Category Archives: politics

Am I supposed to say something about the invasion of the United States Capitol?

Or the reimpeachment of the President, a week before the end of his term?

I feel like I should, just because it’s history, and I might wonder how it seemed in real time. It is hard to understand what actually happened on January 6, even though we live in a world where everything is logged in real-time video. We still don’t know who left pipe bombs outside the offices of the Republican and Democratic National Committees. We don’t know what parts of the invasion were spontaneous and what parts were planned, and by whom. Some people are saying members of the House of Representatives collaborated with the invaders, giving them a guided tour of the building the day before the attack. Some people are saying some of the Capitol Police force collaborated, while others fought off the mob.

We don’t know what to expect next. There is said to be “chatter” about armed, angry people at all 50 statehouses. I don’t know how seriously to take that, but I won’t be going downtown this weekend. Moving trucks have been sighted at the White House and some people say the President has given up pretending he won re-election; but then again he is also said to have met with one of his favorite CEOs today to talk legal strategies for keeping up the show.

As I said last week, it is temperamentally hard for me to expect the worst. Probably Trump will slink away and the inauguration will happen without incident and the idea of renewed armed rebellion against the United States government will slink away too, albeit more slowly. But — as last week — I don’t have a good argument that it has to be that way.

What I find really chilling is this. Imagine it had been much worse and some number of Democratic senators, known for opposing Trump, had been kidnapped or killed. Mitch McConnell would have somberly denounced the crimes. But he would also have allowed Republican governors to appoint those senators’ replacements, and reclaimed his role as majority leader, and do everything he could to prevent the new government from governing, saying, what happened on January 6 was terrible, to be deplored and mourned, but we have to move on.

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Pandemic blog 43: bluster

Blustery day in Madison; windy and wet, light snow falling, but not sticking. An unwelcome reminder that the constrictedness of our current way of life is going to be harder to handle when the ground’s frozen solid and you have to Hoth up to go outside. Still: this wave of cases has clearly crested in Dane County, which even at the severest moments has been spared the worst of what’s hit Wisconsin these past few months.

And bluster in the State Capitol, as legislators, whether they actually believe this or just feel constrained by political realities to say so, are arguing that my vote and the votes of my fellow Wisconsinites shouldn’t count, and that those legislators should be empowered to choose our Presidential electors in our stead. I prefer the sad wet snow.

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Pandemic blog 42: Thanksgiving

A lot of political tumult about Thanksgiving and whether turkey dinners are likely to give the pandemic another boost in the last few months before vaccines become available.

Maybe! But I think these things are really hard to predict and my conviction that they’re hard has only gotten firmer over the last few months. Here’s a sketch of how large-scale interstate travel and protracted indoor maskless multigenerational proximity might not generate new outbreak conditions.

  • At least one family I know who traveled for Thanksgiving quarantined for two weeks before hand. In general, public health advice has been not so much “never see anyone” as “ration your in-person interactions to prioritize the ones that really matter to you.” It doesn’t seem implausible to me that people who are planning to spend five hours eating dinner with grandma would have limited their bar-going in the weeks before. If that’s the case, total November transmission opportunities might not be any higher than if there hadn’t been Thanksgiving.
  • In the same vein, it’s possible that people who chose to celebrate Thanksgiving in person are differentially likely to be those who have already contracted COVID and recovered, which makes them much less likely sources of spread.
  • Am I being too optimistic about people dialing back their in-person socialization if they’re doing Thanksgiving? Maybe! But it really does seem to be the case that people, in the aggregate, respond to disease conditions. When a region gets hit hard with virus, the wave does tend to crest, whether the regional government imposes hard limits on gatherings or not, and it really doesn’t look like that crest is happening because immunity levels have gotten high enough to suppress outbreak without behavior change. I think that, despite lots of coverage of defiant COVID truthers, the median person is aware of the outbreak status where they are and changes their behavior accordingly. So you get some amount of homeostasis from aggregate behavior change. I really do think this is part of the story! My memory is that in Wisconsin in March, cellphone data showed that visits to stores dropped sharply before there was a state stay-at-home order.

Anyway, we were not among the travellers; I bought a smoked turkey from Beef Butter BBQ and candied up some yams and made a green bean / cream of mushroom soup / french fried onion casserole, which, like the WKRP Thanksgiving episode, turned out to be enjoyable but not as great as I remembered from childhood. We had long Zoom calls with both my family and Dr. Mrs. Q’s, We felt grateful, as we have been all year, that this is easier on our family than it is on most other people.

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Pandemic blog 39: pandemic election

Oh yeah, we had an election. Joe Biden won. I could have written about it but actually a lot of other people were also writing about it. I did do an interview for the Atlantic the day before Election Day, on how to think about “probabilities” as they apply to non-repeated events like elections.

