The Mysterious Case of Kathy Barnette

Kathy Barnette, Republican Senate candidate for Pennsylvania, speaks during an interview following the Pennsylvania Senate GOP primary debate in Harrisburg, Penn., April 25, 2022. (Hannah Beier/Reuters)

On the menu today: We are days away from the Pennsylvania Senate primary, and that state’s Republicans have a big choice to make between Dr. Mehmet Oz, Dave McCormick, and surprise late-surging Kathy Barnette. Let’s sort through what we know about Barnette, and where she still has some legitimate questions to answer.

Get to Know Kathy Barnette . . . If You Can

Maybe Kathy Barnette is the answer to Pennsylvania Republicans’ prayers, but the Barnette campaign’s refusal to answer some very basic questions from Salena Zito of the Washington Examiner was not reassuring:

The questions to the campaign, which said it doubted whether she would have time for an interview because she was booked for interviews continuously until Election Day, were pretty straightforward and simple:

  • The name of her hometown
  • Where was she an adjunct professor and when?
  • When was she in officer candidate school?
  • What financial institutions did she work at and when?
  • When did she move from Virginia to Pennsylvania? (She says in her book bio from 2018 that she lived in Virginia, so what year did she move to Pennsylvania?)
  • And a confirmation that the college she graduated from was Troy State University.

The reply from the campaign manager noted, “Kathy keeps her early life as private as possible as I am sure you can understand why” — a reference one could surmise was to her life story, which she told compellingly in an ad this past week about being the child of rape.

She could be hiding nothing. She could be hiding everything. We don’t know because there are no answers. While people hold a strong distaste for the press, many level-headed conservatives who really want to win this seat in November want to know as much as they can about each candidate.

Nor was it reassuring that “Barnette’s campaign manager, Bob Gillies, ended a phone call with the Washington Free Beacon on Wednesday when asked whether she will release her DD [Defense Department] form and did not respond to subsequent text messages requesting it.”

But Barnette did release photos of several pages of her military records on Wednesday, and a U.S. Army spokesman told Kristina Wong of Breitbart on Thursday that:

Kathy J. Barnette served in the Alabama Army National Guard from September 1993 to March 1998. Her primary military occupational specialty was 63S, Heavy-Wheeled Vehicle Mechanic, and she attained the rank of specialist. Her last unit with the ARNG was the 778th Maintenance Company, Alabama Army National Guard.

Kathy J. Barnette also served in the Army Reserve as a Human Resource Specialist (71L/42A) from 1998 to 2000.

The documents Barnette released photos of are an NGB-22, which is an official discharge document recording the member’s service in the National Guard. The DD 214 form is a similar document for the U.S. Army.

Barnette has a LinkedIn page, but it only lists two jobs: self-employed author and contributing writer, and a political commentator with two links to her appearances on Fox News. Her campaign biography lists her as “an adjunct professor of corporate finance,” but doesn’t say where. It also says she “worked in the financial industry for A.G. Edwards and Sons and Bank of America Capital Asset Management,” which gives us a general sense of the time period, as A. G. Edwards was purchased by Wachovia Corporation in 2007 and absorbed into Wachovia’s operations. In Barnette’s book, she wrote, “I remember being the first black person to work at Bank of America Capital Asset Management out of the St. Louis office a couple of years after I graduated college. I remember feeling the weight of the black community riding on my shoulders, thinking that if I messed up, they would probably never hire another black person again.”

A separate website, Voterly.com, fills in a few of the blanks, listing Barnette as an associate analyst at A. G. Edwards and Sons, Inc. from 1997 to 1999, a financial-equity analyst of the retail sector at Bank of America Capital Management from 2000 to 2001, a financial-planning project manager at J. C. Penney from 2002 to 2008, an adjunct professor of corporate finance and economics at Judson University from 2009 to 2016, and a radio-show host on WFYL 1180 in Philadelphia from 2014 and 2016.

The P.O. box for Barnette’s campaign is in Huntingdon Valley, Pa., and if you search under her maiden name, you can find a home address in Huntingdon Valley listed for her that I will not put in this newsletter. (If I can find this, why can’t the Barnette campaign provide this? A candidate who runs on her biography as opposed to a record in elected office must fill in some of the blanks about that biography!)

We can set aside fears that Barnette is making up her inspiring life story out of whole cloth. But there are still little details that don’t quite add up.

The author biography on the Amazon page for Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain: Being Black and Conservative in America, published in 2020, states that, “Kathy Barnette is a conservative, Black, mother, and wife. She is a veteran, a former adjunct Professor of Corporate Finance, a conference speaker, and a Conservative political commentator. She served her country proudly for ten years in the Armed Forces Reserves, where she was accepted into Officer Candidacy School. Her corporate career includes working with two major financial institutions and in corporate America. Kathy sat on the Board of a pregnancy crisis center for five years. She lives in Virginia.” So, when did Barnette live in Virginia, and when did she move to Pennsylvania?

Yesterday, Barnette did an interview with Philadelphia-area radio host Chris Stigall on his podcast, and he asked her some straightforward questions: When did she first vote in Pennsylvania, and has she voted regularly in the state?

Barnette’s answer: “I voted every single year! Well, I voted from the year I got here. I think it was, let me see . . . I can’t remember, but the one that really — the one that really pops out in my mind is 2016 for the primary for President Trump, as well as for the general election for President Trump. But yes, I voted.”

Matt Wolking notes that in Barnette’s book, she wrote that she didn’t vote for Trump in the primaries.

Staff from Barnette’s campaign removed reporters from a Q&A event she hosted in Southampton, Bucks County on Thursday night. But eventually reporters were allowed back in for a few minutes.” Attention then turned to her claim that she had voted in Pennsylvania:

Despite her staunch support for Mr. Trump, she didn’t vote in Pennsylvania in 2016, according to state voter records. Ms. Barnette registered to vote in Pennsylvania in August 2015, but didn’t vote until 2018, according to voter rolls. She voted in both elections in 2018, 2020 and 2021 primary in the state.

When asked whether she voted in Pennsylvania in 2016 at Thursday’s event, Ms. Barnette claimed she did. When the reporter followed up and asked why the voter roll said otherwise, Ms. Barnette doubled-down and said she voted here.”

Thursday night, Barnette said that, “The long knives are coming out at this point, and I had the best day of my life today.” Yes, when a once-little-known candidate leaps ahead into what is effectively a three-way tie in a hard-fought Senate primary, the other campaigns and their supporters are going to come after that rising candidate.

It is unsurprising that Barnette feels attacked, because she genuinely is being attacked. President Trump insists she’s unelectable because “she has many things in her past which have not been properly explained or vetted,” much like his tax returns. Sean Hannity brought Mehmet Oz onto his show to rip into her at length. But it is worth noting that Barnette has her own allies rushing to her aid, including the Club for Growth and the Susan B. Anthony List.

One more thought on the Pennsylvania Republican Senate primary: If you’re reading this newsletter, there’s a good chance you think of yourself as conservative, and there’s a good chance you’ve thought of yourself as conservative for a long while. I want you to think back to all the big issues you’ve cared about in your political life. The pandemic and the restrictions, lockdowns, and closures that seemed excessive. Battles over tax rates and efforts to repeal Obamacare. The Iran Deal. The Paris accords. The 2016 campaign, and the prospect of a President Hillary Clinton. Cap and trade, the Obama stimulus, and the Tea Party years. The Bush tax cuts, education reform, school choice, and the Global War on Terror. Bill Clinton’s impeachment, the Contract with America, the Clinton tax hikes, and HillaryCare. Or maybe your memories of big political fights go all the way back to the Reagan years.

As you look back on all those issues you have cared about . . . do you remember Mehmet Oz ever being there when you needed him? Ever? Do you remember him ever jumping into the fray on a controversial issue and standing up to defend the conservative side? Because I remember him saying he was “really worried” about efforts to restrict abortion, criticizing laws designed to restrict abortion, criticizing heartbeat laws by insisting that “the heart’s not beating,” and lamenting that the CDC “is NOT funded to study gun violence in this country. It’s time we treat shootings as a public health problem.” He also criticized fracking, and GLAAD praised him for “allowing the audience to hear probably the healthiest medical opinion of transgender identity ever broadcast.”

Mehmet Oz has been a Republican for about 20 minutes and is not conservative by any stretch of the imagination. And now he gets to be the Pennsylvania GOP’s Senate nominee, just for showing up?

The Pennsylvania Senate primary election is Tuesday. Choose carefully, Republicans.

ADDENDUM: Michael Graham reports that New Hampshire Democrats issued statements criticizing Governor Chris Sununu for his statement during his interview on the Three Martini Lunch podcast: “I’m the first governor in 40 years to sign an abortion ban. Republican governors before me never signed that.” (Broadly speaking, Sununu wants abortion legal in the first two trimesters and illegal in the third.) I suppose if Graham was using MSM rules, he should write, “New Hampshire Democrats POUNCED.”

Economy & Business

The Worst Possible Timing for an Infrastructure-Spending Spree

President Joe Biden takes part in a briefing on infrastructure projects at the Portsmouth Port Authority in Portsmouth, N.H., April 19, 2022. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

On the menu today: As New Hampshire GOP governor Chris Sununu observed, Congress allocated $1.2 trillion for new infrastructure projects, but none of it has been spent yet, which means yet another inflationary pressure is looming. What’s more, 50 states and an untold number of localities are about to try to launch hundreds of large-scale infrastructure projects simultaneously during a period of runaway inflation, lingering supply-chain problems, price spikes in raw materials, a construction-labor shortage, and an unprecedented spike in the cost of diesel fuel. This is just about the worst possible time to try to start a massive number of construction projects from coast to coast.

The Infrastructure-Spending Spree That Shouldn’t Be

New Hampshire GOP governor Chris Sununu appeared on yesterday’s Three Martini Lunch podcast and said:

Remember, this Biden administration has authorized all of this money to be spent. But this infrastructure money? Not a penny has been spent yet. Not a penny has been spent — it’s all been authorized, but there’s no dollars actually out the door. Wait until that starts happening! And then we’re gonna have issues with steel, with oil even further, because you need oil to make asphalt, right? With raw materials, cement and concrete. The cost of cement has gone up three or four times. I watch this stuff every day, because as a small state, we’re always trying to pool together our buying power, so that we can compete with the big guys, so to say. . . . We’re still going to feel these inflationary pressures, especially around gas and diesel, for a long time. Truckers, just getting the product from Bentonville, Ark., at Walmart to your Walmart in New Hampshire or whatever it might be, that cost that trucker another 1500 bucks, just in the price increase that happened last week. Two weeks later, he’s spending 1500 bucks more, just to transport that product. That’s going to bring the supply chain to a halt.

The governor is correct, and as far as I can tell, only those who work in the infrastructure-construction business are talking about the worsening problem. First, in addition to all our other inflationary pressures, in the coming months and years, state and local governments will spend another $1.2 trillion on infrastructure products. This sum is separate from the $1.9 trillion Covid-relief bill the president signed in March 2021, the $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill he signed in March 2022, and various stopgap spending bills he has also signed.

Fifty states and a considerable number of localities will be trying to start and complete $1.2 trillion in construction projects simultaneously. What do state and local governments — or more specifically, their contractors — purchase when they’re working on infrastructure projects? As Sununu mentioned, concrete, steel for rebar, and asphalt, among other products. And all these products have grown considerably more expensive in the past two years.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ special index for construction materials as a whole stood at 256.4 back in January 2021. As of March 2022, it was at 344.3 — a 34 percent increase. The index for concrete stood at 179.8 in January 2021, and as of March 2022, it was at 200.3 — an 11 percent increase. The price of steel has been volatile, rising quickly and dropping quickly at different points in 2021, but it is still at a historically high price. And you’ve probably noticed the high price of oil.

Other construction costs are up, too. As of April, the cost of gypsum, used in ceiling tiles, plaster, and drywall, is up 20 percent since last year. The cost of insulation has risen about 17 percent in a year. Paint is in such short supply, paint manufacturers are buying back unused paint to reformulate into new products. (Eh, not quite, this article in American Painting Contractor is an April Fool’s Day joke. Thanks for dating the article March 30, guys. Nonetheless, the country is indeed facing a paint shortage.)

What do you think happens when all 50 states and an unknown but large number of localities all try to buy these products at once? What have we learned happens when demand rises steeply but supply remains the same? Prices skyrocket, and some consumers can’t get what they need or have to wait longer to get their products delivered.

On top of everything else, the cost of power tools is going up, too.

Wait, we haven’t even addressed the most pressing problem. Almost all the vehicles used in construction projects run on diesel fuel, and the price of diesel fuel keeps reaching all-time highs. No, says Sununu, there is no substitute:

Roughly 850,000 diesel-powered vehicles nationwide are in use bringing supplies, materials, and workers to and from U.S. construction sites. Earthmovers, bulldozers, bucket loaders, backhoes, cranes, pavers, excavators, and motor graders are all essential to building and expanding our economic infrastructure. For most of these machines, there is simply no substitute for diesel power. No viable alternative has yet emerged for equipment that exceeds 500 horsepower; some construction engines produce several thousand horsepower. In the construction sector, 98 percent of all energy use comes from diesel.

East Coast stockpiles of diesel fuel are at the lowest on record, and some industry watchers expect rationing of it this coming summer. How exactly are states and localities supposed to launch hundreds of new infrastructure products during a diesel-fuel shortage?

Even if a locality can secure and afford the steel, the concrete, the asphalt, the cost of operating all the construction equipment and all the necessary tools, there’s still the problem of manpower. Like a lot of other industries, the construction business is dealing with a labor shortage. The Associated General Contractors of America recently noted that job openings in construction hit an all-time high at the end of March, while the industry’s unemployment rate was the lowest ever recorded for April. There were 415,000 construction-industry job openings at the end of March, a jump of 69,000 or 20 percent from March 2021. (The association is calling for “an immediate expansion of work permits for foreign-born workers.”)

What does this mean? This means that the overwhelming majority of these projects are going to run way over their initially estimated budget and way behind their initially estimated schedule. The New York Times observed last November that, “Cost overruns, engineering challenges and political obstacles have made it all but impossible to complete a major, multibillion-dollar infrastructure project in the United States on budget and on schedule over the past decade.” And that was when inflation was still relatively normal and manageable.

You’re already seeing some public-works projects canceled because the costs rose so quickly. In Idaho, one new highway-interchange project and a road-resurfacing project are now delayed indefinitely: “Our goal was to start construction on the interchange this spring, but prices on materials have compelled both parties to step back and consider how to move forward,” state transportation project engineer Doral Hoff said.

The much-touted bipartisan infrastructure law is a bit like an ouroboros: The cost of these projects is rising quickly because of the cost of the materials, and the cost of the materials is rising quickly in part because the infrastructure-spending bill dramatically increased the demand and amount of money available for these projects. (The law is also an enormously complicated endeavor; as McKinsey Consulting wrote this week, it “includes roughly 240 separate funding streams that will flow to state and local governments either directly, in the form of grants and program funds; or indirectly, through local constituents such as private utilities, businesses, and individuals.”)

Maybe America really needs $1.2 trillion in new infrastructure projects. But by attempting to get these projects started during a period of runaway inflation, supply-chain problems, exploding diesel-fuel costs, and a labor shortage, the Biden administration and Democrats are ensuring that taxpayers get the minimal bang for their buck.

A Statement You’ll Want to Read

NR has published a joint statement on the state of the country signed by a wide range of American leaders, including: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Andre Archie, Dan Crenshaw, Glenn C. Loury, Rachel Lu, Harvey C. Mansfield, Avik Roy, Pat Toomey, and many, many more:

We believe that America is a fundamentally fair society with bountiful opportunity; that its Founding was a world-historical event of the utmost importance and established governing institutions of enduring value; that its original sins have been honorably, if belatedly, repudiated; that it came to be wealthy and powerful primarily through its own internal strengths, not via expropriation and conquest; that its model of ordered liberty is a boon to human flourishing; that its people are a marvel and its greatest resource; that its best days needn’t be behind it, and that it remains a beacon to mankind.

Read the whole thing.

ADDENDUM: You can already see the push to make the national infant-formula shortage a matter of scapegoating Abbott Laboratories. And no doubt, as noted Monday, Abbott’s untimely shutdown of an important formula-manufacturing plant is a significant contributing factor in the current shortages. But the shutdown of one plant shouldn’t result in formula’s being out of stock in 40 percent of stores across the country. As our Dominic Pino observed, supply-chain issues are hitting almost every industry, but we aren’t seeing 40 percent of the stores across the country having empty shelves for every product. (Dominic also laid out how, when predetermined contracts with state governments are responsible for such a large segment of total purchases, suppliers don’t respond to the usual price signals of higher demand the way they ordinarily would.)

We should also keep in mind Abbott’s contentions and evidence that there’s a good chance the bacteria that sickened, and in two cases killed infants, did not come from their plant:

  • Genetic sequencing on the two available samples from ill infants did not match strains of Cronobacter in our plant. Samples from ill infants did not match each other, meaning there was no connection between the two cases.

  • In all four cases, the state, FDA, and/or CDC tested samples of the Abbott formula that was used by the child. In all four cases, all unopened containers tested negative.

  • Open containers from the homes of the infants were also tested in three of the four cases; two of the three tested negative. The one positive was from an open container from the home of the infant, and it tested positive for two different strains of Cronobacter sakazakii, one of which matched the strain that caused the infant’s infection, and the other matched a strain found on a bottle of distilled water in the home used to mix the formula. Again, neither strain matched strains found in our plant.

National Security & Defense

A Woke-Wars Reversal

Midshipmen take their oath into the Navy at the graduation and commissioning ceremony for the U.S. Naval Academy’s Class of 2021 at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., May 28, 2021. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

On the menu today: A small but significant reversal of woke ideology permeating the culture of the U.S. military offers a good example of why you should be reading every issue of National Review; Vladimir Putin does the unthinkable and effectively fires his old employer, Russia’s biggest intelligence agency, the FSB, from its role as the primary spy agency for the war in Ukraine and replaces it with a heavily militarized branch of military intelligence, the GRU; bad new inflation numbers for April, and May isn’t looking good, either; and today, the Three Martini Lunch podcast welcomes its third-ever guest.

What You’re Missing If You Aren’t Subscribing to National Review

Yesterday, Brent Sadler, a senior fellow for naval warfare and advanced technology at the Heritage Foundation, examined the new U.S. Navy recommended-reading list from Admiral Mike Gilday, the chief of Naval Operations, and observed that, “The absence of the social ‘warrior’ books is welcome and hopefully there will not be repeats as seen in last year’s reading list, which was unnecessarily divisive.” (I can recommend Ashley’s War, an in-depth profile of the women serving on the U.S. Army’s Cultural Support Teams, a secret pilot program that had women serving alongside Special Operations soldiers conducting raids in Afghanistan. Women soldiers could interact with Afghan women in and near raid targets in ways that would be less culturally disruptive than male soldiers.)

The CNO Professional Reading Program consists of twelve books and is a mix of writing genres including fiction, non-fiction, military strategy, management, and technology, among others; last year’s list featured Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Jason Pierceson’s Sexual Minorities and Politics.

What made this year’s shift back to an apolitical, military-focused list particularly intriguing is that the most recent print edition of National Review — probably still available at your local Barnes and Noble or other well-stocked newsstand — focused on the impact of woke politics on the U.S. military. The cover story is written by Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, the ranking member of the Military Personnel Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee and a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He contended that with the previous reading list, Gilday, the chief of Naval Operations, asked “the Armed Forces to embrace a brand of identity politics according to which people are judged by the color of their skin rather than on their merits as individuals.”

Unless you’re a subscriber, you probably didn’t know about Gallagher’s piece. A ranking member of two key House committees — who is likely to be in the majority in January 2023, and perhaps chairing a subcommittee or two — called out the U.S. Navy for a woke, politics-heavy recommended-reading list on the cover of our magazine . . . and the Navy promptly ordered a full reverse, so to speak. The print edition may not have the biggest readership of any magazine, but it has a particularly influential one.

If you want to be in the loop — to know what’s coming down the pike and what’s going on beyond the headlines — you ought to subscribed to NR. The issue before Gallagher’s cover story, our Charlie Cooke laid out why Disney was destined to lose the fight over adding gender ideology to the K–3 curriculum in Florida. The issue before that, you saw the rare time a Democratic strategist — Ruy Teixeira — wrote the cover piece, declaring that “the current Democratic brand suffers from several deficiencies that make it somewhere between uncompelling and toxic to many American voters who might otherwise be the party’s allies. I locate these deficiencies in three key areas: culture, economics, and patriotism.”

If you don’t subscribe, the free stuff on the website — including this newsletter! — is really good. But the entire package, including what you’re missing, is even better.

If you subscribe to the print magazine right now, it is just $24 for one year of 24 issues.

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And now, on to the rest of the news . . .

The New Version of the KGB Gets Fired

Just call it the “FSBeaten.”

For decades, the FSB, the successor to the old Soviet KGB, has enjoyed a fearsome reputation. Its methods are ruthless and unscrupulous, and its ability to penetrate Western institutions is insidious and terrifying.

And now, as the Russian invasion debacle worsens, apparently Vladimir Putin has effectively fired the FSB.

Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov are senior fellows with the Center for European Policy Analysis and co-founders of Agentura.ru, a watchdog reporting on Russian secret-service activities. They write:

Vladimir Putin has removed Russia’s biggest intelligence agency, the FSB, from its role as the primary spy agency for the war in Ukraine and handed responsibility to a heavily militarized branch of military intelligence, the GRU.

The new lead officer, Vladimir Alekseyev, the first deputy head of the GRU, is heavily implicated in several of Putin’s most serious attacks on the West over the past decade. He is accused by the UK and the European Union of overseeing the chemical weapons attack in Salisbury in 2018. An experienced special forces officer, he is also sanctioned by the US for direct cyber interference in the US 2016 election.

The pair point to a state-run television program that recently identified Alekseyev as the top general for intelligence on Ukraine for the first time:

The news marked a significant shift. Until now, Ukraine had been the responsibility of the Fifth Service of the FSB, the department which provided Putin with intelligence on Ukraine before the invasion. The disastrous start to the war, clouded by the pre-emptive publication by Western intelligence of highly secret plans as yet unrealized, and by the complete absence of popular uprisings by Russian speakers (which Putin was told would occur) cast a dark shadow over the department. Its boss, FSB general Sergei Beseda, was initially arrested and held in the notorious Lefortovo prison.

They also write that the enraged Putin jailed Beseda, then realized how having the country’s top spymaster imprisoned contradicted his regime’s message that the invasion was going swimmingly and everything was under control and on schedule. So Beseda was released, but he and his organization are effectively sidelined; Putin no longer trusts the information he gets from Russia’s primary spy agency.

Every spy agency gets some decisions wrong. Sometimes defectors lie, and sometimes regimes lie to themselves. But Putin will never see the FSB the same way again, and Putin’s successors will likely never be quite so confident in the assessments of Russian intelligence — particularly if the intelligence aims to assure a Russian leader that resistance to aggression will be light and short-lived. From an American perspective, this is a good thing.

Don’t Let Anyone Spin You; This Is Another Bad Inflation Number

You and I knew, heading into this morning, that the inflation numbers for April were going to be bad. President Biden knew as well, which is why he spent Tuesday insisting runaway inflation was the fault of everyone in the world except for him, his administration, and his policies.

The numbers were on the worse end of the estimates — “over the last 12 months, the all items index increased 8.3 percent before seasonal adjustment”; banks had expected anywhere from 7.9 percent to 8.3 percent. Core inflation, which excludes energy and food, was expected to decline to from 6.5 percent to 6.1 or 6 percent, but it only went down to 6.2 percent.

Inflation took a breather” does not strike me as the most clarifying or accurate way to describe this update.

The numbers for May are probably going to be awful, too. On Tuesday, AAA announced that the national average price for a gallon of regular gasoline had reached an all-time high of $4.37.

This morning, the price is up to $4.40.

ADDENDUM: Tune in to today’s Three Martini Lunch, with (barring some last-minute snafu) our third-ever special guest. A couple listeners guessed the guest based upon my hint that our guest’s surname appeared in the movie The Naked Gun 2 ½.

That is our guest’s surname, not our guest. Greg and I are not interviewing O. J. Simpson.


The Chaos Midterms

Voters cast their ballots for the midterm primary election in Grove City, Ohio, May 3, 2022. (Gaelen Morse/Reuters)

Did you ever think that post-Covid America would be so . . . chaotic? All President Biden had to do was roll out the vaccines and let America enjoy a new “era of good feelings,” savoring the joys of boring, normal life. Instead, as spring 2022 approaches summer, Americans are grappling with rolling electricity blackouts, runaway inflation, high gas prices, high food prices, supply-chain problems, product unavailability, and more than 200,000 migrants coming to the southern border per month. Democratic control of government did not replace chaos with order; it just traded one form of chaos for another.

Democrats’ Irrational Midterm Hopes amid National Chaos

A reader writes in about yesterday’s Morning Jolt, focusing on the long-simmering shortage of infant formula:

My daughter E is fed by gastronomy tube due to medical issues. We were on Elecare, but a while back had to switch to another brand, as Elecare was unavailable.

Two weeks ago, we called our formula provider for her monthly delivery of the new brand and were basically told they have no idea when it would be available and can’t give us any date at all.

Through the kindness of friends, we’re going through what cans we have left, and then we’ll switch to yet a third brand which she may or may not tolerate. You cannot imagine how frustrating this is as a parent. And we aren’t the only ones. There’s lots of parents of kids out there who need these special formulas who are just screaming for help, and we feel like no one’s heard us until now.

I hope something changes because of this attention; I really do. Because this can’t go on.

Maybe you aren’t affected by the shortage of infant formula. But there’s a good chance one or another shortage has affected your life recently.

We keep hearing that the supply-chain issues are a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic. But the biggest impact of the pandemic on our lives came from March 2020 to about summer 2020. And we’re now in mid-May 2022, and certain supply-chain problems are much worse than they were in 2020 — and they don’t always involve products that are shipped through locked-down Shanghai (still!) or through a backed-up California port.

(The U.S. banned the import of European baby formulas, even though in many cases European regulations and standards for formula are actually tougher than the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s. When U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents find European baby formula, they seize it. While all parents should consult their pediatricians on what formula is best for their children, you may have noticed that European babies are drinking these formulas and are growing just fine.)

Meanwhile, auto dealers have significantly fewer new cars on their lots. (Someone I know in Northern Virginia recently wanted to purchase a Nissan Altima and was told that the nearest new model for sale was in New Jersey.) Getting your car repaired after a minor crash can take months because of a shortage of parts.

Costco is limiting purchases of pet food. The fertilizer shortage is going to reduce crop yields.

Perhaps the ongoing labor shortage has affected your life. The U.S. has 11.5 million unfilled jobs, and there are currently 5.6 million more job openings than there are unemployed Americans. President Biden continues to travel the country, promising his policies will create new jobs.  For once, the country doesn’t need more new jobs. It needs more new workers.

The administration seems convinced that, at some point, the public will give it credit for the high rate of job growth since Biden took office. But there are reasons that Biden’s job approval remains low, and one of them is his handling of the economy. CNN recently characterized Americans’ views of the economy as “dismal.” This is not because of the overwhelming persuasive power of Fox News, and it’s not because Republicans are Jedi-mind-tricking Americans into thinking the economy is worse than it really is. It’s because so many Americans feel an intensifying economic squeeze.

In that last CNN poll, “only 19 percent of Americans think Biden’s policies have improved economic conditions in the US, with 26 percent saying they’ve had no effect and 55 percent saying they’ve made conditions worse. . . . Half of Americans call the economy the most important national issue (50 percent). . . . Most Americans say economic conditions have led them to reduce nonessential spending (63 percent), change their grocery-buying habits (63 percent) and cut back significantly on driving (54 percent).”

Your life is undoubtedly influenced by the worst inflation in 40 years, which current projections indicate will remain elevated through 2024.

Your life is undoubtedly influenced, in one way or another, by runaway gas prices. Nationwide, the average price of gas is $4.37 for a gallon of regular — 27 cents more than a month ago, and $1.43 more than a year ago — and it’s only set to increase going forward. The American Automobile Association projects that, “since supply remains tight and the market remains highly volatile, crude prices will likely continue to fluctuate this week, potentially pushing pump prices higher.”

The cost of diesel fuel keeps reaching new record highs, as well, making the transportation of goods even more expensive, with east coast inventories of diesel plunging to their lowest seasonal level since government records started more than 30 years ago. As our Dominic Pino explained, “diesel is more important than gasoline for supply chains, since it powers the trucks and freight trains that deliver our goods. As the price of diesel rises, life gets harder for trucking companies and railroads, transportation costs increase, and those costs can get passed on to consumers as higher prices for a variety of goods.”

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that:

From California to Texas to Indiana, electric-grid operators are warning that power-generating capacity is struggling to keep up with demand, a gap that could lead to rolling blackouts during heat waves or other peak periods as soon as this year. . . . The challenge is that wind and solar farms—which are among the cheapest forms of power generation—don’t produce electricity at all times and need large batteries to store their output for later use. While a large amount of battery storage is under development, regional grid operators have lately warned that the pace may not be fast enough to offset the closures of traditional power plants that can work around the clock.

And then there’s the U.S.–Mexico border, where now more than 200,000 migrants are arriving per month, and more than 70,000 unaccompanied minors have arrived in the fiscal year that started October 1. The Biden administration continues to believe that it can say, “Don’t come,” and that will outweigh the discussion of a path to citizenship for those who enter the country illegally.

Meanwhile, violent crime remains high in many communities. “Murder rose by nearly 30 percent in 2020 according to data from the FBI and it rose roughly 6 percent in 2021 relative to 2020 in 99 cities with available data.” So far, it’s growing at the same pace in 2022.

