A Temporary Stay Of Execution

I’ve written before–see here, and here–about the deep concerns the people of Stonington, Maine have had about impending federal regulations that would drastically affect the lobster fishing that is a crucial pillar of the local economy. Those working in the lobster trade were convinced that regulations designed to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale would make lobster fishing practically and economically impossible.

Those concerns have been deferred by recent actions by Congress and President Biden. As is often the case with Congress these days, the $1.7 trillion spending bill that was passed and then signed into law on December 29 included an array of additional provisions–including one that delays the implementation of the right whale regulations for six years. The bill also allocated $55 million to try to accomplish two tasks related to the regulations. First, some of the money will be spent to develop workable ropeless lobster fishing gear and techniques, since the right whale regulations will require an end to the traditional rope-and-buoy system that have been a foundation of Maine lobster fishing for decades. Second, the money will fund research to determine if the North Atlantic right whale is in fact found in the Gulf of Maine, and if so where and when.

An article in the Island Ad-Vantages, the local newspaper for Deer Isle, Maine, reports on the legislation and the reaction to it here. Basically, those in the lobster trade are relieved at the delay in the regulations–which they no doubt view as a kind of stay of execution of their industry–but, as the article’s apt headline states: “And now the work begins.” There are a lot of details to work out, as those involved in the lobster fishing industry need to create a process for making and responding to right whale sightings and figure out how to spend millions, including money to be allocated in future years, to create the ropeless fishing technology. That last task is a crucial one, because the concern underlying the delayed regulations is that the the endangered right whales become ensnared in the ropes that link the lobster traps on the ocean floor to the buoys on the surface. If workable ropeless technology can’t be developed, the reprieve won’t provide long-term relief.

It’s frustrating that our government can’t seem to function at a deliberate, thoughtful pace and address issues through single-focus legislation, and instead can only act through colossal, last-minute spending bills that become Christmas trees for all kinds of unrelated provisions. In this case, however, that process helped out–temporarily, at least–a beleaguered industry and local communities that are dependent on it.

Leaving The U.S. of A.

Every election seems to feature some group of people–often celebrities–who swear that they will leave the country if one candidate or another is elected. It’s become a kind of American election tradition. But how many people actually follow through on their promises to hit the road and live abroad due to election results?

The Washington Post recently published an interesting article that tried to reach conclusions about American expatriates by crunching through some actual data. It found that, to be sure, there have been big spikes in Google searches about moving to Canada in connection with elections and, more recently, the Supreme Court’s decision to overrule Roe v. Wade. There was an especially big spike in such searches in 2016, when Donald Trump was elected, that constitutes the all-time peak in such search requests.

The Post article also notes, however, that only a tiny fraction of Americans actually leave the U.S.A., and an even smaller number do it for political reasons. In fact, the United States is the number one destination for immigrants, by a considerable margin, but only 26th in the number of emigrants. Americans are far less likely to emigrate than citizens of some other countries–but because of our size, that still means millions of Americans have moved overseas. Data from the United Nations and the World Bank indicates that about 2.8 million Americans now live abroad, although there is some dispute about exactly who to count in that category. The data analysis also shows that Americans who do emigrate go to a lot of different countries, with the top ten list being Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Israel, South Korea, Japan, France, and Italy.

The data also suggest that very few Americans leave because of election results. Instead, there are a range of reasons for the departures. For example, Mexico is number one on the list of relocations because many of the Americans who relocate to Mexico are children who were born in America and then returned to Mexico with their parents. For other emigrants, ending up in another country often is just the result of a series of circumstances that the article describes as emigration by accident, with a typical scenario being an American who goes abroad to study or work, meets and marries a native of the country of their destination, and ends up staying there. For those Americans who are making conscious decisions to move abroad, the other big reasons include retirement and a simple desire to explore.

