An outline of some Republican rubbish

The stuff many Republicans believe I often find hilarious. I like to think that many of them don’t actually believe half of what they say, because otherwise I’d have to categorize them as remarkably stupid and incurious. But I guess if you can accept the notion of an alternative fact, then actual facts are irrelevant.

Anyhow, submitted for your consideration, as Rod Sterling would say, here are a few of these “facts”/assertions and why, if you think about it for just a little bit, calling them rubbish is actually assessing them too highly.

Claim. There’s a microchip in your covid-19 vaccine put in by the government to track/control you.

Response. Have you ever watched a doctor or a nurse draw vaccine from a vial? They pierce it with a needle and hold the bottle upside down. One vaccine bottle typically holds five doses, from which the practitioner withdraws the correct dosage manually. If there were microchips in there, they would be pretty easy to see and likely could not be sucked into the needle. And if there were, there is no guarantee a given dose would contain a microchip. But even if there were, what’s the smallest microchip out there? The smallest RFID chip is about the size of a period. That’s pretty small, but not so small that you could not see it in the vial. A more typical RFID chip is about the size of a grain of rice. But even so, the government doesn’t manufacture vaccines. The private sector does. A simple random sampling of vaccines would allow the hypothesis to be tested and disproved.

Claim. No one should trust covid-19 vaccines because they aren’t approved by the FDA.

Response. Three vaccines have been approved for emergency use. While none of these vaccines have yet won final approval, they have been approved for emergency use based on overwhelming scientific evidence that they are safe and effective. But even if you think the FDA made a mistake, you can simply look at the statistics for those who were immunized who subsequently acquired covid-19. With a few exceptions, today covid wards are almost entirely filled by people who are not immunized. Not getting the vaccine puts you at significant risk of acquiring the disease, particularly because new variants become increasingly transmissible.

Claim. Climate change isn’t happening but if it is happening, it’s due to a natural process, not a manmade one.

Response. Natural climate changes take thousands of years at best to be noticed because the earth’s climate evolves slowly in its natural state. But it’s not hard to change the climate in a few hundred years if you deforest much of the landscape (forests naturally remove carbon from the atmosphere) and if population growth and growth in general depends largely on using fossil fuels which when burned release carbon. A simple lab experiment will demonstrate that heat will be retained better and temperatures will be higher in containers with more carbon in it, compared to a similar container with less carbon. But even so, have you been out west recently? Isn’t 122F in Canada more than just highly abnormal?

Claim. The 2020 election was stolen and Trump actually won.

Response. Trump lost the popular vote by over 7 million votes. Regardless, the Electoral College selects the president. Trump needed 38 more electoral votes to win. Based on vote counts in the states where he lost narrowly, he would have needed to flip Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin to change the outcome. These states have undergone repeated audits that have not changed the results in any significant way. Moreover, Republicans control all these states with the exception of Wisconsin which has a Democratic governor but is otherwise Republican. So Republican officials in these states would have to have been trying to elect Biden for this to be true. At least 86 court cases claiming electoral fraud were filed and rejected as meritless, often by Trump-appointed judges.

Claim. A big wall on our southern border will keep out illegal immigrants.

Response. Of the few miles of wall constructed during Trump’s term, it was easily defeated by a relatively cheap and portable electric saw. Even if we constructed an impervious wall, it’s not that hard to scale a wall with a sufficiently tall ladder or to tunnel underneath it, as is happening now. Regardless, there are much easier ways to get into the country. The easiest way is to fly in and overstay your visa, which admittedly requires the money for a passport, possibly a visa and an airline ticket. The cheapest way to keep them out is to improve the living conditions and economies in these countries so they don’t feel the need to migrate. It’s likely that one tenth of our defense budget allocated for this purpose could fix the problem, much the way we fixed Europe after World War Two with the Marshall Plan. Regardless, we need a lot of immigrants anyhow, to do work we don’t do and because our economic growth will be stifled if we don’t. Also, decriminalizing drugs will naturally take care of a lot of the crime occurring in these countries, as well as reduce crime in our own country.

Claim. The Capitol riot on January 6 was actually caused by the left and Antifa.

Response. Over six hundred arrests have been made since the insurrection and not one of them has been linked to Antifa or leftist movements. Also, Antifa is not an organized movement.

Claim. The government is coming door to door to force you to get the covid-19 vaccine and to take away your guns and bibles.

Response. The Fourth Amendment prohibits entry by the government into your home without probable cause, so a judge would first have to approve entry based on evidence. There’s generally nothing prohibiting anyone from knocking on your door, but no law forces you to open it. If police do have a warrant, the warrant prohibits them from confiscating property unrelated to the warrant. So they won’t be taking your guns unless they have a warrant that you are harboring illegal guns, such as automatic weapons or bazookas. As for taking away your bibles, of course they won’t do that unless you carved out the inside of a bible to hide something illegal related to the warrant. Oh, and if you haven’t noticed, it’s not hard to get replacement bibles. It’s hard to walk down the street without tripping over one. Also, if you are alarmed by the idea of a government agent coming to your door, why aren’t you alarmed by the postman delivering mail to your door six days a week?

Is inflation really a problem?

Prices are up, in some cases by a lot. These include food, gas, rent, rental cars, and airline tickets, to name a few. Why is this? Is it going to be a lasting thing? What does it all mean?

I ask the latter question because most Americans have never had to deal with significant inflation. You have to be an oldster like me growing up in the 60s and 70s to remember significant inflation. The funny thing is that it seemed kind of normal at the time. Generally wages kept up with inflation and even home mortgage rates close to twenty percent didn’t seem to deter too many home buyers. Yes, there were periodic gas lines that no one liked, but while inflation seemed pretty bad, at least assets tended to keep up with inflation. I remember renting a room in a house in 1979. Its absentee owner lived across the river in Leesburg, Virginia. The house was an investment and something of a hedge against inflation.

