It Has To Be Different This Time

Joe Biden’s proposed Covid-19 relief plan is a big deal. From Vox:

The proposal, called the American Rescue Plan, is divvied up into three buckets:

$400 billion for dealing with the coronavirus, including vaccines and testing;

$1 trillion in direct relief to families; and

$400 billion in aid to communities and businesses.

It includes money for testing, vaccines, and public health workers; $400 a week in extended federal unemployment insurance through September; rental assistance; emergency paid leave; and funding for reopening schools, among other items. And, as Democrats promised when campaigning in Georgia, Biden’s plan would send out another $1,400 in stimulus checks, bringing the total this year to $2,000.

Greg Sargent of The Washington Post discusses the relatively encouraging politics of the matter:

The sheer scale of the economic rescue package that Joe Biden has unveiled has surprised a lot of observers who were expecting the president-elect to offer something more in line with his centrist, incrementalist past.

In unveiling the new [roughly] $1.9 trillion package, Biden declared that rather than worry about “our debt situation,” it’s time to spend big “with interest rates at historic lows.” As Slate’s Jordan Weissmann put it: “I would not have anticipated that Joe Biden would become a clear and forceful advocate of deficit spending.”

What accounts for this ambition? Most obviously, this crisis is truly extraordinary. The new leadership must execute a massive vaccine-distribution operation amid a broader effort to tame a raging pandemic, while securing assistance to struggling Americans plus a big burst of stimulus spending to address a deepening economic crisis.

Another obvious answer is that the politics have shifted. The Democratic Party has moved left on fundamental economic questions, due in large part to advocacy from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and others.

But still another reason, one that has been less remarked-upon, is that many Democrats have lived through what happened when former president Barack Obama inherited another major economic crisis from another Republican president.

As has been endlessly hashed out, Obama opted for a stimulus that fell short of what was needed. Putting aside why that happened, what everyone now knows is that it was a serious mistake. Democrats lost the House in 2010 and spent the remainder of Obama’s presidency locked in brutal fiscal trench warfare with a GOP determined to starve the recovery with austerity to cripple his presidency under the guise of fake concerns about spending and deficits.

Many Democrats who lived through that, a lot of whom are still in Congress and some of whom are advising Biden — who himself lived through it as vice president — must be wary of a repeat.

Making them even more wary, one hopes, is the fact that Republican deficit concerns evaporated once a Republican became president. Indeed, the economy was good (at least until the coronavirus shattered it) precisely because it was fueled by stimulus.

As Neil Irwin reports, the Trump years have caused a change among economists, who are now more receptive to a hotter economy — with higher deficits and lower unemployment — and less wary of inflation than they traditionally have been. That has fueled a political shift toward tolerance of deficits, making Democrats less wary of bad-faith criticism for overspending.

But on top of that sea change, Democrats have to be feeling extra-burned by the fact that the GOP pivoted so abruptly from voicing phony deficit concerns under a Democratic president to not caring about them anymore under a Republican.

The lesson of those years is that Txxxx the political beneficiary of that chicanery. He consistently had high approval ratings on the economy, and he might have won reelection on the strength of that if the coronavirus hadn’t intervened.

Democrats appear to be learning from that lesson right now.

On still another front, the makeup of the Senate Democratic caucus is different. During the Obama years you had centrist old-liners chairing key committees . . . Expected to chair those respective committees in the new Senate now are Ron Wyden of Oregon, Sanders, and Sherrod Brown of Ohio. All are far more progressive than those previous Democratic chairs. . . .

Wyden, for his part, believes this combination of things — an awareness of getting played by phony GOP deficit concerns and more progressive Senate committee chairs — will make this time very different from 2009 and 2010.

“The key lessons we learned were the importance of not assuming there will be multiple bites at the apple and not taking your foot off the gas in the middle of economic recovery,” Wyden told me in a statement. “We cannot let a popular recovery agenda get derailed by fiscal fearmongering that we know is unjustified and phony.”

