Saturday Morning Coffee

A few articles I read this morning with my coffee:

I don’t fundamentally disagree that online retailers, especially Amazon, could afford to pay a bit more to shop packages through the US Postal Service. But delivering packages cheaply isn’t the reason USPS struggles fiscally. And the President using government agencies to go after political rivals is a problem. Worse, reducing the reach of the Post Office has implications for voting during a pandemic. Democrats in Congress need to make sure this gets fixed.

Trump took some heat for his suggestion that drinking or injecting bleach or bathing in ultraviolet light could cure COVID-19 infections. So did the New York Times for a tweet (since deleted) suggesting that only “some” experts might think this is dangerous lunacy. (H/t to LGM). If you’re wondering where he got these ideas, take a look this article in The Guardian. Seems some guy named Mark Grenon has been pushing the idea that drinking industrial bleach could cure a variety of ailments for years through his “Church of Health and Healing.” It seems he got Trump’s ear with a letter suggesting it would work to cure the novel coronavirus. Grifters gonna grift, I guess, but Trump could make more money and hurt fewer people if he stuck to the classics like funneling taxpayer money to his resorts and golf clubs. I’d love to see this letter though, just to find out if Grenon offered the Donald a cut.

Governor Northam has outlined plans for relaxing Virginia’s lockdown orders, including necessary preconditions (e.g. “a two-week decline in the percentage of positive cases and number of hospitalizations”). Meanwhile, my State Senator and opponent in last year’s Senate race, Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover), along with Senator Bill Stanley (R-Franklin County), has filed suit on behalf of the owners of Gold’s Gym franchises in Virginia seeking injunctions against enforcement of the Executive Order closing them. I’m not convinced that allowing businesses to reopen will really keep the economy from collapsing as long as two-thirds of Americans support continued social distancing and would probably stay home any way (just as many did before lockdown orders went into effect). This New York Times story about relaxing the order in Georgia suggests that some people still don’t get it. Had to have that tongue piercing? Really?

Please stay home and stay safe. The more careful we all are the sooner this will end.

Sunday Morning Coffee

A few of the articles I read this morning over coffee with short comments on each.

Protests against lockdowns and stay-at-home orders begin. Are these starting organically or driven by right-wing organizations?

Back in January when SARS-COVID-2 began to spread from China, a good friend of mine told me government would eventually have to shut down businesses and limit large gatherings of people in order to limit the contagion and protect the health care system. I responded that even if necessary, lockdowns like this would generate protest and backlash in the US if they lasted more than a week or two. Those protests have started.

This week a few dozen people gathered at Capitol Square in Richmond to demand an end to stay-at-home orders in Virginia by 1 May.

Both Capitol and Virginia State Police were on hand and had to remind the protesters to maintain social distancing guidelines since they said the groups encouraged participants to hug and share food during the event.

“The reason why I’m not wearing a mask is that I’m not going to have someone tell me I have to,” said protester Benjamin Wright, who lives in Richmond.

This kind of right-wing virtue signaling will spread across the US and could seriously limit the ability of US institutions to deal with this crisis. And make no mistake: it’s driven by right-wing organizations like the Proud Boys and part of Trump’s reelection campaign.

It can also lead to this kind of tragic outcome when people believe what they hear on propaganda networks instead of members of their own family.

In Pursuit of PPE

This story about an executive for a Massachusetts hospital system buying personal protective equipment for his staff demonstrates both the failure of markets to allocate resources to filling an urgent need and the failure of government to protect public health. Shortages will generate higher prices, but government should work to improve the situation by taking action to increase production, not throw up road blocks and threaten to redirect shipments on a whim.

Awarding high-dollar contracts for the purchase of masks from bankrupt firms with no staff that have never made a mask does not seem like the best way out of the PPE shortage mess.

The New England Journal of Medicine is a good general resource on SARS-COVID-2, by the way.

