May 6, 2020

SPECIAL EDITION: Catching up on some reader questions.

SPECIAL EDITION: Catching up on some reader questions.

Plus, some quick news bites and Tangle numbers.

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Today’s read: 9 minutes.

For the last few weeks, the pile of “unanswered reader questions” has been growing. So today I am culling it back by tackling a bunch of questions from all over the country. There wasn’t any huge story to tackle today, but I’ll give you some quick hits on the last 24 hours and then dive into questions. For first-time readers, you can check out yesterday’s newsletter on theories about coronavirus starting in a Chinese lab to see what the typical format looks like.

A map showing where today’s five questions came from.

Quick D.C. hits.

Criticism rains. Yesterday, several widely-shared stories painted a very negative portrait of President Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. The Washington Post reported that Jared Kushner, in his role on the task force, enlisted the help of inexperienced volunteers to help secure Personal Protective Equipment that exacerbated “chronic problems in obtaining supplies for hospitals and other needs.” The Los Angeles Times reported that Rick Bright, who was removed from his post overseeing drug and vaccine development, filed a whistleblower complaint alleging “top Trump administration health officials repeatedly ignored warnings in January and February about the need for masks and other protective equipment.” Politico also reported that it had recordings of phone calls from May 1st where health and emergency management officials shared stories of states still struggling to supply their doctors with masks, gowns and other medical gear. On the same day, President Trump told the press that “we’ve ensured a ventilator for every patient who needs one… The testing and the masks and all of the things, we’ve solved every problem. We solved it quickly.”

Coronavirus rates. The best way to look at the spread of the virus is not a national number, but a state-by-state number. Nationally, the total number of new daily coronavirus cases may be dropping — but that’s largely due to New York City getting a handle on its outbreak. There are 18 states where the virus is spreading faster than it was a week ago and just 12 states where it’s slowing down. Part of that could be because of increased testing, but it still has epidemiologists worried. In Texas and Virginia, where case numbers are growing as testing ramps up, governors have also lifted some social distancing measures and begun to “reopen.” Click.

The task force. Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times reported that the coronavirus task force would “begin to wind down,” meeting less frequently and passing off responsibilities to specific federal agencies. The left was up in arms about the news, saying we are in the heart of the pandemic with new daily cases steady and deaths still coming in the thousands. The right said people were overreacting, that the task force was still going to meet twice a week and that it was time to usher in a new phase of the coronavirus battle as states began to reopen. Click. President Trump tweeted out the following in response to the reports:

True infection rates.

Reminder: reader questions is one of my favorite parts of Tangle. If you have something you want to see in the newsletter, simply reply to this email and write in. I’ll try to get to it as soon as I can.

Q: In today’s Tangle [note: this email was sent last week], the statement was made that the U.S. is the worst affected country. While that is true in absolute numbers (reported), and I hate to be this nitpicky, it is not true on a statistical (or per capita) basis. I would suggest, if I may be so bold, to be explicit when reporting performance that you caveat if the reported value is in absolute numbers or per capita. I would suggest maybe showing both per capita and total. Also, I haven't heard anything in a while, but has the stance on China's numbers changed? Last I recall there was a semi-consensus that we did not find them credible.

— Dan, Los Alamos, New Mexico

Tangle: Hey Dan! Thanks, a fair point regarding per capita numbers. I have posted them in the past, but it has been a while. Here is an update with per capita numbers of coronavirus infections. I calculated these by taking the total number of reported cases (according to Johns Hopkins University) and dividing it by the country’s total population (according to World-O-Meter, which has pretty reliable data). These are the rates for the top six countries by total cases, in descending order from highest to lowest rates of infection. As far as China goes, not much has changed: the numbers are still unreliable, and consequent reporting has shown the Chinese government continues to obscure what the real numbers of infections are. I won’t include them here.

  • Spain has 219,329 confirmed cases in a population of 46,752,079 for a .47% infection rate.
  • The United States has 1,204,475 confirmed cases in a population of 330,711,468 for a .36% infection rate.
  • Italy has 213,013 confirmed cases in a population of 60,475,045 for a .35% infection rate.
  • The United Kingdom has 196,243 confirmed cases in a population of 67,832,558 for a .29% infection rate.
  • France has 170,694 confirmed cases in a population of 65,251,941 for a .26% infection rate.
  • Germany has 167,007 confirmed cases in a population of 83,743,886 for a .19% infection rate.

