We did not anticipate something like 10 weeks of "what's in a name," but we're getting so many messages on that subject that clearly a sizable percentage of the readership likes that little bit of "dessert" at the end of the letters page.
G.R. in Basel, Switzerland, writes: I love when electoral-vote.com lands on a topic I have been mulling in recent days. Your review and analysis of Ezra Klein's theories was interesting. My view is more simple.
Biden the politician sees that even with a defective candidate like Trump as an opponent, two presidential elections in a row were virtual ties—as were 2000 and 2004. Therefore steady, cautious, incremental policies are not getting Democrats far when it comes to breaking the deadlock.
Biden the American sees what we see, that there are more racists and fans of fascism in America than anyone thought. To the extent their receptiveness to autocratic appeals is due to (often justified) disappointment with the status quo, the status quo is becoming a threat to democracy, making the Senator Biden circa 1973-2008 approach quite dangerous.
With those two "challenges" as background, any or probably all four Ezra Klein theories work as further contributing causes for a cautious Senator Biden to change gears to be a daring innovator President Biden. It's also politically astute, since both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, were "leftish candidates turned centrist Presidents." A total of 16 years of that approach did not reinvent a virtually tied electorate, or let Democrats turn a popular vote majority into a sustained governing majority.
Time to try the opposite, like a Franklin Delano Roosevelt or a Lyndon Baines Johnson: Run as a cautious moderate, lead as a daring progressive. I applaud this shift in strategy and truly hope it pays off well for the country.
V.L. in Chester, CT, writes: I believe you and Ezra Klein of The New York Times swung and missed at the true reason for the seeming change in Joe Biden. A quote from Robert Caro comes to mind as explanation: "But although the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said...is that power always reveals." I believe we are witnessing the revelation of the true desires of a man who has been in politics for some 50 years, yet who up until January 20, 2021, did not have sufficient power to act on them. Had Biden revealed these desires earlier in his career, he would likely have been branded a solid left-leaning progressive liberal, and would probably never have advanced beyond the Senate—probably would not have even obtained his party's nominations as either VP or president, let alone won in the general election.
For the context of this quote, Robert Caro describes how throughout Lyndon Johnson's career in the House, Senate and as Vice President he dissembled, and appeared as one with the South, particularly with respect to racial oppression. There was no indication that LBJ would one day be the surprise champion of landmark legislation for civil rights, voting rights, Medicare, and indeed envisioning a Great Society to lift the poor and minorities from poverty. Until LBJ became president, he was viewed suspiciously by the liberal wing of the Democratic party, and was seen as a long-time and consistent obstructionist to progressive legislation.
But once LBJ had the power of the presidency, he revealed his true agenda and pursued it with urgency (and but for his fumbling of the war in Vietnam, we can only wonder what might have been). With Biden as president, and with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate (slim, but that is enough), we are seeing the revelation of the true desires of the former Senator. I say it's just in time for America.
C.S. in Madison, WI, writes: What got into Joe? He saw what happened to Barack Obama when he was president.
R.E. in Sarasota, FL, writes: I take exception to some aspects of "where did Senator Biden Go?" where you focus on the COVID-19 bill and the infrastructure proposal as examples of a former moderate veering rather sharply to the left.
I don't think it's clear that "Biden doesn't trust economists." One of the most progressive elements of the COVID-19 bill were the relief checks, which even the New York Fed has determined to be marginally effective, since about 42% of recipients chose to save them or invest them rather than using them to pay rent or put food on the table. Yet, the checks are wholly in keeping with the "money from helicopters" theme coined by Milton Friedman, brought to the vernacular by Ben Bernanke, and fully espoused by economists in Biden's surroundings such as Janet Yellen and Jared Bernstein, both on the record during the Trump administration as supporters of relief checks.
More importantly, far from embracing the progressives' wishlist, I submit that the quasi-pork the progressives demanded as part of the "infrastructure" package was a godsend. By including it, Biden can satisfy the left wing and at the same time have a built-in sacrificial lamb that can be offered to amenable Republicans (the few that remain), as well as recalcitrants like Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), to get approval for the parts that everyone likes and wants.
In that sense I agree with the observation that he is a "true politician." In my opinion, he's counting on passing the popular parts of the package, and that in turn improving his approval among independents, consistent with his stated goal of aiming his policies not at Congressional but at voter approval. And I believe that by paying lip service to progressives without really expecting (or fighting too hard for) their pork to go through, he hopes to claim the center once again. He may be resigned to be disliked by progressives and GOP loonies alike, but that will not matter if he succeeds in giving the center (independents, old-style Dems, the few traditional GOPers left, and CEOs) a new lease on the political life of the country—more moderate, more effective, and more attuned to the demands of the future.
J.K. in Short Hills, NJ, writes: Whew. Thank heavens for Politico. Now I, along with many market strategists, economists, legendary hedge fund managers, and a former Secretary of Treasury in a Democratic Administration, can sleep easier knowing that meaningful inflation will remain elusive for at least the next several years.
In reality, no one knows what will or should happen, for the economy has never had to endure an event such as COVID-19. In my opinion, making comparisons to the Great Recession may be misguided given that the recovery in the last decade suffered from the echo of a massive endogenous shock, while the pandemic sourced something far more exogenous and theoretically more "transitory." Moreover, the amount of current fiscal stimulus dwarfs that from 2009. I maintain that consumer prices will accelerate to a point in the next 12-18 months that forces the Fed, which might already be "behind the curve," to act more aggressively than desired or assumed. That inflection point in policy ultimately would put the country at a significant risk for a recession prior to the next presidential election cycle.
F.S. in Cologne, Germany, writes: Regarding your item "Whither the Democrats?" I would like to add a few points:
- It's true that young voters vote overwhelmingly Democratic and that Republicans' strength is among older people. But people seem to become more conservative as they get older: In 2008, 66% of voters who were 18-29 years old voted for Obama, but in 2020 only 51% of voters who were 30 to 39 years old voted for Biden. People who were 18 to 29 years old in 2008 were 30 to 41 in 2020, and somehow Democrats lost 15% among those voters between 2008 and 2020.