COVID didn’t dampen turnout; in fact, it was the highest-turnout election since 1908. (Taftmentum!) A lot of people are interpreting this as a signal of the high level of interest in the election, and the high level of enthusiasm of Trump fans for Trump, and of Biden fans for flushing Trump. The enthusiasm is real! But also: millions of people voted by mail, many, like me, for the first time. And voting by mail is really easy and convenient! I wonder whether some people will keep doing it even when there’s no pandemic. (I don’t think I will; I usually vote early in-person at the library that’s a few blocks from my house, but if that option weren’t so convenient, I really might.)

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Pandemic blog 36: undecided

Oh yeah, on top of everything else, there’s an election. Ordinarily, this time of year, I’d be spending some of a nice weekend day knocking on doors around Madison and making sure everyone’s registered to vote. This year, no door-knocking, not on the Democratic side, at any rate. So I did some phone calling, though it’s not something I love doing. And among other people I talked to one actual honest-to-God undecided voter.

Talking to strangers about politics makes you realize lots and lots of people don’t fit into the political boxes you understand from Online or TV or the Paper of Record. This voter was an African-American Iraq war vet in Georgia. He didn’t like what Trump had said about veterans. He didn’t like Harris’s record as California AG. He doesn’t like that Biden is in favor of a mask mandate, which he sees as “dictatorship” like what he saw in Iraq. He thinks the cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security is too low and the elderly can’t live on what they get. He thinks a one-time $1200 payment is too little stimulus for ordinary people and most of the COVID relief went to big companies instead of into people’s pockets. He wants to know why we couldn’t have had monthly COVID relief checks like other countries. He thinks there should be term limits for Congress and judges. He worries that Biden is old and that Harris will become President and that based on his experience in combat women tend to “falter in the heat.” He thinks both candidates are “playing the race card.” He thinks Congress bickers too much and doesn’t do anything. He thinks we should throw them all out and start fresh.

I did not convert this guy to Joe Biden — how could I? I told him he had thought about the issues a lot more than anybody else I’d talked to, which is true. I tried to give him some sense that the reason I’d spend my afternoon calling strangers on the phone is that there’s a real difference between Joe Biden and Donald Trump and that difference directly affects things he cares about. He’s still undecided.

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Pandemic blog 35: Updates

What’s going on with some of the topics previously covered?

Slimming: The initial weight loss reported slowed down, but hasn’t stopped, even though I started eating take-out from restaurants in July and have been doing so pretty regularly. Now at about 18 pounds below pre-pandemic weight. Why, I wonder? Is it really just the lunch out at work and the snack at the coffeeshop forgone?

Pandemic elections: 100,000 people in Dane County have already returned their absentee ballots for November. The city is setting up “Democracy in the Park” events where voters can turn in their ballots to city pollworkers; Republicans are trying to have those events declared illegal, because (this is me editorializing) they make it easy and convenient for people to vote whose votes they’d rather not see cast. There is a lot of noise about slowness of the mail, but it’s been fast here, and I mailed my ballot in; received by the clerk in just two days. The underlying worry here is that political actors will try to retroactively have legally cast ballots invalidated after Election Day, leaving voters with no recourse. The fact that mailed-in absentees are expected to be predominantly Democratic (only 44,000 ballots returned so far in Crucial Waukesha County) creates an obvious means of attack. I don’t really think that’ll happen but people are thinking about it under their mental breath.

Writing: The book is almost done! A draft is written, I’m going through and revising and putting in more endnotes now. To me it seems completely different from How Not To Be Wrong, while Dr. Mrs. Q says it seems exactly the same, which seems a kind of sweet spot: I can hope the people who liked the other book will like this one, while feeling for myself that I’m not putting out the same product again and again like a hack.

Impossible Meat: We’re still eating a lot of it! I have absolutely learned to read it as meat and no longer think of it as a substitute. But we’ve converged on using it exclusively in sauces; as a burger, it still doesn’t totally satisfy.

Smart Restart: After the big surge with the opening of classes, UW-Madison shut down in-person instruction for two weeks and put the two first-year dorms where cases were concentrated into isolation. The positivity rate on campus has dropped back down to around 1% and the campus outbreak doesn’t seem to have created sustained exponential growth in Madison’s general population; but it does seem to have brought our daily case load back up to where it was months ago, from which it is, again, only very slowly dropping. When R_0 is a little less than 1, even a brief bump up in prevalence can be very expensive in terms of long-term cumulative case numbers. Now we are starting football again. Is that smart? There won’t be any fans in Camp Randall (which means the economic catastrophe for local businesses of a year without a football season is going to happen unblunted.) Then again, there’s something hypocritical about me saying “Hell no, why take the risk” since I’ve been watching and enjoying baseball. The enjoyment of millions of fans actually does have value. MLB, because lots and lots of money is riding on this, has mostly kept its players and employees from suffering outbreaks. The Big Ten can probably do the same — if it cares to. What I worry about is this. By all accounts, in-person teaching hasn’t been spreading COVID either. But when we had in-person teaching, everyone felt things were more normal, and thinking things were more normal, they relaxed their social distancing, and that generated thousands of cases. There was indirect spread. Will football generate the same?

