there are the two infrastructure bills: the $1 trillion bipartisan one (which everyone is calling the BIF) that passed the Senate, and the $3.5 trillion one that Democrats want to pass via the filibuster-avoiding reconciliation process, but that Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (and a few Democrats in the House) are still not supporting.

[Note: All these numbers are over ten years, so they’re not as big as they look. We’re currently spending over $700 billion a year on defense, but we appropriate it year-by-year, so we never end up talking about a $7 trillion defense bill.]

The Manchin/Sinema faction (which isn’t very big, but doesn’t need to be with voting majorities this small) was hoping to pass the BIF first, then talk about the larger bill. So far, House progressives (with President Biden’s support) have blocked that path. (Josh Marshall points out how strangely negative the NYT’s coverage of this has been.)

Manchin wants a smaller price tag, and wants programs (free community college, for example) to be means-tested rather than general entitlements. What Sinema wants is unclear.

While I admit to not knowing any more than the other speculating commentators, I remain optimistic. All Democrats must know that they face disaster in 2022 if they can’t point to meaningful accomplishments. And whether you’re progressive or moderate, and whether you face a re-election campaign or not, you have to understand that being in the minority sucks. (If Mitch McConnell gets control of the Senate again, no one will care what Joe Manchin thinks.) So I believe they will make something happen, though I can’t predict what it will be.

Unsurprisingly, Kevin McCarthy is lying about the infrastructure bills raising middle-class taxes.

and the pandemic

This week brought a sad milestone — the 700,000th American death — but also good news: a pill that can help you get well after you’ve been infected.

Friday, Merck announced molnupiravir. (Where do they get these names? If I’d seen that word without an explanation, I’d have guessed it was a Norse weapon like Thor’s hammer.) It’s new and hasn’t been approved yet, but the results from the trials look good.

The study tracked 775 adults with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 who were considered high risk for severe disease because of health problems such as obesity, diabetes or heart disease. The results have not been reviewed by outside experts, the usual procedure for vetting new medical research.

Among patients taking molnupiravir, 7.3% were either hospitalized or died at the end of 30 days, compared with 14.1% of those getting the dummy pill. After that time period, there were no deaths among those who received the drug, compared with eight in the placebo group, according to Merck.

The breakthrough is that it’s a pill people can take at home.

All other COVID-19 treatments now authorized in the U.S. require an IV or injection. A pill taken at home, by contrast, would ease pressure on hospitals and could also help curb outbreaks in poorer and more remote corners of the world that don’t have access to the more expensive infusion therapies.

“This would allow us to treat many more people much more quickly and, we trust, much less expensively,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University who was not involved in the research.

Experts emphasize that the best way forward is still vaccination: Prevention is better than treatment.

And like every other way to fight Covid, Merck’s pill isn’t a guarantee: 7.3% of the people who took it in the trial wound up either in the hospital or dead. (Remember: They were chosen to be a high-risk group. Your odds might be better.) So it’s best to think of molnupiravir as part of a defense-in-depth strategy: Get vaccinated. Avoid high-risk situations (like packed-in indoor crowds). Take Merck’s pill if you get sick. And if you still have to go the hospital, get monoclonal antibodies or some other IV therapy.

The other good news is that the Delta surge really does seem to have passed its peak. In spite of hitting the 700K total, deaths per day have finally started to decline. After being above 2000 per day for two weeks, they’ve now fallen to 1878 per day. New cases are averaging 106K per day, down 28% in the last two weeks.

Strangely, the states where cases are still rising are nearly all on the Canadian border: Alaska is the worst, up 54% in two weeks, but cases are also rising in North Dakota, Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Idaho, and (just slightly) in New Hampshire.

This is weird because:

  • Canada isn’t seeing a big outbreak. (Cases are down 3% in two weeks.)
  • There’s not a lot of transit back and forth among our northern states. The Maine-to-Idaho region is not a thing.

New York City’s vaccine mandate is working. In spite of scary stories about thousands and thousands of teachers who would lose their jobs rather than get vaccinated, large numbers are getting vaccinated at the last minute.

If you’re old enough to remember the Tea Party anti-ObamaCare protests of 2009, the current anti-mask and anti-mandate protests should look familiar: School board meetings around the country are being disrupted now, the way that congressional town-hall meetings were then, by loud people who seem to represent a upswelling of grass-roots anger. The disinformation, the over-the-top accusations of tyranny, the air of menace — it’s all pretty similar.

Coincidentally, the same people turn out to be funding and organizing it on a national level. Once again, they’re providing the disinformation and the tactics that allow a relatively small number of folks to look like a national movement.

The letter sounds passionate and personal. … But the heartfelt appeal is not the product of a grass roots groundswell. Rather, it is a template drafted and circulated this week within a conservative network built on the scaffolding of the Koch fortune and the largesse of other GOP megadonors.

The template is being distributed by the Independent Women’s Forum. But who are they, exactly?

As a nonprofit, Independent Women’s Forum is exempt from disclosing its donors and paying federal income taxes. But the group, which reported revenue of nearly $3.8 million in 2019, has drawn financial and institutional support from organizations endowed by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch and his late brother, David, according to private promotional materials as well as tax records and other public statements.

Tributes to sponsors prepared for recent galas — and reviewed by The Post — recognize the Charles Koch Institute as a major benefactor. Other backers include Facebook; Dick DeVos, heir to the Amway fortune and the husband of former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos; and the Walton Family Foundation, a philanthropy controlled by the family that founded Walmart.

Another similarity to the Obama era: Patrician conservatives don’t care if their plebian followers die. Back then, Koch organizations campaigned to get people to refuse ObamaCare, even if they couldn’t afford health insurance without it. That campaign undoubtedly killed people, just like this one is killing people.

and the Pandora Papers

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has a new treasure trove of leaked documents outlining how the rich and powerful hide their money. You can think of this YouTube video as a trailer for the more detailed revelations that started showing up today on the ICIJ’s web site and in newspapers like The Washington Post.

I have a friend who’s been working on this project, but he’s been taking confidentiality seriously, so as of this morning I didn’t know any details.

but I want to tell you about a book

This week I read Forget the Alamo, which I found enormously entertaining.

The short version is that everything you think you know about the Alamo is wrong. The Texas Revolution wasn’t about escaping Mexican tyranny, it was about preserving slavery. Sam Houston’s army was seeded with American military “deserters”, who mostly went unpunished after they returned to their units. (That kind of resembles what Putin has been doing in eastern Ukraine.) The Alamo wasn’t a strategically significant battle where brave Texans voluntarily sacrificed their lives; William Travis just didn’t take Santa Anna’s advance seriously until it was too late to retreat. Davy Crockett didn’t go down swinging his rifle after he ran out of ammunition, as he does in the movies, but most likely surrendered and was executed. And so on.

In addition to the pure satisfaction of dispelling historical myths, the authors manage to take history seriously while still writing in an engaging style. Take this passage for example:

[Davy Crockett’s] arrival at the Alamo is one of history’s great juxtapositional flukes, as if Teddy Roosevelt or Mark Twain had darted onto the Titanic at the last minute.

In the early 1830s, Texas was where an American Southerner went after screwing up so badly that he had to disappear from somewhere else. So the backstories of all the major characters are fascinating.

After the battle, there’s the progress of the myth, which had an open field because there were no survivors to contradict tall tales. (“Ahem,” say Mexican soldiers.) What developed was what the authors call the Heroic Anglo Narrative, which served to terrorize generations of Hispanic Texan seventh-graders. (One Tejano compares “The Mexicans killed Davy Crockett” to “The Jews killed Jesus.”)