Something like that is underway right now, as real estate prices are one of the leading signs of inflation. Stocks too, although yesterday’s two percent selloff in the markets may indicate the days of double-digit stock growth are over. Prices are up, but wages are often up too, certainly on the low end. The federal minimum wage may be $7.25/hour, but almost no employers are paying it.

These days, the effective minimum wage is closer to $15/hour because if you want to hire workers that’s about the wage floor that employees will accept. Arguably though $15/hour is not what its proponents once hoped it would be: a living wage. In part because food and rent cost more, the price of a real living wage just keeps going up. On average, you would need to make $20.40/hour to be able to afford a one bedroom apartment in this country, assuming you have only one full-time job.

The premise is that inflation is bad. By that logic, deflation is good, but no economist I know of wants deflation. For one thing, in a deflationary period there is no incentive to spend as your money tomorrow will buy more than it will today. What economists really mean is that significant inflation is bad. Ideally they want to see it in the 2% – 3% per year range.

Right now prices are up 5.4% compared to June 2020. Obviously certain costs, like rent and rental cars are up a whole lot more than that, but there are other costs that have risen a lot less than that. Assuming your income grows by at least this amount too, you are at least treading water. A year ago it was pretty hard to find a job if you needed one. Now it isn’t and at least on the lower end of the wage scale you may be better off. “Better off” though is pretty relative. Things likely sucked terribly a year ago, if you remain employed and worked a low wage job. So with rising wages and more jobs available, they are likely to suck less today. It may feel like a skinnier elephant has decided to sit on you.

Low inflation though tends to mask other problems. If wages creep up 2% – 3% a year, who is better off? Probably not you, as it keeps you in pace with inflation so your standard of living doesn’t really increase. The Federal Reserve has the primary tools to manage the inflation rate. It does this principally by setting benchmark interest rates banks use to borrow money from each other.

The practical effect though is to keep the economy from growing too quickly, so if they judge inflation is becoming a problem they will raise interest rates. Higher than usual economic growth though should raise wages if the labor pool is relatively stable. In short, whoever is on the Federal Reserve and the interest rates they set have a huge impact on your life and standard of living. But the Fed is independent from the federal government. In effect, Congress has delegated a lot of its powers to a bunch of unelected people.

Some have argued that the Fed has done a lot of money printing during the latest recession and that’s the cause of the inflation. The Fed is the sole institution charged with creating new dollars and it’s been liberal in its money creation. It hasn’t been using its ability to impact your bottom line, at least not directly. One unique action it has taken this time is that it has been buying corporate bonds with money it’s created. This stabilized financial markets and allowed my portfolio to grow by about twenty percent last year. But arguably its policies have also created the inflation now increasingly seen as a problem. Low Fed rates have spurred low mortgage rates, which helped spur the huge rise in real estate prices.

I’m betting most of you reading this don’t have much in the way of a portfolio and live paycheck to paycheck. In which case, these actions by the Fed don’t mean a whole lot, except maybe it helped the country get out of a recession faster than it would have otherwise. Federal government spending in the form of one-time payments and expanded unemployment benefits likely had more of an effect on most of my readers. In most case, the effect was to keep a lot of people from descending into poverty, which was only partially successful.

For relatively rich people like me with portfolios, the recession was in many ways great! We got a lot of unearned income that significantly padded our already pretty sizable wealth. All these actions then had the effect of further widening the wealth gap, marginally helping those who needed it most while greatly enriching those of us who were already very comfortable.

What may actually help are temporarily child tax credits, $300 per child per month, passed as part of the American Rescue Plan. These credits are now starting to go out. If you have two kids, that’s $7200 more a year in income than your family had before, assuming these credits become permanent benefits. That’s the proposal now in front of Congress which looks likely to pass as part of a budget reconciliation package in the Senate. How would it be paid for? The proposal is to raise taxes on the wealthy, essentially redirecting income from the wealthy to those who actually need it. It’s old fashioned income redistribution, something we haven’t seen changed in a long time. The trend has been to end or cap benefits like these.

As long as inflation is kept low, it becomes harder to address the income gap because leaders assume the economy is under relative control. It is, just not necessarily in a way that benefits the most people. The Fed’s policies in many ways exacerbates and encourages income inequality, in part because of their limited toolset.

Don’t you be fooled: the bottom line is not a low inflation rate, but who controls the wealth and whether the those with less of it have a realistic path to get more of it. The tight reins by the Fed are actually a big part of our problem.

The fruits of freedom

Across mostly red states, Republicans are noisily celebrating their freedom. Only one freedom seems to matter at the moment: freedom from taking the covid-19 vaccine, a freedom that hasn’t been denied them so you wonder what the fuss is all about.

It’s unfortunately quite clear that they want to extend this freedom to plenty of others in their states, whether they particularly want it or not. Dr. Michelle Fiscus was until this week was the medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Tennessee Department of Health. She was fired for excelling at her job, which apparently included trying to get teenagers and children vaccinated.

We’re seeing the results of all this “freedom” right now, mostly in red states, as covid-19 infections start to spike again, almost exclusively among the unvaccinated. No surprise, those infected are mostly acquiring the newer delta variant of the virus, which is much more infectious than earlier versions. Most of these states have no mandates to wear masks either, making it straightforward for the virus to spread widely in these communities.

In Springfield, Missouri patients are being offloaded to other hospitals as it’s getting hard to treat all these cases locally. Another covid-19 wave is obviously arriving, mostly in red states, but most states are seeing increases. It’s just that in bluer states, it’s more manageable, as more people are immunized. In Missouri, mostly unvaccinated people should be celebrating their “freedom” as they try to hold on to life while hooked up to hospital ventilators. Take that, big government!

