Experiments in Teaching, Learning, Understanding

Trump, Science, and the Coronavirus Vaccine(s)

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            In September 2020, there are multiple experimental vaccines for SARS-CoV2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome – Coronavirus 2) in Phase 3 human trials.  Yes, while these are late-stage experiments, they are still experiments: Phase 3 is the part of vaccine development when one measures actual effectiveness against an agent, and evaluates in a sizeable cohort (in these trials, up to 30,000 individuals) whether the experimental vaccine appears to be safe. [i]Safety evaluations continue endlessly even after a vaccine is licensed and put into widespread use, which is important because some vaccines prove to have serious adverse effects only at rates below one in 10,000 (classical smallpox vaccine) or below one in 1,000,000 (live-attenuated a.k.a. Salk oral poliovirus vaccine).  

            By historical standards, the pace of vaccine development for SARS-CoV2 is unprecedented.  The virus was discovered in late 2019 (thus Coronavirus Disease 2019, or COVID-19), and vaccine development was not seriously considered in the US until perhaps late February, 2020.  At the moment, at least 35 vaccines are in human testing.[ii]

            There is an embedded political question. Should all, most, or even a substantial portion of credit for the speedy vaccine research and development go to Trump, as he and his supporters regularly proclaims?  No.  Emphatically no.  At best, he has done what any minimally competent President would do.  At worst, he has done nothing to help and has done considerable damage to an upcoming drive for public acceptance when (if) a proven vaccine is deployed.  This viewpoint will require some explaining, especially because all observations of Trump’s shortcomings are dismissed as partisan. [iii]

            Two major things account for the movement from virus-discovery to Phase 3 trials in less than a year:  scientific advances that preceded Trump, and boatloads of direct funding to vaccine companies, i.e. subsidies in the form of Congressionally enacted expenditures.  Trump’s role was his Constitutional duty to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” (Article II, Section 3).

            The foundations for today’s “new” vaccine platforms were established some 25 or more years ago, as thousands of scientific publications will attest.   High quality research in coronavirus  structure and pathogenesis goes back decades, and prototype vaccines of several varieties were constructed for SARS (SARS-CoV1) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) because of their designation as new epidemic or biowarfare (and bioterrorism) threats.   I cite (in Footnotes [iv]) a few of my own scientific papers as examples, and to pony up a little “credentialing” for my skeptical readers. In 2020, it has been a relatively trivial matter to splice new genes into “old” vaccine technologies (“old” insofar as the technologies have undergone robust testing in experimental animals including monkeys, and most have been into small Phase 1 safety trials in humans).

            What is newest, and a clever solution to problems that plagued prior RNA-based vaccines including the ones for which I have some aging publications and patents, is the chemistry that stabilized otherwise fragile messenger RNA (mRNA) molecules.   These include the often-cited Moderna/NIAID vaccine and BioNTech/Fosun Pharma/Pfizer vaccine (see footnote 2).  At a fundamental level, all the genetic vaccines and vectored vaccines operate through mRNA-encoded production of vaccine components by the recipient’s own cells.  Recall the central dogma of biology:  DNA is the (usual [v]) template for making RNA, and RNA in turn carries the information by which ribosomes make protein.  More fundamentally, excepting the new tweaks to RNA-based vaccines, the 35 COVID-19 vaccines in human trials are quite pedestrian among vaccine scientists:  they represent technologies that were on the shelf waiting for funding to bring them forward.

            This brings us to money, which has flooded into pandemic response:  $2.2 of the $4 Trillion in Congressionally funded relief is out the door. [vi]   Within these vast expenditures, more than $1 billion has been given to each of several vaccine companies in order to subsidize and effectively eliminate their financial risk of accelerating vaccines to scale-up and production before any of the vaccines are proven safe and effective.  Ordinarily, highly promising vaccines for a wide variety of pathogens stall at the socalled “Valley of Death,” the chasm between “proof of concept” and the $1B or more dollars required for a company to invest in scale-up, manufacture, and Phases 1, 2, and 3 of human vaccine trials. [vii]  To be clear, the only thing that has truly accelerated the COVID-19 vaccine pipeline is enough money (merely several billions) to spare private companies the natural financial risks in multiple parallel vaccine strategies.  With that kind of subsidy, we might acquire an influenza vaccine that induces robust and lasting immunity, but no such financial momentum for an influenza vaccine exists.[viii]  

            So, presupposing a safe and effective SARS-CoV2 vaccine begins to become available by the end of 2020, how much of the credit should Trump get?  A little.  With his usual uniformed railing about “get ‘er done,” he permissioned the Executive Branch to spend around 2% of Congressionally funded COVID-19 dollars to subsidize vaccine companies.  Bravo.  Any President would have done the same.  However, in Trump’s case, this is more than offset by his very public contempt for scientific methods and information.  He has deeply undermined scientific trust in both CDC and FDA, once-premier agencies that have notably buckled to pressure from an ignorant and narcissistic President.  Hydroxychloroquine.  Anti-mask rhetoric.  Injecting disinfectants.  Irrationally limiting testing.  “China virus.”  “Let the states take care of it.”  Et cetera, ad nauseum.  Even the best vaccine is of little use if public acceptance is low, and Trump has managed to multiply the usual cohort of paranoid anti-vaxxers (see any current poll).  

            As a final note, US-centric vaccine jingoism (another Trump brand) is both inaccurate and unhelpful.  US vaccine developers may be equal to but are not smarter, better, or faster than other developed countries (see Footnote 2). Fastest are the countries like Russia and China, authoritarian regimes that need not bother with concerns that an experimental vaccine foisted upon the public may ultimately prove ineffective, harmful, or both.


[i]  The AstraZeneca trial of an adenovirus-vectored SARS-CoV2 vaccine was suspended and resumed during Phase 3.  It remains unknown whether the severe medical event in one recipient was caused by the vaccine, and the only way to know is to proceed and see whether it happens again and again.

[ii]  Vaccine development status is publicly available, and regularly reported in public media. A good summary of the worldwide landscape for vaccines is at :

[iii]  Granted, the majority of my previous blog posts show that I consider Donald Trump the third-worst president in US history, and angling for position of worst ever.  

[iv]  The “credentialing” from which I write is publicly available on my faculty page, currently Here are a couple of my publications, and followed by a couple others to point to the huge body of coronavirus research that predated COVID-19.

  Hevey M, Negley D, Pushko P, Smith J, Schmaljohn A. Marburg virus vaccines based upon alphavirus replicons protect guinea pigs and nonhuman primates. Virology. 1998;251(1):28–37.

    Hevey, M., Negley, D., VanderZanden, L., Tammariello, R.F., Geisbert, J., Schmaljohn, C., Smith, J.F., Jahrling, P.B., and Schmaljohn, A.L. (2001). Marburg virus vaccines: comparing classical and new approaches. Vaccine 20, 586–593

  Totura, A.L., and Baric, R.S. (2012). SARS coronavirus pathogenesis: host innate immune responses and viral antagonism of interferon. Current Opinion in Virology 2, 264–275.

   Amanat, Fatima, and Florian Krammer. “SARS-CoV-2 Vaccines: Status Report.” Immunity vol. 52,4 (2020): 583-589. doi:10.1016/j.immuni.2020.03.007

[v]Viruses are an exception, insofar as some viruses replicate using RNA without ever entering a DNA cycle, using special enzymes to toggle between mRNA and the “anti-sense” template mirror of mRNA; if curious, look up the VSV-vectored Ebolavirus vaccine as one example.  Retroviruses (such as HIV) are another exception; they are RNA viruses that copy their genomes into DNA, and back into mRNA.