“Committee chairs are going to be aggressive, and want to get things done,” Wyden added. “Overall, I think the dynamics have changed a lot since 2009.”

To be sure, it still remains to be seen how big a package Biden will actually wrest from Congress. He has already announced he hopes to pursue bipartisan support in the Senate rather than try to get the legislation passed with a simple majority via the “reconciliation” process.

So it’s still possible that Biden could end up on a futile hunt for Republican support or end up compromising his stimulus package downward. But there is at least some reason for optimism that Democrats have learned from what happened last time. . . .

Fear vs. the White Male Effect

There was a story in the news a little while ago about a Democrat or two fearing that impeaching our criminal president again would cause more division in our beleaguered nation. So I decided to do a small, very unscientific study of a possible difference between Democrats and Republicans. My hypothesis was that Democrats are often said to be afraid of something, while Republicans rarely are. Here are the results (which may be hard to see, so I’ll summarize them below):

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Google came back with 483,000 results for “democrats fear” but only 184,000 results for “republicans fear”. That’s an impressive difference.

To rule out the possibility that Google simply has more results about Democrats, I did another search. I compared “democrats refuse” and “republicans refuse” (simply because Republicans seem to say “no” a lot).

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As you may be able to see, there were equally striking results. There were 86,000 results for “democrats refuse” and 314,000 for “republicans refuse”. 

What does this tell us about the two parties? I’m not sure. Maybe Democrats are more concerned about consequences than Republicans are. They probably worry more. They are certainly more open to compromise, i.e. less likely to refuse. 

This brings me to two relevant articles. The first describes a significant difference between White men and everybody else. It’s called “The Science That Explains Trump’s Grip on White Males”:

Cognitive scientists long ago coined a term for the psychological forces that have given rise to the gendered and racialized political divide that we’re seeing today. That research, and decades of subsequent scholarly work, suggest that if you want to understand the Txxxx phenomenon, you’d do well to first understand the science of risk perception.

[In 1994] a group of researchers . . .  published a study that asked about 1,500 Americans across the country how they perceived different kinds of risks, notably environmental health risks. [They] found that White males differed from White women and non-White men and women in how they perceived risks. For every category of threat, White men saw risk as much smaller and much more acceptable than did other demographic groups. This is what they dubbed “the White male effect”. They also found that White women perceived risks, across the board, to be much higher than White men did, but this was not true of non-White women and men, who perceived risk at pretty much the same levels. . .  Eventually, expansions of this study would include a wide range of risks including handguns, abortionnuclear threat, and capital punishment.

The perception of risk, of course, relates to fear. Where there is no risk, there is nothing to fear. There is scientific evidence, therefore, that Republicans (who tend to be White men) are less fearful than Democrats (who tend to be women and non-White).

The second article is “The Democrats’ Stark, Historic Choice”. The author argues that Democrats need to rise above their fears if we’re going to preserve (what remains of) our democracy:

For all the cant we’ll soon be drowned in about the soul of the nation and healing, the Democratic Party and the country now face what is ultimately a problem of public policy. Today, less than half our population controls 82 percent of the Senate’s seats. By 2040, given current demographic trends, the most conservative third of the country alone will control nearly 70 percent of its seats. All of this amounts to a permanent and growing advantage for a party whose leaders greeted the president with applause at its winter meeting after Wednesday’s attack.

The Democrats will soon have the presidency. They will have the House of Representatives. By the skin on the skin of their teeth, they will have the Senate. They will, in sum, be entering into an alignment of power in Washington that we have every reason to believe is becoming exceptionally rare. And every actor within that trifecta will have a choice to make. Should a party that mounted a crusade against a legitimate election and the democratic process—a party whose rhetoric has killed—continue to accrue structural power? Or should the Democratic Party work to curb it? 