But I’m celebrating real freedom. Real freedom gives me more choices to do what I want to do when I want to do it, and do it with reasonable safety. That’s because I’m fully immunized against covid-19. I’m immunized against a whole lot of other stuff too, as my doctor makes sure I’m up to date on my shots including (a sign of age) a shingles shot. My blood stream is teeming with antibodies to attack likely flus as well as lots of other preventable diseases.

How are we celebrating? Well, my wife is off to Las Vegas tomorrow, where cases are rapidly rising. Yesterday, over eight hundred new covid-19 cases were reported in Nevada. She and her friends are immunized though so she’s pretty safe to meet with her friends at an off-strip hotel. Everyone coming is vaccinated. She’ll have to wear a mask on the plane and while in airports, but otherwise she is minimally inconvenienced.

To me it’s still a bit novel to walk around most of the time without a mask. I do this confident that I now have a very low risk of acquiring covid-19 but I’m mostly outdoors anyhow where it’s not a problem. When in stores I’m mostly unmasked too, as are most shoppers. I keep a spare mask in my car in case I need it, and I do need it from time to time. A recent visit to the doctor to treat a UTI required me to wear a mask. But mostly I breathe the fresh air again and do it with confidence. My vaccine has a ninety percent efficacy rate, so should I acquire the disease it is likely to be mild and it’s very unlikely I’ll end up in a hospital and on a ventilator.

We’ve also got trips planned, principally a New York City theater trip in September. We’ll probably have to wear masks during performances, but again we can go confident that we won’t get infected and enjoy some fine Broadway shows, one of our true passions. These shows are returning because the state and the city got vaccination rates up high enough where herd immunity may be within reach. This was the holy grail the anti-vaxxers we shooting for. They just were hoping that enough others would get the vaccine so they wouldn’t have to. Unfortunately, politicians like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have convinced a whole lot of other people not to get vaccinated too, making it out of reach there. I hope they are enjoying their “freedom”. I’m enjoying mine, because it’s real.

I’m hoping one of these days it will occur to some of these people that government can actually expand freedom. Freedom from dying from preventable diseases doesn’t just happen. The private sector doesn’t decide to create the vaccines needed to keep from dying from these diseases. It’s a role only government can take on. In reality, most freedom means nothing if you don’t first enjoy good health.

Consequently, these “freedoms” being enjoyed in principally red states are anything but. If anything, they are anti-freedoms. The more who practice this “freedom” the less the rest of us can enjoy actual freedom, because we often bear the cost of their reckless selfishness.

I’ll be enjoying two shows on Broadway in September, and the city too. Most likely I won’t be hunting for a hospital with respirators and oxygen, as many people in and around Springfield, Missouri and many people in principally red states will be doing instead.

The futility of playing Russian Roulette with covid-19

The state of Maryland reported yesterday that everyone that died of covid-19 in the state during June was unvaccinated. Moreover, 95% of covid-19 related hospitalizations in Maryland in June were from people who haven’t been inoculated.

This tells us something that should be obvious: these vaccines work. The news is especially good here in the United States where we have three very effective vaccines, including the “one and done” Johnson & Johnson vaccine. They appear to be ninety percent effective or greater, even against the new and more contagious delta variant now wreaking havoc worldwide.

It’s not like it costs money to get the vaccine. It’s free, even to the undocumented. It’s not like it’s hard to get a shot either. It’s available pretty much everywhere now, including in many doctors’ offices. If I needed a shot, I could get one at a Walgreens pharmacy a mile from my house. Check how far you would have to go to get a shot here. If that weren’t enough, President Biden is pushing for door-to-door outreach to try to increase the vaccination rate, hovering at just under seventy percent of eligible adult Americans. And yet plenty of Americans still aren’t convinced, and likely won’t be convinced, to get the vaccine.

It’s not too surprising that the variants are becoming more lethal over time. Although viruses aren’t technically alive, those variants that are easiest to acquire will naturally tend to infect more people. If there is an epsilon variant, it won’t surprise me if it is more transmissible and deadly than the delta variant.

Generally, our survival instinct is pretty powerful. But it appears that about thirty percent of us have an instinct more powerful than survival: believing in untruths. If you hear the message from your peers that these vaccines are fake or contain a microchip controlled by Bill Gates or that it’s part of a great conspiracy, somehow these things can override the basic survival instinct for a lot of us.

While I don’t wish misery and death on anyone, it is clear that these people are predominantly Republican and conservative, not to mention Trump supporters and wholesale swallowers of The Big Lie. Many have guns in their household too. Effectively they are playing Russian Roulette with their own lives and the lives of their family members who are also unvaccinated. It’s not too hard to figure out that there will be yet another covid-19 wave, probably in the autumn, and that almost all the fatalities will be from these people who simply refused to accept basic science.

When the pandemic started, it was an equal opportunity disease. Well, not quite. Certain people like me were well protected as we didn’t have to go out and earn a living. And a lot of people could also work from home to mitigate risk. Otherwise, it was an equal opportunity disease, but you have more “opportunities” if you lived in close contact with others. Unsurprisingly, it hit minority communities disproportionately hard.

Now, at least here in the United States, it’s not that way at all. Unless you are stupid or choose to be willfully ignorant, you are choosing to risk bad odds. The disease is likely to always be with us, so for the unvaccinated it’s just a matter of time before you will get it. It’s still unlikely to kill you, but the delta variant will give you a more severe case of the disease than at the start of the pandemic. The mortality rate is about 1.7 percent. There are some 600,000 dead Americans who, if they were still alive, could attest to the lethality of the disease.