In short, there really aren’t many “political emigrants” from the U.S., despite the fervent promises that we hear during election season–probably because promises made during the heat of the moment end up going by the wayside when passions cool, careful analysis of possible destinations occurs, and Americans realize that staying here beats the alternative for a lot of reasons. But if you do go abroad and become one of those accidental emigrants, you’ll probably find a community of other accidental American emigrants wherever you go.

The Beltway And The Twitterverse

If, like me, you don’t tweet or retweet anything, and you don’t pay much attention to the tweets or retweets of others, Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter for tens of billions of dollars has not had much of an impact on your world. For some people who are serious Twitter users, however, Musk’s takeover has been an earth-shattering event–and they can’t quite figure out how to deal with it.

NBC has an interesting story about how “liberal Washington” hates Elon Musk, and doesn’t like what he’s doing with Twitter, but just can’t cut the cord and stop tweeting. They give lots of reasons for their inability to achieve separation: Twitter is a great information resource; it’s how they get a lot of their news; it’s easy to use and smartphone-based; it’s how they communicate their thoughts to their thousands of devoted “followers,” and it’s how they think many of the people outside Washington, D.C. get their news, and they don’t want to deprive their constituents of that news source.

And, lurking in the background of those rationalizations is another reality: there really is no viable alternative. If you’ve gotten used to tweeting your “hot takes” about Donald Trump at all hours–or even become a kind of “Twitter addict,” as some Beltway insiders put it–there is nowhere else to go. So you can harrumph about Elon Musk acting like a jerk, but you just can’t bring yourself to quit him. He’s like the toxic high school boyfriend or girlfriend who never quite gets dumped because you don’t want to sit around at home on Friday nights.

One of the people interviewed for the story is a Congressman whose staff has convinced him that he can’t quit Twitter because “social media is where many of his constituents get their news, so leaving could cut them off from critical information.” I find it hard to believe that many people outside of Washington, D.C. or New York City actually get their news from Twitter. Other than one person who tweets as part of their job, I don’t know anyone who pays much attention to Twitter. There are reasons for that: as much as Twitter tries to get ordinary people to engage with it, there are some seriously off-putting aspects about the service that make many of us cringe: it’s often snotty and mean, with its tantalizing one-word retweets (like the overused “Wow!”) it’s consciously designed to make you click and click, and it just doesn’t bear much resemblance to the real world–fortunately!

As I read the NBC article, which identifies the number of followers of the people quoted and even designates some people as Twitter “pseudo-celebrities” and “power couples” based on such data, I felt like the real reason people inside the Beltway don’t quit Twitter is that they like the idea of having thousands of “followers” hanging on their every tweet. Never mind how many of those “followers” are bots, and how many are like-minded insiders who are creating their own little echo chamber. Having thousands of “followers” is a tangible sign of relevance and self-worth. If you crave the very idea of being someone who influences policy and is a “player,” giving up those followers would be a very hard call.

The First Democracy

It’s Election Day in America. It’s time to head to the polls, exercise our franchise, and foolishly hope that the results will be accepted by all and will quash the bitterness that seems to accumulate, election after election, at every point on the political spectrum.

We’ve got the ancient Athenians to thank for all of this, of course. To be sure, during the ancient tribal times there might have been an election or two among members of the tribe to choose a new leader–although the strongest or cleverest member of the clan might have had something to say about that–but the Greeks were the first group to institutionalize democracy as a mechanism to govern a political state, at some time during the fifth century B.C.E. The Greeks believed that all citizens (a category limited to adult males that excluded women, children, and slaves) should participate in governance of the state. The word “democracy” comes from the combination of the Greek words demos (the people) and kratos (rule). Citizens had the ability to serve in an assembly and vote on new laws.

So, were the Greek elections friendly exercises that were less negative than our modern American version? Not really. In fact, the Athenians had a formal process called ostracism–the basis for the modern word “ostracize”–that allowed voters to vote to expel leaders from the city-state for 10 years, and they could do it for dishonesty, misrule, or just general dislike. (Imagine if the modern American system had such a process!) And the Greeks (and Romans, too) weren’t shy about attempting assassination of tyrants, either.

