Worthy Reads: Such A Strange Vibration
Worthy Reads for September 2023
Welcome to Worthy Reads, where I share some articles that I think are worth your time. It’s always one of De Civ’s most popular features. It’s also one of the paywalled ones: everyone gets half the items, but only paid subscribers get them all. Retweets are not endorsements.
“How I Changed My Mind About Marijuana,” by Charles Fain Lehman:
Start with mass incarceration. America does, indeed, incarcerate a lot of people, something like 0.6% of our population, more than basically any other country with credible numbers. A conventional line—one I long believed—is that drug criminalization, and especially marijuana criminalization, drives the scale.
The data tell a less straightforward story. As of the most recent estimates, drug offenders account for a bit more than 12 percent of all state prisoners (which themselves make up about 88 percent of the prison population). They’re a larger share of the smaller federal prison system (46.7 percent), but cumulatively they still account for just 16.7 percent of all prisoners. Possession offenders, in turn, are a smaller share yet—3.2 percent of state prisoners and essentially no one in the federal system (and many possession offenders likely pled down from trafficking). And this is, of course, looking at all drugs, not just marijuana. It’s hard to estimate how many people are in on marijuana-related charges, but John Pfaff—the Fordham law professor and radical pro-decarceration advocate—ballparks it at around 1 to 2 percent of sentences.
I have, for a long time, reluctantly accepted that marijuana is bad but that criminalizing it is worse.
I know pot is bad. I’ve seen it destroy promising young people, rendering them unfocused, emotionally unstable, grandiose but trapped by their own malfunctioning brains. One of them was a once-close friend. Pot defenders insist that marijuana “doesn’t cause mental illness; it just triggers mental illness for people who are already predisposed to it.” Practically speaking, this is a distinction without a difference. Nobody knows whether they’re predisposed toward psychosis going into marijuana use. Some will be fine. Others will come out permanently deranged. Nobody knows in advance who will lose that particular game of Russian Roulette.
Unless you have a legitimate medical need that justifies the risks, pot is bad and no one should use it. Legalizing pot, I was sure, would simply make government dependent on pot revenues. Pigovian taxes, wise in theory, always end up coming back to bite you in reality. I was not excited about this.
However, until I read this article by Charles Lehnan, I believed that the knock-on effects of criminalizing pot were probably even worse. I believed pot criminalization drove arrests, incarcerations, family dissolution, police brutality, gang violence, and large taxpayer expenses. For that reason, I supported decriminalization.
“What Mitt Romney Saw in the Senate,” by McKay Coppins:
This dissonance soon wore on Romney’s patience. Every time he publicly criticized Trump, it seemed, some Republican senator would smarmily sidle up to him in private and express solidarity. “I sure wish I could do what you do,” they’d say, or “Gosh, I wish I had the constituency you have,” and then they’d look at him expectantly, as if waiting for Romney to convey profound gratitude. This happened so often that he started keeping a tally; at one point, he told his staff that he’d had more than a dozen similar exchanges. He developed a go-to response for such occasions: “There are worse things than losing an election. Take it from somebody who knows.”
That’s a great zinger.
Look, this account does not stan Mitt Romney. Romney cheated at the 2012 Republican National Convention to improve optics. Romney was rightly criticized as a robot whose true passion seemed to be his family and things like taxes, deficits, and Wall Street deregulation. This blog did so, and stands by it. He was one of the worst people we could have chosen to run against specifically Barack Obama—timid in the face of progressive media, continually startled that the media was willing to rig the game against him and lie in fact checks, unable to effectively criticize Obamacare because he himself had invented Romneycare. (I can’t find the posts where I was Big Mad about the convention cheating, but I spent hours analyzing that stupid tape.) I voted for him, but I held my nose to do it.2
Nevertheless… so much water has gone under the proverbial bridge since then that it feels petty to hold such minor sins against him. They didn’t seem minor at the time, but we didn’t know what was coming. (Lest anyone think I’m trying to be delicate: I AM TALKING ABOUT DONALD J. TRUMP.) Romney, who was as dishonest as any politician in the 2000s, always flattered himself into believing he was The Last Honest Republican.
It evokes both frustration and admiration in me (and frustration about the admiration!) to recognize that, this time, he’s right. The Last Honest(ish) Republican is retiring.
Oh, and the real big news from this article is that, according to Mitt Romney, a substantial portion of the GOP Senate caucus voted to acquit Trump on the second, post-insurrection impeachment because they feared for the physical safety of their families. That’s an alarming tidbit worth gestating for a while.
In fact, GOP elected officials are portrayed throughout this article is being smart enough to know Trump is a personal and policy disaster, but too chicken to do anything about it. Here, we see that there is absolutely no limit to their cowardice. They’re scared of their own base, and not just of getting primaried by the base, but getting killed by the base. Their “leader” can literally form a armed force, launch it in their direction as an insurrection, with intent to cause them harm, and still they will fawn over him and say he’s been unfairly treated by federal law enforcement—because the alternative as worse.
Of course, Trump has been treated unfairly by federal law enforcement. Cooler heads should have prevailed, but Democrats, too, are accountable to their base, and their base wants Trump scalps.3
We seem to be in a moment where politics, more than ever before, is driven by the popular id. Small-r republican institutions, which are supposed to receive the id but moderate it, are no longer effectively serving that purpose, at least not on the most important issues of the day. Republican institutions won’t tame the mob, but follow it.
That may lead us to some dark places.
“The Mystery of the Bloomfield Bridge,” by Tyler Vigen:
Why is this bridge here?
This pedestrian bridge crosses I-494 just west of the Minneapolis Airport. It connects Bloomington to Richfield. I drive under it often and I wondered: why is it there? It's not in an area that is particularly walkable, and it doesn't connect any establishments that obviously need to be connected. So why was it built?
The answer will take Tyler Vigen (the Spurious Correlations guy) to the Minnesota Historical Society, a FOIA request, the complete microfilms of a defunct 1960s newspaper, and an underground secure bunker in Kansas City. What an odyssey!
There’s really nothing else I can say about this without spoilers. I live in the area, I know this bridge (not that I ever thought about it for more than 2 seconds before in my life), and I stayed up until solidly 90 minutes after my already-late bedtime because I couldn’t stop diving down this rabbit hole with Tyler Vigen.
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