Approximately 174 million people in the United States are not fully vaccinated. About 52 million of these are children not yet eligible for vaccination. There have been at least 33 million cases in the United States so far. So roughly one in ten Americans have gotten the disease.

Assuming that until recently cases and deaths are proportionate, with 150 million Americans unvaccinated, ninety percent of those haven’t acquired covid-19 yet. That’s 135 million people. If ten percent of them get it in the next year we can expect 13.5 million more infections and about 230,000 more deaths to stack on top of the 603,000 confirmed covid-19 death. So before the pandemic is over we can expect over 800,000 deaths from covid-19 in the United States. And probably 200,000 or so of these will be fully preventable if these people had simply taken the time to get the free vaccine.

About 88 percent of the population is age 18 or over. Assuming fifty percent of these people are registered to vote, and eighty percent of them vote Republican, this means there will be about 70,000 fewer Republican voters in the next election. This only counts those who haven’t died yet. Add in those that have and it’s likely there will be 150,000 or more fewer Republican voters in the next election.

Republicans of course are doing their best to pass restrictive voting laws to make it more difficult for principally non-white people to vote. Many of these people will have died from covid-19 too. But if Republicans lose elections in these states in spite of all this, it’s pretty clear why. It’s because they promoted baseless covid-19 vaccination conspiracy theories and untruths. In short, they did it to themselves.

I am reminded of Ebenezer Scrooge. He was speaking of poor people, but I’m not. Still, it’s true enough: “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” Given all the opportunities for these people to say yes to the vaccine, it’s hard to disagree.

Creating hell on earth

In Lytton, British Columbia the temperature reached 121F on Tuesday. Temperatures across the northwestern United States broke all sorts of records recently, not just by a little, but by a lot. The heat in British Columbia though really drove the nail in the coffin. Temperatures above 100F anywhere in Canada is exceptionally rare anytime in the summer, and summer has just begun. A massive heat bubble is to blame, but what’s really to blame in climate change, principally driven by humans largely dithering on mitigating its impact.

Excessive heat has become a standard feature of summer here in the northern hemisphere but also in the southern one during their summers. Accompanying it are large changes to precipitation patterns that that is making the west even drier and creating large-scale fires.

It’s getting hard to escape the heat. It used to be that we would travel in the summer, but lately the only places that hold any appeal this time of year are the cooler and more temperate northern latitudes. Except now you can’t even count on that. It was hotter in British Columbia on Tuesday than it was in Las Vegas, where the high was “only” 117F.

Where I live (Western Massachusetts) it’s pretty dang hot too, just not anywhere near these crazy temperatures out west. We’ve had highs in the mid to upper nineties since Sunday, which is horrible heat for this area. I make a point of going outside for a daily walk, but not these last few days. It’s too crazy hot for even me to venture outdoors for long. On Sunday I took an early morning walk, but even though I left before 9 AM and mostly stayed under the trees, the humidity was oppressive as the temperatures were in the mid 80s. I finished the walk drenched from head to toe. For a while, I am exercising indoors on the treadmill. I don’t even want to fetch the mail from the kiosk on days like this. Relief is expect to arrive late tonight.

Unfortunately, the United States is perhaps the largest contributor to greenhouse gasses. Our wealth also puts us in a good position to actually do something about it. While there’s lots to do, there are many quick wins that can be done rather inexpensively. It’s excessive methane emissions that are the worst pollutants these days. Fracking wells probably contribute most of this methane. We could require that these wells be fixed and not to flare excess natural gas, or to require them to be capped. Of course we don’t, although the Biden administration is starting to take steps in this area.

Like with covid-19 vaccine hesitation, so much of climate change could be mitigated, but there are obstinate political forces, almost exclusively controlled by the Republican Party, that make it excruciatingly difficult to do much about them. Congressional Republicans are all for infrastructure, as long as improving infrastructure is limited to roads, bridges and the like and, of course, doesn’t raise their taxes. Forget about caps on carbon pollution, investing in clean energy and reducing pollution by expanding broadband access. If these get through Congress, it will be through a reconciliation bill in the Senate where two Democratic senators (Manchin and Sinema) will control the bill and likely water down the serious provisions needed to address climate change.

The effect of all of this procrastination and obstinacy is obvious and all around us. Mother Nature could not be doing more to put climate change right in our faces, and yet we still dither and refuse to acknowledge reality. And as bad as things are now, it’s but a taste of what’s coming, which is much, much more of the same and for longer periods of time. All this will exacerbate human migration and sea level rise, which increases poverty, misery, strife, conflict and the likelihood of war. Climate change is obviously our number one national security threat. We should be working our tails off to lessen its impact here and working with other nations to reduce its impact elsewhere. No one can escape its effects.

As if to hammer in the point, there was the recent catastrophic collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Seaside, Florida, north of Miami. So far the official death toll is twelve, but 149 remain unaccounted for as rescue teams try rather fruitlessly to find survivors. There are two likely culprits to this collapse: rising sea levels and willful government ignorance.

The sea level around Miami is on average six inches higher today than it was when the building was constructed in 1980. This fact, tides and Florida’s plentiful rains caused mostly by salt water, wore away the footings of the building’s pool, garage and likely the tower itself. The problem has been known for at least three years. Local and state government weren’t on top of the issue, and the condominium’s owners seemed in no hurry to affect expensive repairs.

The whole Florida coast is being affected by sea level rise. The Champlain Towers example is a harbinger of much worse to come. These towering condos rest on limestone for the most part, not the most stable of foundations, and easily eroded by sea water which is now regularly encroaching on these properties. Sump pumps can keep water from eating away at the foundation, but like New Orleans it depends on extraordinary human engineering that is costly and ultimately just a delaying action.

