Sunday Cartoon Blogging – July 25, 2021

David Frum in the Atlantic:

“In the United States, this pandemic could’ve been over by now, and certainly would’ve been by Labor Day. If the pace of vaccination through the summer had been anything like the pace in April and May, the country would be nearing herd immunity. With most adults immunized, new and more infectious coronavirus variants would have nowhere to spread. Life could return nearly to normal.”

More:

“When pollsters ask about vaccine intentions, they record a 30-point gap: 88% of Democrats, but only 54% of Republicans, want to be vaccinated as soon as possible. All told, Trump support predicts a state’s vaccine refusal better than average income or education level.”

Wrongo’s patience is nearly at an end with these people. It will be fully at an end once vaccinations are available to the 12 and under crowd. Then, let the anti-vaxxers go one-on-one with the virus to see who wins. Wrongo will say to them, “mask up if you want to live, or don’t”. On to cartoons.

GOP tries on a new vax message:

And even Fox tries walking it back:

And it’s not just at home:

McCarthy rolls his ball of dung back to the GOP caucus:

Parties don’t see eye to eye on infrastructure:

Our weather’s out of control:

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Saturday Soother – July 24, 2021

The Daily Escape:

Wayside Inn Grist Mill, Sudbury MA –  July 2021 photo by Kristen Wilkinson. The Mill was built by Henry Ford (yes, that Henry Ford) in 1929.

The Olympics kicked off on Friday. There will be millions of words written about it, and Wrongo wants to get his writing in front of you at the start. The AP reported that around 100 of the 613 US athletes are unvaccinated. That’s about 16% who haven’t gotten their shots.

These people have given much of their lives to getting their minds and bodies in a position to be the best in the world at their sport. They use science to guide their diets and their training regimens. But with a virus that could permanently decrease their lung function or, worse? Suddenly, they’re skeptics?

Still, an 84% U.S. Olympian vaccination rate is beyond what ever will be the final total here in non-sporting America.

Wrongo and Ms. Right ventured into NYC on Thursday, our first visit since the start of the Covid era. We saw the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit at Pier 36 on the lower East Side. It was a great experience, and as the title implies, it was “immersive”. Here are a few photos from the show:

The artwork is projected on to the walls and floor, and in the background, music is playing, some of which you will know, like Edith Piaf singing “Je ne regret rein” for Van Gogh’s time in Paris. The shot above was  taken in a room that is about 10,000 sq. ft. People are seated on the floor, and on a few benches and chairs. Everyone was masked. Here’s another:

And a third:

The exhibit had a very diverse group of visitors, all ages, races and ethnicities, along with multiple languages.

Wrongo and Ms. Right have visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which houses the world’s largest collection of artwork by Van Gogh. It owns more than 200 paintings, 500  drawings and almost all of his letters. This show in NYC is no substitute for seeing rooms full of his work, But still, it was a worthwhile experience. Highly recommended!

On to the weekend! More yard work time on the Fields of Wrong, the project that never ends. It looks like Saturday will bring beautiful weather, and Sunday brings rain. So today’s the day for outdoor activities. But before we start, let’s pull up a chair by a window, and listen to Arabella Steinbacher’s solo violin performing “The Lark Ascending” by Ralph Vaughan Williams with the Orchestre Philharmonique of Monte-Carlo, conducted by Andrew Manze in September 2014 in Hannover Germany.

This work was inspired by a poem by George Meredith. Today we play it in honor of long-time friend of the blog, Shelley VK, who’s father, Gordon died this past week. It’s one of Shelley’s favorites. Godspeed, Gordon!

 

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Will We Ever Bring the Wealthy to Justice in America?

The Daily Escape:

Evening mist, Southampton, MA – July 4, 2021 photo by Kendall Lavoie

From Patrick Radden Keefe in the NYT:

“In 2016, a small-time drug dealer in Leesburg, Va., named Darnell Washington sold a customer a batch of what he thought was heroin. It turned out to be fentanyl. The customer shared it with a friend, and the friend died from an overdose….prosecutors have begun treating overdose deaths not as accidents but as crimes, using tough statutes to charge the dealers who sold the drugs. Mr. Washington had never met the person who overdosed. But, facing a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 20 years for distribution resulting in death, he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of distribution and is now serving a 15-year sentence in federal prison.”