In addition to the historical detail, the book is a running meditation on the stories we tell each other, why we believe them, and what they say about us.

and you also might be interested in …

On my religious blog, I explained why “Male and female he created them” in Genesis shouldn’t be read as a divine establishment of binary gender.

The partisan hacks at the Supreme Court continue to be deeply offended that so many people think they’re partisan hacks. Samuel Alito, who continues to be my least favorite justice even after Trump’s three appointments, is the latest one to object.

Senator Whitehouse parodies Alito’s argument:

“Nope, just random that we churned out 80 partisan 5-4 decisions for Republican donors, opened dark money floodgates, crippled Voting Rights Act, unleashed partisan bulk gerrymandering, and protected corporations from court. Pure coincidence.”

Alito makes the bottom of my list due to his consistency. Other justices (Thomas, say) may at times have more bizarre opinions. But they also have ideological quirks that make them at least a little unpredictable. If you want to know where Alito will stand, though, you just need to ask three questions:

  • Which side of a case increases Republican political power?
  • Which side increases big business’ power over workers and consumers?
  • Which side lines up best with Catholic dogma?

Unless those answers point in different directions — and they almost never do — you know what Alito’s position is.

Here in the US, we’re running into a few supply chain problems, but it’s nothing compared to what’s going on in the UK, where there is plenty of gasoline at refineries and terminals, but very little getting into people’s cars. The bottleneck seems to have something to do with all the truck drivers from various EU countries who went home after Brexit took effect.

Germany had a close election last week, and everybody is just moving on without lawsuits or riots or anything. Weird, isn’t it?

Bright red Idaho is the latest state to refute Trump’s Big Lie. A document circulated by My-Pillow-guy Mike Lindell alleged votes were switched electronically from Trump to Biden in all 44 of Idaho’s counties, and listed county-by-county what the vote totals should have been. (Why anyone would bother to perpetrate this fraud remains a mystery, since it didn’t come close to flipping the state.)

Idaho officials immediately noticed that 7 of their counties don’t have electronic vote-counting at any stage in their process, describing this as “a huge red flag” in Lindell’s claim. So they recounted the two smallest counties by hand, and found exactly the same number of Biden votes as the original count. (Trump lost a few.)

When confronted with this complete refutation of his claim, Lindell did the same thing the Cyber Ninjas did in Arizona: moved the goalposts to say that the problem was with the ballots, not the counting. “The ballots themselves are not real people.”

In spite of his somewhat snide tone, Ross Douthat makes an interesting point. From a 20-year perspective, liberals have been quite successful: Bush-style military interventionism is no longer popular, the push to limit and privatize programs like Social Security was turned back and reversed, and alternatives to one-man-one-woman sexuality are now widely accepted.

Conservative rhetoric seems to be timeless. I ran across this quote in the book Freedom: an unruly history by Annelien de Dijn (which I will say more about after I finish it). Cato the Elder, speaking in 195 BC in favor of an anti-luxury law that the women of Rome wanted to see repealed (because it specially targeted women’s jewelry), warned against allowing women to have a voice in government:

The moment they begin to be your equals, they will be your superiors.

We still hear that point today from every overprivileged class, directed at every underprivileged class. Whether the subject is women, people of color, non-Christians, gays and lesbians, non-English speakers, transfolk, or what have you, the message is the same: There’s no such thing as equality. So if men, Whites, Christians et al. stop being the masters, they’ll become the slaves.

In spite of Cato’s efforts, the Lex Oppia was repealed. But Rome never did become a matriarchy. In more than two thousand years of testing, Cato’s they’ll-take-over theory has never proved out. And yet we still hear it.

Alex Jones has lost two lawsuits filed by parents of children who died in the Sandy Hook massacre. Jones repeatedly charged on his popular InfoWars radio/YouTube show that the massacre was a “false flag operation”, and that the parents were “crisis actors” whose children did not die. In addition to causing the families emotional distress, Jones’ charges led some of his listeners to verbally abuse the parents or make threats against them.

Jones lost the lawsuits by default when he refused to cooperate with the court’s discovery process by providing documents, an action the judge described as “flagrant bad faith”. A jury will now determine the damages he owes the parents.

and let’s close with something musical

A commenter pointed out that last week’s closing wasn’t “recent” at all. The Helsinki complaint chorus video was posted in 2006, which I should have noticed. This week’s closing, “The Sounds of Starbucks” sounds like the result of a pandemic depression, but was posted in 2018.

Burdens and Duties

For any who remain insistent on an audit in order to satisfy the many people who believe that the election was stolen, I’d offer this perspective: No congressional audit is ever going to convince these voters — particularly when the President will continue to say that the election was stolen. The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth. That’s the burden, that’s the duty of leadership. The truth is that President-elect Biden won the election. President Trump lost.

– Senator Mitt Romney (1-6-2021)

This week’s featured post is “The Big Lie Refuses to Die“.

This week everybody was talking about the $3.5 trillion question

I’ve been resisting writing about the Democrats’ intra-party negotiations over the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package that is supposed to supplement the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate in August.

While the issue is definitely important enough to deserve attention, the root of my resistance is that nobody really knows anything, and yet there is massive amounts of speculation about what might be happening. Maybe Joe Manchin is torpedoing the whole Biden agenda. Or maybe progressives are. Or maybe one side or the other is about to cave in. Maybe Biden is a legislative wizard who has it all under control, or maybe he’s an addled senior citizen in over his head.

It’s all speculation.

Here’s what little we know: The bipartisan bill passed the Senate in regular order, with enough Republican votes to overcome a filibuster. In terms of policy, the Democrats in the House agree that it ought to pass. But it leaves out a large number of progressive (and Biden) priorities. (The one that is most important to me is climate change.) So progressives in the House threaten not to pass the bipartisan bill if the Senate won’t pass the larger bill. No Senate Republicans support the larger bill, so it will have to pass through reconciliation (if at all), and all 50 Democrats are needed.

Democratic Senators Manchin and Sinema have objected to the size of that bill, but so far have not made a counteroffer. Democratic moderates in the House had previously gotten Speaker Pelosi to commit to a vote on the bipartisan bill today, but that vote has been postponed to Thursday.

Midnight Thursday is the end of the federal government’s fiscal year, the annual witching hour when any shit not yet dealt with reaches the fan. So the government could shut down Friday, and the country might hit its debt limit shortly thereafter. In other words: a completely self-inflicted disaster of global significance.

For what it’s worth, I don’t believe any of that will happen. I think Democrats will get something together, and two sizeable infrastructure bills will pass, with most of what all sides want included. The government will not shut down, and the debt limit will be pushed back to set up some future apocalypse. (We can’t just get rid of it, because …)

I believe this because I don’t think any Democrat in Congress benefits from sabotaging the whole Biden agenda and setting the party up for a massive 2022 defeat. I also don’t believe any of the Democrats — Manchin and Sinema included — are the kinds of loose cannons Republican leaders sometimes have to deal with. I’m also not afraid of Republicans getting some advantage out of the debt-limit battle. In the 2022 campaign, I don’t believe anybody will remember or care that this time around it was the Democrats who pushed back the limit without Republican help. (I also don’t believe voters will punish Republicans for their irresponsibility, although they should.)

