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 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.

A real constitutional crisis is well underway

I was hoping Trump’s defeat would lead to the death of the Republican Party. Obviously that didn’t happen. It is fair to say that the Republican Party is basically the Trump Party now, so in that sense it is dead. Ronald Reagan, for example, would not recognize the party, although he did much to put it on its present course. Its mission now is to echo whatever Donald Trump says and to remove if possible the few remaining Republicans who dare to criticize him. It’s unstated but obvious mission is to end democracy in the United States leaving only Republicans in charge.

Since Trump’s defeat, the party’s behavior has been truly appalling. They will leave no stone unturned in their quest to regain power, but it must be on their terms. They have tacitly conceded that they cannot win power fairly, so most of their effort is to ensure it is won unfairly.

Many of the prerequisites have been long in place, in particular the extreme right-wing bent of the federal courts. Most of their focus is on voter suppression of those they don’t want to vote. But many states are passing laws that make it impossible for election officials to do their job. Among these is to charge these officials with felonies if they send out an unsolicited absentee voter application or leave an absentee drop box unguarded. Georgia has given the state legislature permission to remove local election officials, or simply to overturn the results of the popular vote for the presidency if they don’t like the outcome. None of these actions are in the democratic spirit, but are signs of desperation for a party for whom losing power fairly is no longer an option.

January 6 should have been the acme of their awfulness. Now it appears to be the first true skirmish of our next civil war, like lobbing the first cannon ball at Fort Sumner. They appear willing to kill democracy to save it for themselves. Basically, it’s a party of traitors. Now the rest of us have to figure out what to do about it.

Legislatively, the answer is H.R. 1, the For the People Act. It would prohibit exactly the sorts of legislative excesses we are now seeing, including gerrymandering and voter suppression. Getting it enacted into law though is a very tough job for Democrats. It currently would need to pass cloture in the Senate, which means it would require sixty votes to end debate on it and bring it to a vote. With a 50/50 Senate, that won’t happen unless Democrats either find the spine to end the filibuster rule or make an exception in this case. Without it, the likelihood is that Republican election law changes in many states will give the party the wins they need to retake the House in 2022.

These other laws tilt the 2024 presidential election in their favor too, even more than it already is. Assuming President Biden runs for reelection, he would need a commanding victory. So far at least with his popularity at 62%, that at least seems plausible. Of course, a lot can happen in the interim, and you can count on Republicans in Congress to do just this. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said his focus is just to obstruct every Biden initiative.

None of this matters if you rig the system. If Republicans regain their House majority, the next January 6 (actually January 8, 2025) won’t require an insurrection for Republicans to get a Republican president regardless of the Electoral College vote. They simply have to stand united and refuse to certify the results, which then allows the House to decide who the next president will be. In this scenario, the representatives of each state cast one vote as a bloc, so if a majority of states have a majority of Republicans representing them in the U.S. House of Representatives, they get to overturn the Electoral College and the popular vote.

As for presidential elections in 2028, 2032 etc., simply repeat. This is clearly where the party is going. They don’t intend to ever lose again and if it kills democracy in the process, so be it.

To change the way a president is selected would require a constitutional amendment. Good luck getting that passed by three-quarters of the states. There is some hope if the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact get passed by enough states, but that has stalled in recent years. Perhaps Democrats should focus their effort there.

In short, this is a four-alarm fire for our democracy. If we weren’t in a constitutional crisis before, clearly we are now. Fixing the problem looks increasingly unlikely.

Covid-19 freedom feels fleeting

Saturday I got the second jab, that second dose of vaccine (Moderna) that has something like a ninety percent chance of keeping me from acquiring covid-19. Another drive to a CVS for the shot, this time in faraway Springfield, Massachusetts. But at least this time things felt more relaxed. The nurse that jabbed me even noted that the crush was over. They weren’t upset when a lady showed up an hour early for her appointment. A lot of their slots weren’t filled so jabbing her early was no problem.

