Sunday, October 11, 2020


 Supreme Court: Should Democrats play ‘constitutional hardball’?

*****It was only a matter of time, really.  Ever since Senate Republicans blocked President Obama’s last nomination to the Supreme Court in 2016, progressive activists have been urging justices.  With Mitch McConnell now rushing to ram through a confirmation of nominee Amy Coney Barrett before the election, giving conservatives a dominant 6-3 majority, even mainstream Democrats are clamoring to expand the court by four or even six members if the party wins control of the Senate and the White House.

--Elaine Godfrey,

  *****Why not?  Republicans’ justification for stealing two seats on the court is simply that they had the votes to do so, so why should an incoming Democratic majority show any restraint? First, Senate Democrats need to abolish the legislative filibuster requiring 60 votes for any bill to pass. Then Democrats can pass legislation adding several seats to the court.  Bestowing statehood on Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico could be next—it would create four new Democratic-leaning Senate seats. Democrats have been squeamish about this kind of constitutional “hardball,” but since McConnell has been so ruthless, it’s a game they should learn to play.

--Josh Blackman,

*****No wonder Biden refuses to state his position on court packing.  He can’t demoralize his base by ruling it out, but he knows voters would punish them for their partisan power grab at the next election, enabling Republicans to add their own seats to the court and regain the advantage.

--Rich Lowry,

 *****Actually, adding justices might “be the only way to restore the institutional legitimacy of the court.  If Barrett is confirmed, five of the court’s nine justices will have been nominated by Republican presidents who lost the popular vote.

--Quinta Jurecic,

 Building homes that fuel wildfires

The heat and drought brought on by climate change is clearly contributing to California’s wildfires. But so is years of building new housing in high fire risk zones.  Strict zoning regulations in the state’s affluent urban and suburban communities have driven 11 million Californians to move to remote areas, which planners call the wildland urban interface.  Living there requires people to drive more and emit more greenhouse gases. More important, it puts homes out in wooded areas that once burned naturally or had prescribed burns to prevent a backlog of dead tinder, but where officials now suppress fires to save houses.

 The new houses themselves are essentially big piles of fuel and accelerate rampaging wildfires. These homes also put human beings in the woods, and 95 percent of wildfires are caused by people. Firefighters risk their lives protecting these homes. Over the past seven years, wildfires have killed 193 people and destroyed 50,000 structures, but the state isn’t addressing the role California’s housing and land-use policies play in this ongoing catastrophe. We need to get a whole lot smarter about where and how we build.

--Elizabeth Weil and Mollie Simon, ProPublica

 Plastic-eating 'super enzyme'

Scientists in the U.K. have developed a cocktail of enzymes that can break down plastic much more quickly than current methods, a possible game changer for recycling. Researchers have been seeking to harness the natural digestive qualities of enzymes since the discovery of plastic-eating bacteria at a Japanese landfill in 2016. The new “super enzyme” is a combination of PETase—an enzyme previously shown to break down plastic—and another enzyme called MHETase.  When these are stitched together, the scientists found, the speed of the breakdown increased sixfold over when PETase is used alone. The process leaves behind the building blocks of plastic, which can be used over and over again.   

 “We were actually quite surprised it worked so well,” lead author John McGeehan, from the University of Portsmouth, tells Because fossil fuels are required to make plastic, he says, “we’re looking at huge energy savings.” The super enzyme is still a slow mover: recycling a plastic bottle would probably take days or weeks. But McGeehan and his team are exploring ways to cut the degradation time—by softening the plastic, for example—and to scale up their operations.

 --The Week

Hard-core flier? Your plane is ready

People who miss flying are rushing to buy tickets on ‘flights to nowhere.  Thousands of antsy travelers stuck at home in Brunei, Taiwan, Japan, and Australia are booking so-called scenic flights that start and end in the same place.  Last week, Qantas announced a seven-hour flight over Australia in a “state-of-the-art B787 Dreamliner with the biggest windows on any passenger aircraft.”  Tickets starting at $575 each sold out in 10 minutes.  Royal Brunei offers similar, though shorter, “Dine & Fly” flights that serve local cuisine.  The demand has been a surprising boon for cash-strapped airlines, which have faced unprecedented declines in revenue since the pandemic began. The chief executive of Qantas said that his airline was hoping to cater to frequent fliers who are used to the experience of flying every other week.