As I said previously, though, I don’t know. Maybe I’m too optimistic. But I’m heartened by the account in Peril of the passage of Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan in March. Manchin also had problems with that, and negotiations went down to the wire. But he ultimately voted for it. The picture Woodward and Costa paint is that Manchin has to maintain his moderate image in West Virginia and separate himself from liberals like Bernie Sanders and AOC, but that he also doesn’t want to be the guy who causes Biden’s presidency to fail.

I’m not counting on Biden to be an LBJ-style wheeler-dealer, but I think he will keep all the Democrats calm enough to recognize that failure benefits none of them.

Josh Marshall points out a piece of journalistic malpractice: Progressives and moderates are often presented as rival-but-equivalent factions fighting for their rival-but-equivalent proposals, when actually Democrats are pretty much united except for Manchin, Sinema, and a handful of folks in the House.

What Manchin et al are having trouble swallowing isn’t Bernie Sanders’ bill. (Sanders, if you remember, wanted a $6 trillion package.) It’s President Biden’s bill.

and the Arizona election audit

That’s the subject of the featured post. Short version of the report written by Trumpist Cyber Ninjas: The ballots were counted accurately. But Biden won, so there must be something wrong with the ballots themselves.

and Haitian immigrants

The images of men on horseback chasing down dark-skinned people, and of 14,000 immigrants camped under the Del Rio Bridge in Texas have sparked intense reactions from both the pro- and anti-immigration factions.

The current wave was started by a major earthquake in August, but Haitians have been trying to enter the US for one reason or another for a long time. And one US administration after another has been trying to keep them out. Vox has a worthwhile article about the unique aspects of our Haitian immigration policies.

and Peril

The book Peril (that last week’s post “Seven Days in January” was indirectly based on) came out Tuesday, and I rushed to read it. I didn’t find any major surprises: The incidents discussed in the pre-publication articles are pretty much the way they’ve been described.

Woodward and Costa leave readers to guess who the source is for each scene. In general, if the book tells us what somebody was thinking at the time, you have to assume that person is the source for the whole incident (though possibly various other people were also consulted). If the book follows one character through a series of scenes, I assume that person is the source. (In the case of somebody like Mike Pence, I suppose it’s possible that a right-hand-man is the source. But even then, I doubt that person would talk in such detail without the approval of his former boss.) If one person seems reasonable and everyone else in the room is crazy, probably we’re hearing the account of the reasonable person. (I know I describe a lot of my experiences that way.)

General Milley is pretty obviously the source for the incidents that involve him. Senators Mike Lee and Lindsey Graham are clearly sources. Pence’s national security advisor Keith Kellogg was a source, and probably Pence himself. (Kellogg apparently roamed the White House pretty freely.) A bunch of people in the Biden campaign. And so on.

The closer you get to Trump himself, the fuzzier the sourcing gets, as if sources asked for more protection. Ivanka and Jared? Mark Meadows? Hard to say. Unless you believe that Woodward and Costa made stuff up out of nothing (and I don’t), it’s clear somebody talked.

A phone conversation that Milley had with Speaker Pelosi after January 6 occurs early in the book and got a lot of press. When you read it in the full context of the book, the striking thing isn’t that Milley and Pelosi both think Trump is crazy. The striking thing is how they talk about his instability. You could imagine people around Trump coming to the shocking insight that the President is dangerously unmoored. But this conversation is nothing like that. It’s more like: We always knew he was crazy, but we had hoped he was manageable.

As the book goes on, it’s appalling how many people had such conversations. I’m left with the impression that no one with a chance to view Trump close up was actually surprised that he would start raving about imaginary election-stealing conspiracies, or that he would try to bring down American democracy rather than give up power. They had hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but they weren’t actually surprised.

Lots of Republicans appear to have known, earlier or later in the process, that the election-fraud claims were bogus. Their silence is stunning. Even the ones who spoke up at one time or another have mostly shut up about it.

The lack of concern for the country is horrifying. Mitch McConnell had two chances to get rid of Trump through impeachment, and protected him both times. To this day, Republicans who know what he really is are going along with him.

and the pandemic

Once again, new-case numbers seem to be topping out, but the turn-around is slow. The seven-day average is 120K per day, down from a recent peak of 175K on September 13. Hospitalizations have also turned around nationally, though they’re still surging in some areas. Deaths are holding steady at just over 2000 per day.

Hospitals in Idaho and Alaska have instituted “crisis standards of care“, which is a fancy way of saying that they’re so swamped they can’t get to everybody.

Alaska this past week joined Idaho in adopting statewide crisis standards of care that provide guidance to health care providers making difficult decisions on how to allocate limited resources. Several hospitals in Montana have either activated crisis standards of care or are considering it as the state is pummeled by COVID-19.

Under the guidelines, providers can prioritize treating patients based on their chances of recovery, impacting anyone seeking emergency care, not just those with COVID-19. …

Typically, crisis standards of care involve a scoring system to determine the patient’s survivability, sometimes including their estimated “life years” and how well their organs are working.

Back in 2009, Republicans fighting ObamaCare warned about “death panels” that might decide old people weren’t worth saving. That didn’t happen then, but vaccine resistance is causing it to happen now.

Vaccine mandates are being tested this week, as deadlines are looming in New York and some other states. Thousands of health-care and nursing-home workers are pushing to the limit: New York says they have until midnight tonight to get vaccinated, or they’ll lose their jobs. If they hold out and are let go, care might suffer in some places. But if they remain unvaccinated and keep their jobs, care suffers in a different way.

you also might be interested in …

Germany’s 16-year Angela Merkel era ended yesterday with a federal election in which she was not a candidate. The Social Democrats appear to have won the most seats in the Bundestag, surpassing Merkel’s Christian Democrats. No party has a majority, though, so a coalition will have to be negotiated.

Among the minor parties, the Greens gained seats and the right-wing nationalist Alliance for Germany lost some.

More dramatic stories about infrastructure and debt-ceiling negotiations have drawn attention away from the collapse of negotiations over police reform. The House has already passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, but police reform is yet another casualty of the filibuster in the Senate.

Right-wing Congresswoman Lauren Boebert used campaign funds to pay rent and utilities, a violation of the law. Will something be done? It’s not clear yet.

A former Washington Post arts editor returned to her roots in rural Illinois, and moved into what she remembers as her grandmother’s house in Kinderhook. It’s been challenging to live in Trump country, where only 23% are vaccinated.

My family might go back four generations here, but we are outsiders. We are the “them.”

and let’s close with something musical

A recent trend on YouTube is for choirs around the world to set local complaints to music. Here is the Helsinki Complaints Choir.

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.

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.

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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.


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.

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”.

Being American

If you only like democracy when it goes your way, you don’t like democracy.

Justin Kanew

We sort of have general agreement that government should help Americans, but what we disagree over is who gets to be American.

Lilliana Mason

This week’s featured post is “Afghanistan, Biden, and the Media“. When I went to post that link on Twitter, I discovered that David Roberts was saying almost the same things.

This week everybody was talking about Afghanistan

See the featured post.

Noah Smith:

Refugees are legal immigrants, and yet all the anti-immigration people get just as freaked out about refugees as they do about illegal immigration. It was never about the legality.

and the pandemic

Just like last week, things are getting worse at a slower rate. Last week, the 14-day increase in new Covid cases in the US was running over 60%. Now it’s 36%. The only two states where case numbers are shrinking are the states where the current wave started: Missouri (-12%) and Arkansas (-2%).