Climate change is going to move us inland, whether we want it or not. The only question is how fast and at what cost. Given our dithering on the climate change issue, it’s not hard to figure out the answers: much more quickly than we expect, and at ruinous cost and a lot of pointless misery for millions of us. We are literally creating hell not just for us but for many generations to come. And much of it is wholly avoidable if we simply put the common good before our own selfishness.

Trump for … Speaker of the House?

Yes, this is a thing. Certain Republicans want Donald Trump to be the next Speaker of the House! And Trump isn’t saying no way.

I would think that after being president, being Speaker of the House of Representatives would be something of a letdown. The speaker does get security, but hardly the perks of being president of the United States. There is no dedicated DC mansion for the Speaker, no Air Force One, or even Air Force Two or Air Force Three. The Speaker can ask the Air Force if they have a spare jet available if there is some important event they need to attend away from Washington. No guarantee they will get the jet though. When granted, it’s usually to take a high ranking congressional delegation somewhere.

You would think that if Trump wanted to be Speaker he would need to win an election to the House of Representatives. Florida is scheduled to gain a representative as a result of reapportionment. Draw the new districts carefully to create an open seat in West Palm Beach and hope that all the moneyed people there vote for him. It could be done although he could lose such an election.

Fortunately for Trump, he doesn’t have to run for Congress at all. He just has to hope that Republicans retake the House in 2022 and that Republicans then use their majority to make him speaker. It’s never been done before, as previous speakers have always come from existing members of the House. But the U.S. constitution is clear, even if most people haven’t paid attention to this part: “The House of Representatives shall chuse (sic) their Speaker and other Officers.”

It would set up a strange situation because to cast a vote in the House you have to be elected to the House. So Speaker Trump would not be able to cast any votes. In theory, anyone could be Speaker if a majority of the House votes for the person and that includes non-citizens, minors, and, presumably, a cute labradoodle.

What power would Trump have as Speaker? For one thing, if he messes up, he could be easily tossed asunder. Speakers don’t have terms, though they usually serve the two-year term of the Congress. If a speaker falls out of favor, they can be replaced by a majority vote of the members of the House. There’s little likelihood of that given that Republicans are such toadies for the man. It’s easy to predict though that if Trump were elected speaker, he would do just as good a job at it as he did as president. Which means he would royally f*** things up.

There’s not a whole lot that the Speaker actually has to do, which would appeal to Trump. The good thing is that you get to preside over the House, which means you can start and end House sessions. It’s pretty boring stuff though, which is why it is a duty typically delegated out to a speaker tempore, generally some junior members of the House. Listening to all the drivel that amounts to a typical House session is a chore. Trump would not listen and, assuming his Twitter account is restored, would be tweeting from the Speaker’s chair.

The Speaker is the third in the line of succession in the event of the untimely demise of the president and vice president. That would appeal to Trump. The Speaker also has a lot of say on who sits on prominent House committees but also has some curious assignments, like administering the House audio and video broadcast systems. Other than that though, the office’s powers are mostly what you can get away with and no doubt Trump would push the envelope. It’s not hard to see him trying to not advance any government funding bills just because he doesn’t like them.

Frankly, Trump would find the job mostly a bore. Given that he felt the same way about being president, he’d likely be a largely absent speaker. He’s constitutionally unable to focus on anything, but if your goal is to make government less focused, he might excel in that way. It might be fun for him for a month or two. But he would resent the attention given to the President of the United States, whose prestige is something his office could not begin to match.

Hopefully, Democrats will retain the House in the 2022 election and it will be a moot point, at least until 2024. Given Trump’s ego though he’s more likely to make another run for the presidency than want to be speaker in 2025, assuming Republicans then retake the House. Being speaker would garner him some attention, but at best it would be second fiddle attention. Given his ego, it’s easier to see him ultimately figuring the job is beneath him.

And, in fact, he’s simply not up to doing the job in any way that would be seen as even minimally competent. So I’m hoping he won’t even try. If he does try and somehow succeeds, he would become his own worst enemy. Already amnesia is kicking in among the public on his disastrous presidency. A disastrous speakership would help us remember what an utter loser and fool that man has always been.

Low-wage employers are getting a comeuppance

There’s something going on in the labor market that’s caught my eye. Low wage workers seem to be rebelling.

It’s hard to miss the stories in the news. Despite a 6.1 percent unemployment rate nationally in the United States, workers don’t seem to be anxious to return to the workforce. As a result many employers, mostly those who pay low wages, have been squawking that they can’t find enough workers.

There may be a lot of reasons that low wage workers aren’t anxious to return to the workforce. For women, finding childcare at all, not to mention affordable care, is still a problem, particularly since children under 12 don’t yet have an approved covid-19 vaccine. Not all students are physically back in the classroom. Parents can’t leave underage kids at home to fend for themselves, at least not if they want to keep their kids.

But covid-19 has also exposed that many of these jobs offer double jeopardy: both low wages and high risk. The high risk part is new because now the unvaccinated can kill you. It’s not too surprising then that employers seem to be squawking most loudly in states with the lowest vaccination rates. If you work in Alabama or Mississippi where the vaccination rate is in the thirties or forties, chances of getting covid-19 remains very real. Even if vaccinated, it’s reasonable to be leery and want to wait to see what happens.

It’s even more reasonable to shop around for a different job, one that allows working from home if having to deal with your kids suddenly telecommuting recurs. It’s a lot safer than working behind the deli at the local Kroger. There are no commuting expenses to deal with, and knowledge workers tend to be paid decently, if not well. I’d be hunting for one of these jobs if I were in that position.