- Trump did quite well with Black men; 19% voted for him in 2020. If Black men become even more inclined to vote Republican in the future, Democrats have a problem.
- Latinos moved in the Republican direction, too: 27% of them voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, but 32% for Trump in 2020. If this trend continues, Democrats have a problem.
L.F. in Minneapolis, MN, writes: You noted that the Republican Party is in danger of splitting between MAGA and moderate elements. I suspect the Democratic party is in even greater danger of splitting over issues of policing and street violence. Metro Minneapolis is a reliably liberal community, but the recent police shooting of a Black man in the middle of the Derek Chauvin trial has exposed deep fractures in the community. The flashpoint is over protests that turn into confrontations and looting of businesses. This week, I have been astonished at how many white, middle class people have become advocates for looting as a type of free speech and/or reparations. Last year, during a time of great destruction, those voices were few and muted. But the Overton window has moved so fast on this issue that people calling for peaceful protests or condemning looting are being declared fascists and racists. The local paper has reported on how this is creating a minefield for our moderate Democratic governor, Tim Walz. I can see this issue splitting Democrats long before MAGA splits the Republicans.
D.C. in Portland, OR, writes: In your response to P.D. in La Mesa, you wrote: "We don't see an issue today that could split the Republican Party into two like that."
The potential chasm I see forming is between those committed to the current direction of the Republican party—towards an anti-democratic, pro-oligarchy, power-at-any-price future—and those who (may eventually) oppose it.
Unfortunately it seems today that Republican opposition to tyranny exists primarily with disaffected never-Trumpers, retired GOP politicians and, if we're lucky, perhaps a couple of spineless representatives in Congress. But surely as they progress further down this road the crack will grow and the divide will become unsustainable. Alternatively, if the tyrannists succeed, the party will either be destroyed in the general election or we will have lost our democracy.
Assuming our democracy survives, it's hard for me to see how that can happen without a destroyed Republican party, or one that saves itself through dramatic reform from its current toxic disarray.
A.S. in Enfield, NH, writes: I would like to relay a field report, in the spirit of J.L.J. in San Francisco, regarding a recent experience with my Trump-supporting brother. Analyses of the Republican party often mention that their key demographics skew old and will eventually die off. As a reader in my early thirties, I am distrustful of that assessment.
One of my brothers is a 30-year-old Manhattanite making lots of money in the financial industry. He is very much a child of the Internet (Millennial vintage). His main source of news and analysis is Twitter and he also spends time on Reddit and has dabbled in 4chan. His favorite podcasts are Ben Shapiro and Joe Rogan. He doesn't watch Fox News, but watches Tucker Carlson clips on Twitter.
Talking with him recently, he casually mentioned that he believes that Western culture is superior to all others. He also stated that white people (along with Asians and Jews) are, on average, smarter than other races (convenient since we're Jewish). I told him that I hadn't realized that he was a white supremacist. He was quite surprised by my comment and protested vigorously. The conversation continued: BLM (Black Supremacists), George Floyd (fentanyl), Tucker Carlson (just looking out for poor white people). Nothing from the conversation dissuaded me from my assessment.
My point here is that casual white supremacist views exist in my generation, but with a different twist compared to the older generations. My brother is doing quite well and has no obvious reason to feel disenfranchised. Even so, messages about whites being marginalized still resonate with him. My sense is that they appeal to him because they are presented in an entertaining, easy-to-digest way that speaks to his rebellious streak. Rather than pining for the good old days, people my age are rebelling against their woke peers and their liberal Boomer parents.
In an effort not to just throw my brother under the bus, I'll speak about myself for a moment. Despite being a female, feminist, LGBT liberal, I spent a fair bit of time on the now-banned "TheDonald" subreddit in the lead-up to the 2016 election. I originally went there to research the opposition, but I stayed for the entertaining memes and bombastic posts. During the primaries, it was quite fun to see posts trashing the other Republican candidates. Of course, it was a lot less fun when the hate shifted over to Hillary Clinton in the general, but I still stayed on until the election. More recently, I will sometimes listen to clips from Ben Shapiro or Joe Rogan. There is something satisfying about their simplistic world views that I can enjoy in small doses. I can even, at times, and quite guiltily, enjoy their sexist, transphobic etc. rhetoric. My only explanation for this is the thrill of the taboo or even a strange schadenfreude. I admit this about myself to say that I see why this media appeals to people my age, and how easy it is to get sucked in by it.
My brother (and his wife, who shares his views but is quieter about them) didn't vote in the 2016 and 2020 elections. This was partly due to laziness, partly due to my brother's lingering worry of breaking from his liberal family, and partly due to his view that elections don't really affect him. Since he didn't vote, he isn't reflected in the election results, but I wouldn't write him off quite yet. I expect he will eventually start voting and donating and he is now primed to support unsavory candidates.
M.A. in Park Ridge, IL, writes: I hope to God (if you'll pardon the expression) that you are right about Mike Pence's chances of becoming president. But if 62 years of bitter experience on this earth have taught me anything about politics (and sports, for that matter), it's this: When nobody gives you a chance, that's when you win. Just ask Joe Namath and Donald Trump.
D.K. in Oceanside, CA, writes: Pence is an odd-looking man for reasons I can't quite define. He has regular and proportionate features and neatly trimmed hair. He is normal weight and dresses with conservative good taste. Yet, I have always had the idea that if there was an elder version of the Ken doll, it would look like Mike Pence. And that he and the doll would share an anatomical similarity as well. I really have given this too much thought.
V & Z respond: You're not the only one thinking along those lines; see the next letter.
P.R. in Saco, ME, writes: Over morning coffee in bed (which I nearly snorted), I read to my husband the paragraph you wrote about Mike Pence's resemblance to a lawn gnome or a wedding cake guy. "Hey, let me read you this paragraph from the electoral-vote.com guys about Pence running for president in 2024," I intro-ed. My husband replied, "What's he running for president of, Mattel?"