Shouldn’t that same level of criminal liability also be directed at Purdue Pharma, the company that makes OxyContin? After all, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services:

“More than 760,000 people have died since 1999 from a drug overdose. Two out of three drug overdose deaths in 2018 involved an opioid.”

And OxyContin is an opioid. It should be clear that the members of the billionaire Sackler family who own a controlling stake in Purdue, must also face the music. But, that isn’t happening. The Sacklers are likely to receive a sweeping grant of immunity from all litigation relating to their role in helping precipitate and prolong America’s opioid crisis. From NPR: (brackets by Wrongo)

“As part of the bankruptcy talks, they’ve [the Sacklers] offered to give up control of the company and pay roughly $4.2 billion. In exchange, under the current deal on the table, the Sacklers would keep much of their wealth, admit no wrongdoing and be sheltered from future opioid lawsuits.”

It’s interesting that state DAs and DOJ attorneys can charge dealers with drug induced homicide in overdose cases and yet can’t (or won’t) charge the executives or owners in the Purdue/Sackler case.

In October 2020, during the dying days of the Trump administration, the Sacklers reached a settlement agreement with the US DOJ. Forty states have now agreed to this plan, although significant holdouts remain. Connecticut has filed an objection to the bankruptcy exit plan and has been joined by eight other states: California, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.

According to the formal objection:

“…the attorneys general oppose a provision in the bankruptcy plan that would grant the Sacklers lifetime immunity from all liability, which would prevent the states from bringing consumer protection lawsuits against the family. And they highlighted a recent New York Times editorial that showed the Sacklers will continue to earn interest on their $4.3 billion as the settlement is paid out over nine years, thus ensuring they will be wealthier than they were when they started.”

In response, the Sacklers threatened a motion for sanctions against five of the dissenting states for allegedly false statements in the states’ proofs of claim, only to withdraw their 201 page motion the next day. That big memo probably cost a fortune for the lawyers to produce, but hey, it’s the Sacklers! More than anything, it shows that the Sacklers have no sense of contrition for their role in the OxyContin debacle.

There is still some reason to hope that the Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain won’t agree to the blanket immunity for the Sacklers. This week, the DOJ made two separate court filings that raised Constitutional and other concerns about the settlement. From NPR:

“US Trustee William Harrington….accused the Sacklers and their associates of using the bankruptcy system to avoid liability for ‘alleged wrongdoing in concocting and perpetuating for profit one of the most severe public health crises ever experienced in the United States’”

Their argument is technical, and the saga is far from over. In the light of Harrington’s objections, and the arguments made by the state AG holdouts, it may be difficult for Judge Drain to sign off on the immunities as they now stand, especially since the Sacklers are retaining the bulk of their fortune, and that no individual executives were charged, even with misdemeanors.

Where’s the justice? What people really want, more than compensation for harm done to them, is justice. They want proof that the rich and their corporations can’t just commit crimes that harm or kill people on a massive scale, and then use their wealth and political connections to evade the consequences.

Worse, the victims won’t blame Purdue or the Sacklers if/when they’re betrayed. People expect companies or the wealthy to defend themselves to the best of their ability.

They will blame the government, for feigning helplessness in this case, just like they did with the banks in 2009.

And for allowing a separate standard of justice for the wealthy to prevail. Again.

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The Coming Wealth Transfer

The Daily Escape:

Storm at North Clear Creek Falls, CO – April 2021 photo by mattbnet

Our current economic worries tend to overlook that Baby Boomers are retiring in increasing numbers, and quite a few are beginning to die. They’re leaving a giant pile of money to their heirs, what the media have calledthe greatest wealth transfer” in modern history. OTOH, we should remember that it will probably cost $500,000 to pay the projected private college tuition in 20 years.

