Thursday, February 18, 2021



Will Biden’s climate-change agenda make a difference?

Executive orders can get Biden only so far.  To effect lasting change, we need new laws, but getting buy-in from Congress is likely to be extremely difficult.  With the filibuster still in place, new legislation will need 10 Republican Senate votes, not to mention the vote of West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin, who in a 2010 campaign ad literally shot the last major climate bill with a rifle.

--Spencer Bokat-Lindell, New York Times

 If Biden wants new laws, he could try to build consensus.  Instead, he seems determined to handle climate change the way Democrats tackle all problems: by ramming through massive spending schemes without bipartisan support.

--Kevin Williamson,

 The politics of climate are changing.  Americans are witnessing and experiencing prolonged droughts and heat waves, rampaging wildfires, more damaging hurricanes, persistent coastal flooding and extreme weather of all kinds—just as climate scientists predicted. This is becoming an issue that the Right cannot ignore . . . .  Biden’s executive orders won’t by themselves make greenhouse gases go away, but they’re a clear statement of intent. Biden believes that breakthroughs in green technology should happen here in America, and that the jobs from those advances should go to U.S. workers.  Republicans will resist, if only for resistance’s sake.  But history is on Biden’s side, and history—eventually—always wins.

--Washington Post

Our China problem

President Biden’s biggest foreign policy “nightmare may be China.  In coming years, there is a significant risk of a military confrontation with the world’s most populous nation, because President Xi Jinping is an overconfident, risk-taking bully who believes that the United States is in decline.  Xi has been sending threatening signals about invading Taiwan, whose independence he finds galling; as a test, he could order China’s military to seize the Pratas and Kinmen islands now controlled by Taiwan, or a cyberattack on Taiwan’s banking system, or a blockade of its oil deliveries. That kind of aggression could draw the U.S. into perhaps the most dangerous confrontation with another nuclear power since the Cuban missile crisis. 


Even if Xi does not go that far, Biden has to contend with China’s oppression of Hong Kong, its genocide of the Uighurs, its contempt for human rights and its unfair trade practices.  Biden has recruited a tough-minded team of Asia experts who understand that China is an untrustworthy adversary. But a China policy that is too confrontational could lead to a dangerous escalation of tensions.  Let’s keep the cold war with Beijing cold.

--Nicholas Kristof, New York Times

Executing mentally ill prisoners

On its way out the door, the Trump administration went on a spree of lame duck executions of chilling injustice and inhumanity.  The administration killed three federal prisoners alone, for a total of 13 since July—triple the number of federal executions over the past six decades.  The overwhelming majority of state-sanctioned killings are of people suffering from intellectual disabilities, severe mental illness, and/or a disabling history of childhood abuse and trauma. 

 Consider Lisa Montgomery, executed in January: She was gang-raped at 11 by her stepfather and his friends, brain damaged by severe beatings and trafficked by her mother to pay bills.  She was delusional throughout her life.  Executed prisoner Daniel Lewis Lee also suffered severe childhood abuse that left him mentally ill.  Wesley Purkey, executed in July, was sexually abused by his mother and had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.  Judges and juries often discount the role of severe childhood abuse and mental illness in serious criminal behavior, viewing disturbed and delusional people as more dangerous and deserving of execution.  It’s unconscionable—and it’s one more reason President Biden should end the federal death penalty and lead a campaign for nationwide abolition of capital punishment.

--Austin Sarat,

 Bigelow’s metaphysical explorations

Robert Bigelow has spent his life hunting for extraterrestrials and proof of an afterlife.  The Las Vegas real estate mogul, 75, believes these Holy Grail pursuits are related, with an interdimensional explanation.  “If we see a shadow going through one wall and through another,” he says, “we don’t know for sure if it was a discarnate human spirit or E.T.”  

 Growing up in Nevada, Bigelow became hooked on UFOs and aliens, after his grandparents had a close encounter with a glowing object.  He vowed to get rich so he could research UFOs.  His booming long-term rentals business, Budget Suites, allowed him to sink more than $350 million into Bigelow Aerospace, whose secret collaboration with the Pentagon to study UFOs was revealed in 2017.  Bigelow’s dueling obsession, the afterlife, began after the 1992 death by suicide of his 24-year-old son, Rod Lee.  After his wife of 55 years, Diane, died last June, Bigelow founded the Institute for Consciousness Studies to research life after death.  Bigelow’s institute is giving $1 million in prizes this year for research offering the best evidence that consciousness persists after death.  “I am personally totally convinced of it,” he says.