[viii]   As a vaccine scientist myself, the woeful influenza vaccine enrages and embarrasses me.  But I’ll save that rant for another day, and document my views in a scientific review.

Written by aschmalj

September 15, 2020 at 3:54 PM

Ally Enough? One side of a white man’s conversation about race and police shootings.

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To some in the social justice movement, the unchallenged fact of my being an “old white American man” places me in the dustbin of being “part of the problem.”  Granted—and given examples such as Jesus, Gandhi, and ML King—there is always much more that I could do.  On the other hand, I am well suited to have conversations with other old white American men in ways that are less threatening than the same conversations they avoid having with young firebrands.

Today is the day after another police killing of an unarmed black man, Jacob Blake.  What follows is my side of an E-mail conversation with others (mostly men, mostly white), some of whom share (approximately) my views, and some of whom are more sympathetic to the demands placed upon police, and to the general concept of “law and order”.  I do not re-post others’ identities and writings, but try to provide context for my side of the conversation.

1)  [The initiator of the E-mail thread asks the group for some feedback and understanding to help resolve his own response to the latest shooting.]

Me:  Saw the video yesterday, am still raw.  So here I am, a 69 year old Euro-American, descended from immigrants who arrived in the 1870’s to settle “free” (stolen) land in central Nebraska.  My childhood was oblivious to racial diversity, misogynous, homophobic, jingoistically “patriotic”; in other words it was like most of 1950’s America.  Unlike some of my peers, I grew up and paid attention.  What I have always shared with today’s protesters (even the “rioters”) is that I am emphatically anti-authoritarian.

My response to the Blake shooting is the same as the other young black man in the video immediately after the shooting: an outraged “what the f***, bro?! why’d you shoot him?!”.  There is no possible excuse for a single shot in the back at point-blank range, much less unloading at least 7 in rapid succession. Then to declare a curfew, roll in with armored vehicles, tear gas, and less-lethal weapons?  The police instigated and unleashed all the violence, including the property destruction that subsequently spun out of control. I have zero sympathy for police who whine about the danger of their work (facts don’t support that myth), hide all accountability behind union contracts, and protect the worst in their ranks. I have even less tolerance for the citizenry who think their property and privilege are the most important things in life, thereby condoning all excesses of “law and order”.

I’m 30 miles north of Baltimore, about 90 from DC; can’t say for sure when I’ll next make an in-person trek to a demonstration to stand (and possibly fall) with the protesters.  I’ve long ago moved out of poverty to be comfortable in my privilege, but there comes a time when I just have to say “what the f***, bro?!”.

2) [Other responses affirmed shock and dismay at the shooting, but some minimized it as “all the facts aren’t in”, and bemoaned the destruction and theft of property that followed in Kenosha that night.  Still others excused the police in part for the stresses of their complex and dangerous jobs.  Some have police as family or friends, so are dismayed at the characterization of all police as tainted by racism.  One puzzled over the rationales for “rioting and looting”, and whether this was a form of revenge.]

Me:   Policing doesn’t make the top 10 of most-dangerous jobs [i], despite the fact that cops who die in routine traffic accidents on the way to or from work are counted as job-related deaths. Lumberjacks and farmers get no special treatment when they kill somebody, job stress or no.  Where and how you live determines who you see killed doing their job. How much property damage erases the fact of a murder by a policeman?  I can’t get inside the head of a young, black arsonist or looter, but I expect it’s closer to nihilism than revenge. [ii]

3)  Me (and afterthought and clarification): BTW, I’m pleased to have a fact-driven resolution, as long as it’s quick to its preliminary conclusions and is not entirely a “self-examination” by police and prosecutors. One big problem is “qualified immunity”, a Supreme Court decision that’s just bad law [iii]; I have no allegiance to any unjust law. (Link to quick overview in footnote 3)

4)  [One particularly extensive response cited statistics (cherry-picked, like you’ll see on Fox) and argument with a (presumably Libertarian) view that crime and violence is mostly black-on-black in poor communities, and that residents of those communities request more police presence, not less.   Thus, police shootings reflect where the violence is.  More unarmed whites than blacks are killed by police (though proportions are imbalanced relative to population). “Defund the Police” is stupid. There is not systemic racism in policing, just a few bad apples like any other profession.  Truth is of two kinds (fact and perception), and both are valid.  Things are getting better (over decades and centuries), so there’s no need to jump to conclusions and protest on the basis of “man bites dog” sensational news stories.  Et cetera.]

            Me:  Sometimes it’s hard for the ordinary citizen to tell the difference between genuine complexities and gaslighting, and the two are often entangled.  It is the entire US society that exercises (from its conception) systemic racism, and policing is just a part of it; but policing draws attention because the exceptions to “good policing” (a fraught term) are shocking, and more shocking these days when everybody carries a video recorder.

I have to dismiss the age-old argument of “waiting until all the facts are in.”  In a word, this is bullshit, at least in the realm of preliminary words and actions by public leadership.  Before the era of widespread video evidence, there was some reasonable possibility of ambiguity, because it was hard to tell if police had colluded on a false story (“he resisted arrest, acted aggressively, and reached for a weapon”). Here, there is no possible excuse for the number of shots fired at close range.  Of course the cop’s lawyer will say “he feared for his life,” and by law this is cause for exoneration (in 2020 America) even if the fear was wildly mistaken.  Similarly, the aforementioned “qualified immunity” comes into play.  I assess (without any further evidence) that any cop who fired his gun during that Kenosha encounter should never again carry a gun.  (He may be stressed by his job and his life, but if he’s that easily triggered to violence, there are no second chances, no repeats allowed.)

I interpret “Defund the Police” as a slogan that may be simplistically understood by some on the left (as well as exploited by some on the right to incite fear), but for others refers to the more complex exercise of demilitarizing much of the 9-1-1 response; you can try to train all police in areas for which many are ill-equipped (by both their education and experience), e.g. de-escalation of conflict, social and medical intervention rather than force.  Alternatively, you can reconfigure how money is spent on public safety:  there will always be some need for armed police, many of them trained in military tactics and forceful “pacification”; there is also need for other kinds of response that are barely recognizable as policing.

If you (here I mean y’all, to whomever it applies) don’t think “driving while black” is a thing, do some court-watching.  Similarly, if you think wealth and poverty (and by extension, race) have no bearing on “equal justice under the law,” it is not I who is naive.  In that, plus my own encounters with police as a bystander (or as “the accused” in misdemeanor traffic stops), I have seen a lot of good, professional police.  They protect and serve, yada yada.  Bravo, they are no worse or better than some of my neighbors.  I’ve also seen a lot of insecure, hypermasculine bullies who can’t stand to be challenged (in words), and who are given all the wrong top-down incentives for what constitutes good performance.

I agree the facts support the assertion that (in the long run, at least) things are getting better, as we crawl toward the aspirations of the Preamble to the Constitution.  That the aspirations are slow-walked by those possessing the most (and often unearned) privilege is a formula for conflict.  Yet here, I concede the complexity of “putting things right.”  It can’t all be blamed on the police, but when police are given the wrong incentives, then given a pass when they really screw up, the true fault lies with leadership (both police and civilian) but police naturally become the scapegoat.  It’s not helpful that all police (and national guard, etc.) are called out to forcibly suppress an uprising that was originally instigated by one or a few “bad apples” in their own ranks.