Mississippi has both a high new-case rate and a high rate of increase (and, not coincidentally, the nation’s lowest vaccination rate). Things are bad there already, and they’re going to get apocalyptic.

Much attention is being given to the high rates of Covid among children, which are surpassing the January peak. I haven’t seen much analysis of what their ineligibility for the vaccine has to do with this. Maybe the whole country would already have passed the January peaks — in deaths as well as cases — if not for the vaccines.

The FDA gave full approval to the Pfizer vaccine today. (Like the other vaccines, it’s been available via an emergency use authorization.) We’ll see if this makes any difference to the people who have been avoiding the vaccines because they’re “experimental”.

Post-Sturgis, South Dakota once again has the nation’s highest rate of increase in new Covid cases (312%). Thanks, Governor Noem.

In general, it was a bad week for the pro-Covid governors. Tennessee’s Bill Lee got denounced by a member of his Covid task force. Florida’s Ron DeSantis is facing revolt from several school districts over his ban on mask mandates, and a lawsuit challenging his order goes to trial today.

Texas’ Greg Abbott didn’t just lose at the state supreme court, he caught Covid himself. Fortunately, it was a mild case.

It’s hard to know how seriously to take over-the-top anti-vax activists like this one, who threatened Springfield, Missouri pharmacists with execution under the “Nuremberg Code”, which bans involuntary medical experiments. Maybe this is all a publicity stunt, in which case we’re giving him what he wants by paying attention. On the other hand, maybe he and his small band of followers really are whipping themselves up to kill people.

Anti-vax nonsense brings to mind SketchPlantations’ illustration of Brandolini’s Law.

but I’d like to tell you about a book

Geoffrey Cain’s The Perfect Police State is the story of the oppression of the Uyghur minority that lives in Xinjiang province in China’s far northwestern corner.

Bouncing back and forth between discussions of Chinese high-tech companies and interviews with Uyghurs who have escaped to Turkey, Cain argues that technology has at long last caught up to our imaginary dystopias. It’s now reasonably cheap to post cameras everywhere and network them together. The bottleneck in the dystopian process used to be paying enough people to watch all those feeds, but now artificial intelligence has learned to recognize faces and voices. It can also track smartphones and sift through everyone’s social media feeds.

What this means for the Uyghurs is a unified “social credit” score, an algorithmic assessment of how “trustworthy” the government thinks you are. If your score falls below a certain level, you can’t travel. If it falls further, you can’t buy or sell. Below that, you must report to a reeducation camp, where you are constantly on camera, and your face’s every expression is evaluated (by a tireless algorithm, of course) for signs of “ideological viruses” like terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism.

Naturally, one sure way to lower your score is to hang around with other untrustworthy people. So once your score starts to drop, others will shun you to protect themselves.

Like 1984, where Winston Smith eventually learns to love Big Brother, the goal isn’t simply that you reject these “poisons of the mind”. Ultimately, you are expected to express gratitude to the Chinese government for curing you.

You may or may not care about the Uyghurs. (I certainly didn’t before reading this book.) They’re ethnically Turkic Muslims on the other side of the world, after all, and there are only about 12 million of them in Xinjiang, less than 1% of China’s total population. You probably don’t know any of them.

But here’s why you should pay attention: Authoritarian governments perfect their tactics on sub-populations that no one wants to defend. But once the bugs are worked out, those tactics never stay in their boxes. Surveillance and facial-recognition software are already spreading. Data-hungry algorithms are already studying every footprint you leave on the internet. “Social credit” is an idea with many potentially beneficial applications.

Case in point: Apple is rolling out an algorithm to detect child-sexual-abuse photos and videos, even if they’re encrypted, by doing some higher-level evaluation of the databases they come from. But developers who abandoned work on a similar system point out a key problem: The tech is not subject-matter specific. If Apple can help US law enforcement detect encrypted child-abuse materials, it can help Chinese law enforcement detect encrypted pro-democracy materials.

Apple is making a bet that it can limit its system to certain content in certain countries, despite immense government pressures. We hope it succeeds in both protecting children and affirming incentives for broader adoption of encryption. But make no mistake that Apple is gambling with security, privacy and free speech worldwide.

Who wants to defend people who abuse children? Nobody. And makes them the perfect guinea pigs.

One interesting question in China’s maneuvering to take advantage of the fall of the US-backed government in Afghanistan is whether the Taliban will turn its back on its Muslim brothers in Xinjiang. China will happily fund infrastructure projects if they do.

and some long articles that are worth it

CNN explains the looming disaster of the Colorado River and what it means for the Southwest. Climate change is cutting the quantity of water the river carries, while a combination of irrigated agriculture and growing cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas need more and more.

The water shortage then creates an energy shortage: There is less water for hydroelectric dams, and one proposed water solution — desalinization plants near the mouth of the river in Mexico — would be very energy-intensive.

The NYT Magazine reports on “superweeds“: unwanted but highly evolved competitors to cash crops. They’re evolving resistance faster than the chemical companies can develop new weed-killers, threatening the whole factory-farm model.

The article flashes me back to being maybe 12 years old, and fighting an outbreak of buttonweeds by walking up and down the rows of Dad’s soybean field pulling them up. Today, after decades of get-big-or-get-out, no farming family has enough kids to do that.

While I’m listing things that are worth investing time in, I have two podcasts to recommend. NYT’s “The Argument” series has an actually intelligent, respectful discussion among people who disagree about critical race theory.

Also Ezra Klein’s more-than-an-hour interview with Lilliana Mason (from which I get the quote at the top). Klein wrote the book Why We’re Polarized, and Mason wrote Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. They discuss “How Identity Politics Took Over the Republican Party”. It’s a wide-ranging discussion that I can’t boil down to one quote, but I found this part particularly fascinating: There’s a project called the Voter Study Group that interviewed thousands of people in 2011, and then has gone back to interview the same people again at regular intervals.

these data became sort of a time machine for us, where we could go back to 2011, before Trump was a major political figure, and try to see what types of people are drawn to Trump in the future. Before Trump existed, what were their characteristics that then predicted they would really like him in 2018?

So one of the things that we found, obviously being a Republican, being a conservative, that predicted that they would like Trump in 2018. And it also predicted that they would like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan and the Republican Party in general. However, for Trump himself, and Trump alone, the other thing that predicted whether they would like him was that they disliked Muslims, African Americans, Hispanics and L.G.B.T.Q. Americans. Any mix of those, but largely all of them. And that animosity towards those marginalized groups did not predict support for the Republican Party. It did not predict support for Mitch McConnell or for Paul Ryan. It just predicted support for Trump.

And also, these people were coming not just from the Republican Party. Democrats who had these attitudes in 2011 liked Trump in 2018. Independents who had these attitudes in 2011 liked Trump in 2018. So it’s almost like Trump acted as a lightning rod for people who held these attitudes. He was extremely attractive to them, regardless of party, regardless of ideology.

and you also might be interested in …

Thursday morning, news networks were fixated on a guy parked near the Library of Congress. He claimed to have a bomb in his truck and was demanding that Biden resign, in addition to spouting a lot of Trumpist disinformation. When he surrendered after five hours, the truck was discovered to contain bomb-making materials, but no bomb.

By Friday morning, the incident was well down the Washington Post’s home page, and not mentioned on the NYT’s home page at all. Nothing to see here, just a guy making noise to draw attention to his fascist views. (He also tried to get noticed by throwing money on the sidewalk.) But I doubt it’s the last incident we’ll see of Trump-inspired terrorism in DC.

