In 2021, Democrats need to make good trouble

The Thinker by Rodin

Like many Americans, my heart sank Friday when I learned of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. I wasn’t surprised that before her body went cold Senate Republicans would move on and press a case to replace her as fast as possible. Both Trump and the Republican Party have every incentive to do so. For Republicans, what’s not to like about a 6-3 conservative majority, particularly since they sense they will lose the Senate in the upcoming election? Also, for them, wielding power means forcing people to do what they want. They lust for overturning the ACA, for a court that makes denying coverage for preexisting conditions illegal, and for overturning Roe v. Wade. For Trump, the impetus to get a replacement on the court before the election is vital to his plans to corrupt the upcoming election.

George W. Bush infamously found a path to 270 through the Supreme Court. It’s now a far more partisan institution, so getting a justice Trump considers a loyalist on the court before November 3 means that when his inevitable court cases challenging results come before the court, he is likelier to prevail. It will be 2000 on steroids. Recently Trump opined that he could issue an executive order not allowing Biden to take office. Trump never asks permission; he just goes for it and sees what happens. It’s not even clear that if the Supreme Court ruled against him that he would follow their ruling. In any event, a 6-3 conservative majority makes it less likely that they would.

The only consistent thing about Republicans in Congress is that if they can take an inch, they will take a mile instead. It’s all about maintaining raw political power. They are heedless to the consequences of doing so. A government controlled by a minority cannot be considered legitimate indefinitely.

Which is why if we get through this election, Biden wins the presidency and Democrats control Congress, it’s time for Democratic retribution. I’m dubious we’ll get it, as Biden promises to listen to both sides and stupidly thinks Republicans can be persuaded. But retribution by the majority is long overdue.

As it turns out, it’s not that hard to put Republicans in their place. Democrats though just have to show some spine. They will also have to clean up the messy mountains of trash left by the latest Republican administration. We need functional government again too.

To start, the Senate filibuster needs to end. It’s largely dead already, so it wouldn’t take much to make it die officially. The filibuster is not in the Constitution. It ends with a simple majority vote, presumably at the start of the new Congress when rules are agreed to through a simple majority.

Second: pack the court. The constitution does not specify nine justices. All it takes is a bill passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law, which will be in Democratic hands. With a 6-3 conservative court we will need at least three more, but let’s make it four for a clear liberal majority. It’s been done many times in the past. Republicans invented all sorts of reasoning for their tactics. So can Democrats. Here’s one: we’re a country of 330 million people now and too much power is in the hands of too few justices. This would more evenly distribute power making it harder for a minority to control a majority.

Third: pass a constitutional amendment that allows the Attorney General to be elected. Trump shows exactly what can go wrong when the Justice Department reports to a lawless president. I propose like the president we elect an attorney general to a 4-year term, every four years. Like the president, there would be a maximum of two terms that could be served by one person. To make it more interesting, run the Attorney General race during non-presidential voting years. It would give us a reason to vote. The amendment should provide that the Attorney General will control the budget of the Justice Department and directly submit appropriations to Congress, outside of the Executive.

Fourth: appoint an independent prosecutor to look into and prosecute potential crimes by Trump and his administration. To avoid the appearance of partisanship, he or she should be a diehard Never Trumper with a proven commitment to impartially upholding the rule of law.

Fifth: keep working with the states to pass the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. When we have states representing more than 270 electoral votes passing laws agreeing to this compact, the Electoral College is effectively dead, because these states will award their electoral votes by law to the winner of the popular vote for President of the United States. Currently states with 196 electoral votes have passed this legislation, and it’s pending in states representing another 64 electoral votes. If those states passed legislation, we’d be just 11 electoral votes from getting rid of it for good. All it does it increasingly make it likely that our president won’t represent the majority of those who voted for him or her. Biden should make this his cause, and personally coax state legislatures to give it impetus.

Sixth: expand Congress. With Democrats in charge and with no filibuster, there’s no reason not to make the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico states. DC would still have more people in it than Montana, which gets two senators. But let’s also expand the House. With 435 seats, one representative represents more than 700,000 people. That’s too many people. We need a House that changes size based on population. This too can be done with legislation: no constitutional amendment required. The number was last raised in 1929. In the first congress, one representative represented about 30,000 people.

In the words of the late Rep. John Lewis, Congress needs to make good trouble. This is all good trouble. We’ve seen a lot of bad trouble these last few decades. We need a Congress that proportionately represents us, not disproportionately conservative states.

Just living

The Thinker by Rodin

The covid-19 crisis has certainly upended things. Our old world went away around the time we got back from a March cruise, one of the last to go out and come back infection free. Since then, pandemic avoidance went from being weird to rote. I don’t know how to leave the house anymore without putting on a mask. It seems unnatural not to.

Of course, a lot of people are still getting covid-19 with 200,000 of us dead from it and rising steadily. This is mostly due to the fact that they can’t avoid exposure easily, but also because a lot of people are morons, refuse to wear masks and attend events like a massive South Dakota bikers rally which is estimated to cause 250,000 new covid-19 cases. With a 3% fatality rate, that’s 7500 people right there, mostly people who didn’t go to the rally but caught it from someone who attended the rally. Our idiot president of course continues to cheer on these morons.

I thought my 55+ community would be especially vulnerable to getting the disease, but I was wrong. First, we’re almost all white. Second, we are probably disproportionately rich-ish. Some of us have second homes and RVs. In any event, our kids are gone and social isolation is not that big a deal. Community parties are out but we can chat in the street or at the mail kiosk from a safe social distance. The older the resident is though, the less I see them outside, and their masks look especially high quality and taut. So, no fatalities here, thank goodness.

