Mother Jones Magazine

Michigan Is Ground Zero for COVID-19 Resistance

Via the New York Times, here is yet another map based on cell phone data that shows where people are still sheltering in place and where they aren’t:

Unsurprisingly, Michigan is ground zero for the “go to hell” crowd, with the Mountain West not too far behind. The Pacific Coast and the Southwest are continuing to take COVID-19 seriously, as is an unusual block of states from Kentucky to South Carolina.

Will the darker areas see a resurgence of COVID-19 more quickly than other areas? Maybe, though I’m not sure things will map out quite that cleanly. In the meantime, stay safe no matter where you live.

Coronavirus Whistleblower to Warn of “Darkest Winter in Modern History”

The United States will experience the “darkest winter in modern history” in the continued absence of a significantly more robust response to the coronavirus pandemic, the federal scientist who was abruptly ousted as the head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority last month will tell Congress on Thursday. 

“Our window of opportunity is closing,” Dr. Rick Bright plans to tell the House’s Energy and Commerce Committee, according to an advanced release of his opening remarks. “If we fail to develop a nationally coordinated response, based in science, I fear the pandemic will get far worse and be prolonged, causing unprecedented illness and fatalities. While it is terrifying to acknowledge the extent of the challenge that we currently confront, the undeniable fact is there will be a resurgence of the COVID-19 this fall, greatly compounding the challenges of seasonal influenza and putting an unprecedented strain on our health care system.”

The statement also said it was “painfully clear” that the administration was woefully underprepared for the crisis, and Bright urged the US to work with international partners in the race for a vaccine. The dire warnings stand in stark contrast to Trump’s premature rush to declare victory, even as the death toll soars past 80,000, but mirrored the assessment Dr. Anthony Fauci gave before a much-anticipated Senate hearing on Tuesday.

Bright is expected to speak about his removal, which he alleges came as a retaliatory move after he had protested President Donald Trump’s aggressive push of hydroxychloroquine, an unproven and potentially dangerous anti-malarial drug, as a coronavirus treatment. 

If You Wish COVID-19 Weren’t the Only Thing to Talk About, We Have Good News for You

Before you wave it off as a bizarre autocorrect misfire or clumsy typo, or an ill-conceived respelling, consider NOVID-19’s origins: “NOVID-19” got going as a just-say-no bit of creativity by hospital workers who named a staff break room the “NOvid room,” a space that allows NO talk of YOU-KNOW-WHAT-19 between shifts. The idea took off. Several medical centers worldwide are doing the same, at doctors’ and nurses’ own initiative. Rules of entry: “1) The first rule of the NOvid room is that you do not talk about COVID-19 in this room. 2) The second rule of the NOvid room is that you DO NOT talk about COVID-19 in this room. 3) The third rule of the NOvid room is that if you mention, imply, or talk about COVID-19, your time in the room is over and you must leave. 4) The fourth rule is to try and sit 2 metres [6 feet] apart…9) The ninth rule is to enjoy the break. 10) Remember you are amazing.”

That 10th rule, hm. But hospital workers are amazing, as are the organizers of NOVID Virtual Runs, drumming up donations for vaccine research. “The idea that NOVID says ‘no’ to COVID and that even a one-letter difference can lift people’s spirits, raise solidarity, and keep us united” is what inspired Blaine Penny, head of the mitochondrial nonprofit MitoCanada, to run with NOVID as a charity name, he tells me, and San Francisco’s Half Marathon manager heard about it and got onboard, establishing a NOVID-20 San Francisco Strava Club. “I knew this was something San Franciscans could get behind,” says Michelle La Sala, the half marathon’s organizer. More than 850 runners in 43 cities and seven countries have signed up for NOVID runs so far, raising thousands of dollars toward research.

But if you’re going to run, follow my colleague Jacob Rosenberg’s rules of the road: way more than 6 feet apart. And let me know your take on NOVID-19 (inspiring? too much? a bit of self-compassion among hospital workers?) at recharge@motherjones.com.

Joe Biden Wants to Hear From Sanders’ Policy Wonks. Will It Be Enough to Win Over Bernie’s Fans?

When Bernie Sanders exited the 2020 presidential primary last month, Biden promised that Sanders’ supporters would have a say over the policies Biden would run on in the general election. On Thursday, the Biden campaign revealed the members of six “Biden-Sanders Unity Task Forces” that will develop that policy platform. Experts who had once operated at the liberal fringe of the Democratic party will have an audience with its presumptive nominee.

The six groups—which will focus on immigration, climate change, criminal justice, the economy, education, and health care—make strange bedfellows of Biden’s and Sanders’ high-profile surrogates. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry, for example, will lead the working group on climate change. Serving alongside them is Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), a Biden pick who chairs the House’s select committee on climate change, as well as Varshini Prakash, a Sanders surrogate and co-founder of the Sunrise Movement who’s been critical of Castor’s committee.

The Sanders’ picks—which account for slightly less than half of the committees—include some of the biggest names in progressive politics. They include labor leaders such as SEIU president Mary Key Henry, a “Medicare for All” supporter who slammed Biden’s suggestion that the single-payer plan would hurt unions, and Sara Nelson, the president of the country’s biggest flight attendants association who is often discussed as a next potential leader of the AFL-CIO.

But the Sanders camp also named lesser-known experts who played an influential role in shaping his 2020 platform—ones whose ideas have been at odds with Biden’s advisers. The economics task force includes Stephanie Kelton, an expert in modern monetary theory—a controversial idea that calls for massive government spending—who served as a senior economics adviser to the Sanders’ campaign. The Sanders economic delegation also includes Darrick Hamilton, the racial wealth gap scholar who shaped Sanders’ federal jobs guarantee, as well as his plans for public education, housing plan, and student debt. As I explained in a profile of the economics professor earlier this year, Hamilton’s ideas helped Sanders bridge the gap between systemic racism and economic inequality in his policy platforms, something that has become a key rallying cry of the activist left.

The task forces also include a familiar name from another 2020 Democratic primary candidacy: Sonal Shah, named to the economy task force, is an Obama White House alumna who most recently served as policy director of Pete Buttigieg’s campaign. None of the major policy players from Elizabeth Warren’s plan-powered campaign have been named to these groups.

The “policy primary” had been a major story as the 2020 Democratic primary unfolded last year. Sanders, in his second run for the presidency, led the way with familiar hits such as “Medicare for All” and his universal free public college proposal, as well as new ones, such as his plan to cancel all student debt. Biden, for the most part, sat it out, opting instead for an emotional appeal to restoring “the soul of the nation.”

Sanders’ ideas had drawn a swath of younger, liberal voters to the Vermont senator’s candidacy, as well as the favor of influential liberal grassroots organizations that had been inspired by his first run four years ago. When Sanders dropped out of the race last month, a coalition of youth-led liberal groups demanded Biden’s campaign adopt key planks of Sanders’ platform and consult Sanders’ bevy of experts as he outlined his White House transition plans. The task forces are a nod to that.

A remaining question is really how much influence these groups will actually exert over the platform Biden and the DNC adopt. The press release announcing the groups says the task forces will “make recommendations” to the former vice president and the DNC Platform committee with no guarantee that the ideas will be adopted wholesale.

As I reported last month, progressives had worried that Biden would name Wall Street sympathizers or corporate lobbyists he’s consulted to these groups. In a letter to Biden, a coalition of youth-led progressive groups asked that Biden appoint no “current or former Wall Street executives or corporate lobbyists, or people affiliated with the fossil fuel, health insurance, or private prison corporations, to your transition team, advisor roles of cabinet.” While the task forces are devoid of the left’s undesirables, Biden has leaned on a massive network of informal advisers accumulated during his roughly four decades in federally elected office. A number of them have been neoliberal economists who have openly criticized the work of Kelton and Hamilton—including Larry Summers, a neoliberal economist who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations who drew the ire of the left when they learned he’d been consulting Biden.