K.H. in Maryville, TN, writes: You have just ruined lawn gnomes for me. Thanks.
K.L. in Chattanooga, TN, writes: In regards to your item about Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and his potential political future, I have a few observations to those who are dismissing his once and future candidacy out of hand, as so many in the news and social media spaces have since his tweet went viral.
I've got a degree in political science, which means squat, except that it does give me a bit of theoretical familiarity with the organizational and psychological requirements for a competent top executive in a political setting.
I've also got a degree in business administration, and 30+ years in the trenches at small to medium-to-large private and public corporations. This gives me some theoretical and practical familiarity with the organizational and psychological requirements for a competent top executive in general organizational settings.
The two venues are different, but do share many common factors. All that being put forward as my "qualifications," let me now say that the main requirements for a successful POTUS, in my opinion, are:
- A native degree of common sense and rational thought
- An essentially moral perspective ("Golden Rule") tempered by a healthy pragmatism
- The ability to "rise to the occasion," to grow quickly into the requirements of the office
- An ability to express oneself, inspire an audience, and communicate with a minimum of BS politicalspeak
- The ability/wisdom to select the right people as top executives who report to you
- The ability/wisdom to LISTEN to them
- The perspective to see the "big picture," including...
- The imagination to see any "down the road" unintended consequences
None of these qualities are only available to people with law degrees, 10 or 20 or 40 years in government service, or even prior executive government service in lesser positions (e.g., state governor). In fact, a law degree may mitigate against #1. Granted, a state governorship may help filter for the existence of #2 through #8, but the track record I see often seems to indicate the opposite.
My point is that you can find effective leaders in strange places. Would Johnson be an adequate POTUS? Right now, I have no idea, and I'd have to study him a lot more to decide. But to dismiss someone out of hand because they are an actor, or a wrestler, or a housewife, or a bartender is, in my book, just stupid.
D.A. in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK, writes: I was struck with the possibility of Dwayne Johnson running for political office and I can't help but consider how many strange ways it could turn out. Notwithstanding my hope that he sticks to acting and sorting out the "Black Adam" movie, he has more going for him than many might expect.
First of all he's got name and brand recognition with young voters, especially anyone who has seen or heard the "Rock the Vote" message. He doesn't even need a new slogan. Second, he has always come across as someone who is both talented and charismatic but also knows to present himself as someone who has a humble background and is not afraid to think.
Finally, he is able to run as a moderate Republican or Democrat and likely to siphon voters from either side because of it.
Despite these advantages, the greatest drama could be if he ran as a member of one party, got elected and then performed the ultimate face or heel turn (depending on your opinion) and declared himself to be a member of the other party, or even an independent. While it could be catastrophic for the future of the U.S. if this was after a presidential run, it would be fantastic theatre and might add another option to how the U.S. could end: in a farce.
S.R. in Ottawa, Canada, writes: "Young Rock" is a sitcom currently airing on NBC. It is the life story of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson told through a framing narrative of him running for the 2032 presidency. I think The Rock is someone who fit well into the 2000 GOP but has now fled with the other suburbanites and professionals to the big-tent Democratic Party. He has a compelling life story and is charismatic as hell. I've been following his career (and his Instagram account) for a while, and I would definitely consider voting for him. (And before the other readers ask: I'm not Canadian, I just live here, so yes I can vote for him).
G.B. in Manchester, UK, writes: Regarding Dwayne Johnson, he showed support in 2019 for the protests against the construction of a new observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii by visiting the camp that was set up by the protesters. Johnson clearly supports the rights of the Native Hawaiians, and it might be possible to infer that Johnson more generally supports the rights of minorities, which may indicate his current political leanings.
B.R.J. in San Diego, CA, writes: So much for thinking that Americans can learn their lessons, as Dwayne Johnson is reportedly poised to inherit the mantle of Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Guess it's a good thing that Evel Knievel is no longer with us.
J.A. in Redwood City, CA, writes: In your answer to C.K.R. of Cabin John, who asked about how political parties can influence the selection of their nominees for president, you asserted that parties are faced with two mutually exclusive choices: Either the "party honchos" select the nominee (resulting in less voter enthusiasm and fundraising for the candidate in the general election), or voters in the parties' primaries and caucuses decide the winner of the nomination (with the risk that an incompetent and/or harmful candidate secures it).
I think one can argue that the parties already do, in a fashion, have it both ways: The current system certainly leans strongly in the latter direction, but the parties' leaders do carry some weight in the process, particularly in situations where no candidate enters the nominating convention with an outright majority of delegates in hand.
More importantly, however, there are additional possibilities we could consider to lessen the chances of "stinker candidates" becoming a party's nominee. For example, parties could refine the existing system by adopting a pre-defined set of qualifications for their presidential nominees. Such pre-qualifications might include:
- A certain amount of previous experience in national, state, or local government
- Demonstrated knowledge of U.S. history and the workings of the federal government (assuming there's a fair and accurate way to assess those things)
- Better financial disclosure of the candidate's assets, including sources of all income and loans above a certain threshold
- Physical and mental health assessment, conducted by a politically neutral medical clinic
- A clean legal record (e.g., no major convictions or lawsuit losses above a certain threshold within, say, the past twenty years)
I'd also like to see the candidates have to pass a background/security check, though I admit that arranging such investigations might prove too onerous for this situation.
Anyhow, let's assume that there is some minimal set of qualifications that are agreed upon. Under this new approach, the party would amend their nomination rules so that convention delegates can vote only for candidates who meet those pre-defined qualifications. This system would still allow voters to select their party's nominee in the primaries and caucuses before the convention, but to choose only among candidates who meet the party's pre-established qualifications for the job. Unqualified or unserious presidential wannabes need not apply—at least to that party. In theory, at least some of the dangerous/incompetent populists who seek the presidency would no longer be able to hijack a major political party's apparatus to do that.