Also no problem, at least for me, was any reaction to the second dose. My wife was not so fortunate and had about twenty four hours of side effects: principally headaches, muscle cramps and a mild fever from someone who never gets them. My arm hardly hurt a tad after the injection but otherwise I had no side effects. The following day I took out my bike and fully masked took it for a twelve mile ride, the first time in a year.

A year earlier the pandemic wave was just starting and for a while where I live (Massachusetts) was a hot spot. People at the time hadn’t gotten into the masking habit. I felt unsafe biking the trail as it was crowded with both bikers and pedestrians, so I stopped.

This time fully masked I realized it wasn’t that much different. But things had changed. For one thing, people like me were getting vaccinated. Despite my bitching, my state is the number two in the percent of people vaccinated. Most of New England makes the list of top vaccinated states, likely because we understand and respect science around here. I’m likely already immune from the disease, but I’ll stay likely masked outdoors until May 15 anyhow, at least when I’m near people. It’s unlikely I’ll get it, but the science is not in yet on whether I could pass it on to others. The science though is pretty clear that you can stay unmasked outdoors in most places, and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) now agree.

The park across the street discreetly took down their outdoor masking requirement sign. Most of us walking around the park are still masked anyhow, because we’re used to it. I expect our city to follow through on all outdoor spaces public shortly, following CDC guidance. I’ll still carry a mask though. It’s possible I’ll be walking and need to dash into a store, and I would wear one then, even though it probably wouldn’t matter.

Like most Americans I want to feel like I’m back to the way things always used to be. These are truly extraordinary times. My mother was born in 1920, shortly after the end of the Spanish flu pandemic. She never had to live life behind a mask, except when she was a nurse assisting in surgery. Covid-19 though feels to me like we’ve crossed the Rubicon. I’m not convinced we’ll ever fully go back to before.

I’m not even convinced the pandemic won’t return in force. The pandemic has proven that we’ve become a remarkably brainless and self-centered country, with many of us perfectly willing to put “me” before “we”. During World War Two, we recycled scrap metal and lived with ration books. I can’t imagine our country doing this kind of national self-sacrifice anymore. Liberty now is interpreted as meaning that you can do pretty much anything you want and shouldn’t have to care about how your behavior could impact on others, and maybe even kill them. Freedom is all about “me me me” doing whatever I want when I want damn the consequences.

The result of all this self-centeredness, along with a bad global vaccine rollout and twenty to 30 percent of Americans who just refuse to take the shot, are increasingly more dangerous covid-19 variants. A shot is a pretty good bet that you won’t acquire one of these variants. But it’s not paranoid to think that one of these will get around the shots and we won’t get boosters in time to ward a variant off. In short, what’s now happening in India could very easily come back here again because we can’t get enough people vaccinated quickly enough, in part because so many of us will refused to get the vaccine. In a way, it’s still very much here, it’s just hitting younger people this time, mostly because they aren’t vaccinated. And the variants are much easier to acquire.

So give me a vacation quick, please. I need to get some wanderlust out of my system, just in case I can’t later. I need it because I am sick of sitting at home and while I could endure another year or two of this if I had to, I surely don’t want to. So a road trip or something is in order after May 15. Just an overnight or two perhaps, to get back into the groove again and test the water. Vermont is less than an hour away, and the Adirondacks are not too far away either. Maybe we’ll be eating mostly takeout. Maybe it won’t feel quite the same and disappoint. But I feel the need to try just in case … just in case we’re back in covid-19 hell again soon.

The Trump circus may be over

You wouldn’t know it from all the trepidation from elected Republicans, but it looks like Republicans are starting to move past Donald Trump. In a recent NBC News poll, when Republicans were asked which they supported more, Trump or their party, 44% said Trump and 50% said their party. The Party of Trump seems to be slowly de-Trumpifying.

Why then are Republican Party leaders so scared? It’s likely because Trump is a master bully. However, Trump simply doesn’t have the microphone he used to have. He’s largely banned from social media. He may make an occasional appearance on a conservative talk show, but even Fox News seems to be putting him in their rear view mirror.