There’s also the question of whether any platform will even matter in Biden’s face-off against Trump, who has fallen behind the former vice president in major polls as voters judge his pandemic response. Policy had been a lukewarm animating force in the Democratic primary: Elizabeth Warren, the candidate with the most plans, lost to Joe Biden, the candidate with the fewest. But Biden will need an enthusiastic left to support his campaign throughout the summer and fall.

Coronavirus Growth in Western Countries: May 12 Update

Here’s the coronavirus death toll through May 12.

So is the “Swedish model” working? If the numbers from their Public Health Agency are accurate, it seems like it is. It’s true that they peaked at a fairly high death rate, but no higher than a lot of other countries. And now they seem to be dropping like a stone. If they keep this up, they’ll be close to zero new deaths within a week or two.

The real test, of course, is how they do over the next few months. Can their “light touch lockdown” be kept in place for the long term, thus preventing any huge new outbreaks? Do they have test-and-trace ready to go once the daily death toll is low enough to make it feasible? Come back in September or so and I’ll let you know.

The raw data from Johns Hopkins is here. The Public Health Agency of Sweden is here.

Powell: We Need to Spend More Money

The Fed chairman says we need to keep spending money. Lots of money:

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said Congress and the White House will need to spend more money to make sure policy makers’ quick initial response to the coronavirus-induced economic contraction isn’t wasted amid evidence that any recovery will take longer than first thought.

….Congress has spent nearly $2.9 trillion so far to support households, businesses, health-care providers and state and local governments, or around 14% of national economic output, the “fastest and largest response for any postwar downturn,” said Mr. Powell. But he said despite the appropriate size and speed, “it may not be the final chapter, given that the path ahead is both highly uncertain and subject to significant downside risks.”

“Additional fiscal support could be costly but worth it if it helps avoid long-term economic damage and leaves us with a stronger recovery,” said Mr. Powell.

There’s only so much that monetary policy can do to address a recession, and the Fed itself is probably out of ammunition. What’s left is fiscal policy. The $2.9 trillion already allocated might have been enough if our response to the coronavirus had been strong, but it was just the opposite. We are about to go through a second outbreak, and the price for that is—at least—another $3 trillion.

This is something Republicans brought on themselves and now it’s time to pay up instead of whining about deficits.

More and More States Are Finally Confronting Unconscious Racism in Jury Selection

This article was originally published by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the US criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.

When lawyers in Cedric Hobbs Jr.’s 2014 death penalty trial in Cumberland County, North Carolina, began picking a jury, the pool was 50 percent black. By the time the trial began, there were only two black people on the jury. When the defense accused prosecutors of racial discrimination in the selection process, they acted indignant. “Somehow we’re just racists in this county,” one told the judge.

Prosecutors presented a range of justifications. One black man, according to court documents, “had once been a member of a gang in his youth.” Another was eliminated for singing “the sun will come out tomorrow,” a line from the musical “Annie,” as he exited court. The judge allowed the jury to stand.

In February, Hobbs’ attorneys argued at the Supreme Court of North Carolina that the selection process was part of a longstanding pattern in which prosecutors systematically exclude black people from juries, then argue race is not a factor. In briefs filed in support of Hobbs, a coalition of criminal justice advocates argued that implicit biases—the notion that people can hold prejudices without being conscious of them—”are no less entrenched and no less harmful to the criminal justice system” than overt racism.

Another was eliminated for singing “the sun will come out tomorrow,” a line from the musical “Annie,” as he exited court. The judge allowed the jury to stand.

On May 1, the court handed down its decision: it did not grant Hobbs the new trial his lawyers sought. But it found that the judge did not consider all the evidence of discrimination and told him to look again.

The North Carolina Supreme Court, which heard another case about racism in jury selection in August, isn’t the only one in the country reconsidering how race may affect jury selection. High courts in Washington, California and Connecticut have called for or implemented changes to address how implicit bias can keep black people off of juries unfairly.

The first state to do so was Washington, which in 2018 issued a rule requiring judges to consider “implicit, institutional, and unconscious biases, in addition to purposeful discrimination.”

Last December, the Connecticut Supreme Court followed suit by announcing it would appoint a special task force to study implicit bias in jury selection. The Supreme Court of California made a similar announcement in January. These developments come amid a sharpened focus in the criminal justice system on implicit bias.

Recent research has unveiled unconscious racism driving everything from police-involved shootings of black men to charging decisions made by prosecutors. Researchers have found that people are more likely to perceive black people as guilty, more likely to shoot them in police simulations and more likely to remove them from juries, even when their other demographics are identical to white potential jurors’.

At the core of recent arguments about racism in jury selection is the recognition that attorneys too often “rely on stereotypes like who is going to be sympathetic or not” says Catherine Grosso, a Michigan State University law professor who co-authored a seminal 2012 study of death penalty cases in North Carolina. The study found that black people were removed from juries at more than twice the rate of those of other races. The data undergirds Hobbs’ appeal there. “I think what we’re seeing is a recognition that even explicit racism doesn’t always have a smoking gun.”

The U.S. Supreme Court established the foundation for challenging racial bias in jury selection in 1986 in the case of Batson v. Kentucky. At issue were “peremptory strikes,” the limited number of opportunities prosecutors and defense attorneys have to remove jurors without having to explain why. The Batson decision forbade lawyers from using race as a basis for a peremptory strike. But from the minute the Batson decision was handed down, its critics—including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who nevertheless voted to support it—argued that the so-called “Batson challenge” process had a major loophole. To mount a Batson challenge, a lawyer—most often for the defense—argues that a strike is race-based. All opposing attorneys have to do is offer a reason that is supposedly race-neutral. Then the judge makes a ruling.

Attorneys too often “rely on stereotypes like who is going to be sympathetic or not.”

Potential jurors have been rejected for having dyed red hair, or wearing a large white hat and sunglasses. In 1995, the Supreme Court further said prosecutors need not even give “a reason that makes sense,” as long as the reason “does not deny equal protection.”

Stephen Bright, a Yale University law professor who has argued several Batson-related cases before the Supreme Court, says familiarity with prosecutors can affect the decisions judges make. “A judge who deals with prosecutors every day is not going to say, ‘You intentionally discriminated on the basis of race, and you lied about it with pretextual reasons.’”

In one Georgia case prosecutors systematically excluded black potential jurors by saying, for example, one was too close in age to the defendant (she was 34 and he was 19), and one had a son who had been convicted of “basically the same thing that this defendant is charged with” (the son stole hubcaps; the defendant was accused of murder). State judges allowed these reasons to stand until the U.S. Supreme Court overturned them.

In researching the Georgia case and several others, defense attorneys have uncovered trainings and manuals teaching prosecutors to invent plausible-sounding “race neutral” explanations for striking black jurors such as “appearance,” “lifestyle concerns,” living in a “high crime area.” In one Alabama case, the judge allowed the prosecutor to strike a black prospective juror because the prosecutor said he “looked like a drug dealer.”

But outside of extreme examples, prosecutors may not even realize that they are acting on the basis of prejudice. “The person who strikes doesn’t really know why they struck,” says Bright. “[Prosecutors may say to themselves,] ‘this is a young black woman, but she’s a school teacher. And I don’t like school teachers.’ Lawyers tell themselves they’re striking for other reasons.”

