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.

“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?

The Lurking Bots Of The Twitterverse

Elon Musk recently announced that his $44 billion bid to acquire Twitter is “on hold” because of concerns about the number of fake accounts that make up Twitter user statistics. Musk issued a tweet that cited a news article reporting on a Twitter company filing that estimated that “false or spam accounts represented fewer than 5% of its monetizable daily active users during the first quarter.” Musk’s tweet said: “Twitter deal temporarily on hold pending details supporting calculation that spam/fake accounts do indeed represent less than 5% of users.”

Musk’s decision to put a proposed billion-dollar acquisition “on hold” raises a key question: just how many Twitter users are actual, physically existing human beings who might respond to advertising on the social media platform and thus are “monetizable,” and how many are fakes that exist only in a computer, ready to artificially boost tweets and accounts with followings and retweets? And a related, and even more difficult, question is: how do you figure out who is real and who is fake in the Twitter world, where everything is done electronically? Wired has an interesting story about just how tough it is to separate the real from the fake in the Twitterverse, noting that looking at potential indicia of phoniness necessarily involves both subjectivity and uncertainty.

Attempts to quantify the number of Twitter bots out there suggest that there may be a lot of them. For example, Newsweek reported this week on an “audit” of the official White House twitter account for President Biden that concluded that 49.3 percent of his 22.2 million followers are fake, based on analysis of a number of factors that are used to identify bots. Another “audit” of Musk’s own Twitter account determined that more than 70 percent of his 93 million followers are likely fake or spam accounts. My guess is that Musk isn’t bothered at all by that kind of story, because it proves the point that he raised in his decision to put the Twitter deal “on hold” in the first place: there are serious questions about what is real in the Twitter world that should be answered before billions of dollars are paid for what could be an empty, non-“monetizable” gaggle of bots.

I don’t do Twitter or pay much attention to it because the Twitterverse seems like a strange, mean-spirited place that doesn’t bear much relation to real life as I know it. The kinds of “audit” results reported above raise still more questions about the reality of the Twitter world, and whether those raw numbers about Twitter followers and retweets should be viewed with some healthy, human, non-bot skepticism.

To Appeal, Or Not To Appeal

The Biden Administration is weighing a tough decision: whether to appeal the federal court decision striking down the mask mandate the federal government imposed on air and train travelers during the COVID pandemic. It’s a very tough decision on both legal and political grounds.

According to news reports, the Justice Department will appeal the court ruling if the CDC decides that the mask mandate is still necessary to protect public health. That’s a bit strange, in a way, because the CDC decided only last week, just before the court ruling, that the mask mandate should be extended for an additional 15 days, until May 3, to allow the CDC to assess the impact of yet another COVID subvariant. It seems as though the DOJ is punting the decision to the CDC and, perhaps, hoping that the CDC will change course, decide that public health now doesn’t require an extension, and allow the DOJ to cite that determination in electing not to appeal. In the meantime, the DOJ won’t pursue an immediate stay of the federal court’s decision, which means that the mask mandate won’t be enforced unless and until an appeal occurs and the appellate court rules to the contrary.

The legal and political stakes in the decision on a potential appeal are high. Legally, the issue is whether the federal government wants to take the risk that a higher court will agree with the district court judge and establish a firmer precedent that the CDC doesn’t have the kind of sweeping power it has exercised over the past two years. Some people describe the district court decision as a poorly reasoned “legal disaster,” while others contend it is a reasonable interpretation of statutory text that simply was not intended to authorize an administrative agency to unilaterally impose nationwide mask mandates. Regardless of how you come out on that issue, for now the decision is simply the opinion of a single district court judge. If an appeal occurs, the federal government runs the risk of an adverse decision by a federal court of appeals and, potentially, the Supreme Court–raising the possibility that, if the nation’s highest court agrees with the federal district court judge in this case, the CDC’s ability to issue future public health mandates could be eliminated, unless and until Congress decides to amend the statute to clarify what is permitted.