High crime, bigger crowds of migrants at the border, rolling electricity blackouts, runaway inflation, high gas prices, high food prices, supply-chain problems, and the unavailability of key products like infant formula . . . given these political conditions, how can so many Democrats believe that the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, if it happens, will be the dominant issue in this year’s midterm elections?

In many people’s eyes, Biden was elected to get the country “back to normal.” But despite the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic is now almost a non-factor in daily American life, our lives in late spring of 2022 don’t feel normal. In fact, they still feel quite far from it. Democratic control of government did not replace chaos with order; it just traded one form of chaos for another.

The details of this ugly portrait may change between now and November. But it is hard to see Americans feeling good about the state of the country when they cast their ballots in the midterms.

Little-Known Also-Ran Candidate Issues Statement; Film at 11

Someone once observed that you shouldn’t get too excited about any headline that says, “GOP lawmaker says [blah blah blah]” or “Democratic lawmaker says [blah blah blah].” If the statement came from, say, Marco Rubio, the headline would declare “Rubio says [blah blah blah].” If the headline is using the term “[party identifier] lawmaker says,” it means the person who said it is almost certainly someone you’ve never heard of, and in a country with 7,383 state legislators and even more local officials, you can find any old schmo saying just about anything. It’s not necessarily news. National news articles that amount to “obscure local or state official says crazy thing” are high-profile journalistic nutpicking — picking the most extreme members of a group and pretending they represent the group as a whole in order to discredit them. And if the headline is ‘GOP candidate says,’ well . . . all you need to do to become a candidate for office in most jurisdictions is stand outside a grocery store and get people to sign a petition that will put you on the ballot. If you’re a journalist, you can probably find candidates saying the moon is made of green cheese, or whatever bizarre belief you wish to spotlight.

The headline of the top article on Memeorandum this morning is, “Senate GOP candidates say national abortion ban is ‘possible,’” and it links to KASW out of Phoenix.

The key paragraphs from article:

The former state lawmaker and current Corporation Commissioner, Justin Olsen, sent a text message saying he supports a federal ban. “I look forward to introducing the Heartbeat Bill in the U.S. Senate. We must protect all innocent life,” he said in the text message. The Heartbeat bill bans abortions after six weeks before most women know they are pregnant.

The other candidates in the GOP Senate primary, Mark Brnovich, Jim Lamon, and Blake Masters, were mum on the issue for now. However, during an interview in September, Masters did suggest Congress might need to get involved.

The latest Arizona GOP Senate primary poll, from Trafalgar: Jim Lamon 25 percent, Mark Brnovich 24 percent, Blake Masters 19 percent, Michael McGuire 8 percent, Justin Olsen 3 percent, and undecided 20 percent.

So, the only guy who makes a statement on this issue is sitting at 3 percent in the most recent poll of the race, yet he somehow is supposed to speak for ‘Senate GOP candidates’ as a whole.

ADDENDUM: In yesterday’s Three Martini Lunch podcast, Greg and I observed the oddities of the Pennsylvania Senate race. I noted that, when the likely Democratic nominee looks like he’s in a biker gang but would vote like Bernie Sanders, Republicans’ margin for error in picking a nominee of their own is small. Your mileage may vary, but from where I sit, Mehmet Oz has been a Republican for about 20 minutes, there’s considerable evidence he is a quack, he’s uncomfortably friendly with the current authoritarian government of Turkey, and he is not a conservative by any stretch of the imagination. And now we know Oz has voted in Turkish elections in recent years but skipped GOP primaries. “Elect Oprah’s doctor!” feels like a heavy lift in the general election.

And tomorrow, assuming no unexpected complications, the Three Martini Lunch podcast will have its third-ever guest. Stay tuned!

Economy & Business

What’s Behind the Baby-Formula Shortage?

(Magone/Getty Images)

On the menu today: There is a clear dividing line between American households with newborns and those without, and you can see it in which people have been talking about, and worrying about, a nationwide infant formula shortage for months and which people just heard about the problem recently. Target, Walmart, CVS, and Walgreens are all limiting how much infant and toddler formula customers can purchase per visit. So how did the U.S. — the wealthiest, most advanced, and most prosperous nation on the planet — end up in a situation where so many parents are worrying about feeding their youngest children?

The Deep Roots of the Infant-Formula Shortage

Most reporting on the infant-formula shortage points the finger at Abbott Laboratories, which instituted a February recall of powder formulas, including Similac, Alimentum, and EleCare, manufactured in its Sturgis, Mich., facility. The recall — which the company emphasizes was voluntary — came after four consumer complaints of Cronobacter sakazakii (a.k.a. Salmonella Newport) in infants who had consumed powdered formula manufactured in the Sturgis plant. Cronobacter germs can cause sepsis, a dangerous blood infection, or meningitis, which swells the protective linings surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Those infected with Salmonella bacteria develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps twelve to 72 hours after infection, and infants are more severely affected than adults.

Abbott Laboratories emphasized that no product it distributed to consumers has tested positive for the presence of either of these bacteria, but that during testing in the Sturgis facility, the company found evidence of Cronobacter sakazakii in areas of the plant where products would not come in contact with it. As a precaution, it recalled all formula manufactured in this facility with an expiration of April 1, 2022, or later. No Abbott liquid formulas are included in the recall, nor are powder formulas or nutrition products manufactured at other Abbott facilities.

Here, it’s worth noting that the supply chain for infant formula was strained well before Abbott’s recall. According to the data-research firm Datasembly, the percentage of stores nationwide at which formula was out of stock surpassed double digits way back in July 2021, and by January 2022, it had hit 23 percent.

According to Datasembly, infant formula is now out-of-stock in 40 percent of stores nationwide. Moreover, in Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Missouri, Texas, and Tennessee, more than half of baby formula was completely sold out during the week starting April 24. In another 26 states, between 40 and 50 percent of infant-formula supplies were sold out.

In January, the Wall Street Journal reported that consumers were having a hard time finding formula, and manufacturers and retailers were each pointing the finger at the other:

Retailers are struggling to predict demand at individual locations, as many Americans have relocated and are spending long periods away from home during the pandemic. Meanwhile, manufacturers are struggling with staffing and shortages of ingredients and packaging materials. The big formula brands sold in the U.S. are largely produced in domestic facilities though raw materials and packaging may include sourcing from other countries.

(Three weeks earlier, shortly before Christmas, President Biden boasted that his administration had averted a supply-chain crisis: “The much-predicted crisis didn’t occur. Packages are moving, gifts are being delivered, shelves are not empty.”)

The initial shortages spurred only a mild increase in prices, but the current shortage is driving prices higher. Datasembly notes that:

Overall prices didn’t increase when out-of-stock percentages started to increase. For example, in January the average out-of-stock rate of all baby formula products was at 3.3 percent and the average price was $24.37. But then in March, when the average out-of-stock rate was at 28.4 percent, the average price hit $26.21, resulting in a 7 percent difference. Even during November and December, when the out-of-stock rate was hovering between 24-27 percent, the average price was between $24 and $25.

Manufacturers of perishable goods would always prefer that the demand for their products be steady, or preferably growing at a manageable pace. But the pandemic disrupted American baby-making as much as it disrupted every other American activity. The U.S. birth rate declined during the pandemic and hit a low of 55.3 births per 1,000 women aged 15–44 in the first quarter of 2021. That number has slightly increased over the past two quarters, up to 55.9, and the slight uptick in the number of hungry newborns has coincided with the shortage of formula.

The good news for harried parents is that that one brand of formula is as good as another, nutritionally — so if their regular brand is out of stock, parents can use another brand as a substitute with no concerns.

“It’s okay to switch between brands if needed. They’re generally the same ingredients, but maybe tweaked in very small, minimal ways, but you can switch between brand names or off-brand names from the supermarkets and the bulk stores.” Tom Herrmann, a spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Health Services, told a local Arizona CBS affiliate.

Pediatrician Steven Abrams notes that the exception is if your baby is on a specific extensively hydrolyzed or amino-acid-based formula such as Elecare for which no store-brand substitute exists. He recommends that if parents are unsure about how to proceed, they should talk to their pediatrician.

There’s one other odd wrinkle: Infant formula is one of the items most frequently stolen from retail stores, at least according to a survey of retailers conducted by National Retail Federation. (Note the survey was conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic, which may have altered criminal behavior.) This is one of the reasons some stores keep infant formula in a locked cabinet.

While some poor or desperate parents may shoplift infant formula, it is primarily “organized retail theft” operations that target formula because it meets the “CRAVED” criteria described by criminologists: Concealable, Removable, Available, Valuable, Enjoyable and Disposable. (Some might dispute the label “enjoyable,” but parents of newborns always need it, ensuring a consistent market for resale.)

While you might be thinking of the anarchic scenes of groups of thieves ransacking retail stores out in California, large-scale theft of infant formula is not a new problem:

In Spring 2012, Kevin Shultz, a loss-prevention manager for Publix Supermarkets, received the first of what would be many reports that year concerning a mysterious plague of thefts. Initially, the missives trickled in from stores around Tampa, where Shultz is based. But Publix has more than 1,000 locations scattered through the Southeast. Some 400, mostly in Florida, fall under his purview, and soon, he was getting similar reports from all over the state: Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Orlando, Miami. The thieves seemed to be multiplying — and all they wanted was baby formula.

Loss prevention is the rare topic about which competing retailers will trade intelligence, and from talking to his counterparts at Walmart, Target and Walgreens, Shultz learned that they were losing large volumes of formula, too. That sort of overlap tended to rule out the employee theft that often accounts for large-scale pilferage. To store-security officers and local cops, who were addressing the crimes on a case-by-case basis, the incidents didn’t appear related. But Shultz had a unique perch, and as he dug deeper, the thefts began to take on a pattern — the work, he believed, of organized crime…

They were craftier than your run-of-the-mill smash-and-grabber. One man, in Orlando, liked to select an opaque, lidded storage bin from a sales display, fill it with formula, then proceed through the exit doors, brandishing a phony receipt for the bin. Others worked in teams. One couple used their children as camouflage, stowing their take in a specialized diaper bag that retained its shape empty or full. Another hid formula in a stroller with a spacious undercarriage. Many thieves favored reusable Walmart bags, which had the advantage of a substantial, precise capacity: 18 12.5-ounce cans of formula (three layers of six), or nine 1.45-pound tubs (three layers of three).

In 2020, police charged three Maryland residents with stealing $11,000 of baby formula from a number of Giant grocery stores in Pennsylvania. In 2021, police accused a California man of stealing $33,000 worth of baby formula in Auburn, Calif. In Miramar, Fla., police are looking for a “baby- formula bandit” who robbed the same Publix four times over two months.

The shortage of infant formula is indeed a recall problem and a supply-chain problem. But it is also an inflation problem — normally, parents spend $1,200–$1,500 in expenditures on infant formula in the first year alone — and a crime problem.

ADDENDUM: Check out Friday’s Three Martini Lunch podcast, now with more background music that I cannot control.


What’s Really Going On with These Food-Facility Fires?

A plant worker walks through the Beef Products Inc. (BPI) facility in South Sioux City, Nebraska, November 19, 2012. (Lane Hickenbottom/Reuters)

We made it to Friday! First, with two small planes crashing into or near food-processing plants, and reports of fires at various food-processing plants and facilities, it’s fair to wonder if something sinister is going on, but the evidence is pointing in one clear direction; I would sincerely love it if unnamed “senior U.S. officials” would just shut up about how we’re helping the Ukrainians kill lots of Russian soldiers; and if you think filling up your tank with regular gasoline is painful these days, don’t look at the price of diesel — and I don’t mean Vin.

What’s Really Going on With Food-Processing-Plant Fires

In a typical year, how many planes crash into food-processing plants?

You’d figure the answer would be “zero,” and in a bad year, maybe get all the way up to “one.” This year, we’re up to two so far — or more specifically, one crash into a plant, one crash about 300 yards from one.

April 14:

A plane crashed into an Idaho potato and food processing plant, killing the pilot, police said. It hit Gem State Processing in Heyburn in East Idaho at about 8:35 a.m. on Wednesday, city police said. The pilot was the only person in the plane and died during the crash, police said. None of the employees at the processing plant were injured.

April 22:

Covington [Georgia] firefighters responded to a plane crash that killed two people Thursday at the General Mills food processing plant. The small plane crashed apparently after taking off from the runway of the Covington Municipal Airport. Six tractor-trailers were damaged as a result of the crash. Both occupants of the plane died. However, the local officials were grateful that the plane did not strike the plant building, which could have resulted in greater loss of life.

Two plane crashes near food-processing plants in eight days is indeed a weird coincidence, and some folks on the Internet — and Tucker Carlson — started noticing other news reports about other fires at other food-processing plants:

  • February 5: A “massive fire swept through Wisconsin River Meats in Mauston on Thursday, destroying part of the facility.”
  • February 22: “The Shearer’s Foods plant in Hermiston, Oregon caught fire after a propane boiler exploded.”
  • March 17: “A structure fire at the Walmart Distribution Center in Plainfield, Indiana broke out about noon on Wednesday. About 1,000 employees were inside but none were injured, officials say. One firefighter suffered minor injuries.”
  • March 22: “A fire that broke out at a Nestle Hot Pockets plant in Jonesboro, Arkansas on March 16 had the facility still closed as of March 21.”
  • March 25: “Officials believe a deep-frying machine is behind the fire that destroyed a potato processing facility in Belfast.”
  • April 13: “Firefighters from several departments in Maine helped battle a massive fire that destroyed a butcher shop and meat market in Center Conway, New Hampshire.”
  • April 30: A soybean-processing tank caught fire at the Perdue Farms plant in Chesapeake, Va.

So, what’s going on? Is this a nefarious conspiracy of arsonists, terrorists, or foreign agents? At this point, there’s no evidence of that and no reason to think it is the case.

For starters, not all the fires or crashes did significant damage. In the Chesapeake soybean-facility fire, a plant manager said that the fire will have little to no impact on their operations. In the Georgia crash, the plane didn’t hit the building, no employees were harmed, and General Mills spokesperson Mollie Wulff said, “The plant did not experience any disruptions and it remains fully operational.” The pilot in that crash was identified as a student pilot, and the other person was a flight instructor — with no signs of terrorism and no signs of ties to a hostile foreign government.

Second, none of the fires so far have been declared cases of arson. If we had confirmed or likely cases of arson at food-processing facilities from coast to coast, then yes, this would indeed be suspicious. (I know, I know, the Cigarette-Smoking Man showed up and covered it up.) But in any given year, there are a half-million fires reported to local fire departments, and about 5,300 of them are in “manufacturing or processing” facilities. That comes out to about 440 per month, and if there are fires in 440 manufacturing or processing facilities a month from coast to coast, we would expect at least a handful each month to be at food-processing facilities. In fact, the list above stretches the definition of food-processing facilities, because the Walmart Distribution Center also stored clothes and cardboard, and the New Hampshire fire happened at a butcher shop.

Third, if you were a terrorist or foreign agent attempting to choke off the American food-distribution network . . . would you start with an obscure potato-chip maker in Oregon? Then move on to the source of Hot Pockets in Arkansas? Then move on to a soybean-processing tank in Virginia? Are these the right targets if you’re trying to cripple America?

If you were a nefarious terrorist group or hostile foreign power and you had not merely one suicide pilot, but two of them — and in the case of the Georgia crash, someone willing to ride along as a passenger — would you really aim for a potato-processing plant in southern Idaho and then the Georgia plant where they make Cinnamon Toast Crunch? Does this terrorist group just hate carbohydrates or something? Does Dr. Atkins have an alibi?

If you hated America and had the ability to crash two planes into separate targets . . . wouldn’t you pick something a little more high-profile? The last guys did!

How is this plan to attack and disrupt the U.S. food-supply chain going to work, anyway? As of 2017, the U.S. had 36,486 food- and beverage-processing establishments. Is the plan to pick them off, one by one, every two weeks or so?

What we’re likely experiencing is the “Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon,” a.k.a. “frequency illusion” — when you hear a term and then feel like you’re suddenly seeing it everywhere. In reality, whatever you’re observing is occurring at the same frequency, it’s just that you didn’t notice it or ignored it before.

Because of the empty shelves earlier this year, people are paying much closer attention to supply chains these days. During the pandemic, many of us experienced sudden disruptions to our usually steady supplies of many varieties of food, as some meatpacking plants briefly shut down because of Covid outbreaks, and potato growers found it harder to get their spuds to consumers. (There was also that hacker attack on a major beef supplier in early 2021.) Then in January, tens of millions of Americans caught the Omicron variant at the same time, leading to disruptions to shipments of all kinds of products, and thus empty shelves and product shortages across the country. And those supply-chain problems still haven’t been worked out.

Lots of Americans have become much more aware of all the steps between the creation of a particular good and when they purchase it, and just how many things can go wrong in between. (And just about everything can go wrong: The Felicity Ace, a cargo ship full of Porsches, Bentleys, and Lamborghinis, caught fire and sank to the bottom of the ocean in early March.) It is not surprising that something genuinely unusual — like two small planes crashing in or near two food-processing facilities in a short span of time — would catch people’s eyes and get them to start looking for a pattern.

But so far, with no evidence of foul play, this appears to be just another random set of fires in a country that has a lot more fires at industrial sites than we previously thought. The world has a genuine food-supply crisis, as discussed yesterday, and that is likely going to increase prices on certain foods here in America. But the higher food prices we are seeing are thankfully not occurring because of small plane crashes or fires across the country.

Dear Unidentified ‘American Officials,’ Please Shut Up

One of the many reasons I doubt the existence of a Cigarette-Smoking Man or other sinister federal-government official organizing a conspiracy to cover up evidence of an “attack on our food supply” is the federal government — and for that matter, human beings — are generally bad at keeping secrets, and the bigger the secret, the more tempting it is for someone to reveal their role in it.

Thursday brought yet another infuriating, mind-boggling example:

Intelligence shared by the U.S. helped Ukraine sink the Russian cruiser Moskva, U.S. officials told NBC News, confirming an American role in perhaps the most embarrassing blow to Vladimir Putin’s troubled invasion of Ukraine.

A guided missile cruiser carrying a crew of 510, the Moskva was the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. It sank on April 14 after being struck by two Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles, U.S. officials said. Moscow said the vessel sank after a fire. The Moskva was the largest Russian warship sunk in combat since World War II. American officials said there were significant Russian casualties, but they don’t know how many.

Apparently, yesterday’s leak that the U.S. government is helping Ukrainians target Russian generals just wasn’t dramatic enough for someone in the Biden administration. What do they think is the upside of leaking this information? Ed Morrissey and Allahpundit at Hot Air speculate that this is the administration wanting to look tough when their poll numbers are low and the outlook for the midterms is grim.

You know why I don’t think there’s a giant federal-government conspiracy to cover up attacks on the nation’s food supply? Because so far, no unnamed senior U.S. official has called up the New York Times or NBC News and bragged: “We’ve successfully organized a conspiracy to cover up attacks on the nation’s food supply.”

ADDENDUM: One point I should have added to yesterday’s Jolt about the global food crisis is that the rising cost of fuel is making moving food from one place to another more expensive. Cargo ships and most freight trucks run on diesel fuel, and diesel keeps hitting record-high prices — $5.50 per gallon nationally this week, according to the Energy Information Administration. (In Massachusetts, diesel fuel is now averaging $6.10 per gallon! In California, it’s up to $6.40 per gallon!) When Biden was inaugurated, a gallon of diesel fuel was $2.71.

On Twitter, I keep seeing people — presumably liberal or progressive — who say, “I don’t worry about high oil and gas prices, because I drive a Tesla!” (These are often the same people who said they will sell their Tesla if Elon Musk bought Twitter.)

I ask these MENSA candidates, who are so convinced that high gas prices don’t affect them because they’ve got an electric car: How do you think all the stuff you buy gets to the store?


The Global Crisis You’re Not Hearing About

Wheat stalks grow in a field near the village of Hrebeni in the Kyiv region, Ukraine, July 17, 2020. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

On the menu today: The worsening global food crisis might be the biggest problem that you’re not hearing nearly enough about. The sudden shortage of food across the planet is not just because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, although that is a major factor. It is due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a global fertilizer shortage and India;s suffering a severe heat wave and countries’ enacting new food-export restrictions.

Pay Attention to the Global Food Crisis

Senator Roy Blunt (R., Mo.), speaking earlier this week:

“You can find different numbers on this, but roughly 25 percent of all the wheat exports in the world come from Ukraine and Russia, about 20 percent of all the corn exports in the world. 90 percent of the sunflower cooking oil comes from there, and a lot of fertilizer comes from there right now from Ukraine, which is the bigger partner in that food distribution of the two countries.”

“And nothing is coming out of Ukraine. Nothing is coming out of the port at Odessa. Nothing is coming out of the port at Mariupol and hasn’t since the Russian invasion began. ”

“This has huge impact on the whole world but particularly on Africa, food in Ukraine, food in Africa. What’s in the silos in Ukraine right now is not getting out. And Ukrainian farmers aren’t getting crops planted for this year.”

Keep in mind, even if the Russian invasion ended tomorrow — and it won’t — there’s still the issue of the hundreds of anti-ship mines now floating around in the Black Sea, a few of which have ended up drifting into the territorial waters of Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania. It’s not going to be safe to send cargo ships through those waters for a long time.

And in addition to a long, long list of other allegations of war crimes, the Ukrainian government says Russian soldiers have stolen “several hundred thousand tons” of wheat as well as agricultural equipment from areas of Ukraine that they are occupying. In a spectacular demonstration of the power of GPS tracking and global satellite signals, the Ukrainians remotely disabled at least two dozen John Deere combine harvesters, tractors, and seeders that had been taken out of the country. But the Russians are likely to strip the stolen equipment for parts anyway.

For what it’s worth, U.N. secretary-general Antonio Guterres said this week that there is no realistic work-around, that until the war in Ukraine ends, the world is going to have a shortage of wheat and corn: “There is really no true solution to the problem of global food security without bringing back the agriculture production of Ukraine and the food and fertilizer production of Russia and Belarus into world markets despite the war.”

There were hopes that India could increase wheat production and make up the gap, but that country is now experiencing an ill-timed, intense heat wave that is expected to reduce this year’s crops. And now that India is unsure if it’s going to have the surpluses it had previously anticipated, it’s considering restrictions on wheat exports. (More on export restrictions in a moment.)

One analyst pointed out that the problem is, at least for now, less a lack of food than a lack of ways to get it where it needs to go. Right now, Ukraine has 15 million tons of grain that can’t fit into its existing silos, because the grain in the silos can’t get exported to any customers.

But the global fertilizer shortage is likely to reduce crop yields in a lot of places, which means we may be dealing with a worse problem in the coming months and years. Using less fertilizer usually translates into fewer crops. And keep in mind that this is not just a far-off overseas problem. “The cost of the fertilizers farmers across Mid-Michigan use has doubled, and in some cases tripled.” No joke, “manure is absolutely a hot commodity.”

The world probably could have done without the comments from U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Samantha Power on ABC News this weekend:

Fertilizer shortages are real now because Russia is a big exporter of fertilizer. And even though fertilizer is not sanctioned, less fertilizer is coming out of Russia. As a result, we’re working with countries to think about natural solutions like manure and compost. And this may hasten transitions that would have been in the interest of farmers to make eventually anyway. So never let a crisis go to waste.

Please stop telling us what a great opportunity there is in an oncoming famine. I would love to take the slogan, “Never let a crisis go to waste,” put it onto a rocket, and blast it into the sun.

But to give the Biden administration a little bit of credit, it is moving to provide $670 million in food assistance to other countries that need it. It will spend $282 million to procure U.S. food commodities to bolster existing emergency food operations in six countries facing severe food insecurity — Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, and Yemen — and then another $388 million to cover ocean-freight transportation, inland transport, internal transport, shipping and handling, and other associated costs.

In late March in Brussels, Biden said that, “We had a long discussion in the G7 with the — with both the United States, which has a significant — the third-largest producer of wheat in the world — as well as Canada, which is also a major, major producer. And we both talked about how we could increase and disseminate more rapidly food. Food shortages.”

But there are some ominous signs that a lot of countries’ governments are moving their policies in exactly the wrong direction. With countries getting more worried about food prices and reliable food supplies, more countries are restricting the export of food:

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the number of countries imposing export restrictions on food has climbed from 3 to 16 (as of early April 2022). The total amount of exports affected by the restrictions represents about 17 percent of total calories traded in the world. Those restrictions include export bans implemented by 16 countries covering 29 separate measures, and account for 12.4 percent of traded calories.

At the exact time that we need to make it easier to get food from one country to another, countries such as Russia, Indonesia, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan are making it more difficult or outright impossible to export food. (I’ll cut the Ukrainians some slack for their food-export restrictions, on account of the whole “getting invaded” thing.)

This may seem mundane, but India lost access to 45 percent of its palm oil overnight.

Few of these problems are expected to be short-lived. The numbers in the latest World Bank assessment are eye-popping:

Energy prices are expected to rise more than 50 percent in 2022 before easing in 2023 and 2024. Non-energy prices, including agriculture and metals, are projected to increase almost 20 percent in 2022 and will also moderate in the following years. Nevertheless, commodity prices are expected to remain well above the most recent five-year average. In the event of a prolonged war, or additional sanctions on Russia, prices could be even higher and more volatile than currently projected. . . . Wheat prices are forecast to increase more than 40 percent, reaching an all-time high in nominal terms this year. That will put pressure on developing economies that rely on wheat imports, especially from Russia and Ukraine.

The human cost of this is staggering, with the number of people around the world at risk of famine jumping from 45 million to anywhere from 53 million to 65 million.

Right now, there’s probably some cold-hearted isolationist saying, “Yes, yes, this is all very sad, but how is this America’s problem?” Well, hungry people do things that well-fed people do not. They protest and they riot. (A lot of Middle East political experts argue that grain prices triggered the Arab Spring, although some other experts dispute this or contend that it is an oversimplification.) Hungry people move across borders as refugees. They are more easily recruited into terrorist or extremist groups. (This is not saying that terrorists are motivated simply by hunger or poverty, just that a hungry, unemployed, and desperate young man is easier to recruit to an extremist cause than a well-fed, employed, and satisfied young man.) Hungry populaces are more likely to turn to demagogues promising an easy solution. Where there is hunger, there is conflict.

As our Andrew Stuttaford warned back on March 7, “Given the experience of the Arab Spring (let alone centuries of evidence showing the turbulence that sharply rising food prices can bring), it’s not the boldest of predictions to think that widespread political trouble lies ahead.” Andrew also noted that the Chinese government was aggressively pursuing self-sufficiency in food production.

Plus, there was this guy who, about 2,000 years ago, said, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,” and He seemed to be quite insistent that we have a moral obligation to help people.

ADDENDUM: This week ExJon — a.k.a., Jon Gabriel — is sitting in for me on the Three Martini Lunch podcast, and I understand he’s even quoting Dennis Green’s famous postgame rant and making jokes about the Jets.

And in case you missed it yesterday, I took a look at what quantum computing is, what it does, and why it is important to U.S. national security.


Will the Real J. D. Vance Please Stand Up?

Republican Senate candidate J. D. Vance speaks to supporters at an election party after winning the primary in Cincinnati, Ohio, May 3, 2022. (Gaelen Morse/Reuters)

On the menu today: How well do you know the Ohio Republican Party’s new Senate candidate, J. D. Vance? I suppose I should specify whether I mean the old J. D. Vance or the new J. D. Vance, because they seem like two drastically different guys. Maybe he has a split personality. Meanwhile, President Biden pledges to defend the right “to choose to abort a child,” while the numbers indicate that we live in a country where abortion is much rarer than it was a generation ago. And finally, another genius on the left contends that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is about to begin an effort to ban interracial marriage. It’s as if the whole Ginny Thomas controversy never happened.

J. D. Vance, Then and Now

The reason many young working-class women aren’t getting married isn’t that the tax code gives them incentives to stay single. It’s that too many of their male counterparts aren’t worth marrying.

Those words were written by Vance and published in National Review on September 2, 2013.

At the national level, the link between college education and productivity is virtually nonexistent. If we’re not creating much value with the billions we spend on education, it’s worth asking what those billions have bought. And the answer is: good jobs for university employees, and a social system that disadvantages the poor.

That is also Vance, writing in National Review on January 9, 2014.

Appalachia teaches us that breaking people out of bad communities has more promise than changing those communities wholesale; that encouraging family stability — or at least not discouraging it through the tax code or needless incarceration — promotes upward mobility more effectively than transfer payments; that educating people for employment somewhere other than the depressed local labor market is a better investment than short-term public works; and that helping kids overcome low expectations creates more hope than giving money to those kids’ parents.

Vance again, writing in National Review on September 22, 2014.

The reality is not that black Americans enjoy special privileges. In fact, the overwhelming weight of the evidence suggests that the opposite is true. Last month, for instance, the brilliant Harvard economist Roland Fryer published an exhaustive study of police uses of force. He found that even after controlling for crime rates and police presence in a given neighborhood, black youths were far likelier to be pushed, thrown to the ground, or harassed by police. (Notably, he also found no racial disparity in the use of lethal force.) No other study of comparable rigor exists on the subject, and its conclusion is clear: that black youth derive their fear of police from experience. The injury done to our black citizens is important and no respectable party can ignore it. In law school, the police regularly harassed one of my best friends, who is black, even though he attended Yale just as I did. Republican senator Tim Scott (S.C.) recently recounted with beautiful candor the many times Capitol police officers treated him with disrespect despite his high office. Getting whipped into a frenzy on conspiracy websites, or feeling that distant, faceless elites dislike you because of your white skin, doesn’t compare. But the great advantages of whiteness in America are invisible to the white poor or are completely swallowed by the disadvantages of their class.

Vance, writing in National Review, August 29, 2016.

Growing up in a household that was, by nearly every metric, “disadvantaged,” I loathed the cultural signal that told me, in essence: “Because you are poor, you have no agency. Because you are disadvantaged, you are a victim of the system, and you might as well give up.” So I understand and agree with the premise of David French’s response to Tucker Carlson, but having spent some time with Carlson, I don’t think he would disagree with the importance of emphasizing resilience even in the face of adversity.