In general, we’ve been lucky. Massachusetts was one of the worst hit states when the pandemic began. Now we are one of the best states to avoid getting covid-19. It hit hard but our governor and mayors quickly did sensible stuff. Our county still gets dozens of new covid-19 infections every week, but fatalities are now rare. Some of the college students have returned to Smith, U Mass Amherst and the rest, but most are tele-educating from afar.

I still see a lot of unmasked people on my daily walks, despite the prominent signs even on the trails saying masks are required. About a third aren’t wearing masks but no one seems to be getting cited by the police. The rest of us either keep them on, or like me (I sheepily confess) don them when I’m in fifty feet or so of someone walking toward me. Being retired, to the extent I work, I work from home. I can understand why people working in the public would not want to wear one. I am glad for any opportunity to doff my mask.

So, I see the likelihood of me getting covid-19 to be miniscule. We’re used to not doing anything in public. If it is, it’s outdoors. There’s a grill run from a trailer along the side of the road a few miles from here. You can eat outdoors on their metal tables, properly socially distanced, and we have twice so far. It’s hardly fine dining, but it’s going to a restaurant, sort of, and beggars can’t be choosing.

At home, no one gets in or out of our house without masks on, except us. This has one downside though: no one comes to visit us. And really there’s nowhere for us to go either. Life is safe but more than a little bit boring.

And while millions are struggling to get by, or simply aren’t getting by, we are swimming in money. This is in part because we have fewer places to spend it. Also, my work from home business is going very well. I’ve had a couple of long term, commercial rate paying contracts. The work is generally engaging and really unnecessary, as we don’t need the money. It does however stave off boredom. It’s nice to be paid well to move bits around the Internet. Meanwhile the pension keeps getting deposited monthly. With no mortgage or debt of any kind, we could live much more expansively if we had some place to spend the money.

And that’s a problem. I actually want to spend money but can’t find anything to spend it on. This has resulted in us donating more to charity, but it’s monetary donations. Volunteering has stopped, although it may restart soon. Our house is just five years old so it doesn’t need much. I did find one thing to spend money on: having someone come in and put in a duct to the outside for our stove. We might put a bathroom in upstairs, but as that would be a project spanning weeks, it’s too dangerous right now with contractors.

Vacations are theoretically possible but virtually impossible. Our daughter hopes to drive up and visit us in November, but it may not be legal for her to do so. She’d have to quarantine before or after coming, and since she works as a 911 operator, she can’t do that from home. The alternative is to get a negative covid-19 test shortly before coming up. Legally she would need to report her arrival to the State of Massachusetts. Violations cost up to $500/day. She’s a hermit by nature but even so we’d be a little leery to have her simply because if she did pass covid-19 onto us, we would be particularly at risk.

So, there’s a lot of killing time around here. Innumerable days seems to pass by. We can’t tell weekdays from weekends except by looking at the date on the newspaper. We’re both introverted, but we also know we need more social interaction than we are getting. Maybe that’s why I’m walking in the afternoon. It’s sort of social to say hello passing strangers on a trail or sidewalk.

Of course, we all want what we can’t have. For many Republicans who swallowed the Trump Kool-Aid, they don’t seem to care enough to remain socially isolated and wear masks when not. Maybe for an extreme extrovert, the risks of infection are worth it.

I want what I can’t have: another cruise, or a fancy trip to Europe and normally we would just go ahead and do it, particularly with all this money we have amassed from cooling our heels for six months. It’s gotten such that with rising markets I’m thinking when we do travel again, maybe we’ll just fly business class. But right now, international travel is almost impossible, and visiting most states requires a host of protocols and conditions that make it more hassle than it is worth. So, you take comfort where you can.

Like going to the Best Buy. I went to the one in Holyoke a few weeks ago. The salesmen wore masks and kept a physical distance. In the past they would have been all over me, but the Best Buy looked sad and they happily let me fend for myself. Their shelves were half empty. I found what I was looking for, but the activity still cheered me up. It was a small, diminished example of something I used to take for granted, but is now so rare it feels like a treat.

Meanwhile, time to keep hunkering down and pass another day.

It’s going to get crazy after the election

The Thinker by Rodin

I’ve discussed many times my concerns for our upcoming election and specifically for the time between the election and Inauguration Day. I’m hardly alone in thinking it will be the most dangerous time in our country since the Civil War.

Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised that the results won’t be seriously contested, and a preponderance of Republicans will tell Trump to accept his defeat as gracefully as possible. As I noted in my last post, I still see Joe Biden winning it handily. Events since then – particularly the recent news that Trump knew of the likely casualty count in the United States from covid-19 in February and openly lied to the American people that it wouldn’t be very lethal – have made winning reelection just that much worse an uphill climb for him.

Polls consistently indicate people have made up their mind about Trump, as evidenced by their serene months long consistency with polling averages showing Biden ahead 7-10 percent nationally. We want him gone. So, if the election is held reasonably fairly, Biden should win handily and bring a Democratic Senate on his coattails too. With so many mail-in votes though, it’s likely we can’t say for certain for a few days after the election.

We know that Trump will dispute the results. He’ll deploy armies of lawyers to swing states to challenge mail-in ballots with little likelihood that he’ll have much success. You will hear from Trump that the election was massively rigged, and it’s invalid, and without a revote that isn’t rigged he can’t accept the results. We’ll hear stuff like because it was rigged, he has a duty to stay in office until a real fair election is conducted, an election of course where he sets the terms for what is fair. He’ll resist the voters’ verdict.