--Ralph Blumenthal, New York Times

How to fix social media

With former President Trump banned from Twitter, Facebook, and several other sites, the siren calls for social media regulation will soon become deafening, said Andy Kessler.  Most would-be reformers want to rewrite Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which largely exempts social media companies from legal liability for what users post on their sites.  But attempts to fix Section 230 would massively backfire, forcing Twitter, Facebook, et al., to heavily censor on their sites all controversial posts, lest they be sued into oblivion.  We often forget, however, that Section 230 doesn’t forbid suing users of social media for libel or holding them accountable.  The problem is anonymity: The nastiest and most irresponsible posters hide behind fake names and handles. Forcing users to register with, say, a credit card or other ID and use their real names might cut the sites’ user bases in half, but advertisers would rejoice and it would limit the need for tens of thousands of content moderators.  If you post threats or libelous attacks on people, you will risk getting sued.  Post about buying zip ties and invading the Capitol, and the FBI knocks on your door. Ending anonymity would put an immediate damper on today’s worst offenders.

--Andy Kessler, Wall St. Journal

It’s not all better

The Biden era presages a return to typical presidential dishonesty, without the cult of personality that defined the Trump era.  But presidential lies were destructive long before Trump appeared, so the press and the public should resist the temptation to assume that the Biden administration will always be on the level, or that its dishonesties can be forgiven because Joe Biden’s predecessor wielded falsehood with such abandon.  There will be moments when the public interest conflicts with the political interest of the White House, and during some of these moments, the president will lie. All presidents do.”

--Adam Serwer,

 LGBTQ rights: Did Biden go too far?

President Biden has already achieved the most sweeping expansion of LGBTQ rights in American history.   In a historic executive order, Biden directed all federal agencies to interpret civil rights laws as prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  The order—which extends the Supreme Court’s landmark Bostock ruling on employment—will ensure equal protection for LGBTQ people in housing, education, health care, and more.  Biden also reversed Trump’s ban on transgender people enlisting in the military.

--Mark Joseph Stern,

 The new president has given gay and transgender people something precious—hope for the future.  After Trump’s overt hostility toward transgender people like me, Biden’s empathetic actions, and his inclusion of LGBTQ people in his administration, make me want to dance in the streets.

--Allison Hope,

Biden’s order goes too far and undoes decades of feminist progress. By embracing the fashionable woke notion that gender is purely a matter of identity, unrelated to biology, it will force female athletes to compete with biological males, who will unjustly claim titles, trophies, and scholarships.  Trans girls who go through puberty as males retain huge natural advantages over girls and women, with greater bone density, muscle mass and lung capacity.  That’s why a pair of trans track-and-field athletes in Connecticut were able to easily dominate girls’ competitions, sparking a lawsuit on behalf of several girls whose athletic dreams were crushed.

--Ramona Tausz, New York Post

 Transgender advocates say these fears are exaggerated.  Gillian Branstetter of the National Women’s Law Center notes that 16 states already allow transgender students to compete as women and says girls’ athletics did not vanish as a result.

--Samantha Schmidt, Washington Post

Still, this culture war aggression isn’t the act of a president who’s seeking unity.   Biden has adopted the radical view that the law must treat trans women as absolutely indistinguishable from biological women.  The impact will be felt well beyond sports.  Consider a battered women’s shelter where traumatized women do not want to be around biological males, or a high school locker room, where blending naked trans girls and biological girls is asking for trouble.  Dividing the country along these deep and inflammatory issues of identity is Biden’s first big mistake.

--Andrew Sullivan,

 Kiss the office goodbye?

As a general rule of human civilization, we’ve lived where we work. But nobody will forget the lesson we were all just forced to learn:  Telecommunications doesn’t have to be the perfect substitute for in-person meetings, as long as it’s mostly good enough. For the most part, remote work just works.

Remote work could do to America’s residential geography in the 2020s what the highway did in the 1950s and ’60s: spread it out. The past 12 months have offered a glimpse of the nowhere-everywhere future of work. We’re only beginning to understand just how strange that future might be.

--Derek Thompson,

Should it be easier or harder to vote?

Republicans failed to help Donald Trump steal the 2020 election, but they’re already trying to steal the next one.” Horrified by the record turnout that powered Joe Biden’s narrow victory in swing states, GOP lawmakers in 28 states have introduced 106 separate bills restricting citizens’ access to the ballot box.  If enacted, the bills would curtail early and absentee voting; impose more stringent voter ID requirements; reduce the number of polling places and ballot drop-boxes; eliminate automatic and same-day registration programs; and make it easier for Republican officials to “purge” voter rolls of Democrats.

--Ari Berman,

 As always, Republicans are justifying their voter-suppression efforts in the name of “ballot integrity.”  But that’s hard to square with a proposed Arizona bill that would empower the state’s (Republican) legislature to simply decertify unfavorable election results and let them choose their own electors.  Republicans are keenly aware that their base of white, rural, mostly male voters is being steadily outnumbered by minorities, young progressives, and educated suburban women.  As Alice O’Lenick, a GOP election official in Georgia put it, new voting restrictions are needed so that we at least have a shot at winning

--Washington Post editorial

We’re at a fundamental crossroads in American politics.  Democrats can’t block these anti-democratic measures at the state level—17 of those 28 states are under full Republican control.  But the House is poised to pass H.R.1, or the For the People Act, which would mandate automatic voter registration in every state, along with unlimited absentee voting and 15 days of early voting. The bill would also prohibit extreme gerrymandering and so-called dark money campaign funding, while restoring voting rights to ex-felons.  Republicans will no doubt filibuster the bill, so unless Democrats can persuade all of their 50 senators to abolish the filibuster, expanded voting rights is dead on arrival.  That will have enormous consequences for the future balance of power between the parties.