State pacts.

Q: Could you explain the significance of the Six State Council and the Western Pact and what exactly something like this means? Is there a precedent for something like this and what if any power do these governors have to supersede the federal government?

— Max, New York, New York

Tangle: This is a really fascinating development that — I think — may have long-term impacts on the U.S. All across the country, governors are reaching out to their regional neighbors to work together and defeat coronavirus. In the northeast, the “Six State Council” was formed in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Rhode Island. These states have loads of interaction with each other — commuters crossing state lines, inter-state economies, lots of people who own homes or properties in two of the states, or folks who live in one state but have family in the other. The prompt for the states to come together was in mid-April, when it became clear the federal government was going to step out of the driver’s seat and give a lot of leeway to states and employers on how to “reopen.”

Out west, a similar coalition formed — this one amongst California, Oregon and Washington, called the Western States pact. After your question came in, Massachusetts began discussing an entrance to the Six State Council (which would make it seven states) and Colorado and Nevada joined the Western States pact. Also, in the north-central, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan discussed making a pact of their own. Then some other midwestern states wanted to join, and now there is a yet-to-be-named group of states from Kentucky to Minnesota in a similar alliance.

As far as power and precedent, there doesn’t seem to be anything like this — historically speaking — that I can compare it to. The entire point of the “United States of America” was to break down the barriers between state confederacies. Now we seem to be moving backward in time. Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota recently said the midwestern alliance was “sort of a loose Articles of Confederation approach.”

As historian Richard Kreitner wrote in The New York Times, the fact “the chief executive of an American state is invoking the Articles of Confederation as ‘the model we’re taking now’ (Mr. Walz again) hints at how transformative these developments may be. The Union as Americans have known it for centuries may be beginning to fray.”

The power the governors have to supersede the federal government is the same power they’ve always had: states’ rights. I’m sure this could set up some court battles down the line, but for now, it seems like Trump and this administration are perfectly happy with states taking the reins. As much as Trump has mused about his “total authority” regarding coronavirus, his official written policy has always seemed to put the onus on states to take care of themselves. It seems the states are taking him quite literally.

In the immediate future, this really doesn’t seem to mean a lot besides the fact these states will be working together to get things back to “normal.” Each state in the northeastern pact is contributing one public health expert, one economic development expert and the governor’s chief of staff. I imagine the other state pacts will have similar committees. One of the big things the states seem keen to do is develop a plan for contact tracing (keeping a track of who interacts with who) and getting on the same level regarding social distancing measures. That way, people don’t go between states operating under different rules — and if there’s an outbreak they can quickly contain it.

Long-term, though, there is something huge bubbling here. 17 states have now formed an alliance of this kind, and “together include nearly half the American population and an even higher percentage of the country’s economic activity,” Kreitner notes. 14 Democratic governors and three Republicans. Their agreements are nonbinding pacts, but the fact they’re going to share data and work together in a formal process is a very interesting development. Kreitner accurately pointed out that our founders really feared something like this: that the “union” of states could become fractured by political parties or divide into their own sub-groups. But what does this mean for the future?

I’ll leave you with a paragraph from Kreitner’s piece (which you should definitely read) that really struck me:

A thorough overhaul of American federalism, a national recommitment to the idea that not every issue that divides us needs to be decided in Washington, will require concessions and compromises. Are progressives in the Pacific states willing to see abortion banned in the South if it means securing a regional pact to provide universal health insurance to every person, citizen or otherwise, in those western states? Are conservatives in the heartland prepared to accept severely reduced federal subsidies in exchange for more autonomy?

History’s opinion on Trump.

Q: Do you believe, historically speaking, that the handling of COVID-19, will be the only thing that defines Trump’s presidency?  As definitively as Watergate is how we look at Nixon? Nixon did some significant things as president, now many people don’t even know he did anything other than the fact he was going to be found guilty during his impeachment.