In reality, democracy, either in its pure or republican form, has always been a bit messy, with heated feelings, negativity, and vigorous denunciations of purported tyrants and fools–but it sure is a lot better than the authoritarian alternatives. Today, I hope Americans of every political persuasion get out and vote, so the demos can kratos.

Big Money

We can be sure of two things about every election for federal offices in America. First, politicians from both parties will tell the voters that the upcoming election is the most important election in history, with the future of the country hanging in the balance. And second, the election will be the most expensive election in history . . so far.

Both things have happened in this election cycle. The Hill reports that spending on political activities in the 2022 midterm election is projected to reach a staggering $16.7 billion, obliterating the prior record, which was established in the last midterm election. As of Tuesday, spending reported to the Federal Election Commission, which tallies the numbers for the federal side of the election, is already at $7.5 billion–surpassing the paltry $7.1 billion spent in 2018–and we’ve still got days of additional ads, commercials, and events before Election Day rolls around next Tuesday.

Spending on the contests for federal offices is projected to reach $8.9 billion this year, and state elections are expected to cost an additional $7.8 billion. Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, and Wisconsin are leading the spending boom, and congressional “super PACs” from both parties are providing a lot of the cash.

Here’s a trivia question: who did George Washington beat in the first U.S. presidential election? The answer is no one; he was unopposed and was elected unanimously. Those days are long gone. Now, we seem to have an endless appetite for “the most important election in history” and are willing to dig deeper and deeper to fund them.

Football Season Is Political Ad Season

Yesterday, when we watched the Buckeyes game with Penn State at JT’s Pizza and Pub, the vast majority of the TV commercials during the game were for political candidates. The campaign strategists know that, in Ohio, virtually everyone drops everything to watch the Buckeyes on the gridiron, so it is prime time to deliver a message to a captive, very focused, every sense on heightened alert audience. It undoubtedly costs the campaigns a boatload to buy the ad slots, but they figure it is worth it–which is why Buckeye fans were seeing so many political ads rather than the standard in-game car, tire, or “remember to ask your doctor about Altavlid” commercials.

Fortunately, they had the sound off at JT’s, and we couldn’t have heard the voice over of the commercials in any event, over the din of football analysis and “OH-IO” chants. But you don’t really need to have the sound on to follow the political ads. Basically, they fall into two categories: the scary ads and the “humanize the candidate” ads. And it’s immediately clear which category a political commercial falls into, because every ad in either category shares obvious common characteristics. In fact, the touchstones are so commonplace that both Democrats and Republicans use them, and if you run a Google search you’ll find that the British and Canadian political wizards use the same techniques, as the Canadian ad above demonstrates.

Scary ads: Dark, grainy, blurry footage, with quick cuts from one troubling scene to another. Opposing candidate depicted in unflattering poses in slow motion or with some kind of color filter to give him or her a more devilish, unsettling appearance. Children in peril or worried people sitting around their kitchen tables. Messages in large type that appear on the screen like shotgun blasts that usually include the words “we can’t afford.”

Humanize the candidate ads: Candidate is shown in a bulky, woolen, Mr. Rogers-type sweater, carrying a cup of coffee and sitting on the family sofa with their spouse. Candidate makes breakfast or kicks a soccer ball or throws a football with kids. Lots of warm hues and sunshine. Candidate is shown gesturing forcefully to smiling, nodding blue-collar workers, who are deeply absorbed in everything the candidate is saying.

I’ll be glad when November 8 finally arrives and we can go back to watching the Buckeyes, the tire ads, and those helpful spots about the latest miracle drug.

Backfire Protests

The primary objective of protests is to call attention to your cause–and to do so in a way that makes people sympathetic to your position. The lunch counter sit-ins and freedom marches of the ’50s and ’60s to protest racism and segregation in the American South, in which peaceful protesters were attacked and manhandled by bigoted authorities and police dogs, were examples of protests that successfully turned public opinion.

