Moral confusion at Facebook and NYT

A common thread connects the recent muddles that management at both Facebook and New York Times fell into.

Voltaire didn’t actually say, “I don’t agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” but it is such a useful bon mot that someone had to make it up.

There could not be a better slogan for a pluralistic society where the right of free speech is respected. “I don’t agree with you, but we both have an equal right to speak”. “I don’t believe in your gods, but you have the right to worship them”. “I can’t stand your food, but respect your right to cook it”. “Your cause isn’t mine, but I will nod as you stand at the street corner with your sign”. “To me, bright pink is a terrible color for houses, but hey, it’s your house”. And so on.

If only, if only people didn’t turn Voltaire into a pretzel and stuff him into boxes where he doesn’t fit.

To understand what I mean, I want you to play the Fortune Cookie game where you add “in bed” to your fortune. “You are due for a promotion…IN BED!” the kids shout in unison. Snort.

So, here we go.

“I have the right to worship my gods…in your church“. “I have the right to cook and eat my food…in your kitchen“. “I want the right to make my speech and hold up my sign…in your house“.

These Voltaire-twistings are easily countered. “Look, you don’t have the right of free assembly in my house,” I could say. Or I could be more easy-going. “I don’t mind all of you gathering in my house and having your say. Just, don’t break stuff or insult people, or you have to leave; free speech or no free speech”.

Voltaire has nothing to say when a university cancels your speech because they don’t like your message, or when Twitter suspends your account. In fact, according to Section 230 of the CDA (that has become known as the First Amendment of the Internet), social media companies have a free speech right to moderate your speech on their platforms as they see fit.

Two owners of some highly prized real estate fell into this confusion over the past couple weeks.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg refused to flag Trump’s false statements as false, saying that social media companies should not be arbiters of truth, setting off an unprecedented dissent from his usually docile workforce, and a few resignings.

The other piece of prized real estate that was cheaply given away was the New York Times op-ed page, which they gave to Senator Tom Cotton to showcase his argument that troops should be sent in to quell disorder in American cities with an “overwhelming show of force”. While they didn’t agree with his viewpoint, editor James Bennet explained, they needed to show their readers a counter-argument to the editorial standpoint. Staff editor Bari Weiss turned the debate over it into yet another Voltairian free speech battle. This was an instance of “safetyism,” she said: when people’s right to feel emotionally safe trumps others’ right to free speech—in this case, Sen. Cotton’s.

Clearly, this is another Pretzelization of Voltaire. Sen. Cotton’s free speech rights would have remained uneclipsed even if he had not been given space in the paper of record—just as I still have my free speech rights, even though my big break on the pages of NYT has yet to come.

The right of free speech is neither Facebook’s nor NYT’s to bestow; by withholding space on their platform, they are not taking it away. The idea that a very voluble President and a decisively unshy Senator would need these companies to bestow speech upon them is laughable.

It is not the speech that they have the power to bestow. It is the hearing.

Not many people understand (as NYU professor Jay Rosen explains) how the economy has shifted: we now have a glut of content and a glut of means of self-publishing; the precious resource is no longer the ability to speak, it is the ability to be heard. Facebook and NYT wield millions of eyeballs; they can bestow attention. It is the amplification of content in the case of Facebook, and it is the credentialing of content in the case of the NYT.

There is no First Amendment right to be heard.

Given this framing, let us look at why the arguments presented by Facebook and NYT management were wrong

The one great tell of Mark Zuckerberg is that when he feels cornered, he escapes up into the clouds, into grandiose arguments about free speech. The truth is, Facebook acts as the de facto arbiter of truth all day and every day with billions of posts. In two ways.

One, that due to the enormous pushback they received after the 2016 election and the genocide in Myanmar, they have agreed, over and over, in many different forums including Congressional hearings, that they are trying to quell misinformation, hate speech, and calls to violence on their platform and that they will do better.

It is mystifying to me how one can quell misinformation on one’s platform without being arbiters of truth.

In fact, the teams put to work on this problem appear to be doing a decent job. Just last week, Facebook removed 30 accounts belonging to white supremacist groups that were fomenting violence during the Black Lives Matter protests. Facebook contracts with fact-checkers who review content for false news; that content is filtered out or devalued. Sometimes these fact-checkers are even a little extra jittery: for example, when they removed a political ad made by the Lincoln Group, saying that the ad’s claim that Trump’s tax cuts had helped only Wall Street, not Main Street, was false.

Two, that even before Facebook belatedly started addressing the problem of misinformation on their platform, their entire business model has been based on amplifying some posts and devaluing others. That amplification—how Facebook’s algorithm chooses which posts to show in newsfeeds, so that millions of eyeballs see it—is Facebook’s editor; it performs the task that opinion editors and news editors perform at media shops: choosing which stories to highlight, and where.

They are already choosing. We are only asking them to choose right.

Now, for the NYT. I already addressed Bari Weiss’s Pretzel Voltaire argument. But opinion editor James Bennet’s argument that they sought out Sen. Cotton’s opinion because it was newsworthy is also wrong.

That a sitting Senator argues for sending in the military to quell mostly peaceful protests is certainly newsworthy. But, as Vox reporter David Roberts aptly put it, then it belongs in the news section, with some analysis of its misstatements of fact, and some context about how it lies outside of the American tradition of never unleashing the army on its own citizens.

An opinion page is not the avenue for presenting news. The error there is the same error made by those who want to keep monuments to Confederate leaders as “history lessons”.

One doesn’t learn history from monuments, but rather from history books. Monuments have a different purpose—to deify and memorialize that which a culture looks up to. In a similar way, one gets news from the news section. The purpose of an op-ed page is different: it credentials arguments as having merit, and being made in good faith—even when the editors don’t agree with its conclusions.

That is what the NYT did. It marked Sen. Cotton’s argument as being worthy of the imprimatur of the NYT. Notwithstanding even the factual errors in the piece drawn from right-wing misinformation, it gave its stamp of approval to Sen. Cotton’s explicitly authoritarian argument, and drew it into respectable society.

On the face of it, Facebook and NYT are vastly different companies. But I lumped them together for the sake of this argument because I feel like the error they made is the same—that of moral cowardice.

Bari Weiss edges up to this realization in her Twitter thread. Maybe Sen. Cotton’s views fall outside the limits, she says. If so, she continues, it means the view of more than half of Americans also fall outside the limits. She leaves that rhetorical point hanging, but her point seems to be that to condemn the views of half your countrymen as beyond the pale is unthinkable.

No, it isn’t. No—it most certainly is not! Moral progress has always been driven by people who stood alone when necessary—and did not substitute their own moral judgment with the judgment of the majority. It isn’t even true that more than half of Americans would support an argument such as the one Sen. Cotton made.

Facebook executives have consistently allowed themselves to be bullied by the right’s working of the refs in order to proliferate fake news and extremism. Despite Zuckerberg’s stated goals of promoting community, and despite their hand-wringing apologies when one or other pratfall hits the news, a recent WSJ report shows how they shelved their own internal research that showed that their algorithms pushed people into divisive, extremist rabbit holes—and shelved it explicitly so that they didn’t lose their conservative audience.

Now, can my argument not be turned against myself? Don’t Facebook and NYT have the right to run their platforms as they see fit (a free speech right, no less), without a lowly consumer like me having a say?