The dangerous part is when he calls on his unhinged supporters to take matters into their own hands to “Save America”, which he will likely tweet in all caps. These caravans of Trump supporters of course are already in the news, showing up at generally peaceful protests to inflame tensions and to sometimes inflict violence. All of the homicides at these events, with one exception, have been carried out by these white nationalist Trump supporters. Trump’s been egging them on and we can expect that he will do much more than that after the election. After all, what does he have to lose but otherwise likely spending the rest of his life in prison? He will try to institute martial law, initially in cities with protests. If it works there, he will try to do it nationwide as much as possible, disproportionately targeting cities that lean Blue and ethnic.

We can expect Barr’s Justice Department will largely turn a blind eye, which means we can’t expect justice from our own Justice Department. At best it will be a milquetoast appeal to law and order which of course in Trump’s mind means screw the law and just institute whatever he considers to be order.

Thus, I fully expect the crazies to come out of the woodwork in much larger numbers. The violence we’ve seen so far will seem in retrospect hardly nothing. With more guns than people in our country, and plenty of them in the hands of wannabee paramilitaries, Trump will likely light the fuse. It won’t be a firecracker going off this time, though.

It will become one fraught acme to our long constitutional crisis. These people already have their hands on the trigger so it becomes something of a guess as to what excuse they will use to start what could amount to the first rumblings of a new civil war. At this time what sane leadership that remains in the government will be key. In particular, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper will need to publicly state that troops may not engage in this civil conflict. It will probably get him fired.

If it goes the way I think it could easily go, we’ll see caravans of heavily armed militias wreaking open havoc in cities and against minorities in particular, with local police department probably staying out of the way. It’s not too hard to figure out that minorities in particular will be targeted. Leaders of color will probably seek refuge, with their lives and houses targeted by these groups. But if it gets bad, we could see variants of the Tulsa massacre in many places in this country. It could be that white people like me are sheltering these people in our homes to try to keep them safe.

It’s hard not to play through these scenarios in my mind. Many governors will resist, of course, and deploy their National Guard to try to keep order. But these state-sponsored militias have limits in their ability to control things too.

President-elect Biden can speak forcefully and I am sure will. He can warn these people that his Justice Department will prosecute these crimes to the maximum extent of the law. He can remind Donald Trump that his behavior could result in criminal prosecutions. Trump of course will try to proactively pardon all these violators, including likely himself.

It’s just going to get crazy after November 3. I don’t know what getting prepared means for something like this. What will prove more pragmatic than buying a gun will be buying lots of masks and protest signs because we’re likely to be in the streets a lot. Maybe through our overwhelming presence and the mass concurrence of most of our elective leaders, we can turn this nightmare around before it gets too bad.

Time to buy a pitchfork

The Thinker by Rodin

So my wife is in a funk. Her dying friend finally died yesterday. Otherwise she is obsessing over the possibility that somehow Donald Trump will win reelection. She doesn’t want to live in a world with another four years of Donald Trump in it. In the event he does win, I hope I can keep her from jumping off a cliff.

While anything is possible, I still believe that Trump is destined to lose, barring some sort of turnaround that is hard to imagine and would probably require Trump getting a brain transplant. Ideally, Trump would lose gracefully but that definitely would require a brain transplant.

Much more likely is that Trump will claim he has won and will send out armies of lawyers to various swing states trying to invalidate mail in ballots and such. It’s also possible that Republicans will ratchet voter disenfranchisement up to 11, and somehow keep ten times as many people of color from voting as they have in the past. Maybe that would do it.

But Republicans don’t necessarily control all swing states, and not all Republican governors are as crazy as Georgia’s governor Brian Kemp. The Supreme Court unwisely inserted itself into the 2000 election, famously flipping Florida’s electoral votes. It’s possible they might do the same and meddle in lots of states. If they do that not only do we need to fear another four more years of Trump, but also we can effectively kiss our republic goodbye.

The party conventions have demonstrated the electorate has not moved. It’s as polarized as electorate as it’s been for many months. We can expect a so-called miracle vaccine in October that Trump will hope to ride to reelection. But voters already seem to expect this scam and at least the educated ones know a vaccine can’t be trusted until it undergoes a much larger clinical trial than can happen before the election. Also, a vaccine won’t be a cure. At best it might offer something like eighty percent immunity, and it’s likely that the coronavirus will keep mutating, requiring new vaccines and boosters over time. Things won’t go back to the way they were before but we will get better at dealing with it and its impact will lessen over time.

So other dirty tricks will likely be tried: doctored photos of Biden and some call girl, perhaps. Basically, Trump has to persuade voters that he can do a better job in the next four years than Biden. Given his track record, it’s no wonder opinions about Trump are largely set in stone by the electorate now.

Moreover, things will just get worse. They already are getting worse. Our president believes the 17-year-old gunman that killed two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin was defending himself somehow, although there is plenty of video evidence that is laughable. It’s a new level of crazy, even for Donald Trump and you know he’s only going to get crazier. Soon he will be openly supporting white vigilante groups. This does nothing to broaden his coalition and might even help fracture it. His supporters have an unusually high tolerance for disbelief, but some small minority of them must retain enough sanity to say “Enough!”

covid-19 deaths will continue to worsen as a second wave begins, with the first wave never really ending. The flu season will add to the mounting casualties and of course there won’t be anything resembling a plan to fix it. He won’t suggest that parents do something pragmatic, like keep their kids from going to school. He’s all for the Silence of the Lambs. Most parents though will keep them home, at least if their school system is stupid enough to demand they keep coming to school anyhow.

So realistically, the best and most likely case for Trump is that he will say the election was rigged and he tried all he could do to unrig it, but the Deep State had it all fixed. So he will, with much bellicose and bluster, eventually accept his defeat. He likes an audience though so most likely he will keep us guessing until the end, while groups of vigilantes supporting him raise occasional violent ruckuses and his Justice Department turns a blind eye to it all. The true impact of his defeat though will be measured in how many Republican casualties go down with Trump’s ship. The size of an expanded House Democratic majority, and a new Senate majority will indicate the real size of the Republican disaster.