This is what makes implicit bias in jury selection so intractable.

Washington’s Supreme Court began to look at the issue in 2013 after it decided the case of Kirk Saintcalle, a black man convicted of murder after prosecutors removed the only black potential juror. The court ruled against Saintcalle, finding the prosecutor’s stated reason—the juror had recently lost a friend to murder—was good enough under Batson. But it sparked an internal reckoning. “Batson recognizes only ‘purposeful discrimination,’ whereas racism is often unintentional, institutional, or unconscious,” the judges found. “We conclude that our Batson procedures must change.”

“A judge who deals with prosecutors every day is not going to say, ‘You intentionally discriminated on the basis of race, and you lied about it with pretextual reasons.’”

Connecticut and California had similar reckonings in 2019, in which the high courts in those states upheld a strike as race-neutral under Batson and then declared that Batson is not good enough. “The Batson framework has proven to be wholly inadequate,” wrote Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Raheem Mullins in an opinion accompanying the majority’s.

The Washington rule passed in 2018 says the judge need not find purposeful discrimination. What matters is whether “an objective observer could view race or ethnicity as a factor.” It also includes a list of reasons that have long been allowed as “race neutral” but which judges should now assume are stand-ins for race, like receiving public benefits or “expressing a distrust of law enforcement.” The court hasn’t yet collected data on what impact the new rule has had on the racial composition of juries, says spokesperson Wendy Ferrell. Today, California lawmakers will hold hearings on a bill that has a similar list of reasons for excluding jurors that judges should assume are simply racism by another name.

For the North Carolina Supreme Court to follow Washington, Connecticut and California’s lead will require a substantial shift in mindset: In the 30 years since Batson was handed down, the court has never once found a violation against a juror of color.

That’s still true. In the Hobbs case, the high court said only that the original judge must re-examine evidence of bias. But David Weiss, a lawyer who worked with groups in support of the Hobbs case,* said he is hopeful the court will still create a working group to look at implicit bias. “It’s an option that we gave them,” he said. “The chief justice can take us up on that at any time.”

*A previous version of the story misidentified David Weiss as one of Hobbs’ attorneys. Weiss represented civil rights groups that filed amicus briefs in the case.

He Was One of New York’s Most Famous Prisoners. Now He’s One of Its Oldest—and Most Vulnerable.

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin was at home cooking on Saturday afternoon when his dad, David Gilbert, called from a prison in upstate New York. Boudin was glad to hear his father’s voice. But he was worried about his old man: Someone in the cell next to him had tested positive for the coronavirus.

At 75, Gilbert is one of the oldest prisoners in the state. Even calling his son is risky for him now, since hundreds of guys at Shawangunk Correctional Facility share the same phones to call home. Before dialing his son, Gilbert wrapped the receiver with an undershirt to avoid touching it to his face. He would hand-wash the shirt after returning to his cell.

As the coronavirus sweeps through the country’s prisons and jails, Gilbert is one of the tens of thousands of elderly inmates at high risk for complications. In New York, about 2,600 prisoners were at least 60 years old in 2018. A greater number have other serious underlying conditions. Now Gilbert is part of a group of vulnerable inmates petitioning a court to protect them from the deadly virus by releasing them early.

Boudin was raised in Chicago by his parents’ professor friends, fellow Weathermen Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn.

In 1981, when Boudin was just 14 months old, his mother, Kathy Boudin, and Gilbert—both members of the leftist Weather Underground group—were arrested for serving as getaway drivers during the notorious Brinks heist, which resulted in the deaths of a company guard and two police officers. Boudin was raised in Chicago by his parents’ professor friends, fellow Weathermen Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. He got to know his own mother and father through phone calls. They liked to tell him fictional adventure stories—Gilbert calling to share a chapter one day, and Kathy Boudin following up later with another. She was paroled in 2003, the year Boudin became a Rhodes Scholar. Gilbert received a longer sentence and has many years left in prison. Boudin visited him last November, on the same day he learned he had been elected as San Francisco’s DA.

Since then, the coronavirus has sickened at least 20 incarcerated people at Shawangunk, and 414 in other New York state prisons. Fifteen inmates have died. Nationally, the percentage of people in state prisons who are 55 and older more than tripled between 2000 and 2016, to 150,000 people, according to a recent Marshall Project analysis, which noted that for the first time ever, these older adults compose a greater percentage of the prison population than people between the ages of 18 and 24.

Gilbert is trying to be careful: He’s skipping some meals to avoid the crowded mess hall, and forgoing breaks outside and exercise in the yard. But his cell has a wall of bars that open onto a pathway, so he’s regularly within six feet of other people. “We’re really worried about him,” says Boudin, who notes that his dad has underlying medical problems, including hypothyroid disorder and damage to his digestive system, that have been exacerbated by the decades he’s spent in prison.

For the first time ever, older adults compose a greater percentage of the prison population than people between the ages of 18 and 24.

And the prison, Boudin argues, cannot keep his father safe. Social distancing is virtually impossible behind bars, and protective equipment and tests are in short supply. Because of this, many states have started releasing some people early, especially those who committed nonviolent crimes, are almost done with their sentences, and have medical conditions that put them at greater risk of complications.

But New York, an epicenter of the virus, has been relatively slow to let them go. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has resisted using his clemency powers to release people, leaving stacks of applications—including Gilbert’s—pending. The state has only freed 162 inmates, less than half of 1 percent of its prison population, in response to the pandemic. All of them were 55 and older and convicted of nonviolent crimes, with less than 90 days remaining on their sentence. By comparison, California, where Boudin is based, has let 3,500 prisoners go home early in response to the pandemic, or nearly 3 percent of its total prison population.

Gilbert and 21 other people in Ulster County prisons filed a habeas corpus petition for release on Monday with help from the Legal Aid Society of New York. The inmates argue their continued imprisonment during the pandemic, in facilities where they are at substantially higher risk of infection, violates the Eighth Amendment. “By design and operation, New York state prisons make it impossible for [them] to engage in the necessary hygiene, cleaning, and social distancing measures that experts implore all of us to take to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission,” their petition states. Infrequent testing in New York prisons means the infection rate is likely much higher than has been reported. “In the absence of executive action by Governor Cuomo, courts must act to protect our clients’ constitutional rights to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment,” says Lauren Jones, their attorney.

Some of the prisoners who filed the petition are elderly and have served decades in prison; others have weakened immune systems from medication, cancer, or HIV, or struggle to breathe because of asthma, emphysema, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. One of the petitioners, Julio Rivera, reports that when he goes to his prison’s medical clinic to get insulin for his diabetes, he often encounters 20 or 30 other people there, and must stand closer than six feet next to some of them in line.

Another petitioner, Robert Drach, says that the medical unit where he receives chemotherapy also houses men who tested positive for COVID-19. Their family members worry they may not make it out of prison alive. “They deserve to get a second chance,” says Geannie Chalk, whose brother Richard Lee Chalk, 61, another petitioner, has atrial fibrillation, diabetes, asthma, hypertension, and sleep apnea. “There are nights my wife and I cannot even close our eyes” to sleep, says Roy Williams Sr., whose son Roy, 47, takes an immunosuppressive drug three times a day to treat his Crohn’s disease at Eastern prison, where 17 people have tested positive for COVID-19.

Richard Lee Chalk is now incarcerated at Shawangunk prison.
Courtesy of Legal Aid Society

Gilbert and the other men in the petition argue they are not a public safety risk, and that continuing to lock them up is unnecessary during the pandemic. New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision declined to comment on the pending litigation.