Just so this isn’t All Coronavirus All the Time…

As the Bernie Sanders campaign ended and the Democratic Party continued coalescing support around Biden’s candidacy, I got into it a bit with some Our Revolution folks on Twitter. I tried to make the point that for now policy has to take a back seat to ending the Trump disaster (not to mention what looks like nascent fascism) with little success. But I also pointed out that politicians like Sanders and Warren, supported by activist groups like the Indivisibles and Resistance organizations, have moved American politics to the left. So the reason Sanders’ Our Revolution movement failed to achieve electoral success has more to do with the failure of their “unite the working class” strategy than with refusal by Democratic Party elites to back progressive policies. More to come on this in the coming days.

The Sanders-Scott Debates Episode 1: Abortion

My first post in the Lincoln-Douglas II: the Sanders-Scott Debates series. We’ll both be following up in the other’s comment sections. Cross posted at Virginia Right. You can read Sandy’s initial entry here.

I’ve written in the past about existential issues – policy questions that settle the political debate for many Americans. Some focus on Second Amendment rights, others on taxes or religion. Abortion – reproductive health care – is one of the big ones.  

Most activists frame the abortion discussion in terms of rights. The pro-life side privileges the right to life for the fetus. Others fight for a woman’s right to reproductive choice.  Advocacy coalitions on both sides privilege the freedom of the individuals they wish to protect.

Rights often conflict in a democracy, and the adjudication of these conflicts forms the core of politics. Madison expected factions to argue and fight and try to convince others they’re in the right and should form policy. Today we’re so polarized that these existential issues divide us in ways Madison didn’t expect. So even when one side or the other wins power and acts to implement policy, the other side rejects its legitimacy. Abortion is, after all, murder if you accept the personhood of a fetus. If you don’t, the pregnant woman’s health and personal freedom take precedence. She is, after all, the only human being involved.

Settling the abortion debate then depends in part on settling the question of when life begins. But even if one side won the argument, and its opponents accepted the legitimacy of the policy they seek to implement, this victory probably does not lead to optimal policy outcomes

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Announcing Lincoln-Douglas II: the Sanders-Scott Debates

I’m happy to announce the start of a regular series, in collaboration with my good friend Ellwood “Sandy” Sanders, a blogger at Virginia Right. Each week Sandy and I will post articles on a specific topic, and then hold a virtual “Lincoln-Douglas” style debate on the issue. This Friday, April 17th, we’ll open the series with a back-and-forth on abortion.

Sandy is a Hanover County attorney who earned his J.D. at the University of Alabama in 1983 and now works as an Appellate Procedure Consultant for a downtown legal firm. He has written or co-authored ten scholarly legal articles, including one on the “Effect of the USA Patriot Act on Money Laundering and Currency Transaction Laws.” His resume includes work as an Appellate Defender, adjunct professor of law at the T. C. Williams School of Law (University of Richmond), and service on the Appellate Practice Subcommittee of the Litigation Section of the Virginia State Bar.  Sandy is very active in his church and supports its missionary work. He also helped bring curling to Virginia!

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Captain Crozier Relieved of Command

A couple of days ago I posted about how COVID-19 sidelined the USS Theodore Roosevelt. In that post I wrote that I expected the Navy to take any action necessary to protect the crew and get the ship back in action as quickly as possible. Now it looks like this didn’t happen quickly enough to satisfy her Captain, and he was not shy about letting people know. This got him canned.

After evacuating more than a hundred COVID-positive sailors to quarantine on Guam, Captain Brett Crozier became concerned that the Navy would not act fast enough to protect the rest of the crew. On 30 March, Crozier sent a sharp letter to his superiors pointing out that while the ship could fight if necessary, failure to rapidly disembark sailors during peacetime risked their lives unnecessarily.

This caused Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly to relieve Crozier of his command, ostensibly for going around his chain of command.