Obviously, the details of this new system would have to be worked out, so that the specific qualifications for a party's nomination are not inherently discriminatory. Likewise, they should not unfairly favor any one individual candidate over other legitimate contenders. And while someone would undoubtedly challenge this new process in court, the ability to run for president independently of the political parties would remain. So I think it would ultimately pass constitutional muster.
The real challenge to adoption would be in the overall messaging: detractors (current Trump supporters, for one) would immediately denounce such a process as totalitarian, undemocratic, socialist, etc. "Let the people decide who they want as president, not the parties," they would insist. So, proponents would have to frame these new rules as reasonable and proper qualifications for the job of president. Just as other occupations outside of politics require applicants to meet certain requirements for those jobs, it's equally appropriate for a political party, which advances a candidate every four years to be the most powerful person on Earth, to establish its own basic qualifications for that job.
Alas, this probably won't ever happen. But if it did I think it could work.
M.B. in San Antonio, TX, writes: Yesterday, you listed the downsides of selecting candidates in the infamous "smoke-filled rooms" (i.e. selected by party officials): total control, but less voter enthusiasm and possibly a less popular candidate. It bears mentioning that the seven elections prior to the abolishing of that system (the election of JFK) gave us Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, not a bad record.
D.C. in Brentwood, CA, writes: Following up on my hypothetical yesterday asking about whether there were any justifiable barriers to voting in order to create an informed electorate, I'd like to add that uninformed voting is far less a problem than people not voting at all. Many people would probably be happy to fail the test under the scheme I asked about, because they'd be excused from the "hassle."
I'm still very much on the side of copying Australia and making voting mandatory, with all the systemic support that is needed to facilitate that. H.R. 1 is a first step in the right direction.
K.W. in Sydney, Australia, writes: Some of us have come to expect regular attempts by Republicans to restrict or limit voting, but I've been a bit surprised to see some of your readers suggests different types of restrictions, such as civics tests. I'm as card-carrying a lefty as the next person, and personally I think anyone who actively voted for Donald Trump needs their head read.
But the whole point of democracy is that everyone gets a say, even if I don't like how they vote. Coming from a country that goes to great efforts to make it easy to vote (compulsory voting, Saturday elections, widespread and easy to access pre-poll, postal and absentee voting), I find this peculiarly American approach to restricting the franchise both mystifying and profoundly troubling.
D.D. in Portland, OR, writes: Thank you for your thoughtful answer to D.C. in Brentwood regarding implementing a civics test to vote. You shared many excellent reasons not to do such a thing, which I applaud. However, I don't think you answered the 2nd half of the question which I feel is more important: "Broadly, is there some systemic barrier, designed to create better, more-informed voters that you would support?"
I suggest we need to establish a form of accreditation for news sources. The validation process would be in the public domain and media companies would be required to publish their standing, or lack thereof. School accreditation works well with a few exceptions (how did USC pass muster?), so why not media? It's difficult but, dare I say, not impossible.
Sure, many people would reject the certificate as more fake news, but if it's done in a very open, transparent and simple fashion, it could move the needle. I'd say for every nutcase who likes the idea of storming the Capitol building, there are easily 50 well-meaning-but-confused people who don't know what to believe.
W.S. in Norfolk, VA, writes: You shot holes in D.C. in Brentwood, CA's idea of requiring a 3-day civics course in order to vote. At first I was thinking that most students should be getting this instruction in high school, but then it occurred to me that most of the criticisms you listed are also true about our public school system (inherently discriminatory, curriculum politicized, hard to find unbiased teachers, language barriers, etc...). And about 15% of the population never graduates, so requiring a high school diploma to vote would be equally problematic...which seems tragic to me.
B.K. in Dallas, TX, writes: Robert Heinlein had an idea about voting in one of his stories: Everyone is a citizen, but not everyone gets to vote. In order to vote, a person would need to perform a service of some kind; military, Peace Corps, etc. The people in the service can't vote, but once they leave the service they can.
V & Z respond: You know that the book in question, Starship Troopers, is regarded by many as advocating fascism, right?
L.S. in Bellevue, WA, writes: If I might offer a different perspective on your response to R.M. of Baltimore concerning the cost of getting extra votes: The correct measurement here is not how efficient the spending is, but how effective it is.
Dollars spent motivating existing supporters to register and actually vote are far more effective than dollars spent trying to change someone's mind. Another factor to include is the formation of habit. Spending money to get someone who votes 50% of the time (say, only in presidential election years) to vote in the non-presidential federal elections helps build the habit of voting every time, which then reduces the cost of getting their vote in the next presidential election. In effect, it is more effective to convert a supporter who is a sometime-voter into an always-voter, than to land a new sometime-voter.
Talking about efficiency almost always gets people focused on the money. Talking about effectiveness gets them focused on the results.
A.R. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: Even though Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) knew it wasn't going anywhere anytime soon, the introduction of the court expansion bill seemed deliberately designed to send a message to the high Court. Besides the controversial cases the Court normally hears on its regular docket, there's been a troubling increase in the use of the "shadow" docket to decide fundamental constitutional issues and overturn or alter past precedent in the process.
One glaring example was the order of April 8 to enjoin California's order limiting household gatherings to slow the spread of COVID. These are unsigned, unexplained orders that alter the status quo while these cases are being appealed, which make them substantive rulings without an opinion justifying the decision. In the California case, the Court used the shadow docket to expand religious liberty, changing how neutral laws are analyzed—precedent that has been in place since 1990. This is at least the 20th time the Court has done this since its term began in October.
This practice raises real questions about the legitimacy of those orders as well as issues of transparency. If the Court continues to make new law using these questionable tactics, they will give cover to the Democrats looking to rein in abuses of the Court's power. Rather than being shoved to the back burner, I think this issue is spring-loaded depending on the Court's next moves.
T.M.M. in Odessa, MO, writes: While I am sure that the legal and historical arguments played very little role in the bill proposing to increase the number of justices to 13, there is actually a decent legal/historical argument for that change.