TPM focused a the woman who posted a picture of the bomber in his truck.

“It’s a white guy in a truck near the Capitol,” she said. “I’m not from D.C., I don’t know if that’s a regular Tuesday here.”

She said she saw some people ignore the man and keep walking, while one DoorDash delivery man stopped his bike to scoop up the bills.

One of her classmates, Bobb said, stopped a Supreme Court police officer to alert him to the situation, but he said it was the jurisdiction of the Capitol Police.

“Weird, okay,” Bobb remembers thinking. “So if there was a guy with a gun, you’re just gonna wait for the right people to come?”

Rep. Mo Brooks (F-AL) had an interesting response to this incident: He sympathized with the terrorist’s motives, while distancing himself from terrorism per se, at least for now.

I understand citizenry anger directed at dictatorial Socialism and its threat to liberty, freedom, and the very fabric of American society. The way to stop Socialism’s march is for patriotic Americans to fight back in the 2022 and 2024 elections. I strongly encourage patriotic Americans to do exactly that more so than ever before. Bluntly stated, America’s future is at risk.

The underlying message, which I think Brooks’ fellow fascists will hear loud and clear, is that it’s not time for political leaders like Brooks to endorse violence YET. If Democrats win again in 2022 and 2024, though, all bets are off. The goal — overthrow of the Biden regime by whatever means prove necessary — is not questioned. When “the very fabric of American society” is at stake, “patriots” might have to destroy democracy in order to save it.

The Proud Boy leader who burned a DC church’s Black Lives Matter banner in December (in a violent demonstration that now looks like a rehearsal for the January 6 insurrection) argues that it wasn’t a hate crime: He wasn’t terrorizing a Black church, he was protesting BLM because it’s “Marxist”.

This is a primary tactic for racists who want to deny their racism: Pin a pejorative label on somebody because they’re Black, and then claim you’re reacting to that label, not to their race. It’s like the people who claimed to oppose Obama because he was born in Kenya. Of course, Hawaii early on said Obama was born in Hawaii, and that should have been the end of that controversy. Birthers continued to believe Obama was born in Kenya only because they hated having a Black president.

Similarly, BLM is “Marxist” because it’s pro-Black.

Check out this review of two Amazon groceries that don’t have check-outs.

One reason I’m not as panicked about the 2022 midterm elections as many other Democrats are: Republicans do have a number of advantages, but they are also going to have trouble unifying their conservative and fascist wings. The NYT discovered some warning signs at a Gaez/Greene “America First” rally in Iowa:

Ms. Greene denounced Covid-19 vaccines to applause. Both declared former President Donald J. Trump the rightful winner of the 2020 election.

These were facts, argued Eric Riedinger of Des Moines, 62, a small-business owner who attended the event and owns the website And he would not vote for any Republican who failed to state this clearly, he said.

“My biggest issue looking ahead: Stop the RINOs,” he said, using a pejorative conservative phrase for ‘Republicans in Name Only.’ “If they’re part of that infrastructure bill and supporting it, they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing.” …

“I’m not voting for anyone who won’t say Donald Trump had the election stolen from him,” said Ron James, a 68-year-old retiree from Des Moines. “And I don’t think anyone in that room would, either.”

At the moment, the only way to prove you’re not a RINO is to take positions that are not just false, but also deeply unpopular with the electorate as a whole.

Marcy Wheeler boils down a WSJ scoop to: “John Durham won’t charge any of Trump’s favorite villains.” The investigate-the-investigators probe has lasted longer than the Mueller investigation, and produced far less. A report is expected soon.

Durham will not charge anyone for spying on Trump before the opening of the investigation, because it didn’t happen. Durham will not charge the FBI or CIA for setting Joseph Mifsud up to entrap George Papadopoulos, because it didn’t happen.

Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family have come to symbolize the corporate profiteering side of the opioid crisis. A court is deciding whether to finalize a Purdue bankruptcy deal that raises billions for settlements, but also lets the Sacklers walk away with billions and no further responsibility. Apparently we have to choose between compensation for the victims and justice for the villains.

Many close Senate races don’t get as much coverage as the competition to be the host of Jeopardy.

and let’s close with something sneaky

Have you ever thought the highway signs in your area could be better? Back in 2001, LA street artist Richard Ankrom decided to improve a freeway sign. He made and installed a new sign, and did it so well that the fake wasn’t discovered until he gave interviews about it — after the statute of limitations had expired. CalTrans left the sign up, and eventually replaced it with a duplicate.

This video was made on the 10th anniversary of the prank, and now it’s the 20th anniversary.


The puzzle for me is the absence of contingency planning: If everyone knew we were headed for the exits, why did we not have a plan over the past two years for making this work?

– retired General Douglas Lute

There is no featured post this week.

This week everybody was talking about Afghanistan

Kabul fell to the Taliban yesterday.

It’s no great surprise that the Taliban is taking over now that American troops are pulling out. But the speed of the Afghan government’s collapse has stunned many commentators and even US government officials. The human tragedy for any Afghan who shares Western values, especially women who are educated or employed or just want to be able to leave the house, will probably be immense.

There are two ways to read this:

  • Biden should have prevented this by leaving some number of troops in Afghanistan indefinitely.
  • The speed of the collapse underlines just how little our 20-year war accomplished, and makes the case against investing more American blood and treasure.

I hold the second position. I see the appeal of the first position, because I appreciate how much suffering this outcome will unleash. (“It’s like my identity is about to be scrubbed out,” one woman said.) But I think people who hold that view need to say the word “indefinitely” out loud and fully wrap their minds around it. In 20 years, we did not build a government that the Afghan people want to defend, and $83 billion in weapons and training did not establish a fighting force that could stand up to the Taliban for more than a few days.

More years and more billions probably wouldn’t change that. Quite the opposite, in fact: Governments propped up by a foreign power typically get better and better at sucking up to the foreign power, and worse and worse at representing their people.

If we’d been facing reality these last 20 years, we wouldn’t be in this position today. Instead, we’ve heard a constant series of justifications for staying another year, and then six months after that, and so on. Within months of the invasion in 2001, we had troops in Kabul and knew that Bin Laden had escaped from Tora Bora. That was the moment for a realistic conversation about what we could hope to accomplish in Afghanistan and how much the American people were willing to sacrifice to do it. Instead, the Bush and Obama administrations conspired to sell us fantasies. Trump kept saying we should get out, but then kept letting the generals talk him out of it. The Biden administration has finally faced up to reality, ugly as it is.

The one thing Biden can be faulted for is summed up by the quote at the top. Why wasn’t there a better plan for getting Americans, as well as the Afghans who had helped us, out of the country in an orderly way?

One thing we can say clearly is that an open-ended commitment to keep fighting in Afghanistan is deeply unpopular across a broad spectrum of the American public. Trump ran against “endless wars” in 2016, and kept threatening to pull troops out of Afghanistan precipitously, but then being stalled by his generals. (Now, of course, Trump insists his withdrawal would have been better.)

Back in 2008, it was already considered a gaffe when John McCain envisioned having troops in Iraq for 100 years. Nobody wanted that.

The Economist (subscription required) describes Afghans preparing for Taliban rule: hiding books they expect to be banned, buying burqas, etc. The reporter talks to one woman in Kandahar became a doctor under the American-backed government. Now she stays home, or wears her mother’s poorly fitting burqa when she goes out.