In the nearly 40 years that Gilbert has spent in prison, he has never once received a disciplinary infraction, according to his attorneys. And during that time, he has become a mentor to younger incarcerated men. Jerome Wright, a civil rights activist, first met Gilbert at Great Meadow Correctional Facility in the 1980s. The two men worked together to develop peer education classes in prison about the AIDS epidemic. “I was much younger than him, in my 20s, and he was instrumental in quelling a lot of fear that the younger guys had about the prevalence of HIV infection, how you got it, and the conspiracy theories,” Wright recalls. “He would talk to us about what we could do to protect ourselves and our family. Because of his calm, quiet way of talking and the celebrity he had in the fight for justice for Black and brown people, we would listen to him. He was one of the mentors that helped me develop as a young man.”

Boudin says his father has also influenced how he approaches his job as district attorney. When Boudin campaigned last year for office, after years working as a public defender, he made national headlines by pledging to request prison sentences only as a last resort—an unusual stance for a prosecutor. During the pandemic, he has tried to find alternatives to jail for people who are older or medically vulnerable. And he helped reduce San Francisco’s jail population by 40 percent since January. Crime has dropped too, and the infection rate in the city’s jails has remained relatively low, even with widespread testing: Three inmates have tested positive so far (all three during intake). In jails in Chicago and New York City, by comparison, hundreds have been sickened by the virus. Boudin hopes to convince Gov. Gavin Newsom to enact statewide policy changes that could help release more elderly and medically vulnerable people from prisons during the pandemic.

Roy Williams Jr., top right, at age 13
Courtesy of Legal Aid Society

Boudin tends to condemn his parents’ crime. “There are three families that don’t have a father anymore because of the crime that my parents participated in,” he told NPR’s Terry Gross recently. (Gilbert was not armed during the Brinks heist and did not attack anyone, but received a 75-year-to-life sentence under New York’s felony murder law.) As a district attorney, Boudin also emphasizes that public safety is his top goal. But his father and the other aging, sick prisoners in Ulster County have long since rehabilitated, he says, and keeping them in prison needlessly puts them at risk of death without any benefit to the broader community. “They are not a public safety risk,” he says. “They have all served long prison terms—they’ve changed, they’ve grown old.”

“They are not a public safety risk. They have all served long prison terms—they’ve changed, they’ve grown old.”

Research shows that, overwhelmingly, people usually age out of crime: One study of New York prisoners who were 65 or older found that only 4 percent were convicted of another crime after their release, compared to 16 percent of men younger than 50. Studies in other states have shown even lower recidivism rates for the elderly.

His dad continues to call regularly with updates. It’s a strange feeling, fielding the calls from New York during breaks from his own work to get people out of San Francisco’s jails. “I grew up feeling largely powerless to help my father,” Boudin tells me. “And now I’m district attorney, and I have a really concrete power and responsibility.” He pauses: “It’s an intense contrast, to have the responsibility and power to make these decisions with regard to so many people who are accused of crimes in San Francisco—and to be so powerless when it comes to my father.”

Plastic Recycling is Broken. So Why Does Big Plastic Want $1 Billion to Fix It?

This piece was originally published in Grist and appears here as part of our Climate Desk Partnership.

As the coronavirus pandemic cripples the US economy, corporate giants are turning to Congress for help. Polluting industries have been among the first in line: Congress has already bailed out airlines, and coal companies have snagged over $30 million in federal small-business loans. Big Plastic is next in line with what might seem a surprising request: $1 billion to help fix the country’s recycling.

A group of plastic industry and trade groups sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on April 16, asking Congress to allocate $1 billion to municipal and state recycling infrastructure in the next pandemic stimulus bill. It would be part of legislation known as the RECOVER Act, first introduced in Congress last November. Recycling sounds great, and has long been an environmental policy that almost everyone—Republicans and Democrats both—can get behind. To some environmentalists and advocates, however, the latest push is simply the plastic industry trying to get the federal government to clean up mountains of plastic waste in an attempt to burnish Big Plastic’s image.

“Plastic recycling has been a failure,” said Judith Enck, a former regional director for the Environmental Protection Agency and the founder of the organization Beyond Plastics. “And there’s no reason to try to spend federal tax dollars to try to prop up plastic recycling when it really hasn’t worked for the last 30 years anyway.”

“And there’s no reason to try to spend federal tax dollars to try to prop up plastic recycling when it really hasn’t worked for the last 30 years anyway.”

Put simply, very little of your plastic recycling actually gets recycled. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, less than 10 percent of the plastic produced in the past four decades has been recycled; the rest has wound up in landfills or been incinerated. In 2017, the US produced over 35 million tons of plastic, yet less than 3 million tons was made into new products.

Part of the problem is that some items are composed of different types of plastic and chemicals, making them difficult to melt down and process. Only plastics with a “1” or “2” symbol are commonly recycled, and even then, they are more often “downcycled” into different types of products. A container of laundry detergent or a plastic soda bottle might be used for a new carpet or outdoor decking, but rarely into a new bottle. And downcycling is one step closer to the landfill. “The logo of recycling is the arrow that goes around and around—but that’s never been the case with plastic,” said Enck.

Big plastic-producing companies also have little incentive to use recycled materials rather than virgin materials. Plastics are made from petroleum, and when the price of crude oil is as low as it is now, it costs more to manufacture goods from recycled polymers than from crude.

Some analysts say that the RECOVER Act doesn’t take on these larger issues. The act is aimed at the “curbside” aspect of recycling: funding city and state recycling collection, improving sorting at processing plants, and encouraging consumer education—teaching people what can (and cannot) go into recycling bins. (The legislation is also backed by the American Chemistry Council, which represents Dow Chemical and ExxonMobil, and has long fought against municipal plastic bag bans.)

There are some curbside problems with recycling. If plastic bags or containers covered with food waste get into recycling bins, they can contaminate other items and make sorting and reuse more difficult.

But Jonathan Krones, a professor of environmental studies at Boston College, said the real problem isn’t at the curb. It’s that “there aren’t robust, long-term resilient end markets for recycled material.” Even if cities manage to collect and sort more recycling, without markets all those perfectly processed plastics have nowhere to go.

For decades the US solved part of the problem by selling hundreds of thousands of tons of used plastics to China. Then, in 2018, the Chinese government implemented its “National Sword” policy, forbidding the import of 24 types of waste in a campaign against foreign trash. The US suddenly had lost the biggest market for its used plastics, and cities across the US began burning recyclables or sending them to landfills. Some cities have stopped recycling plastic and paper altogether.

So why is Big Plastic pushing the RECOVER Act? Some argue that petroleum companies are trying to paper over the failures of plastic recycling. If consumers realized that only 10 percent of their plastics are ultimately recycled, they might push for bans on plastic bags and other single-use items, or more stringent restrictions on packaging. Keeping the focus on recycling can distract public attention from the piles of plastic waste clogging up our landfills and oceans. And a recent investigation by NPR and Frontline revealed that since the 1970s the plastics industry has backed recycling programs to buttress its public image.

“Had this bill been proposed 10 years ago, I think I would have said it was a good idea,” Krones said, referring to the RECOVER Act. “But what has been revealed after National Sword is that this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a technology problem. It’s a consumption problem and a manufacturing problem.” He argues that any attempt to fix plastic recycling should come with constraints on the production of new materials—only manufacturing plastics that can be easily broken down and reused, for example, or mandating that companies include a certain percentage of recycled materials in their products.

 

There are other ways to deal with the plastic problem. In February, Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, a Democrat, introduced the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, which would phase out many single-use plastic items like utensils and straws and require big companies to pay for recycling and composting products—what’s known as “extended producer responsibility.” Other countries have similar laws on the books: Germany has required companies to take responsibility for their own packaging since 1991, and it’s been credited with dramatically reducing waste.