Since the enactment of the original Judiciary Act of 1789, one of the duties of the Supreme Court justices was to serve as a "circuit justice." For the first 100 years or so, the circuit justice aspect of the job actually involved time out of Washington—either serving as a trial judge or, more often, being part of the panels on initial appeals. At that time, there was no separate appellate court, and the initial appeal was heard by a panel composed of trial court judges and the circuit justice. For this reason, every change to the size of the Supreme Court was associated with a change to the number of federal circuits. The last change to the size of the Supreme Court set the number of federal circuits at nine.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Congress established separate Courts of Appeals (one for each circuit) which were staffed by full-time appellate judges. This had the effect of changing the "circuit justice" aspect of being a Supreme Court justice. Today, the role of circuit justice is very limited. In that, a Supreme Court justice receives motions related to cases arising from within the boundaries of that circuit (including state court cases). Typically, the justices refer the most serious motions (stays of execution in death penalty case and requests for stays from lower court rulings that have significant merits) to the entire Court, but each justice typically handles the routine motions without referring them to the entire Court. Each justice also sometimes attends the annual judicial conference (a meeting of all the appellate and district judges of the circuit) for their circuit(s).
While the changes at the end of the nineteenth century reduced the circuit justice aspect of the job, the number of justices and the number of circuits were matched until the 1920s. At that point, Congress created the Tenth Circuit (New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming). Later, Congress (dealing with the growth of the administrative state) created a separate circuit for the District of Columbia and also created a "Federal Circuit" (to deal with certain technical areas of the law like patent appeals). Congress also created the Eleventh Circuit (Florida, Alabama, and Georgia) when the growing population in the Sun Belt made the old Fifth Circuit too big.
The effect of these changes to the number of circuits is that currently there are 13 circuits. As a result, some of the justices have to serve as circuit justice for multiple circuits. Given the reduced responsibility of circuit justices, it's not that burdensome for a justice to serve as circuit justice for multiple circuits. But there is an argument that it was the intent of Congress back in the Grant Administration, when the number of justices was set at nine, to have one justice per circuit. As such, expanding the Court to 13 justices would fit the "original intent" of Congress.
Of course, under this theory, if Congress ever gets around to splitting the Ninth Circuit (California, Washington, Arizona, Oregon, Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Guam, and Northern Marianas), which is way too big, into two or more circuits, you would have to expand the Court again. But for now, 13 justices just happens to match up with the number of circuits.
R.H.D. in Webster, NY, writes: I can understand the Democrats' anger at having two Supreme Court seats stolen by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and the GOP in the past five years (first, with the delay on Merrick Garland, and then second, the rush to confirm Amy Coney Barrett weeks before the 2020 election). However, the latest attempt by some Democrats to "pack" the Supreme Court is not a good idea because it can easily be seen as revenge, and will certainly trigger a bigger response if the GOP ever regains the trifecta again. It'll be an arms race that leads to judicial armageddon.
There are other ways to reform the Court besides adding justices. I favor mandatory retirement ages, or delegating justices reaching a certain age to senior status. I also like the idea of creating a "Constitutional Court," as you've mentioned. Let's see what the bipartisan commission established by President Biden has to say about reforming the federal judiciary before rushing to pass this bill.
Instead of giving the GOP an easy talking point about packing the Court, it's better for the blue team to keep working on winning elections for Congress and the Presidency. Soon enough, their hard work and patience will be rewarded.
J.F. in Houston, TX, writes: You wrote: "Only [Stephen] Breyer knows his plans and why he hasn't thrown in the towel already."
Perhaps Breyer also knows Joe Biden's plans and realizes that vetting a Supreme Court nominee is going on in the background but hasn't been completed because there have been other pressing issues. Perhaps they have agreed that he will not announce before he can quickly be replaced.
J.E. in West Hollywood, CA, writes: You gave an accurate but incomplete answer to D.B. of New York as to why Democrats did not filibuster Clarence Thomas' nomination. So many Democrats crossed the aisle to support confirmation because (like many of their constituents) they believed it was important to have a black justice replace Thurgood Marshall. Furthermore, there was no reason to believe that he would be worse than whichever white male Bush would have nominated in his place.
J.V. in New Brighton, MN, writes: You mentioned the Derek Chauvin case, I thought I'd try to provide some local insight.
While the Chauvin trial was going on, a suburban officer shot and killed Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center. She claims she accidentally grabbed her gun when she intended to grab her Taser. From what I hear from my friends and family outside the cities, it doesn't sound like the national media has run with this story.
The last 4 nights, my phone has made an emergency klaxon noise announcing what times curfews were in effect; it'll likely do so throughout the weekend. The video from the protests outside the Brooklyn Center police department shows the same brutality from the police and national guard as we saw last summer, this time turning a suburb rather than a major city into a war zone.
Minneapolis is a fire as it awaits the Chauvin verdict, and anything less than guilty on second degree murder will throw fuel on it, resulting in more protests and more police suppression of those protests.
B.B. in Bangor, ME, writes: You wrote that "[Joe] Biden has seen...how economists have no good plan for stopping climate change." This is not true. Economists generally support a carbon tax, which would force polluters to pay for their greenhouse gas emissions and thereby incentivize the market to find the lowest-cost way to reduce those emissions. Imports can be handled by a border adjustment fee based on the average emissions cost in its country of origin, thereby incentivizing governments to reduce their countries' emissions. Polls show that a majority, and in some findings an overwhelming majority, of voters would support this conditional on the revenue going to clean energy projects and/or a rebate to all Americans, which would prevent it from being regressive.
M.L. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: You wrote that economists have no good plan for climate change. I've been reading your site since I was a 10th grader back in 2004 and this is the first time I've felt strongly enough to write-in.
A carbon tax is the overwhelmingly most popular suggestion from economists to address climate change. It could also be just as effective, if it were made to be revenue neutral by evenly distributing funds back to voters.
I am astonished at the deafening silence and cold shoulder coming from the left on the idea of a carbon tax. Economists have been flying this flag for years as the most effective "flip a switch" (or maybe turn a dial) solution to address climate change. All of this without requiring the government to decide how many windmills to build come harvest time.