Well, of course they do! In fact, they could shut out the entire chorus of liberal dissenters by simple honesty: if, as law writer Elie Mystal says, if they simply said “I WANTED THE DAMN CLICKS” the hand-wringing could be ended overnight. Fox News, the Daily Caller, and other outlets are out and proud about their right-wing bias. They do as they like.

But with both Facebook and the NYT, they want the benediction of being considered essential to liberal values in some way; they want to attract the sort of earnest do-gooder talent that makes their profit-machines go brrrr; while making more and more tortured “contortions” (in the words of a Facebook employee) in order to treat their right-wing benefactors with kid gloves.

This is why they present their appeasement of the right with a liberal sheen: as striving for balance; not arbiting truth; staying neutral; etc.

But amplifying lies is not a liberal virtue—in fact, it is a tool of fascists. When the balance you strive for is leading you into promoting lies, that balance is leading you astray. When the neutrality you strive for is leading you into substituting your moral judgment with the needs of the powerful, that neutrality is merely cowardice.

(Follow me on Twitter at @TheOddPantry and on Facebook at The Odd Post.)

Trump and the Bible

The day of the #BlackLivesMatter protest: when Trump walked across Lafayette Park and held up a Bible.

“Minutes later, the intensity of the flash grenades and gas clouds increased, as the police began pushing protesters out of the park and onto H Street. More people ran in our direction, crying from the smoke and from fear. Someone yelled “rubber bullets,” and I looked up from washing someone’s eyes to see a man holding his stomach, bent over.”—Gini Gerbasi, Rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Washington Post

“Outside the gates and across Lafayette Square, some of the officers in riot gear kneeled down and some protesters initially thought they were expressing solidarity as the police have done in other cities, but in fact they were putting on their gas masks.”New York Times

Trump and the Bible

The President arose from his bunker,
where Secret Service had had him hunker
down, so he didn’t see a single angry face
(angry about how he handles race).
He arose: the Pentagon behind him.
The DEA alongside.
the DOJ ahead of him,
spraying insecticide.
They cleared a path, one block in length;
that he traversed, gingerly, projecting strength.
(An hour before this, the church’s priest
gave water to tired, over-policed
citizens. It was clear where her sympathies lay.)
No matter. Ivanka was beside him. He hadn’t come to pray anyway.
The church was boarded up. The priests, evicted.
The Bible: upside-down, unread, conflicted.
He held it at an awkward angle,
a sort of a thrust, and a kind of a dangle,
to make sure the cameras caught its Bibleness.
He didn’t have much to say. That sort of nimbleness
was far beyond him; so he let the Bible speak.
Beside him, stood the symbols of American power: mute; meek.

Tracking Covid-19

All the Covid-19 data curators, models, visualizers, dashboards, graphics, maps, interactives, and projections: in one place.

(Featured image source: NextStrain)

I’m not sure when it was that looking up the current numbers of the Covid-19 pandemic became a daily ritual. Perhaps sometime in the first couple weeks of March? But lately, along with catching bits of Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings, I check the current numbers, sometimes every couple hours.

This is what I have open on my browser window on any given day. You can treat this as a jumping off point for links; that’s what I do.

Data Curators

These websites gather data from a wide set of sources, that include governments, local media, hospitals, etc.

European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control: The European CDC is a rigorous and thorough source of Covid data that researchers work hard to get right. My guess it is much more trustworthy than the US CDC.

Worldometers: Worldometers.info tracks all sorts of numbers that they show live on their dashboard, where you can watch the global population changing in real time. It has been used as a canonical source of data by governments and news services. But I, like most people, only found it due to their coronavirus tracking. They source their data from government websites and local news.

Johns Hopkins: The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center is not only a source of data, but also a pretty cool interactive graphic, built by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University. Their initial source, while the epidemic was confined to China, was DXY—a website run by the Chinese medical community. Now, they have expanded their sources to include the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, Worldometers.info, etc.

Covid Tracking Project: The Covid Tracking Project has become another go-to source for US Covid data. It was created by a team from The Atlantic to fill a void in the Johns Hopkins/Worldometer data sets: they didn’t report on tests performed. Without an idea of testing, one can have no confidence in the slopes of curves: is the curve sloping down because infections are actually decreasing? Or is it because there were simply fewer tests performed? Along with the numbers of positive and negative numbers in each state, the Covid Tracking Project gives each state a letter grade to show how well they’re reporting Covid data.

New York Times: The New York Times data set: another attempt by reporters to fill the gap left by incomplete reporting from government sources such as the CDC. US-focused, this is an effort to gather county-level data by reporters working round-the-clock.

Corona Data Scraper: This is a really cool open source project by Adobe engineer Larry Davis. It marries Covid data from a wide variety of sources—all of which are listed on the website—with geolocation and population data, to produce Covid numbers down to the county level. It also presents several visualizations written by contributors. All of its source data files can be downloaded, and the source code is up on GitHub.

Visualizers and Dashboards

It is very hard for humans to visualize exponential data, or as I like to call it, data that “explodes” or shows wildfire-like spread. This is why the logarithmic curve, where the Y-axis shows incidences of coronavirus growing by multiples of 10, instead of linearly, has become such a standard.

Financial Times: As far as I’m aware, the Financial Times corona tracker created by John Burn-Murdoch was an early trendsetter, and their parchment-colored graphs were copy-pasted everywhere. The innovation that allowed them to present all countries on the same graph, although the pandemic arrived at each country at different times, is that the x-axis does not show time, but rather days since the 100th person was infected. Another innovation: they smooth out the x-axis by showing a rolling 7-day average, instead of the very jittery daily numbers.

They have recently removed the paywall, and have an interesting time-lapse view of when each country locked down.

Our World In Data: Our World In Data is a long-standing leader of data visualizations housed at Oxford University. They present 40 different visualizations of worldwide Covid data, mostly sourced from the European CDC, that present confirmed cases, deaths, testing, that can be viewed per capita or per country.

NYT Map: The New York Times Map view presents their own data interactively, so you can choose to see total cases, deaths, or per capita numbers on the US map. They also perform the useful service of showing growth rates per US metro area.

Stat News: Stat News, the medical news website, has an excellent dashboard, the virtue of which is that you can start from the global level, and drill down into any country, then state/province, down to the county level; and you see a graph over time showing both cumulative and new cases, and Covid deaths.

91-DIVOC: Another useful visualization is the 91-DIVOC “Flip the Script” website by computer science professor Wade Fagen-Ulmschneider. Yes, the website’s name is COVID-19 backwards. It has the cool feature of where you can highlight a particular country among the curves (or a state within the US) to visually compare the one you’re most interested in with the others. You can also have the curves represent deaths, confirmed cases, or new cases per day, etc; and switch between log and linear scales.

Covid Charts on Tableau: Peter Walker, a media analytics professional, has created an absolutely spectacular set of visualizations, hosted on Tableau, which is a platform for creating data visualizations for all sorts of complex phenomena. I must say they do a great job. Peter Walker’s visualizations on the page Coronavirus in USA is an interactive set of graphs for total positive cases, tests, and deaths; it shows the numbers both daily and with a 7-day rolling average on the same graph. Somehow, this crowded information is presented clearly and concisely. You can easily skip to a particular state to view its charts; or focus in on national testing numbers, growth in cases over time, and a map view that uses simple “more/fewer” color-coding.

rt.live: A website created by the founders of Instagram (Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger) and others, rt.live focuses in on the one measure that arguably is the single most important number that shows how well a region is dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic: the local rate of infection at any point in time (Rt). If under 1, Covid will slowly grind to a halt in that region; if over 1, it will spread. How far above or below 1 the region’s Rt is determines how fast it will spread or die out. As such, you could get a lot of information just by focusing on this one number.

