Apr 28, 2022

Reader mailbag: Answering your questions

Answer your questions en masse.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Keep an eye out for tomorrow's Friday edition, which is headlined: "Journalistic malpractice at The New York Times."

I don't plan on doing a bunch of media criticism in Tangle, but I couldn't look away from this one. And the reason I'm publishing it is because I'm very weirdly not seeing anyone else address the topic at hand.

Quick hits.

  1. A New York court struck down Democrats’ heavily gerrymandered congressional map, dealing a major victory to Republicans and handing them an advantage heading into the 2022 midterms. (The outcome)
  2. The U.S. economy shrank by a 1.4% annual rate in the first quarter of 2022, despite solid spending by consumers and businesses. (The numbers)
  3. Moderna submitted a request for FDA emergency use authorization for a low-dose Covid-19 vaccine for children six months to six years old. (The vax)
  4. The Minnesota Police Department was accused of a years-long pattern of racial discrimination in a new report by the state's Department of Human Rights. (The accusations)
  5. Russia and the U.S. conducted a prisoner exchange, trading a former Texas marine detained in 2019 for a Russian pilot serving a drug trafficking sentence. (The exchange)
  6. Southern California declared an emergency water shortage and imposed restrictions on water use for 6 million residents. (The shortage)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

A reader mailbag! I know there are a lot of important stories out there to cover, like Biden potentially canceling all student debt or the Supreme Court case on prayer in school. We’ll get to them next week, I promise.

Every day, we try to answer one reader question in the newsletter. Some days we have to skip it, because our main story needs more space, so we are always behind on these questions. So every few months, I like to try to clear the decks by answering a bunch of reader questions in one issue.

Today is that day. This is the mailbag edition.

Obviously, I can't give every question the same attention our main topics get in the newsletter. But I'll try to approach them with the same honesty, balance and focus — just in a condensed form. I hope you enjoy it, and remember: You can ask a question by writing in any time, just reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

I’ve been seeing a lot of reports from conservative outlets that on yesterday, 4/27 a lot of conservative accounts gained a tremendous amount of followers and some high profile liberal accounts lost a lot of followers. Basically the indication is that Twitter altered its algorithms in advance of Elon taking over, confirming the suspicion that conservative accounts are suppressed by current algorithms and left leaning accounts are pumped up. Can you confirm if this is true?

— Ryan, Hackensack, NJ

According to Twitter, it is all organic change. And I think there is reason to believe them. I don't think there are any algorithmic changes (they wouldn't take effect that quickly, and Twitter has reportedly locked all software updates for fear its engineers may revolt against Musk). More importantly, though, every news channel in the world covered Musk buying Twitter, so it's no real surprise to see a huge influx of users, and Musk seems to agree. There were also several campaigns to leave Twitter in some smaller factions of the left, so it's also no surprise to hear some people have quit. I find the organic argument pretty convincing.

However... not everyone does. Quite a few people have suggested that it was actually a big influx of bots. But that doesn't explain why, say, Obama lost 300,000 followers.

Why is election day not a national holiday?

— Nick, Minneapolis, Minnesota

The timing of election day is one of those hilariously dated and bizarre things we still hold onto. Until 1845, elections could be held anytime in a 34-day window. But as communication improved, concerns rose that early results would influence later voting, and thus, the final count. So Congress passed a law to make election day the second Tuesday in November. This was, essentially, a way to acquiesce to farmers across the country, since we were mostly an agricultural society back then. The idea was that farmers went to church on Sunday and the market on Wednesday, so Tuesday would give them time to make a trip to the polls (and back) without interrupting their lives too much.

Obviously, now, Tuesdays are hugely inconvenient for most of us. Being too busy or having work is one of the top reasons people cite for not voting. But switching to Sunday or Saturday would be tough for devout Christians or Jews, who have those days off for the sabbath. Several bills have proposed solving this dilemma by making election day a national holiday, but they have been resisted (mostly by Republicans) in Congress.

The reasons are varied: 1) Tradition. As weird as it is, we hold onto that kind of stuff. 2) Money. Another national holiday would be an economic hit, and that matters to people. 3) If you ask liberals, it's because Republicans don't want to see increased voter turnout (My view: This could go very well or very badly for Republicans, depending on which election you're talking about). Others have argued, more simply, that spreading voting out over days or months is a far better solution than clearing one single day for voting.

