• Lunchtime Photo

    This is . . . a yucca plant? It was poking through the snow at Mt. Baldy last winter and I thought the composition with the dead stick looked interesting. But I’m still not entirely sure what it is.

    December 28, 2019 — Mt. Baldy, California
  • The Christian Right Finally Wins a Skirmish in a 45-Year War

    The rise of the Christian right wasn’t originally driven by opposition to abortion. It was about state funding of private, Christian, white-only schools. Nearly a half century later, they finally won a measure of victory:

    The Supreme Court struck down a Montana constitutional provision banning state aid to parochial schools, ruling that states cannot exclude religious institutions from programs benefiting nonsectarian private schools.

    “Montana’s no-aid provision bars religious schools from public benefits solely because of the religious character of the schools,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court. That runs afoul of the First Amendment’s protection for free exercise of religion, he wrote, joined by fellow conservative Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

    This is just another example of how long it takes to produce real change. This ruling was 45 years in the making, and even at that it’s only a partial victory. Likewise, bans on abortion are still hit-or-miss state level affairs after 40 years, and public opinion is not much different than it was in 1980.

    This is your occasional reminder that cultural change takes a very long time, and the deeper the change the longer the time it takes. We should expect nothing different from the BLM protests that started a month ago. If you aren’t prepared for a decades-long battle, just go home and work on something else. Because that’s the kind of stamina it will take to make a real difference.

  • What’s the Deal With School Reopenings?

    It's empty now, but it should it stay empty next year?Cindy Yamanaka/SCNG/ZUMA

    Michelle Goldberg wants to know why New York City is sleepwalking into a second year of school closures:

    The nightmarish withdrawal of the key social support underlying modern parenthood is being presented as a fait accompli, rather than a worst-case scenario that government is mobilizing to prevent. “This school system should be leading the country on figuring out how to bring our kids back,” said Stringer. “And there’s no creativity. There’s no energy behind it.”

    This isn’t just a New York City problem. At every level, government is failing kids and parents during the pandemic.

    Count me on Goldberg’s side. There’s considerable evidence that school closures have only a minimal effect on virus spread, and if common-sense precautions are taken the effect should be even smaller. On the flip side, keeping schools closed causes untold hardship for parents, who somehow have to choose between earning a living and staying home with their kids. We shouldn’t force choices like that without an exceptionally good reason.

    I’m hardly an expert, but my tentative read of the evidence is that, with some normal precautions taken, elementary schools could open normally. Middle and high schools might be able to open too, but that probably requires some more study. And universities, unfortunately, are most likely to stay closed. There’s just no feasible way to keep college kids away from bars and parties and so forth, where they’ll pick up the virus and then spread it to everyone else.

    I may be wrong about all this, but what’s notable, as Scott Stringer says in Goldberg’s column, is that this subject is getting so little serious attention when it should be a matter of urgent concern. What’s going on?

  • Lunchtime Photo

    This is Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove. Until a few years ago it was Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral, but then his church went bankrupt and they sold it to the local Catholic diocese, which is growing quickly and needed a bigger space.

    This was a very difficult photograph. The cathedral is a large building on a small space, so you can’t back up to get a picture of the whole thing. This is a 12-shot panorama taken from about 20 or 30 feet away, and it’s not bad, all things considered. However, it’s all but impossible to get all the lines straight. I suspect that the only way to really get a good picture of the place is from the air.

    One of these days I’ll see what it looks like from inside. For a couple of years it was closed while they renovated the space. Then, aside from Sunday services, it was closed because they were “tuning the organ,” which I suspect may have been a little white violation of the Eighth Commandment. Now it’s closed because of COVID-19. Eventually, however, I assume it will open up and I’ll get to see it.

    June 27, 2020 — Garden Grove, California
  • Supreme Court Hands Down Another Party Line Decision

    Here’s another Supreme Court case from this morning:

    The Supreme Court on Monday made it easier for the president to get rid of the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, but allowed the watchdog agency created in the wake of the global financial crisis to stand.

    ….In its 5-4 ruling Monday, the court majority said the structure of the investigative and enforcement agency violates the Constitution by “concentrating power in a unilateral actor insulated from Presidential control,” wrote Roberts, who was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh.

    Think about this. The question at hand is whether the president has the inherent right to fire the head of an agency even if Congress restricts that ability. In fact, it’s even more arcane than that: it’s whether the president has the inherent right to fire the head of an agency run by a single person, rather than a multi-person board.