Vance, writing in National Review, January 7, 2019.

I don’t know about this guy who’s been running around Ohio saying things like, “Honored to have Marjorie [Taylor Greene]’s endorsement. We’re going to win this thing and take the country back from the scumbags” and “I gotta be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.” I’m not sure about a guy who happily does interviews with Steve Bannon and Jim Hoft and speculates that the Biden administration is deliberately helping fentanyl across the border “to punish the people who didn’t vote for him, and opening up the floodgates to the border is one way to do it.” That guy seems like the embodiment of the worst aspects of modern populism.

But the Vance who used to write for National Review seemed like a sharp, insightful, thoughtful, and empathetic guy, exactly the kind of guy you would want to have in the U.S. Senate. Did Vance get hit on the head and have a complete personality change?

With the Democrats’ having nominated Tim Ryan — a guy who ran against Nancy Pelosi to be speaker of the House in 2016 and got 63 Democrats to vote for him, and whose campaign has more than $5 million in cash on hand as of his latest campaign-finance report — the big question is, which J. D. Vance is running for Senate? Or has this all been a giant rope-a-dope to let Democrats think they were going to take on some ham-fisted, shoot-from-the-hip conspiracy theorist, only to find they’re taking on an eloquent advocate for Americans who have been left behind and forgotten?

‘To Choose to Abort a Child’

President Biden, yesterday: “The idea that we’re going to make a judgment that is going to say that no one can make the judgment to choose to abort a child based on a decision by the Supreme Court, I think, goes way overboard.”

I can’t help but notice he used the word “child.” Pro-choice advocates keep telling me it isn’t a child.

If what is developing in a woman’s womb is a child — a human life, not merely a blob of cells that are potential life — we wouldn’t accept killing that child, now would we?

How Many Abortions Occur in the U.S. Each Year?

There are two institutions that attempt to count the number of abortions performed in the United States: the Guttmacher Institute, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The two sets of numbers differ fairly significantly, sometimes by up to 300,000 in a given year.

The Guttmacher Institute reported that in 1973, the year of Roe v. Wade, U.S. medical personnel performed 744,610 abortions; the CDC put the number at 615,831. That number steadily increased until 1990, when it peaked at 1.6 million in the Guttmacher count and 1.42 million in the CDC count.

The most recent number released by the Guttmacher Institute is from 2017, and it showed that abortions dropped to 862,000, a 19 percent decline from just six years earlier. In 2019, 628,898 legal induced abortions were reported to the CDC from 49 reporting areas.

If you are pro-life, the good news is that advocacy, sonogram images, women’s public discussions of their regrets about having an abortion, and better resources for pregnant women have cut the number of abortions roughly in half over the past 30 years. Use of birth control probably improved that number as well. Our declining birth rate, and some reports of declining sexual activity, have also likely played a role.

In Guttmacher’s 2017 numbers, 89 percent of U.S. counties have no known abortion providers. The states of Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and West Virginia each had one known abortion provider.

There is a perception that red states have few abortion providers and blue states have many, but that is not always the case. The same Guttmacher numbers found that Rhode Island has two; Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, and New Hampshire have four; Wisconsin has three; and Minnesota has seven.

We may not live in a pro-life country, but we live in a country where abortion is much rarer than it was a generation ago.

ADDENDUM: Some liberals really think Clarence Thomas is going to lead the charge against interracial marriage, huh?

Law & the Courts

‘Earthquake’ at the Supreme Court

Police officers walk outside the Supreme Court after the leak of a draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito in Washington, D.C., May 3, 2022. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

On the menu today: One of the biggest Supreme Court decisions in generations spurs one of the biggest Supreme Court scandals ever. The extreme emotional reactions to the expected decision to overturn Roe v. Wade are likely to overshadow the fact that the leaking of a draft written by Justice Samuel Alito will be “an earthquake” within the halls of the Court, destroying trust among the justices and their clerks.

Suddenly, the Supreme Court Can’t Keep Secrets

Was it inevitable that one of the biggest Supreme Court decisions in generations would spur one of the biggest Supreme Court scandals ever? Way back in December, our Dan McLaughlin asked, “If the Court is doing something as dramatic — and as upsetting to the sorts of people who clerk for the liberal justices — as overturning Roe, will it be able to keep that a secret for seven months?” Dan’s instincts were correct.

Until a Supreme Court decision is officially released, that ruling is secret. Everyone involved in the Court understands their solemn duty to respect the justices’ deliberation and writing process, and the importance of keeping the rulings under wraps until their official announcement. Leaking that sort of information is a violation of trust and of a Court employee’s duty.

Sure, when a big decision is looming, lots of folks in Washington always hear rumors. But because we never know when a rumor comes from a truly informed source or just from some schmo who wants to pretend he knows what is going on, those rumors are rarely consequential. Other than the justices and their clerks and a handful of Supreme Court staff, the entire country learns of the Court’s decisions at the same time. We can argue about whether the Supreme Court has too much of a mystique about it, but at minimum, justices should be able to deliberate behind closed doors, toss around ideas, argue back and forth, try to poke holes in the other justices’ arguments, and sort out their decisions without worrying that what they said last week is going to turn up on the Internet next week.

Back in 2019, when CNN reported that Chief Justice John Roberts had changed his mind on a decision about the U.S. Census, Supreme Court watchers lined up and told CBS News how these sorts of leaks almost never happened:

It’s “super rare” for something like this to happen, said Leah Litman, a University of Michigan law professor who clerked for Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

Such deliberations are steeped in secrecy and are subject to constant speculation from court watchers. That makes this new report illuminating not only for its content, but for the fact that insiders opened up to the outside world.

“One of the things the Court impresses on clerks the most is the clerks’ obligations of confidentiality,” Litman said. “Leaking the Court’s internal deliberations is just not something clerks do, and they know it.”

“Clerks are told to maintain secrecy about the workings of the Court, and they may risk harm to their careers by leaking information about specific cases,” said Matthew Tokson, a law professor at the University of Utah who clerked for Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David H. Souter. Some law firms pay U.S. Supreme Court clerks six-figure signing bonuses at the conclusion of their clerkship. . . .

“These statements are designed to publicly cast doubt on the Court, and the Chief Justice, to serve some ulterior purposes,” said South Texas College of Law Houston professor Josh Blackman. “Whoever is behind these leaks should carefully reconsider their actions. Deliberations should remain private.”

Do you know why the Supreme Court had so few leaks, decade after decade? Because the people who worked there have understood that they had a duty to something more important than their own sense of satisfaction. They knew that ensuring that the institution they worked for ran smoothly was more important than any brief thrill that came from leaking a secret. Unlike the people who worked in the White House or on Capitol Hill, Supreme Court employees ran a tight ship instead of running their mouths.

Apparently, that era is over. Somewhere in the Court, there’s some employee — or perhaps a justice! — who thought that they could alter the outcome of Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization by leaking a draft written by Justice Samuel Alito.

Monday night, Politico reported a bombshell:

The Supreme Court has voted to strike down the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, according to an initial draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito circulated inside the court and obtained by POLITICO.

The draft opinion is a full-throated, unflinching repudiation of the 1973 decision which guaranteed federal constitutional protections of abortion rights and a subsequent 1992 decision — Planned Parenthood v. Casey — that largely maintained the right. “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start,” Alito writes.

For some time after the initial report, some wondered if Politico had been duped by a fake draft. But it certainly looks and reads real enough, and if it was a fake, you’d figure that the Court — or at least one of Alito’s clerks — would have come out and said so quickly.

The New York Times noted that, “The release of the 98-page document is unprecedented in modern times. In the court’s modern history, early drafts of opinions have never leaked before the final decision is announced. And early drafts of opinions often change by the time the decision from the court is announced.” (Apparently, in the original Roe v. Wade case, a clerk informed a reporter about the decision “on background” ahead of time, with the understanding the reporter would only write about the case once the decision was announced. But the reporter wrote about it beforehand anyway, and a delay in the announcement of the decision meant that Time magazine had a story about the decision hours before it was public.)

Whether you like the overturning of Roe v. Wade or you hate it, everybody should loathe Supreme Court decisions getting leaked before the ruling is officially announced. As SCOTUSBlog tweeted, “It’s impossible to overstate the earthquake this will cause inside the Court, in terms of the destruction of trust among the Justices and staff. This leak is the gravest, most unforgivable sin.” The justices and their staffs don’t need to agree or always like one other, but they need to trust one other — and now they can’t do that.

And yes, whoever did this almost certainly had an ulterior motive.

Former Hillary Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon quickly envisioned his own preferred narrative: “Is a brave clerk taking this unprecedented step of leaking a draft opinion to warn the country what’s coming in a last-ditch Hail Mary attempt to see if the public response might cause the Court to reconsider? All Democrats need to show the same urgency as the clerk who apparently risked his or her career to sound this alarm. Those on the inside know best how broken the institution is. We should listen.”

If the leaker were so brave, he or she would have wouldn’t have chosen to remain anonymous; he or she would have owned the consequences of the decision to leak the draft.

But Fallon’s theory doesn’t feel all that farfetched. A left-leaning clerk or justice would have more incentive to leak the draft than a right-leaning one, in hopes that the impending decision would generate some sort of public backlash, and presumably hope that public pressure prompted one of the right-leaning justices to develop cold feet. And for what it is worth, almost immediately after the leak, several conservatives speculated that it had come from Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s office, although so far there is no proof.

Could a conservative clerk or justice have leaked Alito’s draft? Maybe, the vote had originally been 5-4 in favor of Alito’s position, and then one justice got cold feet and reversed his or her decision. But a subsequent report in CNN — I guess everybody is leaking about internal deliberations now — told a different story: “It appears that five justices would be voting to overturn Roe. Chief Justice John Roberts did not want to completely overturn Roe v. Wade, meaning he would have dissented from Alito’s draft opinion, sources tell CNN, likely with the court’s three liberals.”

As for the decision itself, the decision illustrates why the leak is so abhorrent. In our government, the role of the Supreme Court is to determine if a given law violates the U.S. Constitution. We, as citizens, are going to see Supreme Court decisions we agree with and decisions we disagree with — sometimes strongly. But we all agree to abide by those decisions. A person’s perspective on “judicial supremacy” — the notion that the Supreme Court gets the final say, and cannot be altered without a constitutional amendment or a subsequent decision overruling them — often depends upon how they feel about the Court’s decisions lately. But our acceptance of the Court’s authority isn’t supposed to flip on and off like a light switch, based on how we feel about the justices or the president who appointed them.

The importance of precedent is another concept that stretches or shrinks depending upon what the speaker thinks. Sometimes, the Supreme Court just screws up and reaches the wrong decision — Dred Scott v. Sanford, Plessy v. Ferguson, Korematsu v. the United States. Oftentimes, a Supreme Court should step carefully, and respect the precedent of past decisions, and every now and then a Supreme Court should look clear-eyed at the consequences of a decision and declare, “Nope, our predecessors screwed up. This was wrong. A proper interpretation of the Constitution points in the other direction.”

You may see abortion as an abominable crime. You may see it as a vital means of ending an unwanted pregnancy. Or, like many Americans, you may come down somewhere in the middle, believing human life begins before birth but perhaps not at conception; wanting exceptions for rape, incest, or the life of the mother; or finding sex-selective and partial-birth abortions barbaric without wanting to outlaw all abortions.

Whatever you believe, you should recognize that since 1973, pro-lifers have lived with a Court decision that, in their minds, legalizes murder. In the two generations since 1973, the U.S. has elected pro-life presidents and pro-life Congresses, as well as pro-choice presidents and pro-choice Congresses, and they have enacted a legislative tug-of-war about when, where, and why an abortionist may terminate a pregnancy.

But pro-lifers were told that electing pro-life presidents, governors, members of Congress, and state legislators wasn’t enough — that the practice that they saw as morally indistinguishable from murder must be allowed to continue, until a Supreme Court decision overruled Roe v. Wade. So over decades of effort, pro-lifers went out and did that — with a lot of setbacks. Under our Constitution, pro-lifers did what they were supposed to do — they supported judges who they believed would deem Roe v. Wade wrongly decided. Overturning Roe v. Wade does not ban abortion; it returns the decision of abortion’s legality back to the state legislatures. If this decision comes to pass, it is likely that many red states will ban abortion or strictly limit it, and many blue states will keep it legal. And some Americans may well vote with their feet.

But now someone on the losing side of this decision wants to reverse it before it’s official by generating so much public outrage that one of the five justices changes their mind.

ADDENDUM: Today is primary day in Ohio and Indiana. In the Buckeye state, J. D. Vance enjoys a narrow lead, but Matt Dolan appears to have a lot of late momentum.

In case you missed it yesterday, despite all of that federal spending, Washington, D.C., has the highest unemployment rate in the country. Meanwhile, remember that alleged polling boost for Biden in early March?

Economy & Business

President Biden Wants to Ignore Inflation

President Joe Biden speaks as he meets with Inspectors General in the State Dining Room in the White House in Washington, D.C., April 29, 2022. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

On the menu today: The news cycle is always busy, but there’s something strange about the way that inflation — a persistent, pressing problem that just about all Americans feel just about every day — falls out of the news cycle for days or even weeks at a time. Friday brought grim new numbers that didn’t make much of a ripple; maybe lots of Washington reporters were too busy getting ready for the White House Correspondents Dinner. Maybe it’s just that there’s not much new to report — “Bad inflation is still bad. Film at 11” — or maybe, like the Democratic officials they cover, a lot of reporters would prefer not to dwell on the issue that is currently crushing the Biden administration and congressional Democrats.

Why Inflation Isn’t Getting Any Better

If it doesn’t feel like inflation is getting any better . . . your instincts are right:

The core personal consumption expenditures price index, which measures costs that consumers pay across a wide swath of items and accounts for how behavior changes in response to market dynamics, increased 5.2 percent from a year ago, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

However, that was slightly below the 5.3 percent reading in February, which was the highest since April 1983.

Including volatile food and energy prices, the PCE index accelerated by 6.6 percent, the fastest pace since January 1982. Headline inflation was up 0.9 percent from February, much faster than the previous 0.5 percent increase.

A reduction of one-tenth of one percentage point in the rate of increase is not the sort of improvement that people are going to feel when they’re paying their bills. During his State of the Union address, President Biden said that, “Too many families are struggling to keep up with the bills. Inflation is robbing them of the gains they might otherwise feel. I get it. That’s why my top priority is getting prices under control.”

Not much has changed in the two months since that pledge, and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised; last July, Biden insisted that, “There’s nobody suggesting there’s unchecked inflation on the way — no serious economist.”

In remarks to small-business owners Thursday, President Biden did not use the word “inflation” or mention rising prices or supply costs. But he did call the 51-year-old administrator of the Small Business Administration “kiddo” and boast that, “Thanks to the economic strategy, more — more small businesses are being created, and small businesses are creating more jobs faster than ever before.”

Apparently, the Biden administration’s approach is to just insist that the economy is doing great and hope people believe it, despite their mounting frustration every time they buy groceries, out to eat, or fill up their tank. On the day President Biden took office, retail prices for gasoline averaged $2.38 per gallon. This morning, they are $4.19 — not all that different from the $4.20 they were a month ago.

(It is a near-ironclad rule that every time I refer to the national average gas price, some schmo on Twitter argues that the price he’s paying is much higher than that, or more often, some schmo on Twitter argues that the price he’s paying is much lower than that, and I am exaggerating the high price of gas because I am a remorseless right-wing hack out to smear the administration. The fact that I am using prices from AAA and the Energy Information Administration eludes them. The concept of a national average, and that it might differ from prices near them, is also apparently beyond the comprehension abilities of these MENSA candidates. Or, some schmo points out that the price in the photo accompanying the piece doesn’t match the price listed in the article, or that the gas station in the photo must be “mythical” even though there is a caption that states when and where it was taken. I know it will shock you, but my editors and I have access to a finite number of stock photos, and I suspect photographers at wire services and stock-photo companies are more interested in taking pictures with shockingly high prices listed. Yes, some places in California have wildly high prices, sometimes two dollars or more per gallon than the national average. God help you if you live in the San Luis Obispo metro area, where the average price of a gallon of regular gas is currently $5.95.)

By and large, Democrats just don’t want to discuss or acknowledge inflation — at least not in their campaign ads:

And as of Friday, [Ohio Democratic Senate candidate Tim] Ryan was one of seven Democratic candidates who have run ads this year that mentioned inflation, according to the media tracking firm AdImpact. By contrast, dozens of Republican candidates and allied groups have done the same. In polls, Americans have cited inflation as a top issue.

“Burying your head in the sand,” Mr. Ryan said, “is not the way to approach it.” Asked about the biggest challenges facing his party, he replied, “A response to the inflation piece is a big hurdle.”

To Democrats, inflation is like Bruno: We just don’t talk about it.

Yesterday, CNN wrote that, “Thankfully some analysts think that the burden could soon ease, and that we’ve reached an inflationary top.” Indeed, the Federal Reserve is expected to raise interest rates half a percentage point this week, which most economists think will help, at least a little. But there’s a big difference between inflation peaking and inflation not being a factor in voters’ minds. And a few days ago, Biden’s energy secretary, Jennifer Granholm, offered a realistically cautious sentiment that goes against the administration’s happy talk: “This is the 2023 budget, so, you know, some economists are suggesting that inflation is going to level off a bit, but it’s just so hard to know.” When prices are jumping month to month, it’s hard for a cabinet secretary overseeing a lot of construction projects to know how much those projects will cost when fiscal year 2023 begins on October 1, 2022.

There’s also still the fundamental problem of too much money chasing too few goods. George Leef described it succinctly on the Corner a few days ago:

When governments — going far back into history — want to spend more than they take in, they resort to currency debasement. The Romans put less and less silver into their coins so they could produce more of them. In Weimar Germany, the government printed up paper money in vast quantities, adding many zeroes to the number of marks each bill was worth. In modern America, the Fed creates money out of thin air to buy up government securities. The result never varies — each unit of money loses value, meaning that prices increase in general.

[Steve Forbes, Nathan Lewis, and Elizabeth Ames] explain how this works in clear English. They also make the important point that generally rising prices are an effect of inflation. The inflation is the excessive creation of money. That leads to rising prices as well as other bad consequences, including the distortion of investment, the loss of trust among economic actors, the erosion of savings, and heightened corruption.

In other words, there is no way a government can spend its way out of an inflation crisis. And yet that’s what Biden and his team want to do — forgiving student-loan debts, enacting $45 billion in new spending on climate change, throwing around the idea of having the IRS send every American gas cards, and so on. Biden’s reflex is to throw money at a problem — but when the problem is too much money and too few goods, that’s like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.

In a typical non-pandemic year — let’s say 2018 — the U.S. government spent $4.1 trillion. In 2020, federal expenditures leapt to $6.5 trillion, and in 2022, they’re estimated to be at $7.2 trillion. Deficits that had been a thoroughly unpleasant $779 billion to $981 billion per year ballooned to a mind-boggling $3.1 trillion to $3.6 trillion per year. If you throw that much money into the U.S. economy that quickly, without a parallel increase in goods produced, you get inflation.

If you want to stop inflation, stop throwing more money into the economy!

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore point out that “a little inflation is good for an economy” never seems to pan out:

First, inflation is a double whammy on Americans’ salaries and lifetime savings. The demand-siders are wrong. Their argument is that Mr. Biden’s multitrillions of government spending and welfare programs are putting more money into people’s pockets that is translating into higher consumer demand, which means higher corporate profits.

This argument isn’t panning out. In the past 12 months workers have seen the purchasing power of their paychecks decline by 3 percent — a faster pace than at any time in at least a decade. For shareholders, those frothy profits that companies have been reporting may be illusory. Over the past year stock markets have fallen slightly in nominal terms, but when adjusted for inflation the values are down more than 10 percent.

With poll after poll showing that inflation is foremost in voters’ minds, you would think that the president would be holding regular events focused on the problem and showcasing what his administration is doing to solve it.

Not seeing much of that, are you?

ADDENDUM: In case you missed it yesterday, Department of Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas insisted that Nina Jankowicz is “absolutely” politically neutral; the easily overlooked Disney executive who donated $10 million to help President Trump in the 2020 election cycle; and which governments around the world are most in denial about their Covid-19 deaths.

White House

The Biden Administration’s Skewed Priorities

President Biden meets with small business owners at the White House Complex in Washington, D.C., April 28, 2022. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

On the menu today: One of the many, many reasons that the Democrats appear headed to a shellacking in the coming midterms is which issues command this administration’s attention. Democrats may not love the idea of tougher and more extensive enforcement of border laws, but they’re living with the consequences of a relentless surge in migrants, while the Democratic focus on forgiving student loans is the top priority of so few Americans that Gallup has a hard time finding anyone who holds that belief. Meanwhile, New Hampshire Democratic senator Maggie Hassan tries to reinvent herself as a border hawk.

The Border vs. Canceling Student Loans: What the Biden Team Prioritizes

Over in The New Republic, Daniel Strauss writes a piece with the headline, “Republicans’ Midterm Play: Scare Up Another Border Crisis.”

The thing is, though, the Republican Party doesn’t need to “scare up” a border crisis; there really is an actual, genuine border crisis that is apparently hard to see from the offices of The New Republic. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol encounters with migrants at the southwest border jumped dramatically in March 2021, and have stayed high ever since.

If you live near the border, you probably think about illegal immigration and the consequences of it every day, or at least frequently, because you often see those consequences. If you live in other parts of the country — say, the well-off suburbs of a major northeastern city — you probably think about illegal immigration and the consequences of it much less frequently, or perhaps not at all. Our Carine Hajjar recently wrote a lengthy and detailed piece for the print magazine about life in Val Verde County, Texas, after riding along with border-patrol officials for a week:

Last month, Customs and Border Protection had 209,906 encounters — both expulsions and apprehensions — with migrants at the southern border. That number breaks a 22-year record. In March 2000, 98 percent of illegal immigrants were Mexican nationals. Last month, a record-breaking 39.5 percent were “long distance” migrants, meaning they were not from Mexico or Northern Triangle countries. Migrants far and wide are receiving a clear message: It’s easy to enter the U.S. illegally. And that message will only be reinforced by the termination of Title 42 in May. A Trump-era limit on asylum, Title 42 was invoked by the CDC in 2020 to mitigate the spread of Covid. The Biden administration has clung to it as its only remaining form of border control. But with the pandemic waning, it has become harder for the Biden administration to justify keeping Title 42. Without it, there will be a deluge. The Department of Homeland Security is preparing for up to 18,000 daily encounters.

“What we’re getting coming through here are the prior deports and criminals that have zero chance of ever getting any kind of asylum or paperwork to stay,” says a Kinney County officer while checking on Harris Ranch, where owner John Sewell manages over 30,000 acres with the help of his friend Jim Volcsko. The officer, who wished not to be named, mentions rape, aggravated robbery, and aggravated sexual assault of a child. Volcsko, a former CBP agent, chimes in: “There’s a lot of pedophilia.”

A trooper from the state’s department of public safety joins the conversation as we sit on the back porch of the ranch house: “For the most part, it’s all males. . . . They’re smuggling mostly people” (as opposed to drugs). Sewell speaks of an “unprecedented flow” in the last year. Just this morning, he had 15 migrants walk through.

Hajjar calls the current policy and circumstances at our southern border inhumane. “The lesson of all this suffering is clear,” she writes. “To have a truly humane border, and a system that keeps both migrants and Americans safe, there must be order.” The current chaos and widespread human trafficking isn’t good for the illegal migrants, they aren’t good for our border-patrol officers, and they aren’t good for our law-abiding legal immigrants and native-born citizens. It all seems to be working out pretty darn well for the coyotes and human smugglers, though.

Any commander-in-chief and White House staff worth their salt would look at the current U.S. border and see it as a dire and pressing crisis — particularly for a man who pledged “a presidency for all Americans.” Instead, there is a Mr. Magoo-like blindness, charging ahead with a policy that even loyal Democrats think could spell disaster. Senator Maggie Hassan (D., N.H.) seemed to suddenly remember that she’s facing reelection in six months and taped a video in front of the border fencing calling for more border-fencing construction. Back in 2018, she was not particularly enthusiastic about building additional border fencing:

Constructing a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border may not be the best barrier against the influx of drugs into Lawrence and New Hampshire communities, Sen. Maggie Hassan told reporters Monday.

Following a visit to both sides of the border last week, Hassan discussed the U.S. and Mexican governments’ efforts to stop drug cartels and the ferrying of drugs into the Granite State.

“In different situations, a physical barrier may be appropriate. There may be something they need first before that,” the senator said. “It is really clear from talking from to our border patrol agents that we need more tools are our disposal at the border to combat flow of drugs. We need more border patrol personnel, first and foremost, and we more infrastructure like roads for them to get to different portions of the border faster.”

It’s amazing what Senate Democrats discover in reelection years, huh?

Last week, Axios offered an unnerving report that even Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has privately told members of Congress he’s concerned with the Biden administration’s handling of its plans to lift Title 42 on May 23. Publicly, Mayorkas says Title 42 will end as scheduled.

You may have noticed that President Biden doesn’t talk about the southern border or migrants much. He discussed it briefly in the State of the Union Address, but on those rare occasions when he discusses illegal immigration, he prefers to focus on his plan to “allow undocumented individuals to apply for temporary legal status, with the ability to apply for green cards after five years if they pass criminal and national security background checks and pay their taxes. Dreamers, TPS holders, and immigrant farmworkers who meet specific requirements are eligible for green cards immediately under the legislation. After three years, all green card holders who pass additional background checks and demonstrate knowledge of English and U.S. civics can apply to become citizens.” Whether or not Biden is willing to call this policy an amnesty, it allows people who entered the country illegally to escape criminal prosecution and deportation and eventually become citizens. The prospect of amnesty is one of the factors that makes migrants in Central America conclude that trying to sneak across the border is worth the risk.

Contrast how the Biden administration sees illegal immigration, which worsened after it had been on the job for a month or two, to how the administration sees the issue of forgiving student loans.

The Atlantic’s Jerusalem Demsas, formerly of Vox, offers a surprisingly clear-eyed piece on who worries about student debt and how high a priority it is for them:

Just 13 percent of the country carries federal student debt. Gallup frequently asks Americans what they believe is the most important problem facing the country today. According to the Gallup analyst Justin McCarthy, the pollster is unable “to report the percentage of Americans who have mentioned student debt or student debt cancellation because it hasn’t garnered enough mentions to do so.” In 2022 so far, he told me via email, Gallup has conducted four polls on the question and “just one respondent mentioned this as the most important problem facing the nation.”

And then Demsas offers this particularly astute observation:

Advocates of debt cancellation are trying to build a coherent narrative for why a diverse coalition, many of whom have never attended college, should be in favor of forgiveness.

College-educated voters are not just dominant within the Democratic Party; they also dominate the media and, naturally, academia — two institutions that have significant power over what issues are brought to the fore. Importantly, academia and media have also become notoriously unstable work environments lacking sufficiently well-paying jobs. The demographics and precarity of these fields are likely playing a role in the prominence of the student-loan-forgiveness debate.

Illegal immigration isn’t often on the minds of the Democratic Party’s chattering class, so the administration pays it intermittent attention. But repaying those student loans looms heavily in the minds of the Democratic Party’s chattering class, so that policy proposal gets pushed to the forefront. Demsas notes that this proposal is akin to certain Democrats’ support for lifting the cap on the state and local tax deduction, a move that would primarily benefit upper-middle-class and wealthy suburbanites in places such as California, New York, and New Jersey. As racially diverse as the Democratic Party is, the party’s agenda is largely set by economically comfortable professionals in media, academia, certain corners of corporate America, and government workers.

ADDENDUM: In case you missed it yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security announced plans for a “Disinformation Governance Board,” and you are forgiven if you read the name and initially thought it was a board designed to govern the Biden administration’s disinformation.


The Dangers of a Desperate, Hostile Russia

Pro-Russian troops load ammunition into an armored personnel carrier during fighting in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, April 12, 2022. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

On the menu today: As the reports of its atrocities against Ukrainian civilians pile up, the Russia before us today is both less frightening and more frightening than the one our diplomats thought they knew as recently as last year. The Russian military is now revealed to be “undisciplined rabble,” and we now know that its fearsome reputation was built on lies and propaganda. But a losing, humiliated Russia is a desperate, hostile entity, now openly talking about “demilitarizing NATO,” and that a nuclear strike is more likely than not.

Meanwhile, back here in the U.S., the risk of recession is very, very real.

The End of One Russia, the Birth of Another

Last spring, when the Russian invasion of Ukraine was still just an unusual buildup of troops at the border, President Biden declared that he wanted a “stable, predictable” relationship with Russia. As recently as October, Putin used similar terms to characterize the U.S.–Russia relationship: “Putin said Russia’s relations with the Biden administration have been ‘quite constructive’ and he personally has developed ‘working, stable relations’ with President Joe Biden.”

And that, in the eyes of many foreign-policy thinkers, was reasonable; Putin’s Russia was difficult but rational, a former great power that still commanded considerable influence around the globe, and a potential ally to the U.S. on arms control, fighting terrorism, and other issues. Last July, John Kerry, Biden’s special envoy on climate change, spoke with Putin for an hour and called the Russian leader “very forthcoming and thoughtful” about ways to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. “We can continue to feel the kind of cooperative possibility that emerged in the course of our conversation,” Kerry said.

Today, that perspective sounds unspeakably naïve. That vision of Russia as ornery but rational was always a polished public-relations illusion, meant to lull conflict-averse Western leaders into a false sense of security.