For what it's worth, I would support election day as a national holiday, even if we just made it Veterans Day. So would 65% of Americans. I'd just want to make sure we have options to vote on the weeks around that day as well.

Have Republicans proposed any concrete solutions to deal with inflation? Have Democrats?

— Anonymous, California

Tangle has covered this before, but Democrats’ biggest push has been for a gas tax holiday. Biden is obviously trying to address the price of fuel by releasing stocks from our strategic reserve, which appears to be having some positive effects. He has also suggested that his Build Back Better plan would reduce inflation, repeatedly citing a group of Nobel Laureate economists who agree. Most agree that the proposal would be effective long-term to fight inflation, but not short term, and could have other consequences.

This piece from Business Insider compares both Democratic and Republican solutions. Republicans' major proposal is a strict cap on all future spending which, like the Build Back Better plan, is not something that would have any impact in the short term. To be frank, Republicans don't have a unified message on solving inflation, but that doesn't mean there aren't legitimate ideas out there. Various senators have floated energy-related ideas like boosting domestic energy production. Some have called for ending all Covid-19 restrictions (to resolve supply chain issues and labor shortages). Others have floated the temporary elimination of shipping and trucking regulations. I think all of these ideas have merit in their own way (but, like anything, come with unintended consequences). NBC News has a good round-up.

If inflation is being driven partially by lack of workers and unemployment is low, why are we not increasing immigration of individuals to fill those open positions? This seems particularly relevant for service roles (retail, maintenance, child care) and semi-skilled home health/elder care that may have shorter training requirements.

— A.S., Eugene, Oregon

There are a lot of people on the left asking this same question. Brookings did an entire piece calling for Biden to "tear down those walls and let immigrants take jobs in high demand." As author Danny Bahar argues: "If there was any time in the modern history of the United States to promote a flexibilization of its migration policies, it is now. It is the most efficient and easiest way to offer a smart solution to the unprecedented tightness in U.S. labor markets." He notes that port workers and truck drivers are in huge need, could help address inflation, and require skills a lot of migrant laborers have.

Key to that piece, though, is the supposition that we can or should suspend certain immigration rules to bring in workers. In other words, part of the reason we're short on immigrant labor is the pandemic and the huge backlog in the U.S. immigration systems. Which means we can't really bring those workers in without clearing that backlog, which requires serious reforms or simply paring down the current process in some ways.

Still, I struggled to find many arguments against this idea. The Wall Street Journal wrote a whole piece on how low levels of legal immigration are exacerbating the labor shortage. It's not that we need more immigration than we had in 2019, it's that we have so much less immigration now. We are short about 2.4 million immigrants of working age of where we should be.

The new Amazon warehouse union, you state, is pushing for a $30 minimum wage.  I understand this is a negotiating tactic rather than a final amount, but as a New Yorker I was hoping you could answer this question for a westerner.  Is this reasonable?  I know the cost of living in NYC is astronomical, but here a good middle class yearly contract comes out to maybe $25 an hour, a good unskilled warehouse job would be maybe $16.

— Anonymous, Affton, Missouri

It's so hard to say. Such a massive expansion of the minimum wage has really not been tried in a lot of places, but I think there's reason to believe it's actually in the ballpark for what Amazon should pay. The living wage calculator from MIT says $22 is a living wage for one adult and no children in New York, the state. So I imagine the city is a bit higher than that. Indeed lists the average warehouse worker in Staten Island making $17/hour.

On a personal note, my first job in New York City paid me $40,000 per year. I lived in a six bedroom, one bathroom apartment (basically a hostel) in Harlem where I was paying $600/month rent and also paying off student loans. In this city, I was dead broke, and I lived like that for my first year here. I left that job for a huge pay bump, and my second gig was $60,000 per year. The difference was remarkable. I was able to breathe, I could get laundry done once every two weeks, I paid off my loans in a few years, and I could actually have a couple beers or eat out once or twice a week without overdrawing my account.

Still, that all required my living in a six bedroom apartment and paying $600 in rent. $30/hour would come out to about $58,500, so just shy of that second salary. I think that is well above a living wage for a single adult, given that I made ends meet on $40,000/year. But it's not as if anyone is getting rich. If you had a kid or a family member to support, you would be scrapping to make it happen, would never go on vacation, and probably could not afford any serious emergency. Amazon may be able to afford it, which is why I think the ask is “in the ballpark,” but I don't know any other company that really could. And you're probably going to see some layoffs if the union gets their rate.