From the WSJ: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Baby boomers and older Americans have spent decades accumulating an enormous stockpile of money. At the end of this year’s first quarter, Americans aged 70 and above had a net worth of nearly $35 trillion….That amounts to 27% of all US wealth, up from 20% three decades ago. Their wealth is equal to 157% of US gross domestic product, more than double the proportion 30 years ago…”

It gets better: In a 2019 report,  Cerulli Associates projected that older generations would hand down some $70 trillion between 2018 and 2042. Roughly $61 trillion will go to their Millennial and Gen X heirs, with the balance going to philanthropy.

Millennials, (at least, some Millennials) are one day soon going to be a lot richer than they are today. A key question is whether this new-found wealth will change them. Looking at Millennials’ voting patterns, they gave Biden about 60% of their ballots in 2020, while voters over 45 gave him 48%. In Blue America, it was even more striking. Voters under 40 voted overwhelmingly for Bernie Sanders in both of his Democratic nomination bids.

Turning to wealth, Millennials’ have relatively meager financial assets. The St. Louis Fed calculated that in 2016:

“…the typical older Millennial family was 34% poorer than we would have expected”

Millennials’ home ownership rate trails their predecessors at the same point in their life cycles, with roughly half of millennials still paying rent. Such statistics have led a few headline writers to declare Millennials “one of the poorest generations ever.

Many in politics think that the Millennials will remain political lefties and that they will soon be the most politically influential generation. But if Millennials do retain their leftist leanings, it won’t be because of their lack of wealth. When the Boomers finish their wealth transfer, Millennials will go from the poorest to “the richest generation in human history.”

Will this change their politics to be more like those of their Boomer parents? Will the family “trickle down” of wealth redraw the lines in American politics? That’s doubtful. The impending wealth transfer will be regressive: A Federal Reserve study of intergenerational transfers in the US found that Americans in the top 10% of the income distribution were twice as likely to receive an inheritance as those in the bottom 50%.

But even though the wealth transfer is concentrated at the top of the pyramid, some of it will reach a broader base. Capitol One estimates that more than half of the estates that will transfer over the next 30 years will go to low or middle-income households.

That means a substantial group of lower income Millennials are going to get some money from their parents.

About 48% of Millennials own their homes. Those who secured homeownership early have generally seen their net worth rise: Between 2015 and 2020, the median sales price for a US house increased by 14.5%. And of course, one Millennial’s rising home equity is another’s rising rent.

College-educated Millennials are much closer to matching the Boomers’ rate of saving than non-college-educated Millennials. And the racial divide in Millennial wealth is huge. White Millennials lag White Boomers in wealth accumulation by just 5%. Black Millennials, meanwhile, own 52% less wealth than previous generations of Black Americans had accrued by their age. Worse, Black Millennials have been losing ground on their predecessors in recent years.

The “great wealth transfer” will exacerbate all these inequities. Wealthy, White Millennials will claim a massively disproportionate share of the impending inheritances and gifts. And as familial wealth is transferred, the Millennial rich and upper-middle class will be the wealthiest generation that America has ever known. While working-class Millennials, meanwhile, are poised to enjoy less economic security than their parents, as their wages fail to keep pace with the rising costs of housing and health care.

Wrongo’s and Ms. Right’s kids stand to inherit a significant chunk of change if we were to die today. The missing piece of this analysis is that we don’t know how long we will live, and what long term care will cost to keep us going. That may eat up a significant amount of the money we’ve saved in our lifetime.

But let’s hope that whether it’s a little money or a lot, it won’t stop them from fighting for universal health care and an expanded right to vote.

Let’s also hope that they won’t suddenly start voting for a death cult peopled by morons and Ted Cruz.

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Monday Wake Up Call – July 19, 2021

The Daily Escape:

Morning Glory Geyser, Yellowstone NP, WY – 2021 photo by Edwin Buske Photography. The geyser used to be blue, not green. Tourists throwing things into it have changed it’s color. The debris affected water circulation and lowered the geyser’s temperature. That caused a bloom of orange and yellow bacteria.

The Republicans won’t stop fighting Critical Race Theory (CRT), which examines the history of institutional racism in America. From Roll Call:

“…on Monday, GOP Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) sent a request to the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee asking the panel to prohibit funding for instruction in critical race theory for service members in its fiscal 2022 defense spending bill. He argued that service members “should not have to be subjected to discriminatory intersectional exercises that try to politicize our military.”