Projections and Models

A model is not a prediction: it is a warning to get us to change our behavior. When a model turns out wrong, therefore, it isn’t a sign that it failed. It is a sign that we heeded the red flashing light it held over our heads. This, alone, negates some of the bad-faith critiques models that these models have received.

The Imperial College Model: At the start of the pandemic, the UK, under Boris Johnson’s leadership, planned to “ride it out” by not taking any social distancing measures. The plan was to permit widespread infections and allow the population to achieve herd immunity. It was the Imperial College projection that changed their trajectory. With no interventions, it predicted 550K dead in the UK and 2.2 million dead in the US. Imperial’s models are treated as a gold standard when it comes to epidemics: that projection made governments on both sides of the Atlantic sit up and listen. Recently, Imperial has revised their numbers downward. Rather than a “walkback” or evidence of conspiracy, as the forever-conspiratorial right-wingers tend to see it, this is a sign that people across the US and UK have started to socially distance.

UW Projections: The University of Washington’s projections of how many Covid infections/complications each US state would see were built for hospitals to plan resource use. But they quickly became a widely-used tool to get a sense for how well social distancing was working in each state since they adjust their projections over time as the country shelters in place. Apparently these projections were also used by Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx at the White House; leading to Trump touting 100K-200K dead Americans as some sort of victory. Lately, this projected number has fallen to around 60K dead.

Covid Act Now: Covid Act Now is another such projection. It was built by a disparate team of volunteers that includes data scientists and doctors, to show how early states need to lockdown or isolate in order to avoid their hospitals being overloaded. It is based on their open source data model.

Offbeat Data

There are other ways to track the pandemic than the brute force numbers of infections and deaths. Ultimately, death is, as they say, a lagging indicator of where the pandemic has taken hold, while the number of infections reported are inevitably an under-count, limited by the amount of testing.

So people have tracked different metrics, some very surprising ones, to give a sense for how the pandemic is hurtling through the world.

Excess Deaths: As hospitals fill up, tests are in short supply, and emergency response teams are slammed, is it any surprise that many will die, at home, uncounted? The official cause of death might be cardiac arrest or pneumonia-related complications, but during an outbreak, very likely the underlying cause of the death was the virus SARS-Cov-2. While there is no way to be certain, if a region shows a death toll much higher than what is “normal”, one can make a very good guess that at least some of those excess deaths were due to the outbreak (some will inevitably occur because patients with unrelated problems could not get treatment in time). Studies in Italy, Spain, Wuhan, and the UK showed the actual death toll may be from two to ten times higher than the official numbers. In NYC alone, a graph of cardiac arrest calls from the Economist (above) shows how grievous the under-counting might be.

Atypical Illness from Kinsa Smart Thermometer: In the early days of the pandemic’s US spread, I saw a “weather map” that showed the US map with some regions that were coded red that even to an untrained eye signal danger. It turned out that a consumer product called the Kinsa Smart Thermometer had been collecting data about elevated temperatures from their 1 million strong customer base throughout the country. Analyzing this data along with the “expected” seasonal flu variation, they were able to see hotspots (shown in red) where people reported fevers much over and above the seasonal flu. This way, they were able to identify the Florida coastline as and some other counties in the south were about to be Covid-19 hotspots while their beaches were still full of Spring Break revelers.

Google Searches: A really fascinating study out of Cornell University looks for outbreaks of Covid-19 using Google Search data. As this chart shows, the searches for symptoms such as “loss of smell” tracks closely with an outbreak of Covid-19 in that area. In fact, they might have identified eye pain as a potential symptom of Covid-19.

Location Data: Tech companies have been on the backfoot for a few years now, fighting off concerns about how much consumer data they were collecting stealthily. It is eerie to hear, in normal times, that your social media or cell phone company knows where you are and where you’ve been in the last week.

But it turns out this type of data is actually invaluable when one is in the midst of a global contagion. Some of this GPS cell phone data has been used to produce score cards and charts to show how well your community is social distancing. But the more promising use—that a number of tech companies are thinking about—is to produce a heat map of known coronavirus infections, and help governments in tracing all who’ve been in proximity of known positive cases to test and quarantine early, if they ever gear up to do so. Tech data is used in exactly this way in South Korea with a great deal of success.

What about privacy concerns? I wouldn’t be surprised if people are skeptical, but Sundar Pichai of Google and Tim Cook of Apple coordinated their tweets, sent out a minute apart, to say they were jointly working on a solution using Bluetooth that would respect consumers’ privacy.

The Genome: I’ve filed this under “offbeat” data but it really is the core of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, its gene sequence.

A Chinese group of scientists, against all odds, published the first sequenced genome of the virus in January 2020, one day before their lab was shut down by government authorities.

Scientists all over the world jumped on the data the Chinese scientists published, and have now sequenced over 3000 genomes. They have a pretty good idea of how the virus has mutated as it spread through the world. They have identified 11 separate mutations, which shows that it is not mutating very quickly. This bodes well for an eventual vaccine; the flu vaccine, for instance, has to be rejiggered each year because the flu virus mutates so rapidly.

Added bonus: Nextstrain, the website that visualizes open-source genome data, has some colorful charts showing SARS-CoV-2’s spread, and several different ways to visualize it: check it out.

(Follow me on Twitter at @TheOddPantry and on Facebook at The Odd Post.)

A Guide to Democratic Healthcare plans

I squinted at wonky websites for hours so you didn’t have to. Here is the result: a guide to Democratic healthcare plans for dummies (like me).

First, a confession.

I’m the last person you should look to to understand healthcare proposals. I’m one of those people who procrastinate endlessly over even filling up a 1040 EZ and can never keep acronyms like PPO, HMO, HSA, FSA straight. I’ve foregone money in my pocket in order to avoid having to upload yet another medical bill onto websites whose passwords I’ve long forgotten.

Regardless, I am a voter; and I’m willing to squint at wonky websites that other experts with actual bona fides are willing to write, so here goes. This is a guide for dummies, but I myself am prime among them.

Every single one of these plans gets us to a better place than today’s situation; and is certainly much better than Trump, who has and will continue to take us backwards. In fact, as we speak, his administration is supporting a case to rule the entire ACA unconstitutional.

I am classifying these along the lines of Charles Gaba’s super-dense and useful website, ACA Signups; in fact I’ve linked to his website wherever I could, if you are interested in a deeper dive.

ACA Upgrade

It was clear, even when the ACA became law in 2010, that this was merely a step towards a more complete solution: a step whose biggest virtue was that it could actually pass a fractious Congress that for one glorious moment had 60 Democratic Senators. It was debated through 2009 and 2010 amid angry town halls with cries of “Death Panels” and protests. It gave rise to the populist Tea Party movement and ruined careers of many Democratic freshmen in the red electoral wave that followed.

Miraculously, it made it into law, bloodied and broken. Since then, the Trump Administration and conservative Supreme Court have bloodied and broken it some more.