--Tariro Mzezewai, New York Times

 Big banks choose to ignore crime

Some of the world’s largest banks continue knowingly doing business with criminals.  We obtained financial documents compiled by banks, shared with the government, but kept from public view that reveal the ease with which profits from deadly drug wars, fortunes embezzled from developing countries, and hard-earned savings stolen in a Ponzi scheme were allowed to “low in and out of financial institutions despite warnings from bank employees.

 Since 1992, a branch of the Treasury Department, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN, has collected documents known as suspicious activity reports (SARs) from banks. FinCEN received more than 2 million SARs last year. But as long as a bank files such a notice, it all but immunizes itself and its executives from criminal prosecution.   In many cases, banks filed numerous reports about the same clients while continuing to welcome their business.  HSBC, for instance, has been fined billions in the past for doing business with traffickers, yet continues its relationship with a Panamanian import-export firm that launders money for drug lords.  There may be only one way to fix the problem, said one former Justice Department lawyer: “The bankers will never learn until you start putting silver bracelets on people.”

--Jason Leopold,

 Biden’s ethical blindness about his son

Joe Biden may have done nothing illegal, but a new Senate report on his family’s “foreign profiteering” reveals “an ethical stench.” While Biden was vice president, his son Hunter “received a remarkable amount of money from highly suspect foreign entities,” including people connected to China’s Communist Party, a female Russian billionaire, and a Ukrainian energy company, the report found. “Rather sickeningly,” Hunter Biden also made payments to women connected to an “Eastern European prostitution or human-trafficking ring.” Joe Biden’s brother James and sister-in-law Sara—who along with Hunter have been dubbed “Biden, Inc.”—also “cashed in,” making lucrative deals worth millions with shady entities and individuals abroad.

 Joe Biden himself did not profit, and did the right thing in pushing anti-corruption measures in Ukraine, but he showed woefully deficient judgment.  The vice president took his wheeler-dealer son on a diplomatic mission to China, where Hunter pursued a private business deal, and raised no objection when Hunter accepted a $50,000-a-month board membership with Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company. That role created significant headaches for U.S. diplomacy in Ukraine. Joe Biden’s ethical blindness should concern every voter.

--, Editorial

Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music

*****Contemplating Wagner, trying to sum up what his art means, puts one in mind of the ancient Hindu parable of the blind men and the elephant,”  “The object itself is so huge that each person groping to comprehend it comes to a radically different conclusion of what it is.”

--Composer John Adams

 *****Richard Wagner (1813–83) was the monoculture event artist of his age. The German composer’s operas, Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde, and the Ring cycle among them, introduced new dramatic images, techniques, and motifs that reshaped artistic culture across Europe and North America. In his new book, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross is “mercifully light” on music theory lingo as he devotes 700 pages to Wagner’s vast influence beyond music.

--Ashley Naftule,

*****Ross’ roaming survey of writers and artists listening and responding to Wagner’s music “becomes a history of consciousness—and ultimately collides with a history of poisonous hatred and genocidal violence.  Wagner’s music was many things to many listeners, including aphrodisiac and mystic healing force. To Adolf Hitler, it was a strident call to arms in a quest for racial purity.

--Geoffrey O’Brien, Bookforum

*****Measuring Wagner’s share of blame for Hitler becomes a major concern, Wagner was a fierce anti-Semite, but Hitler admired him more for his art than for his thinking. And Hitler was a poor listener. He seemed to overlook Wagner’s preoccupation with love” and how Wagner’s heroes often struggle with remorse—“hardly a Nazi virtue.”

--The Economist

New bans on 'cashless' stores

An increasing number of cities and states are ordering businesses like restaurants and retail shops to continue accepting cash.   New York City is banning cashless stores later this year, joining New Jersey, Philadelphia, and other locales that passed similar laws last year.  Stores like electronic payments because they speed up purchases and reduce concern about theft.  But the move to cash-free has spurred concerns about discrimination against buyers who have no credit or debit cards.  Consumer groups are backing federal legislation that would require all brick-and-mortar stores to take cash—still used in a quarter of all purchases and for almost half of the payments under $10.

--Ann Carrns, New York Times


No comments: