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Worthy Reads This Week (2021 June 25)
After finishing up my interview with Commissioner Simington, I immediately left for vacation, so this feature was delayed. However, I kept reading. As a result, my list is a bit longer than usual.
Retweets are not endorsements! I found these articles thought-provoking. There’s a good chance I agreed with something important in each, but maybe not, and, in any case, I absolutely do not endorse each and every claim made in each and every article.
"My Chat With Commissioner Simington", by James Heaney:
Yeah, I'm listing my own piece as a "Worthy Read."
I honestly expected this interview to make more of a splash, simply because my hit count tends to go up when I write about Net Neutrality... but I forgot the lesson of Freddie deBoer's Incentives Experiment.
A conservative explaining Net Neutrality and then calling for it (like my original article seven years ago) has a certain viral element to it. Me calling certain cable execs and Wall Street Journal writers liars has a nice polemic quality. A very friendly discussion of textualism and forbearance with an FCC commissioner, while vastly more interesting to me, lacks that viral je ne se quais.
(Plus, my original post was aided by some anonymous reader posting it to /r/technology. I tried posting the article to /r/technology myself this time, and I learned that /r/technology's mods frown harder on self-promoting links than most parts of reddit I hang out in. Yikes.)
Still, that interview is the best thing I've done on this blog in ages, and I expect that people interested in learning more about the topic will find value in it for years to come.
So, yeah, worthy read. Read it if you haven't. Now on to everybody else.
"Amazon Prime's Free Shipping is an Economy-Distorting Lie", by Matt Stoller:
How do sellers handle these large fees from Amazon, and the inability to charge for shipping? Simple. They raise their prices on consumers. The resulting higher prices to consumers, paid to Amazon in fees by third party merchants, is why Amazon is able to offer ‘free shipping’ to Prime members. Prime, in other words, is basically a money laundering scheme. Amazon forces brands/sellers to bake the cost of Prime into their consumer price so it appears like Amazon offers free shipping when in reality the cost is incorporated into the consumer price.
Now, if this were all that was happening, sellers and brands could just sell outside of Amazon, avoid the 35-45% commission, and charge a lower price to entice customers. “Buy Cheaper at Walmart.com!” should be in ads all over the web. But it’s not. And that’s where the main claim from Racine comes in. Amazon uses its Buy Box algorithm to make sure that sellers can’t sell through a different store or even through their own site with a lower price and access Amazon customers, even if they would be able to sell it more cheaply. If they do, they get cut off from the Buy Box, and thus, cut off de facto from being able to sell on Amazon.
Amazon has between a half and three quarters of all customers online, so not being able to sell on Amazon is a nonstarter for brands and merchants. As a result, to keep selling on Amazon, merchants are forced to inflate their prices everywhere, with the 35-45% commission baked into the consumer price regardless of whether they are selling through Amazon. When you buy on Walmart, or at some other retail outlet, or even direct from the brand, even if you aren’t paying Amazon directly, the price reflects the high cost of selling on Amazon. As a result, sellers and brands tend to raise their prices across the board so that Amazon users can’t find better deals anywhere else. Prime thus looks like a good deal, but only because sellers are prohibited from offering customers a better one anywhere else.
The only thing to say to that is: Big if true!
"Obama Budget Cuts Visualization" by Matt Shapiro:
We are once again in Federal Budget Season, and having some basic Federal Budget Literacy is essential to understanding what in the world is going on in those big headlines about "$567 billion infrastructure packages" and so forth.
I liked this video because it was short, clear, accurate... and produced 12 years and 3 presidencies ago, which means everyone (from both parties) can now watch it without getting their backs up. (If you're really still so defensive about 2009 Obama you can't glean anything from this, let me assure you that, yes, 2008 George W. Bush did all the same gimmicks, so just pretend this video is about Bush.)
"The Problem with 'Western' Religions on Campus," by Anna Keating:
My supervisor was echoing Ibram X. Kendi, who writes, “If discrimination is creating equity then it is antiracist.” Inequity, in this case, means any difference between ethnic groups that isn’t reflected in the racial demographics of the United States. How does this relate to religion? I didn’t think that it did. But here this administrator decided that because Jews, being a tiny percentage of the US population are overrepresented in higher education generally, and at the college where I worked in particular, antiracism in this instance required that the number of Jewish students be reduced. Moreover, because there were 60 students at Shabbat and only a handful of Muslim students on campus, the Jewish group should not exist.
In the hermetically sealed world of campus progressivism, the fact that all of this sounds more than a little anti-Semitic is mostly ignored. So is the idea that religion may have something to offer that wellness programs, for example, cannot. And that is precisely what the administration planned to replace the chaplaincy program with: wellness education aimed at stress management, substance abuse, and sexual safety.
Self-care is important, of course. But it’s not the same as communal worship, as blessing and breaking bread with people who pray for the repose of the soul of your abuela and call you to see if you’re okay after her funeral. Replacing religion with wellness is like replacing poetry and music with massages and journaling and working out. They all have value, but they are not the same.
Ms. Keating does not name the college in her piece, so I will not name it here, but it is not difficult to deduce from a glance at her LinkedIn page. Of course, the whole problem is that this could be a perfectly accurate description of nearly any small liberal-arts college in America today, due to the tight grip of the current moral panic.