So while it remains law, it is clear that it needs shoring up. What does shoring up mean? Some or all of the following:

  • While the ACA subsidizes premium for lower income families, those subsidies fade out and offer no help for families that have higher incomes but are still struggling. No one should have premium costs that are above, say, 8.5% of their income.
  • Increase Cost Sharing Reductions that reduce out-of-pocket costs (like deductibles, co-pays, etc.) and lower the maximum out-of-pocket cost you might have to pay. Recently, the Trump Administration killed Cost Sharing Reductions altogether, so it would mean reversing that change.
  • ACA had an error in its wording that left some families unable to get coverage at affordable rates. This is known as the “Family Glitch“. This should be fixed.
  • Reverse Trump’s sabotage of ACA: ban junk plans, enforce coverage for preexisting conditions, and ensure that Essential Health Benefits are covered.
  • Undo Trump’s sabotage of ACA enrollment and enrollment assistance efforts.
  • Improve stability in the insurance marketplace, and reduce premiums, through reinsurance programs
  • Lowering prescription drug costs by letting Medicare negotiate drug prices
  • End “surprise billing” from out-of-network hospitals and doctors
  • Use Gold plans as the benchmark for determining tax credits instead of Silver plans (Silver plans are less comprehensive, and less expensive, than Gold plans; and more comprehensive/expensive than Bronze plans).

Variations on the above theme have been knocking around in Democratic policy shops since 2015. That was the year that the SCOTUS case King v. Burwell was decided in favor of the ACA. If the ACA had lost, it would have spelled disaster for household premium costs and their ability to get insured. Since the ACA won, policy shops got busy trying to build on it.

Here are some Democratic plans, all of which could fall under the ACA 2.0 rubric.

Public Option

Pedro Rojas holds a sign directing people to an insurance company where they can sign up for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, on February 5, 2015 in Miami, Florida. JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES

When I said above that the ACA emerged bloodied and broken from the legislative battles of 2009/10, I was thinking of one particular chopped off limb: the Public Option.

The Public Option would have allowed a government-run health insurance to compete with private insurance on the exchanges; given the government’s behemoth-like size, it would have driven down premiums and basic healthcare costs.

How it was lost is a story of a Senatorial high-wire act that almost resulted in no ACA at all. The House passed its version of a healthcare bill in the Fall of 2009. Upon the insistence of Pelosi and other members of the House, it included a Public Option (at one point, Pelosi derided a healthcare bill with no Public Option as “kiddie care“). The Senate tussled for months, but eventually could not pull together 60 votes for a Public Option. A Senate bill passed without one on Christmas Eve, 2009. Under threat of a filibuster from Joe Lieberman, they had removed the Public Option.

Even getting to 60 votes without the Public Option had proved to be a challenge. Democrats did not start that term with 60 votes. But then, in April 2009, Arlen Specter defected and joined the Democratic party. In July 2009, Al Franken won his court battle and was finally seated in the Senate as a Democrat. This brought up the total to 60 Democrats.

A month after that, in August 2009. Ted Kennedy passed away after a fight with cancer. While Democrats still had 60 votes—the governor appointed Democrat Paul Kirk in Kennedy’s place—this was not for long. The Special Election of January 2010 brought disaster for Democrats poised to take legislative wins on the ACA: Scott Brown, a Republican, won Kennedy’s seat in MA.

This was devastating for progressive hopes about what the ultimate version of the ACA would look like. The idea had been to come up with a compromise bill somewhere in between the House’s bill that included a Public Option, and a Senate bill that did not. Once they lost that MA Senate seat, passing substantive legislation through a 59-seat Democratic majority became impossible. So, the House swallowed their misgivings about the Senate bill and passed it as it was written in March 2010, with a few minor changes in a second bill.

But it is a new day now. Not only is the ACA hugely more popular that it was at its inception, the two most conservative Democratic Senators (Joe Lieberman and Bill Nelson) are gone from the Senate; and Scott Brown, the Republican whose election sabotaged Democratic hopes, is now replaced by progressive champion Senator Warren. As such, there have been several proposals made to bring the Public Option back.

  • The CHOICE Act from Sen. Whitehouse
  • HI Senator Brian Schatz’s bill that would provide a public option with an expanded Medicaid for states. This is sponsored by Sen. Corey Booker, Sen. Sanders, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein among others.
  • Medicare X by Senator Bennett
  • Choose Medicare from Senator Merkley & Murphy. This plan is also called Medicare Part E (for “Everyone”), and is based on Yale Profressor Jacob Hacker’s proposals, described in more detail below. It includes a Public Option that employers can choose to buy into.

And two proposals to permit a Medicare-style Public Option only for people above a certain age:

ACA Upgrade + Public Option

It’s no surprise that every Democratic candidate who has run for President since then proposed at the very least both the small-bore-with-big-impact ACA improvements, and also bringing back ACA’s lost limb—the Public Option. Every one of these plans envisions changes very similar to the ones laid out in the Urban Institute policy papers linked to above..

Other than Bloomberg going with the Silver benchmark and the others going with Gold, these plans are all very similar to each other; and often only differ in emphasis. For example, Biden held up his plan as an alternative to Medicare For All, while Buttigieg framed his as a glide path to Medicare For All. While that difference might help you judge the candidates, it does nothing to help you judge between their plans.

Single Payer

Supporters of the Affordable Care Act participate in a “Save Obamacare” rally in Los Angeles on March 23, 2017.  Ronen Tivony/NurPhoto via Getty Images

People often think of Single Payer as government-run healthcare, but this is not quite right. Because the healthcare would still be provided by privately-run hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, and doctors; it is just that their fees are paid by a single, giant payer: the federal government. Consumers can still choose where they want to receive care: they are not “assigned” a hospital.

(This is like Canada’s system for healthcare also informally called “Medicare”; and not really much like the UK’s NIH, where the government also runs the providers, such as hospitals. In the US, the closest thing to the NIH is the Veteran’s Health Administration.)

People also often refer to Single Payer as Medicare For All: this this is also not quite right. Because most such plans envision an expanded set of services than what Medicare currently provides: such as dental, vision, and long-term care.

Under a single-payer system, everyone is automatically enrolled in a government-run insurance company that is funded by taxes. No one pays premiums any more: they are gone. Who is taxed more, and who is taxed less, is the entire ballgame: single-payer plans sketch this out in varying levels of detail.

However, Single Payer systems might still require you to pony up on co-pays, though most envision a yearly out-of-pocket maximum. The reason for this is simple: “free” plans such as this have to discourage running willy-nilly to the doctor or specialist for every little thing that doesn’t necessarily need medical attention.

Another sure-to-be contentious issue is who the Single Payer system actually covers. They all claim “universal” coverage, but who is in the universe? Is it only citizens and permanent residents, or are undocumented immigrants included? Some plans address this head-on, some don’t.

So why is Single Payer better than what we have now? For one thing, everyone is automatically enrolled, with pretty much the same coverage. This means no more medical bankruptcies; government-provided coverage leaves workers free to move between jobs or get out of the workforce for a while without worrying about illnesses tanking their savings.

Single Payer would save massively on administrative costs (though obviously the federal government would be picking up those costs rather than people paying premiums).

Consider the sort of things the current system needs to keep track of: it involves a mish-mash of private insurers, each striking their own deal with providers. Every person covered has their own level of coverage, premium, and out-of-pocket costs based on income. All of this necessitates large billing departments that have to keep track of these details. As journalist Jon Walker says in The Road to Single-Payer:

…traditional Medicare has an overhead cost of 1.8 percent. The average private insurance company has an overhead cost of about 13 percent.

Transitioning to Single Payer

People are extremely risk-averse when it comes to healthcare. This is why the signing of the ACA into law caused nationwide anger even though ultimately it was a small-to-medium-sized change to the existing system that had already been successfully implemented in Massachusetts.