What would happen if we had an open door policy where anyone could come in and get paid legally for jobs? That way, immigrants could pay taxes to support the country. Just not vote until they are citizens. Thoughts? Would the influx be too many people to handle?

— Jenifer, Fredericksburg, Virginia

I'll be honest: I haven't really considered this before. Both because I find the idea a little absurd and supremely unlikely. "Open borders" is kind of a colloquial way to say "high levels of immigration," but we have never seen real "open borders." Despite how many people come here every year, it really is hard to get into the U.S. legally or illegally (which is a testament to how high the desire is). However, there is apparently an entire book (written by a libertarian) that imagines a world where immigration is unlimited in every country. It's called “Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration,” and maybe you want to check it out (I haven't read it).

In that book, based on summaries of the arguments, the author Bryan Caplan essentially reframes immigrants as generators of wealth rather than low skilled workers who are going to use up social services and alter public culture. That's the crux. Via The New Yorker:

The basic principle of his claim is that workers in poor countries are underutilized. (“How productive would you be in Haiti?” Caplan asks.) If people could travel as freely as commodities and capital do, they could produce “vastly more stuff,” insuring that “almost everyone ends up better off.” Restrictions on immigration, Caplan writes, are the equivalent of leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk.”

Obviously, there are a lot of arguments against this theory. The common ones from the right are both security based (you can't just let people in indiscriminately) and economy based (workers willing to work for cheap will take jobs from Americans without college degrees, while high-skilled laborers will take jobs from more educated Americans). Even many immigrants argue against open borders on the grounds that immigration is a privilege, not a right or constitutional mandate.

Angela Nagle has written the left's case against open borders. That one is centered on labor politics, saying high levels of immigration threaten liberal proposals like public health care, a federal jobs guarantee, and affordable education for all. It’s an interesting piece. Nagle frames open borders as a rallying cry of the business and free market right who want cheap labor. Yet somehow, the left has become the face of the idea.

Can you explain more on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s record on sentencing for child pornography? I’ve heard and read that she has sentenced far less than what prosecutors recommended, in several cases, and if that’s true it’s concerning to me. But it doesn’t seem to concern many others. Can you explain?

— Anonymous, Rochester, NY

We covered this during the hearings. But the general thrust of it is that the framing of her sentencing was pretty dishonest. You don’t just take what the prosecutors tell you to do; that’s kind of like saying “the defendant asked for no jail time but the judge didn’t listen.” When analyzing how a judge sentences someone, the most appropriate thing to do would be to compare the sentences to the whole pie: sentencing guidelines, defendant’s wishes, prosecutor’s wishes, and the Probation Office's recommendations, which is an arm of the court. In most of the cases Sen. Josh Hawley and others brought up about Jackson, her sentences equaled or exceeded the recommended sentence from the Probation Office, meaning the reality was in some ways the opposite of the allegation.

The real issue here is that Congress has not updated the sentencing guidelines for child pornography offenses, which is something they should do. If you're looking for a good conservative perspective on this, Andrew McCarthy had a great write up in National Review.

You mentioned "a top three political priority" today. What are your top 10 ranked political priorities?

— Anonymous, Portland, Oregon

This is a tough question to answer. Not just because it's hard to think about what is most important, but also because when I think about "political priorities," I think about things I want to see change. There is a lot of good in America, and a lot of things about our country I don’t want to change, things I want to preserve. So when assembling this list it ends up being all things I'd like to see reformed, which (in our current political paradigm) kind of makes it look like I've got priorities more aligned with the Democratic party. Which is a funny thing you realize when conducting this exercise: Democrats are advocating a lot of change, while Republicans tend to advocate more preservation (progressivism vs. conservatism in a very literal sense).

Anyway, that’s not always true, but just something I noticed. Here’s my attempt at a list:

1) Reducing the cost of healthcare. The price of healthcare in America is egregiously expensive. I had skin cancer when I was 23, had stress-induced heart issues a few years ago, and play a lot of sports with high risk of injury right now. So I like having a good health insurance plan. To get a decent plan while buying insurance on the public exchange, I pay $1,062.84 every month for a premium health care plan in New York.

One thousand and sixty two dollars.