As for truth, there is only one truth, but is often too complex for people to wrap their minds around (up to and including quantum entanglement), so they (we) settle for arguments about biased interpretations of small aspects of the complexity.  Crime statistics are a prime example.


EPILOGUE:  I am not looking for approval, nor to assuage any white, male, heterosexual guilt about the privilege that came to me unearned.  In the face of injustice, I am impatient, but less impatient than some; thus some tire of my unpleasant hectoring, and others declare me a too-conciliatory product of my time and my white privilege.  I am blessed to be part of a faith community that both supports and challenges me in my imperfection. [iv]




[ii]  Martin Luther King made this same case more eloquently, but here’s a raw and passionate version from Kimberly Jones:


[iv]Here is something that came to me yesterday in silent worship:  I continued to sit with a Friend’s message from last week, which I inferred (in brief) to be an acknowledgement and regret about one man’s self-described “failure” decades ago (in youth) to use his time on a public stage in Richmond to name the racist incongruity of a statue of Robert E. Lee in the same square.  What rises for me is that (for those conscious of such things) a momentary failure to speak or act in response to bullying or oppressive privilege becomes a regret, grows into a discernment, and then becomes a convincement or resolve:  never again.  I have my own story of such a moment; I expect we all do.  We are not born wise and fearless, but grow into (toward) that through our attention to what the Light asks of us:  to notice our human shortfalls — our own occasions of “missing the mark” [see “hamartia” vis-à-vis “sin”] — and then working tirelessly to adopt practices that help create the world we seek.

Written by aschmalj

August 25, 2020 at 4:55 PM

Garrison Keillor, Donald Trump, and the measure of a man (or woman)

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I have a deep affection and respect for the artistic and literary expressions of Garrison Keillor, and I am pleased he’s back online with the Writer’s Almanac and essays.  He makes me laugh;  he assembles phrases, paragraphs, and humorous perspectives as I only wish I could.  I observed him live in concert in 2015 (see photo), spellbound by his manner of performance, at once fully present to his audience and IMG_2125 - Version 2“inside his own head,” intimately strolling aisles amid the audience, yet riffing with eyes closed.  Two years earlier (2013), Keillor had generously recorded a tribute in words and song for singular play at the memorial service of my older brother, himself an artist and reader who took decades of pleasure from A Prairie Home Companion.  It was a great kindness on Keillor’s part: they had never met. Paradoxically, though, Keillor had also acquired some reputation inside the Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) show community for cold indifference, egotism, and taskmaster perfectionism.  To his great credit, Keillor acknowledges and reflects upon his own paradoxical nature and behavior, for example in a recent essay [i] he wrote, “I had 18 aunts, most of whom felt I could do no wrong, so I grew up with a sense of superiority, and it was in the Forties before autism had been invented or any of the other syndromes and disabilities with the three initials, back when an oddball like me was assumed to be brilliant. And by the time they discovered what my problem is, I was a success and it was too late for treatment.” The capacity to labor at objective self-reflection is part of the measure of a man.

Nevertheless, there is an elephant in the room.  The 75 year old Keillor (now 77) was suspended and then dismissed from MPR in November 2017—his show cancelled—for what MPR later explained as a “years-long pattern of behavior that left several women who worked for Keillor feeling mistreated, sexualized or belittled.”  Accusations also included “unwanted sexual touching,” “requests for sexual contact” and “sexually explicit messages.”  In his defense and citing details that appear to be uncontested, Keillor comes across as having been perceived by some women (over whom he had professional power) as less predatory than mildly creepy, exercising bad judgement and social awkwardness, and failing to appreciate the real and perceived power imbalance between himself and women who worked with the show. [ii]  None of this “minimization” exonerates Keillor, and it can be argued that in the public context of a rising “#metoo” movement, MPR had no institutional option but to separate Keillor from MPR.  From today’s perspective, I reckon he has been held to account, has acknowledged his errors, and I forgive him.  Others do not.

Maybe, then, it should not have surprised me that co-correspondents on an informal and relatively conservative E-mail discussion group went ballistic when (in modesty and right attribution) I cited Garrison Keillor [iii]as my source for a neologism:  Trexit, or more specifically Trexit2020.    I live in optimistic anticipation (and a little dread) about the Trexit vote.  I estimate it will be too close for comfort, and I expected there would be no particular objection to the tongue-in-cheek neologism despite high passions about preferences on the outcome.  What surprised me, then, was the Right’s visceral dislike for Keillor, who is taken as a spokesman for the Left (and for despised Intellectuals), and an object of outsized Schadenfreude as a liberal “cancelled” [iv]for his misogyny.  Along with a few others [v], Keillor is proffered by Trump defenders as much much worse than the current POTUS.  Projection (accusing others of one’s own failings) and distraction (redirection of the spotlight) are tools of the trade in Trumpland.

What is the measure of a man (or a woman)?[vi]One can easily search the internet for quotes, wisdom literature, and other commentary on the measure of a person. It is an inherently subjective activity, because behavior and psychology do not yield to true measure … only to an intuitive sum.  And is it even appropriate to try?  Yes!  But before someone invokes Matthew 7:1 (“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”), consider the clarification that follows in Matthew 7:2 (“For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”); the point, as elsewhere in the Gospel narrative, is that hypocrisyis unacceptable, not judgement.  By whatever means we measure others, we must also measure ourselves.  This, writ large, is the foundation of culture and of the positive evolution of culture.  How we measure describes what we value.

It is in this context of culturally informed measurement that I doodled (second figure) some of the words, behaviors, missteps, and valued contributions by which I Measure of a Manmeasure Garrison Keillor and Donald Trump.  Doing so, I affirm my overall appreciation and respect for Keillor despite his human stumblings. [vii]  And in doing so, I affirm my view that Donald Trump is at risk of becoming the worst president in U.S. history, not only the third worst as he is currently ranked. [viii] The man has proven himself unworthy of the power of the U.S. Presidency or, for that matter, any lesser power. [ix]  Moreover, I regard Donald Trump as a rather awful human being, an exemplar of a retrograde force in cultural evolution.  In keeping with my faith [x], I am pleased to be measured in the way I have measured these and other men (and women).







[iv]“Cancel culture” may be a topic for another day. Meanwhile, see   Spoiler, I currently regard it as liberal(-ish) “wokeness” taken to a ridiculous extreme by self-important and self-assigned enforcers of a Manichean (black-white, without shades of gray) worldview.  Today’s cancel culture knows little of proportionality, complexity, or forgiveness.  Ta-Nehisi Coates makes an interesting observation that cancel culture has always existed, but its use was previously limited to the powerful, and is only recently democratized; see  In it, he says:

We are being told of the evils of “cancel culture,” a new scourge that enforces purity, banishes dissent and squelches sober and reasoned debate. But cancel culture is not new. A brief accounting of the illustrious and venerable ranks of blocked and dragged Americans encompasses Sarah Good, Elijah Lovejoy, Ida B. Wells, Dalton Trumbo, Paul Robeson and the Dixie Chicks. What was the Compromise of 1877, which ended Reconstruction, but the cancellation of the black South? What were the detention camps during World War II but the racist muting of Japanese-Americans and their basic rights?  Thus any sober assessment of this history must conclude that the present objections to cancel culture are not so much concerned with the weapon, as the kind of people who now seek to wield it.

[v]“The usual suspects” include Bill Clinton, Al Franken, Anthony Weiner, and others; ironically, Harvey Weinstein is thrown into the mix of politicians under the assumption he is a Hollywood liberal.

[vi]Cultural modernity is not my forte and only occasionally my goal, but I am aware it is not sufficient to use “man” to encompass all humans, and in fact adding “women” leaves me open to accusation of thinking of gender in only binary terms … which is true (for me) insofar as that is the cultural lens by which I perceived gender for most of my 68 years.

[vii]I can’t say I know Keillor well enough to say I love him except in the manner I endeavor to love all persons.  To wholly love someone, methinks, is to know them well and to choose them (as friends, companions, exemplars, teachers) nevertheless.  Without deep knowledge that comes from extended presence and reciprocal listening, what we may call love is something else, and is by necessity provisional insofar as our measure of the person is subject to radical change.  Or so I hypothesize today.

[viii]  and

[ix]I have moved toward favoring Trump’s impeachment and removal from office, though I can’t yet imagine his Senate sycophants convicting him.  Trexit can’t come soon enough: the man has shown himself willing to destroy emerging democracies (e.g. Ukraine) in order to feed his own narcissism and curry favor with Putin, to pardon and praise miscreant military officers otherwise disciplined by UCMJ and superiors, to undermine longstanding global alliances while praising and excusing dictators, and to promises to abuse the pardon power in unprecedented fashion (especially in lame-duck period or second term).  With a President Pence, the Republican claim of impeachment overturning the 2016 election is quite ridiculous, and despite my distaste for Zealot Pence, I expect he would behave within most long-established norms of the presidency.  As such, the 2020 vote would revolve around policy issues, as it should.

[x]I have previously defined my faith as a trust that in the long run, all shall be well.  Here, I find my faith includes a trust that human cultural evolution (the arc of the moral universe) tends not only toward justice but also toward greater love.  Thus, despite my grounding as a scientist and realist, my faith makes me an optimist and a Romantic.

Written by aschmalj

December 5, 2019 at 12:02 PM

Conclusion: An Insider’s Take on NatGeo’s Hot Zone

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… Continued, Episodes 3, 4, 5, 6.

Big Plus:  Who would have thought film-makers could turn the secretive euthanasia of some 500 caged monkeys into a heroic, death-defying, nerve-wracking human drama?  Unexpectedly (to me), this grim and inescapable apocalypse became the climax of the story.  What’s factual is that a relatively small cadre of USAMRIID staff (mostly military but also civilian?) undertook the grim, dangerous, and exhausting task of euthanasia and necropsy of all monkeys housed in the facility.  As far as those workers knew, their lives were on the line in every moment: a mistake, a bit of bad luck, or an inordinately clever monkey could infect them with what was thought (at the time) to be one of the deadliest viruses on the planet.  What’s also true, and signaled in the dramatized story, is that every veterinarian, animal technician, and scientist hates killing monkeys, and none gets accustomed to it; and yet we live in a society of abattoirs, “kill shelters,” animal research, capital punishment, and warmaking.  (“It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it,” we say, oblivious or ashamed.)  Other things in “Hot Zone” are merely “truthy,” but serve the dramatic narrative.  I doubt (and did not hear about at the time) the particular tense events dramatized in the sad decision to quarantine and kill so many monkeys, whether infected with Ebola (Reston strain) or not.  Instead, the various events (e.g., monkeys escaping from restraint, or coming out of anesthesia prematurely) were true in other times and places, retold in the folk tales of those who do research with nonhuman primates — involuntary research participants that are at once adorable, intelligent, and vicious wild animals.

Smaller plus:  It may have been intended, even by NatGeo, that the drumbeat of “be afraid, be very afraid of emerging viruses” would be the thing to hold audience attention.   To be sure, Ebola virus has its fandom.  And the series does ultimately uplift the people (mostly lab technicians who appear only in the middle of author-lines of published papers) who risk their lives daily working with hazardous viruses.  I have analogized such work to rock-climbing: initially thrilling, but then safe and workmanlike as long as one never gets careless or ridiculously unlucky. Meanwhile, well-credentialed desk-jockeys like me (having “graduated” from lab bench to crafting grants, manuscripts, budgets, and progress reports) claim the public credit.  To those many colleagues (known and unknown to me), let me say thank you for your service.

Mixed review of human stories.  The good news is that the protagonist, Nancy Jaax, is portrayed as a whole human being, with a mother’s concern for children and food preparation, a dying parent constantly on her mind, and a professional competence that ricochets from egotism to false bravery to certainty to genuine courage and back to fallibility.  Perhaps the drama works, and I had no insight into Nancy’s personal life (except what arose in conversations at work), but I doubt the details are factual.  The supporting character of Peter Jahrling (a real person, albeit with little resemblance to the portrayal) remains a puzzle to me.  Presumably, Pete signed over the right to use his real name, without much care for how he would be portrayed; there are several reasons to do this, from money to egotism (i.e., fame at any cost) to an indifference to what anybody thinks.  Still, with all the other characters (except Nancy and Jerry Jaax) being completely fictional, why use Jahrling’s name and show him as such a dweeb?  I want the backstory.

The annoying scientific exaggerations and errors: Some of these were already noted in the previous post, but perhaps foremost is the continued propagation of the myth that the clinical signs of Ebola virus disease are distinctive (i.e., pathognomonic, discernible as Ebola by observation).  In fact, there are no blisters (as portrayed in this series), and hemorrhage of any kind (even the most minor) occurs in only a minority of patients.  Typical symptoms are fever, fatigue, and diarrhea—which is why it takes lab tests to distinguish it from malaria, cholera, typhoid, lassa, and other diseases.  Another perpetual misrepresentation is the mortality rate of Ebola-Zaire.  Granted, the case fatality rate (CFR) has approached 90% in two of several Ebola outbreaks (1976 and 2007), but it has also been high with Marburg virus (Angola, 2005: 374 cases, 329 deaths = CFR 88%); in the large 2013-15 Ebola epidemic, the CFR was 39.5%.  As (rightly) suggested in “1976 flashback” portions of the NatGeo story, the CFR has proven exceptionally high (approaching 100%) when infection occurs via needlestick (i.e., iatrogenic or nosocomial), but re-use of needles is hard to prove when it is denied by in-country officials.  Still, a 40% CFR is a big deal, especially because death occurs acutely, in 1-2 weeks; rabies and (untreated) HIV have higher CFR’s (approaching 100%) but disease is rare in the U.S. (for rabies) and slowly evolving (both HIV and rabies).

Bottom line:  Errors and dramatic fictions notwithstanding, NatGeo’s Hot Zone is the best of its genre to date.  Insiders (i.e., the virological cognoscente) may rightly respond  “well, that ain’t sayin’ much,” but this series has some great visuals, from a mostly realistic BSL4 lab to the portable (Racal) biocontainment gear to “the monkey house” to the African bush. Moreover, it captures the gist of the work (through generally good if imperfect storytelling), and the gist of the character (thanks especially to Julianna Margulies as a fictionalized Nancy Jaax, serving as one archetype) of the people who are drawn to the work.  In the “real” Hot Zone, it’s all very human:  those on the ramparts are variously dutiful, courageous, egotistical, clever, fallible, and backstabbingly ambitious; sometimes a single scientist is all these things.  And each has a life outside the lab, away from outbreaks.  The series captures some of this.




Written by aschmalj

May 31, 2019 at 12:05 AM

An Insider’s Take on the Hot Zone

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Before offering some scientific critique of National Geographic’s “Hot Zone”, I’d like to provide a little context.  First, I’d offer that a presentation can be useful even when it’s not wholly factual.  Richard Preston’s original “Hot Zone” book was an example of this.  On one hand, there were exaggerations and errors in the nature and presentation of Ebola disease, and individuals who were chosen for presentation as heroes were often attributed with all the best qualities and actions of a larger team.  Fine, that’s show business and dramatic writing, and only the insiders and purists were sensitive to the errors, slights, and overstatements.  This NatGeo series features Nancy Jaax, who was one of the central figures in the Reston investigation, is smart, hard-working, and well-regarded as a veterinary pathologist … and yet she is not all the heroines who inhabit the fictional role.  But on the other hand, Preston’s book, the “merely truthy” depiction of the Ebola Reston saga—a near-miss for U.S. public health—energized and informed top-level leaders and legislators in ways that the research scientists themselves had been unable to communicate effectively.  For the first time, generals and politicians (along with the wider public) gained some imaginative grasp of what kinds of people do these kinds of infectious disease research, and why such work is important to sustain.   In such an example, an interesting piece of work “inspired by a true story” is useful in mobilizing attention toward a genuine issue, even if there are factual errors in the details.

The 2014-15 Ebola outbreak in West Africa illustrated the less helpful features of error.  Clamoring for attention, politicians and egotists pontificated on their own false and ignorant beliefs in direct contradiction to the unified voices of the heads of agencies such as CDC and NIAID, who themselves were in full accord with the true experts in their own ranks.  Fearmongering was used to confuse the public, sow distrust of scientific experts, and distort public policy in the most unhelpful ways.  News outlets, ever mindful of audience share, gave voice to the publicity seekers and the cynically ambitious.

So, between these extremes, where does the NatGeo series fall?  Is it interesting enough to watch?  Is it without factual error? (Of course not.)  Whether or not it has errors, is it helpful?  Or does it do more to undermine good public health policy and research than to help?  I’d submit there is some risk in turning real emerging disease threats into fictionalized fears, like zombies.  There is also hazard in feeding the hopelessness, despair, and nihilism of many youth by telling them a disease apocalypse is inevitable and unmanageable.  There is additional hazard in repeated narratives of incompetence and conspiracies by our best scientists (who are sometimes guilty of scientific groupthink, but are generally too contrarian to propagate a conspiracy).  Here’s hoping for a generally positive effect to come from NatGeo’s storytelling.


May 27, episodes 1 and 2:

After the first two episodes, there are numerous plusses and minuses:

Plus:  NatGeo managed to get access to the bulky BSL4 suits, airlocks, decontamination shower, and snap-coupled air hoses actually used at USAMRIID in 1989, providing an aura of authenticity that has been absent in all similar films to date.

Minus:  Jaax is portrayed ordering into BSL4 a soldier who had never been there before.  This is both dumb and counterfactual.  Even in the “wild west” days of virology (including 1989) before an avalanche of regulations made things marginally safer, no technician would go anywhere near an agent in BSL4 until they had weeks of hands-on lab experience at lower biocontainment levels (usually BSL3), and had had multiple episodes of supervised training with “suiting up” in cold (virus-free) areas.

Plus:  Julianna Margulies portrays a credible facsimile of Nancy Jaax, both physically and temperamentally.  Still, as Tom Geisbert recently noted (, those who care about “actual events” should bear in mind that in this series (and in Richard Preston’s original book) Jaax serves as an archetype, a single figure who takes on all the activities and achievements of several individuals.  That Jaax is a woman is actually not extraordinary: there were several female technicians who routinely did more BSL4 work with Ebola than Jaax, with no less competence and courage; biosciences tend to have better gender balance than other scientific fields.  And the military, with all its shortcomings, is perhaps the most egalitarian large organization in our country in terms of merit-based entry and promotion.

Minus:  Topher Grace, in the role given him, bears little resemblance to Pete Jahrling, is more attractive and less calculating in seeking the ego-boosting spotlight that accompanies each new outbreak.  Though I had some major differences with Pete Jahrling (scientific, behavioral, ethical, and organizational), I am reluctant to engage in the schadenfreude of seeing him portrayed as a second-class buffoon. He was (is) a competent virologist, and an exceedingly savvy political animal who was acutely aware of the ramifications of Ebola in Reston, VA.  Granted, Jahrling did (imprudently) tell Preston about sniffing the initial virus-infected flask for pseudomonas, an act of hubris which might have been fatal if the virus had been a Zaire-like strain of Ebola.

Plus:  For those unperturbed by factual errors, the story seems engaging enough, and captures some of the gist of what it is to be at once fascinated by hazardous viruses and to have a feeling of responsibility toward keeping them at bay.  Like Preston’s error-riddled book, this can be an ultimately useful understanding for the public to sustain.  This modest “plus” probably makes all the difference in movieland, where popularity of a production is the most important thing, art is a close second, and fidelity to truth is “nice to have.”

Meh:  The “Wade Carter” character is apparently some convenient composite of Karl Johnson and C.J. Peters, both M.D.’s, big-picture thinkers, and great storytellers.  The internal dynamics at USAMRIID and the outside politics were very different from (and more interesting than) what’s portrayed to this point in the story.  (See “Virus Hunter: Thirty Years of Battling Hot Viruses Around the World “1998 by C. J. Peters).  But there are too many big egos and larger-than-life characters in almost every virus-outbreak story for everybody to get their due.

Minus:  So far, the story neglects to mention why USAMRIID staff had a high proportion of the world’s expertise with filoviruses.  It was fueled by a perceived need for defense against weaponized use of viruses like these.  Other U.S. agencies had not yet become engaged with that concern.

Plus:  So far in the series, scientists in general and USAMRIID scientists in particular are painted in a largely favorable light (if altogether human).  Malicious motives and conspiracies are not (yet?) added for dramatic effect.  In an era of anti-vaccination rhetoric and climate-change denial, the first two episodes sustain hope that public confidence in science will not be further degraded in this telling “inspired by a true story.”

Minus:  Another place in which a critique of Hot Zone is currently being tracked is on NPR’s online “Goats and Soda” section.  In addition to objections noted there by Tom Geisbert (e.g., misrepresentation of Ebola symptoms for dramatic effect; errors of attribution), the hands-on virology portions of the lab work are jarringly wrong.  Dramatically, it probably doesn’t matter.  But pipetting Ebola on an open bench (instead of in a negative-pressure HEPA filtered biosafety cabinet) is as unnatural as a Starbucks cup in a scene of Game of Thrones.  The “secure freezer” (as portrayed with electronic interlock) didn’t exist as such 30 years ago, and even today’s version is just an elaborate inconvenience.  The shortcut portrayals of lab tests (e.g. immunofluorescence using whole blood for detection) take “suspension of disbelief” to an extreme.  Transport of monkey tissues (and whole carcasses) from Reston to USAMRIID wasn’t as reckless and unsafe as portrayed – it just didn’t have all the paperwork that would have been required if bureaucracies were consulted beforehand.

Minus:  A better portrayal of risk-benefit decisions might have been instructive, and no less dramatic:  all decisions were ultimately made in a best-guess ad hoc committee process, with public health a far greater concern than the blowback of “Monday morning quarterbacks” who might think they could have done better.  Nancy Jaax was a team player, didn’t get barred from the lab (even temporarily) and didn’t go rogue to save the world.

Disclaimer and Perspective:  My opinions are my own (not those of current or past employers), but this is the “authority” from which I observe:

I was a virologist at USAMRIID from 1986 to 2007.  While I had not yet begun my own filovirus work at the time of the Reston outbreak in 1989 (I was working on a new smallpox vaccine, chikungunya virus, and a few other things), my office was adjacent to CJ Peters (who was Jahrling’s supervisor and made most of the substantive decisions), and a few steps from Jahrlings’ office. I and many others (including Nancy Jaax) participated in frequent lab meetings to consider current evidence and “next steps,” and I was privy to a lot of the informal chatter about actual events and interpersonal drama.  Later, my lab would be the first to grow and characterize the newly discovered American hantavirus (Sin Nombre) at BSL4; the first to develop an experimental filovirus (Marburg virus) vaccine that was fully protective in monkeys; and among the team to develop monoclonal antibodies that would later inform and be included in Ebolavirus therapies.  A short biosketch can be found at

Written by aschmalj

May 28, 2019 at 12:27 PM

Update: Trump Rises to History’s 3rd Worst POTUS

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Fair is fair.  After 2 years in office, Donald Trump has risen from worst to third-worst President in U.S. history, this in the estimation of 157 participating presidential scholars surveyed .[i]  This is an uptick from another organization’s first-year polling of 170 historians, which ranked Trump dead last. [ii]   Thus, I am obliged to update a previous post entitled “Worst.President.Ever.”  [iii]

The more recent and slightly less damning (Siena) poll is probably more realistic, giving Trump credit for not yet bungling the country into civil war (as James Buchanan did [iv]) or enacting a racist reversal of civil rights gains, and barely surviving conviction in the Senate after impeachment in the House (Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln).  In Siena’s poll, Trump does rank dead last in several sub-categories including integrity, intelligence, and overall ability but—like his impulse toward obstruction of justice (Mueller Report [v])—his worst directives have so far been thwarted by his own staff.  Of course, all staff who showed such patriotic integrity have already been ushered out of the Administration, leaving behind an incredibly vacuous and sycophantic crew.  Trump may be as inept as Buchanan and as unpopular as Andrew Johnson, but his efforts have not yet led to civil war or Jim Crow, so “third-worst” seems a fair enough presidential ranking.    If we’re all lucky, he may even someday leapfrog Warren Harding and William Harrison.

As for impeachment, meh.  The Johnson and Clinton impeachments illustrate the unlikelihood of achieving supermajorities in both House and Senate sufficient to forcibly remove a president from office.  And does anyone but the Evangelical Christian fringe want Mike Pence as president?  Impeachment in Trump’s case seems an unhelpful sideshow.  I would only favor the first step (House investigation in preparation for a vote that may never come) if Congress finds no other way to obtain documents required for legitimate oversight of a bizarre and corrupt executive branch.

Similarly, in the matter of the 25thAmendment [vi], it strikes me as premature to rescind my previous views and give Trump a clean bill of mental health, but there is enough ambiguity to suspend all hope that the current crew who surround Trump have either the wit to recognize mental impairment or the courage to name it as such.  Only time and perhaps an eventual autopsy will till us whether Trump’s erratic behaviors and tone-deaf narcissism are the result of creeping dementia, or instead track to other disorders.  Even Trump’s loyal political base tends to acknowledge “he has a certain wrongness about him,” [vii]but supporters are remarkably forgiving of his shortcomings.  There would be a certain sweetness and nobility in that level of forgiveness, were it not so entwined with the hypocrisy of embracing vulgar policies.








[vii]  (this is the scene from Northern Exposure involving a cow-fling, with preternatural reference to Donald Trump)

Written by aschmalj

April 22, 2019 at 12:20 PM

What is Quaker? Faith, Practice, Community, and Egalitarian Governance

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To be Quaker is to become convinced of the rightness for oneself  [i] of a particular way of seeing, thinking, and understanding, and then to endeavor to live internally and relationally in harmony with those received truths. Collectively, these are called Faith and Practice.[ii]  Underlying “the way” are theologies or philosophies that vary among individual Quakers and between branches,[iii] but they converge on a spiritual egalitarianism among all persons, and a direct (i.e. mystical) access to the source of all peace, love, and understanding,[iv] Who [v]  may go by many names including God. Originally Christocentric and still almost conventionally so among the majority of Quakers worldwide, inward faith among “liberal” and other Quakers may be partially informed or grounded in panentheism, the God of Einstein and Spinoza (pantheism), Buddhist tenets, non-theism, rational agnosticism, stoicism, or elsewhere. Typically, there is little or no emphasis on sin or salvation as these are commonly understood. Fixed beliefs including creeds are anathema, as Truth is considered to be in a state of continuing revelation; consequently, invariant (or frozen-in-time) interpretations of holy texts or unconditional deference to persons of authority can rightly be viewed as unhelpful idolatry. Outward sacraments (including baptism) are considered harmless “notions” that are nonessential and not practiced at all among Liberal Friends.  If this sounds anarchic, it is not.  Coherence is guided by queries and advices, not dogma, guilt, or fear. A peculiar Quaker jargon (patois) is useful in emphasizing how Quaker understandings may differ from the commonplace, but can also make things seem either quaint or even more mysterious than they actually are. [vi]

Practice—the inward and outward way of living—is inseparable from Faith. Each informs and inspires the other, and each is strengthened in community. Named principles (testimonies) shared and celebrated by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) include integrity, simplicity, nonviolence, active peacemaking, equality, and stewardship. Silence and deep listening—listening for the “still small voice[vii] of God and listening to one another—are highly valued; many communities meet primarily in silence, punctuated by unprogrammed vocal ministry.  In such Meetings, there is no single priest or pastor, and no paid clergy, Friends having eliminated not the priesthood but the laity.

While the theology of Quakers is outside the mainstream, it is not altogether unique: most of its threads are found in other religions, many of them older than Quakerdom’s origins in the 1660’s. But from this theology Quakers derived a model of organization and self-governance that is an exceptional departure from the familiar domination schemes of hierarchy or voting.  Quakers invest the time and care to labor toward a sense of the group—beyond consensus and typically finding unity—with individuals offering their views via plain speech and integrity, yet listening deeply and subordinating their egos to a greater wisdom. “Right action” is prioritized over speed and expediency. [viii]

In a given community, “Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business” (a.k.a. Business Meeting) is traditionally held monthly, and the community itself is known as a Monthly Meeting. Representatives from a dozen or so Monthly Meetings may gather Quarterly, and each of several multistate groupings of 50-100 Meetings gather annually in open sessions (for example Baltimore Yearly Meeting or Philadelphia Yearly Meeting) to sustain relationships and consider shared issues and programs.  Additional networks of national and international Quaker organizations tether Friends in activism, lobbying, and service.  However, decisionmaking authority and assets (including properties) remain the purview of Monthly Meetings except where intentionally ceded.