Single-payer advocates have already bowed to this reality by branding it as “Medicare”—thus using the name of a plan that most are familiar with and isn’t scary, even though all Single Payer plans would offer much more than Medicare.

So a lot depends on how we take healthcare in America from Point A to Point B.

Backend Transition and Auto-enrollment

This type of transition aims to minimize disruption by keeping the great bulk of the employer coverage system in place, with one major difference: a new government-provided Medicare-like insurance, that employers can choose to redirect their dollars into, instead of into private insurance. This is why I refer to it as transitioning through the “backend”—it would not be consumer-facing.

Employers can choose to remain with private insurance. But, it would be heavily regulated, both in terms of coverage and in terms of cost: following rules much like the ACA Upgrade plans above. Given these set of rules, the government insurance would most likely be cheaper; thus most employers will prefer to purchase it rather than the private one, with a gradual changeover.

So far it looks like a hefty Public Option. What makes it a Single Payer plan at all? This is because of auto-enrollment. People who do not have coverage would be automatically enrolled into the expanded Medicare-like insurance: in addition, so would all newborns. In a matter of one generation, all would be covered through Single Payer.

The virtue of this sort of plan is to minimize political opposition to the drastic nature of a transition to Single Payer, while getting its foot in the door. Since it is financed by redirecting existing payments into the new program, the “how will you pay for it” question has a ready answer.

There are a number of such plans knocking around in various Democratic policy shops, sketched out in varying levels of detail. But they all owe their intellectual allegiance to Yale’s Jacob Hacker, the man who invented the Public Option.

  • Jacob Hacker’s Medicare for Everyone plan is based on both of these core concepts: an employer option to purchase a Medicare-like plan for employees, and automatic enrollment for the uninsured and newborns. It, in turn, was based on his own Health Care for America plan from 2007.
  • Healthcare expert Jon Walker’s MICA (Medical Insurance and Care for All) from 2017
  • The Center for American Progress came out with their Medicare Extra for All plan in 2018. It rolls up Medicaid and CHIP into their new Medicare-like plan, with a Public Option for both employees and employers as laid out above, and auto-enrollment for newborns and uninsured. Even in the years before everyone is covered through government-plans, it gets to universal coverage—Ezra Klein of Vox explains how.
  • Rep. DeLauro and Rep. Schakowsky’s bill introduced in Congress in 2019, called Medicare for America, that is based on CAP’s proposal. It is described here at Vox by its intellectual progenitor, Jacob Hacker.

Sometimes these sorts of plans are seen as Single Payer with a Private Option: in other words, the default choice for most would be government-funded Single Payer, but consumers would have the option to buy private insurance instead.

Frontend Transition

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a health care rally in San Francisco on September 22, 2017.
 Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For many years, Rep. John Conyers introduced a “Medicare For All” bill in each session of Congress. By the millennium, the Medicare program had become quite popular, and it was trusted by lawmakers as capable of reducing costs. Although the notion of “Single Payer” had been created by the doctors’ group Physicians for National Health Program (PNHP) in the 1980s, by 2003, when Rep. Conyers first introduced his bill H.R.676, Medicare had become the most often cited vehicle for instituting a Single Payer system. In recent years, Rep. Pramila Jayapal introduced a more detailed version of the Medicare For All bill in the House, and Sen. Sanders introduced one in the Senate.

What all of these bills have in common is that they both transition to the full system by gradually expanding the age groups covered by Medicare. Rep. Jayapal’s bill does this over two years, while Sen. Sanders bill does this over four years. This is why I call it a “frontend” transition—it is consumer-facing.

There are other differences between the House Jayapal bill and the Sanders Senate bill. According to Single Payer activist Kip Sullivan, Jayapal’s bill is a true Single Payer bill, while Sanders’s bill is not. This is because Jayapal’s bill includes a provision to set budgets for hospitals (much like the federal government sets budgets for fire departments), while Sanders’s bill does not.

According to Sanders’s bill, the federal government does not, in fact, pay hospitals directly. Rather, it makes payments to ACOs—these organizations are the latest version of “managed care”—a sort of hybrid of hospital chains and private insurance companies (Kaiser Permanente is an example). Thus, Sanders’s bill cannot set budgets for hospitals: it sets premiums for ACOs instead. This means it foregoes the major cost-containment feature available to the Jayapal plan.

As Kip Sullivan says in this interview: “Single Payer with ACOs is an oxymoron.”

Transitioning through States as Laboratory

After decades of failures of health care reform in the US, the Affordable Care Act finally passed after Massachusetts implemented a similar plan successfully. Obamacare for the country followed RomneyCare in a state, four years after.

We now think of Canada as a country where citizens harmoniously voted in a Single Payer system. But Single Payer was first implemented in the 1960s in a single province: in Saskatchewan, where the proposal led to widespread protests and doctors’ strikes. The government pushed through regardless. Compared to the first implementation of Single Payer in a province, the transition to it in the entire nation was relatively smooth and quick. Within ten years of the doctors’ strike, all of Canada was covered by Single Payer.

States often act as laboratories that countries use to judge the practicality of plans and gain political support.

In the case of Single Payer, the States-As-Laboratories in the US has had a shaky start. Green Mountain Care in Vermont, which was to be a version of Single Payer (Sen. Sanders later picked up a similar plan under his bill), failed just as the Affordable Care Act was being implemented in the country. It failed for one primary reason: they could not find a way to pay for it. The doubled state budget would have required higher state taxes and payroll taxes, neither of which were palatable.

At the same time as Green Mountain Care failed, the ACA was offering dollars to states who expanded their Medicaid program. Many states took advantage of it, including Vermont. If those federal dollars could have been rerouted into paying for a brand new Single Payer program, could it have bridged the gap and stayed afloat?

Rep. Ro Khanna of California has released a bill that addresses this very shortfall. Called State-based Universal Health Care Act, it provides federal dollars and regulatory flexibility to states that want to experiment with universal healthcare (including Single Payer). He wrote this bill responding to a call from California’s Governor, but if this plan passes, it is quite likely that at least one state out of fifty will implement a version of Single Payer; and show the way to the other forty-nine.

“Two-stage rocket booster” Transition

I will admit I am stealing Charles Gaba’s colorful phraseology to describe Elizabeth Warren’s plan for transitioning to Single Payer.

As far as I am aware, hers was the only plan that not only included multiple planned bills, but also separately mapped out Executive Actions that are within a President’s power to take unilaterally, all as steps in a roadmap to full Single Payer.

The Executive Actions she would have taken are obvious. The sabotage of healthcare by Trump has all been done by choosing to not enforce regulations and defend laws; those can simply be reversed by the next President: laws regarding coverage of preexisting conditions, banning junk plans, etc.

In terms of legislation, Warren’s roadmap included all of the ideas I have outlined above, but as milestones, instead of as the final destination. It included ideas from her own ACA Upgrade bill, CHIPA. It included a Public Option of the kind proposed by Rep. Stabenow, that could pass through budget reconciliation with 50 votes. It included automatic enrollment for the uninsured, along the lines of the Medicare for America bill mentioned above.

And then the money shot: if these transitional steps are completed, instituting a full Medicare For All bill, like the one proposed by Sen. Sanders, would be a relatively mild proposition.

If you are interested in a deeper dive, Charles Gaba has one; and of course you can go to the source.

Warren may have left the race (much to my dismay), but her roadmap is still out there, sketched out in great detail: ready for the next Democratic President to take up whoever and whenever that might be.