After the Bucha massacre, the use of cluster munitions near a preschool where civilians were sheltering, airstrikes hitting public squares, the Mariupol-theatre airstrike, the Mariupol-maternity-hospital airstrike, the two mass graves near Mariupol, the airstrikes on civilians lining up for food in Cherniv, the “deliberate killings, unlawful violence, and widespread intimidation against unarmed civilians across the Kyiv region,” the forced deportation of at least 500,000 Ukrainian citizens from Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine to Russia, the rape and impregnation of Ukrainian women as young as eleven, and so many other utterly indefensible horrors, only the most eagerly self-deluded have any illusions about the true Russia anymore.

The Russian army is brutal, dumb, sadistic, disorganized, poorly trained, and often incompetent. Its troops are the nastiest of bullies against the defenseless, but wilt in the face of organized resistance.

In the third month of the invasion of Ukraine, Russia looks both less scary and scarier than before. Russia is less scary because, clearly, its military forces are nowhere near as fearsome and capable as their reputation suggested. The Economist offers an anecdote about how the recent training successes of the Russian military were mostly smoke and mirrors:

Organizing NATO’s biggest military exercise since the Cold War kept Admiral James Foggo, then the commander of American naval forces in Europe and Africa, busy in the summer of 2018. Trident Juncture was to gather 50,000 personnel, 250 aircraft and 65 warships in the European Arctic in October. As logistically taxing as that sounds, it was small fry compared with what Russia was planning in Siberia in September. The Vostok exercises would be the biggest since the Soviet Union’s mammoth Zapad drills of 1981, boasted Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister: they would involve 300,000 troops, 1,000 aircraft and 80 warships.

This was a huge feat. “It was a big lift for us to get 50,000 people in the field,” recalled Admiral Foggo recently. “How did they do that?” The answer, he eventually realized, was that they did not do it. A company of troops (150 at most) at Vostok was counted as a battalion or even a regiment (closer to 1,000). Single warships were passed off as whole squadrons. This chicanery might have been a warning sign that not everything was as it seemed in the Russian armed forces, even before they got bogged down in the suburbs of Kyiv.

“It’s not a professional army out there,” said Admiral Foggo. “It looks like a bunch of undisciplined rabble.”

Perhaps we should be using the past tense when discussing the Russian military, because that army is a lot smaller than it was when the war started:

Russia has also lost more than 3,000 pieces of large equipment in battle, according to Oryx, an open-source intelligence tracker. The tally includes more than 500 main battle tanks, 300 armored fighting vehicles, 20 jet fighters and 30 helicopters.

Russia in recent years has produced around 250 tanks and 150 aircraft annually, according to Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. That means Ukrainian forces in two months have destroyed the equivalent of at least two years of Russian tank production.

The U.S. believes Russia overall has lost roughly one-fourth of the combat force it initially had to invade Ukraine, a senior Pentagon official said last week, without providing details.

Tanks can be replaced, but the dead cannot be resurrected; this week, the U.K. Ministry of Defense estimated that 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed during the war so far. In a little more than two months, Russia’s military has suffered about half as many combat deaths as the U.S. military did in the three-year Korean War.

Despite the best propaganda efforts of the state, some Russians can see that what was supposed to be a quick and clean “special military operation” to decapitate the current regime in Kyiv and turn Ukraine into an obedient client state has turned into a long, ugly, bloody, and expensive slog that is just trying to grab some territory. And for those Russians most emotionally invested in the reputation of their country’s military, this invasion has brought little beyond epic humiliation:

In a viral rant posted by YouTuber and Spetsnaz special forces veteran Alexander Arutyunov, whose channel Razvedos has almost 18 million views, Arutyunov slammed the pivot to the eastern Donbas region.

He asked Putin directly: ‘Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich, please decide, are we fighting a war or are we masturbating?

But Russia is more frightening because Putin has marched his regime and country into a desperate situation. He thought this invasion would end with him guaranteed to be remembered by Russians as the second “Vladimir the Great.” Now, he’s on course to be remembered as the most spectacularly reckless and self-destructive European leader since Adolf Hitler. Russia will be economically ruined, diplomatically isolated, globally denounced, and militarily neutered . . . all for a few stretches of bombed-out land on the other side of the pre-war border.

The worse the situation gets, the less Vladimir Putin has to lose. The stability of his regime and perhaps even his life are on the line.

Russian state media are now characterizing the invasion of Ukraine as a war with NATO — and considering all the aid that NATO countries are sending, all the intelligence the U.S. is sharing, and how the U.S. is helping Ukraine shoot down Russian planes, it’s not the most unreasonable assessment in the world.

God only knows whether the ranting and raving buffoons on Russian state television should be interpreted as just venting rage and frustration, or whether it is actually a deliberate choice to prepare the Russian public for coming military moves. But the rhetoric is getting bizarre and disturbing, talking about the need for a special military operation to “demilitarize NATO,” that NATO is “a collective Hitler,” that a nuclear strike seems probable, and that “we’re all going to die someday.”

If Russian state media are reflecting the current thinking of Putin and Russian leadership . . . then they are wrestling with the question of whether it is better to live with the abject humiliation in Ukraine or to salvage some sense of “honor” by using nuclear weapons. In the glow of a mushroom cloud, Putin and his acolytes can tell their countrymen that they have wiped out the so-called threat, once and for all.

Whatever happens next, the Russia we knew, or thought we knew, throughout much of the post–Cold War period is now long gone. What remains is something closer to a territorially giant North Korea with a much larger nuclear arsenal — paranoid, irrational, illogical, unpredictable, with serious questions of whether the leadership is getting accurately briefed on any issue. Not only is a “stable and predictable” relationship with Putin’s Russia now impossible, it is unlikely that U.S.–Russia relations will thaw for at least a decade.

ADDENDUM: Back on October 25, after listening to a grim assessment by Kevin Hassett, I asked, “Is the U.S. Economy Headed toward a Recession?” When the fourth quarter GDP numbers showed terrific growth of 7 percent, more than a few Biden administration defenders enjoyed dunking on that warning, contending that it was ignorant, knee-jerk, right-wing talk downplaying the thriving economy under a Democratic president. But earlier this month, I noted that other economists now worried loudly that a recession was near.

A recession is traditionally defined as two consecutive quarters of the country’s gross domestic product shrinking. This morning: “The U.S. economy shrank at a 1.4 percent annual rate in the first quarter, the Commerce Department said Thursday, its first contraction since early in the pandemic.”

That’s one. How does this current quarter feel, economically?


Biden’s Plan to Punish the Responsible

President Joe Biden speaks during a video conference from an auditorium on the White House campus in Washington, D.C., January 3, 2022. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

On the menu today: President Biden is on the verge of rewriting a longstanding social contract by deciding that taxpayers should repay significant portions of student loans, instead of the borrowers who took out those loans and received the education. The biggest beneficiaries would be white Americans under the age of 40 who have graduate degrees and live in high-income, majority-white neighborhoods — in other words, extremely online Democrats. Biden’s Hail Mary pass for the coming midterms is a massive wealth transfer from taxpayers to the Democratic Party’s activist class, and that will exacerbate the already-bad inflation crisis.

The President’s Terrible Student-Loan-Forgiveness Plan

If you borrow money and sign a contract promising to pay it back, then you must pay it back, or you will suffer serious long-term financial consequences. Or at least, that’s the way it used to work until Democrats decided they could win a lot of votes by just waving a magic wand and declaring that people didn’t have to pay their student debt back.

Sure, you could always find some smarter-than-usual jerk who hid certain assets, declared bankruptcy, and walked away from massive debts with limited impact on his lifestyle. For the overwhelming majority of Americans, however, the system was not particularly pleasant, but it was clear and fair: If you take out a loan to buy a house, you must pay it back over time, with interest. If you take out a loan to buy a car, you must pay it back over time, with interest. If you take out a loan to pay for a college education, you must pay it back over time, with interest. You signed a contract. You knew the terms going in — or at least you were supposed to know them. You’re supposed to read the documents you sign. You knew the payments you were going to have to make and when you would have to make them. If you don’t want to deal with the financial pressure of debt, don’t take out the loan.

Joe Biden is on the verge of crossing out that part of the social contract with a red pen and declaring that taxpayers will pay back those debts instead — or at least a significant chunk of them for his preferred demographics:

The president shared his plans during a 90-minute White House meeting Monday with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, participants in the exchange tell CBS News. The move could affect more than 43 million borrowers who hold more than $1.6 trillion in federal student loan debt, the second-largest debt held by Americans, behind mortgages.

Rep. Tony Cardenas, Democrat of California, who attended the meeting, said the president is open to forgiving debt for college students regardless of whether they attended a public or private institution.

Cardenas said he reiterated to Mr. Biden that the Hispanic Caucus supports executive action that would forgive at least $10,000 in college debt if Congress can’t pass legislation doing so.

In response, Cardenas said the president “smiled and said, ‘You’re going to like what I do on that, I’m looking to do something on that and I think you’re going to like what I do.'”

The federal government has postponed repayments of student loans seven times since the start of the pandemic; no one has been required to pay back a student loan since March 13, 2020. Interest rates on those loans during this period dropped to zero, and collections on defaulted loans stopped.

The total outstanding balance for federally owned student loans — including the defaults — in December 2021 was $1.38 trillion.

A study from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York determined a lot about who would benefit the most from Biden’s proposal:

  • Forgiveness of $10,000 per borrower would forgive a total of $321 billion of federal student loans, eliminate the entire balance for 11.8 million borrowers (31.1 percent), and cancel 30.5 percent of loans delinquent or in default prior to the pandemic forbearance.

  • Sixty-seven percent of student loan borrowers are under 40, however only 57 percent of balances are owed by those under 40, showing that those with larger balances are more likely to be older (likely due to borrowing for graduate school). Under each of the considered policies (forgiveness at the $10,000 or the $50,000 level, with and without income caps), over 60 percent of forgiven loan dollars benefit those under 40 years old.

  • Despite being 25 percent of the population, borrowers who live in high-income neighborhoods hold 33 percent of federal balances, while borrowers residing in low-income areas hold only 23 percent of balances.

  • Under a $10,000 forgiveness policy, 33 percent of forgiveness would go to majority minority neighborhoods while 67 percent would go to majority white neighborhoods.

  • Increasing the forgiveness amount increases the share of total forgiven debt for higher credit score borrowers and those living in richer neighborhoods with a majority of white residents.

In other words, without an income cap, forgiving $10,000 per borrower would most benefit whites under the age of 40 who have graduate degrees and live in high-income, majority-white neighborhoods. This is one of the most Democratic-leaning and outspoken progressive demographics in the country.

This is a wealth transfer from taxpayers to the Democratic Party’s Twitter class. (Then again, judging from the rapidly changing follower numbers in just the past day or so, maybe these people are leaving Twitter now that Elon Musk owns it.)

If you paid back your student loans in recent years, there is a good chance you were a chump. You paid money that Uncle Sugar was going to come along and cover if you had just waited. You should have spent that money on other things you would have enjoyed and defaulted on your payments, waiting for the federal government to come along and say, “Don’t worry, the taxpayers have this covered.”

If you currently owe a lot on your mortgage, your car payments, your home-improvement loans, or any other loan, and you’re diligently and responsibly making your monthly payments . . . well, you are kind of a sucker, too, because you borrowed money that you had to pay back, instead of taking part in Joe Biden’s free-money program.

At the beginning of the month, when Biden extended the moratorium on repaying student loans until September, he released a statement declaring that, “We are still recovering from the pandemic and the unprecedented economic disruption it caused. If loan payments were to resume on schedule in May . . . millions of student loan borrowers would face significant economic hardship.”

What Biden ignores is that the moratorium on repaying student loans is exacerbating the “unprecedented economic disruption.” Inflation represents too much money chasing too few goods; consumer demand is high, and supply is low, thanks to pandemic disruptions, supply-chain issues, etc. One of the reasons consumer demand is so high is because no one has had to make a student-loan payment in two years!

As the New York Times observed earlier this month:

The administration’s decision to extend the student loan moratorium through Aug. 31will keep money in the hands of millions of consumers who can spend it, helping to sustain demand. While the effect on growth and inflation will most likely be very small — Goldman Sachs estimates that it probably adds about $5 billion per month to the economy — some researchers say it sends the wrong message and comes at a bad time. The economy is booming, jobs are plentiful and conditions seem ideal for transitioning borrowers back into repayment.

Apparently, President Biden’s philosophy is to borrow and spend whatever it takes to get inflation under control. He keeps throwing larger and larger piles of money at the public and then stands in befuddled confusion, wondering why inflation keeps getting worse.

For what it is worth, polling suggests that public opinion on this is jumbled. When Morning Consult asked people about it in early April, 19 percent said that the federal government should forgive all student-loan debt for all Americans; 13 percent said it should forgive all student-loan debt for lower-income Americans; 16 percent said it should forgive some student-loan debt for all Americans; 16 percent said it should forgive some student-loan debt for lower-income Americans; and 29 percent said it should not forgive student-loan debt at all.

Americans are a generally sympathetic and charitable lot, but they think you should repay at least some of the debt you owe, and if the government is going to help people, the aid should focus on those with the lowest incomes. If you can afford to pay back your debts, you should do that instead of expecting the taxpayer to do it for you.

The same survey found that 80 percent of respondents said they didn’t have any student-loan debt, and that 8 percent said they had $20,000 or less in student-loan debt.

This is one of the bad consequences of this White House and Democrats facing a “red tsunami” of a midterm-election year. If Biden and his party are going to get wiped out no matter what they do, why shouldn’t they just do what they want, regardless of the political fallout and long-term economic and social effects?

ADDENDUM: As noted on yesterday’s Three Martini Lunch podcast, if totally not-a-Democrat (even though he’s endorsed by the state Democratic Party) Utah Senate candidate Evan McMullin really means what he says about not caucusing with either Democrats or Republicans should he be elected, then he won’t be assigned to any committees. The number of seats on each committee is negotiated by the two parties, and neither party will give up a seat for one of their members just because McMullin wants one.

Also . . . on the first vote of the year, for Senate majority leader, is McMullin really going to just vote “present”?


Are Polls Signaling the Return of Donald Trump?

Former President Donald Trump gestures during a rally to boost Ohio Republican candidates ahead of their May 3 primary election, at the county fairgrounds in Delaware, Ohio, April 23, 2022. (Gaelen Morse/Reuters)

On the menu today: Did you know that since the beginning of the year, six polls have shown Donald Trump with a narrow lead of two to six percentage points over Joe Biden in hypothetical rematches in 2024? Another had a tie, one had Biden up one, and another had Biden up three. All in all, that suggests that if Republicans renominate Trump in 2024, he could well pull a Grover Cleveland and win the presidency again, even with all his baggage. Meanwhile, Netflix has a lot of problems, but there’s little evidence that Barack Obama and his schlocky documentaries are driving away the streaming service’s subscribers.

The Return of Donald Trump

Since the beginning of 2022, in hypothetical head-to-head matchups against President Biden, Donald Trump has enjoyed a narrow lead of two to six percentage points in the national public-opinion surveys of Insider Advantage, Harvard-Harris (three times), and Emerson (twice). Trump and Biden tied when the Wall Street Journal pollsters asked about the hypothetical matchup.

If you’re wondering whether these surveys reflect a particular public antipathy toward Joe Biden, the Harvard-Harris survey also asked about a hypothetical Trump-Kamala Harris matchup, and found Trump leading, 47 percent to 41 percent this month.

(One of the few polls to show a Biden lead in this matchup this year was one conducted by The Federalist and Susquehanna Polling and Research, and I think it’s just terrible how the gang over at The Federalist are always tearing the former president down and never giving him a fair shot.)

Yes, there is a lot of time between now and Election Day 2024, and even before any Republican casts a ballot in the 2024 nominating process. It is conceivable that this current moment is, if not a high-water mark for Trump, then a near-ideal set of circumstances for him. The flaws of Trump and troubles of his presidency are fading into memory, while the flaws of Biden and the troubles of the current presidency are vivid and fresh. The Covid-19 pandemic is now largely a memory, while Americans confront the problems of inflation, high gas prices, and high food prices every time they go shopping, fill up their tanks, or buy groceries.

Being banned from Twitter meant Trump’s metronomic nonsensical eruptions about the 2020 election being stolen are getting less attention than they otherwise would. For what it is worth, Trump recently said that even if Elon Musk invited him to return to Twitter, he will turn down the invitation and remain on “TRUTH Social,” telling Fox News he will “begin TRUTHing next week.” “TRUTH Social” launched February 21 but has been beset by all kinds of tech problems.

It is entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that when a pollster asks, “If the 2024 election for president were held today and it was between Donald Trump, the Republican, and Joe Biden, the Democrat, who would you vote for?” many respondents hear, “Are you happy with the way things are going, or would you like to see a change?” In most, but not all, of the polls I cited above, Trump’s personal approval rating is still low. But a slim majority of Americans may conclude that they prefer the problems of the last guy to the problems of the current guy.

This is also an indication that the January 6 Commission, the various potential criminal investigations into Trump, and the blisteringly critical post-Trump memoirs are proving largely irrelevant to people’s opinions about the former president. It feels like we’ve been seeing “Trump could face criminal indictment” and “the walls are closing in” headlines for years, but the cases never seem to pan out.

Michael Cohen recently told The Daily Beast:

The New York lawyer Trump used for years as his family company’s trusted consigliere, told The Daily Beast he’s already wasted too much of his time on a case that slowly and then suddenly doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Prosecutors only have until the current grand jury’s term expires on April 30 to issue charges, at which point they must ask jurors who’ve already done this for six months to continue hearing evidence — or call the whole thing off and awkwardly make the entire presentation all over again in front of another 23 jurors.

If this grand jury is let go, Cohen won’t play ball. Asked if he’d be willing to sit down again with investigators or testify at a future trial against Trump, Cohen responded with utter exasperation.

“The fact that they have not done so despite all of this. . . . I’m not interested in any further investment of my time,” he said.

I’ll let you pause to compose yourself, to cope with the shock that Michael Cohen might suddenly turn his back on someone who trusted him and counted on him; it is indeed so out of character for the man.

Democrats are grumbling that Merrick Garland is fumbling the ball; law professor Kimberly Wehle warns that, “If Garland refuses to push back on the abuses of the Trump years by engaging in what would be an admittedly risky gamble to save democracy, all that stands in the way of a future presidential crime spree is, by process of elimination, a trust in future voters’ good and informed judgment —and a system of free and fair elections by which to effectuate it.” I guess the fear is that if Trump isn’t prosecuted, he could . . . steal the election.

But the numbers we’re seeing should be a giant flashing neon sign for Trump’s biggest fans and his biggest foes: The former president can win a general election in 2024, and he wouldn’t need any rigging to do it. (Yes, yes, the Electoral College determines the winner, not the national popular vote, but if Trump were to win the national popular vote by two to six percentage points, he would be extremely likely to reach at least 270 electoral votes.)

This isn’t a guarantee that Trump will win the 2024 election, just an observation that the public is forgetting why they didn’t vote to reelect Trump in 2020, and those memories are being replaced with outrage over runaway inflation, supply-chain problems, an insecure border, the debacle in Afghanistan, and so on.

A recent Washington Post article offered a brutal and arguably tasteless assessment from an unnamed “Democratic political adviser who remains close to the White House,” who said of Biden and his team, “There is as much a plan to win the midterms as there was to airlift Afghans out of Kabul.”

On the day of the next presidential election, Joe Biden will be almost 82 years old, and he’s likely to have presided over yet another brutal midterm-election cycle for his party. Biden looks tired, his mind wanders, and he tells farfetched and unverifiable stories that no one believes. He tells Americans that things like the border, inflation, and the Taliban won’t be a problem, and then the truth blows up in his face. Ordinarily, the right response would be to have the vice president take over, but even her closest allies are calling her time as vice president a “slow-rolling Greek tragedy.” Kamala Harris doesn’t bring any of the traditional strengths to the position of vice president. She doesn’t have many good or close relationships in the Senate, she’s a foreign-policy neophyte — credit her own staff for telling the press that — and her policy strengths as a prosecutor are duplicated by Garland’s experiences.

Democrats are in a lot more trouble than they’re willing to acknowledge.

Barack Obama and Netflix

Regarding yesterday’s Morning Jolt, a reader griped:

“The most telling executive decision Netflix made over the past five years was awarding Barack and Michelle $50 million (Martha’s Vineyard dough) “to produce television shows and films.” You recall the Obamas, don’t you — those executive producers of a melodramatic presidency?

Apparently you don’t, since NR’s article on the Netflix swoon failed even to mention its Obama-woken programming mistake.”

The Obamas signed their deal with Netflix in May 2018. It’s more than fair to ask if Netflix executives are getting their money’s worth from projects like American Factory (2019), Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (2020), Becoming (2020), Worth (2021), and Our Great National Parks (2022). But because the drop-off in subscribers only started in the first three months of 2022, it is tough to plausibly argue that lack of renewals since January is a very, very delayed reaction to the Obama deal or lack of interest in the Obama projects. Much like the justified fury over Cuties, not every piece of bad news for a streaming service can be traced back to the programming you particularly dislike.

As for the notion that the $50 million deal with the Obamas is financially endangering Netflix, keep in mind that that sum equals roughly one and two-thirds Stranger Things episodes, if the Wall Street Journal’s recent reporting is accurate.

Yes, a lot of the Obama Netflix programming is syrupy, propagandistic pap, but that’s not really the source of Netflix’s headaches these days. I think we do ourselves a disservice if we instantly latch onto the belief that whatever we dislike most must be the preeminent problem.

Get woke, go broke? Eh, maybe. Some people are willing to take a financial loss to promote their worldview or values. But get woke and make bad financial decisions on top of that, and then you definitely go broke.

ADDENDUM: In case you missed it yesterday, after 460 days in office, Joe Biden nominated an ambassador to Ukraine; I’m pretty sure Elon Musk is good for the money; and when you see analysts arguing that House Republicans won’t enjoy a year like 1994 or 2010 this year, remember that they’re starting from the high bar of 209 seats, compared to 176 seats in 1994 and 179 seats in 2010. There are just fewer House Democrats around for Republicans to beat this cycle.

Film & TV

The Stranger Things about the Sudden Netflix-Subscriber Drop

From the Stranger Things Season 4 official trailer (Stranger Things/Screengrab via YouTube)

On the menu today: How did Netflix, the company that more or less invented the modern streaming service, suddenly lose 200,000 subscribers when it expected to gain 2.5 million new subscribers? Meanwhile, Biden cabinet officials finally visit President Zelensky in Ukraine; and asking why the Chinese government did not prioritize vaccinating the elderly against Covid-19.

What’s Happening with Netflix?

This newsletter doesn’t often dip its toe into business news, but every once in a while, something in the business world occurs that it so fascinating and eye-catching that it requires us to sit up and take notice.

The company that more or less invented the streaming service, Netflix, just tripped over a rock and landed hard — announcing it had lost 200,000 subscribers in the first quarter of 2022, when the company expected to increase 2.5 million subscribers for that period — and is now forecasting a loss of 2 million paid subscribers around the globe for the second quarter.

You usually have to look at the Biden administration’s economic projections to find a miss that big.

Netflix’s first, and most consequential, explanation is that, “suspension of its service in Russia and the winding-down of all Russian paid memberships resulted in a loss of 700,000 subscribers. Excluding that impact, the company said it would have seen 500,000 net additions during the most recent quarter.”

In some ways, Netflix was one of the companies that benefitted the most from the pandemic lockdowns, and with the pandemic ending, their programming now must compete with “real life.” Back in 2017, Netflix CEO and cofounder Reed Hastings boasted that, “You get a show or a movie you’re really dying to watch, and you end up staying up late at night, so we actually compete with sleep . . . and we’re winning!”

Maybe the world is catching up on that lost sleep. More likely, Americans are now free to travel, gather in groups, throw parties, attend sports events and conferences, and enjoy life in-person again instead of vicariously through a screen. Audiences are returning to movie theaters in fits and starts. We’re collectively spending less time sitting on our couches this year, and that’s a good thing, even if it’s not good news for Netflix.

I don’t have many friendly acquaintances in Hollywood, but one of them told me this weekend that a big problem Netflix faces is that the company’s decision-making is driven almost entirely by algorithms. As the Netflix Technology Blog laid out December 2020:

Executives throughout the entertainment industry have always consulted historical data to help characterize the potential audience of a title using comparable titles, if they exist. Two key questions in this endeavor are:

  • Which existing titles are comparable and in what ways?
  • What audience size can we expect and in which regions?

Machine learning and statistical modeling can aid creative decision makers in tackling these questions at a global scale. The key advantage of these techniques is twofold. First, they draw on a much wider range of historical titles (spanning global as well as niche audiences). Second, they leverage each historical title more effectively by isolating the components (e.g., thematic elements) that are relevant for the title in question.

How would you like to be a screenwriter or producer who gets told, “All of us flesh-and-blood humans love your show idea, but the algorithm says it won’t work”?

Obviously, this algorithmic approach generates its own share of hits and misses for Netflix. It doesn’t take a genius or a particularly complicated algorithm to determine that an action-comedy in which Ryan Reynolds does Ryan Reynolds things, Dwayne Johnson does Dwayne Johnson things, and Gal Gadot does Gal Gadot things is likely to be popular. But running show-creation proposals through an algorithm probably ensures you’ll get shows and movies that are like shows and movies that were hits in the past — not necessarily new creations that are bold, unusual, or surprising.

Then again, Netflix brought Squid Game to American audiences, and it’s hard to believe that a dark, bloody, heartfelt, socially satirical Korean-language action series looked like a safe bet. Maybe that algorithm can spot diamonds in the rough, after all.

But as my friendly acquaintance observed, in the old network-television days, sometimes a network head would fall in love with a show even if the test audiences didn’t get it and roll the dice on an unusual proposal. And we’ve all seen great shows that started with a subpar pilot or even a rough first few episodes, as the creative team and cast get the feel for the characters. The old human-taste-driven process of show and movie approval was probably more subjective and unpredictable, but it at least it left the door open a crack to something dramatically new and different from what had come before.

I had another theory that my friendly acquaintance concurred could be a minor factor in Netflix’s troubles.

Your mileage may vary, but from where I sit, Stranger Things is fantastic — probably the best show Netflix offers. (As another indicator of Hollywood’s collective difficulties in spotting a concept that will be a hit: Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer “were rejected 15 to 20 times by various networks, while other execs had balked at the idea that the show featured four kids as lead characters but that it wasn’t TV for children.”) As noted in the discussions of CNN+, Stranger Things is the kind of show that makes a customer more easily justify the decision to pay for a subscription — it’s unique (or at least it was when it debuted), it cultivated a passionate fan base, and it isn’t available anywhere else.

And the production process behind Stranger Things’ fourth season has been . . . well, severely challenged. The first season was released in July 2016, the second season was released in October 2017, and the third season was released to serious acclaim — okay, Daniel Payne didn’t like it as much as the previous seasons — on July 4, 2019. Fans had grown accustomed to a new season every 15 to 20 months. The first “teaser” trailer for season four came out way back in . . . February 2020.

And then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, halting production; filming didn’t resume until September 2020. Once it was safe to resume filming, the cast and crew faced a gargantuan amount of work; the Duffer brothers’ plans for season four were considerably larger than previous seasons: “nine scripts, eight hundred pages, almost two years of filming, thousands of visual effects shots, and a runtime nearly twice the length of any previous season.” The first half of season four will finally arrive on May 27.

The result is a gap of nearly three years between seasons, and I figure Netflix’s not having a new season of its flagship show for that long of a stretch can’t be helping its subscriber numbers. Also, Thursday’s Wall Street Journal offered an eye-popping figure suggesting that the show’s budget had exploded: “Under-the-radar, relatively low-cost hits are necessary to balance out the costs for big-ticket programming such as the special-effects-filled show “Stranger Things,” whose new season has a per-episode cost of $30 million, according to people close to the show.” For perspective, HBO’s Game of Thrones was costing $15 million per episode by the end of its run. No doubt inflation and perhaps even labor shortages and supply-chain problems are factors, but that’s just a gargantuan sum.

This weekend, Holman Jenkins of the Journal observed that Netflix stands out among the big streaming companies because it isn’t just a piece of a larger conglomerate:

Diffidently, as if embarrassed to cite it, [former Disney CEO] Bob Iger pointed to competitors who don’t need to make money from streaming. “There is no question that deep-pocketed technology companies, Apple being a great example, Amazon being another. . . . I don’t want to suggest their [streaming affiliates] are loss-leader businesses, but they are in those businesses for other reasons.”

Mr. Iger’s Disney is itself a diversified entertainment conglomerate, with many ways of making money that Netflix lacks, from its theme parks and merchandising to its ad-supported cable, streaming and broadcast TV networks.

In other words, Apple TV+, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Disney+ are all parts of much larger companies that make money outside of subscriptions to their streaming service. Paramount+ is part of Paramount Global, which is the new name of ViacomCBS, which owns more than 170 television networks broadcasting in more than 100 countries. HBOMax is part of the new mega-conglomerate Warner Brothers Discovery.

Netflix, which doesn’t run advertising, makes money on subscription fees, and it still has that DVD-rental service, which made $200 million in 2020 — half what it made in 2018. Disney can withstand a lousy quarter or two for Disney+ if its theatrical releases, theme parks, and merchandise are selling well. For Netflix, subscribers are what keep the company going.

Oh, and you don’t have to look far on social media to find people interpreting a drop in subscribers in the first quarter of 2022 as a backlash to Netflix’s decision in to release Cuties back in September 2020. As much as Netflix deserved a backlash to the simply atrocious decision-making in that film — as I wrote at the time, “In order to make a movie that denounces the cultural trend of sexualizing girls at an inappropriate age, they chose to film a scene that sexualizes girls at an inappropriate age” — it is very difficult to believe that people outraged about that film nearly two years ago just got around to canceling their subscriptions now.

ADDENDUM: In case you missed it, over the weekend, the Biden administration finally sent some cabinet members to Ukraine — long after a lot of European heads of state and high-ranking officials had already visited Zelensky in Kyivand I asked why the Chinese government didn’t prioritize vaccinating the elderly.