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Pandemic and National Security

USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71).
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael D. Cole
Public Domain,
http://www.navy.mil/view_image.asp?id=57046

One of three deployed US aircraft carriers has been sidelined by corona virus infections on board. This pandemic has, at least temporarily, taken this warship out of the fight. I would be surprised if it’s the only one, but even if it is we’re looking at a serious erosion of American war fighting capability.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt, a Nimitz class nuclear aircraft carrier, has a crew of about 3200, not including its associated Air Wing. More than four thousand Naval personnel were on the Theodore Roosevelt when the vessel docked in Guam with more than 100 crew members testing positive for the virus, according to the linked article.

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Health Care and Profits

The Trilogy Evo Portable Ventilator
Photo Credit Philips North America

A few days ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine who teaches economics and finance at the university level. I wondered out loud why the invisible hand of the market didn’t generate increased production of N95 masks and other protective equipment for medical personnel, not to mention life-saving equipment like ventilators and respirators. It seems to me, I said, that the risk-taking entrepreneurs who drive free markets should have been able to recognize an upcoming requirement for expanded production by late January. Even if not sold immediately, these items will eventually sell, if only for government or health care system stockpiles.

My friend chuckled a bit and explained two things to me. First, the people who make decisions for late capitalist firms do not gamble. They are risk averse and wait for orders to come in so they don’t get stuck with inventory they cannot sell. This is why you can’t find bathroom tissue at your local grocery store. More importantly, my friend continued, late stage capitalists use their market power not to innovate but to block the threat of innovation by other firms by securing control of production and markets.

Reading the news this morning I happened to spot a good example of this.

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Saturday Morning Coffee

A few links to things I read while having my Saturday morning coffee today:

One of the many things I’ve thought about since COVID-19 forced us into severe social distancing is the effect it must be having on military units. It has to have limiting effects on recruiting and basic training, and I”m not sure how tank platoons keep training and operating effectively unless medics can test and track the spread of the virus within the ranks. This story about the outbreak on the Theodore Roosevelt brings that worry home.

If you’re looking for a good Twitter “List of epidemiologists, researchers, public health experts & journalists tracking COVID-19” you could do worse than this one from @Joshtpm.

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Thoughts on Elections During National Emergencies

Voting in Person, 2019
Photo Credit: R. Stanton Scott

An authoritarian figure who has joked about being President for life runs the Federal Government during a pandemic that could literally kill millions of Americans and disrupt society for months. States are postponing primary elections and struggling to figure out how voters can cast ballots while keeping social distancing. Understandably, some people worry that Donald Trump might take advantage of the crisis to stay in power.

Lots of journalists have written about this, including Evan Halper in the LA TimesBlake Rutherford for The Hill, and Chris Cillizza for CNN. The general assessment boils down to “Trump may be desperate with the economy in the tank but has no power to postpone elections. His term ends on 20 January 2021 even if he could, and the Presidential Succession Act kicks in if he isn’t reelected or replaced through a Constitutional election before that time.” 

These discussions focus narrowly on two questions: whether States could physically hold elections during a pandemic using modern systems and what would happen if they couldn’t. Most agree that elections can take place if state legislatures hurry up and figure out how to use expanded absentee voting, other voting by mail systems, or even the internet. They also think that if for some reason elections cannot be held, someone other than Trump would take power based on existing statute.

What none of these articles mention is the Electoral College and the role of state legislatures in choosing these Electors. This is the group that actually elects the President, as we found out the hard way in 2016. These days voters choose these Electors by casting votes at polling stations or by mail because state legislatures want it that way – this is not a Constitutional requirement. This means that elections for President and Vice President can take place as long as state legislatures can meet and choose Electors before Election Day.  

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Sanctuary Cities and Nullification Theory

So conservatives who complain the loudest about “sanctuary cities” when it comes to immigration seem to be lining up to support “Second Amendment Sanctuaries” now that Democrats control the General Assembly. Yesterday I saw this first-hand at the Hanover and Westmoreland County Board of Supervisors meetings. Both Boards passed resolutions objecting to gun control laws that has not yet passed the General Assembly on the assumption they will infringe on Second Amendment rights.

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