India’s Deccan Herald describes the problem of “ghost soldiers”: non-existent personnel falsified so that corrupt officials could collect American money to pay and supply them. Last summer, a report to Congress from the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said:

[G]etting an accurate count of Afghan military and police personnel has always been difficult. For example, in 2013, before becoming president, Ashraf Ghani told Inspector General Sopko in a meeting at his residence that the United States government was still paying the salaries of soldiers, police, teachers, doctors, and other civil servants who did not exist.

One of the enduring impediments to overseeing U.S. funding for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) has been the questionable accuracy of data on the actual (“assigned,” as distinct from authorized) strength of the force.

Seeing how fast the ANDSF units collapsed, you have to wonder how many of them really existed in the first place. And if they existed, were they being paid, or was the money vanishing before it got to the soldiers?

When an Afghan police officer was asked about his force’s apparent lack of motivation, he explained that they hadn’t been getting their salaries. Several Afghan police officers on the front lines in Kandahar before the city fell said they hadn’t been paid in six to nine months.

and the infrastructure bill

I was wrong. For months, I have been skeptical that Republican Senate votes were available for anything Biden wanted to do, no matter how obviously good for the country it might be. So the negotiations over the bipartisan infrastructure bill looked like a stalling exercise, similar to the way Republicans strung President Obama along on the ACA. Republicans and Democrats might spend all summer constructing a “framework” for an infrastructure compromise, but when push came to shove, I figured, the details would never work out, and the ten Republican votes needed to overcome a filibuster would evaporate.

Well, Tuesday a $1 trillion (or $550 billion, if you only count new money) infrastructure bill got through the Senate with 19 Republican votes, including Mitch McConnell’s. That happened despite ex-president Trump’s strenuous opposition.

The Senate went on to pass (50-49 on party lines) a budget resolution that makes space for the $3.5 trillion infrastructure package Democrats plan to pass through the filibuster-proof reconciliation process. That will be taken up in September, after the Senate returns from its recess.

At that point the cat-herding begins: Since no Republican support is expected, all 50 Senate Democrats and all but a handful of the House Democrats have to come to agreement. Speaker Pelosi wants the House to consider both bills simultaneously, so it’s likely neither will pass the House until the Senate passes (or fails to pass) the reconciliation package.

The path of disaster is that the reconciliation package fails, and House progressives follow through on their threat to sink the bipartisan bill, with the result that nothing passes. I think Democrats of all stripes recognize how bad that would be, so I expect the Senate to pass something via reconciliation: maybe not $3.5 trillion, maybe without everything currently envisioned.

So what’s in the two bills? I haven’t looked at the 2,700 pages of text myself, so I have to trust other sources.

Investopedia has a good summary (though I don’t understand why it says the bipartisan bill is $1.2 trillion, when most other sources I found said $1 trillion).

The bipartisan bill is almost all “traditional” infrastructure: roads, bridges, the power grid, water systems, ports and airports, environmental clean-up, public transit, etc. But Democrats did get a certain amount of forward-looking funding included: rural broadband, cybersecurity, electric school buses and charging stations. The $550 billion of new spending is spread over five years.

The reconciliation package isn’t written yet. Various Senate committees have been assigned amounts of money and objectives, with the recommendation that they each have their part of the bill written by September 15. The $3.5 trillion is supposed to be spent over eight years.

In a nutshell, the reconciliation package covers two things Republicans couldn’t stomach: serious amounts of money to combat and mitigate climate change, and “human infrastructure” like housing, education, and elder care.

To me, the climate change projects are worth the disaster-scenario risk, but I could compromise on the rest. I think it’s important to keep repeating David Roberts’ point: There is no non-radical position on climate change now. The choice is whether to take radical action or accept radical impacts.

One thing to keep in mind: It takes time to build infrastructure, so hardly any projects will be complete and improving Americans’ lives in time for the 2022 elections. At best, Democrats’ 2022 message will be more like “Help is coming” rather than “Look what we built.”

Conversely, since the actual roads and bridges will still be in the future, Republicans will be able to manufacture fantasies of elaborate boondoggles, similar to the way they imagined “death panels” into the ACA during the 2010 election cycle.

and the climate report

The Working Group I (of three groups) contribution to Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) came out this week. I’ve been having a hard time getting a handle on it.

The full report is nearly 4,000 pages. The summary for policy makers is 42 pages, but consists almost entirely of conclusions and assessments.

Observed increases in well-mixed greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations since around 1750 are unequivocally caused by human activities. … It is virtually certain that the global upper ocean (0–700 m) has warmed since the 1970s and extremely likely that human influence is the main driver. It is virtually certain that human-caused CO2 emissions are the main driver of current global acidification of the surface open ocean.

Long strings of sentences like those invite the Big Lebowski response: “Well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” which is basically what it got from Fox News. Not everyone in the world agrees — especially not scientists from think tanks funded by fossil fuel companies — so there’s still a controversy.

Of course, the summary is the opinion of hundreds of the top climate scientists in the world, as selected by governments with a wide variety of political views and economic interests. The details backing those assessments are in the 4000-page report, as well as in the thousands of studies and peer-reviewed research papers it cites. But if you don’t have the time or expertise to evaluate all that — and I don’t — then why shouldn’t we believe the one or two guys Fox managed to dig up?

The question I’d like answered is: What do we understand now that we didn’t understand in 2013, when the fifth assessment came out?

Fortunately, Grist links to a number of what’s-it-all-mean popularizations, of which this video by Columbia University climate-science grad student Miriam Nielsen is my favorite. And not just because she understands that all this bad news requires a puppy break in the middle.

The main answer to my question seems to be that the uncertainty is shrinking: There’s already been 1.1 degrees centigrade of global average warming since 1750 (when coal-burning really got going). Due to greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, that will become 1.5 degrees in the next two decades. And the wide range of unusual weather events — droughts, heat waves, floods, storms, etc. — that we’ve been wondering whether to blame on climate change? Yeah, they’re climate change. And they’re going to happen more frequently and more extremely as the planet continues to warm.

Another Grist article calls attention to “tipping points”, which are thresholds that change the system in ways that stoke further change, making the previous status quo unrecoverable. One such tipping point involves the arctic permafrost: If CO2 emissions raise global temperature enough to start melting the permafrost, the additional CO2 that had been frozen there will be released.

Time for a puppy break.

and the census

The census fact that made headlines is that the US has fewer White people than we thought: down to a little less than 58%, from 64% in 2010 and 69% in 2000. The percentage of Blacks also fell slightly (12.1% to 11.9%), while Hispanics (19.5%) and Asians (5.9%) increased. And it wasn’t just percentages: The raw number of people identifying as White dropped from 196 million in 2010 to 191 million in 2020.

But that’s not the whole story. If you look at a category the Census Bureau calls “white alone or in combination”, that’s still 71% of the country. Its percentage fell much less, from 73% in 2010, and its raw numbers are actually up. So it’s not that Whites are being “replaced”, the way Tucker Carlson likes to tell the story. There’s more interracial marriage and mixed-race children than there used to be, so fewer people are identifying as purely White.