— Joe, Voorhees, New Jersey

Tangle: I think, historically speaking, we typically associate two or three major things with a president. When most people think of  George W. Bush, we think of 9/11, the Iraq War and the Great Recession. When we think of Ronald Reagan, we think of “Reaganomics,” Cold War happenings and the War on Drugs. When we think of Bill Clinton, we think of Monica Lewinsky, the economic expansion he oversaw and NAFTA. Barack Obama’s legacy is still being framed in historical terms, but I think most people will remember his history-making election, the hotly contested Obamacare and the economic recovery — with plenty of footnotes about drone wars and the political partisanship that ushered in the Trump era.

First and foremost, I think Trump’s historical significance will always be about him beating the odds in 2016 and the absolutely unbelievable reality of him as president. He has broken basically every single norm for the people who hold the office. We forget how insane it is, but he was literally awake after midnight yesterday calling the husband of one of his top aides a “loser” and “deranged” and “moonface” on Twitter and then dubbed The Lincoln Project (a group of never-Trump Republicans) the “Loser Project.” That would have been in the news for a month during Obama’s presidency, but it’s basically water under the bridge by noon in 2020. To me, Trump will always be defined by this kind of clownish, over-the-top, “trigger the libs,” reality-TV approach to what was once the most respected political office in the world. His supporters seem to love it. His detractors (policies aside, I am really not a fan of the Trump brand of politics) have always been deeply offended by it — and I think that will always be the first thing that comes to mind: the personality of Trump. And the following it has evoked.

But, behind that, I do think the COVID-19 response will be the biggest part of how he’s remembered. We are hurtling towards 100,000 Americans dying on his watch, and rising tensions with China over this entire outbreak, and this is a slow 9/11-like event that every kid who is alive right now will remember for the rest of their lives. Even for older Americans, nothing like this has ever happened or probably (hopefully) will happen again. We could reach 20% unemployment, we’ll almost certainly have an economy propped up by the federal government, and we’ve still got six months of events to unfold before the 2020 election.

I think the prospect of Trump being remembered for saving the country or getting good grades on how he handled coronavirus is out of the question. His poll numbers are dropping, some of his most staunch allies have openly criticized his response and he’s even losing support from Republican governors who used to heap praise on him. We’ve already been hit worse economically and from a health care perspective than a dozen countries that have handled it better. The big question for me is whether this will continue to get worse and ultimately be the thing that sinks his re-election and is in the lead paragraph of his Wikipedia page, or whether it will turn a corner and become more like an event that was bungled and fumbled early on before the ship was steadied — and become part of what he overcame on his way to a second term. The next few months will determine that, as will the fortitude of his supporters, who will have to either jump ship or buckle down and side with whatever his narrative is if things continue to go south.


Q: Your take on Trump's withholding of funds to the WHO says you think the director of the WHO should resign over his poor leadership. Do you think Trump should do the same? I realize Trump thinks he has done an incredible job as President and has NEVER made a mistake, while the Director of the WHO admits they could have done some things better in hindsight, but really — how is Trump any different than the director of the WHO?

— Mary, Seabrook, New Hampshire

Tangle: I hear the comparison here, but I don’t think Trump should resign over this. The leader of the World Health Organization is responsible for pandemics, and the U.S. both invests in that leadership and relies on it. As I wrote in that issue, this event was their Super Bowl — it was why those people exist and it’s why we dump millions into their organization. It’s clear they dropped the ball in several crucial ways, and when I look at how that played out the overarching thought in my head is “you had one job.”

Trump has a million jobs. Do I think he’s handled the pandemic well? No. Do I think this could define his presidency (as I answered above)? Yes. But this is an awful hand to be dealt. None of us — no leader, no pundit, no journalist, no expert — got everything about this pandemic right. Trump didn’t either, but there is a part of me that feels bad for any world leader confronting this right now. And, while there has been an unthinkable amount of incompetence from our federal government and state leaders throughout the pandemic, I think plenty of great leaders and organized governments have been totally perplexed by this virus.

Finally, I’ll just say this: we have an election in six months. If Americans want Trump gone, they’ll get to end his presidency shortly. And if Democrats and the left believe he totally dropped the ball on coronavirus, they can, will and should make that case to the American public. If Republicans believe he was on his way to a successful presidency before an unseen and unimaginable tragedy fell on top of us, they’ll make that case, too. Based on polling that we’re seeing over the last few weeks, that cat is out of the bag and his coronavirus response will be the biggest hurdle Trump has to get over in 2020.

Indie debates.

