A move away from the GOP by U.S. businesses, however unlikely, would be a defining moment

The backlash against Georgia’s recently-passed restrictions on voting, especially by voters that are more likely to support Democratic candidates, continues to build. Several Georgia-based corporations, including Delta Air Lines (which is the state’s largest employer) and Coca-Cola, have gone from carefully parsed statements of displeasure about the new legislation to stronger public comments from the companies’ CEOs on national media. Major League Baseball – rather surprisingly, in my opinion – decided to move this year’s All Star Game and Amateur Draft from Atlanta to Denver due to the controversy.

In yesterday’s Morning Brief from Yahoo! Finance, editor-in-chief Andy Serwer suggests the fallout from the ongoing situation is “changing the relationship between politics (mostly the GOP) and business.”

Used to be that if you ran a business in America you’d stay as far away as possible from politics, (unless you sold George McGovern T-shirts or some such.) The math was simple. Take a stand and potentially lose 40% to 60% of your customers. So most businesspeople when asked a question about politics kept mum, even when they felt strongly about an issue.

We accepted this choice of money over principles because as customers, employees or shareholders while we might not agree with someone’s politics, we just wanted the business relationship and knowing someone’s politics might make things awkward, inconvenient or uncomfortable.

Serwer quotes Dick Parsons, who is the former CEO of Citigroup, Time Warner, and was also briefly the chairman of the board of CBS. Parsons is African-American and a “lifelong Republican,” he said. He was one of 72 Black executives who signed a letter protesting Georgia’s new law.

My party has sort of said, ‘Well, look, we got one or two choices, we can either battle for those votes going forward or we can just try and preclude them from showing up again. And I think the direction that has been taken, certainly in Georgia and in other states is, ‘let’s not go out and battle for those votes. Let’s just try and keep them from showing up.’ That’s just flat wrong.

Dick Parsons

Companies like Delta and Coke have faced boycotts from both sides of the political spectrum: from the left for not speaking out soon enough or more forcefully; and from the right for now being too “woke.” Faced with that type of pressure, the traditional relationship of American businesses to the Republican Party is looking like it needs some counseling.

Senate Minority Leader (few things give me more pleasure than writing that phrase, even though because of the filibuster he still has tremendous power over what can and can’t get passed in Congress) Mitch McConnell made it clear that he doesn’t believe corporations should be playing politics:

Corporations will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order. Businesses must not use economic blackmail to spread disinformation and push bad ideas that citizens reject at the ballot box…. My warning, if you will, to corporate America is to stay out of politics.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

Of course, that doesn’t include corporate free speech in the form of massive contributions to Republican campaigns, which McConnell is explicitly in favor of. “Give us the money and keep your mouth shut” is the real message here, which is not unlike getting mugged in broad daylight.

Adam Serwer (no relation to Andy Serwer), senior editor at The Atlantic, also wrote on the topic recently with a warning not to buy this “rebellion” against corporations by the GOP.

Republicans cannot imagine labor relations as exploitative except in that someone might have to sit through a tedious video on race or gender sensitivity in the workplace. They do not perceive the concentration of corporate power as perilous unless companies’ desire to retain their customer base interferes with Republican schemes to entrench their own political dominance. They see freedom of speech as vital, unless it prevents them from using the state to sanction forms of political expression they oppose. Their criticisms of “woke capital” go no deeper than this.

As such, the Republican anti-corporate turn is entirely superficial. That’s a shame, because the concentration of corporate power has had a negative effect on American governance, leading to an age of inequality in which economic gains are mostly enjoyed by those in the highest income brackets. Since the 1970s, despite massive gains in productivity, most Americans have seen their wages rise very slowly, while the wealthiest have reaped almost all the gains of economic growth. That outcome was a policy choice, not an inevitability.

I suspect that this posturing by both corporations and the GOP leadership will ultimately not change very much. But it’s possible if politicians like McConnell overplay this, assuming that there’s no where else for American business to go but back into their loving arms, they could be in for a surprise. The Democrats could make a play to be more friendly to business, provided improved respect and rights for American workers was part of the deal. Again, not likely, but not impossible. The Democrats would also have to overcome the antipathy of the left-wing of the party toward big business, which wouldn’t be easy at all. But an opportunity exists.

Place your bets now: Tigers to go 162-0 this season

The Tigers launched the 2021 season yesterday at home with a 3-2 win over the Cleveland Baseball Team. It was snowing during the first few innings, becoming nearly a whiteout blizzard a couple of times, including when Miguel Cabrera hit the first MLB home run of the season but couldn’t see that it went out so he slid into second:

Kirk Gibson: “Look at the confetti!” LOL.

Matthew Boyd started for Detroit, and while he wasn’t as flashy as Cleveland starter Shane Bieber, who struck out 12 Tigers, he also didn’t give up any runs and got the victory. The Tigers’ bullpen looked pretty good, too, with José CIsnero and Daniel Norris throwing scoreless innings. New closer Gregory Soto gave up a two-run homer to Roberto Pérez in the ninth but still got the save.