Politically, the important issue is whether light-skinned Hispanics and other Americans who don’t fit traditional definitions of whiteness will see themselves (and be seen by others) as participating in the racial majority. That’s a social question, not a demographic question.

and the pandemic

I remember a button-and-t-shirt meme from the 70s: “Cheer up! Things are getting worse at a slower rate.” That’s the story here. The new-cases-per-day numbers keep rising — 130K now — but if you look at the trend over the past several Mondays — 50K, 80K, 110K — you can see the graph starting to level off. (Southern Missouri, where this wave started, is having fewer cases now.) OTOH, school is opening and it’s too soon to see the results of this year’s Sturgis super-spreader rally (which was even bigger than last year), so the contagion might take off again.

Compared to two weeks ago: cases are up 64%, hospitalizations 65% (to 76K), and deaths 113% (662). Deaths are a lagging indicator, so the fact that deaths are increasing faster than cases is, perversely, a good sign.

This wave continues to be concentrated in the comparatively unvaccinated South. Louisiana, Florida, and Mississippi are all averaging over 100 new cases per day per 100K people, compared to 13 in New Hampshire and 14 in Maryland and Michigan. Michigan is the oddball here: Its 49% vaccination rate is slightly less than Florida’s 50%, though well above Mississippi’s 36%.

Florida’s Ron DeSantis is making a case to be the most pro-Covid governor in the country. (As the cartoon demonstrates, though, there is competition.) In spite of having some of the worst county-wide outbreaks (Columbia County has 212 new cases per day per 100K), he has banned mask mandates in schools and vaccine mandates in businesses and government offices. He describes Covid in schools as a “minor risk”. He told President Biden to leave Florida alone at a time when the state was requesting ventilators (which it got) from the feds.

School districts have been defying Santis and mandating masks anyway. He threatened to not pay the superintendents, but has backed down.

Being the retirement capital of the US, Florida is blessed with abundant hospital beds. So its nation-leading 72 Covid hospitalizations per 100K aren’t collapsing the system as badly as Mississippi’s 52 are. Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee (where my nephew’s wife is a nurse) is full. Go have your emergency somewhere else.

and you also might be interested in …

Andrew Cuomo faced reality and resigned. Matt Gaetz, on the other hand, will probably hold out until there’s an indictment.

Trump was not reinstated as president on August 13. Mike Lindell’s three-day symposium, which was supposed to reveal irrefutable proof that China stole the election from Trump by hacking Dominion voting machines all over the country, came and went without convincing anybody, much less leading to a 9-0 Trump reinstatement vote at the Supreme Court. The main question the symposium raised for sane observers was: Is Lindell a grifter, or is he the victim of grifters who sold him “proof” of something he desperately wanted to believe?

Meanwhile, a judge has allowed Dominion’s billion-dollar defamation lawsuit against Lindell (and others) to go forward. (Is there an insanity defense in civil lawsuits?)

This is yet another opportunity for Trump cultists to return to reality, but I doubt many of them will. For the few who do, I believe the best we can hope for is not an “OMG, I’ve been lied to” moment, but rather a shift of attention somewhere else, with eventual amnesia about the whole delusional episode.

Remember when President Obama had the audacity to wear a tan suit? Or when he put his feet up on the White House desk? Or when his family took vacations? Or “lived large” in the White House with a chef and servants and stuff? Or did hundreds of other things that nobody thought to object to when white presidents did them?

Incredibly, after eight years of constant criticism in the White House, Obama still doesn’t know his place. Look at what he did Saturday: He had a party to celebrate his 60th birthday! I mean, who does that?

OK, maybe he scaled down the guest list a little so he wouldn’t host a super-spreader event, but there was still a big tent. Well, NYT columnist Maureen Dowd wasn’t going to let him just get away with it. He’s “Jay Gatsby”, “Barack Antoinette”, “nouveau riche”, “lofty”. After selling millions and millions of books, he has the cheek to live in a “sprawling mansion”. He invited celebrities, and they came.

How uppity can you get?

Haiti had a powerful earthquake.

A 12-year-old Canadian girl was forced out of co-ed hockey because … I’m not sure exactly. Something to do with dressing rooms.

and let’s close with something big

Remember the movie “Air Bud” about the dog who played basketball? Well, they should make one about an elephant. Though I’m not sure what the rules say about throwing your teammate at the basket.

Not Required

Given the data from 2020-21 showing very low COVID-19 transmission rates in a classroom setting and data demonstrating lower transmission rates among children than adults, school systems are not required to conduct COVID-19 contact tracing.

– Texas Education Agency (8-5-2021)

These numbers have sparked concerns that what had once seemed like the smallest of silver linings — that Covid-19 mostly spared children — might be changing. Some doctors on the front lines say they are seeing more critically ill children than they have at any previous point of the pandemic and that the highly contagious Delta variant is likely to blame.

– The New York Times (8-9-2021)

This week’s featured post is “The Once and Future Coup“.

This week everybody was talking about Trump’s attempt to involve DOJ in overturning the election

That’s the topic of the featured post.

In Friday’s Washington Post, Lawrence Tribe, Barbara McQuade, and Joyce Vance explain why the Justice Department should be investigating Trump for his attempt to stay in power after losing the 2020 election.

The publicly known facts suffice to open an investigation, now. They include Trump’s demand that Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger “find” 11,780 votes to declare he won that state’s election; Trump’s pressure on acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen as well as Vice President Mike Pence to advance the “big lie” that the election was stolen; the recently revealed phone call in which Trump directed Rosen to “just say the election was corrupt, [and] leave the rest to me,” and public statements by Trump and associates such as Rudolph W. Giuliani and Rep. Mo Brooks on Jan. 6 to incite the mob that stormed the Capitol.

None of these facts alone proves a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, but together they clearly merit opening a criminal investigation, which would allow prosecutors to obtain phone and text records, emails, memos and witness testimony to determine whether Trump should be charged.

The article specifies the criminal charges that such an investigation might lead to, depending on what facts are uncovered: conspiracy, obstructing an official proceeding, racketeering, voter fraud, coercing officials to violate the Hatch Act, inciting insurrection, and seditious conspiracy.

Lawfare’s Dana Zolle gives a clear explanation why Trump shouldn’t be able to claim immunity from lawsuits concerning damages resulting from his actions on January 6.

Briefly: There are two controlling Supreme Court decisions. In Nixon v Fitzgerald, the Court ruled that a president can’t be sued for damages resulting from his official acts. Basically, presidents should be able to carry out their duties without worrying about judges second-guessing them. In Clinton v Jones, the Court laid out the opposite boundary: Presidential immunity doesn’t extend to actions that are totally outside a president’s official duties.

Zolle argues (correctly, IMO) that inciting a mob to disrupt Congress is not part of a president’s official duties.

and Andrew Cuomo

Tuesday, the New York Attorney General released a report concluding that Governor Cuomo had sexually harassed multiple women. The accusations are of unwanted touching and suggestive comments. The report describes the governor’s office as a toxic work environment that normalized Cuomo’s inappropriate behavior.

Many people had already called for Cuomo’s resignation as soon as it became clear that there would be more than just one or two accusations, while others wanted the investigation to play out first. Now that the report is official, calls for Cuomo’s resignation or impeachment are nearly universal, including national Democratic figures like President Biden, Majority Leader (and New York Senator) Chuck Schumer, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as large numbers of Democrats in the New York legislature.

Cuomo continues to insist that he did nothing wrong, but other than the governor himself, Cuomo defenders are hard to find.