The recent protests in which climate activists hurl food at famous paintings and then glue their hands to walls, in contrast, seem ill-suited to achieving that basic goal.

Monet’s magnificent Les Meules, shown above, is the latest painting to endure the indignity of being the target of thrown food, in the form of mashed potatoes. The mashed spuds were tossed by members of “Last Generation,” a group that wants the German government to stop using fossil fuels. The incident followed a similar escapade by members of “Just Stop Oil,” who splattered tomato soup on one of Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflower paintings in the National Gallery in London. In both instances, the food tossers then glued their hands to the walls holding the paintings. Fortunately, both the Monet and the Van Gogh were covered by glass, so no permanent damage was done.

There’s no doubt that the protests got media attention, and some people on the political spectrum have dutifully argued that the food-throwing protesters are “totally justified” in their actions due to concerns about climate change. I suspect, however, that a far larger number of people object to converting beautiful works of art into props for acts of political theater and turning quiet art museums into turbulent protest zones. It just seems wrong to throw things at artwork–especially when the paintings have nothing to do with the fossil fuels or climate change that are supposed to be the whole point of the protest. Committing assaults on paintings of flowers and haystacks doesn’t exactly drive home a point about global warming.

Gluing your hands to walls and floors doesn’t make much sense, either. Either the palms of the protesters are going to be painfully de-skinned when police arrive, or they are going to risk being left glued down in the dark overnight, without access to food, water, or the facilities–an unhappy fate which happened to protestors who glued themselves to the floor of a Volkswagen facility recently. Either way, it doesn’t exactly send a message that the protestors have intelligently thought through the potential consequences of their actions.

We’ll see whether the food-tossing, hand-gluing approach to protesting causes a shift in public opinion in a way that favors the protesters cause–or whether it has the opposite effect. People in Europe, and elsewhere, might not be receptive to the intended message as they approach a winter in which there are significant concerns that people won’t have enough fuel to heat their homes.

Regulatory Insiders

The Wall Street Journal published an exhaustive piece of investigatory journalism this week about stock trading by senior officials and employees of federal regulatory agencies, You can see the full WSJ article here, and a summary of six “takeaways” from the reporting here. It’s a classic example of old-fashioned shoe leather reporting, but on a big scale. One of the six takeaways describes what the Journal team did:

“The Journal obtained and analyzed more than 31,000 financial-disclosure forms for about 12,000 senior career employees, political staff and presidential appointees. The review spans 2016 through 2021 and includes data on about 850,000 financial assets and more than 315,000 trades reported in stocks, bonds and funds by the officials, their spouses or dependent children.”

The fruits of the investigation justify this enormous amount of work by the reporting team, because the analysis found that thousands of federal administrative officials trade stocks in companies their agencies are actively regulating. The full article is worth reading, but let’s focus today on five of the takeaways.

First, more than 2,600 federal agency officials owned millions of dollars in stocks in companies that were lobbying their agencies. Second, officials directly owned stocks in companies whose businesses obviously would be affected by decisions made by their regulatory agencies, including Defense Department officials owning stocks in aerospace and defense companies, an EPA official owning stock in an oil and gas company, and an FDA official investing in food and drug company stocks that were supposed to be off limits. Even more amazing, some Defense Department officials owned stocks in Chinese companies that the U.S. was considering for blacklisting.

Third, The Journal investigation found dozens of examples of officials trading in stocks of companies shortly before their agencies announced enforcement actions against those companies. Fourth, 1,800 officials owned stock in Facebook, Amazon, Apple, or Google. And fifth, about 70 officials engaged in trading that most normal investors don’t even consider, like options trading or short selling, including some individual trades of between $5 million and $25 million.