So the trend line is obvious: The Tigers have a perfect record after one game, and therefore will finish the season 162-0. Where do I buy playoff tickets?

A more disturbing trend in baseball, and sports in general, is the rapid encroachment of gambling into the broadcasts and the stadiums themselves. Once upon a time, a connection with known gamblers or gambling interests was enough to even get baseball legends like Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle banned from baseball back in the early 1980s for working for casinos in public relations capacities.

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned a law that outlawed sports betting in most states in 2018. Since then, all of the leagues have started to get into the gambling business, initially by accepting sponsorships from sports books and gambling companies, and now actively allowing solicitation of all types of bets in their live broadcasts and on their websites and mobile apps. It’s hard to avoid a pop-up asking you to “bet now” if you visit MLB.com or watch a live telecast; yesterday, ESPN’s coverage included sidebars asking how many runs the Dodgers and Rockies would score after the seventh inning, along with a betting website and a code to use to win $5,000.

The Tigers’ broadcast partner, Fox Sports Detroit, become Bally Sports Detroit on March 31. The name change was needed anyway, as Fox no longer owned the regional sports networks that bore their name, having been bought by Sinclair Broadcasting a couple of years ago. They continued to use the Fox name under license, but needed a new one and the deal was made with Bally’s Corporation, a casino, horse track, and online gaming company (and which started as a manufacturer of pinball machines back in the 1930s). The connection between the games and the gaming is now complete.

Personally, I don’t care what they call the network (I still miss PASS Sports, myself). Sports has always had gambling, legal or not. In some ways, maybe having the whole thing out in the open is better. We’ll see. I’m not opposed to gambling, though I don’t do much myself, an occasional lottery ticket when the jackpot gets ridiculous and some penny ante and no stakes fantasy football and baseball. And people have noted that baseball has long been associated with other less-than-virtuous vices, including tobacco and alcohol.

The difference, as noted by Craig Calcaterra in his excellent “Cup of Coffee” newsletter today, is that baseball is now producing gambling-related programs and content for their websites and channels, which is a far cry from the days of baseball’s cleaner-than-clean Mantle and Mays bans:

I’m concerned, but I’m not going to let it get me down. I love baseball. Yesterday’s game was a joy to watch, especially Cabrera’s homer and his remarkable diving play at first base, where he hadn’t played since 2019. Detroit manager A.J. Hinch claims Cabrera is the best defensive first baseman on the team and that he’ll get to play there a few times per week. We’ll see if his troublesome knee will allow that, but for one day, anyway, it was all smiles for the big guy.

1-0! First place, baby! Enjoy it while you can.

One last word on efficacy rates and a return to normal

I wrote a lot of words on Thursday about COVID vaccination statistics because I’ve been frustrated that the media – and by extension, the majority of Americans – continue to focus on the potential for more public health and economic distress from the pandemic instead of the positive overall direction we’re headed. It’s understandable, I suppose, since we’ve gone through such a bizarre shared experience and we’re likely always going to be worried that it will happen again.

And it might! I know that the positive impact that the several vaccines are already having doesn’t eliminate the possibility that some variant might still prove resistant to those vaccines, or that something else might happen that takes us back to square one. But what seems likely is a return to normal this summer, provided we understand that eradicating COVID can’t be the requirement for that to happen.

Some media are covering this good news. Vox produced a great seven-minute video that explains what the efficacy rate of the different vaccines really means and why that number isn’t the really important one:

It will be a bit irritating if we reach the so-called “herd immunity” – 70 percent or so of people vaccinated against COVID in the United States – but due to ongoing political and cultural clashes, those of us who’ve been vaccinated will still need to wear masks in public settings to protect those who’ve chosen not to, since it will be possible to be vaccinated but contract the virus, be completely asymptomatic, and spread the virus to those who don’t have protection. That’s why masks and social distancing will probably still be needed this fall, though not at the same level as over the last year.

It is good news, and it’s a credit to rational, science-based thinking, that we’re going to leave the pandemic behind.

Lies, damn lies, and statistics

I confess that my headline is intended to grab a few additional readers, because the topic of today’s post – data – isn’t very sexy. In our alternative facts world, having a bit more respect for actual data would be helpful. But the other end of the spectrum, where “data-driven” becomes an obsession or worse, a shield for making difficult decisions without any accountability (“we just followed the data”), is just as bad. And not understanding what the data actually means is worst of all.

All of these problems existed, and continue to exist, when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic. A year ago, the federal government basically gave up on trying to compile data on COVID testing, infection rates, and deaths. It was left to a handful of reporters and editors at The Atlantic magazine – all working remotely – to come up with what they called the “COVID Tracking Project.” It became the de facto standard for reporting on the pandemic, so much so that the federal government started using their charts in presentations because they had no similar sources themselves, and it spawned hundreds of imitators at the state and local level. Launched by reporters Robinson Meyer and Alexis C. Madrigal along with editor Erin Kissane and data scientist Jeff Hammerbacher, the COVID Tracking Project eventually added several other Atlantic staff members and others to help compile the massive amount of raw data, make sense of and standardize the different measurements, and figure out how to most clearly and effectively communicate the results graphically. It was an immense undertaking and was also very successful, and frankly we owe these folks a huge thank you for their journalism, which filled a critical need while our national leaders were playing politics with the pandemic response.