Who then can identify as Quaker? Some Friends assert a necessity to hold membership in an established Monthly Meeting. [ix] Others feel just as strongly that identity is existential, a recognition and declaration of True Self in the context of Faith, Practice, and Community.  Either way, newcomers are welcomed and embraced, as even the most established Quaker communities know new “seekers” to radiate the joy of finding their true home, and to provide the community with new talents and perspectives.[x]

Take note that, despite rhyming, Quakers and Shakers have very different origins and theologies:  Quakers are neither celibate nor known as great furniture makers. Nevertheless, a favorite song among Quakers is the Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts”.

Quakerism is simple.  And complex.  The essentials revolve around faith, practice, community, and egalitarian governance.


[i] Paradoxically, community is essential but cannot thrive unless each individual knows themselves to be in a best-fit situation for personal spiritual growth.  Personal responsibility for one’s own faith and practice is at once liberating and challenging; it is not for everyone, not the “easiest” path, and this is reflected in Quakerism’s relatively static membership numbers. “Defined rules of belief” and a promised route to personal salvation are far more popular, and not offered by most Quaker communities. There does exist an evangelical branch of Quakers, but recruitment and “conversion” of others is not a historical priority for Quakers.

[ii] Faith and Practice  is also the name given to a published set of guidelines and resources formulated by each Yearly Meeting (a territorial grouping of communities), revised every couple decades for purposes of harmonizing the agreed-upon commonalities between the participating communities.  Most of these are available online.

[iii] see

[iv] “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” is a 1974 song written by English singer/songwriter Nick Lowe and subsequently covered by many.  I like the Keb’ Mo’ version (

[v] The rare E.E. Cummings devotee will recognize the personal pronoun “Who” as an intended reference to God, lifted from E.E. Cumming’s essays:  “… mysteries alone are significant … love is the mystery-of-mysteries who creates them all” in i: six nonlectures

[vi] Quakers speak of “the Light,” once took care to use “Thee” and “Thou” in speech, “affirm” rather than “swear” to be truthful, are “convinced” rather than “converted,” etc.

[vii] From 1 Kings 19:12, also translated as “a delicate whispering voice”; this is how God spoke to Elija.  Quakers find it an apt description of what may be discovered by deep listening. Are Quakers prone to auditory hallucinations?  Rarely.  How does the still small voice differ from imagination?  In Scene 1 of George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan(, the following exchange occurs:

Joan.  “I hear voices telling me what to do. They come from God.”

Robert. “They come from your imagination.”

Joan. “Of course. That is how the messages of God come to us.”

[viii] In my view, the practices of corporate discernment are the most important legacy and example the Quakers have provided. The general concept of seeking unity is not unique, as it was embedded in many indigenous cultures and is arguably the way in which many families decide things as simple as where to go on vacation.  But Quakers have provided a framework that succeeds in the modern era, so long as participants care more about the community and the rightness of discernment than they care about “winning.”  I recoil and rebel in the secular world when some egoist declares “let’s call the question,” insisting that—right or wrong—a vote and majoritarian dominance on a divisive question is better than delay.  The flaws of hierarchical decisionmaking are too many and too obvious to recount (see Trump).

[ix] Traditional importance of defined membership was rooted in expediencies that were more important in past centuries.  For example, in the earliest years, self-proclaimed Friends could potentially overreach (in heresy or violence) and bring the King’s army (or other government) down on all, so a way was needed to disavow such persons as non-members.  In the U.S., it was easier (as recently as the Vietnam conflict) to assert pacifist status (re the Selective Service draft) if one were a longtime member of a Quaker community, with paperwork to show it.  For the “institution,” there remain several legalistic reasons to have a defined membership cohort, but they have little if anything to do with colloquial self-identification of one’s faith and practice.

[x] If anyone visits a Quaker meeting and finds it to be insular, inhospitable, and resistant to the possible change wrought by new members or attenders, such a meeting should be considered an outlier, and seekers should look for a healthier nearby meeting.

Written by aschmalj

February 11, 2019 at 4:56 PM

Reparations and the Wealth Tax

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Almost all of today’s political conservatives, and a high proportion of self-described moderates, recoil (hair-on-fire) at the concept of reparations—the idea of offering amends, atonement, expiation for past wrongs (injustices).  Moreover, many liberals (including me, some 25 years ago) balked at the seeming unfeasibility (in terms of either logistics or justice) of somehow identifying and reimbursing individuals for the whole of American society’s historical abuses.  The philosophical differences between conservative and liberal views lie mostly in the former’s casual denial that present beneficiaries of historical wrongs bear any responsibility, saying in one form or another:  “What’s past is past: I didn’t enslave anyone; I didn’t steal anyone’s land; I didn’t oppress; and my ancestors’ sins do not convey to me. I earned what I have, and nobody deserves a handout.”  The conservative view is of course self-serving poppycock and—because so many conservatives profess religiosity—it is also hypocritical. Contrariwise, the failure of liberals is not so much in their obliviousness as in their lack of imagination.

Enter tax policy and economic policy.  I have written previously on the wealth gap, the undeniable observation that the rich in America are inexorably getting richer, their wealth consolidated in dimensions not seen since 1929. [i]  The wealthy respond that this is happenstance, is the result of their hard work, and is healthy for the nation’s economy.  They decry “redistribution of wealth” as an un-American heresy, a moral outrage. They bellow (with surprising if unmerited success) that intergenerational passage of wealth is a fundamental human right (“mine!”) and that estate taxes are therefore immoral. Incredibly, a high proportion of the poor and under-educated embrace the plutocratic economic mythology.

With a wave of new Democrats (consisting mostly of left-leaning newcomers younger, more liberal, and more diverse than the standard patriarchy) having scored a landslide win in the 2018 House elections, and the 2020 elections not far over the horizon, I am pleased to see the tax battle joined; yet I am simultaneously disappointed in the progressive/liberal politicians’ oratorical stumblings, their seeming incapacity to talk about the philosophical and moral (and yes, religious) dimensions of tax policy. Some have talked of rollbacks of the tax gifts given recently to the wealthy, i.e. the Republican initiatives to lower top marginal rates, minimize taxation on dividends and capital gains, and eliminate estate taxes.  This is encouraging, but I am especially pleased to see a wealth tax put on the table by Elizabeth Warren [ii], and now discussed (pro and con) in op-eds (and TV, ugh) by other legitimate economists who know and analyze real data.[iii]  I would love to see Congressional hearings (alas, this could only happen in the House) on the feasibility and consequences of taxing not only income but also hoarded, self-perpetuating wealth (roughly synonymous with net worth). Warren[iv]correctly points out that states, counties, and municipalities already impose a wealth tax on the hoi polloi in the form of property taxes.  She makes a good case that such a federal tax—directed entirely at the ultrarich—is as feasible to administer as any of our other taxes.  To be clear, such a federal wealth tax (starting at accumulated wealth of more that $50M) is not “confiscatory” (a favorite conservative term), but is proposed at 2-3%, a rate lower than such wealth grows on its own accord (e.g., in very conservative investments). And while such a tax only affects the wealthiest 0.1% of taxpayers, the wealth hoarded by those 75,000 affected households is so vast that such a tax is estimated to raise an additional $2.75 trillion in ten years.  That is real money, with negligible negative effect on either the economy or the comfort of the ultrarich.