Trump also seems to be losing interest in being at the center of attention. The pattern of daily life at Mar-a-Lago must be appealing to him: the daily eighteen holes of golf and his gold-leaf office in what used to be the wedding chapel. In any event, it used to be easy for him to command attention. He had Twitter. He was president. Now he largely stays at Mar-a-Lago and if he has something to say, even his supporters aren’t hearing much about it.

I’ll bet he’s still drinking a lot of Diet Coke, but probably resents having to pay for it. In any event, the nonstop tweeting must have been exhausting, even for Trump. Just because you have a narcissistic personality disorder doesn’t mean it’s an easy condition to deal with. Likely some part of him is glad to no longer be president and to have a much simpler life.

It may also be that Trump is running nervous. He doesn’t have the legal protections he used to. He incited the January 6th Capitol rioters. It would not be too hard a case to prove if a criminal or civil case was made of it. Civil cases are probably coming, but the criminal ones are doubtlessly more worrying. He may be heeding advice from counsel for a change to lie low.

Granted, it sure appears that even though Republicans may be de-Trumpifying, many still believe that his reelection was somehow stolen from him. Republicans in Arizona are trying to get possession of all the votes cast in Maricopa County to have them examined by their own forensics firm with no actual experience in forensics. One hopes saner heads will prevail because once they have access to the ballots with no open auditing of their process, they can be massaged any way that fits Arizona Republicans’ narrative. The votes have already been audited a number of times with no fraud found. They just didn’t give the results Trump and Republicans wanted.

It’s not too hard to figure out. Trump never was a popular president. His approval rating never got above the mid 40s. He left office with 40% approval and his approval level is now in the thirties. Trump’s election was something of a fluke, but four years of Trump never enamored him with the general public. If Trump is serious about running again in 2024, it’s hard to see how he could win without a huge amount of voter disenfranchisement, which Republican legislatures seem all too happy to implement. Trump has branded himself with Americans and they really despise his brand.

Or it could be that Republicans are slowly moving on. That doesn’t mean they haven’t embraced most of Donald Trump’s ideas, but hearing less from Trump means he’s not their constant focus of attention. Voter suppression to win elections is not a great strategy. Also not a great strategy: refusing to wear a mask. It just speeds up the process of reducing the number of Republicans out there.

I find Rep. Lynn Cheney (R-WY) pretty reprehensible, but she is one of the few Republicans in a position of power speaking out against Trump. So far at least she hasn’t lost her position in the Republican House leadership. Her fundraising seems to be steady. Fearlessly speaking out against Trump is risky but has a potential upside in that it distinguishes her in the future as someone willing to tell the truth. She is primed to benefit if Trump’s popularity proves fleeting.

Because even with voter suppression, Republicans who haven’t lost their minds know they don’t have a good hand, and Trump is weighing them down. They can’t do much to appeal to independents while Trump is controlling the party, simply because they don’t have an appealing message to independents, who tend to align more with Democrats and Joe Biden, perhaps in reaction to Trump.

Maybe even most Republicans are tired of the Trump show and want to move on. As one person polled by NBC News put it:

The best thing about Joe Biden (as president) is I don’t have to think about Joe Biden.

Amen, say most Americans, including, I suspect, now even a majority of Republicans.

It’s the end of times! Again!

There are lots of political and sociological theories going around about … well, what’s going around: current events. We are living through a pretty stressful time: covid-19, hyper-partisanship, so-called “fake news”, a climate crisis, a refugee crisis, police brutality against people of color … it all seems to be heaped on top of each other with seemingly no way out.

Okay, there are ways out of all this stuff, but it means persuading people and power brokers to act not in their immediate self-interest and, like the Grinch, let their hearts expand three sizes. Good luck with that.

One theory is that societies go through periods of great turbulence with some regularity and in a few years we’ll achieve some sort of new consensus where something like a new normal can resume. In this theory, President Joe Biden is the antidote to President Ronald Reagan. It was arguably Reagan who popularized “the government is bad” mantra and since that time, well, there’s been a lot of bad coming from government.