How Covid Closures Took a Toll on Kids

Students sit in the classroom in San Antonio, Texas, January 11, 2022. (Kaylee Greenlee Beal/Reuters)

On the menu today: Schools have been open since September, but life in the nation’s classrooms is a long way away from back to “normal.” Today’s Jolt takes a deep dive into the lingering social, psychological, and emotional consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic on our kids.

The Pandemic’s Aftermath for Kids

At the start of this school year, one of my best friends started a new job at an elementary school that taught kindergarteners through fifth graders. After a few months, he said that the third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade kids were terrific, but that he was having all kinds of discipline issues — oftentimes just the basics, like getting the kids to understand that they were supposed to stop talking when the teacher was talking — in the kindergarteners, first, and second graders. And he pointed to a reason I hadn’t immediately realized: For a lot of the second graders, this was the first time they had been inside a classroom because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

By March 25, 2020, all public schools in the United States closed because of the pandemic, but some started earlier — Ohio closed all schools on March 12. In my neck of the woods, that was the last normal day; schools were closed Friday the 13th because the school district wanted to plan its response . . . and then they were closed for a week, then two weeks, then a month, and then for the remainder of the school year. They reopened two days a week in March and April 2021, depending upon grade level, and expanded to four days a week in April 2021. So for my kids, it was about a year without in-person schooling, and the spring of 2021 was a long, slow process of reopening school doors and getting kids back into classrooms. When kids returned to school this August and September, for most, it was the first time they had been in a classroom, five days a week, in a year and a half.

A frightening thought is that because it’s hard to remember much before age three or four, the five-, six-, and seven-year-olds of today have little or no memory of life before the pandemic; to them, what we’ve been enduring is “normal.”

I thought of my friend’s observation the other day when I heard from a wise educator who observed that a lot of kids, in terms of social development, are two years behind where they normally would be, at all kinds of ages. While the second graders haven’t been in school before, the pattern continues up the grade levels. The middle-schoolers are acting like elementary-school kids, and the high-school teenagers are acting like middle-school kids. When you take the normal hormonal and mood swings of teenagers, give them bigger, getting-to-be-adult-sized bodies, add stress, and subtract one to two years’ worth of socialization and figuring out how to deal with problems and conflicts, you get something as potentially explosive as nitroglycerin.

Since the kids returned full-time, schools — from New Jersey to California, from Missouri to South Carolina, from Georgia to Oregon — are grappling with all kinds of discipline issues. As one principal described, “In the first nine weeks of school, we had more physical aggression in terms of fights than we probably had in the last maybe three or four years combined.” Some veteran teachers contend that the discipline problems started before the pandemic, but I doubt any would dispute that two years away from classrooms, routines, seeing their teachers in-person, and seeing their peers in-person has retarded their development.

And here’s the catch in school discipline policies: Some infractions are serious enough to easily justify suspending a student; indisputably, if a child or teen is a physical threat to other students, you have to remove that student, at least for a time. But if the disciplinary consequence takes the student from school for a period, that’s just re-isolating the teen again. Some school districts are concluding that the problems are because they’ve been too lenient and will be expelling students for infractions; others are asking if they want to suspend a student for vaping, because it’s better to keep the teen in the classes. A lot of states are debating what discipline policies are appropriate and work best.

Many of us frustrated by the lengthy school closures were enraged by a statement we found far too dismissive and even callous: “Kids are resilient.” (The great Mary Katharine Ham tore this apart back in January.) All too often, that was a blasé slogan designed to excuse an intolerable status quo.

Our kids aren’t necessarily resilient, and we didn’t like having their need to be resilient shoved upon them by teachers’ unions who kept dragging their feet on reopening schools and public-health officials who deemed birthday parties, travel, summer camps, visiting grandparents, etc. an intolerable risk.

But . . . by the time our kids head out into the world, whether it’s to college, trade school, the armed services, or something else, we want them to have acquired a certain amount of resilience. We want to protect our kids, but we don’t want to overprotect our kids. It’s a fine line, and it probably varies from child to child. But before they leave the nest, we want them feeling and knowing that, “I can handle what life throws at me.”

There’s a catch-22 when you’re a parent: You want to ensure that your child avoids making terrible mistakes, but you also want them to learn to overcome adversity — and adversity is often a consequence of terrible mistakes. (Tony Robbins gives an ironic and succinct summary: “Success is the result of good judgment, good judgment is the result of experience, and experience is often the result of bad judgment!”)

If you think back to the worst times in your life — those classes you struggled with, the teacher who always seemed to be on your case, the bully who tormented you, the boss who constantly berated you, the job you hated, the heartbreaking end of a relationship, the stinging professional setback — you probably cringe or feel stress just thinking about it. But you also probably look at those times as a force that absolutely shaped you into the person you are. You didn’t want that experience, but that was the furnace that forged the steel in you. Those horrible times are when you’ve learned how to handle adversity, how to overcome a tough setback, how to be stoic in the face of misfortune. You wouldn’t want to relive it, but you wouldn’t want to give up the lessons those hard times taught you — particularly what you learned about yourself through it. Nobody feels good about themselves when they’ve done something that is easy; we feel pride when we’ve accomplished something difficult.

There’s a good chance you’ve encountered someone — [COUGH] millennials [COUGH] — who strikes you as far too fragile and whiny and who collapses at the first sign of something going wrong. Maybe you know someone who earned that derisive nickname “snowflake,” who is delicate and melts at the first sign of stress, pressure, or heat.

A lot of people love this quote from the Rocky sequel, Rocky Balboa:

“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place and it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.”

The Covid-19 pandemic was — and to the extent that it’s not yet completely over, is — awful, a long and painful ordeal unlike anything else we’ve experienced in our lives. Living with it was like peeling an onion of bad news — there was always some new layer of grief and frustration to discover. The kindly old man down the street passed away. Your child’s school’s “distance learning” software is glitchy. You’ve got to hold a parent’s birthday party over Zoom. Your favorite restaurant shut down. The governor doesn’t want you going to religious services. You’re worried about that elderly relative in a nursing home. Your vacation is canceled. You’re putting on weight because your gym is closed. You can’t go to the movies. You can’t gather with family during the holidays like you used to and can’t enjoy your mother-in-law’s turkey at Thanksgiving. As someone described it early on, “It was as if life had been reduced to nothing but Wednesdays.”

In fact, I wonder if kids’ through-the-roof anxiety levels — and heck, lots of adults’ through-the-roof anxiety levels — are because the pandemic was so far outside of the range of “normal” challenges. Many of us have lived through 9/11; we’ve watched in shock and horror at school shootings like Columbine; lived through economic challenges like the Great Recession; witnessed car wrecks, crime waves, natural disasters. . . .

But none of those terrible events shut down our lives and separated us from our loved ones for months on end. The pandemic wasn’t the apocalypse, but those images of empty city streets and highways did seem like something out of an end-of-the-world movie. (And if you’re living in, say, Shanghai right now, maybe you feel like you’ve been suddenly transported to a sci-fi dystopia.)

There’s little good that came out of this pandemic. But maybe living through all this — and the jagged, rocky, uphill climb to re-socialization — will be the furnace that forges the steel of our kids.

ADDENDUM: In case you missed it yesterday, CNN+ had a grand opening . . . and less than a month later, a grand closing. In the end, CNN+ didn’t offer anything sufficiently unique. As I noted earlier this month, this streaming service didn’t have a programming equivalent of The Mandalorian or Stranger Things or Bridgerton — something really popular that couldn’t be seen anywhere else. It is hard to imagine what CNN could offer that would be akin to that. Maybe the work of Clarissa Ward in Afghanistan and Ukraine over the past year is the most compelling, jaw-dropping, must-watch television journalism that CNN has done in a while. But I’m still not sure people would subscribe to a separate streaming service just to watch it.

White House

Democrats’ ‘Smart Power’ Has Yet to Live Up to Its Name

President Biden meets with military leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., April 20, 2022. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

On the menu today: Bloomberg News reports that a “small but growing number of senior Kremlin insiders” increasingly “share the fear voiced by U.S. intelligence officials that Putin could turn to a limited use of nuclear weapons if faced with failure in a campaign he views as his historic mission.” President Trump’s former national-security adviser, Robert O’Brien, lays out options for deterring the use of a tactical nuclear weapon. And once again it seems fair to ask: Wasn’t the Democrats’ much-touted “smart power” supposed to generate better results than this?

Mixed Signals on Putin’s Tactical Nukes

In a world full of frightening problems, this one really grabs us by the lapels and demands our attention: the risk of an increasingly desperate Putin ordering the use of one or more tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. This newsletter looked at the issue back on March 16 and again on Monday, and I was hoping developments in the Russian invasion would make this concern start to look more like paranoia.

The week has brought some mixed signals. On Tuesday, an unnamed “senior defense official” held a briefing — I know, an unnamed source holding an on-the-record briefing — and downplayed the threat:

I would just tell you that we’ve seen no indications that the use of nuclear weapons is in play or is imminent in any way. We watch this as closely as we can every single day. And as you’ve heard me say before, we’re confident that we — that we have the right strategic deterrent posture in place to defend the homeland and our allies and partners from nuclear weapons. We just see no indication that there’s any potential imminent use here.

You would like to think that 70 years or so of Cold War tensions would have made the U.S. military and spy agencies really, really good at watching for signs of movement in the Russian nuclear program.

But yesterday, Bloomberg News reported that a “small but growing number of senior Kremlin insiders . . . increasingly share the fear voiced by U.S. intelligence officials that Putin could turn to a limited use of nuclear weapons if faced with failure in a campaign he views as his historic mission.”

The problem is that the worse the war goes for Russia, the less Putin has to lose by using a tactical nuke. Sure, a mushroom cloud over a Ukrainian city seems unthinkable right now. But a full-scale Russian invasion once seemed unthinkable, bombing cities and innocent civilians once seemed unthinkable, and the slaughter of Bucha residents once seemed unthinkable. Putin seems to spend a lot of time thinking about the unthinkable.

And some of the more vocally anti-Russian European leaders think that if Putin used a nuke on or above Ukrainian soil, their more dovish colleagues might be eager to cut a deal. Former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik-Ilves told the Daily Beast that, “A whole slew of them might immediately sue for peace, cave to the Russians. Germany would likely lead the crew.”

Russian military doctrine holds that you could escalate to deescalate — in other words, that faced with an overwhelming conventional military threat that you could resort to a first use of tactical or low-yield nuclear weapons,” declared CIA director William Burns in his remarks at the Georgia Institute of Technology. (I recently learned that some folks get irked if you call the school “Georgia Tech,” even though everyone in the world calls them by that name, their website is gatech.edu, and that’s the name on their website!) Burns continued:

Given the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership, given the setbacks that they’ve faced so far militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons. We don’t, while we’ve seen some rhetorical posturing on the part of the Kremlin, about moving to higher nuclear alert levels, so far we haven’t seen a lot of practical evidence of the kind of deployments or military dispositions that would reinforce that concern. We watch for that very intently. [Emphasis added.]

Robert O’Brien, who was President Trump’s national-security adviser from 2019 to 2021, is also worried about this scenario, and he wrote in the Wall Street Journal yesterday:

Today, after nearly two months of heavy combat in Ukraine, Russia appears to be losing. The dramatic sinking of the Moskva, flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet, is only the latest setback to befall Vladimir Putin’s forces. With dark irony, a commentator on Russian state-controlled media denounced the sinking as an act of war and urged Moscow to “bomb Kyiv” in response.

If Ukrainian forces push Russia out of the Donbas and even Crimea, there would be no way for Mr. Putin to hide Russia’s humiliating loss from its people. If such an outcome became likely, would he use one of his thousands of “tactical” or “battlefield” nuclear devices to take out Kharkiv, Odessa or even Kyiv in an attempt to save face and end the war on terms he dictates? This possibility is surely on the minds of President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and his staff.

The time is now to deter Russia from “escalating to de-escalate.”

O’Brien isn’t pulling a Chris Coons and calling for American troops to be deployed to Ukraine. He lists several options that the U.S. could use as consequences for Russia’s detonating a nuclear weapon, including “entirely dismantle all pipelines used to transport Russian oil and gas to the West, quashing even the hope of future sales to Europe,” and “advise all non-Western nations, including China, that purchasing Russian oil would result in massive punitive tariffs by the U.S., Japan and the European Union.” (He also calls for airstrikes to wipe out the Iranian nuclear program; a mushroom cloud on Ukrainian soil would make an Iranian bomb too much of a risk to tolerate.)

But O’Brien also proposes two potential military options outside of Ukraine: “Clear the Russian navy’s two remaining Slava-class cruisers, their escort ships and submarines from the Mediterranean” and “eliminate Russian air and military assets in Syria and Libya on the same basis.”

A lot of what Russia has done on the nuclear front lately — conducting a test launch of a new intercontinental ballistic missile*, talking about deploying nuclear weapons near its borders with Finland and Sweden and in the Baltic Sea — can be dismissed as the usual saber-rattling.

But Ukraine is different. In Putin’s eyes, using a tactical nuke might be the move that makes the most sense here — his version of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a strike so devastating that it forces the enemy to surrender on terms favorable to Moscow and intimidates the rest of Europe for a long while. Sure, Russia would pay a terrible economic and geopolitical price, but Putin will have restored svyataya Rus’ — “Holy Russia” — and be remembered as Vladimir the Great — or at least that’s how he likely thinks he will be remembered.

The Kremlin’s state-run television is speculating on-air that Great Britain is preparing a nuclear strike against Russia. Russia’s justification for the invasion of Ukraine was that the drug-addicted Nazis represented an intolerable imminent threat. What future act down the road is the Russian propaganda machine looking to justify now?

As we contemplate the potential use of nuclear weapons by a territorially expansive, aggressive superstate that answers solely to the messianic whims of a dictator, I am reminded of Barack Obama, John Kerry, and other prominent Democratic elected officials boasting of their philosophy of “smart power” — which keeps leading to strategic disasters and mass death in places such as Syria and Afghanistan. (These people can’t even label a foreign-policy approach without reminding us of how highly they think of themselves.) It is a recurring pattern: A Democratic challenger declares that in the realm of foreign policy, a Republican president is a unilateralist cowboy surrounded by stumblebums who can’t get anything right and that it is time for a smarter, more sophisticated Democratic replacement to come in and fix everything. And then, after a year or two in office, those Democratic officials admit that the world is complicated and messy, and achieving U.S foreign-policy goals is extremely difficult.

This administration is particularly troubled by the disconnect between the rhetoric from the president — “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power!” “Yes, I called it genocide. It has become clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to wipe out the idea of even being . . . being able to be Ukrainian” — and what its actual policies are.

*Upon hearing that the newest Russian ICBM is called the “Satan 2,” I was going to invoke the Mitchell and Webb “Are we the baddies?” sketch. But it turns out that “Satan 2” is the Western nickname for the missile; the Russian name is the “РС-28 Сармат” or “Sarmat,” which is named after the Sarmatians in the ancient world — who are not the Samaritans.

ADDENDUM: Faiz Shakir, who still serves as a close political adviser to Bernie Sanders, says that the Vermont senator has not ruled out a presidential campaign in 2024.

On September 8, 2023, shortly before the first Democratic presidential primaries, Sanders will turn 82 years old. Sanders would likely face stiff challenges from either Biden or Kamala Harris, the Republican presidential nominee, and the actuarial tables.

White House

The Era of Masking Ends

People wearing masks walk in Hollywood Blvd in Los Angeles, Calif., March 29, 2021. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

On the menu today: Tuesday brought another example of President Biden telling reporters his policy is “X,” only for the administration to later clarify that his policy is “not X,” demonstrating yet again that the country is led by a commander in chief who does not speak for his own administration. Meanwhile, the country is down to just a few institutions that still require masks, and the New York Times realizes that China’s official statistics on the Covid-19 pandemic don’t make any sense.

Will Someone Please Tell Joe Biden What His Actual Policies Are?

Let us begin by observing that, once again, what President Biden says his policy is does not turn out to be the actual White House policy.

From the account of Sebastian Smith, White House correspondent of Agence France-Presse, who was the White House pool reporter for Biden’s trip to New Hampshire yesterday:

Motorcade arrived at New HampshirePort Authority at Portsmouth Harbor at 2:01 pm. This is a windswept facility alongside a bridge and featuring a lot of orange trucks.

A handful of folks outside the entrance of the facility waved signs including but not limited to: “Trump won” and “Let’s go Brandon.” A man yelled “take your mask off” though it wasn’t clear whom he was addressing as the president had long passed.

POTUS is getting a briefing in infrastructure ahead of giving remarks.

As he passed by pool, he was asked if Americans should be wearing masks. He replied: it’s “up to them.”

Then, later that day:

The Justice Department announced on Tuesday that it will appeal a federal judge’s ruling that overturned the Biden administration’s mask mandate for air travel and public transport.

If the administration is seeking to reinstitute the mask mandate on air travel and public transportation, then the decision to wear a mask isn’t “up to them” as Biden said. It would be nice if the president’s morning briefings could offer him updates on what he thinks on issues like this.

Perhaps when Biden said it’s “up to them,” he was merely “speaking from the heart” again, which is the White House communications-staff code for “Grandpa is confused. Don’t pay any attention to him. What he said doesn’t mean anything.”

The Last Outposts of the Mask Mandate

Last weekend, I was in D.C.’s Southwest waterfront neighborhood and was about to enter the local Politics and Prose bookstore, when a sign on the door window stated that it required all customers to wear masks.

The store said it reinstated the requirement of masks for customers because “the CDC has changed DC’s Covid-19 Community Level rating from Green/Low to Yellow/Medium reflecting an uptick in Covid-19 cases in Washington, DC.”

There is indeed an uptick, but it looks particularly mild compared to the rest of this year. First, some perspective: The District of Columbia’s population is 718,000 or so, and that doesn’t count the visiting tourists and the roughly 480,000 people who commute in from the suburbs each weekday. That means, without tourists, about 1.2 million people are in the city each weekday; weekends bring fewer commuters but more visitors in for day trips, museums, the cherry blossoms, etc.

The daily average of new cases in the District has increased from 60 per day in late March to 222 per day now. As of last week, an average of 69 people were hospitalized with Covid-19; for perspective, that figure peaked at 850 hospitalized Covid-19 patients back in early January. The city currently averages one Covid-19 death every five days.

Back on March 1, the District stopped requiring masks in restaurants and bars, sports and entertainment venues, gyms, houses of worship, businesses, grocery stores, retail establishments, and city-government offices. But businesses that wished to continue their mask mandates were free to do so.

Around the waterfront, I’d say a small but noticeable minority of people chose to wear masks.

Even though I browse just about every bookstore I encounter, I chose not to enter Politics and Prose. The store offers masks, but I just didn’t want to bother. Just across the Potomac River in Virginia, plenty of bookstores are fine with customers browsing without masks.

Every store employee in the country has had ample opportunity to get vaccinated and boosted, and they are free to wear masks themselves. I’m vaccinated, boosted, and have had Covid-19. My body’s got as much protection against Covid as it’s going to get. I’ve been shopping without a mask for a long while now — spring 2021? At this point, putting on a mask feels like catering to someone else’s hypochondria. As of two weeks ago, shopping in Politics and Prose without a mask was safe. Very little has changed in the case numbers.

The proprietors are free to have the store mask policy that they prefer, and I’m free to shop elsewhere. Considering my severely limited ability to resist the temptation to buy a book when I’m in a store, the store’s masking policy probably cost it a sale — and I suspect the proprietors are just fine with that. They’re willing to lose certain customers in exchange for feeling the assurance of a mandatory masking policy. Hey, it’s a free country.

But I would note that since the Omicron wave peaked in mid January and ended in early March, Americans have witnessed and participated in big gatherings at NBA, NHL, college basketball games, Mardi Gras, Saint Patrick’s Day parades, concert festivals like Coachella, and weekly religious services. At the Oscars, people were more frightened of Will Smith than of catching Covid-19. You notice that you haven’t heard about those events being “experiments in human sacrifice,” as The Atlantic magazine famously characterized the state of Georgia when it allowed barbershops to reopen.

Few of those events have turned into super-spreaders, although it appears the Gridiron Dinner in Washington did indeed spread the virus around. But as far as we know, everyone there was vaccinated — and considering the health consciousness of Washington elites, they were likely boosted at least once, perhaps more than once — and people recovered. A Covid-19 outbreak among people who are vaccinated and boosted, and/or who have natural immunity from a previous infection, is not a life-threatening matter. Maybe the calculation changes if a person is elderly, immunocompromised, or has some serious comorbidities. Those who fit into those categories will have to make their own decisions on how much risk they are willing to accept. (As we have all learned over the past few years, isolation brings its own threats to good health.)

It’s an exaggeration to say everyone’s caught Covid-19 by now. But a lot of us have. According to the CDC, about 80.5 million Americans have had it; Worldometers puts the total at a bit more than 82.4 million Americans. Because not everyone goes to a doctor if they test positive at home, those numbers are undercounts. And now, more than 82 percent of Americans over the age of five have at least one shot of a Covid vaccine.

Why is Omicron not spreading like wildfire the way it did in January? Because “everybody” already caught it this winter and now has antibodies to fight it off. The virus has fewer and fewer places to go.

As always, if you want to wear a mask, you can. But it was never reasonable to expect your fellow citizens to wear masks for years and years.

As the Omicron wave passed, and as society opened and took off the masks again, some institutions are destined to be the last holdouts. We’re all getting a lesson in which level of government has authority over which institution. The Federal Aviation Administration controls airports and airplanes, but Philadelphia International Airport is keeping its mask mandate because of a local ordinance. New York City’s subways, buses, and commuter rail are keeping the mask mandates.

But those places are already outliers in the daily life of Americans. And Americans who are fed up with masks, and who have the option of avoiding them, will seek out alternatives. It makes no sense that it is safe to travel without a mask in certain large airports and not in others, or on New Jersey Transit but not on New York City subways.

New York Times: Hey, China’s Covid-19 Figures Seem Oddly Low

Today’s New York Times:

China typically classifies Covid-related deaths more narrowly than many other countries, labeling some chronically ill patients who die while infected as victims of those other conditions.

It may never become clear how many similar stories there are. China does not release information on excess deaths, defined as the number of deaths — from Covid as well as other causes — exceeding the expected total in a given period. Public health scholars say that figure more accurately captures losses during the pandemic, as countries define Covid-related deaths differently. . . .

The outbreak there has revived questions about the true toll of Covid in China, which has officially reported fewer than 5,000 deaths from the coronavirus in two years. . . .

When the Omicron variant started coursing through Shanghai in March, some looked, with trepidation, at the example of Hong Kong. The curve of Shanghai’s infections was closely tracking that of Hong Kong’s own huge outbreak. Both cities have large older populations, many not fully vaccinated. Hong Kong’s Covid death rate had soon become the world’s highest, with around 9,000 fatalities.

But a month later, Shanghai — more than three times as populous as Hong Kong — has recorded only 17 Covid deaths.

No shinola, Sherlock.

Sometimes, I cannot believe the grief I took for arguing that the Chinese figures on Covid-19 deaths were insanely implausible. There are some people who are extremely emotionally invested in the perspective that the Chinese government is a sharp-elbowed but ruthlessly effective alternative to the West, and offers a stark contrast to the messy, disorganized, fractious, or even chaotic United States. We’ve got our problems, but the Chinese self-image is largely a myth; the regime combines sadistic brutality with incompetence, a “CYA” attitude, and chronic, perpetual, ubiquitous, brazen dishonesty.

ADDENDUM: Every now and then Kevin Williamson’s weekly newsletter, The Tuesday, reminds me to offer a roundup of Jim-related links:

You can find my books — which include the satirical novel The Weed Agency; the nonfiction ode to work, marriage, and parenting Heavy Lifting; and two thrillers featuring the CIA’s Dangerous Clique — here. Watch this space on news for book three in the thriller series.

To listen to the Three Martini Lunch, go here.

To subscribe to National Review, which you really should do, go here.

To support the National Review Institute, go here.


The Media’s Dirty Secret about GOP Coverage

Left: Senate candidate JD Vance campaigns in Boardman, Ohio, February 16, 2022. Right: Senate candidate Mehmet Oz speaks at a campaign event in York, Pa., February 5, 2022. (Gaelen Morse, Hannah Beier/Reuters)

On the menu today: A liberal New York Times columnist laments that Republicans in Ohio and Pennsylvania can choose between the President Trump-endorsed J. D. Vance and Mehmet Oz “or a half-dozen alternatives without reality-TV careers.” It seems like a particularly disingenuous complaint, since I figure if you were really troubled by celebrity candidates, you would bother to learn the names of at least one or two of the alternatives. For more on all the GOP Senate candidates in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Georgia as well, read on.

The Media’s Not-So-Secret Love for GOP Celebrity Candidates

I think New York Times columnist Gail Collins said a lot more than she realized yesterday when she offered a recent summary of the Ohio and Pennsylvania Republican Senate primaries:

I guess we should move on to politics for a bit. Next month there’ll be big Senate primaries in places like Ohio — where Republicans will have to choose between the newly anointed Trump favorite J.D. Vance of “Hillbilly Elegy” fame and a bunch of noncelebrities — and Pennsylvania, where they’ll have the option of selecting Trump’s man, Dr. Oz of Oprah fame, or a half-dozen alternatives without reality-TV careers.

Those non-celebrity, and non-reality-TV-star Republican senatorial candidates may be a lot better or more qualified, but Collins can’t be bothered to learn any of their names. She chuckles that “the Republican Party is going to become the Home for Unwillingly Retired Entertainers” but doesn’t bother to tell readers anything about any of the other options. Too much work! Too much effort!

And these two states don’t lack for other options: In Ohio’s GOP Senate primary, there are state senator Matt Dolan, businessman and Trump campaign state-finance co-chair Mike Gibbons, former state treasurer Josh Mandel, Ohio GOP chair Jane Timken, and two candidates running well behind, Mark Pukita and Neil Patel. All of them are running against the better-known, and now Trump-endorsed, J. D. Vance. Vance is in the odd position of being the now-Trump-endorsed candidate in a crowded primary, after allegedly saying Trump might be “America’s Hitler” back in 2016.

While Trump’s endorsement is likely to help, Collins couldn’t even be bothered to mention the polling frontrunner, at least for now. According to RealClearPolitics, only the Trafalgar Group has released a poll this month, and it shows Mandel at 28 percent, Vance at 23 percent, Gibbons at 14 percent, and Dolan at 12 percent. Back in early March, Fox News showed Gibbons leading the pack at 28 percent, Mandel at 20 percent, Vance at 11 percent, and Timken at 9 percent.

There is no threshold for a runoff; all a nominee must do is get the most votes when they’re all counted after the May 3 primary. Note that Ohio has an open-primary system, so a voter does not have to register with the Ohio Republican Party beforehand to vote in that party’s primary. The Ohio Democratic Senate primary is not expected to be competitive, with congressman and short-lived presidential candidate Tim Ryan likely to win easily.

Pennsylvania’s GOP Senate primary is relatively crowded, too, with Oz; veteran, former Treasury Department official, and Bridgewater Associates CEO Dave McCormick; African-American conservative commentator and former Army reservist Kathy Barnette; President Trump’s ambassador to Denmark and Greenland, Carla Sands; former GOP lieutenant-governor nominee Jeff Bartos; and former Pennsylvania State Boxing Commissioner and attorney George Bochetto and attorney Sean Gale seemingly well behind.

McCormick enjoyed a small but fairly consistent lead in the relatively sparse polling, but the latest Trafalgar Group survey put Oz ahead by three points.

In Pennsylvania, only registered party members can participate in a political party’s primary election. The Democrats have a Senate primary that once looked like it might have been competitive among lieutenant governor John Fetterman, U.S. congressman Conor Lamb, state representative Malcolm Kenyatta, and progressive activist Alexandria Khalil, but Fetterman now appears to have a substantial lead in the polls.

(Notice that I’m providing links to all the candidates’ campaign sites, so if you want to know more about them, I’m enabling you to do that!)

Collins didn’t mention Georgia GOP senate candidate and football legend Herschel Walker, but she would probably lump him in with the other celebrity candidates. And no doubt about it, Walker is way ahead in polling of the primary and enjoys a small (within the margin of error) lead against incumbent Democrat Rafael Warnock in hypothetical head-to-head matchups. (When you are arguably the greatest college football player of all time, lead the University of Georgia Bulldogs to the national championship in 1980, and win the Heisman Trophy in 1982, a lot of Georgians will remain eternally grateful.)

But other GOP Senate candidates do exist in Georgia, in the form of state agriculture commissioner Gary Black, former state representative Josh Clark, U.S. Air Force captain and entrepreneur Kelvin King, and former U.S. Navy SEAL and director of Intelligence Programs on the National Security Council, Latham Saddler.

Lots of people in the left-of-center mainstream media fume about shallow, uninformed celebrity candidates and how these fame addicts aren’t truly committed to doing the work of being a legislator, and then give all their attention and airtime to shallow, uniformed celebrity candidates.

All these non-celebrity candidates have a story to tell, and a lot of them have some significant accomplishments outside of the world of politics and government. Yes, newspaper pages and television airtime are finite resources and not every polling-at-5-percent-or-less longshot candidate can get, or deserves, a lot of earned media. But this is why you see these longshot candidates making YouTube videos of themselves giving away AR-15 rifles. Maybe some of these candidates are genuine clowns who belong in a circus, or maybe they’re responding to the incentive structure of a media environment that prioritizes and celebrates circus clowns. When’s the last time anyone called your attention to candidates who have published a detailed and realistic series of policy white papers, spelling out their specific legislative agenda with clarity and an astute understanding of how the government works?

Collins sure as heck isn’t going to do that. She isn’t genuinely concerned that the Republican Party is too enamored with celebrity candidates. She has just heard about Vance and Oz, and that’s what’s shaping her perception of the party. For all her complaining about celebrity Republicans, she likes that their names are easy to remember.