When I hear that same silence from your site on the idea of a carbon tax, I suspect the whole world, or maybe just myself, has gone mad.
E.P. in Gunma, Japan, writes: I thought I'd wade into the commentary surrounding electric vehicles (EVs) and how to get revenue from them.
As S.M. in Toronto and others have written, the rise of EVs portends a loss of gas tax revenues, which would put America's road infrastructure in peril. How to replace these funds? Why not adapt the current system to new technology? A good start would be to implement a small tax at EV charging stations, some fraction of a cent per watt or something, and have that be embedded in the price paid by the consumer as they pay to charge their vehicle. As we switch over fueling stations from gas to electric, this can be something they keep in the changeover.
J.M. in Laguna Beach, CA, writes: I believe there is a solution to what might be referred to as EVs' "free ride" from any taxes to fix roads, build new ones, and to generally provide us with safe transportation routes. EVs obviously need electricity. If each EV vehicle had an address similar to our home address, then each EV vehicle could be monitored for electric consumption just like our homes are. Each appropriate governmental agency could levy a tax for road use on each individual EV based on that vehicle's mileage. Seems like a simple solution to eliminate the free ride. As an extra bonus, I'd love to hear all the right-wing blowback of such an obvious socialist scheme to steal all our individual rights and liberties.
C.L.C. in Petaluma, CA, writes: We need to pay for roads. A tax on light liquid hydrocarbons will not work with EVs. I see 4 sources of revenue:
- Adding the cost upfront to the EV (an X% tax on EVs)
- An annual tax on EVs
- A tire tax
- A tax on electricity from charging stations.
We shall need a little all the above and some things which have not occurred to me, but I would put emphasis on the charging stations.
Some people need to drive around town, but almost never drive out of town. These roads are the product of property taxes (homes pay for the roads in front of them through property taxes). These folks charge their EVs at home and at night, when electricity is less expensive. They would not like having to pay for the Interstates they rarely use.
Drivers on the interstate drive great distances. They will need to use charging stations. When they charge their vehicles, they will pay for the roads they use.
If the infrastructure bill passes, it will pay for charging stations, on which we can put an x% tax on the electricity for maintaining the interstates.
R.T. in Arlington, TX, writes: Don't tax tires to pay for roads. Tire blowouts are dangerous. New tires are already too expensive for poorer people that need a car to get to their underpaid jobs, or who use cars as their homes. There are many garages that resell used tires/llantas usadas. It would take decades to get a blowout-crash-avoidance system into the automotive population.
But more seriously, it has always been rubbish (been watching too much British TV) to claim that X tax pays for Y. Every time some politician concocts a special purpose tax or a lottery, all that happens is that the allocation from the general budget shrinks or disappears. So the real problem here is not that the gas tax no longer covers the cost of road maintenance, but that the government does not budget enough money to maintain roads. The solution in Texas these days is to create lots of toll roads with special government entities collecting the tolls and paying for the road expansion. For example, the express lanes from the north side of Fort Worth to Downtown are great (aside from the ice event that produced a 100+ car pileup and several deaths) but they charge a dollar a mile for their use. These roads are proliferating, but the free public roads get less love.
E.O. in Medford, MA, writes: You've been frequently referring to "suburban housewives" as a voting bloc. This is common shorthand, like "soccer moms" or "NASCAR dads" but the term "housewife" also assumes that the suburban women in question are homemakers without jobs. That's a pretty outdated and unrealistic assumption, particularly since, as I understand it, the demographic group in question is more college-educated professionals than stay-at-home moms.
Regarding "sui generiser," I propose "suier generis" as a more satisfying invented alternative.
V & Z respond: We generally try to use "suburban housewives" when referring to the stereotype, and "suburban women" when referring to the actual demographic. Sometimes we may slip up.
J.D.M. in Cottonwood Shores, TX, writes: I suggest that very few people in the U.S. really desire a completely "free market" economy. We rely on the government to intervene in a myriad of ways to support the smooth flow of business. What if there were no one to enforce patent laws? What if, heaven forbid, every city street was a toll road? What we are all arguing about is how much intervention and for whom.
In my lifetime, I have not read of any serious suggestion that the U.S. government should own the means of production in this country. Strictly speaking, that is the definition of socialism.
As you pointed out: "The Republicans will scream [about progressive policies being proposed by Joe Biden], but they are like the little shepherd boy who yelled 'socialist' whenever he saw a pack of wolves cooperating as a group to get a nice dinner of mutton."
However, I disagree with the next sentence: "At some point, nobody pays attention to the screaming any more." I think, instead, what has happened is that younger people are learning (from the constant screaming) that "socialism" means cooperating for the common good, and are saying: "Let's have more of that!"
So, I give you Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), creation of the Republican Party!
A.H. in Ocean City, NJ, writes: You wrote: "If people don't have a desperate need to leave their home nation, due to poverty and chronic joblessness, they won't. In short, the plan is pragmatic, as humanitarian as is possible, and doesn't involve one iota of input from Stephen Miller."
The term "iota" stood out to me there, but not because it's Greek and a shoutout to European-style socialism. No, there was a Hurricane Iota that struck Nicaragua last November as a Category 4 hurricane, weeks after another hurricane (Eta) struck the same area. The storms killed hundreds of people and left billions in damage, causing more misery in an area filled with corruption and violence. It's not always drug and gang violence that's driving people away from the Northern Triangle countries. It's often natural disasters.
In case readers are interested, the last mega hurricane in the area was Hurricane Mitch in 1998, which killed 11,000 people. The Clinton administration sent troops and nearly $1 billion in aid to the region, and gave temporary protection status to 60,000 people.
V & Z respond: Ah yes, the second most destructive Mitch in American history.
P.M. in Currituck, NC, writes: I wanted to thank G.S. in Raleigh for reiterating a point I have been attempting to make since I have been writing in: That most people with progressive-leaning views do not want to attempt to understand the point of view of more conservative-leaning voters like me because of their own smugness and self-righteousness, as it is much easier to simply pass judgment, cast aspersions, and then move on, feeling self-confident in their attitudes, especially when magnified in a bubble with others holding the same views. The points I have been making about NPR fit in here, as well: the presenters there also engage in that pretentious and righteous pedantic smugness, and is largely what I find so irritating about them.