For now, plastic use is on the rise. According to Rachel Meidl, a fellow in energy and environment at Rice University, the pandemic is bringing piles of takeout boxes and plastic bags to landfills, as cities ban reusable bags and enforce social distancing. She thinks that the RECOVER Act could be helpful, but that it needs to be coupled with other interventions.

“No matter how much government funding is allocated towards recycling efforts, there first needs to be a significant paradigm in human behavior,” she said. “Where plastic is viewed as a resource, not a waste.”

Trump’s New Battle Cry: “Lock ‘Em Up”

From the Washington Post:

Since writing “HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY” at 8:10 a.m. on Sunday, Trump has used his Twitter account to make or elevate allegations of criminal conduct against no less than 20 individuals and organizations….The list of purported culprits Trump has charged include two television news hosts, a comedian, at least five former officials from the FBI and Justice Department, the state of California, a broadcast television station and at least five top national security officials from President Barack Obama’s administration.

….Since taking office, Trump has casually accused multiple people of treason, ranging from former FBI director James B. Comey to the American media. He has regularly accused people of perjury or mishandling classified information, usually without evidence. He has said former secretary of state John F. Kerry “should be prosecuted” for an alleged violation of the Logan Act, a rarely invoked law preventing private citizens from conducting diplomacy on behalf of the U.S. government, due to his interactions with Iranian officials. Kerry has called Trump’s allegation “another presidential lie.”

….Trump has tweeted that top officials in the Obama administration perpetuated the “the biggest political crime in American history, by far!” He has retweeted posts calling for a wide range of people to be “handcuffed and prosecuted,” “indited,” put “in prison” and left “sitting in a cell.”

This man is the leader of the Republican Party. That’s a choice the party has made, not an inevitable fact of life. They could do something about this if they had the guts to do it. But they don’t.

Latin America Is the Next Epicenter of COVID-19

As expected, COVID-19 has moved out of Asia, North America, and Europe. The New York Times reports that Latin America is now experiencing a surge of coronavirus deaths similar to the early days of the outbreak in Europe but without the money and infrastructure Europe brought to bear against the virus. Official figures are iffy, but here they are anyway:

Ecuador, Brazil, Peru, and Mexico are high and climbing. All four look to be completely out of control. The other countries look OK for the moment, but that’s likely to change over time. The Times describes the carnage:

Deaths doubled in Lima, rivaling the worst month of the pandemic in Paris. They tripled in Manaus, a metropolis tucked deep in Brazil’s Amazon — a surge similar to what London and Madrid endured. In Guayaquil, a port city in Ecuador, the sudden spike in fatalities in April was comparable to what New York City experienced during its worst month: more than five times the number of people died than in previous years.

….Brazilian cities are resorting to mass graves to bury rows of stacked coffins. Hundreds of Ecuadoreans are still searching for the bodies of family members who went to hospitals and never returned….Peruvian highways swelled with the biggest wave of internal migration in years as people fled to the countryside when jobs disappeared. Tens of thousands of Venezuelan refugees have been forced to walk back to their destroyed homeland because work in neighboring countries has become so scarce.

….Facing the pandemic in the wake of China, Europe and the United States brought an additional set of challenges. Exhausted local officials in Ecuador, Peru and Brazil pointed to global test shortages and explained they were being outbid by richer nations on scarce medical supplies.

This is a disaster that will likely make Europe and the United States look like pipsqueaks. And thanks to the COVID-19 outbreaks consuming everyone’s attention elsewhere, virtually no aid is flowing in to help out. Just the opposite, in fact.

Debt Collectors Get a Bailout in Democrats’ New Pandemic Relief Bill

House Democrats’ second emergency relief bill offers a welcome soft landing for the millions of Americans struggling to pay their bills in the face of a pandemic-induced recession. But that relief is a two-way street: Debt collectors, too, will received federal fundings to make up for lost revenue.

On Tuesday, the Democratic leadership in the US House released a $3 trillion, 1,815 page bill to help boost the economy as the nation remains under pandemic lockdown. The new bill would, if it became law, grant people experiencing financial hardship a forbearance on their debts—”with no additional documentation required other than the borrower’s attestation to a financial hardship caused by COVID-19.” The provision reduces the bureaucratic burden of proving their circumstances—something banks and lenders likely have little time or energy for, now that 33 million Americans are out of work. 

But the cushion doesn’t just benefit out-of-work Americans. The Democrats’ legislation also establishes “a facility” within the Federal Reserve to make “long-term, low-cost loans” to debt collectors to “temporarily compensate” them until consumers’ payments resume. While this compensation would be extended to all creditors such as utilities and local government agencies, it also extends to companies that make a profit hounding poor Americans—especially Americans of color—for unpaid debts will be prepared to resume business once the pandemic subsides.*

To be sure, the debt collection trade is facing trying times. Nearly a third of Americans didn’t pay their April rent, and that was a mere three weeks into the coronavirus crisis. Since then, more than 20 million Americans have lost their jobs. A number of banks are waiving overdraft fees for customers facing hardship, and credit card lenders have braced themselves for the likelihood that they won’t get paid until people are back to work.

It could be worse: After Americans started to receive their stimulus checks of up to $1,200—a provision of the first emergency relief bill in mid-March—banks began to garnish those payments to pay off existing debts. Democrats included a ban of garnishment in their latest proposals.

*Clarification, May 12, 2020, 9:30pm: This post has been updated to clarify that the provision in the bill would benefit all creditors.

There Are Lots of Reasons to Be Outraged Other Than Susan Collins’ Lack of a Face Mask

Today, like any good politics blogger, I tuned in to watch the first major hearing by the Senate on the government response to the coronavirus pandemic. And, like any good politics blogger, I had Twitter open in a separate tab. Much to my surprise, instead of Dr. Anthony Fauci—the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases—or Centers for Disease Control head Dr. Robert Redfield, who was trending but Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). I clicked on her name. Surely, I thought, her absurd defense of the dental lobby was going viral.

Sen. Susan Collins: “Dentists tell me that teeth with cavities that could’ve been filled are now going to need root canals.” pic.twitter.com/vdnD0BqtNu

— The Hill (@thehill) May 12, 2020

 

But no! Instead, I found post after viral post criticizing her for not wearing a mask.

For all the reasons to criticize Collins—her decisive vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, for example, or her reluctance to convict President Donald Trump in his Senate impeachment trial—this one actually seems to be unfair. Here’s why.

At the beginning of the hearing, the chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), announced that senators were allowed to remove their masks when speaking because they were all six feet apart. From the footage I have been poring over to get to the bottom of this pressing issue, I can see that Senator Collins, also known as the villain, entered the hearing room wearing a mask. She said hello to Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.), sat down at her isolated seat, and, after a few minutes, slipped off her mask. During that time, the Twitter outrage began.

Dr. Anthony Fauci is about to testify before the Senate. Everyone in this camera shot is wearing a mask, except for Susan Collins.

Because wearing a mask to protect yourself and others from a deadly virus is now deemed partisan and anti-Trump. pic.twitter.com/t4K7cMl4YC

— Charlotte Clymer (@cmclymer) May 12, 2020

Later in the hearing, her mask was back on, where it remained for the rest of the hearing, except when she was speaking. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing masks “in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain”—not in Senate hearings where all who are attending are amply spread apart. There isn’t even a scientific consensus on how effective face coverings are in preventing the spread of the coronavirus, but we don’t need to get into that here. (President Trump, it turns out, wouldn’t be caught dead in a mask.) So, please, can we stop with the mask shaming and figure out why Collins wants to risk lives to appease Maine’s dentists? 