The ability of regulatory officials to buy or sell stocks in companies that are under the oversight of their agencies is obviously a gaping hole in federal law. Administrative officials are supposed to be objective and dispassionate in their decisionmaking. When such officials are directly investing in companies they are regulating, often under circumstances–like trades made shortly before regulatory actions are to be announced–such conduct gives rise to reasonable suspicions that insider information might have influenced the buy or sell decision. The potential conflicts of interest are even greater when regulatory officials engage in especially risky trading tactics, such as short selling, or large-money trades. And, perhaps most concerning, the agencies in question apparently had rules prohibiting much of this conduct, but waived the rules so the trades could be made.

It’s time for members of Congress to get off their duffs, stop the constant fundraising, skip another appearance on CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News, and take a good look at the conflict of interest and stock trading rules applicable to the administrative state. A statute that requires officials to avoid any direct ownership of stocks during their service in regulatory agencies–and instead participate solely in mutual funds managed by others–seems like a good start. Given the increasing role of federal agencies in making decisions that affect our lives in countless ways, we’re entitled to some meaningful assurance that those decisions aren’t influenced by the regulators’ personal financial interests.

Retiree Political Contributions

If, like me, you sometimes shake your head at how much money federal congressional campaigns raise and wonder where all of that cash comes from, an interesting article from the Business Insider has a partial answer: retirees. The Insider reviewed congressional campaign contribution records from the 2000 election to the present and found that people who identify as retired are an extremely potent fundraising source, both in terms of number of contributions and total dollars contributed.

The data is pretty amazing. In the 2019-2020 election cycle, for example, more than 1 million retirees made a contribution of $200 or more (the contribution level that triggers reporting requirements) to congressional campaigns and political committees. The amount of money retirees are donating is increasing, too. For years, retirees contributed about one-tenth of campaign funds, but since 2016 that number has grown, and by 2020 seniors had given more than 20 percent of all contributions–shelling out a whopping $378 million to campaigns and PACs. Because only donations of $200 or more are reported, it’s possible that if you counted small-money contributions, the total amount bankrolled by retirees would be even greater. And in case you’re wondering, the retirement funding is a bipartisan phenomenon, with candidates in both parties receiving increasing amounts of contributions.

Not surprisingly, political campaigns have responded by targeting potential retiree donors with direct mail, phone calls, and texts. Political campaigns can always be expected to follow the same line of thinking employed by famed thief Willie Sutton, who when asked why he robbed banks responded: “Because that’s where the money is.” The contribution record of retirees makes it pretty clear that their retirement funds are a ready source of cash.

The rising role of retirees in political campaigns is intriguing. People who have carefully saved for their retirement obviously have money at hand during their golden years, but I wouldn’t have predicted that they would be spending it on politics–rather than gifting family members, taking those retirement trips they hoped to enjoy, or just guarding their nest egg to make absolutely sure they’ve got enough to live on. And it isn’t exactly clear why retiree donations are increasing. One source quoted in the article speculated that the increasing rancor and heightened levels of scare-mongering in American politics might have prompted more contributions from older Americans, but no one knows for sure.

I find myself wondering whether retirees are more susceptible to negative ads and over-the-top claims in fundraising appeals–just as they are more susceptible to being cheated by fraudsters claiming to be grandkids needing money. Are the senior citizens who are giving more money just more engaged in American politics than ever before, or are they being tricked by scary ads and misleading appeals into giving away their savings?

When (And How) Is A Candidate’s Health Fair Game?

There is a very interesting Senate race underway in Pennsylvania. The race promised to be unconventional from the beginning, with tall, bald, goateed, tattooed, sweatshirt-wearing Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman taking on TV celebrity and political neophyte Mehmet Oz. But the race really took a turn when Fetterman suffered a stroke in May–an apparently severe stroke that Fetterman now says almost killed him–causing “Dr. Oz” to go on the attack about whether his opponent is healthy enough to do the job.