So I understand where my wife is coming from. We are mostly fear-based creatures and Trump will pull all the strings, even when it gets comical. I get similar nightmares, but then when I awake I realize the fundamentals of the election haven’t changed and almost certainly won’t change. It will be hard to call the election on Election Night because of all the absentee and vote-by-mail ballots. Since Democrats will disproportionately cast them, it may appear briefly that Trump is ahead somehow. Florida will be the key. It has mail in ballots down to a science. They’ll all be counted by Election night, except perhaps for some overseas military ballots. If he loses Florida, he’s toast. If he somehow keeps Florida, he is most likely toast unless a whole lot of states suddenly flip in unexpected ways contrary to late polls.

As I’ve noted, it’s the time between Election Day and the inauguration that really has me worried. It remains to be seen if the white power structure can peacefully cede power, and Trump will find it his interest to fan the flames. A run to the local hardware store may be in order: I may need a pitchfork.

Falling through the cracks

The Thinker by Rodin

She’s hung on for about ten days so far, but likely won’t be alive much longer. Annie is the spouse of Nansi, a same sex couple in the Amish country in Pennsylvania. They live in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, which is not too far from Allentown. If you’ve heard Billy Joel’s song about Allentown, you have a pretty good idea of what Lebanon is like.

Nansi is in her fifties; her spouse is in her sixties but has been on a disability retirement for a long time. Annie required so much care (she was effectively immobile) that Nansi had to quit her job just to take care of her. Lately though Annie has been in and out of hospitals. This time her condition is terminal. Her body is going through a slow process of shutting down. Ridden with bedsores, Annie is at least blessedly in a coma. She likely won’t be alive much longer but frankly she’s lived about a week longer than they thought she would. Her breathing is shallow and she is turning blue.

My wife is a good friend with them. I’ve met them a few times over the years. They lived in what can charitably be called the most ramshackle house in Lebanon, but probably the state of Pennsylvania. It became too much to manage. They moved into an apartment nearby and the house was demolished. Nansi worked when she could but wages in Lebanon are bargain basement. Since she quit her job, their income has been Annie’s disability retirement, which amounts to living in poverty. They have no savings. Alas, poverty is hardly unfamiliar territory for them.

Sadly they are poster children (well, maybe poster adults) for our age of neoliberalism: the idea that we must all be self-supporting no matter what. When Annie’s joints gave out, she qualified for a disability retirement, something the neoliberals would like to stop. She was frequently in and out of hospitals.

It’s not too hard to predict that Annie will soon be gone. And also gone will be her disability income, at least much of it. Nansi should get some as a surviving spouse, only possible because the Supreme Court said same sex marriage was a civil right, which allowed them to marry at last. But it will be a fraction of the income they have now which was already insufficient. Of course, Lebanon was deeply distressed before the pandemic and recession. It won’t be much longer after Annie is planted six feet underground that Nansi will have to try to find work. Oh, and pay for funeral expenses. She’s called around and it looks like the cheapest option available is cremation, which costs more than $2000 that Nansi doesn’t have.

According to neoliberal ideology, Nansi is not working hard enough because if she tried she could pull herself up by her own bootstraps. Instead, she hangs around the hospital at all hours, exhausted, holds Annie’s hand and waits for her to pass on. But she should be out there trying to get a job, any job, to support herself and to pay off those looming funeral expenses with money she doesn’t have.

These days we deal with the dichotomy of trying to live up to the neoliberalism ideal with actual facts on the ground through GoFundMe. It’s a website where you go to plead to friends and families to send you money you don’t have, generally for expenses that are wildly overpriced. Nansi had no time to set up a GoFundMe, and I don’t think she even thought of it. But my wife did. With lots of cursing, wailing and gnashing of teeth she set one up for her. Friends have contributed about $6000 so far. That should get Annie a cremation or maybe Nansi will spring for a casket.

She’d best go for the simple cremation. She will apply for survivor benefits, but at best it will take a few months. Meanwhile she gets to grieve while trying to find a job in one of the most hard pressed places in the country, find $1000 for the rent for the world’s smallest apartment, plus feed and walk the dog several times a day.

In short, the GoFundMe balance is likely already spoken for. At best it will carry her through until survival benefits come in, but those benefits won’t be enough to live on. She can’t plead for her own disability retirement as she is still mobile, and she’s not old enough to draw from Social Security. Obviously her family is not of much help, what’s left of it. She’s estranged from many of them because she happens to be a lesbian. So she has to scour the job market for a job that likely isn’t there, and if she can find one almost certainly won’t pay her a living wage.

GoFundMe turns out to be a neoliberal’s and capitalist’s dream. It profits off the misery of others. Yes, some people use it for more benign purposes, like to start a small business. But mostly the site is for people who have fallen through the cracks to try to eke out something resembling survival while GoFundMe does its best to take a cut of the contributions.

The default “tip” at GoFundMe is ten percent. We contributed $1000, so GoFundMe would have been happy for us to pay $100 for the privilege of giving Nansi and Annie $1000. But you could also give them 5%. If you look for it you can select your own “tip”. That’s what we did. I chose to tip them nothing.

GoFundMe also made it devilishly hard to for Nansi to get the money. Its site is kind of cranky. My wife uses Firefox for her browser. She was able to set it up easily with Firefox, but the next day when she tried to do something with it, she couldn’t login. She just got a spinning wheel.

As someone who previously made her living fixing Windows computers, she knew what to do and tried all the obvious stuff. Eventually she tried to reach GoFundMe, who didn’t respond, at least not right away. It took a couple of days. She won’t use Facebook, so I was asked to comment on their Facebook page. It didn’t change anything but plenty of others chimed in with their own horror stories.