Politically, the stakes are equally high because there are strong feelings on both sides of the masking issue. News reports in the wake of the federal court decision reported pro and con comments from travelers about the decision, while videos of cheering passengers removing their masks mid-flight appeared on social media. Whatever decision the federal government makes is likely to upset one faction or the other, leaving the Biden Administration at risk of being labeled irresponsible in its stewardship of public health, or a lily-livered adherent to pointless governmental paternalism. No politician would be happy about either of those outcomes. On the other hand, if the CDC suddenly decides that, under the current circumstances, the mask mandate is no longer needed to protect public health, it has provided the Biden Administration with some political cover–and those who want to wear masks will of course be permitted to do so.

It would be interesting to know whether, behind the scenes, the Biden Administration is encouraging the CDC to move in one direction or another. It’s hard for politicians to restrain themselves from politicking. We’ll never know for sure, because if that information came out it would undercut the depiction of the CDC as the neutral, objective, apolitical entity that is focused solely on scientific and medical evidence and the public health.

20 Years Later

On this 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I can’t help but remember that fateful day. Although two decades have passed, the memories of the burning, smoking towers, watching the TV news and seeing the planes converted into missiles to achieve the murderous goals of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and feeling that the whole world was turned upside down, are still fresh and painful. As that terrible morning of shock and horror ended, we were able to go pick up the kids from school, and one of my lasting memories from that day was the immense feeling of relief at getting the kids into the car and bringing them home, where our family could all be together and we could be sure that all of us were safe and secure. I’ll never forget that feeling.

Twenty years is a long time, and today is a time for reflection. A lot has happened in the years since the attacks. America is still here, of course, but there is no doubt that the country has changed in the interim. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. A shock like 9/11 is bound have some long-term consequences, like a colossal rock thrown into a pond causes ripples that ultimately touch every part of the pond’s shoreline. The key point now, in my view, is to focus on where we go from here. The war in Afghanistan is over, and obviously it ended badly. How does the country respond to that reality, and will we finally learn the hard lessons that we have been taught at the cost of twenty years of fighting, thousands of American lives, and billions, if not trillions, of dollars? Or will we forget those lessons the next time a tragedy tempts a President to take the country into another foreign adventure?

And more fundamentally, where is our country headed as a free, democratic society? Just this week President Biden announced that an administrative agency is working on an emergency regulation that is designed to affect the jobs and livelihoods of tens of millions of people who have made a choice to remain unvaccinated and the companies that employ them. Those of us who remember the Schoolhouse Rock song about the process of how a bill becomes a law wonder how in the world the President can presume to exercise such extraordinary power without hearings, amendments, and ultimately a law passed by Congress that specifically authorizes such sweeping action. But in the years since 9/11, we’ve gotten used to Presidents ordering deadly drone strikes, changing policies set by prior administrations, and imposing new obligations with the stroke of a pen.

In a way, has the long road that began with 9/11 led us to this point, where Presidents feel they can unilaterally exercise such vast powers, without the checks and balances that we learned about in Civics class? And, however we may feel about the best way to deal with the COVID pandemic (and for the record, I’m vaccinated), are we comfortable with a form of government where the executive branch, and in many instances unelected administrative agencies, wield all of the power and can issue emergency decrees that would have profound impacts on the lives (and bodies) of millions of Americans, without Congress, as the collective representatives of American citizens and our diverse communities, having voted to require that course of action, set the structure for how the action will occur, established the rules, and determined the penalties for non-compliance? The likelihood that the Supreme Court undoubtedly will ultimately have its say doesn’t make up for the fact that Congress, which was intended to be the primary instrument of government, has withered into insignificance and plays no role in debating and setting such important national policies.

It’s a lot to think about on a quiet Saturday morning, 20 years after a shocking day that we will never forget. But 20 years provides some perspective, and anniversaries are good times for reflection.

Mixed Messages

We’re at a weird time in America. At the same time many of us are completing our COVID-19 vaccinations, getting our vaccination cards, and feeling like we are on the cusp of returning to some reasonable measure of personal freedom, and some states are beginning to loosen their restrictions, we’re getting dire warnings from national leaders and public health officials about a potential “fourth surge” of the pandemic in the United States.