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Pandemic blog 21: we all look like freedom fighters

Wisconsin is slowly loosening its emergency health restrictions. Stores are allowed to open as long as they’re not in enclosed malls and no more than five customers are inside at once. People are moving around more than they were in April (though still quite a bit less than they were at the beginning of March):

The streets aren’t empty; last Sunday I walked over to Tim Yu‘s house to drop off a copy of an oral history of REM I knew he wanted to read, and everyone in the neighborhood was outside; I probably socalized more, sidewalk to porch, than I do on an ordinary Sunday. AB and I did a 25-mile ride, a new record for her, and there were plenty of people out on the bikepaths, unmasked. I played Frisbee with CJ at Wingra Park and a big group of teenagers was hanging out in close quarters, looking very much not like a family group.

On the other hand, at Trader Joe’s today, shoppers were making a visible effort to stay away from one another, and I counted only four people without masks. I overheard the Russian guy who works there say to one of this co-workers, “We all look like freedom fighters.”

I see this as a reasonable response to increased knowledge about the nature of the disease. Sustained indoor propinquity seems to be the dominant mechanism of transition.

Freedom fighters! The Wisconsin Supreme Court has struck down the state stay-at-home order issued by Governor Evers, except not exactly, because in order to find a reading of the statute that supported the outcome they asserted they had no beef with the governor’s order itself, only its implementation and enforcement by Andrea Palm, the State Health Secretary (or rather the State Health Secretary Designee because the Senate doesn’t feel like confirming anyone.) Anyway, as of now, nobody knows what the rules are. Some bars opened up and served crowds as normal. Seems like a bad idea. The smart political money in Wisconsin says this decision has nothing to do with COVID per se but is mostly an attempt to establish some precedent that the executive needs legislative approval to, well, execute things.

I don’t know what happens next. Maybe nothing. Stores were already open, people were already moving around. And large chunks of the state, including some of the places with the highest caseload like Green Bay, Kenosha, and Milwaukee, are still under county orders that the Supreme Court didn’t touch. Maybe people packing into newly open bars will create superspreading events and we’ll see a big wave of new cases and deaths in Waukesha and Platteville. And maybe they won’t! The main thing we know about COVID is we don’t know much about COVID. Why was there so much more spread in New York than there was in Chicago, and so much more in Chicago than in San Francisco? I don’t think there are any convincing answers. There’s graph theory in it, as in my last post, but it’s not just graph theory.

Wisconsin may very well not suffer any disastrous consequence from opening up with no real plan. But it’s hard to deny we’re taking a risk of a disastrous consequence. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen. That’s not a crazy hope. Most drunk drivers get home safe.

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Pandemic blog 15: “lock them down”

Trader Joe’s on Friday: the first time I had to wait in line to get in the store. To maintain an appropriately low density, they don’t let a new shopper in until someone comes out. This week, about 90% of shoppers were masked. The people who weren’t were mostly college-age. The food supply still seems pretty normal; a few things, like butter, were out, but it’s Trader Joe’s — there’s always something they’re for some reason out of. I asked the store manager whether they were selling more beer than usual, and he said, beer, no, hard liquor, yes.

Large majorities in Wisconsin support the governor’s safer-at-home order, but there are always dissenters:

You might be surprised to hear I have some sympathy for this point of view, though he needs to be more broad with his lockdown; Waukesha County, where Menominee Falls is, has just as high a case rate as Dane does.

But it’s not crazy to imagine that COVID spread might be slower in less dense regions; maybe so much slower that the pandemic could be kept in check with less stringent suppression measures. Let’s posit that, eventually, we open schools and some businesses in rural Wisconsin before we do the same in Milwaukee. So this guy gets his wish.

My concern is this: he is not going to then say “It’s just like I said, I want to work and be productive, I’m glad I’m able to do so and I support strong relief measures for my fellow Wisconsinites in Milwaukee who have to stay home for the sake of public health.” No, I think that guy is going to say “Why should my taxes be paying somebody in Milwaukee to sit at home when I have to work?”