Anyhow, although not mentioned on their site, she eventually figured out that if she used Chrome she could login again and make Nansi the beneficiary, but she had to remove her cookies first. Then Nansi couldn’t login to fill out the beneficiary form. So Terri got the information over the phone and filled it out for her.

It took about three days of hassle to go through this process, or rather its lack of process, but at least Nansi can now access some of the donations from her friends while she waits for Annie to die. Perhaps she can afford a trip to McDonalds.

There will likely be medical bills from all this too. Likely Medicare will pick up the bulk of it, but since Annie’s been hospitalized for weeks there are bound to be expenses Medicare won’t cover. Nansi will have to cover them, or rather friends of Nansi and Annie will. If we donate enough money, maybe they’ll get paid.

Meanwhile, Republicans are convening to renominate Donald Trump. They tell us what a great country we are and how we are exceptional. They are right. We are an exception in the first world in that we treat people like Nansi and Annie, or basically anyone crushed by our economy, disgracefully.

Is Google trying to kill YouTube?

The Thinker by Rodin

If you watch YouTube (as I do regularly) you’ve likely noticed a few changes. Specifically, you should be noticing a lot more ads. To me, the limited ads were one of its attractions, aside from the breadth of information you can find on the site.

Like many YouTubers I think, I have a short attention span. YouTube has catered to me, giving me lots of videos of ten minutes or less in length about really unique topics that interests me, often by very creative content creators. The site has to make money so it was acceptable to have to deal with an introductory ad, which I could usually skip after five seconds or so.

As you probably have noticed, the ads now tend to be longer (usually fifteen seconds) and it’s getting harder to skip the ads. Also, ads are now getting stacked. Sometimes you have to sit through two ads, fifteen seconds each, to watch a video that is usually ten minutes or less. Already I was getting an itchy finger. At least YouTube warned me how many lead ads I was going to get and if I found the video of marginal interest, I hit the back button and watched something else instead.

Now of course many videos somewhere around the ten-minute mark interrupt the video, usually in the middle of the sentence, to serve you more ads, generally one or two more fifteen-second ads. It’s just grating and spoils the whole experience. If the video is long enough, you’ll get another set of ads. In short, YouTube is becoming a lot like commercial TV, just inserting ads in a less elegant and more jarring manner. This is making me (and I’m sure lots of others) rethink just how much I want to watch YouTube anyhow. So I’m starting to look at alternatives or going cold turkey.

Content creators will usually hit the checkbox to show these ads, because they want more revenue from their content. Particularly with the pandemic and the shrinking economy, ad rates are down, so to make up the difference content creators are generally happy to tell YouTube to insert more ads. This is particularly true of the more popular content creators I follow. If you are getting hundreds of thousands of views for every video you create, and your subscriber list just keeps growing, why not milk them for all they’re worth? This has been true of people like Graham Stephan that I’ve been following. I notice I’m watching fewer of his videos now that he is filling them with ads.

It’s obvious to me that YouTube wants you to subscribe to YouTube Premium instead. Like other subscription services like Netflix, you can do away with these ads, in Google’s case for $11.99 a month. They share some of this money with content creators, but the skinny seems to be this revenue is less generous than what you can get from ads, or at least what you could get from ads before YouTube started bloating them with before video and mid video ads. If true, content creators should be leery about relying on this revenue because YouTube will get the lion’s share.

One of the reasons I am not also a content creator on YouTube is because they have a monopoly. They set the rules and can change it whenever they want to. Some strike it rich, but the revenue stream probably always feels problematic. Like Google’s search engine, you really never know when YouTube will change its algorithm, so suddenly you may be losing subscribers and views and there’s no clear way to regain them. As a profit making company, of course Google’s going to try to squeeze as much profit as possible, from viewers and content creators. And if you don’t like it, well, maybe get a site on Vimeo, pay its hosting bill and hope for the best. Good luck in getting people to follow you there.

It’s a game I don’t want to get into, so I won’t. But because of all these monetary changes, YouTube is also becoming a less interesting platform. For me, the hassle level just isn’t worth it. It’s easier to search the web for the content I need, even with the web ads and crap there too, than get it in a more leisurely and personal way from YouTube.

Or there could be a darker motive. Maybe Google has run the numbers and it has the long-range goal of killing YouTube. It must be bleeding viewers like me with limited patience for all the ads it is serving, who also are either too cheap or simply don’t find the service compelling enough to spend $11.99 a month for. It must cost a fortune for Google to host all that content in real time. Hosting centers don’t come cheap with all that technology to serve it all instantly and deal with the huge volume of content it gets. Whether that’s their plan or not, I suspect it’s where YouTube is going to end up. I’m increasingly doubtful it will be around five years from now. We will have simply moved on to some service that costs less and is less hassle. Clearly, Google is not interested in fulfilling either of these missions anymore.

As for content creators, by throwing ads into their videos I suspect that they are generating short-term profit but long-term loss of subscribers and income. I understand their greed and I understand Google’s greed. But this platform just doesn’t work anymore and I think greediness on both sides is going to be its undoing. It’s feeling like a house of cards that’s about to collapse.

I may be one of the first to leave and help bring it down.

The forgotten European empire

The Thinker by Rodin

The Roman Empire seems to be a constant source of fascination two-millennium later. From 27 BCE to 476 AD (or CE if you prefer) the empire ruled Europe, Asia Minor and parts of Africa. Immortalized by Shakespeare and many others, you can now even watch a series on Netflix that tries to dramatize many of its major events. It had a good run in its five hundred years until the Visigoths finally sacked Rome and ended the empire.