It’s worth remembering that The Former Guy issued an executive order in September 2020 that restricted the federal government and its contractors from teaching CRT. And that Biden rescinded that order on the day of his inauguration.

This represents a widening of the Republicans’ war on CRT. In recent weeks Republicans have passed legislation in Florida, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Iowa, Idaho and Texas, placing significant restrictions on what can be taught in public school classrooms and, in some cases, in public universities.

We’ve seen this before. The CRT insanity is reminiscent of 2010 when Fox News and the GOP went berserk condemning the so-called Ground Zero Mosque being built in New York City.

Today, it’s the same thing all over again with CRT. Eric Boehlert via his indispensable “Press Run”:

“When Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis moved to ban critical race theory from classrooms in the Sunshine State, the Miami Herald reported, ‘Superintendents across the state have said they do not teach critical race theory in their schools’. But that did not stop the State Board [of Education] from considering the rule to ban it.”

It’s the same everywhere: Republicans are saying they must make moves to protect students from CRT. But Republicans can’t find examples of it actually being taught in high schools. Once again, we’re seeing conservatives pushing a concocted claim and the entire Republican Party playing along.

Let’s not mince words about what Republicans are doing. They’re passing laws that amount to speech codes. They’re trying to control public education by banning the free expression of ideas. Education is by its nature political. To try and “cleanse” it from politics will give us citizens who lack civic knowledge and the civic responsibility that comes with it.

Censoring information makes informed choice impossible. It takes away the opportunity for people to learn and become mature and caring citizens.

When Christians were trying to add “Intelligent Design” into public school science curricula as an alternative theory to evolution, they often said schools should “teach the controversy“, implying an equivalence between the two. That failed, not because Creationism was debunked, but because it didn’t belong in the same category of knowledge as science.

At the time, nobody argued that Intelligent Design should be banned, just that it be discussed in its appropriate context: In comparative religion, not in biology class.

We can learn from the Christians this time though. If we frame America’s origin story as “teaching the controversy“, it might well be the best approach. It’s the only one that retains the nuance, contradictions, and complications necessary to provide an understanding of America and the experiences of its peoples.

There will always be disagreement about our nation’s history. We should welcome that debate in our public schools. It would be a violation of our shared vision of America as a nation of free and open debate if we resort to using state governments to wall off that discussion.

It’s impossible to create a neutral, non-controversial curriculum because real education aims to develop critical thinking. Critical thinking requires us to understand controversial viewpoints on the one hand, and the arguments for and against them on the other.

People have the right to get the education that they want for their kids, but that doesn’t mean legislating CRT out of existence. Instead, why don’t we teach kids how to spot and critique propaganda?

Time to wake up America! We can’t let one political party control our curricula. To help you wake up listen to Nina Simone perform “Backlash Blues” live at the Montreux Jazz Festival, 1976. The lyric of this song is the poem, “Backlash Blues” by Langston Hughes:

Resentment over the pace of the civil rights movement in the 1960s came to be known as white backlash, and it’s still with us today.

Lyric:

Mr. Backlash, Mr. Backlash

Just who do you think I am

You raise my taxes, freeze my wages

And send my son to Vietnam

You give me second class houses

And second class schools

Do you think that alla colored folks

Are just second class fools?

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – July 18, 2021

The Summer Olympics start next Saturday in Tokyo. Nobody knows how they will go, but the Olympic village just reported its first case of Covid. And Tokyo reported a six-month high in cases.

That doesn’t sound like an auspicious start for an event that has already been postponed for a year.

The reason it’s taking place at all is money. NBC and the International Olympic Committee agreed to a $7.75 billion rights deal in 2014 that’s designed to keep the Olympics on NBC through 2032. And there are hundreds of sponsors signed up for commercials during the more than 7,000 hours of coverage scheduled across its variety of networks from July 23 to August 8.

As Felix Salmon writes, the Olympics haven’t made financial sense in decades. Host cities spend billions preparing for the games. They inevitably suffer massive cost overruns, and go deep into debt, with a lasting legacy of little more than a group of buildings that are a monument to failure.