I genuinely appreciate folks like G.S., D.E. in Lancaster, E.W. in Skaneateles, R.T. in Arlington, and S.S. in Detroit (among others I may have missed), who have a differing perspective than mine, but are willing to leave the door open in an attempt to understand other views. My "summit meeting" at Bates Burgers in Livonia with S.S. was very good, and we both concurred that folks with differing views like us can agree on more than we disagree. If those "in power" (media, politicians, etc) were to approach topics in the same manner that S.S. and I did (i.e., sitting down and talking to each other), much could be accomplished. However, I fear that entrenched righteousness mentioned above (which, to be honest, is horrible on both sides) will be a barrier, as human pride is too strong, and no one in today's hyper-polarized environment wants to give an inch at all...which is truly sad, and does not bode well for the future.
S.K. in Chappaqua, NY, writes: The New York Times reports that, "Amazon, BlackRock, Google, Warren Buffett and hundreds of other companies and executives signed on to a new statement released on Wednesday opposing 'any discriminatory legislation' that would make it harder for people to vote."
When I read that, the words that the character Eliza Doolittle sang in "My Fair Lady" leapt to my mind: "Words, Words, Words, I'm so sick of words...show me."
The "hundreds of executives" could inform Republican members of state legislatures who vote for restrictions on voting that any political contributions they make in the future will be to their opponents' campaigns. They could say, as well, that they will give all of their employees time off for voting and encourage other employers to do the same. They could announce financial support for organizations that provide rides to the polls and food-and-water kits for voters in long lines. These things would "show me." Otherwise, I have nothing but words.
J.B. in Hutto, TX, writes: I have often been struck by the eerie similarities between America in the early 21st Century and the Roman Republic in the 1st Century BC—the age of Julius Caesar, Cato, Cicero, and Pompey. The more I think about it, the more it bothers me, seeing as these were the last few decades before the Roman Republic collapsed and the tyrannical rule of the emperors began. You'll often hear references to America declining in the same manner as the Roman Empire did, but to me the example of the Roman Republic is far more pertinent. Consider what 21st Century America has in common with the Late Roman Republic:
- Politics is divided between two overall factions, each of which largely defines success in terms of blocking the other faction from obtaining political power. They are constantly dragging one another into court, launching official investigations of one another, and refusing to cooperate with each other even when this gridlock prevented any meaningful attention being paid to the pressing problems of the nation.
- People have largely lost faith in the fairness of the electoral system. Bribery (campaign contributions?) is endemic and the people increasingly feel that their votes don't count. Efforts to reform the electoral system go nowhere.
- Populist rabble-rousers are driving the political debate. Donald Trump has more than a little in common with Publius Clodius Pulcher and Lucius Sergius Catilina, when you think about it. On the other side, Bernie Sanders and the Squad put one in mind of the Gracchi brothers, perhaps better intentioned that their counterparts on the other side but still detrimental to the stability of the republic.
- There is a huge and increasing gap between the rich and the poor.
- A previously self-sufficient middle class is finding itself squeezed out of economic viability. In our time, we see the decline of independently-owned businesses due to increasing corporate power, with the AI/robotics/automation combo soon to wreak havoc on traditional employment. In the time of the Roman Republic, what had been a society of family-owned farms had morphed into large estates owned by the wealthy and worked with slave labor. Needless to say, the American family farm, once the bedrock of the republic, is now all but dead, killed by corporate agribusiness.
- The country is locked in foreign entanglements from which it cannot seem to extricate itself. Moreover, there is a rising great power that may conceivably challenge the superpower's position (China for the United States, Parthia for the Roman Republic). What had once been an army of citizen-soldiers has been replaced by a permanent professional force (albeit, in the American case, one that has thus far remained apolitical).
- Old unwritten political norms, the glue that actually holds the constitutional order together, are now routinely ignored and disdained.
- Popular culture has become a celebration of excess, frivolity, and mindlessly inane entertainment, with old virtues such as frugality, self-denial and public service either ignored or disdained.
As Mark Twain said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes."
J.B. in London, England, UK, writes: In your consideration of the long-term future of the U.S., there's one scenario that I think that you've overlooked, and that is an internal political sundering, but this time a peaceful one.
If the Trumpish South (the red bit in the middle) decided it wanted to go its own way, then what was left might well say "good bye and good riddance, off you go then." It's a bit tough on the large blue-leaning minority in Texas and Florida, and there might be a few squabbles over Georgia and Utah, which might feel uncomfortable finding themselves in (very) small and very different minorities, but the Trump lovers would have their dream of a neo-fascist state, and everyone else would be glad to see the back of them.
Then, the only question would be whether the rich west stayed with the comfortable north and east, or alternatively agreed to establish two friendly and independent but aligned states. Presumably, Hawaii would go in with the new country of Super California, and the Canadians would realize their dream of getting their hands on Alaska.
Just a thought, but it worked quite well for many years with the Roman Empire.
V & Z respond: But where will the independent South locate its capital, Constantrumpnople?
B.D. in Boston, MA, writes: In your answer speculating on possible causes for the country to end, I think you might have missed one. There was a book published a couple of decades ago, Jennifer Government, (and yes, I am aware of the irony in providing an Amazon link), that speculated on a future where corporations gradually took over for governments, and which one you belonged to was more important to your identity than the country you lived in.
Yes, the book is fiction (and satire), but the general idea is at least worth considering. As special interests pressure politicians to gradually dismantle the services that the government provides in favor of getting them from private businesses, one could imagine the government eventually providing little beyond military protection, making it into more of a cartel. Is it likely? Not really, but it could be more plausible than the global unity of the "Star Trek" scenario, particularly if there weren't an external threat to unite the planet.