The author goes on to argue that Democrats need to overcome their fear of institutional change and take aggressive advantage of their fragile Congressional majority. The legislative filibuster should be eliminated in order to pass a full restoration of the Voting Rights Act, expand the franchise, grant statehood to Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, and reform the Supreme Court.

As always, the Republicans will refuse to accept small-“d” democratic reforms. The Democrats shouldn’t fear doing whatever they can to achieve them.

Tonight’s Civics Discussion

I wanted to understand what is supposed to happen in Washington tomorrow, when Congress is legally required to formally announce that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the election. The law that describes the proceedings is 3 U.S. Code § 15 – Counting electoral votes in Congress. It’s not easy to read, but this is what it says (with my comments, helpful or not, in italics):

Congress shall be in session on the sixth day of January succeeding every meeting of the electors.

The Senate and House of Representatives shall meet in the Hall of the House of Representatives at the hour of 1 o’clock in the afternoon on that day, and the President of the Senate shall be their presiding officer.

Two tellers shall be previously appointed on the part of the Senate and two on the part of the House of Representatives, to whom shall be handed, as they are opened by the President of the Senate [in this case, Vice President Pence], all the certificates and papers purporting to be certificates of the electoral votes [from the various states and the District of Columbia],

[these] certificates and papers shall be opened, presented, and acted upon in the alphabetical order of the States, beginning with the letter A [reminding us where the alphabet starts];

said tellers, having . . . read the same in the presence and hearing of the two Houses, shall make a list of the votes as they shall appear from the said certificates; and the votes having been ascertained and counted . . . , the result of the same shall be delivered to the President of the Senate, who shall thereupon announce the state of the vote, which announcement shall be deemed a sufficient declaration of the persons, if any, elected President and Vice President of the United States . . .

[BUT WAIT: BEFORE THE FINAL DECLARATION OF WHO WAS ELECTED]

Upon such reading of any such certificate or paper, the President of the Senate shall call for objections, if any. [So after the tellers announce the results from a given state or the District of Columbia, the Vice President will ask if there is any objection].

Every objection shall be made in writing, and shall state clearly and concisely, and without argument, the ground thereof, and shall be signed by at least one Senator and one Member of the House of Representatives before the same shall be received.

When all objections so made to any vote or paper from a State shall have been received and read, the Senate shall thereupon withdraw, and such objections shall be submitted to the Senate for its decision; and the Speaker of the House of Representatives shall, in like manner, submit such objections to the House of Representatives for its decision;

and no electoral vote or votes from any State which shall have been regularly given by electors whose appointment has been lawfully certified to . . . from which but one return has been received shall be rejected [for this election, that’s every state plus the District of Columbia],

[except that] the two Houses concurrently may reject the vote or votes when they agree that such vote or votes have not been so regularly given by electors whose appointment has been so certified.

[The law then explains in convoluted language what happens if a state submitted more than one certificate — but that has never happened]

When the two Houses have voted [on a particular objection], they shall immediately again meet, and the presiding officer shall then announce the decision of the questions submitted. No votes or papers from any other State shall be acted upon until the objections previously made to the votes or papers from any State shall have been finally disposed of.

Unquote.

Thus, after the Senate or House has rejected all of the objections, the Vice President, as stated above, reads the final numbers, declaring who was elected President and Vice President of the United States.

There may be pointless objections to the results from six states, beginning with Arizona and ending with Wisconsin, so the process that sometimes takes less than 30 minutes might not finish until Thursday. That’s if there are objections to all of those states and the Senate or House actually spend two hours discussing and voting on each objection, all of which will be defeated in both houses of Congress, even the one controlled by the odious Republican senator Mitch McConnell.

As we can see, the law requires the Vice President to open the envelopes, ask for objections and read the final result. He has no authority to do anything else. I expect he’ll say something to try to make President Nut Job happy, but perform his assigned tasks. If he grabs the certificates and runs away, or refuses to announce the final result, or announces it in Esperanto, things could get weirder than they already are.