The 2008 Beijing summer Olympics cost $45 billion; its revenues were $3.6 billion, most of which went to the International Olympic Committee. Russia’s Sochi winter Olympics in 2014 cost about $50 billion and had even lower revenues.

The Tokyo Olympics will cost about $28 billion and the decision to ban spectators means foregoing another $1 billion in ticket sales. So, while winning an Olympic medal represents the pinnacle of athletic achievement in most sports, the edifice that supports standing on the podium is crumbling. On to cartoons.

Biden may need to choose his words better:

Biden’s tune is nice, the words are true:

GOP’s attacks on culture wars hit a new low. It’s always the one on the left:

Recent books say the Former Guy attempted a coup. Republicans say not so:

Most Republicans are happy to excuse TFG’s behavior:

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Saturday Soother – July 17, 2021

The Daily Escape:

Ruby Beach Overlook,  Olympic NP, WA – 2021 photo by Erwin Buske

COVID-19 cases in the US have soared 121% in the past two weeks. Hospitalizations have jumped 26%.  and deaths are up by 9%. Infections have more than doubled in 22 states, DC, and Puerto Rico in the past 14 days. The counties with the biggest jump in new cases are overwhelmingly in Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Georgia, and Louisiana. The delta variant is alive and well, and on the move!

We should now be calling it the plague of the unvaccinated.

Ignorance is going to ruin this country. Look at what so many conservatives believe: The coronavirus vaccine is either harmful, useless, or a government plot to control our bodies; that the 2020 election was rigged and the Former Guy won; and that the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was mostly a stroll by tourists through the building. Here’s conservative Fox News person Tomi Lahren tweeting about Covid:

Like most anti-Covid conservatives, she didn’t bother to check the facts. Perhaps she thinks that just stating what she believes makes it true. She’s wrong.

Yes, Covid has “a high survival rate for most people,” but that doesn’t mean what Lahren thinks it means. The attitude of conservatives, that Covid is only a little worse than a bad case of the flu, ignores the reality that more than 624,000 Americans have died from it so far.

Lahren contends that, “Lawlessness and thuggery in our streets” doesn’t have a high survival rate. She’s wrong again. There were 462 murders in New York City last year, but 30,000 New Yorkers died from Covid.

Despite what conservatives would have us believe, taking or not taking a Covid vaccine isn’t about personal freedom. It’s not about a tyrannical Big Government forcing people to accept an awful fate. In a world where nearly 99% of new Covid deaths are occurring among the unvaccinated, it doesn’t take a PhD to figure out what the unvaccinated should be doing.

It turns out that confidence in science is split heavily along party lines, according to a Friday Gallup poll. The survey found that Democrats are very confident in science, with 79% saying they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence, compared to just 45% percent of Republicans who said the same.

This also has to do with the Christian Right, which has been hostile to science ever since the Scopes trial. It’s fine if they don’t believe in evolution. But it’s a big problem when we’re trying to put Covid in the rear view. Science is true whether you believe in it or not, and their ignorance is lethal.

Conservatives like Tomi Lahren, go through life angry and suspicious of most things. It’s their brand to be anti-government and anti-science. It’s on brand for them to assume the worst of others. To the contrary, the bottom line is simple: We have a tool that can lead us out of the pandemic, but some people are too arrogant, ignorant, or suspicious to use it.

What makes this so terrible is that there are many, many times in our history when Americans have pulled together to defeat a common threat. But we no longer trust each other enough to pull together for the common good.

Americans really should be better than this. We used to be.

Time to forget about dickheads like Lahren. Time to leave voting rights, infrastructure bills and fires in the West behind. It’s time to take a beat and have a Saturday Soother! In northwest Connecticut, we’re recovering from unusual amounts of rain, precisely when it is really needed elsewhere in the country. This weekend brings trimming of the crabapple trees, attending to our tomato plants and spraying weed killer on the fields of Wrong.

But before all of that starts, let’s kick back and brew a cup of Baby Dragons coffee ($28/12 oz.) from San Diego’s Nostalgia Coffee Roasters. A review says that you should taste the resonant, long, flavor-laden finish with notes of lychee and chocolate.