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Pandemic blog 13: Violent Frisbee

Already discussed: the fracas over the April 7 spring election, which should have been postponed, or held by mail if it was held at all. To my great surprise, Jill Karofsky, the liberal running to unseat Scott Walker appointee Daniel Kelly from the Supreme Court, did so, with a bang, winning by about 11 points. Incumbents usually don’t lose Supreme Court races here and I thought Democrats’ political attention was taken up by the Presidential primary, by now all but over. Since Trump’s election, conservative candidates have won only one out of seven statewide elections here, and that one (Brian Hagedorn for Supreme Court) was by half a percent.

Why did Karofsky win by so much? One natural theory is that the election being the same day as the Democratic primary helped bring Democrats to the polls. Boosting this: Bernie Sanders made the apparently strange decision to campaign in Wisconsin, stay in the race until election day, and then immediately drop out before the results were reported. It all makes sense if you understand his motive to be getting his voters to the polls to vote for Karofsky as well as him.

But did it work? This chart from Charles Franklin, who knows Wisconsin politics like nobody else, says otherwise:

If it was the Democratic primary driving Democratic voters to the polls, there’d be a bigger turnout boost in more Democratic counties. There wasn’t. So either the primary didn’t really boost turnout at all, or Republicans were equally motivated to go to the polls and vote for Trump against — well, the state GOP didn’t allow Trump’s Republican primary challengers on the ballot, so against nobody.

Was turnout actually higher because of the pandemic? Maybe people are more likely to vote when they’ve actually got a ballot to mail than they are to find time on Election Day.

Our first Seder without family since 2006, when I broke my arm so badly a week before Pesach that I couldn’t travel: Dr. Mrs. Q, baby CJ and I did it alone. This year we had grandparents in by Zoom both nights. But I had to cook Seder dinner, which I’ve never done. We all have things we don’t do in the kitchen for no reason except it’s not our habit. For me it’s giant pieces of meat. Just not what I cook. Don’t know how to roast a chicken or a turkey, don’t ever make leg of lamb (butterfly? spatchcock?) and I have never, before this week, made a brisket. But it’s easy, it turns out!

I was extremely successful, to my surprise, in hiding the afikoman. Both nights I thought it was in too easy a place and both nights my kids required multiple hints and were very satisfied with the search. Either I’m more cunning than I thought or my kids are not born hunters.

We did a gefilte taste test this year; traditional vs. tilapia. Tilapia is better!

With two days left to go we have eaten just about all the eggs.

We have been playing 4-person Ultimate in the backyard, AB and I vs CJ and Dr. Mrs. Q. They always win. The team of AB and me is called “Violent Frisbee” and AB has made us a flag:

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Maps of candidates from coconsideration

G. Elliot Morris posted this embedding of the current Democratic presidential candidates in R^2 on Twitter:

where the edge weights (and thus the embeddings) derive from YouGov data, which for each pair of candidates (i,j) tell you which proportion of voters who report they’re considering candidate i also tell you they’re considering candidate j.

Of course, this matrix is non-symmetric, which makes me wonder exactly how he derived distances from it. I also think his picture looks a little weird; Sanders and Bloomberg are quite ideologically distinct, and their coconsiderers few in number, but they end up neighbors in his embedding.

Here was my thought about how one might try to produce an embedding using the matrix above. Model voter ideology as a standard Gaussian f in R^2 (I know, I know…) and suppose each candidate is a point y in R^2. You can model propensity to consider y as a standard Gaussian centered at y, so that the number of voters who are considering candidate y is proportional to the integral

\int f(x) f(y-x) dx

and the voters who are considering candidate z to

\int f(x) f(y-x) f(z-x) dx

So the proportions in Morris’s table can be estimated by the ratio of the second integral to the first, which, if I computed it right (be very unsure about the constants) is

(2/3) \exp(-(1/12) |y-2z|^2.

(The reason this is doable in closed form is that the product of Gaussian probability density functions is just exp(-Q) for some other quadratic form, and we know how to integrate those.) In other words, the candidate y most likely to be considered by voters considering z is one who’s just like z but half as extreme. I think this is probably an artifact of the Gaussian I’m using, which doesn’t, for instance, really capture a scenario where there are multiple distinct clusters of voters; it posits a kind of center where ideological density is highest. Anyway, you can still try to find 8 points in R^2 making the function above approximate Morris’s numbers as closely as possible. I didn’t do this in a smart optimization way, I just initialized with random numbers and let it walk around randomly to improve the error until it stopped improving. I ended up here:

which agrees with Morris that Gabbard is way out there, that among the non-Gabbard candidates, Steyer and Klobuchar are hanging out there as vertices of the convex hull, and that Warren is reasonably central. But I think this picture more appropriately separates Bloomberg from Sanders.

How would you turn the coconsideration numbers into an R^2 embedding?

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