Further Reading:

  1. Charles Gaba’s website ACA Signups is chock-full of useful information
  2. Vox is a wonk’s paradise, in particular Sarah Kliff and Dylan Scott
  3. Vox’s The Weeds podcast often has deep-dive discussions
  4. Jon Walker’s series in ShadowProof is extremely valuable

Don’t fall into the Electability Trap

No matter who the nominee, they will be slimed by the right-wing machine. Vote for who you like, but steel yourselves to the coming onslaught.

Welcome, passionate Democratic Primary voter. You love the candidate you have chosen, just like I love the one that I have chosen. It is your very love for your candidate (whoever that might be) that fills you with dark imaginings about all the others. In every candidate not your own, you see a laughing specter of Trump. If we nominate [Insert Candidate Here] we will be handing over the election to Trump in a cakewalk. Is that what you want, you say, passionately, eyes wide with concern.

No. That’s not what I want.

But I’ve got news for you. This is a country where a black man with the middle name of “Hussain” (and a pastor who once said “God damn America”) won twice. Handily. Once, against a war hero and longtime Senator. And once against a man who looked like he was out of central casting for the role of President. This is a country that elected a buffoonish conman over a former Secretary of State in a victory that no one expected, least of all the buffoonish conman and his team.

Any of these candidates can win against Trump. Yes, I mean any—including the Socialist Jew, the young gay-married Vet, the women, the touchy-feely fuddy-duddy, the Asian book-writer. How do I know this? For proof, I offer the man sitting in the White House. QED.

But looking at it another way, every single candidate running for the Democratic nomination can lose. Every single one of them will piss off important constituencies. Every single one of them has glaring inadequacies. Every single one of those inadequacies will be endlessly flogged on Fox News and some that don’t even exist and have to be made up. They will make them up. There is no candidate who will emerge unscathed from the right-wing slime machine.

In fact, it is almost guaranteed that Trump will open bogus investigations into the Democratic nominee, whipping up a frenzy. Remember Emails? Uranium One? All of which came from nothing, amounted to nothing, but did their damage.

Let alone the slime that will come from the Right. The nominee will also face deep suspicion from other blocs within the Democratic party, no matter whether it is a centrist or a leftist who wins. The mutual recrimination is already intense and will only grow.

Think about the constituencies in the Democratic coalition that the nominee must please. The young (mostly white) Progressives. The hard-core Lefties. The White Working Class that inhabits the diners that beat reporters haunt. The Hipsters in the coffee shops that Jacob Wohl haunts. The Moderate voter who is always seeking, but never finding, bipartisanship. The Centrist, equally frightened by Socialism and Fascism. The Racist who nonetheless is very angry about being called a Racist. The older church-going African Americans. The young Latinos who resent being thought of as solely concerned with immigration. The Farmers. The Coal-miners. The Toothless. The Heartless. The Penniless. The Wall-Streeters. The Religious. The Spiritual. The Atheists. The Celebrity-obsessed. The Conspiracy-theorists. The Political Pundits and their doppelgangers, the Political Analysts.

Why, it is a miracle that anybody wins, ever.

In fact, among the Democratic field today, you can argue and second-guess every single candidate into Trumpian Hell in short order. In fact, I’ll show you how it’s done.

These attacks may be impressionistic and juvenile but the Democrat will be facing a juvenile opponent with a juvenile media as the peanut gallery. I lay these out there so we can steel our spines and anticipate them.

The Oppo dump

Joe Biden

How he will be attacked: Old. Gaffe-prone. Is he facing cognitive decline? Fuddy-duddy with old-fashioned notions of women. Treated Anita Hill shabbily in the 1990s. Voted for the Iraq War. Long career with many questionable votes. Likes Republicans (is he insane?) and thinks he can work with Mitch McConnell; will give away the farm instead. Trumped up accusations about corruption in Ukraine might have an impact. Hunter Biden. Hunter Biden. Uses old-fashioned language like “malarkey.”

Was he really sniffing that one woman’s hair?

His pluses: Will bring normalcy back. Has done this before. Good guy and basically nice. Been through personal tragedies which taught him empathy. Trump is obviously terrified of him to the point of getting impeached over trying to muddy him up.

Says “malarkey” frequently. People love that (think of the SOTU drinking games). Experienced. Reminds people of the halcyon days of the Obama Administration, when all was love and harmony, green fields grew golden corn, and Russia was that country that had Olympics or something.

Bernie Sanders

How he will be attacked: Old. Had a heart attack. Yells. Angry. Socialist. If you think Middle America will vote for Breadline Bernie you’re insane.

Suspiciously Soviet-friendly—he actually honeymooned in—wait, in Moscow? Who does that when he could have gone to Paris or Rome? Why on earth were Soviet officials congratulating him for winning a mayoral race in the People’s Republic of Burlington? Why were the Russians trying to help him in 2016? It says so in the Mueller Report. Read it for yourself. What shenanighans did his wife pull at Burlington College that the FBI was investigating?

What has he done in his 30 years in Congress besides naming Post Offices? Why did he call the first female nominee of any major party “unqualified”? Why doesn’t he control the social media trolls who attack anyone—women, especially—who dare to say a word against Saint Bernie, sometimes with snake emojis? Does he really think he can convince people in McConnell’s state to support Medicare For All? That is a fantasy, and he is a fantasist. If that could be done, why doesn’t Vermont have single-payer?

His pluses: He has created a movement, not just a base. His candidacy has inspired a generation to fight for Medicare For All and other basic things that other Western nations all provide. He is authentic, has never changed his message for different audiences, and nothing if not consistent. Anti-Iraq-war from the beginning. In 2016, he polled better than Clinton in head-to-heads against Trump. Seems to have a similar appeal for the populists and the rurals that Trump had. Joe Rogan has endorsed him; and that is about 100 times more meaningful than a New York Times endorsement in this fallen world.

Elizabeth Warren

How she will be attacked: Female. Contains ovaries. Speaks of female things like childcare and selfies and her Aunt Bee. Who cares about her Aunt Bee? Or Cee or Dee or other relatives she might have. Tries too hard to be the populist with those folksy stories and comes across as fake. Is a school teacher, and looks like she might scold you. Wall Street hates her and Wall Street is the engine of all that is good. Scoldy, angry, female. Don’t tell me what to do, school teacher.

She’s a liar. She lied about being Native American. She can never survive being called Pocahontas and Fox News will rebrand itself as Pocahontas News if she is the nominee.

Centrists think she is too far left, more-or-less the same as Sanders. Leftists think she may as well start heading up Goldman Sachs.

Her pluses: She is tough, smart, pragmatic, and has the deepest policy understanding of any of the candidates. She has shown she can solve problems. Created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Wall Street is legitimately terrified of her. Has the best understanding of the structural inadequacies of the country and how to solve them with detailed, workable solutions.

Pete Buttigieg

How he will be attacked: Who is this guy? Looks like Alfred E. Neuman from MAD Magazine. A mayor of some small town somewhere? What makes him think he can be President? What does he know, what has he done? Wasn’t even a good mayor. Marijuana prosecutions in South Bend went up disproportionately for African Americans while he was mayor. People of color don’t think much of him.

He’s gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But did I mention he’s gay? The country has moved beyond homophobia. But have those 80,000 voters in WI, PA, and MI?