There are lots of issues that candidates for a Pennsylvania Senate seat would logically address, but Fetterman’s health became a focus after his campaign limited his appearances and he has had obvious problems with halting speech when he has participated in rallies. The Oz campaign, which has been trailing in the polls, has tried to capitalize on the issue by pressing for a debate. And, because modern politics can’t resist the gutter, the Oz campaign has done so in cheap and mean-spirited ways–such as by promising that it would pay for any medical personnel Fetterman might need to have on standby during a debate.

The Oz campaign tactics have been sharply criticized, but the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and others have increasingly recognized that Fetterman’s fitness to serve is a legitimate issue. As the PPG editorial put it: “If Mr. Fetterman’s communication skills have not yet recovered sufficiently to effectively debate his opponent, many voters will have concerns about his ability to represent them effectively in Washington.” The editorial also noted that the Fetterman campaign was unduly optimistic about his condition and his prognosis, and that recovery in the aftermath of a stroke is “notoriously unpredictable.”

Yesterday the press reported that the Fetterman campaign has agreed to a debate on October 25–two weeks before Election Day. The parties are still wrangling about details, but one of the conditions that has been agreed upon is that Fetterman will be able to watch a closed captioning device during the debate to deal with his acknowledged auditory processing issues, and that debate viewers will be told about that. With a debate now on the schedule, the PPG has called upon the Oz campaign to stop the attacks that, in the newspaper’s words, has turned the race into “an exercise in insult comedy rather than a serious contest on the merits of the candidates as potential U.S. Senators.”

Anyone who has known a stroke victim, as many of us have, will recoil at a political system in which an opponent thinks it is appropriate to disrespect and make fun of someone struggling with post-stroke limitations. Even by modern political standards, that’s low. At the same time, strokes clearly can be debilitating, and it is reasonable to question, with decency and respect, whether someone recovering from a stroke and experiencing impaired auditory processing can actually perform the duties required of a U.S. Senator. I expect that many curious Pennsylvania voters will tune in on October 25, wondering what they might see.

The Monkees, Redacted

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been in the news a lot lately. Many on the right think the FBI has recently become politicized–but the reality is that the agency has been involved in investigations of political matters for decades, ever since it was asked to look into loosely defined “subversives” back in the 1930s. Back in the J. Edgar Hoover days the FBI collected information on Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, anti-war protests, and . . . the Monkees.

What a second–the Monkees? The zany, made-for-TV rock band that had a brief but memorable TV show, produced a series of number 1 albums, were a sensation among teenagers, and incidentally recorded some great rock music that still stands up? The FBI investigated those guys?

It did. According to the FBI’s “Vault” webpage–which, if you’re interested, allows you to search for FBI records on line–the agency has two records about the rock band: “a 1967 Los Angeles Field Office memorandum on anti-Vietnam war activities and a second document redacted entirely.” The 1967 field office memorandum was released to the public about ten years ago, and is very heavily redacted. (You can see the original report, in its redacted form, here.) The unredacted portion reports on a concert the Monkees gave in which photographs were broadcast on a screen behind the band that a redacted informant considered to be “left-wing intervention of a political nature”–which in reality reflected what was actually going on at the time, like racial rioting and protests against the war in Vietnam.

Now Mickey Dolenz, the last surviving member of the Monkees, is suing to try to get the FBI to release the full records about the band. The lawsuit seeks “any records the FBI created and/or possesses on the Monkees as well as its individual members.”

In the grand scheme of what is going on in the world, trying to determine what information the FBI collected about the Monkees is a small thing, but it also raises a big point about transparency and getting a fuller accounting of the FBI’s activities over the years. It’s hard to believe that the document from the Monkees’ FBI file that was released in 2011 merited the heavy redaction it received; what kinds of information could it possibly contain that would reasonably need to be kept secret, decades later? Now that another ten years have passed, there is even less cause for continuing secrecy. I’m hoping the lawsuit is successful and we get to see what the FBI considered so important and secretive. Perhaps the lawsuit, and the reaction to any documents that are released as a result of it, will cause a reassessment of the agency’s actions and, particularly, its continuing, overly aggressive redaction of documents that the public actually has a right to see.