It's bananas. And the insurance still isn't even that good, especially compared to the employer provided insurance I had two years ago.

2) Expansive immigration reform. Everyone wants this. We need more judges at the border to process asylum seekers and migrants fleeing north through Mexico, and we also need to continue to fund border security. We need to give DACA recipients clarity about their status. We also need to beef up staffing to address legal immigration, something akin to a complete overhaul. Becoming a citizen or even getting a visa to come to the U.S. is a very difficult process, and in some ways that is good. But it shouldn’t be unnecessarily so. There is a lot of room to expedite the process and make it more efficient.

Basically everything about our immigration system right now is dysfunctional. And everyone in Congress (on both sides) knows it. It's well past time we did something.

3) Prison reform. As I've said in the past, my most extreme political view is that locking human beings in 8x8 foot cages is not a rational or effective way to deliver justice or rehabilitate someone. I understand we can't simply release every prisoner in America tomorrow, but I do think we need to change what kinds of offenses land you in prison, and what conditions are like when you get there.

4) Election reform. I support open primaries. I think Nick Tomboulides convinced me that we should have term limits in Congress. I'm lukewarm on ranked choice voting after seeing it in New York City, but paired with open primaries it could be a great reform. I think we need serious changes, though.

5) Reduce inflation. This is the only issue that really just appeared in the last year (go figure), and probably is the job of the Fed, but so many of our economic metrics are strong right now (low unemployment, wage growth, etc). This is the thing sinking all the progress. It's crushing workers, crushing middle class families, crushing lower class Americans more than anyone. I'd be all hands on deck to beef supply chains as the Fed makes its moves.

6) Addressing addiction. Drug and alcohol abuse are a massive public cost and are destroying not just entire family units but also towns. Rural and suburban areas across the U.S. are being devastated by drug and alcohol abuse, and urban areas continue to battle addiction the same way they have for decades. This is especially personal for me, as basically every community I've ever lived in has been hurt by addiction.

7) Reducing child care costs. We might need to be having more babies. Republicans and Democrats agree that one of the top barriers to Americans having more children is the cost of children itself. I think there are a lot of clever ways we can do something about this, but the child tax credit was a good policy. I'd love to see it come back.

8) Compete with China. On renewables, on manufacturing, on military, on just about everything. Working with China suits our needs, too, but we need to make ourselves as independent from them as possible. We rely far too much on them for just about everything. There is some legislation on that front percolating right now that I am enthusiastic about.

I really can't round out this list. Securing our government from cyber attack is probably the next big one, in my opinion. That's probably a military sized investment. The infrastructure bill has a lot of potential, and I want to see the funds get used for roads and bridges, but also rural broadband. The internet is the economy now, and we need to finish bringing our country online.

Climate change and environmental issues are big to me, but sometimes I’m unsure how much more the government can do about the former. Obviously we are extremely reliant on fossil fuels for energy, and maybe the government can create incentives to alter that. We need to enforce the emission and pollution standards already on the books, too. We can keep regulating (emission standards on cars or refrigerators are awesome) but we also are going to need innovation more than anything else. Hopefully on carbon capture and battery storage first.

We need to figure out how to make "renewable energy" more renewable. More than a government mandate we need a collective, societal commitment to be more conscious about our environment and probably use less than we use. Preserving our parks and natural lands is great, and we're actually fairly good at that from a government perspective. We should keep it up.

How likely (or unlikely) is it that Biden will extend the Student Federal Loans Pause?

— Matthew, Houston, Texas

If you had asked me this 3 months ago, I would have said an extension of the pause into this summer was likely, but cancellation was unlikely.

Now? I'm not so sure. Yesterday, CBS News reported that Biden told the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that he's looking into forgiving student loans, and MSNBC is reporting that a decision is coming soon, and the administration is sending signals that it's "warming up" to the idea of "broad cancellation."

Buckle up!

What does it mean now that Donald Trump has been found in contempt of court? Will he actually comply and turn over the documents or just continue to get away with it? Are there any next steps the court can take if the fines don’t work?

— Will, California

In short: It won’t mean much. Trump appealed the order that imposes a daily $10,000 fine, and I expect it'll now be tangled up in legal drudge for a bit.

It's possible, I suppose, that if he loses the appeal he'll have to hand over the documents. And maybe some cash. But they don't call him "Teflon Don" for nothing. He's remarkably adept at sliding out of situations like this, so I wouldn't be surprised if it turns into another dead end for the New York attorney general.