Donald Trump’s Lawyer Tries to Convince the Supreme Court That Presidents Are Above the Law

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard more than four hours of arguments over whether two banks and an accounting firm should obey subpoenas, issued by Congress and New York prosecutors, for Donald Trump’s financial records. Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow was blunt about why (at least) prosecutors shouldn’t be allowed to pursue those documents.

“The president is not to be treated as an ordinary citizen,” Sekulow told the justices in a rare Supreme Court hearing, conducted by phone and livestreamed to the public, adding later that Trump is far from an ordinary citizen. “He’s the president of the United States, he’s a branch of the government.”

The court heard arguments in two closely related cases. The first involves subpoenas issued by three Democratic-controlled House committees investigating a variety of issues involving the president, including the IRS’s handling of his tax returns and allegations of foreign interference in the 2016 election. The second case concerns subpoenas issued by a grand jury convened by New York attorney general Cyrus Vance, who is probing hush money payments allegedly made to women Trump conducted affairs with prior to becoming president. The subpoenas are nearly identical. They seek bank records from Capital One and Deutsche Bank, the president’s largest lender, including internal bank communications discussing concerns about potentially suspicious transaction activity related to Trump Organization accounts. Both New York prosecutors and the House committees are also requesting that accounting firm Mazars turn over copies of Trump’s tax returns. Trump sued to block the subpoenas, and the cases have wound their way to the Supreme Court. The banks and accounting firm have indicated they will comply with the subpoenas if the court permits them to release the records. 

In the case of the New York grand jury, Sekulow argued that responding to a subpoena would just be too distracting for a president. He suggested that any grand jury subpoenas involving the president should be delayed until he leaves office. 

Many of the justices—even some of the court’s conservative members—seemed skeptical that a subpoena would interfere with a president doing his or her job. Chief Justice John Roberts questioned Sekulow’s argument that Vance’s grand jury investigation was proper, but the subpoena for information it needed for the probe should be off limits. 

“In other words, it’s okay for the grand jury to investigate, but it can’t use the usual and most typical device?” Roberts asked.

Several justices indicated they saw a wide gulf between determining if a prosecutor really needed documents in a case involving the president, and stating that the president (or his banks and accountant) are immune from subpoenas.

Justice Elena Kagan went after the notion that Trump’s presidential status meant he should not have to provide evidence, like any other citizen, if a grand jury asked. “The president shouldn’t be treated like an ordinary citizen, but it’s also a fundamental precept that the president isn’t above the law,” she said. “Why isn’t the way to deal with these two things that the president is special, but the president is like an ordinary citizen in that he is subject to law?” 

If the president feels it is too onerous to meet a subpoena’s demands, he can—like anyone else—go to a judge and ask for some flexibility, she noted.

“The courts in reviewing those of course should take seriously the president’s objections and treat those with a certain kind of sensitivity and respect due to someone who is a branch of government,” she said.

The specter of Paula Jones’ 1998 lawsuit against Bill Clinton hung over the arguments. In that case, Clinton had advanced a similar argument that the matter should be deferred, but the Supreme Court unanimously determined that Jones had the right to pursue her lawsuit against the president—he was not above that—but that he was given some special dispensation for when and where he must respond to demands for a deposition or other information. 

“How is this more burdensome than Paula Jones v. Clinton?” asked Justice Neil Gorsuch, one of Trump’s appointees. “There they sought the deposition of the president while he was serving; here they’re seeking records from third parties.”

Sekulow also argued that allowing Vance’s investigation would open the floodgates to as many as 2,300 local prosecutors launching politically motivated probes against a president—another argument that received pushback from justices.

Carey Dunne, who represented the Manhattan district attorney’s office, also dismissed that idea, noting that not only did the Supreme Court permit the Jones lawsuit to move forward, it allowed the Watergate investigation to proceed against Richard Nixon in the 1970s.

“There’s no empirical basis in history for this apocalyptic prediction,” he contended. “The same claim was made and rejected in Nixon and Clinton, those were decades ago, and there has been no flood of prosecutions or investigations.” 

In between Trump’s attorneys and Vance’s office, the Department of Justice argued for the implementation of some standard for subpoenas involving the president, stopping well short of advocating that such requests should be banned until he or she leaves office.

The justices generally seemed more skeptical of the case presented by the House in its pursuit of the president’s financial records. Although none seemed to accept the idea that Congress couldn’t investigate a sitting president, Douglas Letter, general counsel to the House of Representatives, seemed unprepared to tell the justices where that investigative power should stop. Each of the committees has advanced arguments over why the documents they’re seeking are needed for legislative purposes. But when pressed by justices Sonia Sotomayor and Brett Kavanaugh, Letter was unable to say whether, for example, a president’s personal medical records were fair game. 

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the cases in late June or early July. 

Lunchtime Photo

Here’s another picture in my series of slot canyon photos. As before, this is a picture from Slot Canyon X near Page, Arizona.

January 27, 2020 — Navajo Nation, Highway 98, Arizona

America’s Senators Are Just Like Your Colleagues: Pretty Bad at Zoom

Looking our best during an online work appearance is a real struggle. The public had a rare opportunity on Tuesday to see some of their leaders and top medical officials share that pain, during a Senate hearing into the Trump administration’s coronavirus pandemic response that mixed in-person attendance with video conferencing.

Putting aside the substance for one moment (my colleagues are doing a great job of highlighting the best moments), there were mixed results—ranging from terrifying to broadcast-worthy—in terms of production value. Perhaps their failures and successes can be used to make your next Zoom better.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases 

Fauci’s setup is good. Very on-brand: lots of books; a neat but busy mind. It’s exactly how I imagined (and wanted) his home office to be. But he’s taken the “lift your camera higher” advice too far. Usually this guidance helps lift a subject’s face, smoothing out necklines, and establishing a direct line of eye contact with the viewer. In this case, the camera being too high has a counter-effect, closing Fauci’s face off to the viewer, because he needs to look down to read his notes or cast his eyes to other participants on his screen. The camera angle shows too much floor, and not enough wall.

But overall, his composition is good. Most importantly, he knows how to find his light. He has placed himself in the center, and given himself a nice amount of headroom so he’s not butting the top of the frame. The array of interesting props doesn’t distract from his performance. I’d like him a bit closer to the camera. That could mean bringing his computer closer, because that chair doesn’t look like it will come in any more under the desk. But that’s a quibble.

Anthony Fauci has so much credibility that books get out of bookcases and settle behind him on the floor. The chevron made by the desks produces two streams away but Anthony and the books are central and immovable. He is the tip of the credibility spear and they are his shaft. pic.twitter.com/8LI0Uev6Yz

— Bookcase Credibility (@BCredibility) May 12, 2020

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

Bernie’s frame is good. Normally, I’d be worried about this amount of backlight throwing a face into silhouette. But he appears to be countering that with another light source behind the camera, either another window, or a fixed light from his campaign? I like the vermilion wall, which gives character and makes his face pop. But there’s crowding in his wall furnishings. I think it’s good to leave as much room around your head as possible (even though my colleagues were very excited to learn about his Red Hot Chili Peppers fandom).

Don’t think we can’t see the people who spent years angrily insisting that their Bernie fandom is 100% about rigoroous policy analysis gushing over his Red Hot Chili Peppers posters.

— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) May 12, 2020

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.)