"There are Two Obstacles to (Merely) Chipping Away at Roe in Dobbs", by Sherif Girgis (mainly):
I think the conventional wisdom vastly underestimates how hard it would be for the Dobbs Court to (1) stake out a middle ground, or (2) position itself to fully reverse Roe down the line.
On (1): I see how the Court could use standard judicial reasoning (sound or not) to justify an all-or-nothing outcome. At one end, it could invalidate the 15-week law based on Roe and its progeny. At the other end, the Court could scrap those precedents and uphold the law based on textual or historical arguments. (The objections to each path are familiar.) It is much harder to imagine the opinion from this Court that upholds the Mississippi law (or remands) without fully reversing Roe.
On (2): For reasons peculiar to Dobbs and given below, a "moderate" ruling couldn't simply narrow the existing abortion right. It would have to double down on any new version of the right it created, making it hard for the same Justices to then abolish that residual right later on. If Dobbs was meant to advance a long game against Roe, it was an odd choice. For better or worse, a moderate Dobbs might cut the game short. The reasoning needed to go moderate here differs in kind from that used by the Roberts Court in cases that became stepping-stones to eliminating a disfavored doctrine.
He's right, and for the reasons he says.
I have always been a proponent of the "steady erosion" theory of pro-life victories at the Supreme Court. I expected the U.S. abortion regime to die a slow death by a thousand cuts under Chief Justice Roberts. But Roberts scuttled that hope with his terrible decision in June Medical Services... and, for the reasons Girgis lays out in this article, Dobbs isn't a good case to take up if that's the Court's strategy. That's why I wrote a few weeks ago that Dobbs looks like a kill shot... although which side gets killed is not yet clear.
"China's Taiwan Temptation", by Oriana Skylar Mastro:
I'm paywalled now, so can't get pull quotes, but it's pretty terrifying. Basically, there's a pretty good strategic case that, given China's objectives and shrinking list of alternatives, they are going to invade Taiwan in the near future... and the U.S. may not be in a position to stop it. (Although I hope we would.)
"The Books are Already Burning", by Abigail Shrier:
Within a day, Dr. Hall’s article was flooded with nearly 1,000 comments, mostly, she says, from activists demanding the article be stripped from the site, but also from some readers expressing their appreciation. Angry emails from activists swamped the blog’s editors. Within two days, those editors had given Dr. Hall an ultimatum: retract, rewrite, or allow them to add a disclaimer.
“What surprised me was that my fellow editors attacked me, too. Basically what they said was that my article was not up to my usual standards as far as medicine, science and critical thinking went. And I didn’t feel that I did anything but what I always do. That surprised me,” she told me. Considering the editors’ ultimatum, she elected to have the editors who disagreed add a disclaimer to the website. “I told them I did not want it retracted. And the next thing I knew, they had retracted it.”
If the Supreme Court fails them [conservative voters] one more time, do not expect them to turn out in big numbers for another candidate who promises to appoint pro-life justices to the court and leaves it at that. Upholding Roe could even crystallize the formation of a new political party or movement that is far more radical on judicial matters than the current GOP. If scorched-earth tactics worked for the Democrats, Republican voters will scorch some earth on their own.
Why expect the voters who make up the right to want to preserve an institution that has taken democratic power from states and Congress and mangled the Constitution — in the interests of the progressive elite — for almost 50 years? Republican political types need to hear it said directly: If conservative voters have reason to think GOP campaign promises about the Supreme Court were all a grift, they will begin to nominate politicians who make Trump look like Mahatma Gandhi.
This is why I wrote at the end of my piece on Dobbs that Dobbs is the ultimate test for the originalist-textualist project of the past 50 years. Textualism will always be correct and ideal... but if five decades of concentrated effort to implement textualism can't secure a state's constitutional right to ban the killing of a human child who is 15 weeks old, then textualism is, as a practical matter, impossible to actually implement.
You know that workers' paradise communists are always dreaming of building, even though the thing they actually build is always a bloodthirsty nightmare? I, for one, am going to be smarter than the communists. If Dobbs fails, I will learn from my mistakes and change my judicial politics, as Sen. Josh Hawley and some of his followers are already doing. The judicial politics of this new movement would give Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kavanaugh a heart attack, and cause hysterical left-wingers like Mark Joseph Stern (who thinks the current court is the Worst Thing Imaginable) to actually physically lose control of their bladders. I'll only vote for candidates who vow to confirm John Finnis to the Supreme Court.
On the other hand, a textualist victory in Dobbs would prove that textualism actually has legs, and can bring about important social change in alignment with the Constitution of the United States. I would much prefer that, because I have spent twenty years believing in the originalist-textualist project and long to see it vindicated.
Ball's in your court, Chief Justice Roberts.
Speaking of communists...
I adored HBO's Chernobyl as a work of art, but this sequence from the finale (spoiler warning, I guess?) is just super-educational. Having this disaster explained so clearly, especially after four episodes of lies and censorship, is both a pleasure and, in this age of lies and censorship, a warning that can't be repeated often enough. I can't help rewatching it every few months, and if I ever do get an HBO MAX subscription, it will be partly so I can watch this sequence without YouTube edits.