The accusations against Cuomo are actually less serious and smaller in number than those against former President Trump, but Democrats refuse to circle the wagons around Cuomo the way Republicans have around Trump. This is one of the major differences between the two parties.

and the pandemic

The average daily numbers of new Covid cases in the US continues to rise sharply, and is now up to 110K, up from under 80K last week and 50K the week before. Average daily deaths are now over 500. Just under 62K Americans are hospitalized with Covid, not quite double the number two weeks ago.

Louisiana (99 new cases per day per 100K residents) and Florida (90) are the current hot spots, but numbers are rising everywhere. In my home county of Middlesex in Massachusetts, our 11 new cases per day per 100K is up from less than 1 a month ago. Vermont, the most vaccinated state in the country (68% of all residents), has 10 new cases per day per 100K.

The differences between states in deaths is much starker. Maine has .01 Covid deaths per day per 100K residents, while Arkansas has .68.

Schools are set to open soon, and debate about how to open them is heated. Almost everyone, from the Biden administration on down, wants in-person classes available to any student who wants them. The CDC says

Students benefit from in-person learning, and safely returning to in-person instruction in the fall 2021 is a priority.

The question is what safeguards are needed to open schools safely. The CDC is recommending children get vaccinated if they are over 12, and wear masks in class. But in Florida, Governor DeSantis is threatening to take state funding away from school districts that mandate masks. Many red states have such mandate bans, and a number of hard-hit school districts are planning to defy them.

In Arizona, a state law forbidding mask mandates in schools goes into effect in late September, though it was written to apply retroactively. Even so, several school systems, including districts in Phoenix and Tucson, have decided to require masks on campus when the school year begins.

At the center of this debate is the changing nature of the virus as the Delta variant spreads. Nationally, the number of cases is about 1/3 of its January peak, but the number of children hospitalized with Covid is nearly the same.

That number has been climbing since early July; from July 31 to Aug. 6, 216 children with Covid were being hospitalized every day, on average, nearly matching the 217 daily admissions during the pandemic’s peak in early January.

Hospitals in coronavirus hot spots have been particularly hard hit. On a single day last week, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, in Little Rock, had 19 hospitalized children with Covid; Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, in St. Petersburg, Fla., had 15; and Children’s Mercy Kansas City, in Missouri, had 12. All had multiple children in the intensive care unit.

The rules in Texas are particularly lax.

Texas school districts will not be required to conduct contact tracing this year if a student contracts COVID-19, according to new guidelines issued by the Texas Education Agency this week.

The agency said a district should notify parents if it learns of a student who has been a close contact to someone with the virus. But with the relaxation of contact tracing, broad notifications will not be mandatory.

So if there’s a Covid outbreak in your child’s school, you might not hear about it.

At the college level, the question is whether schools can mandate that their students get vaccinated. CNN reports that about 400 colleges and universities have some form of vaccine mandate. But some states won’t allow them. In Texas, an executive order from Governor Abbott won’t let state universities mandate either vaccines or masks.

and Congress

The bipartisan infrastructure bill is crawling towards the finish line in the Senate. Meanwhile, the much larger infrastructure package Democrats hope to pass through reconciliation is waiting in the wings.

In addition, Democrats are trying to craft a voting-rights bill far less ambitious than the For the People Act which failed in the Senate.

It’s hard to raise excitement about processes that move so slowly, but this is the success or failure of the Biden administration right here. Democrats need to go to the voters in 2022 with proof that government can accomplish things. If government can’t improve people’s lives, then why not vote for the Republicans, who are far more entertaining?

The nightmare scenario is that divisions among Democrats will result in nothing getting passed. Moderate Democrats are skeptical of the price tag of the reconciliation bill, while progressives regard the bipartisan bill by itself as a sell-out. If neither passes, Democrats will certainly lose the House in 2022, and then nothing worthwhile will get through Congress for the rest of Biden’s term.

and you also might be interested in …

I was going to write a much longer note, or maybe even a separate post, about Tucker Carlson broadcasting his show from Budapest this week and doing a propaganda interview with its authoritarian leader Viktor Orbán. But I decided I was just letting him troll me, so instead I will say a few simple things and provide links.

When authors write about how democracies die, Hungary is usually a prime example. In 2018, Vox published a long-but-worth-it article explaining how Hungary’s “soft fascism” works: All the trappings of democracy and free society are allowed to exist, but the rules are rigged to prevent any opposition from getting traction. You can have your individual anti-government opinions, but you are blocked at every turn from raising money or getting media attention or organizing any kind of effective resistance.

Carlson’s Budapest trip is an example of American conservatives becoming increasingly open about their anti-democratic agenda. If they have to ditch democracy to win the culture wars, they think that sounds like a good deal.

So they love Orbán’s anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-cosmopolitan policies, and it sets them dreaming about getting an autocrat of their own. Here’s Rod Dreher of American Conservative being interviewed in Hungarian Conservative, an English-language journal that gets substantial funding from the Hungarian government:

I have often said that if Donald Trump had had even half the intelligence and the focus of Viktor Orbán, America would be a very different place. Maybe in 2024, for the conservative movement, we will be able to put forward a politician, a presidential candidate, who is more like Orbán than Trump.

Matt Yglesias responds to conservative envy of Hungary by pointing out that much of America’s economic vibrancy comes from immigration, and that parts of the US (rural West Virginia, say) are already “non-diverse, non-cosmopolitan, highly traditionalist”. They’re also comparatively poor. Strangely, people don’t want to move there.

a lot of contemporary conservatives just look at small, poor, backward, insular Hungary and think to themselves “this is great, this is better than living in Austin and having food from all over the world and a vibrant music scene and a world-class university and all these tech companies.” You get this paranoia that the arrival of foreign-born people is an existential threat to the native stock, so anything would be better than letting that continue.

And I really do think we should all stop and ponder how un-American and wrong that is. The nice lady from Mexico who sold me some breakfast tacos in downtown Kerrville this morning did not replace anyone, nor did the second-generation Vietnamese guy who was born in Houston and moved here to open a Chinese restaurant. Donald Harris taught at Stanford and his daughter became vice president. That’s a great American story. And the people who think it would be better to live in a country where that kind of thing never happens — a country like Hungary — are nuts.

The July jobs report says the US economy added just under a million jobs, and unemployment dropped to 5.4%. But we’re still 5.7 million jobs short of the pre-pandemic highs.

On both sides, a lot of the current debate about Biden’s economic performance is just noise. As the pandemic receded, jobs were going to come back and inflation was going to take off, at least temporarily. Claiming the jobs as a Biden achievement or inflation as a Biden failure is just silly.

As has been true for more than a year, the economy is the tail and the pandemic is the dog. If we deal with the pandemic, the economy will recover; if we don’t, it won’t. So Biden deserves credit for his management of the vaccine distribution, and the corresponding effect on the pandemic. If Trump had been reelected and had somehow gotten the same vaccine numbers, he also would have seen an increase in jobs and inflation.

The question is what happens from here. The Delta-variant surge didn’t really get going until mid-July, so these numbers don’t tell us how much it will slow down the economic recovery.

Someone needs to explain Rudy Giuliani’s resemblance to Underdog’s nemesis Simon Bar Sinister.

I don’t know if it’s the research I do on right-wing extremism or an algorithm not grasping the sarcasm in my comments, but Facebook is convinced I want to see ads for Christian nationalist t-shirts worn by muscular White guys with tattoos. I’m guessing that they do the photo shoots in a prison yard.

and let’s close with something unlikely

I try not to repeat closings, and I’ve used Two Cellos before, but that was a different song seven years ago. So here’s “Welcome to the Jungle” on cellos.