The COVID Tracking Project has stopped compiling data and will be shutting down for good later this spring, and Meyer and Madrigal have written a look back at its origins as well as providing a warning that we’re still not getting the pandemic data right even today. It’s worth a read.

Significantly, they point out that the speed of data coming in varies greatly and can be affected by many factors, which need to be considered when making assumptions and reacting to changes in the data. We’re making important decisions about when to reopen (or re-close) schools, retail stores, restaurants and bars, and other public health issues using the data, but those decisions are still reacting to data that isn’t fully understood:

Additionally, as I’ve written about before, there continues to be those who argue that the pandemic won’t be “over” and we can’t go back to “normal” until the COVID-19 virus is completely eradicated. That might happen eventually, though it seems unlikely. What is more likely is that the protection provided by the vaccine will reduce the severity of illness from COVID-19 to not much more than a case of the flu or the “common cold” (some variants of which, interestingly, are also caused by coronaviruses, which leads to some optimism that the mRNA method of developing vaccines might eventually “cure the common cold”). While people do die from the flu, especially in years when the influenza strain is particularly virulent, we don’t shut down society when that happens. Instead, we formulate a new flu shot and hope that most people will bother to get it, which in the past hasn’t been the case. Perhaps moving forward we’ll be more diligent about those other available vaccines as well. Perhaps.

Accurate data is useful. Inaccurate data, data whose origins aren’t understood, or just plain made-up numbers masquerading as data, are useless – yet they’re sometimes used as justifications for questionable decisions. The pandemic has shown us that; it would be nice to think we could learn from our mistakes this time.

Filibustered, part two

In October, I wrote about the tradition of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, and how it’s made effective governing in Washington nearly impossible. The concept of the filibuster used to mean that a senator could bring all Senate work to a complete halt by holding the floor and “debating” – actually, reading old speeches, recipes, children’s books, or anything else to prevent a bill from moving forward. To end this “debate,” the Senate must pass “cloture,” which under current Senate rules requires 60 votes to stop the filibustering.

These days, filibustering doesn’t even require a senator to actually stand and talk endlessly. Any senator can simply indicate that they would filibuster a bill and that’s a sufficient threat to gum things up. Part of the reason that works is that the Senate now runs bills through the chamber on multiple “tracks,” scheduled throughout the legislative day, and if one of those is held up by a filibuster threat, the rest of the chamber’s work can continue. This means the risk of seeming to be obstructionist is much lower, and in recent years it effectively has turned the Senate into a political body that requires a super-majority of 60 votes for nearly everything it does.

This is defended, even by centrist Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, as a way to protect the rights of the minority in the Senate. Which might be a laudable position (and understandable if you’re concerned you might end up in the minority again, a likely proposition) if the super-majority requirement didn’t also effectively destroy the rights of the Senate majority.

The authors of the U.S. Constitution didn’t include super-majority requirements for passing legislation, and only had a few specific exceptions, including conviction of an impeachment charge (2/3 of the Senate), expulsion of senators or representatives from their seats (2/3 of the appropriate house), ratifying treaties (2/3 of the Senate), proposing amendments to the Constitution (2/3 of both houses), and overriding a presidential veto (also 2/3 of both houses). Other than that, majority rule in both houses was anticipated, a fact underlined by comments by James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution:

“It has been said that more than a majority ought to have been required for a quorum; and in particular cases, if not in all, more than a majority of a quorum for a decision. That some advantages might have resulted from such a precaution, cannot be denied. It might have been an additional shield to some particular interests, and another obstacle generally to hasty and partial measures. But these considerations are outweighed by the inconveniences in the opposite scale.

In all cases where justice or the general good might require new laws to be passed, or active measures to be pursued, the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule: the power would be transferred to the minority. Were the defensive privilege limited to particular cases, an interested minority might take advantage of it to screen themselves from equitable sacrifices to the general weal, or, in particular emergencies, to extort unreasonable indulgences.”

James Madison, Federalist Paper No. 58

So those who defend the filibuster on the vacuous reason of respecting the minority are, in fact, disrespecting the duly-elected majority. And nothing gets done.

If Democrats are unable to move significant legislation through both houses of Congress and to the president’s desk in the next two years, they will lose control of one or both houses. Republicans will be able to point at their inability to act, and they’ll be right. The time has come for bold action on the filibuster; if not eliminating it altogether, at least modifying it to require that those filibustering a bill actually hold the floor (and stopping all Senate business altogether while doing so), or perhaps reducing the number of votes required for cloture depending on how long the filibuster has gone on (60 for the first three hours, 58 for the next three, and so on).

Democrats have the majority today. They should start acting like it.