I began and will end with a riff on reparations.  Additional revenue from a new wealth tax has no bearing on the long arc of social justice if the proceeds are used to reduce income taxes on the rich, to fund the military-industrial complex, or even to pay down the national debt (this debt having resulted from an indirect subsidy to the wealthy, who got us into this in the first place [v]).  I expect there would be little lasting benefit from trying to identify and make one-time payment to the descendants of those enslaved, oppressed in a racist society, or robbed of their birthright by Euro-American invaders and broken treaties.  However, if the proceeds are used for education (from pre-K to graduate school), child care, housing subsidies for the poor, guaranteed health care for all, and other initiatives that rebalance privilege and opportunity in America, then—and only then—will the generationally privileged wealthy begin to atone for their complicity in sustaining a culture of unjust disparity.  I’m content to call this reparations, but since that word is incendiary in some quarters and easily misunderstood by the gullible consumers of propaganda, let’s just pick a synonym: right action; social justice; fairness; promotion of the general well-being.

Game on.  The present course is unsustainable.





[iv]To be clear, Warren is among those I like on economic policy; but I like her as a senator.  I’m skeptical she’s the best liberal candidate for President: she’s a bit strident, easy to caricature, and has fumbled her response to Trump’s racist attacks against her.

[v]If liberals can fairly be accused of a “tax and spend” philosophy, conservatives have shamelessly embraced a “borrow and spend” practice. The real tax burden on the wealthy (as a percentage of income or net worth) remains lower than for the middle class, while it is the wealthy who benefit disproportionately from the comforts and security purchased by tax revenue.  Moreover, the cynical underlying philosophy (witness Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan) is to drive up the national debt so as to “starve the beast”, the beast of what they call entitlements.  (see previous blog on this ploy)

Written by aschmalj

February 4, 2019 at 10:14 AM

Whitewash: MLK and the Complicity of (Us) Liberals in Racial Divide

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On this Monday holiday in celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday, writer Jeanne Theoharis—a political scientist and author of many books and articles on the civil rights movement—paraphrases MLK to assert the white moderate, who is more devoted to order than to justice,” was more of an impediment than “the White Citizens Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner.”[i]On one hand, I am sympathetic to Theoharis’ larger thesis that racism is alive and well in America, and that political “moderates” including northern Liberals (a category in which I am binned) are a large part of the problem.  I choose the word “whitewash” to emphasize the irony of how White America cherry-picks the historical narrative of the black person’s experience in America, including a full array of amnesia, revisionism, and delusion about the words and work of MLK.  On the other hand, at least in this Op-Ed piece, I find Theoharis inartful and unhelpful in substituting her own words, “more of an impediment.”

MLK, in both speech and writing, was intellectually powerful, precise, and nuanced.  No matter who paraphrases or excerpts him, something is usually lost.  Here is the more extended quote from King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail:[ii]

            I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

             Theoharis and I surely agree on many things, and I do not discount the fact her views are rooted in both experience and study in ways mine are not.  Perhaps we agree on this:  as candidates now declare themselves one by one to be candidates for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States, please spare me the Democratic Moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice.  Hillary Clinton was one such “moderate,” which is why I never voted for her in a primary election.  However, (and here I part with the ill-chosen words but probably not the sentiment of Theoharis), I never saw Clinton as “more of an impediment” to justice and right action than Trump. This next time around, candidates genuinely willing to stand with Martin Luther King will be labeled as radicals, thus there will be efforts to sideline them as unelectable.  We’ll see what happens, but my path will be to vote in the primaries for the candidate I reckon would also have earned MLK’s vote, noting that King was not fixated on issues of race but on larger matters of economic and social justice that included racism.  In the general election, though, I may be obliged to vote again for the whitewashing moderate in preference to the Klanner.  I am not inclined to the nihilistic path of intentionally making things worse in hope that enlightenment will rise in the populace, ultimately making things better.  That experiment is already underway, and I don’t see that it’s working out.




Written by aschmalj

January 21, 2019 at 3:34 PM

POTUS and the Loopholes of Democracy

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As if this is read by a single Trump supporter, let me first stipulate that every president in US history has attempted and often succeeded in working around constraints nominally imposed by Congress and Constitution.  Sometimes the POTUS’s motivation was a political philosophy his party had pressed for decades, only to be defeated by such things as the 60-vote threshold to end filibusters in the Senate.  With rare exception (I can’t think of one), POTUS could rationalize a controversial action (which his opponents would portray as unconstitutional, illegal, or undemocratic) as being popular (in polling), compassionate, and/or legitimately important for national security.

Now we have Trump, a man without shame or moral compass, a man born to great wealth and never (yet) held accountable for anything, a narcissistic “businessman” who acts as if decency, democratic norms, and integrity are for chumps (losers).  For all my differences with past presidents (not just Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush41, and Bush43, but also Obama and Clinton … I give Carter a pass as the unluckiest president of my lifetime), Trump is uniquely vile.

Trump has only a few talents, and one of them is in being a master of loopholes.  He loves his pardon-power, something framers neglected to restrain under the expectation that an abusive president would be muted in other ways.  He loves that there is no legal requirement for him to disclose his financial conflicts of interest, though lawsuits on the “emoluments clause” of the Constitution are winding through the courts.  He loves being Commander in Chief, overriding 70 years of foreign policy and all credible experts’ best advices on the basis of his own ill-informed instincts.  He loves that none of his thousands of documented public lies are criminal.  He loves that the longstanding “code of conduct” for politicians and presidents has no legal force.  He loves that he can craft executive orders that substitute for laws already on the books, orders that are only sometimes restrained by judicial orders. He loves the possibility of packing the courts so that none of his whimsical orders will be successfully challenged.  Today he loves that Congress (in the 70’s) made the mistake of allowing presidents to declare a “state of emergency” without requiring any factual basis, or any oversight by Congress (Why-the-hell would Congress have done this? They probably were trying to correct for budgetary and other legal straitjackets imposed by Congress itself, rules that would actually jeopardize the nimble response of the nation in the face of a real crisis.) Supporters and haters of Trump alike might agree that neither the framers of the Constitution nor 230 years of Congresses anticipated the election of a person like Trump, nor that the Congress would have so thoroughly stripped itself of its own powers. The loopholes in our democracy have been laid open, exposed.  An ignorant and narcissistic person can be elected president, then do real damage.

Mind you, I’m not a big fan of the US version of democracy in the first place.  It brought us slavery, genocide of indigenous peoples, paternalistic disenfranchisement of inferiors and undesirables (including women), plutocracy, and highly limited choices in who represents “the people” in state and federal power. Put xenophobia, racism, religious zealotry, or greed to a vote (as has often been the case), and they all win (usually … a wall would lose).  Democracy—when mismanaged, and uncorrected by the judiciary to protect minority rights—is just another domination system.  (Quakers are undemocratic in the most divine and egalitarian of ways, but I’ll save that for another day.)

The US democracy has loopholes that open the door to tyranny, and if Trump is a student of almost nothing else, he is a student of loopholes.  But at the end of the day, I remain optimistic.  There is something in the American spirit that won’t stand for this.  And having worked shoulder-to-shoulder with US service men and women for 21 years, I don’t think even the majority of them will follow orders they know to be plain wrong, “legal” or not.

Dietrick Bonhoeffer, in 1945, wondered how the German people could be so “stupid” (stupefied?) as to follow Hitler and the ideas of the Reich.  For all our shortcomings, and with due respect for the goodness and intellect of the German people (from whom most of my ancestors come), we can imagine the average German citizen of 1939 and know “we’re not that guy.”  Neither, of course, are the German people of 2019.

Written by aschmalj

January 8, 2019 at 2:41 PM