Few Democrats or left-of-center media voices have any genuine preferences among competing Republicans; most left-of-center media voices just want every Republican primary to turn into a demolition derby. (Collins also refers to the “the pro-choice faction of the Republican Party,” and . . . I’m sure there are a bunch of openly pro-choice Republicans still around, but “the faction” has not been a major factor in GOP politics in a long, long time.)

As it stands, I’m generally not a fan of celebrity candidates, because they tend to dramatically underestimate the difficulty of campaigning, governing, or both. I don’t live in Ohio, Pennsylvania, or Georgia, and the decision of who to nominate in those states will be decided by Republicans who live there.

But from where I sit, the Yale-educated, Peter Thiel-backed J. D. Vance is chasing the populist/nationalist vote with all of the grace and precision of an ostrich on crack cocaine:

  • “Honored to have Marjorie [Taylor Greene]’s endorsement. We’re going to win this thing and take the country back from the scumbags,”

  • “I gotta be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.”

  • “I’d like to hear zero about Afghan refugees until we get every single American out first.”

Vance looks and sounds like a man who’s terrified of being attacked over his Ivy League education and Silicon Valley friends, so he is out to prove no one can ever out-populist him, going to absurd lengths. Maybe it won’t matter; it’s a good year for Republicans, and Ohio leans heavily toward the GOP these days. But Ryan is probably the best candidate the Democrats can run there this cycle.

Mehmet Oz has been a Republican for about 20 minutes, there’s considerable evidence he is a quack, he’s uncomfortably friendly with the current authoritarian government of Turkey, and he is not a conservative by any stretch of the imagination.

Herschel Walker is an extremely likeable figure, but he needs to take some time to do his homework so he can avoid future statements like:

One of the first thing they did — and I think people need to know this — is they decided that they were going to give up our energy. By him going out giving up our energy, and now we’re not energy-independent anymore, which started the whole downfall. Right now, gas prices going out of the roof, you, know right now you see there’s no food on the shelf, and I think people need to know that. And they’re blaming everyone else except themselves.

Yes, you and I know what he meant, but if you’re going to argue about Biden’s energy policy, you’ve got to flesh it out with details — the cancellation of the Keystone Pipeline, the limitations on drilling in federally controlled land, Biden’s off-the-cuff campaign-trail pledges to end fracking, etc. Just two or three memorized bullet points on each of the top issues, at minimum, would make Walker a much stronger candidate, and someday a better U.S. senator. If you want the job of representing your state, you must do the required work on what you’ll be voting to pass or reject. “What policies do you support on energy?” is not a gotcha question.

ADDENDUM: Yesterday on the Three Martini Lunch podcast, Greg and I discussed a new study showing that — surprise! — criminals steer clear of people they suspect may have guns. You don’t see a lot of attempted robberies at coffee shops where cops hang out.


What Will a Desperate Putin Do?

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech as he visits the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur, Russia, April 12, 2022. (Sputnik/Evgeny Biyatov/Kremlin via Reuters)

On the menu today: CIA director William Burns tells Georgia Tech students that, “given the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership, given the setbacks that they’ve faced so far militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons.” The West faces a catch-22: The better the Ukrainian forces perform, the more desperate Putin gets, with the May 9 “Victory Day” celebrations looming as a psychological deadline for his regime. Meanwhile, there’s a stark contrast between how Republicans talk about inflation and how Democrats talk about it — when Democrats are willing to talk about it at all.

Assessing the Nuclear Threat

We’re now coming up on two months of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and by a lot of measures, Ukraine appears to be winning. Kyiv and most major cities remain in Ukrainian hands, and the Russian military’s attempt to conquer Kyiv appears to have been repelled, at least for now.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky is still alive, still giving orders, and still asking the world for more help. The key port city of Odessa has been bombed, but not invaded and occupied by the Russian forces offshore. Perhaps most humiliatingly for the Russians, the missile cruiser Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, is at the bottom of the ocean.

Ukraine claims that about 20,000 Russian soldiers have been killed; if true, that number would be higher than U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, the Persian Gulf War, the War of 1812, and the Revolutionary War combined. Back on March 23, NATO estimated that Russia’s total number of killed, wounded, captured, or missing added up to more than 40,000.

The Ukrainian military also contends that it has destroyed or captured 163 aircraft, 145 helicopters, 762 tanks, 1,982 armored personnel carriers, 371 artillery systems, 125 rocket-launch systems, 76 fuel carriers, 138 unmanned aerial vehicles, 1,438 other vehicles, eight boats, 66 anti-air missile systems, and four short-range ballistic-missile systems.

A Russian invasion that was allegedly meant to stop the expansion of NATO has spurred Finland and Sweden to publicly announce an interest in joining the international group.

But all of this has come at enormous cost to Ukraine. This weekend, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost more than 3,000 soldiers, a figure that is as likely to be an undercount as the Ukrainian estimates of Russian losses are to be an overcount. As of Friday, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights had recorded 4,633 civilian casualties in the country: 1,982 killed and 2,651 injured — but that is an undercount, as the ability to count the victims in the middle of the war is severely hindered.

But the U.N. “believes that the actual figures are considerably higher, as the receipt of information from some locations where intense hostilities have been going on has been delayed and many reports are still pending corroboration. This concerns, for example, Mariupol (Donetsk region), Izium (Kharkiv region), Popasna (Luhansk region), and Borodianka (Kyiv region), where there are allegations of numerous civilian casualties. These figures are being further corroborated and are not included in the above statistics.”

In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday, Zelensky made it sound like the city of Mariupol — which had a population of 430,000 before the war — is largely wiped out:

There are two components. No one knows how many people died among the civilian population. If anyone gives you a figure, it would be a total lie. Hundreds of thousands were evacuated. Several thousand, tens of thousands were forced to evacuate in the direction of the Russian Federation. And we do not know where they are.

They have left no document trail. And among them are several thousands of children. We want to know what happened to them, whether they’re in good health. Unfortunately, there just isn’t any information on this.

And regarding what population has remained there, we also don’t have a definitive answer. One day, they say there are 50,000 or 60,000 left there. And then another day, someone says 100,000. And now we have information that perhaps 10,000 people have died there, all civilians who stayed. We’re talking about civilian deaths, not military.

The United Kingdom’s Defense Ministry stated Saturday that, “Road infrastructure in conflict affected areas of Ukraine has sustained significant damage. Russian troops have exacerbated this by destroying bridges, employing land mines and abandoning vehicles along key routes as they withdrew from northern Ukraine. . . . Damage to Ukraine’s transport infrastructure now presents a significant challenge in delivering humanitarian aid to areas formerly besieged by Russia.”

An invasion that the Russians expected to be quick and easy is turning into a long and bloody slog, with a devastating impact on the Russian economy and probably irreparable destruction of Russia’s reputation on the world stage. But we in the West are facing something of a catch-22: We want Russia to lose, if for no other reason than to discourage any other autocrat with delusions of grandeur from launching a war of territorial conquest. But the more Putin loses, the more desperate he may become to save face — and the more willing he may be to do something even more horrific than the ongoing war crimes Russian forces already appear to have committed.

Putin is approaching a deadline in the form of May 9, Russia’s Victory Day, celebrating the country’s triumph in World War II. Putin announced a “special military action” — not a war, in the eyes of Russian state-controlled media — against “Nazis” like the Jewish Zelensky — and now, nearly two months later, he’s going to stand in Red Square, in front of a big military parade, having failed to deliver a victory?

The wildly overconfident Putin thought Ukraine would be conquered by now. He desperately needs some sort of symbolic victory in the next three weeks. Even state-controlled media were shaken by the implausible government tale of the Moskva sinking because of a combination of ammunition catching on fire and bad weather. When an autocrat promises grand and glorious victories on the field of battle, he needs to be able to point to something as the fruits of that victory — particularly when Russians can see and feel the bad economic consequences of the invasion.

CIA director William Burns spoke at the Georgia Institute of Technology on Thursday, and in response to a question from former senator Sam Nunn, he stated that:

Russian military doctrine holds that you could escalate to deescalate — in other words, that faced with an overwhelming conventional military threat that you could resort to a first use of tactical or low-yield nuclear weapons. So in that circumstance, what some Russian leaders have talked about is a circumstance in which, you know, NATO would intervene militarily on the ground in Ukraine in the course of this conflict, and that’s not something, as President Biden has made very clear that’s in the cards. But you know, given the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership, given the setbacks that they’ve faced so far militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons. We don’t, while we’ve seen some rhetorical posturing on the part of the Kremlin, about moving to higher nuclear alert levels, so far we haven’t seen a lot of practical evidence of the kind of deployments or military dispositions that would reinforce that concern. We watch for that very intently. It’s one of our most important responsibilities at CIA.

Back on March 16, this newsletter did a deep dive into tactical nuclear weapons and the risk of Putin’s ordering the use of one. The effects of a smaller-yield tactical nuke can be quite different, depending upon whether the weapon is detonated underground, at ground level, in the air, or at a high altitude. As one U.S. strategic thinker envisioned, “One course of action could be a so-called demonstration strike with a single low-yield nuclear detonation in Ukraine or over the Black Sea to serve as a dramatic warning that resistance to Russia’s military campaign must be ended, backed by the compellent threat of further tactical nuclear attacks.”

No doubt Zelensky has every incentive to make Vladimir Putin appear as irrational as possible. But when asked about Russia using tactical nukes, he spoke as if it was a real possibility:

ZELENSKY: I think, all over the world, all the countries have to be worried, because . . . when they began to speak about one or another battles or involve enemies or nuclear weapons or chemical, some chemical issues, chemical weapons, they should do it — they could it. I mean, they can.

For them, life of the people is nothing. That’s why we should think, not be afraid, I mean, that not be afraid. Be ready. But that is not a question for — to Ukraine, and not only for the Ukraine, for all the — for all the world. I think so.

There is a possibility of them using these weapons. Nobody expected there to be a full-scale invasion of Ukraine from the Russian Federation. No one expected there to be a war in 2014. And now that there will be a full-scale invasion and killing of civilians, nobody expected them to invade the areas where there’s no military equipment and just kill and shoot dead a civilian population.

If the U.S. and its NATO allies want to deter the use of a Russian nuclear weapon in Ukraine, they would be wise to clearly spell out the consequences of a nuclear strike now.

Ah, the Famous ‘Ignore It, and It Will Go Away’ Strategy on Inflation

Two data points from those other morning newsletters that I think offer a revealing contrast:

Mike Allen’s Axios AM:

Some inflation-heightened prices may never come back down to pre-pandemic levels, Axios managing editor Javier E. David writes. . . . “[A] return to pre-COVID price levels seems unlikely — at least for most items in the consumer’s basket,” Thomas Berbraken, MSCI Research’s executive director, told Axios.

Politico’s Playbook:

The 10 lawmakers who talk about inflation the most are all Republicans. Not surprisingly, four of the top 10 are in the GOP’s congressional leadership: Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, NRSC Chair Rick Scott (Fla.), and NRCC Chair Tom Emmer (Minn.). Most vulnerable Democrats don’t talk about inflation, according to the Quorum data.

I guess to some Democrats, inflation is like Bruno — we just don’t talk about it.

Rarely has a group of lawmakers so thoroughly deserved to lose.

ADDENDUM: Right before the weekend, Greg and I noted the strange proliferation of absentee congressmen. You guys asked for these jobs, fellas!

Politics & Policy

Facing Grim Facts, Biden and the Democrats Can Only Blame Themselves

President Joe Biden speaks as he visits North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, N.C., April 14, 2022. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

On the menu today: Joe Biden’s campaign pollster warns that the Democrats are facing “the worst political environment that I’ve lived through in 30 years of being a political consultant.” Fifteen months into the Biden presidency, the Democrats have no one to blame but themselves.

The Worst Outlook for Democrats in 30 Years

Joe Biden’s campaign pollster, John Anzalone, tells Politico, “It’s the worst political environment that I’ve lived through in 30 years of being a political consultant. . . . There’s a big difference between losing seven and ten seats in the House and getting your ass kicked and losing 35, 40. . . . I think we really have the ability to keep the Senate.”

Well, yes to that first sentence. And while every president faces factors beyond his control and midterms traditionally go badly for the president’s party, President Biden and his congressional allies have no one to blame but themselves.

I’m sure you can find voters here and there who bought into the hype and really did want Joe Biden to try to be the next Franklin Roosevelt, and to dramatically expand the role of government in their lives and move the country dramatically to the left. (Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says yes, she did vote for Biden with that desire and expectation.) But those folks are few and far between, and most Americans who picked Biden over Trump in November 2020 did so with a clear message: Just get our lives back to normal.

And Biden repeatedly insisted he could do that. “I’m not going to shut down the economy, I’m not going to shut down the country, I’m going to shut down the virus!”

For the past 15 months, Biden has seen one severe problem — the Covid-19 pandemic — gradually go away, albeit in fits and starts. If the U.S. is now perceived to be Covid-free — lately, about 30,000 to 40,000 new cases per day, about 500 deaths per day — then what finally put it behind us was a combination of the vaccines and boosters, and the Omicron wave that peaked at more than 800,000 new cases per day in January. On Thanksgiving Day 2021, the U.S. had 49.4 million Covid-19 cases reported since the start of the pandemic. By Saint Patrick’s Day this year, that number was more than 81 million — and all of these figures are likely undercounts, because not everyone who got sick went to a doctor or reported their case to local health authorities.

(Note that on Worldometers, the U.S. has now surpassed more than a million deaths from Covid-19. On January 20, 2021, the first day of the Biden presidency, that figure was about 435,000.)

In other words, once the vaccines were available, all our other pandemic mitigation measures — masking, social distancing, limiting capacity in buildings and businesses, delaying the opening of schools, etc. — made very little difference, particularly when Omicron arrived. You can’t run a tight-enough quarantine to stop something that is as contagious as the common cold, as the Chinese government is learning — or perhaps it is more accurate to say, as the Chinese government refuses to learn.

One of the reasons the Biden administration doesn’t get a lot of credit for the amelioration of the Covid-19 pandemic is that the president spent his first year getting into a lot of heated fights over vaccine mandates and masking mandates, while the CDC and FDA guidance kept changing. People rightly thought that the arrival of the vaccines meant their lives would get back to normal, but it was a long, slow, sluggish process, dragged out by risk-averse public-health officials and neurotic media voices. The Biden administration wimped out when it came to confronting teachers’ unions about reopening public schools as quickly as possible. Biden made bold promises about ensuring that testing would be easy, quick, and widespread, and then failed to keep his promises — something that quickly turned into a consistent pattern in this administration, across almost every public-policy issue. Biden kept reverting to simplistic slogans like “follow the science,” while “the science” in the form of public-health experts, virologists, and immunologists kept disagreeing with each other.

Even today, Biden and his team enact policies that make no sense. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is keeping mask mandates on planes and public transit, while simultaneously the administration is terminating Title 42, a policy that kept certain migrants trying to get into the U.S. at the southern border in Mexico, because the reduced threat of Covid-19 supposedly doesn’t justify it anymore. Covid-19 is gone when the administration wants to repeal a policy but lingers just enough when the administration wants to keep another policy in place. “The science” just happens to align with whatever Biden and his team want at any given moment.

What is really killing Biden’s job approval numbers is that just as the Covid-19 disruption to our lives started to fade, runaway inflation’s disruption to our lives grew overwhelming. And it just keeps going on, month after month. As I noted earlier this week, I don’t think the administration grasps how bad it is when you go to the grocery store or gas station, are shocked at how much you’re paying, get frustrated . . . and then two weeks or a month later, you’re shocked again because it is even higher.

America’s inflation isn’t entirely due to Biden’s first major legislative act, which threw roughly another $2 trillion in Covid relief spending into an economy that already had a labor shortage. But it is a big factor — just as a set of policies hostile to the oil industry, pipeline construction, and additional drilling isn’t the only reason for high gas prices but is a significant contributing factor. Did Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exacerbate high gas prices? Sure, but Biden was promising to bring down high gas prices back in November, long before Russian troops crossed the border.

By the time Omicron arrived and as runaway inflation had become the most pressing problem facing the country, Americans had heard a lot of assurances from President Biden that the problems on Americans’ minds weren’t as bad as they looked, or would be short lived, or that he and his team had everything under control.

It wasn’t just that Biden’ pledges and promises were contradicted by subsequent events; it’s that the contradiction came quickly, indisputably, vividly, and memorably. It is as if the weatherman assured you that it wouldn’t rain, and then you survived a hurricane.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the world coming to a stop in March 2020, and then only gradually and ploddingly reopening, would create problems in the global supply chain. Unless it relates to their jobs, most Americans pay little or no attention to the supply chain, almost as little attention as they pay to the secretary of transportation. But suddenly in late 2021, people noticed that certain goods weren’t on store shelves — and then learned that Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg had been out of the office for two months on paternity leave. Fairly or not, the anecdote heightened the sense that the Biden administration was asleep at the switch.

Under Biden, long-simmering problems like the border, or crime, suddenly take a turn for the much worse, while the seemingly oblivious president tells his favorite not-quite-true story of riding a million miles on Amtrak for the 30th time. In the past year, Biden has claimed he used to drive a tractor-trailer; that he was arrested during the civil-rights movement; that “for four years, I was a full professor at the University of Pennsylvania” (he never taught a class and was paid nearly $1 million to be a guest lecturer); that, “during the Six-Day War,” former Israeli prime minster Golda Meir wanted him to be her “liaison between she and the Egyptians about the Suez”; and that he nearly hit a home run in the congressional softball game (he grounded out and struck out).

Is Biden senile? The problem in attempting to answer this question is that it’s hard to separate a near-octogenarian’s failing memory with Biden’s long history of exaggerations, half-truths, and lies. As David Harsanyi tracked, in previous years Biden claimed to have been shot at, participated in sit-ins, represented the Black Panthers in court, and attended law school on a full academic scholarship, and he also claimed that everyone on Capitol Hill calls him “Middle Class Joe” as a derisive nickname — claims that either have no corroborating evidence or have been proven false.

And all this leads to one more serious liability for this administration: On any given day, Biden can say something that his staff later emphatically insists is not his administration’s policy or position. Just recently we have been informed that Biden’s shouting “for God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power!” does not mean that the Biden administration believes Vladimir Putin cannot remain in power, and that Biden’s repeated declaration that Putin is committing genocide does not mean that the Biden administration is accusing Vladimir Putin of committing genocide. We are stuck with a president who does not speak on behalf of his own administration.

With a president like this, is it any wonder that Democrats say they are facing the worst political environment in 30 years?

ADDENDUM: Have a blessed Passover and Easter in the coming days. As sure as the blooming crocus, God gives us new growth and renewal after the longest and coldest winters.


Elon Musk Offers to Buy Twitter

Elon Musk attends the opening ceremony of the new Tesla Gigafactory for electric cars in Gruenheide, Germany, March 22, 2022. (Patrick Pleul/Pool via Reuters)

On the menu today: Elon Musk appears hell-bent on purchasing and controlling Twitter; even Senate Democrats now think California senator Dianne Feinstein is senile; someone in the Biden administration — we’re not yet sure who — might be headed to Kyiv to meet with Volodymyr Zelensky; and taking a moment to fully appreciate the aggressive stupidity on display on The View.

Will Elon Musk Reinvent Twitter?

This morning, Elon Musk announced his intent to purchase all of Twitter outright. If this is a stunt, it’s a stunt in which Musk has filled out all the paperwork.

There is something indisputably delightful about the way that Musk freaks out elite progressives, and the way that his full-throated endorsement of free speech absolutely terrifies them. They have grown used to having the power to shut down voices that offend or bother them.

(Some of us on the right have a clearer, more full-spectrum view of Musk. There’s a lot to like about his fearless, innovative, Tony Stark-in-real-life style, particularly his view on the First Amendment and his opposition to cancel culture; he asked recently, “Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy. Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?” But Musk is also way too friendly with the Chinese government, his businesses are built in part on government contracts and subsidies, and he can be erratic in his decision-making at times. He’s a really intriguing, bold, and imaginative guy, but he’s not Tech Jesus.)

Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s former secretary of labor, who can usually be counted on to offer one of the most unhinged assessments of any given situation, recently wrote that:

Musk tweeted that US tech companies shouldn’t be acting ‘as the de facto arbiter of free speech.’ . . . [Musk’s] world would be dominated by the richest and most powerful people in the world, who wouldn’t be accountable to anyone for facts, truth, science or the common good. That’s Musk’s dream. And Trump’s. And Putin’s. And the dream of every dictator, strongman, demagogue and modern-day robber baron on Earth. For the rest of us, it would be a brave new nightmare.

You may have noticed that dictators and strongmen are not known for their commitment to free speech. Reich’s evidence that Musk secretly believes in suppressing dissenting voices on Twitter is that Musk blocked him years ago. It is extremely difficult to begrudge Musk his desire not to listen to Reich any longer.

“I choose to not listen to you anymore” is not the same as “I will not let you speak.”

For a long time, Twitter’s criteria for acceptable discourse, and what can trigger an account suspension or termination, have seemed vague, arbitrary, ever-shifting, and much more heavy-handed on the right side of the spectrum than on the left. I’ve had many friends get their accounts suspended for what seemed like minor infractions, while we get a persistent stream of “we’re going to put you in the ovens” messages from alt-right maniacs. (I suspect certain trolls behave obnoxiously, get banned, and simply set up a new account under another name and do it again.)

Bradley Smith, the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, recently wrote a list of ten suggestions for Twitter and Musk that I suspect would benefit Twitter in the long run:

  1. Leave more content up. Twitter has rules about posts, and the bulk of enforcement is done through artificial intelligence. The algorithms err on the side of taking down material that might violate Twitter rules. Instead, they should err on the side of leaving questionable material up until there has been human review.

  2. More aggressively screen complaints. Currently, there is too much bad-faith reporting done for the purpose of getting controversial, but legitimate, content taken down. For every 10 content moderators tasked with taking down content, hire a content defender, whose job is to advocate for keeping or putting content back up. Err on the side of speech, not censorship.

  3. Create an easy-to-use, rapid, transparent appeals process for takedowns of material, and especially for banned or suspended accounts.

  4. Stop caving in to organized campaigns to remove particular speakers. Twitter doesn’t have to take sides in the culture wars. Say nothing, and let the controversy subside.

As Andrew Stuttaford recently summarized:

Musk’s politics are, like the man himself, hard to pin down. He has described himself in numerous ways, including “openly moderate,” the inevitable “socially liberal and fiscally conservative,” and even as a “socialist” (although with a characteristically eccentric definition of what that dreaded word means). It’s difficult to miss, however, the libertarian(ish) streak running through a good number of his pronouncements, albeit one lacking the dogmatism so often associated with capital-L libertarians. It’s safe to say that he gets free speech.

A Musk-run Twitter would be different — and, at least in this area, almost certainly better.

It Is Long Past Time for Dianne Feinstein to Retire

Way back on December 10, 2020, I wrote that, “The U.S. Senate is not supposed to be a nursing home.” At the time, The New Yorker magazine had just published a deeply unflattering portrait of Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, suggesting that she was going senile and her staff could no longer hide it.

Of course, many of us had noticed the pattern of Feinstein insisting she hadn’t said what she had said the day before:

For quite a while now, if you paid consistent attention to Senator Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), you would notice that she would make a statement, and then the next day insist she had never made that statement. Back in 2018, during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, I laid out cases where the octogenarian Feinstein had publicly doubted the credibility of Christine Blasey Ford and then later that day issued a statement that she found her credible, changed her explanation of why she hadn’t released a Judiciary Committee transcript, claimed to have been pressured on the decision and then insisted she had never said she was pressured, gave two contrary and opposing answers about a government shutdown, and then said she couldn’t remember why she had hesitated to share Ford’s letter. I noted a Republican senator once told me that it was easier to work with Feinstein herself than her staff; Feinstein would seem amenable in a meeting and then her staff would insist she hadn’t agreed to the discussed solution.

Lots of politicians are shameless liars — and that’s bad enough. But videos of Feinstein’s denials that she had said what she had said a day earlier raised the possibility of something even worse: She genuinely didn’t remember what she had said and done not long ago. We can simultaneously oppose Feinstein’s views, hate seeing her reach this condition, and fairly ask if Californians or anyone else were well-served by her remaining in office.

Now, nearly a year and a half later, the San Francisco Chronicle has done another “exposé” on the open secret that Feinstein is far too old to function as a U.S. senator:

Four U.S. senators, including three Democrats, as well as three former Feinstein staffers and the California Democratic member of Congress told The Chronicle in recent interviews that her memory is rapidly deteriorating. They said it appears she can no longer fulfill her job duties without her staff doing much of the work required to represent the nearly 40 million people of California.

“It’s bad, and it’s getting worse,” said one Democratic senator. This person said that within the Senate, Feinstein has difficulty keeping up with conversations and discussions.

There is a spectacularly toxic arrogance when a lawmaker and the lawmaker’s staff agree that retirement or resignation is unthinkable. Does the name David Wu ring a bell? The guy in the tiger suit? He was a Democratic congressman from Oregon who lost his marbles — pardon me, “struggled with mental health issues” is the preferred euphemism. His “senior staffers were so alarmed by his erratic behavior that they demanded he enter a hospital for psychiatric treatment.” But even at that point, they still didn’t say he shouldn’t keep serving in Congress!

This has little to do with partisanship or ideology; Feinstein is a Democrat and is likely to be replaced by an even more progressive Democrat whenever she leaves the Senate. No, this is about ego and not wanting to see anyone new in that office. But Californians deserve an actual senator, not an 88-year-old woman who doesn’t remember conversations from the day before.

Oh, and out of curiosity, does the current president have any views on when a person becomes too old to effectively perform the duties of a high-level federal-government office?

The Biden Administration Moves Slowly . . .

The Morning Jolt, yesterday:

Seeing U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson demonstrate real courage by walking the streets of Kyiv alongside Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky made me wish we had a non-geriatric president. But over in The Atlantic, Eliot Cohen points out there’s no reason Secretary of State Antony Blinken or Vice President Kamala Harris couldn’t emulate Johnson’s move.

Politico, today:

The Biden administration is holding internal discussions about sending a high-level official to Kyiv to show further support to Ukraine, two U.S. officials told POLITICO. No decision on the potential visit has yet been made as deliberations continue inside the White House. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris remain candidates to represent the U.S. in the Ukrainian capital, though it’s far more likely that a Cabinet member like Secretary of State Antony Blinken or Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will go, the officials said.

ADDENDUM: Yesterday, Joy Behar of The View contended that, “The Supreme Court is poised to pass a bill contradicting the New York City State laws. . . . They want people running around with guns.”

I don’t watch The View; I only see “highlights” when something particularly ridiculous happens. But it’s obvious even to me that the show’s biggest problem is not the progressive views of most of the hosts. No, its biggest problem is that it is a show largely about current events, hosted by several celebrities who don’t know much about current events, and who adamantly refuse to learn anything about current events.

I mean, there is something aggressively stupid about a person who has strong views about how government should work lamenting that “the Supreme Court is poised to pass a bill.” This morning, I asked my younger son when his classes covered the roles of the legislative and judicial branches; he said fourth grade. A room full of properly educated nine-year-olds has a better understanding of how the U.S. government works than Behar.

Some of the hosts regularly have no idea of even the basics of the issue that they’re talking about, and for some inexplicable reason, they seem to hate doing any homework on the topics they’re discussing.

We’re all born ignorant, but some of us try to do something about it.


Biden’s Policies Don’t Match His Rhetoric on Putin’s ‘Genocide’

President Biden speaks to reporters while departing Des Moines International Airport in Des Moines, Iowa, April 12, 2022. (Al Drago/Reuters)

On the menu today: President Biden took a big and consequential step yesterday by declaring that Russia’s actions in Ukraine constitute an act of attempted genocide. Unfortunately, U.S. policies toward Russia are nowhere near as tough as Biden’s rhetoric — yet another case of the administration’s overpromising and under-delivering. Meanwhile, with Ukrainian wheat exports cut off and certain corners of the world facing severe famine, the president wants to put more corn in our cars.

Biden Takes Half Measures against Putin’s ‘Genocide’

President Biden, speaking to reporters at the Des Moines International Airport before departing on Air Force One yesterday:

Q: Mr. President, have you seen enough evidence to declare genocide in Ukraine, sir?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I called it genocide. It has become clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to wipe out the idea of even being — being able to be Ukrainian.

And the amount — the evidence is mounting. It’s different than it was last week. The — more evidence is coming out of the — literally, the horrible things that the Russians have done in Ukraine. And we’re going to only learn more and more about the devastation.

This is one of those presidential statements that is so significant, I waited for the White House staff to offer the now-traditional “what the president meant to say was” correction. But as of this writing, the White House is sticking with it.

A declaration that Russia is committing genocide in Ukraine makes any remaining U.S. cooperation with Russia, or any hesitation in assisting the Ukrainians lest we be too provocative or escalatory, morally abominable. We keep saying “never again” on Holocaust Remembrance Day, and then the “ethnic cleansing” of the Balkans occurs (40,000 civilians killed). And then we see what happens in Rwanda (500,000 dead). And then Darfur, Sudan, (between 178,258 and 461,520 dead, mostly from disease). And then Syria (500,000 to 600,000 dead).

Our elected leaders keep saying, “never again,” but the evidence of history is “again and again and again and again, each time in slightly different ways, as long as they’re relatively far away from each other.” (President Obama formed an “Atrocities Prevention Board” that did not have a website, a Twitter account, or even email addresses for its main office or its members.)

As my reader James observes, if Russia is committing genocide, “We should at least drop the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action talks with Russia and Iran until the scoreboard for ‘last act of genocide discovered’ hits ‘ten days ago.’”