Some are hoping that by making government work again, Biden has the Reagan antidote. Except he’s a long way from that and his attempts to break partisanship likely won’t amount to anything. Our democracy feels very fragile at the moment, and there are few signs here in America in particular that we are rising toward our better selves.

Yet, it does seem like we’ve been through this before. Maybe the fever will break around 2030. This will be roughly two millennium since the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Or maybe in 2063, when I expect to be dead, two millennium since the Jewish Diaspora, at least the big one where the Romans retook Palestine, utterly destroyed Jerusalem and those few Jews they did not kill left the area permanently. In any event, reading the Muslim scholar and historian Reza Aslan’s book Zealot, about the lives and times of Jesus of Nazareth, it’s hard to escape that feeling of we’re reliving, at least in spirit, those turbulent days.

I’ve read many books about the historic Jesus of Nazareth, but Zealot fills in some important gaps. For one thing, when Jesus was alive Palestine was rife with messiah wannabees. Crucifixion, as horrible as it is, was pretty routine, at least for anyone that seemed to threaten order. This penalty did not seem to deter these potential messiahs. Indeed, Jesus’s death never made the headlines of the time. Only one reference from the time by Josephus alludes to Jesus, as the brother James. All other references come from the Bible.

Anyhow, the Jews were just one of many natives who fought occupations, and the Romans in 63 A.D. were just the latest. While the Jews were largely wiped out by the Romans (and later, the Nazis) the Jews also practiced genocide. That’s how ancient Israel was founded: not by routing non-Jews from Palestine, but killing the non-Jews living there. This is a matter of settled history and is commanded in the Old Testament. One of the wonders about the new state of Israel created in 1947 is they didn’t kill all the Palestinians living there as the Torah commands. But they killed plenty to again create a state by and for Jews.

It seems we just can’t abide comfortably with people too different from ourselves. These days it’s all seemingly coming to a head. Future shock has arrived and we’re not coping well. It feels something like being crammed into an elevator with too many people.

We refuse to cope with our new and more complex reality; we refuse to believe this is how it’s going to be. For Fox “News” commentator Tucker Carlson, it’s happening through “replacement theory”: we Democrats are supposedly trying to cancel the votes of whites by allowing too many non-whites into the country. Implicit in this theory is the idea that non-whites don’t deserve the same rights as the rest of us. To address their fears, they must do everything possible to marginalize the votes of non-white Americans; hence the many voter suppression laws emerging from the outcome of the 2020 election. Can ethnic cleansing be far behind?

Jesus of Nazareth believed the end of times was near. “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” (Luke 21:32) He was obviously wrong about that, unless we’ve had a new Methuselah around since he was alive. Similarly, many of today’s Christians believe the end of times is near. It seems they want to hasten it all along so the rapture can commence.

Two thousand years should teach us that no messiah is on its way to establish the Kingdom of God here on earth. But by acting like the end of times is near, these people can certainly add to the chaos underway. Why care about the future if the end is near? Why take a covid-19 vaccine if you believe God will protect you from it anyhow, or rapture is imminent? Why use common sense when it’s easier to rely on gut feelings and prejudice? Why place hope in scientists when you don’t like what they are telling you?

Reading Zealot has affected me. It makes me angry that two thousand years after Jesus walked among us we are still mired in the same pointless conflicts and backwards thinking. What hope I can find is that more of us are just giving up religion. For the first time, a poll shows a majority of Americans are now unchurched. It may be in twenty years as this majority grows we will have a majority people who can act logically, rather than rely on a holy book.

If God exists, it works in mysterious ways. I can cite my wife, definitely unchurched but with Buddhist inclinations, as God at work in the real world. If God wants us to be loving, kind and create the Kingdom of God here on earth, she’s on the case by volunteering at a local survival center.