    And yet, the decision ended up being decided strictly along party lines. The five Republicans said yes; the four Democrats said no. How is it that even esoteric questions like this have become purely ideological in the hands of the Supreme Court?

  • Supreme Court Leaves Abortion Alone For Now

    Stefani Reynolds/CNP/ZUMA

    Chief Justice John Roberts decided that now was not the time for a big decision allowing states to effectively outlaw abortion:

    The justices, by a 5-4 vote, said the requirement that doctors have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital violated a woman’s right to abortion. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joined with liberals in supporting the outcome.

    ….Four years ago, the court struck down a nearly identical Texas law on the grounds that it put a heavy burden on women seeking abortions because it had the effect of closing more than half of the state’s clinics that provided abortions….The Louisiana case was seen as a rerun of the Texas case, but with a changed Supreme Court. At issue was whether the justices would adhere to their precedent or cast it aside on the grounds that it interfered with the state’s authority to regulate abortion.

    Roberts cited precedent as his reason for rejecting the law. “The legal doctrine of stare decisis requires us, absent special circumstances, to treat like cases alike. The Louisiana law imposes a burden on access to abortion just as severe as that imposed by the Texas law, for the same reasons. Therefore Louisiana’s law cannot stand under our precedent,” he said. Roberts had dissented in the Texas case, voting to uphold the law. But he says he switched his position to honor the precedent.

    I can’t say this gives me the warm fuzzies. Obviously it’s a good thing that the Louisiana law was struck down, but Roberts made it clear that he’s just waiting for a chance to declare “special circumstances.” When that happens, goodbye abortion.

    However, both of Donald Trump’s appointees voted to overturn precedent, so the evangelical crowd can’t complain that they’re turncoats. All they need is either the right case or else one more conservative justice and their dream of forcing every pregnant woman to carry her blastocyst to term will finally be complete.

    FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH: I think Roberts is smarter than the other conservative justices. The others are willing to flatly ignore precedent and do whatever they want, which would launch a tidal wave of opposition and possibly endanger the court. Roberts is craftier. He wants to wait for a time when Roe can be effectively overturned but with an arguably proper decision. I don’t know how much difference that will make in the long run, but it’s almost certainly better for the Supreme Court as an institution.

  • Trump Retweets Supporter Yelling “White Power”

    Earlier this morning Donald Trump retweeted a tweet that included this video of a supporter yelling “white power” to a protester:

    NPR tells us that “white power” is a white supremacist slogan, carefully sourcing this to the Anti-Defamation League in case some of us weren’t sure about that.

    Trump has since deleted the tweet, but that hardly changes the fact that he apparently thought it was fine and dandy until someone on his staff told him otherwise. This is hardly the first time Trump has retweeted racist crap on his feed, but it’s hard to recall something quite so obvious. Even Trump isn’t clueless enough to do this by accident.

  • If COVID-19 Cases Are Going Up, Why Is the Death Rate Going Down?

    This chart shows the growth trend of COVID-19 cases vs. COVID-19 deaths:

    Cases and deaths were following a roughly similar trend until mid June, when cases suddenly started to skyrocket while deaths continued to steadily decline. What’s going on?

    Part of the answer, of course, is that deaths are a lagging indicator, and you don’t really expect them to increase until cases have been high for two or three weeks. It’s possible that the death rate will turn upward next week.

    But there are a couple of other things that probably explain what’s going on. First, during the initial outbreak of COVID-19 a huge number of cases came in nursing homes, whose residents are by far the most vulnerable to the virus. We now know that nearly half of all COVID-19 deaths came in nursing homes, which eventually created a sort of herd immunity. Starting around June, there were fewer cases and far fewer deaths in nursing homes.

    Second, when states started to reopen, it was young people who took advantage of this in the greatest numbers, while older people like me mostly tried to stay isolated. The kids tended not to wear masks or pay a lot of attention to social distancing measures, and this caused the number of cases to skyrocket. However, young people are also the least likely to die from the virus, so the large number of cases among the young haven’t translated into a large number of deaths.

    Both of these together—more cases among young people and fewer cases in nursing homes—have combined to change the age profile of the coronavirus. As that age profile goes down, there are fewer deaths even as cases rise, simply because younger people are much less likely to die from COVID-19 than older people.

    This probably explains some of the mystery. But don’t get complacent: Next week might very well see a turnaround in the death rate. A lower age profile can improve things, but not forever. At some point, reckless behavior will catch up to us.