Q: They're a long way off, but the Amash decision has me thinking about the general election debates. What's the history/logic behind allowing or not allowing third-party candidates to participate in debates? Do any experts or political scientists make the argument that third-party participation in debates would be healthy for our democracy?

— Trent, Seattle, Washington

Tangle: The threshold for Amash making the debate stage is actually rather simple: he has to hit 15% in national polls. That’s the Presidential Debate Commission’s threshold for candidates, and if Amash can’t get there in the polls he has no shot. The 15% has to come from the national electorate “as determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations' most recently publicly-reported results at the time of the determination.” In 1992, Ross Perot managed to hit that threshold — and then he got 20% of the vote and was widely blamed for sinking George H.W. Bush’s re-election odds against Bill Clinton (there is plenty of evidence Perot pulled equally from both candidates).

As for the logic or history behind it, it seems the general idea is that they don’t want to take oxygen away from two candidates who have a shot and waste time on someone who doesn’t. From a political science perspective, the debate over “independents” is pretty interesting. 39% of Americans say they are independents, but most are actually “leaners” — i.e. they vote consistently for the same party every time. In 2016, with two of the most historically unpopular candidates ever, just 6% of the electorate voted for third-party candidates. 1996 was the last time any third-party candidate got more than 10% of the overall vote.

Part of that, I’m sure, has to do with how people view voting for third-party candidates as voting for whoever they really don’t like in the election (i.e. the argument voting for Amash is voting for Trump/Biden). But the general structure of our election system is really unfavorable for third-party candidates. In a general election, nearly every state in the U.S. gives their electoral votes to whoever won the majority or plurality of votes in the states, regardless of how slim the margin is. That means third-party candidates are going to have a hard time ever winning an election, and when it’s unrealistic for them to win — it becomes even more unrealistic to expect people to vote for them or want to hear from them. There are several historical reasons for why that is, but the general issue is that third-party candidates are typically viewed as spoilers and so the parties in major power (Democrats and Republicans) view them negatively and coalesce against them.

There’s also Duverger’s law. That’s the political theory named for political scientist Maurice Duverger, who posits that “any democratic country with single-member legislative districts and winner-take-all voting tends to favor a two-party system,” according to The Christian Science Monitor. Basically, it’s the formal political scientist version of what I wrote above: people don’t want to waste their ballot, so they typically vote for someone they think will win.

To your final question: yes, many people argue that third-party candidates in debates would be really good for democracy and good for America. I happen to agree. I think the two-person debates in the general election give way to a lot of “I am this and he/she is that” rhetoric that leaves us looking at how candidates are distinguishing themselves from the worst qualities of their opponent instead of telling us about their record and their plans. It seems to me that a third-party candidate on stage would force us out of the “lesser of two evils” dichotomy and into a more robust conversation about what people have done and what they plan to do.


  • 34. The number of states and territories (Washington D.C.) Tangle has answered questions from: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Washington D.C. and Wisconsin.
  • 8. The number of questions that have come in from countries outside the United States: Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Ireland, New Zealand and Sweden.
  • 371. The number of clips where Fox News mentioned Tara Reade as of May 1st.
  • 35. The number of clips where CNN mentioned Tara Reade as of May 1st.
  • 4.4%. Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump in Arizona, according to recent polling there.
  • 3%. Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump in North Carolina, according to recent polling there.
  • 9%. Democratic candidate Cal Cunningham’s lead over Republican Thom Tillis in North Carolina’s senate race.

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Have a nice day.

A professional Rugby player who suffered a spinal cord injury in 2017 just accomplished a rather remarkable feat during coronavirus quarantine. Ed Jackson, who was paralyzed from the neck down after a swimming pool accident, was told he’d never walk again. But after regaining strength and use of three of his four limbs, he did more than walk last week: he “scaled Mt. Everest” inside his parents’ house. Jackson climbed his parents’ stairs 12 hours a day for four days straight, going up 5,566 flights of stairs to reach a height of 29,029 feet (the height of Everest). Along the way, he live-streamed the event and raised $50,500 for Britain’s National Health Service. “I've loved it all,” Jackson said. “It's been painful, it's been monotonous, it's been boring at times but most of the time to be honest with you, it's been a lot of fun with all the people who've got involved and just seeing that fundraising total go way past where we ever sort of dreamed of has been pretty inspiring.” Click.

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