Now, put on your wireless headphones, take a seat by a window, and listen to Frederic Chopin’s “Fantaisie Impromptu in C sharp minor”, Op. 66. This piece was written in 1834, but was first published posthumously in 1855, despite Chopin’s wishes that none of his unpublished works ever be published. We’re lucky his wishes weren’t followed!

Here, it’s played by Anastasia Huppmann, a Russian-born Austrian concert pianist, live in Vienna:

Watch her absolutely amazing technique! You will recognize the melody of the Fantaisie-Impromptu‘s middle section as the music in the popular song “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows“.

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Two Nations Means the Death of One Country

The Daily Escape:

Sunrise, Portland Head Light, ME – June 2021 photo by Rick Berk Fine Art Photography

It’s a sign of the times: 66% of Republicans in 13 Southern states including Texas and Florida are in favor of seceding from the US to join a union with other Southern states. This is what a new YouGov survey conducted on behalf of Bright Line Watch found. Half of independents surveyed in the South agreed, while 20% of Southern Democrats were on board.

And secession is gaining support among Southern Republicans: back in February, 50% told Bright Line that they’d support such a proposal. This bodes, very, very poorly for the future of American democracy if the trend continues.

Below, the survey results are laid out geographically:

Bright Line Watch tabulated responses from 2,750 Americans from  June 16 to July 2, 2021. The survey has a confidence limit of 95%, but they caution that these findings reflect:

“…initial reactions by respondents about an issue that they are very unlikely to have considered carefully.”

It probably makes sense to read the results more as statements of ideology and political identity (e.g., “I’m a proud Southerner and I don’t like Joe Biden!”) than as signs of intent to secede. Nevertheless, the sheer number of Americans willing to “blow America up” as a sign of their partisan loyalty is very troubling.

Secession gets polled frequently, usually in the context of Republicans angry at a Democratic president or vice-versa. But there seems to more going on: This time, a major difference is that Republican elites are now much more active in stoking secession passions.

In the past year, GOP officials and lawmakers in Texas, Wyoming, Florida, Mississippi, and Michigan have publicly discussed the possibility of seceding from the Union. Conservative media voices often cheerfully amplify their arguments.

Wrongo is having difficulty seeing where America goes from here.

It’s clear that there are people pushing very hard to create two separate communities within the US. And it isn’t clear whether democracy is possible in a society based on two communities who see the world in opposite ways.

It’s unclear what secessionists think is the upside in splitting up. Government exists to identify and solve the common problems confronted by its citizens. Trying to solve common problems with fewer resources is a very steep price to pay for living in a more ideologically pure country.

Make no mistake, this is about ideological purity. Linda Greenhouse wrote in an NYRB article “Grievance Conservatives Are Here to Stay” that many conservatives think that the secular state itself must go to bring about God’s kingdom on earth. These people are known as Christian Nationalists.

Some like Katherine Stewart, who’s book “The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism” was reviewed by Greenhouse, think that the culture wars that are dividing us politically are a false flag operation designed to distract mainstream America from understanding what Christian Nationalism is after:

“It does not seek to add another voice to America’s pluralistic democracy but to replace our foundational democratic principles and institutions with a state grounded on a particular version of Christianity….This is a political war over the future of democracy.”

If you doubt this, consider that Pew Research examined 12,832 sermons in Christian churches during the 2020 election campaign. It turns out that 67% of those sermons mentioned the 2020 election at least once. About 20% of them just encouraged voting, but 46% discussed issues, candidates, or parties (which is a violation of their status as tax-free institutions):

From Pew: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Roughly half of all evangelical Protestant sermons mentioning the election discussed specific issues, parties or candidates (48%), the highest share among the four major Christian groups. And, in discussing the election, evangelical pastors tended to employ language related to evil and punishment at a greater rate, using words and phrases such as “Satan” or “hell” at least twice as often as other clergy did.”

Of course, this is against the law (the Johnson Amendment, sponsored by LBJ), but Stewart heard pastors getting advice from lawyers on how to get around the Johnson Amendment.

Replacing American democracy with a Christian theocracy may not be the only thing that’s driving the secessionists, but the rhetoric of the Christian Nationalists is driving our politics. In particular, their narrative that government is stomping on the rights of Christians and their churches.