J.H. in Boston, MA, writes: Your discussion of why Abraham Lincoln dumped Hannibal Hamlin ended by noting that the risk of losing Maine was less significant than the need to keep War Democrats. But you left out the most important bit, did that end up costing Lincoln? Rather than wait until next Saturday for you to answer in questions, I looked it up: No, Maine still went for Lincoln in 1864.
V & Z respond: Yes, we probably should have noted that the state became one of the more pro-war states.
P.K. in Marshalltown, IA, writes: As goes Maine so goes the nation. When FDR swept to reelection in 1936, only Maine and Vermont voted Republican. I believe the phrase became "as goes Maine, so goes Vermont."
R.E. in Birmingham, AL, writes: The answer about running candidates with similar or identical names to confuse voters reminded me of my two favorite stories about ballot names. Farmer L. D. Knox of Jigger, Louisiana, legally changed his name to "None of the Above" in an unsuccessful attempt to have that appear on the ballot, back in the late 1970s. And Robert Bentley, the disgraced former governor of Alabama, so badly wanted to be "Dr. Robert Bentley" on the ballot that he legally changed his first name to "Dr." That didn't work either, but he did get elected and re-elected as "Robert Bentley" before he resigned amid sexual misconduct issues.
W.M. in Omaha, NE, writes: Years back we had a local evening news broadcaster named Lee Terry on one of the three networks in the pre-cable era. He was, of course, on television every evening and was a well-known local figure.
Next thing you know, Lee Terry is running for our 2nd district representative slot. Some, but not many, noticed that Lee refused to enter into any television debates. That's because he was Lee Terry Junior, son of the anchorman.
Smart move, and he won. Who knows if it was due to this, but I always suspected a large percentage of people were surprised when they saw the acceptance speech.
J.T. in Greensboro, NC, writes: I'm so glad to see a reference to The Distinguished Gentleman on the site. When I was a kid, my dad had a "taped off of HBO" VHS copy of it that we watched many times (though he would strategically fast-forward through the more salacious parts) and I'm pretty sure it's at least partially responsible for my early interest in/knowledge of the inner workings of U.S. politics. Definitely the criminally underrated film in the Eddie Murphy "fish-out-of-water" trilogy with "Coming to America" and "Trading Places" (which my dad also had taped off of HBO). Unfortunately, it is very difficult to find streaming these days.
N.E.H. in Rochester, NY, writes: Oh my gosh, D.F. in St. Paul, just had to go and add a funeral home, so now I have to share:
It's an Italian surname, and owned by cousins of my husband.
Rochester, NY also boasts Dr. Stopp, who performs vasectomies, and Dr. Mitten, a hand surgeon.
T.L. in West Orange, NJ, writes: Years ago, my urologist was in a practice with several others, including Dr. Seaman and Dr. Yanke.
A funeral home here in West Orange is the Dangler Funeral Home. No word on whether they only accept folks who were sent to the gallows.
V & Z respond: For fans of Queer Duck, the name of the good doctor undoubtedly brings to mind Queer Duck's turkey friend who joined the navy: Gobble the Salty Seaman.
R.E. in Birmingham, AL, writes: It's pronounced "ride out":
J.B.S. in Chapel Hill, NC, writes: I once worked for a fellow named Theodore King, who was both an M.D. and a Ph.D. He was also the President of the company we worked for. Most of the time people called him "Ted" but sometimes he was referred to, affectionately, as "Doctor Doctor President King."
R.H. in Macungie, PA, writes: When I was a junior in high school in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, there was a girl in the senior class by the name of Barbara Lamy (pronounced "Lay-mee"). She got pregnant just before the start of her senior year and her daughter, Stacy, was born in the spring. True story. But my favorite name was the graduate student who was a freshman counselor my first year of college. His name was Cantwell Faulkner Muckenfuss, IV. I'm sure his teen years were a joy when kids switched the M and F in his last name. I've often wondered if there was a fifth or sixth.
F.L. in Denton, TX, writes: About thirty years ago, I taught in a small, rural school. One of my students had the name Phil Landry. He didn't know the meaning of "philander"—nor, apparently, did either of his parents.
A close colleague taught a young lady who had been christened as Destinee Hooker. Considering her athleticism, I'm quite sure only her closest friends would dare to make fun of her name, as she was quite the accomplished athlete, medalling in the Olympics.
C.P. in Silver Spring, MD, writes: After reading the other submissions of excellent names I have to share this one. In the field of education, there is a commonly used test that gauges the test taker's cognitive abilities: the Woodcock-Johnson test, created by notable members of the education community Dick Woodcock and Mary E. Bonner Johnson. Seriously.
V & Z respond: We are reminded of a dish that is popular in Jamaica:
N.B. in Marathon, TX, writes: I kept thinking I had waited too long to submit something for this, but it keeps going! I know a beer distributor named Richard Hell, who goes by Dick. The Hells are also friends with the Hecks, all very lovely people.
T.C. in Danby, NY, writes: If I was going to contribute some interesting names, I would certainly mention two fine Upstate New York Morris Dancers (from Syracuse and Binghamton, a sad combination) who were married a few years back. Frank Plunkett and Roberta Wackett.
A.M. in Olympia, WA, writes: And who can forget the name of Bill Lear's daughter: Crystal Shanda Lear. I'm guessing that she might have a few of them in her home.
C.B. in Stockton, CA, writes: While searching for a dentist in Stockton, I found one named Dr. Payne.
V & Z respond: His patients can't say he didn't warn them.
W.A.B. in Almere, NL, writes: On the subject of the 'Canadian Invasion', while watching this video, I noticed this:
Need I say more aboot (abute?) their aspirations?
V & Z respond: Who knew their planning had reached such an advanced stage?
S.C. in Mountain View, CA, writes: You wrote; "Coke and Pepsi taste pretty much the same..."
Are you going to get some mail!
S.W. in Atlanta, GA, writes: I've been following you guys since you started. I love your snarky and poignant analysis.
But the idea that Coke and Pepsi taste the same? Good lord! What a horrid pill to swallow.
Please retract immediately.
V & Z respond: Fair enough. Pepsi is considerably sweeter.