You were quick to point out that you believed that President Trump lied, but failed to note the lies that Biden stated. (Another good topic would be to touch on Biden's very obvious cognitive decline. I doubt you have the courage for this topic either.) A few of the many individuals that have proven to have extraordinary courage with intelligent commentary and news reporting are Tucker Carlson, Candace Owens and Glenn Beck. They all have what you lack in intelligent journalistic courage, integrity and a better grasp of reality.

— Morris, Colorado Springs

I'm not sure which issue you're referencing directly here, but as a general rule I don't do tit for tat. Every time I mention Donald Trump lying, I'm not going to also mention that Joe Biden lies, unless it's directly relevant. That standard is impossible to meet, and committing to something like that would likely end with me referencing John Adams' first speech to Congress 200 years ago.

I do my best to add context and balance to every piece. But you can't expect me to couch every criticism of a Democrat with a criticism of a Republican, or vice versa. As for Tucker, Candace and Glenn, you're entitled to your opinion. I can tell you unequivocally that, at the very least, Candace is not "courageous" and her commentary is not honest. She has blocked me on Twitter because I fact-checked her and posted it, and her views have repeatedly evolved to be the most profitable possible. I’ve tried several times to engage her but to no avail. I think she posts a lot of very misleading arguments and half-truths, and I actually think she is a dishonest broker.

Finally, in response to your parenthetical: "Another good topic would be to touch on Biden's very obvious cognitive decline. I doubt you have the courage for this topic either." Then I suppose I am quite courageous, given that I wrote an entire newsletter on that very topic more than a year ago. Please keep reading Tangle!

You are as liberal as they come… who are you trying to kid?

— Anonymous, Youngstown, Ohio

I suppose I'll have to do this for the rest of my life, but... I'm not trying to kid anyone. I've said it before and will say it a million more times, since there are always new readers to Tangle: The way we bring balance is by sharing a wide range of perspectives, all in one newsletter. 90% of Americans who read Tangle should see two things: their perspective, or something close to it, and then a bunch of views they either slightly or strongly disagree with.

That's the whole point of this project. It's to get people out of their bubbles, to make sure we're all engaging with arguments from across the political spectrum, and to see if people can either change their minds or better understand the folks they don't agree with. I'm trying to turn the honesty up and turn the temperature down.

As for me, I'm not here to be a centrist. I'm not here to be heterodox. I'm not here to be a moderate. Those are all ideologies in and of themselves. Centrists are always looking for the middle when sometimes the middle is wrong. The heterodox folks are the same ones who thought Putin wouldn't invade Ukraine. "Moderate" can sometimes be synonymous with "apathetic."

I care, and I'm trying to call it as I see it. Sometimes my views align with the left. Sometimes they align with the right. Often I see huge flaws on both sides, and make it a point to say so. I took a cursory look at my last twenty newsletters, and where I landed in my take was pretty split, and often without giving either side much credit. Your perception of my bias might be a reflection of your own. I have no party loyalty. I am here to report a variety of viewpoints accurately, then tell you what I think and why, on an issue-by-issue basis.

The fact that someone would find Tangle balanced but leaning left is absurd. You bend over backwards to give the right's false, intentionally disingenuous arguments a chance to be heard, which is one of the things that bothers me the very most about Tangle.

— Michael, Philadelphia, PA

Maybe you can have a chat with Anonymous from Youngstown!

Thanks for reading.

This was a fun mailbag. I always love chopping it up with readers and appreciate all the inquiry and criticism.

Remember: Subscribe if you want to get tomorrow's Friday edition. And keep an eye out next week for some coverage of the prayer case at the Supreme Court, Biden's student loans offer, and more.

Have a nice day.

Today's “have a nice day” story is from our friends at Good Good Good — a positive news website telling real good news, not just feel good news.

At the start of the pandemic, only 12% of the low-income students, and just 25% of all children in Oakland's school district had internet devices at home and a strong internet connection. This was a major barrier for remote learning, and one the community has worked to address. Now, two years later, Oakland has connected 98% of the students in the district, handing over close to 36,000 laptops and creating more than 11,000 hot spots for low-income public school students. The partnership has been dubbed #OaklandUndivided and is becoming a model for districts across the country. Good Good Good has the story.

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