Still, the Roman Empire can’t quite hold a candle to the Holy Roman Empire for endurance. The Holy Roman what? The Holy Roman Empire, dude! You say you never heard of it? You are hardly alone there. I think it was about fifteen years ago, reading a history book that I first encountered mention of the Holy Roman Empire. Maybe my course in European history was a bit rushed, but I was taken aback that there was this other empire that far outlasted Rome, which I never heard of before. Yet it lasted a thousand years, from 800 to 1806 AD. So it’s an empire that lasted twice as long as the Roman Empire and even shared much of its name. Yet at least here in the Western Hemisphere it’s largely unknown.

During the time of Emperor Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Empire technically owned much of the known world, including the New World, recently discovered by Christopher Columbus. Yes, technically Massachusetts where I live now was once part of the Holy Roman Empire, as was all of North, South and Central America, not to mention much of central Europe because in the beginning there was only Spain in the new world. At the time Spain was a kingdom but also part of the Holy Roman Empire, so Emperor Max had lordship of a sort over all its dominions.

In November of last year I was in New York City and took in an exhibition on chivalry during his reign at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I learned this fact and more, and well as walked around mouth agape at the astonishing array of shiny and ornate armor preserved from his reign, which you can see in this book, which my wife bought me. She also bought me a history book of the empire by scholar Peter H. Wilson.

For about six months I’ve been slowly slogging my way through the book. It’s quite scholarly but not particularly engaging, but certainly feels comprehensive. The bulk of the book is over six hundred pages long; and there are nearly half as many pages of footnotes and a bibliography after that.

So why does the Roman Empire get all the credit while the Holy Roman Empire, which lasted twice as long and is certainly the longest lived empire in the West, hardly get any mention?

Charlemagne, the King of the Franks, founded the empire. Charlemagne kept conquering other countries and territories. An empire is basically a collection of countries and territories, which is why the Roman Empire wasn’t a true empire until 27BCE. It first had a reign as a republic that lasted a few centuries. The Holy Roman Empire though was basically central Europe. It had no established capital, but its heart was modern day Germany, Switzerland and Austria. It also included Hungary, the Czech and Slovak Republics and Poland, as well as many minor Baltic states like Lithuania. It also generally included Italy, which is where the Roman part comes in, as well as parts of Spain, France and the Netherlands. Technically even Sweden was part of the empire. Austria and Prussia though were two major powerhouse countries in the empire, often chafing at the presence of the other.

Its name really made no sense. It was neither particularly holy, nor really Roman (predominantly it was German) nor arguably much of an empire. Its borders were constantly changing, as well as the way it was managed. Here in the United States we can’t help but remember our own Civil War. States within the Holy Roman Empire were often at war with each other, something I believe the Roman Empire largely escaped except with the partition of its eastern and western spheres. It’s a world that to us Americans looks pretty weird. Its name was probably an attempt to assert it was a newer and better Roman Empire, with Christianity at its core.

It was however an institution of a sort that worked reasonably well in a hands-off, decentralized way, which turned out to be good considering all the change it endured over a thousand years. It began in a post Roman, pre-Medieval world and ended with the Industrial Revolution. It might be creaking around today had not Napoleon finally brought the empire to its end in 1806. No common language really united it, although German was the predominant one. In its early years, to deal with all the language issues, Latin was used to conduct business, and most of its rules were oral; there being no printing presses back then. Fealty was really important to make it work at all. There were plenty of non-German speaking people in this empire, which had something to do with its amorphous feel of not being a real empire. Over its thousand years though three groups generally controlled it: the Carolingians, the Hohenstaufens and the Habsburgs.

Its governance today looks really strange too. One of the problems reading the history I read is to understand the bizarre assortment of controlling entities, which constantly shifted. The empire was a collection of kingdoms, and the kings were generally given broad discretion in exchange for fealty. But there were also princes, lords, knights, margraves, dukes, counts and lots of other titles that seem lost to history and meaning today. Wilson doesn’t bother to explain much about what these titles meant, but I was able to pick up quite a bit of it. Princes actually had dominions in the olden days that they controlled. They were basically minor kings. Counts were like minor princes; indeed the term county apparently comes from the fact that they were ruled by counts.

Then there were various ecclesiastical figures, not to mention ecclesiastical territories managed by clerics, which got much more complicated during the Reformation. In a way the empire’s wishy-washiness was an asset during the Reformation, giving it agility to hold a loose conglomeration of people together despite these seismic religious changes.

But perhaps the real reason the Holy Roman Empire isn’t talked about much is that its accomplishments were pretty mundane. It was often too busy fighting wars on multiple fronts to act imperialistic. Turkey was a constant threat. Except for during Maximilian’s reign, it really was never a gigantic empire. Unlike the Mongols, it didn’t control territory that amounted to all of Asia.

But like a brown dwarf star, it was good at enduring, just sloppily. Any entity that can stay together, even as a loose confederation, for a thousand years must have done something right. While the empire never felt like it excelled in accomplishments, it at least excelled at endurance. It needed to be sexier though, which is probably why it seems so forgotten while the Roman Empire’s shorter stint seems much more worthy of remembering.

The coming Democratic blowout

The Thinker by Rodin

How much does Donald Trump want to win reelection? So much that there is literally nothing he won’t try to win it. The only weird part is that the harder he tries, the more he screws himself.

He’s going for broke, which is sort of the way he’s run the Trump Organization, given its many bankruptcies over the years. He’s only increasing the odds that he will have to deal with many criminal charges and civil lawsuits after leaving office. In addition to his actions being counterproductive to him, they are going to devastate Republican candidates across the board, including in state legislature races.