Small States and Minority Rule

Every four years we elect a president. Almost every four years, we discuss the Electoral College. From Jesse Wegman of The New York Times:

As the 538 members of the Electoral College gather on Monday to carry out their constitutional duty and officially elect Joe Biden as the nation’s 46th president and Kamala Harris as his vice president, we are confronted again with the jarring reminder that it could easily have gone the other way. We came within a hairbreadth of re-electing a man who finished more than seven million votes behind his opponent — and we nearly repeated the shock of 2016, when Dxxxx Txxxx took office after coming in a distant second in the balloting.

No other election in the country is run like this. But why not? That question has been nagging at me for the past few years, particularly in the weeks since Election Day, as I’ve watched with morbid fascination the ludicrous effort by Mr. Txxxx and his allies to use the Electoral College to subvert the will of the majority of American voters and overturn an election that he lost.

The obvious answer is that, for the most part, we abide by the principle of majority rule. . . . 

In the last 20 years, Republicans have been gifted the White House while losing the popular vote twice, and it came distressingly close to happening for a third time this year. 

Since 2000, we’ve had six presidential elections. The candidate who got the most votes only won four of them. This year, shifting 44,000 votes to the loser in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin would have resulted in a 269-269 tie in the Electoral College. That would have moved the election to the House of Representatives, where each state’s delegation gets one vote, regardless of population. Since most states have Republican-majority representation in the House — even though the House has more Democrats — DDT would have presumably been re-elected, hard as that is to imagine. 

Among the comments the Times article received, one person said the Electoral College is fine, since we’re a collection of states, the United States of America, not a collection of citizens. He said it’s only fair that we pick a president based on which states the candidates win, not how many votes they get. Besides, he added, votes in the Electoral College are “roughly” assigned by population.

I don’t agree that because we’re called the United States, we should ignore majority rule when it coms to picking a president. After all, the states we live in are supposed to be “united”. But his statement about the Electoral College being “roughly” based on population made me wonder.

How would the 2020 election have turned out if votes in the Electoral College were “precisely” assigned by population, instead of “roughly”? Today, the largest state, California, gets 55 electoral votes and the smallest state, Wyoming, gets 3. But California’s population is 68 times Wyoming’s. So if the Electoral College were precisely allocated by population, California would get 204 electoral votes, not 55. Quite a difference. The next largest state, Texas, would get 150 instead of 38.

Would that have made the result in the Electoral College much different? It was surprising to see that it wouldn’t. If you do the same precise arithmetic for all 50 states and the District of Columbia, Joe Biden receives 974 electoral votes instead of 306 and DDT gets 730 instead of 232. That looks like a big difference, but the percentages are about the same. Biden would get 57.2% of the electoral votes with the precise arithmetic and 56.9% with the rough arithmetic. It works out that way because some big states, like California and New York, went for Biden and some, like Texas and Florida, went for DDT. When you average it all out, the Electoral College result would be about the same either way.

There would be a big difference, however. Big states would be much more important in the Electoral College than small states. If California got 204 electoral votes instead of 55, it would make even less difference who won a bunch of little states like Wyoming, Vermont and Alaska. In fact, assuming precise arithmetic, the 25 largest states would get 1,423 electoral votes vs. 288 for the 25 smallest. 

What this shows is that the current Electoral College is significantly skewed to benefit smaller states. Voters in those states play a bigger role than they should, based on how few of them there are. Being precise about population wouldn’t necessarily change the winner every time, but a more accurate Electoral College would reflect where people actually live in these “united” states. It would also reflect the cultural divisions in this country, since smaller states tend to be more rural.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the Electoral College that is skewed toward smaller states. According to the Constitution, each state gets as many votes in the Electoral College as it has members of Congress. Wyoming gets three electoral votes because it has two people in the Senate and one in the House of Representatives. California gets 55 electoral votes because it has two senators and 53 representatives in the House. If seats in Congress were precisely allocated by population, California would still have two senators, but it would elect almost four times as many members of the House of Representatives as Wyoming. The ratio in the House would be California’s 202 to Wyoming’s one, not 53 to one.