“A Republic, If You Can Keep It”

In 1787, as the Constitutional Convention was deliberating, there was keen public interest in what form of national government the delegates would decide to recommend to the individual states. According to a journal kept by James McHenry, a delegate to the convention from Maryland, on September 18, 1787, Elizabeth Willing Powel of Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin whether the delegates would recommend a monarchy or a republic. According to Mr. McHenry, Franklin replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Franklin’s famous response has a cautionary, but flexible, quality to it that makes it a perennial reference in American politics. Dr. Franklin’s quote was cited repeatedly, for example, during the Trump impeachment proceedings in December, 2019–so much so that some people created a drinking game requiring players to take a gulp whenever Franklin was quoted, again.

I thought of Franklin’s witty yet telling comment when I heard of President Biden’s decision to issue an executive order forgiving certain student loan debts for people earning less than $125,000. The President invokes the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students (HEROES) Act of 2003, a post-9/11 law that permits the Secretary of Education to waive or modify Federal student financial assistance program requirements to help students and their families or academic institutions affected by a war, other military operation, or national emergency. The Biden Administration says the COVID-19 pandemic is a “national emergency” that allows invocation of the HEROES Act to forgive the student loan debt. The precise price tag for President Biden’s executive order isn’t entirely clear. The White House says it will cost $24 billion per year over the next ten years, whereas a study by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania concludes that the plan could conceivably cost as much as $1 trillion over the coming decade.

Franklin’s quote comes to mind because the central idea of a republic is that the people will act through their elected representatives: the two houses of Congress. That is why the Constitution gives Congress a sweeping array of powers and responsibilities. In this instance, it’s clear that, in passing the HEROES Act in 2003, Congress did not contemplate that it was authorizing the President, acting through the Secretary of Education, to broadly forgive hundreds of billions of dollars in student loan debt for thousands of borrowers in the wake of a global pandemic. Congress never held hearings or debated, for example, whether a $125,000 income cutoff is appropriate, or how much debt should be forgiven, or whether other requirements should be imposed in order for people to qualify for debt relief. In a true republic, all of those things would have happened, and the people would have had a chance to be heard, too, by reaching out to their representatives as the proposal worked its way through two houses of Congress, compromises were struck, and amendments were offered before the final bill reached the President’s desk.

I know people of good will who have argued both sides of the issue of whether broad student loan relief is a good idea as a matter of policy. I’m more concerned, in this instance, with how the decision was made. If you value the concept of a republic, it’s extraordinary to think that a President can commit the government to take on hundreds of billions of dollars in debt with the stroke of a pen by invoking an obscure provision of a law that has never been used for anything remotely resembling the President’s sweeping executive order.

In view of this development, would Dr. Franklin think we are keeping a republic?

“No Politics” Facebook Groups

If, like me, you are a fan of Dilbert and The Far Side comic strips, you can join a Facebook group in which fellow fans share vintage strips so you can get your daily laugh at the antics of the pointy-haired boss, Wally, Catbert, mad scientists, women in beehive hairdos, and cows. It’s great–until you notice that what is supposed to be a feed of enjoyable comic strips has also become a free forum for people to vent their political spleens, and those notices of new group postings that you are getting are taking you to purely political rants.

That’s what happened to the Dilbert Facebook group that I originally joined. Very quickly, the political postings overwhelmed the posts that actually had something to do with Dilbert. So I quit the group, reasoning that I get a sufficient diet of different political memes and viewpoints from the group of Facebook friends on my news feed, without needing to add whatever screeds might be posted by strangers who have joined what is supposed to be an innocent cartoon enjoyment forum. Fortunately, I was able to find a group formally titled “Dilbert (no politics)” to give me my Dilbert fix without the political overtones.