Murray is doing a few things to avoid, and a few things to embrace. She’s not in the center, and the top of her head bumps the top of her frame. Also, there is a lot of echo in her room. If that’s happening, it’s because there are a lot of hard surfaces; you can break that up with soft furnishings like cushions, a blanket, a rug, or curtains. That said, her light is good, especially the way it’s catching her hair. A great tip before you hop on camera is do the thing that makes you feel good. If it’s showing off your hair (hard in a pandemic, I know), do that. If it’s your favorite shirt, the one that always gets great comments, wear that. Make yourself feel good. It gives you confidence. So whatever that thing is you do to make yourself feel sharp, do it.

Dr. Stephen Hahn, Commissioner, Food and Drug Administration

Whoa. He looks like a ghost popping up to say “Boo!” to a small child, sponsored by Shutterstock. To get that kind of shallow depth of field would require a ridiculously low f-stop on a proper camera, and then tons of front-light to combat the extreme back-light. The haziness around the edges indicates it’s almost certainly a fake background. There’s just no way he’s actually pulling off the look he’s faking. Not cool.

In fact, it looks like someone has found the exact background, called “school library or office lobby waiting area for educational business background,” from Getty:

Stephen Hahn is using a Getty stock image as his background during his testimony: https://t.co/OypfcCJGdH

— Andrew P. Scott (@apscott) May 12, 2020

Admiral Brett Giroir, Assistant Secretary for Health

Okay, Brett, look, some real missed opportunities here. The light is great. You look great in that uniform. You’re facing a window. The eye level is spot-on. But the flag composition is wrong, interrupting your head space. Set them further aside so you exist in the middle of the frame without competition. Or place two on each side? Or just no flags? Feature that nice bureaucratic wood paneling without guilt—don’t be shy about that government chic. Also I feel like I’m on a slant, like everything is about to slide starboard, like you’re calling in from a boat. For some reason your connection craps out. Hardwiring your computer to your router can sometimes squeeze out a bit more bandwidth. Do a speed-test beforehand. Make sure your kids aren’t hogging your home system during an important call.

Robert Redfield, Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

This got quite a bit of criticism from our Slack chatter, but I have to say, he’s got pretty good general composition, placing himself centrally, and has put in some thought and prep. The main problem: His camera needs to be slightly above his eye line; Fauci went too far, Redfield not far enough. Rob, put some more books under your computer. This angle makes it look like you’re about to fall at us. Your background is a too chaotic for my tastes. But good lighting and I love the pop of teal.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.)

His hunting cabin man cave thing is dialed up. Big Energy! That… pelt? But the amazing background here is squandered by lazy composition. He’s (obviously) too close to the camera, and he hasn’t centered himself. If you have a background like this, lean into it! Make it a feature. Show a bit more of it by moving back into the room. As long as your sound is good and clear (and given the amount of soft furnishings and angles that would interrupt echoes, I think Adele would be happy to record something in this room), just let your personality shine. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Total pro. A little more space above the hair would be a bonus. Otherwise, no notes.

Important update, 7 p.m., ET: Lest a competitor in the pandemic video-conferencing wars casually slip into the lexicon unchallenged, like Hoover, or Kleenex, Cisco Public Relations contacted me Tuesday evening with a clarification: the Senate committee was, in fact, using Cisco’s Webex video system, not Zoom, like our headline suggests. “Some have made that error so wanted to be clear,” a spokesperson said. She did, however, concede “those images of the Senators and Dr. Fauci are iconic.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified today’s day as “Wednesday”. It is Tuesday. (But, honestly, what are “days” anymore?)

Mitt Romney Goes After Trump’s Absurd Coronavirus Claims

Sen. Mitt Romney on Tuesday decried the Trump administration’s ongoing claims that the US leads the world in coronavirus testing, saying that the country’s record in uncovering and tracking the virus is “nothing to celebrate whatsoever.”

“I understand that politicians are going to frame data in a way that’s most positive politically,” Romney said during a much-anticipated Senate hearing with top health officials helping lead the country’s coronavirus response. “But yesterday you celebrated that we had done more tests and more tests per capita even than South Korea. But you ignore the fact that they accomplished theirs at the beginning of the outbreak, while we treaded water during February and March.”

“By March 6, the US had completed just 2,000 tests,” he continued, “whereas South Korea had conducted more than 140,000 tests. So partially as a result of that, they have 256 deaths and we have almost 80,000 deaths.”

The scathing rebuke came just one day after the White House staged a press conference to try to take a victory lap amid the rising death count by celebrating the growing number of cumulative tests, even while the tests available per day remain far below what experts say is necessary to safely monitor a more mobile population. And the Utah senator didn’t stop there.

With the limited time he had left, Romney asked Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading expert on infectious diseases, if there was any truth to Trump’s accusations that former President Barack Obama is to blame for the lack of a coronavirus vaccine. “No, no senator, not at all,” a straight-faced Fauci responded. “Certainly President Obama nor President Trump are responsible for our not having a vaccine.”

.@SenatorRomney just wiped the floor with the Republican's talking points: "I understand that politicians are going to frame data in a way that's most positive politically… I find our testing record nothing to celebrate whatsoever." pic.twitter.com/iCxrdZ06sW

— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) May 12, 2020

It was a stunning thing to witness: A former GOP presidential candidate coming to the defense of the Democrat who defeated him in order to knock the current leader of his party. But perhaps even more extraordinary was the fact that Romney was the only Republican Senator willing to use the hearing to do more than air some polite strain over the president’s disastrous pandemic response.

Is Nancy Pelosi a Neoliberal Shill? (Spoiler Alert: Oh Come On)

I get that there are different factions among the progressive movement and some are more progressive than others. That’s obvious. But my Twitter feed for the past couple of days has been full of true-blue progressives convinced that Nancy Pelosi is nothing more than a neoliberal shill who will cave in to Republican wishes this week and introduce only a weak, watered-down stimulus bill. Nancy Pelosi! A neoliberal shill! But then again, the same thing happened to Paul Ryan when he became Speaker of the House. It took only a few seconds for him to go from Mr. Conservative to a sellout.

Anyway, today this happened:

House Democrats unveiled a coronavirus rescue bill Tuesday that would direct more than $3 trillion for state and local governments, health systems, a second round of stimulus checks, and a range of other priorities.

Republicans rejected the legislation even before they saw it, describing it as a liberal wish list that would go nowhere in the Republican-led Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he was at work on crafting liability protections for businesses instead.

The massive new Democratic bill was assembled by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her top lieutenants without input from Republicans or the Trump administration. It’s less an opening bid in a bipartisan negotiation than an expression of House Democrats’ priorities that they hope will resonate with the public as the nation suffers through the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression.

So . . . is $3 trillion enough? I mean, it’s true that Pelosi isn’t demanding Medicare for All and the nationalization of all banks as part of her bill, but $3 trillion is a pretty sizeable chunk of change, even for the federal government. So what would it do?

The 1,800-page legislation, which the House is expected to vote on Friday, would devote nearly $1 trillion to state, local, territorial and tribal governments and establish a $200 billion “Heroes Fund” to extend hazard pay to essential workers. It would also send a second – and larger – round of direct payments to individual Americans, up to $6,000 per household. Other parts of the bill would increase nutrition assistance benefits by 15 percent and provide $175 billion in housing assistance, among other things. A $600 weekly increase in unemployment insurance would be extended through January, and the bill directs another $75 billion for coronavirus testing and contact tracing.

That seems like a lot. But I suppose there’s some kind of means testing somewhere that’s helpful for gaining public support but might make things 2 percent more complicated, and that means that NANCY PELOSI IS A NEOLIBERAL SHILL!