Literally no other president would even consider doing something so patently illegal as maiming the Post Office. The Post Office has the overwhelming approval of people in all parties. It’s one of the few functions of government specifically written into the U.S. Constitution. Our founders saw a mail service as so essential that it is explicitly chartered as an allowed government service. Since its first postmaster Benjamin Franklin set it up, it’s been largely untouchable.

But to Donald Trump, it’s just something to manipulate to help ensure his reelection. His toady of a new postmaster general has prohibited overtime and removed mail sorting machines from hundreds of mail processing facilities, as well as removed dozens of people from his senior staff with deep institutional knowledge. It’s true that mail volume has decreased and some of this is necessary, but not when Americans are filling the mail system with ballots. Mail is backlogging in postal facilities nationwide and in many cases it now must be sorted tediously by hand by postal clerks who are prohibited from accruing overtime. People, particularly rural people who vote disproportionately Republican, depend on it for critical things like getting prescription drugs and social security checks. How do you think this way play politically for Trump?

But that’s all appears to be expendable to Donald Trump because he’s convinced if ballots can’t be counted because they don’t arrive, he’ll win. It will throw a huge amount of chaos into the election, but it’s unlikely to change any results in his favor. People concerned about their vote counting will probably drive by city hall instead and insert their ballots into the ballot box instead. That’s likely what we are going to do.

Similarly, there are his executive orders. Four were recently issued, but actually only one (the other three were memorandum with little teeth) qualifies. All this is because he and Democrats in Congress can’t agree on a pandemic funding bill. Democrats offered $3 trillion; he offered $1 trillion. Democrats suggested meeting in the middle at $2 trillion and he said $1 trillion and we’re not going any higher. When Democrats wouldn’t take the bait, he issued these “orders” instead, cutting the previous benefits from $600 to $400, of which states had to chip in $100 for unemployed to get any of this money. These states are already running in the red because the economy is down so virtually no states can afford this “system”. Oh, and the money would come from disaster relief funds … no chance of needing some of that money considering we’re having a very active hurricane season, right?

Then there’s his unilateral payroll tax “cut”, but it’s really a tax deferral. The taxes are still owed; it’s just that some employers may stop collecting them. This is very dubious legally, but of course it expands the budget deficit and worse, strikes at the heart of the solvency of the Social Security system. This is something else Trump doesn’t like and this looks like an end around to wound it, but his most staunch voters depend on its solvency.

Most likely Trump will eventually realize he has to strike a deal more to Democrats’ liking. He can hope of course that some of voters’ ire will also be directed at Democrats that can’t come to a deal, but the Democrat’s position looks much more politically tenable than Trump’s. In addition, it’s not like Democrats have been sitting on the sidelines. The Democratic House passed a generous bill back in May, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to take it up. McConnell couldn’t even create a consensus bill among his own party and effectively washed his hands of the issue.

About half of his conference is opposed to all the deficit spending although not one of them will call for the repeal of their tax cuts for the rich to address the issue. That’s why Trump is left to negotiate with Democrats who are at least reasonably reunited. Naturally he can’t negotiate with Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer directly. He’s got a tiff with Pelosi going, so it will have to be through his chief of staff and Treasury secretary. In the meantime, the unemployed don’t have much if anything in the way of income and most can’t pay their rent and many are likely to be evicted.

Then there is his continued bungling on the pandemic, which is now hitting mostly red states the most severely. He keeps pushing for deeply stupid things that make the crisis worse, which will get much worse when schools start to seriously reopen. Students will transmit the virus home to parents, and pass it on to their teachers and school staff. This will push infection rates even higher into the fall.

It’s a strategy not just for losing, but also for a Democratic blowout. And it’s not hard to figure out why. It’s because neither Trump nor the Republican Party have a clue on how to govern.

Our likely coming post Election Day nightmare

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s not hard to predict that Joe Biden will win the presidency. It’s even easier to predict that regardless of what the votes are, Donald Trump will dispute the results. It’s also easy to predict that voting will resemble something of a fiasco.

It will be a manmade fiasco. Those who can will want to vote by mail. I know I will. But most states don’t have much experience with vote by mail, and certainly not at the level likely to be seen in this election. It’s unlikely that there will be any money in a next bailout for this effort. But even if the money is there, time is running short for states to put good operational plans in place. We are less than three months until Election Day.

And of course you can count on states that are controlled by Republicans will pull out all other stops to suppress votes from people they don’t want voting. Expect fewer polling stations in communities of color. This is a well-practiced tactic, but there is likely to be even fewer such places this year. And if it’s possible to purge voter roles, Republicans will do so. Trump’s new postmaster general is already prohibiting overtime, leading to delays in the delivery of first class mail. In most states, ballots received after November 3 won’t count. Mail in voters will need to allow for extra time for ballots to be received. Many polling places are in schools, which are likely to be shut down due to covid-19. That will be another excuse Republicans will use to reduce the number of polling places.

Obviously worried, Trump is already busy being proactive. He claims vote by mail will be fraudulent, and claims there is a distinction between it and absentee voting. There isn’t, unless absentee voting means going to city hall a week or two early and voting there instead. That’s not what it meant to Donald Trump, who voted absentee by mailing in his ballot. Trump is already being selective. In states where mail in voting favors Republicans, like Florida, Trump is not concerned, but where it favors Democrats, like in Nevada, obviously that sort of voting should not allowed. Many states have mastered mail in voting, such as Oregon, but obviously their successes won’t change Trump’s opinions.

So what’s likely to happen is that Trump will dispute the results, mostly in swing states where he lost. This will involve two tactics: inciting his supporters to take action legal or illegal (expect lots of paramilitaries trying to occupy certain state capitols), but also through lots of litigation. He will also try to whip up Republicans in Congress to claim that the election was fraudulent. Ultimately though it is up to each state’s Secretary of State to certify the results of its state’s electoral college, which will generally meet in the state’s capital in early December. In 2000 this is what happened in Florida, after the case went all the way to the Supreme Court and sealed the election for George W. Bush.