(Would it really be only a “fourth surge”? I’ve lost count, frankly.)

The statement made yesterday by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the Director of the CDC, is pretty jarring for those Americans who hope that the worst of the pandemic is behind us and there is a light at the end of the tunnel, just ahead. After reporting on increases in the number of COVID cases (now topping more than 30 million Americans) and hospitalizations, Dr. Walensky went off script to confess, in emotional terms, to feeling a sense of “impending doom” and said she was “scared” that the country could be on the verge of a new surge as COVID variants infect the unvaccinated parts of the population. President Biden also said that “now is not the time” to remove masking and social distancing requirements.

The statements by Dr. Wallensky and President Biden have to rattle the confidence of people who believe a return to “normal” is not far away. The average citizen is getting pretty mixed messages right now. We’re feeling good that vaccinations are being made available to most age groups and seeing lots of social media posts with pictures of bared arms getting jabbed and vaccination cards, and we know that restrictions are being loosened in many places–but at the same time we are getting alarming warnings and, for many of us, we know people who are continuing to come down with COVID even now.

And part of the problem with this confusing mix of data and messages is that it is occurring against the backdrop of obvious pandemic fatigue and, in some quarters, a growing distrust of the pronouncements of our public health officials and concern that they are never going to let the world get back to 2019 normality. The CNN analysis piece linked above describes the unsettled situation this way: “The nation is caught on a ledge between triumph and a late game disaster in a fight against a pathogen ideally engineered to exploit lapses in public health, resistance to mask wearing mandates and the frayed patience of a country¬†disorientated after a year when normal life went into hibernation.

These different perspectives necessarily inform how people react to the messages we are getting. When the doctor who is the head of the CDC admits to being “scared” and feeling a sense of “impending doom,” is she conveying a legitimate, albeit emotional, reaction to the latest data, or is her message part of the newest effort to keep people frightened, masked up, and in their houses indefinitely?

Now that we are vaccinated, we’re going to try to get about our lives–but prudently. I’m still going to engage in social distancing, and I’ll gladly continue to mask up in enclosed spaces. I don’t think we’re done with COVID-19 just yet.

Major’s Minor Incident

Poor Major Biden.

The three-year-old German Shepherd has been sent from the White House back to the Bidens’ home in Wilmington, Delaware after a recent incident where the dog bit the hand of a Secret Service agent. The Secret Service said the injury was “extremely minor” and “no skin was broken.” However, some anonymous White House sources — there apparently are anonymous White House sources about everything, even dogs — said that Major also has been having issues with aggressive behavior, including jumping up on people, barking, and charging at White House staff and security. In a recent interview the First Lady said she has been focused on trying to get Major and the Bidens’ other dog, 13-year-old Champ, settled since the Bidens moved into the White House. She noted, for example, that the dogs have to take an elevator and have a lot of people watching them when they go out on the White House South Lawn for exercise.

I feel sorry for Major and other White House dogs, because the White House has got to be a tough environment for a dog. There are strangers coming in and out at all hours, and lots of people feeling stress and pressure–including, at times, the President and First Lady. Dogs are sensitive beings, and I’m sure Major feels the increased stress levels and is unsettled by all of the new faces. At the same time, if Major is nipping, jumping up, barking, and charging people, that poses a tough predicament for the Bidens, because dog misbehavior can escalate. You’d like to have your dog around, as one of the members of the family, but you can’t run the risk of the dog jumping up on a foreign dignitary or a member of Congress or the Cabinet, or really biting someone and doing some damage. And if the dog is barking and charging people, that’s got to be really tough for White House staffers, who can’t be sure whether Major is going to be a good boy or a growling threat the next time they see him in one of the White House hallways or the Oval Office.

Sending Major back to Delaware seems like a sensible approach to the problem and a good way to keep Major’s minor incident from becoming a real major problem.