Surely, it’s a good thing that there are no troubling historical precedents for what happens when large numbers of Southern conservatives, motivated in large part by grievance and victimhood, want to break away from the Union.

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Thoughts on the Cuban Demonstrations

The Daily Escape:

Apartment block, Havana Cuba – 2014 photo by Wrongo. Most buildings in Havana are made of concrete and their outer walls are deteriorating from the salt air and deferred maintenance.

Cuba was in the news last week after tens of thousands took to the streets all across the country. Reports say that they were chanting for freedom and food. Wrongo and Ms. Right visited Cuba in 2014 and while we didn’t come away as experts in the country or its people, Wrongo has some thoughts about what’s wrong there today. And it isn’t a thirst for democracy.

First, Cuba is suffering from hyperinflation. Prices have skyrocketed and inflation is likely between 500% and 900% this year. This is on top of the economy declining 11% in 2020, and apparently continuing to fall further in 2021. The economy’s shrinking is due to Covid hurting tourism and to the continuing Embargo by the US; but the inflation is the Cuban government’s doing.

Cuba ended their dual currency system at the beginning of 2021. Before that, they had a domestic peso called a CUP, and Cuban convertible peso called a CUC. A dual currency system allows one currency to be used for purchasing domestic goods and services, and the other for foreign goods. The purpose is to make sure that a country doesn’t spend more money on external goods than it is earning from its exports of goods and services.

In a single currency system, when there’s way more demand for foreign goods than export earnings, if you allow people to purchase whatever they want, your single currency will lose value, leading to inflation or hyper-inflation. After Cuba transitioned to a single currency, Cubans could buy more foreign goods, but it has also led to hyperinflation.

Cuba’s caught in a trap: they don’t have enough of anything, including food. Their primary ally, Venezuela, can no longer help (also suffering from hyper-inflation). But shortages are shortages. Moderate inflation prices some people out of the market for a product. As prices go up, the demand goes down. Hyper-inflation imposes the costs on a different group of people, those who can’t get foreign currency, usually the poor.

This is one reason Cubans are in the street.

Second, housing is also a major issue. Most people live in an apartment or house that has been passed down from their parents. All children share equally in the inherited building, so homes are sub-divided into private spaces by the next generation. That means living space is very cramped. Arch Daily reports that:

“The average age of a home in Cuba is just over 75 years old, and three of them collapse every day. Cuba’s housing crisis is perhaps one of the most unique examples of urban inequity in the world.”

As you can see from the photo below, thousands of Cubans live in derelict homes.

Source: ArchDaily

Cubans are questioning how new housing will be built, or where the funds come from to repair existing structures. They are also seeking less state control over the homeownership process.

This is another reason Cubans are on the street.

Finally, Cuba has great home-grown Covid vaccines, thought to be 92% effective against Covid in clinical trials. It is administered in three doses, with two weeks between each vaccination. According to Dr. Guillen Nieto, inventor of the drug, 2.2 million Cubans have already received their first vaccination, 1.7 million their second and 900,000 the third dose. There are 11 million Cubans.

But Cuba just agreed to send 12 million doses to Venezuela, precisely when Covid cases are growing at home. In April they reported 31,346 cases and 229 deaths, compared to 12,056 cases and 146 deaths in all of 2020.

Another reason why people are in the streets. So far, none seem to be about democracy.

Now, Republicans are again bleating about Cuba. It remains to be seen whether the protests are a unique event that will be quashed by Cuba’s regime, or if it’s the start of a meaningful movement.

The US embargo has been our single strategy with Cuba since 1959, and it hasn’t worked. Hoping the population feels hungry enough and desperate enough to revolt against its government is cruel and capricious. The Cuban embargo has been one of America’s biggest foreign policy failures. If you want to change Cuba, you should flood it with American money.

That was starting to happen under Obama.

Based on Wrongo’s 2014 visit, Cubans like American goods. They like American dollars. They’d like access to better food than what they get under the government’s food subsidy program. Under Obama, it was starting to happen.

Trump put a stop to all of that because of Florida’s anti-Castro clique. They still think that cutting off ties to the regime will make a difference, notwithstanding 60+ years of failure.