If the makeup of the House of Representatives isn’t unfair enough, consider the US Senate. Each state, regardless of population, gets two senators. It was designed to give small states the same representation as big states, so each state, regardless of population, gets to elect two. Maybe that made sense when there were only 13 states and they were relatively close in population. Now we have 50 states with a very wide range of populations.

In 1790, for example, the largest state, Virginia, had 13 times as many people as the smallest, Delaware. Today, as noted above, California has 68 times more people than Wyoming. Furthermore, the 50 members of the Senate from the largest 25 states represent almost 275 million people. The 50 senators from the smallest 25 states represent 49 million.

The imbalance is made even worse by the fact that the Senate is responsible for approving nominations to the Executive Branch (including all the officials in the president’s cabinet) and the federal judiciary (including the Supreme Court), as well as approving treaties. Because of the way senators were to be chosen, the authors of the Constitution assumed that members of the Senate would be more responsible than the unruly members of the House of Representatives. That’s hardly the case today.

In addition, smaller states, which tend to more rural, tend to vote for Republicans. Of the 25 largest states, 15 voted for Biden and 10 for his opponent. Of the 25 smallest, 10 voted for Biden and 15 for the other guy. That’s why the Senate is where progressive legislation goes to die and liberal nominees fall into comas waiting to be approved.

Add this all up and it’s easy to see that a Constitution written in 1789 doesn’t work very well for a large, complicated country in 2020. The Senate is skewed to benefit smaller, more Republican states, while the House of Representatives and the Electoral College, which chooses the president, are skewed the same way, although less so. This unfairness explains why Hillary Clinton could beat her opponent by 3 million votes and lose, why Joe Biden could beat the same opponent by 7 million votes but not necessarily win, and why forward-looking legislation that would make the United States a much better place to live has so little chance of success. Maybe shifting demographics will eventually help, but in the short run, we have to assume the United States will be subject to minority rule from Washington in important ways and much too often. 

Let This Sink In

The president and members of his political party continue to file frivolous lawsuits attacking the results of the election, despite an overwhelming series of losses.

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From The New York Times:

The . . . campaign’s unsuccessful strategy was to try to delay the certification processes in the key battleground states that President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. won. As of Monday, Nov. 30, all of those states had certified their results.

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From Wired:

On December 14, Electoral College members will formally cast their votes based on their states’ certified results, resolving any possible ambiguity that Biden is the president-elect.

“It’s [officially] over on December 14,” says Elaine Kamarck, director of the Brookings Institute’s Center for Effective Public Management . . . . “We forget that the electors are actual people, but they go to their state capitals and sign their ballots. Then the US Senate opens them, reads them out, and does the count on January 6, but there’s nothing else the Senate can do. Once they’re signed on the 14th and are on their way to Washington, that’s the end of the game.”

From The Washington Post:

Just 25 [out of 249] congressional Republicans acknowledge Joe Biden’s win over President Txxxx a month after the former vice president’s clear victory of more than 7 million votes nationally and a convincing electoral-vote margin that exactly matched Txxxx’s 2016 tally.

Two Republicans consider Txxxx the winner despite all evidence showing otherwise. And another 222 GOP members of the House and Senate — nearly 90 percent of all Republicans serving in Congress — will simply not say who won the election.

Those are the findings of a Washington Post survey of all 249 Republicans in the House and Senate . . . 

The results demonstrate the fear that most Republicans have of the outgoing president and his grip on the party, despite his new status as just the third incumbent to lose reelection in the last 80 years. More than 70 percent of Republican lawmakers did not acknowledge The Post’s questions as of Friday evening. . . .

Of the 14 House Republicans who recognize the true winner, six are retiring from politics at the end of this month . . . 

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When Joe Biden is inaugurated as our 47th president on January 20th, the Orange Menace will still have ten tiny fingers and a Twitter account.