A McKinsey consultant and it shows. Isn’t that the nihilistic company that puts lipstick on some pigs, including Saudi Arabia and the maker of OxyContin? Or something? His responses sound rehearsed, as though they’ve were produced during a brainstorming session at a consulting company workshop. A master of platitudes who can impress people at first glance but what’s beneath the facade? He’s the teacher’s pet front-bencher that everyone hated.

He is good friends with Mark Zuckerberg and takes advice from him. Will he be tough on big tech? Sure doesn’t look like it. Big tech billionaires love him for a reason. If Neoliberalism was given a human form, it would be Pete Buttigieg.

His pluses: Young, fresh-faced, so unlikely to have a lot of baggage that he can be pilloried with. A Vet. Says reasonable, smart-sounding things. Not divisive. Seems capable-ish.

Amy Klobuchar

How she will be attacked: Female. Many people will not vote for woman. Boss from hell. Throws things and yells when a subordinate displeases her. Vindictive. Eats salad with a comb…or was it a hairbrush? Did she pick out the hair at least?

Inspires no one. Flat affect and moderate policies. Not known for any policies in particular aside from airy generalities. Ex-cop. Sucks on environmental issues. If you want same-old same-old, vote for Klobuchar. You’re not going to have “Klobucharmentum”, like ever. Can never fill a stadium. Hey, have you seen the number of people at a Trump rally? Beat that!

Her pluses: Practical, calming, humorous and comes across as someone who’s got this. Can handle it. No Drama Klobuchah. Just efficiency and competence in a nice Midwestern package. One of the most popular Senators in the country. After Trump, people will be yearning for the Basic Girl of American politics.

The Woman Thing and Other Things

I get it. Democrats lost an election in 2016 and we are all suffering from PTSD. Clinton is a woman. Does that mean, therefore, that “this country will never elect a woman”?

No, of course not. This country did elect a woman.

Yes, I know she lost by a surgical strike exactly where it mattered: in the heart of the electoral college. But think of the forces that needed to align against her in order to pull that off. Trump had come through the Apprentice, a ten-year informercial about his skills as a businessman framed as a “reality” show, even though we know now that it was not, by any means, reality. He was always destined to get partisan Republican votes in a strongly partisan country; plus, Clinton had faced over two decades of propaganda, with Wikileaks and the Russians pitching in. Despite this, she almost won.

No candidate will escape Trump’s jabs, and the media will dutifully play along. Each jab at each potential candidate jabs at the very soul, increasing our worry that perhaps that will be the killer shot. How can we choose? No one actually knows who is electable. In the absence of data, we permit our fears to drive us.

But look. We need not ascribe magical powers to Trump. He’s no political savant. He has run in two elections in his life. He won the first (the Republican Primary of 2016) quite emphatically, because his demagoguery against immigrants and Obama-hatred was tailor-made for the Republican base, and none of the others felt the resentment that the base jived with.

He won the second election by a hair.

By an absolute razor thin, feather-light, puff-of-wind; by a flap of a butterfly’s wings: under 80,000 votes in 3 states.

Since then, many who thought he’d be the competent businessman portrayed in the Apprentice reality show are tired of his bullshit. Yes, his base has stuck with him. We can’t shake them. But they don’t matter. He needs more than his base to win.

Democrats are in a solid position. The midterms of 2018 showed that voters are fired up; the turnout was higher for a midterm than any election since 1914. Those who learned to distrust Trump by 2018 have not learned to love him since.

Democrats can lose. Elections are full of contingencies; Nate Silver, statistician extraordinaire, pontificated that if it hadn’t been for the Comey Letter in the last week before the election, Clinton might well have won. One cannot draw grand conclusions from a loss that narrow.

Any such contingency can arise again. We will have to fight for every vote. It’s going to be an insane dash for the finish line no matter what. But Trump is incredibly beatable. And any of these Democrats can beat him.

Why I am voting for Elizabeth Warren

I will vote for any Democratic nominee against Trump. But I do have my favorites.

Warren’s campaign has recently framed her as the unity candidate.

For those who like her, this formulation makes sense. She started life as a Republican from Oklahoma. Her brothers are Republican. She understands heartland culture from the inside. She is a capitalist down to her bones—she just wants to fix it so it works for everyone. This has led her to one of the most progressive platforms of all candidates in the Democratic field. This, as I imagine she would say, is a reflection of how far into the direction of oligarchy our particular version of capitalism has strayed.

On the other hand, for those who don’t like her, she is easily pilloried. For centrist Democrats, her antagonistic stance towards corporations and desire to restructure great swaths of the economy make her a Leftie, barely distinguishable from Sanders. For the Sanders Left, her friendliness towards the idea of capitalism makes her a Neoliberal, the same as Clinton, Obama, or Biden.

I can’t tell whether this Rorscharch nature of her candidacy is a strength for the General Election or not. Will it enable all stripes of voters to see her candidacy as a solution to the dissolution of Trump? Or will voters be demagogued into believing the worst of her, no matter what their ideology?

Oh, did I forget to mention that she is a woman?

But this is neither here nor there. The General Election appeal of a candidate is impossible for me to surmise. I can be afraid of aspersions that will be cast by this team or that team. But the Primary season is one for making one’s choice, not guessing at the choices of others, that we only have a dim understanding of in any case. This is a time for choosing.

This is why I am voting for Warren in the CA primary. I hope she wins.

From the time she came into national politics, I have been impressed by two things: one, her intellectual heft at being able to home in on the heart of the problem and identify the exact thing to do that would solve it. As a software engineer, this impresses me perhaps more than it would a normal person—she comes across as a fantastic debugger.

And second, her ability to connect intellectual theorizing down to the ground level, with real people and their lives.

The former quality may be called competence, or pragmatism, take your pick. A couple examples. Of all candidates running for President, she was the first to home in on the exact structural problem that strangulates progressive legislation in the Senate: the 60-vote threshold. This is by no means a built-in rule of the Senate. It isn’t sacred. It’s just the weaponization of an arcane rule that permits filibusters, that lay fallow until Mitch McConnell weaponized it to block everything. Warren has suggested dropping it. This excites me greatly.

That she is competent is best shown by the work she did setting up and staffing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She stood this up against the odds, and it struck fear into the hearts of many Wall Street miscreants. Her Presidency would be a continuation of this work.

The second quality that impressed me may be characterized as empathy. One small example will suffice. During the IA caucuses, her campaign is offering free childcare to caucus-goers, offering a slate of options for each child. It’s one thing to tout the need for government-provided family leave, as Warren famously does by using her reliance on her own Aunt Bea as an example. It’s another to connect that policy with what is happening in the here and now.

In addition, she has surprised me by being a spectacular retail politician. You may scorn the selfie lines and the First Dog Bailey giant cutouts. But it helps create a groundswell and excitement among the grassroots and helps to feed a movement. If she becomes President, these skills will come in handy selling policies in towns across the country.

It also helps negate the image of her as being angry. Two people (make that three) have said to me that they see her as angry, and that detracts from her appeal.

I suppose she is angry. I am too. But, I don’t see her as fundamentally an an angry person, but rather, as a happy warrior, bouncing up on stage, dancing clumsily to music—situationally angry at where we in the country find ourselves.

Follow me on Twitter at @TheOddPantry and on Facebook at The Odd Post.

Who has leverage in the impeachment fight?

Who actually has leverage in the Impeachment fight? Is it Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, or Trump?

The House passed two Articles of Impeachment back before Christmas on December 18th. Meanwhile McConnell (Senate Majority Leader) and Lindsey Graham (Chairman of Judiciary Committee) were both signalling that the Senate trial would be a total sham and that they would instantly acquit Trump.