The governors in these principally red states know what playbook to follow: cut any extra unemployment benefits as soon as possible to get these lazy-assed freeloaders back to work! They are a burden on society, just not really on the state, since these extended unemployment benefits are paid by the federal government and these benefits usually get injected quickly right into their local economy. There are few things that annoy red state governors more than idle people not toiling away at multiple jobs for meager pay rates.

In any event, a lot of these employees seem to be operating from a new playbook which is: if you want me to apply, pay me what I’m worth! At least some employers are figuring it out and are paying a living wage — $15/hour or more — simply to stand up their businesses again. These employers don’t seem to be complaining about finding workers. It’s the ones offering $7.50/hour or $9/hour or $2.30/hour plus tips that are complaining. Their whole business model seems to be collapsing.

Bigger companies seem to have figured out that they don’t have much choice. Amazon may have sky high accident rates, but their warehouse workers at least make $15/hour even while rushing around trying to meet crazy productivity targets. Lots of other companies have followed suit and have even bested Amazon’s rates, including Costco. I’ve never seen a help wanted sign out at our local Costco. It’s probably because they start employees out at $16/hour.

In reality, it’s stretching it to call $15/hour or $16/hour a living wage. In case you haven’t noticed, home prices are going through the roof, and since most of these employees rent, their rents are rising much faster than the general cost of living. There’s a lot of inflation going on right now, particularly in stuff you have to have, like food. Expecting someone to take a job for $7.50/hour in inflationary times is stupid. Employees are going to shop around for the best value, which might mean two $15/hour jobs instead of the three $9/hour jobs they used to string together.

In any event, this seems to be new. The free market is acting, well, freely! The supply of workers willing to work for $9/hour is much smaller than the number of $9/hour jobs out there. We don’t expect meat prices to fall because we find it too expensive – we just start eating more vegetables instead. Why should employers expect employees to discount their wage rate if some other employer is willing to pay them more?

Cry me a bier. What’s happening is called a comeuppance. Employers need to figure out whether they want to stay in business by paying employees more money, or go out of business. It is likely that our labor force will continue to shrink with so many baby boomers like me retiring and with few immigrants coming into the country to increase the job pool. In many ways, Trump’s foolish immigration policies just made the situation worse. While crying, these employers might want to take a long and hard look in the mirror. They might discover who’s really to blame for their mess.

Give me a (reasonably) dumb home

As a partially retired software engineer, I’m all about the power of technology. I’m part of a group that’s succeeding in getting our city to create a municipal internet, for example. I want affordable fiber to the home! I want gigabit per second (or higher) upload and download speeds. At the same time, I want to keep my home as dumb as possible.

Admittedly, it’s an uphill struggle. For example, I’m guilty of having a Google account and using Facebook. Both companies are no doubt collecting reams of data about me. While I really loath Facebook, it’s hard to give up. I’ll lose contact with lots of people, mostly people I used to know. Yeah, they could email me, but they won’t. Since we moved in 2015 it’s a good bet I won’t see most of them in the flesh again anyway. Now in my sixties, a lot of them have moved elsewhere too, making the odds of a face-to-face meeting even less likely. To some extent these people have been supplanted by even more people in my new neighborhood. In general I don’t seek them out as friends. I let them “friend” me and sometimes I just decline the opportunity. What I can do in Facebook is refuse to click on any targeted ad. That’s my policy.

Our daughter got a protonmail.com email account. I’m considering it too. The company is based in Switzerland and stores nothing in the cloud. Even if they wanted to read your email, they can’t. So as a secure email solution, it’s likely the best out there, though a bit pricey, at least if you want to keep more than 500mb of email online.

But most of us give away our privacy, often inadvertently. A few years ago I visited an aunt to discover she had an Alexa smart speaker. It was very good at giving her music to listen to and weather reports. What it’s not good at is not listening to you. Unless you change some very obscure settings or explicitly turn its microphone off (which defeats the purpose of owning one), it’s recording anything its microphone can pick up. It’s supposedly all about making these personal digital assistants (PDAs) more useful to you, but it’s much more about Amazon trying to monetize what it knows about you. Both Google and Apple are doing the same thing with their PDAs.

Alas, if it were just PDAs you had to worry about. This stuff is everywhere, and pervasive. For example, your TV is likely “smart”. I bought a new one last year (Samsung) and it too is watching and listening. These features can supposedly be disabled, and Consumer Reports indicates how to do it. I tried to disable these features of my Samsung TV and I keep getting an error code when I try.

For a few years now I’ve been searching the web using DuckDuckGo. I actually think it’s a better search engine than Google, returning more relevant results. But it’s also built around privacy, so when I use it Google (supposedly) remains ignorant of my search queries. But there are times I can’t, or can’t easily not use Google search. For example, my tablet computer runs the Android operating system, so I can’t make a voice search without using Google’s search engine. I don’t think DuckDuckGo has a similar app, but it likely hasn’t perfected the voice recognition business, so even if one existed I’d probably have to type in search queries. And really, who knows what goes on inside the Android operating system anyhow. Google may be listening anyhow.

These days pretty much any device you install is suspect, and the company making it is likely making money monetizing what it knows about you. Many have invasive implications, not just for your privacy, but for society at large. Google bought Ring, which makes smart doorbells. These smart devices can help identify porch thieves stealing your packages, but they are also being networked with similar devices other neighbors have and potentially used by police. Again, it’s possible to disable these features, but they are on by default.

For Ford, selling cars is now ancillary. A car is just a vehicle for monetizing information about you, or at least that’s its long term goal. Ford hopes to make $20B a year from this by 2030. It’s recording where you are going, when, where you stopped and no doubt is feeding that information to other systems willing to pay for it. Most cars these days integrate with voice assistants like Alexa too. Most of these smart devices you bought are doing similar things, so it’s likely the real profit from selling you a device comes long afterward when over years it sells or provides the information to third parties.