Here was White House press secretary and future MSNBC host Jen Psaki, facing tough questions from Dana Perino on Fox News Sunday this past weekend:

PERINO: Speaking of Russia, they are at the table as part of the negotiations with the Iran — Iranians, and working as the Biden administration works on reviving that deal. But President Biden has called Vladimir Putin a war criminal and Russia would stand to gain billions if they were to hold this uranium. Can this continue? Can Russia continue to be at the table for these Iran negotiations?

PSAKI: Well, Dana, here’s how we look at it, and you know this from your many past experiences — diplomacy, foreign affairs, it’s complicated. And this is an example of that.

We believe, and I think most of the global community believes, that preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is in our national interest and our global interest.

The president is only going to agree to a deal if it is a good deal. But we have [been] dealing with the experiment of President Trump pulling out of the deal, and what we’ve seen is a lack of visibility. Iran has made great progress in being able to move towards acquiring a nuclear weapon. That’s not in our interest.

Russia has been a member of the P5+1. They have been an implementing — played an implementation role. That’s what we’re talking about and what’s been under discussion in these negotiations.

We don’t know that we will come to an agreement, though. It’s ongoing and we’re still considering it.

In other words, Russia will continue to be a U.S. partner in the Iran negotiations, even though President Biden just said that the Russians are committing genocide. It is an astounding, jaw-dropping, mind-boggling contradiction that illuminates the wrongheaded thinking of an administration whose primary goal in Iran policy is to never admit that the Obama administration was wrong on Iran policy.

In other parts of the administration’s policy decisions that influence Russia and Ukraine . . .

  • At this point, it doesn’t make any sense for the U.S. not to assist in the transfer of those MiG-29s. What, stopping genocide isn’t an important enough goal to justify the move? We’re afraid we’re going to escalate the situation from an ongoing genocide?
  • As noted earlier, transferring an “Iron Dome” missile-defense system to Ukraine has its own logistical challenges, but clearly the menace of genocide makes it sufficiently worthwhile for the U.S. to assist overcoming those challenges. The good news is that the U.S. is looking at a much bigger package of military aid: “Preliminary plans circulating among government officials and lawmakers in Washington also included Mi-17 helicopters, howitzer cannons, coastal defense drones and protective suits to safeguard personnel in the event of a chemical, biological or nuclear attack, the officials said, though they cautioned that it was not immediately clear if all of those items would end up in the final aid package.” But no MiGs or Iron Dome systems like the Ukrainians wanted, at least so far.
  • If there is ongoing genocide, does the idea of a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over certain parts of Ukraine for humanitarian corridors seem quite so reckless or escalatory? Would we hesitate to take that kind of action against a Hitler or a Pol Pot or a Slobodan Milošević? (I would compare Vladimir Putin to Stalin, but he would probably take that as a compliment.)
  • If there is ongoing genocide, doesn’t keeping the the U.S. embassy in Lviv instead of Kyiv look like an act of cowardice? Shouldn’t the embassy, or at least a skeleton staff, move back to Kyiv? (Both cities have come under Russian bombardment.)
  • If there is an ongoing genocide, shouldn’t there be a permanent NATO naval presence in the Black Sea? A month before the invasion started, the last NATO vessel, the French naval frigate Auvergne, left the Black Sea. If NATO had had a presence in the Black Sea in February, would the Russians have hesitated at all? Would they have filled up the Black Sea with mines?
  • We still have tariffs on Ukrainian steel! (Not that the steel mills in Ukraine are all that productive these days.)
  • Why is Russia still the third-largest supplier of uranium to the U.S.? In 2021, the U.S. spent $1 billion on Russian uranium. Wyoming Republican senator John Barrasso notes that “Congress appropriated $75 million to the Energy Department to establish a strategic uranium reserve in 2020, yet the department hasn’t purchased a single ounce of U.S. uranium.” According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “At the end of 2008, U.S. uranium reserves totaled 1.2 billion pounds” — and then the U.S. stopped tracking it because domestic U.S. uranium production supplies only about 10 percent, on average, of U.S. requirements for nuclear fuel.
  • I can understand the argument that the U.S. and Russia should always keep some line of communication open to avert any potentially disastrous miscommunication or confusion between nuclear powers. But it seems a little odd for the U.S. to have a regular diplomatic relationship with a government that we have declared is committing genocide.
  • As I mentioned on The Editors podcast, seeing U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson demonstrate real courage by walking the streets of Kyiv alongside Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky made me wish we had a non-geriatric president. But over in The Atlantic, Eliot Cohen points out there’s no reason Secretary of State Antony Blinken or Vice President Kamala Harris couldn’t emulate Johnson’s move. Harris has had a particularly rough start to her term as vice president; if she genuinely wants to reset public perceptions of her, she and her team should head to Kyiv and demonstrate that U.S. leaders aren’t afraid to at least briefly step into a city under siege and dare the Russians to start a war by attacking during her visit.

Cohen argues that what happens in Ukraine will have far-reaching consequences for years to come:

For those of us born after World War II, this is the most consequential war of our lifetime. Upon its outcome rests the future of European stability and prosperity. If Ukraine succeeds in preserving its freedom and territorial integrity, a diminished Russia will be contained; if it fails, the chances of war between NATO and Russia go up, as does the prospect of Russian intervention in other areas on its western and southern peripheries. A Russian win would encourage a China coolly observing and assessing Western mettle and military capacity; a Russian defeat would induce a salutary caution in Beijing. Russia’s sheer brutality and utterly unwarranted aggression, compounded by lies at once sinister and ludicrous, have endangered what remains of the global order and the norms of interstate conduct. If such behavior leads to humiliation on the battlefield and economic chaos at home, those norms may be rebuilt to some degree; if Vladimir Putin’s government gets away with it, restoring them will take a generation or longer.

Put Corn in Hungry Bellies, Not in Our Cars

Because the war is continuing into spring, Ukrainian farmers in “the breadbasket of Europe” are not going out into the fields and planting their crops. Even if they could, the odds of successfully exporting their usually abundant wheat crop to their traditional markets is unlikely because of all of those mines in the Black Sea and the Russian Navy parked off shore. Right now, Ukrainian ports are closed, and nothing is going in or out. The end result is that a lot of people in places far from Ukraine are going to pay way more to feed themselves, or starve:

“It’s a big issue,” Mercogliano said. “We’ve been talking about the issue of potential food shortages because Ukraine is responsible for 10 percent of the world’s grain exports, and that’s a combination of wheat, corn, barley and everything else. Other countries are going to have to either pick up that slack, but that’s going to be very difficult to do. And then you’re going to have to get shipping to relocate to do it.”

The large percentage of grain exports is why Ukraine’s flag is half yellow, Mercogliano noted.

It provides the wheat to countries in the Middle East, Africa, Europe and Asia. In 2020, Ukraine was the fifth largest wheat exporter, with $4.16 billion in exports, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity.

Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Lebanon were the top five importers of Ukrainian wheat in 2020, according to OEC.

So what is President Biden doing?

The Biden administration said that increasing use of gasoline with 15 percent ethanol, known as E15, over the summer months would help lower consumers’ fuel costs, which have climbed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The decision is seen as a win for corn growers and ethanol-producing companies, though some groups said they fear it could further inflate food prices by making grain more expensive:

Oil-industry officials have questioned whether such moves would lower gasoline prices for consumers.

Increased demand for corn could push up prices for the grain if the use of E-15 throughout the year continues, analysts said. Corn prices have already jumped this year because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Increased ethanol use could contribute to cost inflation for food companies and meat processors, because producers rely heavily on grains, such as corn, to feed livestock and poultry, according to the National Chicken Council.

“Further and artificial demand for corn created by this administration will likely increase the cost of corn and all food products dependent on corn and corn oil inputs,” said Mike Brown, president of the group, which represents poultry companies. Feed, made of corn and soybean meal, is the top cost in raising chickens, the NCC said. “At the end of the day — ethanol manufacturers win and consumers lose,” Mr. Brown said.

At a time when the world is facing a greater risk of severe famine, President Biden wants to put more corn into our automobiles. This is a stupid policy announced by a stupid man who is surrounded by stupid advisers.

Meanwhile, under the sea at Coal Oil Point off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., an estimated 6,500-7,000 gallons of oil per day seep out naturally from the ground.

ADDENDUM: Thanks to Abyss and Apex for the glowing review of my 2019 thriller novel, Between Two Scorpions. Yes, I am almost done with book three!

Economy & Business

America’s Abysmal Inflation Numbers

Gas prices at a Shell station in Los Angeles, Calif., March 10, 2022. (Bing Guan/Reuters)

On the menu today: A brief turn away from the crises in Ukraine and China to look closer to home at this morning’s abysmal new inflation numbers; our impending tax day; the banal, insufferable cry of “tax the rich”; and a Democratic president and the NRA return to their positions in a very familiar fight.

America’s Financial Squeeze Worsens

We all knew today’s new inflation numbers were going to be really bad, and 8.5 percent inflation over the course of a year, the worst since 1981, is the sort of number that can end up defining a presidency.

Compared to a year ago, you’re paying 48 percent more today for gasoline; 35.3 percent more for a used car; 21.6 percent more for your natural-gas bill; 13.7 percent more for meat, fish, and eggs; 12.5 percent more for a new car; 11.1 percent more for electricity; 10 percent more for food at home; 7.7 percent more for transportation; 6.9 percent more for food away from home; 6.8 percent more for apparel; and 5 percent more for shelter.

Americans aren’t in a bad mood just because gas is much more expensive. They’re in a bad mood because just about everything is more expensive.

Never mind taking steps to alter federal policy to fight inflation; President Biden has extraordinary difficulty talking about inflation. He infamously pledged last July that, “There’s nobody suggesting there’s unchecked inflation on the way — no serious economist.” In December, Biden assured Americans that they were at “the peak of the crisis. . . . It matters to people when you’re paying more for gas, although in some states we’ve got the price down below three bucks a gallon, but the point is it’s not gone down quickly enough. But I think it will.” As you have probably noticed, right now, the national average price of a gallon of regular gasoline is $4.09.

In January, Biden boasted that, “We are making progress in slowing the rate of price increases.”

Then in February, Biden grew snippy with NBC News’ Lester Holt, accusing him of being a “wise guy” for quoting Biden’s earlier assurances back to the president.

(Then again, Biden is not alone; our Dominic Pino observed House speaker Nancy Pelosi contending that a ten-year, $3 trillion spending plan is what is needed to reduce inflation, and insisting that low unemployment causes high inflation.)

Inflation is not some obscure, eternal mystery, emerging from the sea like a kraken. The additional spike in energy prices driven by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exacerbated existing problems, but it did not create the inflationary spiral that currently ails us. Inflation occurs when too much money is chasing too few goods. The federal government threw about $6 trillion into the national economy during the pandemic and hoped for the best. Unfortunately, Biden’s approach to all problems is essentially to “just spend more money.”

Tax Day Is Coming

Your taxes are due in less than a week, on Monday, April 18. This is slightly later than usual, but not because of the pandemic: “The Internal Revenue Service’s District of Columbia offices will be closed on Friday, April 15, in observance of the locally recognized Emancipation Day.” It is also Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts and Maine, which is a state holiday. (I note it is also Good Friday.)

According to figures from the White House Office of Management and Budget, in the 2021 fiscal year, which ran from May 1, 2020, to April 30, 2021, the U.S. government collected  $3.863 trillion. The sum adds up from a bit more than $1.9 trillion in individual tax returns, $1.3 trillion from payroll taxes (taxes are used to finance social-insurance programs, such as Social Security and Medicare), $284 billion from corporate taxes, $87 billion on excise taxes (special taxes on specific goods or activities such as gasoline, tobacco, or gambling), and $116 billion on “other.”

To us mere mortals, that seems like a sum of money so big it is hard to comprehend, but that amount didn’t even come close to what the U.S. federal government expenditures were for that period. USASpending.gov, a website of the U.S. Treasury Department, estimates that the U.S. collected $4.05 trillion in fiscal year 2021 while spending $6.82 trillion. The year from May 2020 to April 2021 was not exactly business as usual in the U.S. or anywhere else, with the Covid-19 pandemic’s shutting down or limiting vast swaths of the economy, reducing revenues, and driving up expenditures in all kinds of ways.

The mildly good news is that, so far, the deficit in 2022 isn’t as bad as the past two years: “The federal budget deficit was $475 billion in the first five months of fiscal year 2022, the Congressional Budget Office estimates. That amount is less than deficits recorded during the same period in the two prior fiscal years: It is less than half the shortfall recorded for the same months in fiscal year 2021 ($1,047 billion) and three-quarters of the deficit recorded in 2020 ($624 billion).” The bad news is that we’re still in the ballpark of a trillion-per-year deficit, without the justification of the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic. Back during the Obama administration, conservatives used to complain, loudly and justifiably, about trillion-per-year deficits.

All that borrowing is starting to cost us in the here and now. The U.S. government spent $562,388,232,682.17 — that’s more than $562 billion dollars — on interest payments for the debt in fiscal year 2021. The good news is that federal tax revenue was more than $4 trillion in fiscal year 2021. The bad news is that 14 percent of all of that federal tax revenue had to be used to pay down what we owe. Every dollar we use to pay down past debt is a dollar we can’t spend on other stuff we need or want right now. And every dollar we borrow now is another dollar we will have to pay back later — limiting our ability to spend money on priorities down the road.

People’s perceptions of how much they pay in taxes are often only distant cousins to what they are actually paying. If you live in a place where a household’s combined state and local tax bills are likely to exceed $10,000 — which includes the better-off parts of a lot of blue states — you are likely to encounter grumbling that federal taxes went up in 2017 under President Trump. That’s not the case; what the 2017 tax reform did was cap the deduction for state and local taxes at $10,000.

This map from the Tax Foundation displays the top income-tax rates in each state, and this map displays the median property taxes paid in each county. As you would expect, the highest property taxes are clustered around the biggest cities on the coasts, around Chicago, and — perhaps a bit surprisingly — in a few corners of Texas.

I recall interacting with a woman who insisted that President Trump had raised taxes “on the middle class” significantly, and she knew this was true because she was paying much more now than she was before. I pointed out that because the reform lowered tax rates at every income level, the only way her taxes could have gone up was whether she had previously taken an enormous number of deductions or deducted enormous sums of state and local taxes. She later revealed that she filed in New York City (which has a top income-tax rate of 4 percent and considerable property taxes) and New York state (which has a top income -ax rate of nearly 11 percent and considerable property taxes on top of that), and she personally earned more than $400,000 per year — which I think stretches the definition of the term “middle class” beyond recognition, even in the high-cost-of-living Big Apple.

The likes of congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez get a lot of attention for the simplistic slogan, “Tax the rich,” a common slogan that is almost a guarantee that the person using it hasn’t bothered to look at any of the details of the tax code.

There are seven federal tax brackets for the 2021 tax year, from 10 percent for single filers making less than $9,950 in taxable income to 37 percent for single filers making $523,601 or more. Those who make more, pay more. When you point this out, the class-envy crowd will usually argue that income isn’t the real measurement of “taxing the rich,” because many wealthy people collect capital gains. Fine. The long-term capital-gains-tax rate is 10 percent, 15 percent, or 20 percent depending upon income level — single filers making up to $40,400 per year in taxable income are paying 10 percent, while single filers making $445,850 or more in taxable income are paying 20 percent. If a capital gain is short-term, meaning it is held for less than a year, it is taxed like income.

Wait. There’s another extra tax that particularly wealthy people pay: “The net investment income tax is a 3.8 percent tax on investment income such as capital gains, dividends, and rental property income. This tax only applies to high-income taxpayers, such as single filers who make more than $200,000 and married couples who make more than $250,000, as well as certain estates and trusts.”

We do tax the rich in this country, considerably. America’s problem is not that any particular group of people is undertaxed. Our problem is that our federal government spends money as if it was as plentiful as dirt or seawater.

Oh, and by the way, as of January, all 50 states were running budget surpluses; in 29 states, the surplus was more than $1 billion.

ADDENDUM: Greg and I were back at it yesterday, noting that in a midterm-election environment that is borderline apocalyptic for Democrats, President Biden and the White House have chosen to re-engage on the issue of gun control. The National Rifle Association has had about as brutal a three-year period as anyone could imagine, with a ton of self-inflicted wounds, and yet here is the White House, handing the group and its members a galvanizing, invigorating, and very familiar fight: a Democratic administration trying to enact new restrictions on gun ownership. (Kevin Williamson and David Harsanyi further pick apart Biden’s tired proposals on the website.) I suspect the NRA is feeling relieved, as it’s now back in the same kind of fight that it previously won in 1994 and 2010.


Russia Is Making Even More Money on Energy under Sanctions Regime

A local resident looks on as pro-Russian troops inspect streets in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, April 7, 2022. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

I’m back, and thanks to Alexandra DeSanctis and Mike White — er, Isaac Schorr for filling in for me last week. On the menu today: why U.S. sanctions against Russia aren’t as tough and effective as the Biden administration claims; the Biden team is still hedging on whether Russia’s widespread brutality against Ukrainian civilians constitutes genocide; China faces a Covid-19 catastrophe; and trying to find the words when the worst of tragedies strikes close to home.

Russia’s Surging Energy Sales

Why is the Biden administration so convinced that sanctions will eventually compel Vladimir Putin to stop the invasion of Ukraine?

Yesterday, President Biden’s national-security adviser, Jake Sullivan, pledged that, “We will continue to squeeze the Russian economy so that Russia and the Kremlin feel the pain from what they have done in Ukraine. And in the meantime, we will keep working on additional ways to deny them revenue.”

No one doubts that the sanctions are inflicting economic pain on Russia; the more consequential question, which has been asked for a while now, is whether they’re having any effect on Putin’s decision-making and the Russian military offensive. And keep in mind, a sanctions regime is only as effective as its enforcement, and there are still plenty of ways for Russia to sell its goods on a global market. From oil exports . . .

Russia expects to earn 798.4 billion rubles ($9.6 billion) in additional revenue from energy sales in April due to high oil prices, the finance ministry said, as Moscow needs cash to finance its obligations while being cut off from its reserves.

. . . to exploitable loopholes for oil sales to Europe . . .

When is a cargo of Russian diesel not a cargo of Russian diesel? The answer is when Shell Plc, the largest European oil company, turns it into what traders refer to as a Latvian blend.

The point is to market a barrel in which only 49.99% comes from Russia; in Shell’s eyes, as long as the other 50.01 percent is sourced elsewhere, the oil cargo isn’t technically of Russian origin.

The maneuver underpins a burgeoning and opaque market for blended Russian diesel and other refined petroleum products, one of the many that oil companies and commodity traders are using to keep Russian energy flowing into Europe while at the same time satisfying public opinion that demands an end to subsidizing Vladimir Putin’s war machine. . . .

In the oil market, traders whisper about a “Latvian blend” — a new origin for diesel that looks like a workaround to supply Russian product mixed with something else. The typical trade goes from Primorsk, a Russian oil export town near St Petersburg, into Ventspils, a port in Latvia that has a large oil terminal and tanking capacity. That’s where the blending takes place. There are many other locations where blending is happening, including in the Netherlands, and on the high seas, in what traders call ship-to-ship transfers. For many in the market, the Latvian blend is simply shorthand for any blend that contains Russian molecules, regardless of where the mixing took place.

. . . to natural-gas exports . . .

Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom continued to supply natural gas to Europe via Ukraine on Wednesday in line with requests from European consumers, the company said.

Gazprom said the request for gas exports to Europe through Ukraine had been set at 108.3 million cubic meters for April 6, similar to the request for April 5.

. . . to Russian coal exports:

European Union envoys are set to approve on Thursday a ban on Russian coal that would take full effect from mid-August, a month later than initially planned, two EU sources told Reuters, following pressure from Germany to delay the measure.

Add it all up, and somehow Russia is actually going to make way more money from energy exports this year than last year, despite having invaded Ukraine on February 24: “Bloomberg Economics expects Russia will earn about $320 billion from energy exports this year, up by more than a third from 2021. The ruble has already rebounded to its pre-war price against the dollar.”

And while we would expect Russia to put a brave face on its economic situation, it’s possible that its leaders mean it when they think they’ll have largely adjusted to a post-sanctions world by the end of the year. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said last Thursday — roughly translated — “It’s a sin to complain, we have done everything possible and impossible with the Ministry of Finance this month. . . . So far, there are opportunities at the moment. But it takes time for the economy to adjust. It is impossible not to have at least half a year to reorganize in such a blow.”

In the end, if you bring economic sanctions to a gunfight, it takes a long, long time for your weapons to seriously debilitate the enemy. Russia’s hurt, but it’s enduring: “There is no doubt that the financial and other sanctions have weakened the Russian economy,” Patrick Honohan, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute in Washington and a former European Central Bank policymaker, wrote in a blog post on Wednesday. “But the sanctions fall short of crippling the economy, as long as they do not interrupt the flow of revenue from exports.”

The Biden administration has a bad habit of whistling past the graveyard, insisting that everything is going swimmingly and according to plan, while the evidence mounts that its efforts are a day late and a dollar short. And no one in the administration is more guilty of insisting “all is well” than President Biden himself: “There’s nobody suggesting there’s unchecked inflation on the way — no serious economist.” “It happens every single, solitary year: There is a significant increase in the number of people coming to the border in the winter months of January, February, March.” “I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more re- — more competent in terms of conducting war.” “I’m going to shut down the virus.” “I didn’t overpromise. I have probably outperformed what anybody thought would happen.”

But as the war approaches its third month, there’s yet another dispiriting disconnect between Biden’s tough talk — “The ruble almost is immediately reduced to rubble,” “Russia’s economy is reeling,” “For God’s sake, he cannot be allowed to stay in power” — and what the U.S. effort is doing to Putin and his cronies. It is yet another case of this president overpromising and under-delivering.

If the U.S. really wanted to hurt Putin, we would announce that the United States, with our . . .

. . . is gearing up to replace Russia in the world energy markets and undercut its prices. You don’t need sanctions compliance if you can offer buyers a similar or better good at a lower price. And this policy move would even be better for the environment, since Russia’s oil and natural gas has higher methane emissions than U.S.-produced oil and natural gas.

Russia’s Kinda-Sorta Genocide

Separately, the administration seems a little too comfortable walking its current tightrope of “what Russia is doing might be considered genocide, it might not, but either way, it’s really bad.” Here was Sullivan, speaking on ABC News yesterday:

SULLIVAN: We haven’t yet reached a determination on genocide. That is a determination that we work through systematically. There is a unit at the State Department that gathers evidence and then makes a legal analysis because genocide is actually a legal determination.

But let’s set legalities aside for a minute, Jon. I think we can all say that these are mass atrocities. These are war crimes. These are shocking and brutal acts that are completely unacceptable, beyond the pale for the international community. So whatever label one wants to affix to them, the bottom line is this, there must be accountability. And the United States will work with the international community to make sure there’s accountability.

Based on recent history, that “legal determination” could take a long while. On March 21, 2022, “following a rigorous factual and legal analysis,” the U.S. State Department and Secretary Antony Blinken “determined that members of the Burmese military committed genocide and crimes against humanity against Rohingya.” The killing occurred in 2016 and 2017.

What is the point of a genocide-detection-and-denunciation process that takes more than five years to work?

How much of the “we can’t call it a genocide yet” argument reflects the fact that if the U.S. announces that, “Yes, this is an ongoing genocide,” then the world and the American people are likely to demand that the U.S. intervene militarily?

China’s ‘Zero Covid’ Approach Finally Collapses

Meanwhile, in case you missed it yesterday, the Chinese government’s policies to control the spread of Covid-19 are on the verge of causing mass starvation in the country’s richest city, Shanghai. It is jaw-droppingly horrific; for about two years — and long after the virus spread out of Wuhan — Beijing treated a virus that is bad but manageable with good vaccines or previous infection as if it was airborne Ebola, locking down whole neighborhoods or cities at the first sign of a positive test. Now, the much more contagious Omicron variant is in the country’s cities, and the “zero Covid” approach simply cannot work.

After several weeks of keeping the city’s citizens locked in, Chinese authorities are loosening the restrictions slightly: “Shanghai has classed residential units into three risk categories, to allow those in areas without positive cases for a stretch of two weeks to engage in ‘appropriate activity’ in their neighborhoods, city official Gu Honghui said.”

The problem is, with roughly 25,000 new cases being reported each day, just how many “areas without positive cases for a stretch of two weeks” are there?

And as for my allegedly unreasonable skepticism about the plausibility of China’s official Covid-19 figures, how likely is it that Shanghai has 130,000 cases but only one case of severe illness?

ADDENDUM: What do you say when the unspeakable happens? The worst of tragedies can strike the best of families. Sometimes, getting an explanation isn’t the same as getting an answer that makes sense, and we’re left wondering why that smile that could light up a room left our lives with so little warning. Hug your loved ones a little tighter today; life has no guarantees, and whether we realize it or not — mostly not — each day with our loved ones is a gift.


The Stale, Insular New York Times

The entrance to the New York Times Building in New York, June 29, 2021 (Brent Buterbaugh)

Isaac Schorr here again, filling in for Jim Geraghty, who will be back next week. Happy Friday to one and all! On the menu today: The New York Times’s commitment to mediocrity on its commentary side.

A Case Study in the New York Times‘s Boring Sameness

National Review hosts a podcast The Editors — in which a panel, usually comprising four of this magazine’s heavy hitters, talks about the issues of the day.

Now, National Review is an explicitly conservative publication; there’s no hiding the ball on that front. But if you listen, you’ll find that every episode of The Editors includes plenty of debate, and not just over what Democrats are doing wrong, but over first principles and how to solve specific problems.

Now consider the New York Times, which presents itself as something very different: A newspaper representing all of the United States and the varying perspectives in it. Its news side, while flawed, at least feigns an interest in upholding this façade while also doing some very valuable work. Its opinion side, on the other hand, is separated from your average college paper’s op-ed page only by branding.

No singular work is more illustrative of this point than an “Opinion Round Table” published by the Times and focused on “How the G.O.P. Fringe Took Over American Politics” and including the perspectives of Lulu Garcia-Navarro, Ezra Klein, Jane Coaston, and Jamelle Bouie. It’s a masterwork of lazy fan service. Here’s the round table’s raison d’être:

Lawmakers in Ohio this week proposed legislation that would restrict discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, borrowing from Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. It’s the latest in a raft of culture-war legislation in Republican statehouses aimed against abortion, transgender rights, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and critical race theory.

Note that there’s no explanation of what makes any of these positions “fringe.” Also note that only one actual piece of legislation is name-checked — by a pejorative progressive nickname, not the bill’s title, of course — and that the legislation is immensely popular when voters read its actual provisions, rather than some slanted paraphrase of them. Sixty-one percent of Americans, and 55 percent of Democrats, who read the bill’s text expressed approval of it in one recent poll.

And now on to the substance of the piece, which is really just a series of unearned claims.

Klein says that “these are brutal pieces of legislation that will hurt a lot of very just ordinary kids who need some help.” (Which pieces of legislation, specifically? How are they brutal?)And he argues that they represent “the mainstreaming of QAnon.” (How so? Does he know exactly what QAnon is? Can he conceive of any non-conspiracist motivations that the bill’s supporters might have?)

Bouie submits that the central problem Democrats face is that that “there doesn’t seem to be an inclination to really just swing — to make what may sound like outlandish accusations, but that push strongly against the messaging and the rhetoric coming from the Republican Party.” Did Bouie forget that the Democratic president of the United States called a relatively modest Republican election-reform bill “Jim Crow on steroids”? Did he forget that he that that same Democratic president argued that anyone who disagreed with that characterization was on the side of George Wallace and Bull Connor? Did he forget that that same Democratic president accused Republican governors of “Neanderthal thinking” for lifting Covid restrictions?

Coaston says that conservatives are the ones misrepresenting the Florida bill, dismissing the idea that it has anything to do with sexual education: “There’s no mention of sex education or sexual activity in that bill. It mentions sexual orientation and gender identity. But the idea is that if you simply do not ever let people know that there is such thing as gay or trans people, then people will not be gay or trans.” These claims are a little bit more complicated, and perhaps could have led to an interesting discussion if everyone involved was not so myopically invested in the “Why Is the GOP so Evil?” theme.

The argument that sexual orientation and gender identity are topics entirely disconnected from sexual education seems dubious. Sexual orientation relates to who humans are attracted to, while gender identity oftentimes starts a conversation that ends with hormonal and surgical intervention. Maybe there’s a case to be made that these topics are unrelated to sexual education, but Coaston doesn’t actually make it.

There might be a kernel of truth to her other contention, however. Most conservatives, I think, do believe that there is a social-contagion aspect to the transgender issue. I wrote about this earlier this week:

Those who support heavy-handed school instruction on gender theory — and continued involvement in engaging students with questions about its applicability to themselves — believe these lessons would constitute a process of enlightenment. One that would merely lift the veil for some students who were always this way but just didn’t know it. They think that gender dysphoria is a physical condition caused by a male body hosting a female brain or vice versa. . . .

On the other end of the spectrum are those who hold that gender dysphoria is a psychological phenomenon in which people who are wholly male or wholly female and yet are under the misimpression that they have the opposite brain, or were meant to be the opposite of what they are. An additional component of this understanding of transgenderism is that it’s suggestible, or has a “social contagion” aspect to it. In other words, if you tell kids struggling with mental-health issues that perhaps it’s because they were born with a gender identity opposite their sex, and point to others who have reached the same conclusion, they may very well just accept that as the answer to their problems.

To suggest that social suggestibility could be playing a role in the skyrocketing numbers of young girls’ expressing their desire to become males, for example, is not of course to say that gay and transgender people would not exist without these topics’ being discussed in the public square. It’s only to say that people, and especially young people, are susceptible to being influenced on all manner of issues, especially when the arguments they’re hearing come from people in positions of authority — such as teachers — and are presented as truth. And that issues pertaining to gender identity are just too weighty to be left in the hands of third-grade instructors.