I get that, for many people, politics is all-consuming, at whatever point on the political spectrum they are on. Still, it seems weird to me that we need to form specific “no politics” Facebook groups to prevent intrusions into groups dedicated to comic strips, or sports, or cast-iron cooking, or needlepoint. You would think that people would realize that the groups aren’t formed for that purpose, and the audience isn’t really keen to have strident politics injected into their fun. Does anyone really think people might change their political views due to a diatribe posted in a Facebook group focused on some non-political topic? I’m guessing that most people react as I do and just leave the group, shaking their head at the notion that Facebook groups can become political battlegrounds and wondering at the fact that, these days, it seems harder and harder to get away from politics.

Redefining Death

Yahoo has published an interesting article about an ongoing debate that most of us are blissfully unaware of: how do you define, as a legal matter, who is dead? The debate is heated, and is occurring in the context of discussions about rewriting the Uniform Determination of Death Act (“UDDA”). UDDA, which has been around since 1981, is one of many uniform laws that were drafted by the Uniform Law Commission and submitted to the 50 states in an effort to achieve standardized approaches to common issues, like what constitutes a contract for the sale of goods. In most instances, the work of the Uniform Law Commission addresses uncontroversial topics where reaching consensus is not difficult.

Redefining death has turned out to be an exception.

Determining who is legally dead is one of those areas where advances in medicine have affected legal issues. For many centuries, doctors determined death by listening for a heartbeat or taking a pulse and pushing a mirror under the patient’s nose to see whether breathing was occurring. Medical technology developed over recent decades has allowed machines to substitute for the heart and lungs, however, and other inventions have allowed us to examine human brain activity, which means the focus has shifted to the brain. If there is no brain activity, but a human being continues to breathe and other bodily functions continue with the help of machines, is that person alive or dead? How do we know if the cessation of brain activity is permanent? Should brain activity be controlling, or should the activities of other anatomical parts that affect body activity, like glands and the hippocampus, be considered? And another relatively recent medical advance–organ transplants–also is playing a role in the redefinition process. Essential organs can only be removed from a patient who is dead, so having a clear understanding of what that means is crucial to the organ transplant system.

The original UDDA was adopted by some states, but not others, and the rules defining death in different countries are even more muddled. The Uniform Law Commission is working to rewrite UDDA, and thereby redefine what legally constitutes death, against the backdrop of the medical issues and developments as well as some high-profile cases that have raised issues about when the end of life occurs. It’s a topic that touches upon medicine, law, philosophy, ethics, and religion–and, as with everything else in our modern era, politics. When UDDA was first proposed and adopted by states in the 1980s, it was not viewed as a controversial topic. Does anyone seriously believe that a rewrite of the statute would be viewed as apolitical in 2023, when it is expected to be rolled out to each of the 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. for consideration?

You’d like to think that we can reach agreement on basic principles, like when someone is legally dead. The rewrite of UDDA will test that proposition.

The New Airline Announcement

In my recent travels, I’ve noticed that pilots and flight attendants have modified their pre-flight announcements. We no longer hear about how it is mandatory to wear a face mask that covers your nose and chin and how “neck gaiters” don’t cut it. Instead, the new announcement goes something like this:

“Due to a recent FAA announcement, face coverings are no longer mandatory on domestic flights. Whether passengers decide to wear a mask is a matter of personal choice. We ask that you respect the choices made by other passengers.”

In short, it’s pretty clear that the airlines think the skies aren’t that friendly anymore, and that they need to lecture us on how to behave lest arguments and fisticuffs break out between masked and non-masked passengers.

The fact that the airlines see a need to make that kind of personal behavior statement is weird and sad, but you can’t blame them: there have been multiple incidents of violent behavior by airline passengers in recent months. For what it’s worth, though, I’m not seeing any inclination by fellow passengers to mix it up over masks. Instead, there seems to be a kind of COVID exhaustion at work. Everyone on both sides seems to want to move on, rather than engaging on mask issues.

Let’s hope that this traditional American “live and let live” ‘tude continues to prevail and even spreads to encompass non-COVID issues, too. That would be a refreshing change.