So far, Biden is just continuing Trump’s policy. Florida didn’t vote for Biden, and its Governor, state legislature and Senators are all Republicans. Biden should just end the embargo and be done with it.

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More Republican Anti-Vaccine Consequences

The Daily Escape:

Monument Valley, AZ – 2021 photo by Patrick Lanzing

If you had said in 2016 when Trump got elected, that by 2021, America would lose more than 600,000 people to Covid, Wrongo would have been shocked.

Worse, that after 34 million US Covid cases, about a third of our adult population would refuse to take an effective (and safe) vaccine, developed under a Republican administration? To both, Wrongo would have said, “America won’t ever get that screwed up”.

Wrongo was well, wrong. And it’s worse than that. Axios reports that Republican state lawmakers around the country are pushing bills that would give unvaccinated people similar protections as those that protect race, gender and religion.

“These bills would tie the hands of private businesses that want to protect their employees and customers. But they also show how deep into the political psyche resistance to coronavirus vaccine requirements has become, and how vaccination status has rapidly become a marker of identity….On a national scale, well-known GOP figures have recently escalated their rhetoric about the vaccination effort, comparing it to Nazi Germany and apartheid.”

This movement is widespread and growing. Many Republican-led states have already enacted restrictions on vaccine mandates, or on vaccine “passports.” Some states are trying to make it illegal for governments or private businesses to treat unvaccinated people any differently than vaccinated people, by using the same language that exists in the federal civil rights law.

The states with restrictions on vaccine requirements tend to have lower vaccination rates than those without such laws, and in many of them, Covid cases are on the rise.  For example, Montana has made it illegal to “discriminate” on the basis of vaccine status, with a few exceptions in the health care sector.

This isn’t a civil rights issue in the modern sense (race, color, creed), but Republicans are trying to frame it as an economic rights issue. The original Civil Rights Act of 1866 involved mostly economic issues such as the right to enter a contract. However, back then, the basis for the statute was racial discrimination despite the fact that the right being protected was “economic”.

The Montana Republicans aren’t trying to protect a “right” based on a traditionally recognized status. They’re simply saying that businesses can’t refuse service to anyone. It’s like saying that a Montana business can’t refuse service to someone with no shoes or shirt.

You would think that this means Republicans are saying that they’re fine with businesses being heavily regulated by the government regarding who they choose to have as customers. But what they’re really saying is if people are unvaccinated for Covid, they must be served.

But if the customer wants to purchase a gay wedding cake? No way in hell!

The national vaccination effort is increasingly dependent on partnerships with various institutions, like schools and employers, to encourage more people to get vaccinated. This is an effort to undermine those partnerships.

The Economist reports on more evidence of Republican denialism about Covid, saying that after the November election, Covid cases rose faster in counties with high in-person voting.

In total, about 85 million people voted in person. The share of ballots cast by mail jumped to 46%, from 21% in 2016. The counties where a higher share of votes were cast in person on election day, also had higher Covid case rates: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Holding other variables constant, the gap in in-person voting on election day between the state with the highest rate in our data (Alabama, at 41% of the population) and the lowest (Arizona, at 6%) was associated with an extra 173 cases per 100,000 people. This implies that if no one had voted in person on election day, 220,000 fewer people would have been diagnosed with Covid-19”.

The Economist says that from mid-October to early November, Covid cases in counties in states with the  highest in-person turnout were no higher than in areas with the lowest in-person voting rates. But a week after the election, positive tests became more common in places with the largest in-person turnout on Election Day. The conclusion is that many people caught the virus while standing in line to vote.

We know that the states which prevented, or limited vote-by-mail were largely GOP-controlled. They  tended to have people with relatively low levels of income and education. They also tended to have those votes in 2016 for The Former Guy.

Republicans! Why is there an almost direct correlation between those who voted for The Former Guy, and those who won’t get a COVID vaccination?

Their narrative goes something like this: Covid was a weaponized virus leaked from a lab in China. It was designed to kill Americans, but we shouldn’t defeat their nefarious scheme by taking the vaccine the Trump administration developed, because Covid is a hoax. It’s a harmless virus, and the vaccine isn’t safe.

How do you argue with that?

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