It’s her and others engaging in these largely thankless and necessary tasks of simply keeping people alive despite slim to no odds of solving these systemic problems. Her heart grows with compassion every time she volunteers.

I’m not convinced there’s much of this compassion within evangelical churches, except perhaps for people in their own congregation with that share their skin tone.

Republicans: freedom isn’t what you think it is

Dr. Anthony Fauci is a model civil servant, simply telling the truth about infectious diseases as best he can, most recently of course about our covid-19 pandemic. Yet he is constantly being sniped at by Republicans, today by Rep. Jim (“Gym”) Jordan (R-Ohio). Rep. Jordon grilled Dr. Fauci, asking him when Americans will get their freedom back. He wants to take his mask off! If he can’t, his freedom is being violated!

Freedom. In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Jordan seems to think that freedom means doing anything you want whenever you want, damn the consequences. Of course most of us spend much of our day abiding by various rules that limit his definition of “freedom.”

For example, you put on your seat belt before driving your car. You avoid driving through red lights and stop signs. Most likely you buy an auto insurance policy before driving your car so if you are at fault in an accident, the victim can at least be compensated. Laws are constraints on unrestrained freedom that we agree are reasonable and must be obeyed. Of course, you are free to violate the law, but you face the likelihood of paying a penalty if you do. We have the freedom to do things that aren’t against the law whenever we want without worry that we’ll be arrested for it. Well, unless you are a black driver and a cop pulls you over for having an air freshener blocking your rearview mirror, and you end up dead when he freaks out and supposedly mistakes his pistol for a taser.

Most likely Jordan is free to walk outside of the Capitol and if he is not within six feet of another human doff his mask. He is also free to resign from Congress. Staying home all the time, he’s free to live mask free inside of his house.

But Congress, like state and local governments, have its laws and rules too, rules you agree to as a condition of winning office. In most communities, public health officials, mayors or governors are allowed to make people wear masks as public safety measures. Obviously, some of them like Governor Ron DeSantis agree with Jordan’s idea of freedom. In many cases, this freedom to walk around maskless allows someone to pass on covid-19. This inconveniently takes away their freedom to be free of covid-19. It’s for this reason that I generally wear a mask outdoors, but certainly anytime I’m around people other than my wife.

Freedom of course is not free. It’s not free for the person who inadvertently acquired covid-19, and someone exercising their idea of freedom might cost someone their life. Are you free if dead? Well, you are free of the disease, but true freedom requires being alive as a precondition. If you are dead, you aren’t controlling anything, except perhaps how well the grass grows above your plot.

During the smoking wars, we nonsmokers thought it was perfectly reasonable that we should not have to breathe in toxins of nearby smokers. It took decades to change the law and smokers grudgingly gave up their freedom. I remember a time about forty years ago when I didn’t have this freedom. In the office nearby workers smoked openly even though I asked them not to. I came home reeking of tobacco.

So far I haven’t gotten lung cancer, so I am probably safe. But if I had spent all forty years of my career forced to breathe in secondhand smoke, I might very well have lung cancer. The law eventually came to my rescue.

For the most part, masking requirements are settled law too. The right officials can require you to wear masks in many situations, but only for the duration of the pandemic. When the public health emergency goes away, or dies to the point where it is a very minor risk, that’s when you get your freedom to go unmasked back again. So the best thing Jordan can do to get his freedom back as quickly as possible is to wear his damned mask!

You would think you wouldn’t have to tell this to a lawmaker. By definition, a lawmaker should at least understand what laws are and why they are necessary. Rep. Jordan though is hardly alone, or hardly the only one. Republicans you see claim the right to define freedom selectively: they’re free to do something when they decide they want to.

The law doesn’t work that way. That’s the very definition of the law. Any law is a real or potential restraint on someone’s freedom. Otherwise there would be no reason for having laws in the first place. Rather than have a government, we’d just have anarchy.

The correct response to Rep. Jordan was exactly what Rep. Maxine Waters told Jordan at the end of his tirade: ”Your time expired, sir. You need to respect the chair and shut your mouth.”