Past that point the scenarios get scarier. If you remember what happened in 2000, the results of the Electoral College are announced in what amounts to a joint session of Congress, overseen by the president of the Senate, at the time Vice President Al Gore. You may recall the irony of Al Gore declaring George W. Bush had a majority of the Electoral College votes after each letter from the Secretary of State was opened at the session. Gore made Bush’s presidency official.

The scarier scenario is that Trump tries to prevent this from happening, perhaps by surrounding the Capitol with armed troops so Congress can’t meet. While all this is going on, there would be huge protests across the country, but most importantly in Washington D.C.

It’s likely that many of Trump’s paramilitary forces will try to go postal. It’s not hard to envision armed conflict between Trump supporters and protestors, governors trying to use the National Guard to keep order in their states and Trump trying to use his powers as Commander in Chief to overrule them. It’s also hard to see how the Supreme Court does not get involved somehow. Given that Trump is already not bothering to follow court orders, most notably on DACA, it’s unclear whether he will even go along with the Supreme Court’s decision, which is likely to go against him.

The best that Trump can hope from the Supreme Court is that it sees the certifications by certain states as likely tainted and tries to delay the selection of the next president by the congressional process. There are some wild scenarios where a deadlocked Electoral College means that Congress chooses the president instead of the Electoral College, with each state voting as a block. Republicans currently control twenty-six legislatures. This is potentially could be a way for Trump to stay in office, but only if the Electoral College deadlocks, which is unlikely.

Which ultimately leaves the issue to the constitution and law. If the Electoral College has not decided on a president or vice president by Inauguration Day, the Speaker of the House would be the acting president. This will almost certainly be Nancy Pelosi. And she will have to try to clean up this constitutional crisis, likely while our country descends into something resembling low-level civil war. Ultimately it will be our military and whether soldiers follow their sworn oaths that will make the difference. Regardless, Trump’s current term ends January 20 at noon Eastern Time.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to this. It’s clear that Trump won’t accept any results where he loses. The time between Election and Inauguration Days are likely to be the most fretful and constitutionally challenging on our republic’s history. What it will amount to is whether enough Republicans follow rule of law to force Trump’s hand, and betting on that happening is likely to be a bad bet.

No shortcuts to controlling covid-19

The Thinker by Rodin

Early in the Trump Administration, presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway coined the term “alternative facts”. The term that could have come out of George Orwell’s book 1984. By definition a fact is not disputable, but Ms. Conway made them so. Apparently, if actual facts won’t provide the answer you need, you invent another fact instead.

Since then the Trump Administration has been inventing all sorts of alternative facts, otherwise known as lies. And with the exception of a small group of die-hard Never Trumpers, Republicans have embraced Trump’s truthiness. It does solve a lot of messy problems, like having to admit reality is, well, real. Decide on your new reality and move forward. Problem solved!

But their world of alternative facts is crumbling. You can deny reality if you want, but at some point it cannot be denied. In canceling the Republican convention, Trump was acknowledging reality that getting covid-19 is in fact a lot worse than getting the sniffles; in fact it can kill you. Rather than tell Trump he was full of crap, Republicans simply decided they weren’t going to his convention. So to avoid humiliation not to mention all the covid-19 cases that would invariably result, Trump had to cave.

Obviously, most Republicans are perfectly fine with those other people getting covid-19, but not them in particular. After all they can stay in their gated communities and buy their kids private tutoring if needed. That’s true of most Republicans who control the party, but obviously not all of them. Many of them aren’t quite so moneyed.

Here’s a prediction that’s pretty easy to make: virtually no school district in the country will open for in-person classes this fall. All it takes is one kid in a school district to test positive to close the schools. In the unlikely event a school superintendent won’t; parents will make the choice for them. They won’t put their children in jeopardy and will keep them home.

So far, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is continuing to buck the trend, insisting that all Florida schools will reopen on time in a few weeks. But he will buckle like Trump did because actual facts will force him to do so. He looked so popular when the state’s infection rate was relatively low but obviously that has changed. He’s already more unpopular than Trump is in the state. Assuming he wants to win reelection in a couple of years, he’s got to pivot. He will, but it’s unclear whether voters will forgive his insistence that their kids were fair game in Trump’s world of alternative facts.

Like the Wicked Witch of the West, the Republican Party is melting. Reality is catching up with the party. Donald Trump is melting too, and bringing down much of the party with him. In many ways, this is a perfect political storm. As much as Republicans hoped to escape reality by inventing their own facts, reality won’t bend. The coronavirus will keep doing what it is doing and will kill people regardless.

False hopes like herd immunity and throwing caution to the wind won’t do much beside leaving many more of us dead or victims of the disease. Restarting the economy hasn’t saved us. In fact, it’s made things much worse, prolonging the disease, greatly enlarging its impact and slowing our recovery, putting us at a competitive disadvantage to other more enlightened countries.

It’s actually a lot worse than that. Effectively, no Americans can travel internationally until we contain the virus. Even traveling state-to-state is chancy. If you wanted to visit me in Massachusetts, after August 1 in most cases you would have to self quarantine for up to two weeks before or after coming or get a covid-19 test showing no exposure within 72 hours of arrival. If you don’t quarantine before coming, you must also produce a negative exposure test to get out of quarantine. There’s even a form you have to fill out. Violations can cost up to $500 a day.

It appears that the coronavirus won’t listen to all the truthiness out there. Let’s hope one result of all this mess is the end of truthiness and alternative facts, along with the Republican Party.