It’s becoming impossible not to buy smart devices so in some sense you can’t escape these invasions of your privacy. It’s becoming impossible to live without a cell phone, and dumb cell phones are pretty hard to get. The same is true with cars and most appliances. The trend is only going to get worse. The only real solution is legislation. Maximum privacy should be the default, not the other way around. It should be hard to make these devices share data.

I am trying to figure out where my boundary is. I feel I’ve strayed too far off the privacy path. Even if I can get back on it, companies already have reams of data about me, and it’s equally burdensome to get them to remove their data about you, if it’s possible at all. There’s really no way to know for sure if they’ve done this.

Aside from privacy, all this technology is contributing greatly to polarizing our society. In addition to targeted ads and predictive behavior, it’s also putting us in information silos, making it hard for us to hear perspectives outside our bubbles. Keeping us in our bubbles seems to be much more profitable to corporations, and much more useful for politicians. These behaviors simply make us more predictable to them, and the more predictable we are, the easier we are to influence and control. Much of this is being championed by Republicans, supposedly the “pro-freedom” political party.

So I’ll do my best to maintain my privacy, but it will be an uphill struggle. As I integrate more technology into my life, I now weigh the privacy implications carefully. For example, I’m considering a home security system, but I need devices that won’t place everything in a public cloud. They are getting hard to find.

Part of the solutions is staying no-tech if you can. Rather than tell Google’s assistant to create an appointment on a certain date and time, enter it into a calendar on your refrigerator, if that works, or at least use third-party calendar software and type it in yourself. Rather than tell Alexa to add something to your shopping list, make your shopping list out with pencil and paper. This still works for us.

Simply be conscious of what you are doing when you make these choices. In many cases, what you are giving up greatly exceeds the value of whatever services they provide.

How do we win the fight against willful ignorance and stupidity?

There are so many overarching issues to deal with right now that it feels overwhelming. For me, one of the largest overarching issues is figuring out how to fight all the willful ignorance and stupidity that is going on pretty much everywhere in our country.

2020 had many appalling displays of it, and 2021 looks to be much more of the same. Regular stupidity is one thing, but exhibiting willful ignorance that could kill you in on a whole different plain. Behavior of this magnitude is unprecedented here in the United States.

For me, the magnitude of the problem was truly driven home last August when some 400,000 motorcyclists converged on Sturgis, South Dakota for their annual rally. They weren’t going to let catching covid-19 keep them from coming together. Most disdained masks, kept close quarters and dined largely indoors. For ten days people rubbed shoulders and revved their engines in the name of freedom. The rally led to a huge increase in covid-19 infections in South Dakota, and many infections elsewhere were directly attributed to the rally. It turned into probably the biggest super-spreader event of 2020, likely directly killing thousands of people.

It was preceded by many other events, starting most notably with Florida Spring Break in March 2020. Prior to it, you could number the total covid-19 infections in Florida to a hundred or so. A few weeks afterward, infections went through the roof, in Florida and most other states as students brought the disease home with them. And so it went, at numerous events including pretty much all Trump rallies. It is likely that the late pizza magnate Herman Cain acquired the disease at a Trump rally in Tulsa, and died from it. The stupidity extended into the White House itself, where Trump likely acquired the diseases, and at a subsequent event outdoors where people were tightly packed enough where it didn’t matter, allowing people like Hope Hicks to get it. All this willful ignorance was hardly without cost. 600,000 or so Americans are dead from covid-19, and the likely real figure is closer to one million people.

And yet still so many people don’t believe covid-19 is real, or that somehow they are special enough so that they won’t get it. Now there are highly effective vaccines available and some half of Republicans still won’t get the shots. It appears that to do so they must admit the obvious to themselves: that they and the people they listened to were wrong. The psychic cost of going there must be higher than their fear of getting the disease.

That’s some drug these people are on and many have paid the price, either in acquiring the disease or dying from it. But it’s really a mental illness because it’s an inability to acknowledge the undeniable reality that is right in front of you.

How do you stop this level of stupidity and hopefully reverse it? Thinking about it, I realize it’s complicated because so many people have this idea in their head that freedom means they can do whatever they want, damn the consequences. I’ll grant them the right to believe what they want, but I for one don’t grant them the right to let them get away with it without sanctions.

In the short term, they should not just be shunned, but society should make their lives difficult. Democrats control the government now. I would start by upping the ante on travel. If you are a legal adult and can’t prove you are immunized against covid-19, you should not be allowed to travel on any airplane or train. Full stop. No cruises for you either, although there is already a moratorium on cruising for ships leaving the United States. Oh, of course these people would whine, but they are already whining. Whining is not something they can control. So if they are going to whine anyhow, let’s at least keep these people away from the rest of us as much as possible.

I’d extend it to the schools. You want to attend classes inside a public school? You must be immunized. We’re not quite there yet because so far vaccines have not been approved for those aged 12 and under. Unless you have a doctor’s note saying you are immune-compromised if you can get a vaccine you must if you want to get in-person teaching. If not, or your parents won’t let you attend classes on line, and if this means throwing everyone into online classes, so be it. Those who do attend in person need to wear masks indoors until the CDC says its acceptable not to because infection rates are low enough.

Society needs to aggressively signal that these behaviors are unhealthy simply because (minimally) you could carry the disease, if not acquire it or die from it. You – yes, I’m speaking to you, you vaccinate-hesitant Americans — have an obligation to your fellow humans, and if you think you won’t do your civic duty, then you don’t get to play with the rest of us. This sort of willful ignorance if practiced by a parent is nothing less than child abuse. This policy is really the least that society should be doing. In a more just world, these parents would be hauled off to a detention facility until they see the light.