In producing pieces of commentary this vacuous, the Times may be giving most of its readers exactly what they wants, but it’s depriving them of the honest, interesting, and diverse conversations that they deserve.

ADDENDUM: Check out Jack Butler’s “Note to Mark Zuckerberg: Being Compared to Sauron Is Not a Compliment,” a product of both Jack’s love for Tolkien and his skepticism of the Metaverse.

Politics & Policy

Eric Adams’s Embarrassing and Unthinking Allegiance to Covid Theater

New York City Mayor Eric Adams speaks in New York, April 6, 2022. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Good morning and welcome back to the Morning Jolt! Isaac Schorr filling in again for Jim Geraghty today. On the menu: The asininity of Eric Adams’s Covid regime and the demise of the Capitol Hill fox.

Another Covid-Theater Encore

In case you hadn’t noticed, largely cosmetic Covid-era restrictions are creeping back into the picture.

Take New York City mayor Eric Adams’s decision to continue to force children under the age of five to wear masks while in school or at daycare. Adams had previously promised that the younger cohort would be able to join older students in breathing free and seeing each other laugh and smile beginning this past Monday, but he reneged on that promise in a press conference held last Friday, citing rising caseloads.

“New Yorkers, we want you to be prepared, not panicked,” said Adams. His health commissioner, Dr. Ashwin Vasan, asked for “patience and grace.”

At this point, to show people like Adams and Vasan any more “patience and grace” feels like an act of unholy collaboration with the enemies of children’s well-established interests.

Rising caseloads alone cannot possibly be enough to justify the continued enforcement of a mandate only on the group that is least at risk of long-term adverse health outcomes as a result of contracting the disease — especially when the dubiously effective cure has its own set of consequences.

That masks impair communication should be obvious enough to all by now — try speaking with a flight attendant while complying with the federal mandate in the sky — but worse yet, they also impair the development of communication skills in children. The psychological damage in this case is only compounded by the fact that young children are the only ones being muzzled, giving them the impression that they are at special risk of either dying from the disease or passing it on to their loved ones.

It’s a corrosive and false impression. On March 30, Vasan himself shared a chart showing that children up to four years old had the lowest case rate of any age group in the city. And in fact, while recorded cases have seen a slight uptick over the past week, they remain far lower than they were at the start of the year:

Even for those children who do get sick, the risk of being hospitalized is extremely low (between .1 and 1.5 percent of childhood cases result in hospitalization) and of death, lower to the point of being statistically negligible (0.00-0.02 percent of childhood cases are fatal) according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Moreover, while Vasan claims that the mandate’s purpose is to “ensure that our youngest New Yorkers remain safe,” we’ve been told for two years now that we wear masks mostly for the benefit of protecting others, not ourselves.

Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of Adams’s decision is just how little thought he appears to have put into it.

During a town-hall event with CNN’s Dana Bash on Tuesday, the mayor was asked, “Why are we the only city in the world to be masking toddlers?” despite the fact that New York City boasts not a single pediatric Covid hospitalization at the moment. Here’s how he replied:

Because we are the only state, the only city on the globe like New York City. There is no other city like New York City. If we gauge our reactions, behaviors based on other cities, we will make a big mistake. People duplicate New York City because of the density, the population, the diversity. We have a unique way of dealing with crises, responding to crises and recovering from crises. This is not Eric’s thought on how to address this, this is based on my medical team.

But nobody is duplicating New York City on this front; why should they when Adams doesn’t even try to present evidence supporting his decision? In fact, across the world, it was rare for governments to force toddlers to don masks at any point during the pandemic, much less at this late stage, after the development of effective vaccines and therapeutics. That the mayor is not only failing to exercise his judgement, but failing to think at all about what’s best for his city’s children is no small indictment.

And while Adams’s decision is especially enraging, he’s not the only one regressing on this front. Both Georgetown and Johns Hopkins University have reinstated their indoor mask mandate. The Biden administration’s Transportation Security Administration refuses to relent on the aforementioned mandate for air travelers. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that its namesake is poised to bring back its mandate.

Every time you think you’re out, they pull you back in.

The only hope for salvation comes in the form of November’s elections, when voters will at last have the opportunity to show the busybody know-nothings the door. If progressives won’t be convince by empirical evidence, the last resort left is political, and nothing short of an electoral massacre will be sufficient.

Fox (Formerly) on the Run

Capitol Police hunted down and apprehended a suspect (and mother) on Tuesday. They then turned the suspect over to the Washington, D.C., Department of Health, which promptly executed the subject by lethal injection, sans a trial.

Her offspring remain in custody. Officials would not confirm or deny whether they, too, would face summary execution for the sins of their mother.

The deceased suspect, a red fox, was accused of biting a total of nine victims during her Jack the Ripper-like reign of terror. Execution was deemed the only proper remedy because she needed to be tested for rabies, and brain tissue must be sent to the lab for such a test to be carried out. In this way, some might argue, she was not unique, but rather just one more example of an individual sacrificed upon the altar of public health.

Post-execution, one of the alleged victims, Representative Ami Bera (D., Calif.), expressed doubt that the deceased fox had been the one who attacked him:

At first, I recoiled at the state’s solution. After all, unlike Harambe, the fox presented no imminent danger to any individual, or to the public at-large upon its capture.

But upon further examination, while this was a tough call, it was also the only one to be made. The rabies test came back positive, and for those who may not be aware, rabies, untreated, has a mortality rate of somewhere around 100 percent.

From the Mayo Clinic:

Once a rabies infection is established, there’s no effective treatment. Though a small number of people have survived rabies, the disease usually causes death. For that reason, if you think you’ve been exposed to rabies, you must get a series of shots to prevent the infection from taking hold

In other words, those bitten by Mother Fox needed to know as soon as possible whether they had been exposed to rabies. It was a matter of life and death.

ADDENDUM: This happened a few days ago now, and I cannot for the life of me find the clip of it online, so I thought it worth mentioning: CBS honored a retiring, behind-the-scenes member of its broadcast team on Monday, enlisting Jim Nantz to speak to his accomplishments. When the camera found its way to the honoree’s face, the older man was overcome with emotion, burying his face in his hands. He clearly never expected that kind of recognition. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Politics & Policy

Ohio and Texas May Take a Page from Florida’s Playbook

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at CPAC in Orlando, Fla., February 24, 2022. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

On the menu today: Republicans in Texas and Ohio consider following in Florida’s footsteps on keeping controversial sexual topics out of children’s classrooms and what Elon Musk might do now that he’s Twitter’s largest shareholder.

Conservative States Consider Copying Florida

In Ohio, Republicans have introduced legislation similar to Florida’s recently enacted law prohibiting teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity with children in kindergarten through third grade. In Texas, Republican lieutenant governor Dan Patrick has suggested that it would behoove his state to consider a similar law in the next legislative session. By one accounting, there are about a dozen states that have considered legislation like this. Florida’s is the only one that has made it into law.

This controversy could well fizzle out, but right now it feels like the debate is growing into the next major skirmish in the endless culture war. Advocates on the left seem to think they’ve finally landed on an issue that can distract the public from the ongoing abysmal failures of the Biden administration and the Democratic Congress, from rising inflation and high gas prices. The only problem for them is that this issue doesn’t seem to be a winning one at all.

The biggest poll to date on Florida’s law found that not only do almost two-thirds of Americans support the law once they’ve read the text, but that that support holds strong across nearly all major demographic groups. A majority of Democrats supports the law. A majority of Biden voters supports it. Sixty percent of suburban voters support it. More than 60 percent of respondents who said they “know someone LGBTQ” support it.

It’s not difficult to understand why these numbers shake out the way they do when you look at the legislation with clear eyes. It’s not an attack on LGBTQ people or their existence. It doesn’t “erase” anyone. It doesn’t harm anyone. It merely asks teachers to reserve for parents the right to introduce their very young children to sexual topics at the pace they feel is best in the privacy of their own homes. The law affirms, in other words, that parents, not teachers, are the primary educators and guides of their children.

It is not now and never should be the job of teachers to ensure that every American child under the age of eight knows what it means to be queer. Children under the age of eight do not need “gender affirmation” in the classroom. They need to learn how to read and how to multiply numbers and how to locate their state on a map. That anyone thinks otherwise is indicative of a deep, startling divide on what it means to educate children.

Will Elon Musk Transform Twitter?

It was reported earlier this week that multibillionaire Elon Musk has bought a 9.2 percent stake in Twitter, becoming its largest shareholder — holding an even larger stake in the company than investment giants such as BlackRock, J.P. Morgan, and others. Musk was subsequently appointed to Twitter’s board of directors.

Technology changes at such a rapid clip that it’s impossible to predict how long Twitter will remain a dominant force in our national political and cultural debates, but Musk’s buy-in appears to be significant. It’s always worth reminding ourselves, of course, that only about a quarter of Americans use Twitter at all, and only about a quarter of those Americans are responsible for nearly all of the tweets in the U.S.

Nevertheless, it’s impossible to claim, at least right now, that Twitter doesn’t matter at all. And that’s certainly one reason why conservatives have trained their ire in recent years on the leadership of the social-media company, which has demonstrated substantial bias against conservative viewpoints. As opposed to some on the right, I am not of a mind that this bias requires, or would even be solved by, federal-government action. I think we have plenty of evidence that government committees tend to cause more problems than they solve.

Because I’m wary of big-picture “solutions” to tech and social-media bias, I’m gratified to see Musk taking a leadership role, which might well nudge the company in a positive direction on free speech. According to one report, since acquiring his stake in the company in mid March, Musk has been involved in internal company conversations about Twitter’s algorithm, its policing of speech, and even the possibility of a new platform.

As NR’s Editors note in a piece this morning, there’s plenty of reason to believe that Musk will encourage major change within Twitter and, if he fails, pioneer his own external “solution:”

The pace and scope of the Internet, along with the intensity of the conversations it permits, often encourages its aristarchs to believe that all of its shortcomings must be resolved immediately lest the adverse consequences become too dire. But, ironically enough, their preferred solutions — which invariably involve government superintendence — would be more likely to slow, rather than to expedite, any remedies. The risk would be that a Twitter subjected by law to close federal oversight would have been transmuted from a temporary winner within a free market into a permanent part of the political landscape. In 1952, when the Truman administration tried to nationalize U.S. Steel, it was the largest corporation in the world. Today, it is the 38th-largest steel producer. There is nothing special about Twitter that inoculates it against this fate.

In a statement issued Tuesday morning, Twitter’s CEO, Parag Agrawal, described Musk as the company’s most “passionate believer and intense critic,” and confirmed that he would be joining the board. A few days earlier, Musk had used the service to ask, “Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy. Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?” before noting that “the consequences of this poll will be important.” In other tweets, Musk has wondered aloud if a “new service” is needed to replace Twitter. No doubt, if Musk fails to transform the social-media platform from within, we’ll find out soon enough.

In late March, after Musk had become a shareholder but before that news had been made public, he said that Twitter had failed “to adhere to free speech principles” and publicly shared that he was giving “serious thought” to creating his own social-media platform. If he ever did so, there’s no way to know whether it would be successful. President Trump’s venture into alternative social media has been so successful that he himself has posted on it . . . once. Even so, as a bit of a Twitter critic myself — though from a different perspective than the typical conservative complainant — I can’t help but admit to being glad Musk has become involved and seems to have some radical ideas for how to refashion the platform. If he had ideas for how to stop it from intentionally being addictive to users, I’d be all ears.

ADDENDUM: Tomorrow is Opening Day for America’s greatest sport. Most years, I’m more excited than I am this time around. In fact, a few years ago, I wrote one of my favorite NR pieces in honor of MLB’s Opening Day. But as I’ve also written, I’m frustrated with MLB. I’m irritated by the totally unnecessary delay to the regular season. I’m sick of the nonsensical blackouts on MLB TV that work out in favor of everyone other than fans. I’m sick of Rob Manfred politicizing the sport. I’m sick of endless rule changes that take baseball further and further away from the sport I grew up watching in the name of “speeding up” what is meant to be timeless. I’ll probably always watch baseball, but I find that, at least these days, I don’t feel the same way about it anymore.


Get Ready for the Return of Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin speaks at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver, Colo., July 1, 2016. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

Alexandra DeSanctis here, filling in for Jim Geraghty. On the menu today: Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin gears up for a congressional run more than a decade after bowing out of politics, and 53 senators vote to move forward with Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination.

Sarah Palin Goes to Congress?

Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has announced that she intends to seek election to the House of Representatives in her home state of Alaska, a move that has prompted raised eyebrows from many, but not from Donald Trump. The former president was quick to lend Palin his support, extending his “Complete and Total Endorsement” to her campaign.

In doing so, Trump was merely returning the favor. Palin endorsed Trump for president way back in January 2016, before a single primary had taken place, a move that some argue was an important early victory for a candidate trying to establish his bona fides in the GOP.

The seat Palin is seeking was recently left open by the death of Republican Don Young, who had represented Alaska’s at-large congressional district for 49 years at the time he passed away, making him the GOP’s longest-serving member of Congress.

As a result of the vacancy, the race is a special election and thus is on a different timetable from the regular congressional race; the primary will take place on June 11 and the general election on August 16. More than 50 candidates have already filed to run, and the winner will have to get to a daunting 50 percent support to win, but Palin seems to have as good of a chance as any. The New York Times notes that October was “the last time anyone tried to gauge her popularity in Alaska,” and pollster Ivan Moore found that her approval rating was a mere 31 percent. But some Alaska political consultants think Palin has a decent shot, or would even qualify as the favorite in a field of dozens. Here’s more from the Times on Palin’s advantages heading into the race:

She’ll have near-universal name recognition. She should be able to raise significant sums of money from small donors — a must, given how soon the June 11 primary will be held. She was a popular governor, though by the end of her tenure, her approval rating had slunk from the low 90s to the mid-50s. And the national interest in the race will lead to free media coverage that her opponents can’t match.

Palin and Trump share much in common. She ran for governor in 2006 as an outsider taking on a corrupt political establishment. In 2008, as the vice-presidential running mate for Senator John McCain of Arizona, she pioneered the raucous style of political rallies that Trump would turn into the defining feature of his 2016 run. Many of his campaign themes were first hers: battling the media, railing at cultural elites, trashing Washington insiders.

But the detailed report also noted that Palin’s campaign will face some headwinds:

Palin’s strong name recognition is unlikely to be decisive, said Mike Murphy, a former McCain adviser. Noting her high negative ratings, he said “Palin fatigue” could doom her chances among voters who revered Young and take his replacement seriously. . . .

Palin will be competing in a huge field — 51 candidates, including Santa Claus.

That’s partly by design. The voting system Alaska adopted in 2020 was meant to encourage a wide range of candidates to compete. Rather than begin with separate primary elections held by the major political parties, the race will start with one primary that is open to everyone who qualifies. The top four candidates then advance to a general election in which voters rank their favorites.

The system was intended to discourage negative campaigning. Because voters’ second choices are factored into the results, candidates must be careful not to alienate voters who support their rivals. In the New York mayor’s race, this led some candidates to form alliances and campaign together. . . .

Alaska’s fierce independent streak could also hurt Palin’s chances. More than 60 percent of its voters are not registered members of either major political party, and Trump is not especially popular. According to Moore, 43 percent of Alaskans have a “very negative” opinion of the former president.

As we’ve learned in a particularly pointed way over the past several years, a lot can happen in a little time to blow up a race. For one thing, Trump’s endorsements don’t carry as much weight with Republican voters as they once did. But there’s a decent chance that, come summer’s end, Sarah Palin will be headed back to Washington.

Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Nomination Moves Forward

Fifty-three senators — including three Republicans — voted yesterday to proceed to a vote on the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. The vote took place after the process stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where a vote to move the nomination to a full vote on the Senate floor was deadlocked at 11–11 along party lines.

As a result, the full Senate voted on whether to proceed to a final vote on Jackson’s nomination, and three Republicans joined the Democrats in voting yes. Those Republicans were Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who had already said publicly that she’d vote to confirm Jackson, along with Mitt Romney of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the latter of whom is up for reelection this year. Here’s more from the New York Times:

In a statement announcing her support for Judge Jackson, Ms. Murkowski, who is not on the [Judiciary] committee, said she was backing the nominee in part to reject “the corrosive politicization of the review process for Supreme Court nominees, which, on both sides of the aisle, is growing worse and more detached from reality by the year.”

She also praised the judge’s “qualifications, which no one questions; her demonstrated judicial independence; her demeanor and temperament; and the important perspective she would bring to the court” in replacing Justice Stephen G. Breyer.

Mr. Romney, in his statement, called Judge Jackson “a well-qualified jurist and a person of honor.”

Democrats have attempted to paint the rest of the Senate GOP as extreme for refusing to vote Jackson’s nomination out of committee and likewise for opposing her confirmation. “We shouldn’t have to be taking this step, but we are moving forward all the same without delay despite Republicans opposing her in committee,” Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said ahead of the vote.

Republicans have given a number of reasons as to why they’re opposing Jackson. Some, such as Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, have stated that her judicial philosophy seems to give judges too much power and isn’t sufficiently originalist or textualist. Texas senator John Cornyn cited a similar concern, noting that Jackson wasn’t especially forthcoming about her view of the matter: “Someone of her impressive caliber surely has a judicial philosophy, but maybe she just doesn’t want to talk about it.”

Iowa senator Chuck Grassley said much the same: “When interpreting the law and Constitution, understanding the principle of limited government is essential. Otherwise, there would be no checks on the federal government.”

Other Republicans have focused on the fact that Jackson wouldn’t say that she opposes expanding the number of justices on the Supreme Court, claiming that this reticence is a major reason for their voting against her. Still others have zeroed in on her supposedly lenient sentencing of sex offenders (it’s worth reading our own Andy McCarthy for some clarity on this point).

Of the three stated reasons, the first is, by far, the most compelling. Long gone are the days when most senators would vote for most Supreme Court nominees, regardless of the party of the president who nominated them and regardless of their judicial philosophy. It’s almost impossible to believe that the Senate once confirmed Justice Antonin Scalia unanimously and, shortly thereafter, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg near-unanimously.

As nice as it might be to somehow return to the days before bitter partisanship and toxic confirmation battles — which these days are fueled primarily by the way that Roe v. Wade and subsequent decisions removed abortion policy from the hands of the people and placed it in the power of the Court — this is where we are, and there’s no reason to believe we can go back. It’s perfectly reasonable for Republicans to cite Jackson’s apparently expansive view of Supreme Court power, and the power of justice to impose their own readings on the Constitution, as a reason to oppose her confirmation; it’s hardly unfair partisanship to object to this philosophy.

Listening to Democrats trying to spin the GOP “no” votes as some kind of unprecedented and unfair transgression is rather rich, considering how they’ve treated the last handful of Republican nominees, most notably Brett Kavanaugh. That these same politicians would turn around a thousand days later and pretend to be champions of The Process is too much to bear.

ADDENDUM: Listeners to The Editors podcast will know how fond I am of Stanley Tucci. His CNN show Searching for Italy is a real gem, and his new memoir Taste: My Life Through Food, is one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time (and I read a lot!). I reviewed the book for the latest issue of the National Review magazine, and you can read it online here.


Victory for Viktor Orbán

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán reacts in front of supporters after the announcement of the partial results of the parliamentary election in Budapest, Hungary, April 3, 2022. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

National Football League Hall-of-Famer Mike White subbing in for QB1 today. On the menu: the Hungarian elections, the reaction to them, and Democrats’ dark electoral forecast.

Orbán Wins Again

Viktor Orbán, who has served as prime minister of Hungary since 2010 — and spent a stint in the same office from 1998-2002 — won yet again in Sunday’s much-anticipated elections. His party, Fidesz, won two-thirds of the seats in parliament. Fidesz’s closest competitor was United for Hungary, an amalgamation of parties which included socialists, greens, and Jobbik, which was recognized as an antisemitic, neo-Nazi outfit until recently. Now, it presents itself as a moderate, “modern,” alternative to Fidesz.

Orbán’s triumph, we are meant to believe, represents a near-fatal blow to Hungarian democracy, and a painful one to the capital L, capital W, capital O, Liberal World Order. NPR previewed the race on Sunday morning with the headline: “The opposition in Hungary vows end to Orban’s autocratic rule.” Yascha Mounk reacted to the results by calling it a “dark day for democracy.”

Well, Merriam-Webster defines autocratic as “of, relating to, or being an autocracy.” And it defines autocracy as “government in which one person possesses unlimited power.” Tell me, Dear Reader, are those with access to the kind of unlimited, Palpatine-like powers NPR describes typically defeated at the ballot box?

Now, Orbán is no saint, and yes, that is an understatement. He enjoys close relationships with both Vladimir Putin’s Russia (although he has denounced the invasion of Ukraine) and Xi Jinping’s China. As Jimmy Quinn detailed here, Orbán has helped China carry out its post-pandemic propaganda program, and pursued deeper financial ties between his country and the genocidal one to the east. This is not the behavior of a man keen on being what Rod Dreher calls “the leader of the West now — the West that still remembers what the West is.”

Moreover, Orbán’s domestic behavior can fairly be called authoritarian. He has championed what he calls “illiberal democracy,” and enacted reforms to the country’s judicial system that undermine its independence. Evidence points to significant financial corruption on his watch as well.

But the failure of many of Orbán’s critics to accurately report on his regime points to the weakness of many of their arguments. Take this piece from The Atlantic, which, as National Review alum Daniel Foster notes, doesn’t exactly describe Orbán as an autocrat. Its author argues that the formation of a private, pro-Orbán media conglomerate that receives government funding is damning evidence of the corrosion of democracy in the country at the hands of its leader. That’s not exactly convincing to those of us who have watched NPR hold a pillow to the face of the Hunter Biden-laptop story and erroneously smear Supreme Court justices.

Orbán is not a U.S.-style conservative fusionist or anything especially close to it, and that’s a bad thing, in this writer’s opinion. But he is, quite obviously, the kind of conservative who appeals to Hungarians, and despite his many warts, that might just be okay. People in other countries are allowed to hold different opinions on LGBT issues, European integration, etc. than your average undergrad at Middlebury. Indeed, the implementation of those policies at the public’s will represents democracy in action, not its antithesis.

Orbán, the prime minister of a nation with a population only slightly larger than New York City’s and something approximating a friend of the Chinese Communist Party, is no more the savior of Western Civilization than Joe Biden is. But he’s also no threat to self-government across the world, and his critics’ flubbing of basic terms they proclaim to love leaves the rest of us wondering if they even know what it is that they value.

What Do the Democrats Have to Look Forward To?

Leading the website today is Democratic strategist Ruy Teixeira’s cover article for the latest issue of the magazine, which argues that Democrats have “paid a considerable price for their militant identity politics,” and decries their “relative indifference to economic growth.”

To the extent that these attitudes lead to the implementation of corrosive policies at the local, state, and federal levels, they are of concern. To the extent that they lead to electoral wipeouts, the likes of which we seem likely to be headed for in 2022, they’re not only restorative, but deliciously so.

Joe Biden came into the presidency a popular man, thanks in no small part to the behavior of his successor right up until the moment he left office. Those days are long gone, though. In an NBC News poll released last week, Biden’s approval rating sunk 15 points underwater. A Marist College poll found the same deficit among the general public, showing Biden four points underwater with non-white voters, and a whopping 20 leagues under the sea with independents.

Even worse for Democrats, Biden is likely to serve as a drag on the Democratic ticket in key 2022 states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona, and North Carolina, presenting Republicans with an opportunity to retake the Senate and stymie Biden’s ability to stack the judiciary for the remaining two years of his term.

Biden himself is, without a doubt, a not-insignificant part of the problem. He can barely spit out a sentence. Republicans have his demonstrable failures in Afghanistan and on Build Back Better to lambast. His running mate is historically unpopular. His press secretary is reportedly on the verge of jumping ship. His chief of staff reads Jen Rubin columns like they’re the Bible.

But, as Teixeira argues, the deeper problem is the unpopularity of the progressive agenda on immigration, crime, and the economy, as well as its vessel’s perceived anti-patriotism. And Biden, despite his misguided policies and incompetence, actually represents a kind of bulwark against the worst impulses indicted by Teixeira. In other words, the Democrats face both short-term problems facilitated by the Biden administration, and longer-term ones that will come to the forefront after it’s over.

ADDENDUM: Jim Geraghty is out this week, so you’ll be blessed with Alexandra DeSanctis for the next two days and cursed with yours truly again on Thursday and Friday. Prepare yourselves for the incoming Jets mock draft to close out the week.

Law & the Courts

Disney Is Fighting a Losing Battle

Disney employees protest against Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Glendale, Calif., March 22, 2022. (Ringo Chiu/Reuters)

On the menu today: Disney continues its ineffective efforts to stop Florida from enforcing its ban on discussing sex with young children and Republicans continue to mull whether they’ll vote for Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation.

Disney’s Anti-Florida Campaign Continues

There’s no doubt about it: Disney was caught behind the eight ball. The company ought to have known that some number of its loudest employees would be outraged by Florida’s new law forbidding the discussion of sexual topics with children in kindergarten through third grade. By the accounting of these woke employees — who have been trumpeting the media-fueled misnomer “Don’t Say Gay” through bullhorns for the last two weeks — Disney failed to use its considerable influence in the state to kneecap the legislation while it could still be stopped.

Perhaps to save face after Governor Ron DeSantis essentially told the company to take a hike several times, Disney has most recently tried to claim that its lobbyists were working to block the bill behind the scenes all along. In a statement shortly after beginning to face criticism for the company’s supposed inaction, Disney CEO Bob Chapek explained that leaders “thought we could be more effective working behind-the-scenes, engaging directly with lawmakers — on both sides of the aisle.” Our own Isaac Schorr reports that Disney does not in fact appear to have been lobbying in this capacity at all:

At a press conference on Tuesday, DeSantis cast doubt on Chapek’s version of events, remarking that Chris Sprowls, the speaker of Florida’s House of Representatives, never even heard from Disney while the bill was making its way through the legislative process.

Sprowls confirmed as much in an interview with National Review. Even as the company was supposedly working to effectively push back on the legislation, it never picked up the phone to speak with the most powerful member of the House.

What’s more, Sprowls pointed out, is that there is no record of any lobbyist working on behalf of Disney ever having lobbied any member of the Florida House on the bill.

“We checked the action packets for the House Education and Employment, and Judiciary, and Senate Appropriations Committee hearings where HB 1557 was considered,” said Sprowls. “The Walt Disney Corporation did not submit any appearance cards on the bill for any of these meetings. Furthermore, the Florida House requires lobbyists to identify which bills they are lobbying on and no Disney lobbyist registered on HB 1557.”

The registry indicates that Disney had at least 19 different representatives lobbying members of the House on a number of different pieces of legislation in 2021, including the Big Tech bill from which it was granted an exemption. There is no record that a registered lobbyist advocated against HB 1557 for the company.

So Chapek and Disney are back to square one, wrestling with employees who insist that the company Do Something Right Now. One such concession to wokeism appears to be preparing to cram sexualized content into children’s programming. “If we can’t get them in the classroom, we’ll get them at the movie theater,” or something.

In several leaked videos, Disney executives pledged to depict more “transgender and gender-nonconforming” characters in their films — or “queer leads,” as one higher-up put it. In the same vein, they aim to erase all references to “ladies and gentlemen” and “boys and girls” at Disney parks.

The company, in short, finds itself engaged in a game it simply cannot win. On one side is some number of its own employees — we do not even know if it’s a majority or simply a very loud faction — berating the company for not “doing enough” to stop this law, as if Disney had been elected to run the state of Florida. On the other side is Florida’s government, its vocal governor who is insusceptible to bullies, and — important to note — some not insignificant portion of its customers.

It is hard to imagine that, even if some number of parents opposes Florida’s legislation, most parents are hoping Disney’s children’s movies will respond to the law by featuring more sexual themes and “queer leads.” What’s more, polling suggests that most American parents actually don’t oppose Florida’s law at all. When presented with the actual text of the legislation — as opposed to merely being told about it by the pollster — 61 percent of Americans say they support it.

But this seems irrelevant to Disney executives, who are intent on virtue-signaling their way into oblivion. Even the company’s former CEO, Bob Iger, felt the need to double down on the company’s stance in an interview with CNN’s Chris Wallace.

“A lot of these issues aren’t necessarily political,” Iger said. “It’s about right and wrong. To me, it wasn’t politics. It was what is right and what is wrong, and that just seemed wrong. It seemed potentially harmful to kids.”

Iger added that CEOs should be willing to accept “that they’re going to have to weigh in on issues, even if voicing an opinion on those issues potentially puts some of your business in danger. . . . Again, when you’re dealing with right and wrong, or when you’re dealing with something that does have a profound impact on your business, then I just think you have to do what is right and not worry about the potential backlash, to it.”

Let’s leave aside the silliness of the notion that Disney has some moral obligation to bully Florida’s legislators and governor into enacting the company’s preferred social agenda. Focus on what Iger is saying — and what Chapek and Disney have also said — about the law itself. This is a law, again, that forbids teaching sexual topics such as “gender identity” to children between the ages of four and nine. For all their blathering, not a single Disney executive has attempted to explain what precisely is so “harmful” and “immoral” about that.

Republicans Weigh Their Votes on Jackson’s Nomination

Earlier this week, Senator Susan Collins of Maine became the first Republican senator to say that she’ll vote to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. Collins said she decided to vote this way because she believes that Jackson will not be “bending the law to meet a personal preference.”

“In recent years, senators on both sides of the aisle have gotten away from what I perceive to be the appropriate process for evaluating judicial nominees,” Collins said when announcing how she’ll vote. “In my view, the role under the Constitution assigned to the Senate is to look at the credentials, experience and qualifications of the nominee. It is not to assess whether a nominee reflects the individual ideology of a senator or would vote exactly as an individual senator would want.”

So far, most other Republicans have said they’ll decline to vote for Jackson, in many cases citing disagreements with her judicial philosophy. Though Jackson said du