Even Republicans and the Laid-Off Think We Need to Go Slow on Opening the Economy

Whenever I suggest that liberals should be less snarky toward conservative-leaning voters—as I did yesterday—I always get at least a few responses along these lines: Are you kidding? Have you seen these lunatics? They aren’t going to change their minds because we ask them nicely.

Sure. But the mistake here is watching TV and assuming that the tiny, lunatic crowds represent ordinary conservative voters. They don’t. They represent some of them, but probably not even a majority. The rest are up for grabs if we don’t lose them out of the gate by endlessly mocking them. Here’s a recent poll that backs this up:

This is solely a survey of people who have been laid off from their jobs, so it includes those who are suffering the most from lockdowns. This is as much Trump’s base as the Democratic base, but even so only about 40 percent approve of Trump’s performance. What’s more, only 13 percent think we should lift lockdown restrictions faster, and only 19 percent say we should open up the economy even if it means more people would get the coronavirus. The lunatics, it turns out, speak for only a very small portion of the country.

As you’d expect, the crosstabs show higher support for Trump among Republicans than Democrats. But even among Republicans, only 31 percent think lockdown restrictions should be lifted more quickly, and only half think we should open up the economy even if it means more people would get the coronavirus. Regardless of their support for Trump, it’s obvious that there’s a big chunk of Republicans who don’t agree with his lackadaisical attitude. And you know what? There are going to be even fewer by the end of the month when the infection numbers start to go up again.

At that point, of course, I imagine that Trump will try to blame it all on state governors. What else does he have left in his bag of tricks? But eventually even his fans are going to stop buying it.

Anti-Vaxxers Have a Dangerous Theory Called “Natural Immunity.” Now It’s Going Mainstream

On April 26, two California physicians posted a video on YouTube about what they said was a potentially deadly side effect of social distancing: Our immune systems will get weaker because of lack of exposure to germs. They weren’t the only ones to make this argument. In a May 4 video, a controversial and outspoken Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai—an engineer who claims to have invented email—also embraces this idea. In a May 3 YouTube video, he announced, “Viruses do not harm or kill us.” Instead, he argues, “Your body is an amazing being—it knows how to take care of itself, and that’s how we get immune health. But these politicians, the CDC and the NIH—they’re not talking about any of this. Shame on them, it’s criminal.” An article from the Minnesota-based conservative think tank the Charlemagne Institute titled “COVID-19 Lockdowns May Destroy Our Immune Systems” is currently making the rounds, too.

“In order for our immune systems to be harmed by social distancing, we would have to live in sterile settings for a long time in which no bacteria or germs could affect us.”

It’s not hard to see why this content took off. The idea—or the basic contours of it, at least—has some elements of truth. Immunologists have shown that, in general, we strengthen our immune systems by exposing them to pathogens. In the last few decades, researchers have amassed evidence to suggest that some chronic conditions that are common in the developed world but rare in poorer countries—including asthma, allergies, and autoimmune illnesses like Crohn’s disease—could be the result of an environment that doesn’t have enough germs, causing the immune system to go haywire.

But the coronavirus is not a chronic immune condition; it’s a novel virus that attacks the body’s systems in ways not yet completely understood. Experts roundly reject the idea that social distancing will dangerously weaken the immune system. “A broad-based immunity weakening because of social distancing? Definitely not,” said Saad Omer, a Yale University epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist. Jennifer Reich, a sociologist who studies the spread of misinformation about health, agreed. “In order for our immune systems to be harmed by social distancing, we would have to live in sterile settings for a long time in which no bacteria or germs could affect us,” she wrote to me in an email.

But the experts I talked to weren’t at all surprised to see these discredited ideas making the rounds; they’ve seen them before in the anti-vaccination and extreme holistic medicine communities. This is the coronavirus edition of their pervasive belief in “natural immunity.” Rupali Limaye, a Johns Hopkins epidemiologist who has studied the movement against mandatory vaccines, told me, “We have heard from those that are concerned about vaccines the argument that they prefer to allow their immune system to be naturally exposed to a specific pathogen to gain immunity,” she wrote to me in an email. “It’s a spinoff of previous theories we’ve seen,” concurred Omer, who has written extensively about anti-vaccination groups. “This is all the usual stuff.”

Indeed, anti-vaccination groups on Facebook have referenced the idea constantly in recent posts. One widely shared meme lists, “Things that suppress our immune systems: Masks, gloves, no sun, fear, vaccines, washing hands with synthetic soaps.” In response to an article about the decline in childhood vaccination rates as a result of coronavirus, one member of the group Michigan for Vaccine Choice commented, “God, I would love for my kids to catch chicken pox, my body could use a little exposure to keep the shingles away lol plus you know them developing actual immunity would be nice.” In recent weeks, in response to calls for social distancing, several of the groups posted a 2016 New York Post article titled, “We Need to Stop Sanitizing Everything and Let Bacteria Back Into Our Lives.”

Meanwhile, alternative medicine groups promote the idea that eating the right foods or taking certain vitamins and supplements will strengthen the immune system so that it can successfully fight off coronavirus. “Like any virus, coronavirus is no match for someone with a strong immune system,” writes Sally Fallon Morell on a blog affiliated with the holistic nutrition group the Weston A. Price Foundation. Coconut oil, bone broth, and raw milk are among the foods she recommends to bolster the immune system against coronavirus. Just to be clear: This idea is patently false; humanity has never seen the virus before, therefore our immune systems have no natural defenses against it.

“This is not a debate society—there are actual consequences here. People are dying in hospitals alone.”

Given the holistic community and anti-vaccination groups’ fixations on “natural immunity,” it’s not surprising that the belief that we can end the pandemic through “herd immunity”—deliberately exposing everyone to the virus until we develop enough immunity that it dies out on its own—has gained traction. “The sooner well, able-bodied people get back to work, the sooner natural immunity will occur and we will have a fighting chance against the virus,” reads one post on Indiana Coalition for Vaccine Choice. An April 22 post on VaxChoiceNH says, “We know from decades of medical science that infection itself allows people to generate an immune response—antibodies—so that the infection is controlled throughout the population by ‘herd immunity.’”

Infectious disease experts all agree that the “herd immunity” approach would be catastrophic—millions of Americans would die in the process. It would be one thing if it were just fringe groups promoting this dangerous idea. But there are signs that this dangerous and flawed line of thinking is making its way into the mainstream. Over the past few months, Omer has watched in horror as the musings from armchair epidemiologists have gone viral on social media. He pointed to several influential op-eds—some of them by physicians in fields having nothing to do with infectious disease or epidemiology—promoting the herd immunity approach. In a sprawling March 20 New York Times op-ed, David Katz, a Yale preventive medicine specialist who focuses on diet, wrote that this approach could allow us to “return to life as usual and perhaps prevent vast segments of the economy from collapsing. Healthy children could return to school and healthy adults go back to their jobs.” When Omer read the piece, he was appalled. “These people are putting forth these theories without checking with people whose job this is, who specialize in it,” he told me. “This is not a debate society—there are actual consequences here. People are dying in hospitals alone.”

Omer isn’t the only expert concerned that misguided ideas about the immune system will flow from the fringe into the popular imagination. Devin Burghart, vice president of the anti-white-nationalism think tank the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, has been studying the nascent co-mingling between the anti-vaccination community and groups that stage coronavirus shutdown protests. He has noticed that the protest groups have begun to repeat the “natural immunity” talking points, and that both groups have embraced the herd immunity approach. “These people are really gaining a lot of traction, and that is worrisome,” he says. “We worry about these ideas making it into the mainstream.” 

Omer cautions that if these ideas take hold, they could persist even after the coronavirus pandemic dies down, noting, “Those of us in this field will be cleaning up these messes for years to come.”

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