This is why, after rushing through impeachment due to its national security implications, Pelosi became reluctant to hand it over to the Senate urgently. Not a surprise, because no prosecutor wants their case to be put through a sham trial. Indeed, although people unfailingly try to read into her public statements to intuit motive, she has been fairly upfront: she wants to know what rules the Senate will agree upon before she sends the articles over.

Since then, people have argued about who has the most leverage in the impeachment fight. In order to judge this we have to figure out what the incentives are on each side.

Best outcomes for each player:

Pelosi & House Dems: (1) Senate holds a fair trial with witnesses; convicts Trump. (2) Failing that, continued scrutiny on Trump’s crimes, and plenty of heat on GOP Senators for running a sham trial.

McConnell & GOP Senators: (1) The House to not have impeached at all. (2) Failing that, articles of impeachment to arrive at the Senate as soon as possible, so that the trial can be quick and painless without TV drama; acquittal without much focus on what Trump crimes they might be covering up.

Trump: (1) The House to not have impeached at all. (2) Failing that, a Senate trial full of drama: Hunter Biden, Pelosi, and Schiff called to the witness stand; grandstanders Jim Jordan & Matt Gaetz yelling and disrupting; chaos; for nothing to make any sense; acquittal and an abject apology.

Worst outcomes for each player:

Pelosi & House Dems: (1) A super-quick Senate trial, no witnesses, over before one can blink: and exoneration for Trump. (2) The public losing interest in impeachment.

McConnell & GOP Senators: (1) Continued drip-drip of impeachment-related news; (2) Continued focus on the sham Senate trial; (3) Articles to drop into the Senate at any moment without much warning, perhaps during a low cycle for Trump, or during a vulnerable moment for GOP senators.

Trump: (1) Conviction. (2) Non-acquittal—have the impeachment charge hanging over his head. (3) A “proper” Senate trial with witnesses, serious questions, proper handling of processes by Chief Justice Roberts.

So, who has leverage?

With this laid out, one can see that no one is getting best outcome. Trump/McConnell aren’t getting the House to un-impeach (even if that were possible), and Pelosi is probably not getting a conviction in the Senate and possibly not even a fair trial.

But Pelosi is already sitting on her 2nd best outcome, while avoiding Trump and McConnell getting theirs. And she is doing this while avoiding what she wants least: she postpones the inevitability of a sham trial, while the constant will she/won’t she news dribbling out of the House keep the public mind on impeachment. She gets to bask in constant breaking of impeachment-related news: the latest being Lev Parnas’s phone records being released to the House. Finally, she also has Trump and McConnell stewing in one of their least favored situations, at least for the moment.

So I ask you: what is her incentive to deliver articles to the Senate, without assurances that the trial won’t be a sham one?


Indeed, through the din of pundits arguing this way and that, the actions of the players have confirmed the landscape of leverage as I’ve laid out above.

Pelosi hasn’t said much about when she intends to proceed. When asked, she has been consistent: some variant of wanting to see what the rules of the Senate are going to be before she decides on House Managers, or how to proceed. While McConnell and Trump keep rattling the cages.

One day McConnell dares Pelosi to send along the House’s “shoddy work product“. Another day Trump claims the holdup is “unfair” while Pence’s Chief of Staff states confidently that she won’t be able to hold onto them for long. Then McConnell chides Pelosi for the “fantasy” of daring to believe she can shape the trial; while Lindsey Graham tries to “break the deadlock” by moving forward without the articles being received at the Senate. Then McConnell colorfully says Democrats are “floundering” and warns that if Pelosi doesn’t send the articles over soon, that the Senate will move on to other business: to this, Pelosi retorted that . This is akin to threatening Pelosi with legislation while they wait: as if to threaten that then the Democrats will be left a dry husk of a pointless impeachment.

The one thing they haven’t done is stay silent. From the day the Articles of Impeachment passed the House, through their recess, till today, they have kept up the goading.


I believe they are bluffing. For the reasons I listed above, I believe Pelosi can afford to wait as long as she wants, perhaps forever. She is the master of the wait. She withstood intense pressure from her own caucus to start impeachment until she was good and ready; she can face down McConnell without flinching. Trump is already impeached.


My wish list for Utopia in the 20s

(Featured image: The Prologue and the Promise, Robert McCall)

The movie Back to the Future in the 1980s imagined a millennium with flying cars and hoverboards. My “Utopia” is more pragmatic and less fanciful. I don’t want flying cars. I just want some irritants to go away and some basic problems solved. I wants some checks that are sitting right in front of us, forgotten, to be cashed.

Continue reading “My wish list for Utopia in the 20s”

McConnell and Graham must recuse: how to make them

Two Republican Senators have made public comments that show that they cannot be fair jurors in Trump’s impeachment trial. They must recuse.

On December 12th, Senate Majority Leader McConnell went on Hannity’s show on Fox News and laid an egg. He reassured Hannity’s viewers that there was no way Trump would be removed from office and that he was coordinating closely with the White House counsel for the upcoming Senate impeachment trial, going so far as to say that he would “take his cues” from the White House team.

For normal Senate business this would be unremarkable. The Senate Majority Leader coordinating with the White House on Senate business, particularly if they are both of the same party, is quite normal. But he wasn’t talking about normal Senate business.

Senate trials for impeachment are a unique setting, especially impeachment of the President. The trial will be presided over by Chief Justice Roberts. The case for the prosecution will be presented by House Managers—members of the House or counsel selected by them to prosecute the articles of impeachment. The President will be defended by his lawyers. Each side can summon witnesses to the stand.

That leaves the Senators. They will have one job: to shut up and listen. The normally garrulous bunch are not permitted to talk: according to Rule 19, they must not “engage in colloquy“. Any questions they might have must be put in writing and handed to the Chief Justice.

This is because, during the Senate trial, Senators play the role of Jurors. They will take a Juror’s Oath, to be administered by the Chief Justice: ‘‘I solemnly swear … that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of Donald J. Trump, now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws: So help me God.’’ Their role is to be impartial and weigh the facts presented at trial.

This is why Mitch McConnell’s statement was so inappropriate. He was not only reneging on the promise to be impartial, but also colluding with the defense.

Continue reading “McConnell and Graham must recuse: how to make them”

Excuses, excuses!

Since the Whistleblower’s Complaint, Republicans have scrambled to find excuses for Trump. The only problem? The excuses don’t stand up to scrutiny and often contradict each other.

Remember when Trump’s call with Ukraine leader Zelensky was “perfect” with “no quid pro quo” except that his Chief of Staff said yes, there was a quid pro quo, it happens all the time and we all need to get over it? Remember when Republicans stormed the SCIF, courted arrest, and ordered pizza—but the hearing they tried to block still took place, if delayed?

While the Ukraine story that Trump is being impeached over remains a simple one—that Trump held back Ukraine’s military aid in return for two “favors”: that they announce an investigation into Biden, and exonerate Russia from the 2016 election attack—Republicans under the glare of scrutiny have twisted this way and that, scrambled to find one excuse after another, watched their excuses crumble, and scrambled to find new ones, even though they might contradict the old ones.

None of it matters, because the idea is to confuse and obfuscate: a lights-and-sounds show that will distract from the basic fact that Trump has no good defenses left. All of these excuses have been debunked by experts and some actually contradict each other.

Continue reading “Excuses, excuses!”