In the longer term, it’s clear that most students these days are getting substandard civics education, if they are getting it at all. They are also apparently missing a lot of science basics, particularly the lessons that describe the scientific process used to discern knowledge. A robust mastery of how science knowledge is learned and how government works should be required for any diploma or GED.

Government can also help by elevating scientists and researchers that make advancements in science. These people should be admired and put on pedestals. There should be lavish prizes awarded to citizens who contribute the most to improving our understanding of reality and make major advancements in basic and applied sciences. The government should provide tuition free scholarships to students showing exceptional aptitude in these skills, so they can be applied sooner for the benefit of all humanity.

Obviously there are huge problems with our voting laws, which I have addressed in numerous other blog posts. I won’t revisit them in this post. These problems are longstanding and very hard to address. But where Democrats can require change, they should.

My modest proposals may rankle many as anti-American somehow, but not only are they necessary, they are legal and morally necessary. Public health law is a thing in the United States, even if many would like to pretend otherwise. We can’t “promote the general welfare”, as we say we want to do in the U.S. Constitution, if we allow such counterproductive ignorance to remain unchecked.

I am deeply grateful to those who solved our covid-19 pandemic

We went out for dinner the other day. This is not exactly a first since the pandemic, but the difference this time was that we dined indoors. All three of us (this includes my daughter, who paid a quick visit) were fully immunized, all with the Moderna vaccine.

With the mask mandate guidance lifted, even in interior spaces for us fully vaccinated, while it seemed safe to dine in, it still gave us a bit of concern. Not wearing a mask may send the wrong signal: that it’s okay to not wear a mask if you are not fully immunized too. So while we ate indoors, and we kept our mask on, except when we were eating. So did the other patrons, what there were of them. There were strict quotas on the number of inside diners.

It wasn’t quite the same experience. This Chinese restaurant was still operating partly in pandemic mode. There was a table near the entrance with brown stapled bags of takeout, which now forms the bulk of their business. China seemed to be out: we got paper plates and cups, though the disposable chopsticks were there as always at our table. The food was just as good as we remembered but the visual experience felt cheapened somehow.

In our state, most mask mandates don’t come off until next weekend. As a practical matter, most are off already. Those running the park across the street decided that masks were no longer necessary. The prohibition always struck me as overkill, particularly when it was figured out that covid-19 was acquired almost always through breathing it in, so it required closed spaces. For someone fully vaccinated like me, masking is becoming something more to fit in and signal the right social values. Outdoors, I noticed that kids are masking but most everyone else isn’t. In public indoor spaces, masking still remains the rule, even when not technically required, such as during my Friday trip to a Trader Joe’s.

It’s largely unappreciated just how quick and effective the vaccine response has been. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines began development literally within days after China released the virus’s genome. Their success was arguably greased by tons of government money, which also encouraged Pfizer and Moderna to develop vaccines based on messenger RNA technology. There were some shortcuts that may have compromised safety: limited and parallel trials, for example, as well as emergency use authorizations. A certain amount of suspicion about their efficacy was warranted, even if they proved baseless.

This contrasted with the often dismal efforts to prevent the transmission of the disease here within the United States, leading to at least 600,000 deaths from the disease so far. I’ve drawn the conclusion that there was a far more rampant “disease” running rampant at the same time: the arguably viral obstinacy by so many Americans that: it was a fake disease, that various quack treatments would work if you did get it, that I’m too special to get it, and that it’s all part of some grand conspiracy to bring about left-wing government. There are still legions of these people out there. 600,000 deaths have taught them nothing. Whereas people like me (who believe in science) persisted by simply following recommendations and best practices, which evolved over time.

That these recommendations evolved seems to infuriate a lot of those who refused the vaccine. It seems they cannot inhabit a world where there is ambiguity: if any guidance changes over time, it must have been inherently wrong in the first place! The reason covid-19 was so easily transmissible and deadly was because it was novel: it hadn’t been seen before. We weren’t going to know what works best until we had experienced it and tried stuff, hence the high mortality rate toward the start of the pandemic.

There was concern that you could pick it up if you touched surfaces that had the virus. So I hyper-cleaned surfaces too, until the science came in that it was virtually impossible to pick it up this way, at which point I relaxed. Surviving covid-19 became pretty simple: live an isolated life if you could, work remotely if you could, and use effective masking if you couldn’t and were in public spaces. It wasn’t fun, but it could have been much worse and much more hassle. Effective vaccines took less than a year to develop. Now the challenge is to get them into the arms of people mostly in third-world countries that can’t afford to pay for them. It’s incumbent on rich countries like ours to do our utmost to help out.

It’s also remarkable that these vaccines are both so highly effective and seem to also work against the many covid-19 variants out there. There is virtually no evidence so far that once vaccinated you can pass on the disease as a passive carrier. So I shouldn’t feel guilty walking around unmasked because I am properly immunized. At worst there is a tiny five to 10% chance that I could still acquire the disease, but its symptoms would be mild. If I get it, I shouldn’t require hospitalization and it won’t kill me. Maybe that itself if a reason to mask up, but since I’m not immuno-compromised, it’s not a compelling reason to do so.

So I’m very grateful to those who created such effective vaccines in so short a time, and even for our somewhat dysfunctional government which at least could throw gobs of money at the problem, all while making the actual pandemic here exponentially worse. The vaccine makers though were but the tip of the spear. Hundreds of thousands of epidemiologists largely gave up their other work, or worked unpaid overtime, to advance research, help mitigate its spread and develop best practices. Our health care workers dealt with enormous stress and excessive amounts of jackasses to do their best in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic. All these people, and many more, have my gratitude, and should get accolades from our government for their tenacity, curiosity and intelligence they exercised to solve this public health crisis.

Needless to say, I am breathing easier.