--Ronald Brownstein,

The Democrats’ bill isn’t about defending democracy  .  . It’s about cementing Democratic political power.  The bill is designed to auto-enroll likely Democratic voters, such as food-stamp recipients, while enshrining in law fraud-susceptible practices such as ballot harvesting and same-day registration.

--Wall Street Journal editorial

All while making it harder for Republican candidates to raise money.  Banning anonymous political donations may sound neutral, but the Left routinely shames, ostracizes and organizes boycotts of Republican donors. H.R.1 might be better named the “For the People Who Are Not Conservatives Act.”

--Jack Fowler,

Both parties assume that making it easier to vote helps Democrats.  But that’s hardly certain. The massive turnout in 2020 no doubt helped Biden, but the predicted “Blue Wave” did not materialize:  Republicans flipped 15 House seats and won big in state elections.

--Bill Scher,

 The GOP needs to start thinking long-term.  If Republicans double down on restricting voting rights, they might squeeze out another decade of power before being crushed by the demographic tide.  To stay competitive, the GOP needs to nominate moderates who can win elections without voter suppression, gerrymandering and the other anti-democratic dark arts. By forcing the Republicans to evolve sooner rather than later, H.R.1 is the long-term rescue package they desperately need.

--Lee Drutman, Washington Post

The Cassandra of the 'attention economy'

Michael Goldhaber is the prophet of the internet era.  A former theoretical physicist, he foresaw in the 1980s how the nascent world wide web would rewire our attention spans and reshape the social order.  With a 1997 essay in Wired, he helped popularize the term “attention economy,” warily eying a future in which anyone can now have a crack at the global audience.  In subsequent articles he predicted online influencer culture, the coarsening of political discourse, and terrorists using the web to recruit and communicate.  


“It’s amazing and disturbing to see this develop to the extent it has,” said Goldhaber, 78, who lives quietly in Berkeley, Calif.  He sees the rise of Donald Trump—who rose to power by paying attention to people who felt starved of it—as a perfect emblem of an era in which attention is power.  He frets that rational discourse is drowned out by the loudest and most ridiculous.  The Capitol insurrection, driven by conspiracy theories promoted online and on cable TV networks that generate nonstop outrage, only deepened his worry that the attention economy and a healthy democracy may be incompatible.  “It felt like an expression of a world in which everyone is desperately seeking their own audience and fracturing reality in the process,” he said.  “I only see that accelerating.”

--Charlie Warzel, New York Times

The real divide in politics

American politics is longer a conventional fight between the Left and Right.  Politics has become a fight between those who are willing to respect evidence and those who aren’t.  Donald Trump’s radical presidency ushered in a new era of ruthless, relentless, denialist propaganda at a scale we used to see only in dictatorships.  He persuaded tens of millions of Americans that Covid-19 was nothing to fear, that masks were useless and finally that the election was stolen—inciting a violent insurrection.  To regain sanity, address our nation’s many problems and resolve political debates, we need a common standard for judging truth.  That standard must be evidence.  Science has used the evidence standard with spectacular success—to devise vaccines, cure diseases, and unravel many of the mysteries of the universe.  It requires revising your theories and beliefs when the evidence shows they’re wrong.  Politicians prefer to deny reality rather than admit they are wrong, but for our country to remain a functioning democracy, the press, the public and rational conservatives and progressives must create a fact-based alliance that crosses party lines.  Relying on evidence is our only way to solve our problems and escape paralyzing polarization.

--William Saletan,

Evidence of long-lasting Covid immunity                             

Most people who survive Covid-19 retain a robust immune response to the disease for at least eight months, and potentially much longer, a new study has found. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been isolated reports of people being reinfected with the coronavirus.  But a new study of blood samples from 188 Covid patients suggests that about 90 percent of people who recover from the disease retain stable immunity. This is in part because antibodies aren’t the only weapon in the immune system’s arsenal: The samples revealed that T cells and other defensive elements were ready to pounce on the virus if it reappeared.  Because the immune system targets hundreds of different parts of the virus, the findings should apply to the new, more transmissible coronavirus variants that first appeared in the U.K. and South Africa.    “There’s a lot of different arms of the immune system recognizing the virus,” co-author Daniela Weiskopf, from the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, tells The Washington Post.  “If you have a mutation, it wouldn’t evade all these different arms.”  The researchers believe immunity likely lasts longer than eight months, because at the time of the study it had shown no signs of decay.  They are unsure why 10 percent of people see their immune response degrade. Given that uncertainty, says co-author Alessandro Sette, “If I’d had Covid, I would still not throw away my masks.”

--The Week

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