Our exit strategy is death

Craig Newmark founded Craigslist in 1995. A dozen years later – at which point Craigslist was a senior citizen by venture-capital-fueled Internet standards – Newmark was asked for the umpteenth time, “When are you going to sell your company and cash out?” In other words, what was his “exit strategy?”

His response was (more or less) “My exit strategy is death.” He’s repeated that sentiment many times since. He retired from day-to-day operations at Craigslist in 2016 to focus on his philanthropic efforts (Forbes estimated in 2017 that the company was worth $3 billion, making Newmark – who’s assumed to own at least 40% of the company – worth around $1.3 billion or so.) He has no plans to sell Craigslist to any of the many suitors who’ve come calling over the years, nor is he interested in further monetizing the site, which remains pleasantly archaic in appearance and functionality in 2021, yet likely brings in several hundred million dollars per year.

Newmark’s approach continues to be refreshingly offbeat in a world where the quick buck is treasured. But his plan was based on real information, which we used to call “facts,” and led him to make the decisions that turned Craigslist from a San Francisco-based mailing list helping locals find Bay Area arts and entertainment events to a global company that was truly one of the Internet’s first “social networks.” (Fortunately, his stewardship of Craigslist meant it didn’t turn into a platform with the power to destroy American democracy itself, *cough* “Facebook” *cough*.)

On the other hand, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the endless misinformation campaign, led by right-wing media such as Fox News, OANN, and Newsmax, as well as *cough* “Facebook” *cough*, against the COVID-19 vaccines has been wildly successful in convincing nearly half of Americans that the vaccines are part of a widespread government plot to steal their guns, make pedophilia legal, and turn the U.S. into a freedom-hating socialist state. COVID cases are rising nearly everywhere as we’ve seen vaccination rates taper off and everyone, including the non-vaccinated who should still be wearing masks, tossed those masks away and started hanging out in crowded restaurants and bars again. Only this time, nearly everyone who is being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19 is unvaccinated:

Appeals to reason and common sense haven’t worked. Most of those who say they still won’t get vaccinated overlap very neatly with those who think the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. Despite all the evidence that the vaccines are safe and effective (and that there was no “steal” to be stopped when it comes to the presidential election), these folks are sure that’s all “fake news.” Until it isn’t:

Maybe if enough unvaccinated people start becoming seriously, even permanently, ill – or perhaps even dying from COVID-19 – it will start to convince the doubters that the only way we can escape endless waves of COVID-19 infections is by getting shots in the arms of everyone who can be vaccinated. Nothing else seems to be working to change minds.

It’s a morbid thought, but perhaps our best shot at an exit strategy from COVID is death.

A change is gonna come

I was born by the river in a little tent
And just like the river I’ve been running ever since

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will

It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will

From “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke (1964)

Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd this afternoon.

A white police officer was convicted of killing a Black man. That happens so rarely in the United States that, even in 2021 and even after watching the incontrovertible video footage and emotional eyewitness testimony, there was no guarantee that the jury would return a guilty verdict. But they did, and justice wins – this time.

As a white man approaching the end of six decades living in America, it may be that my satisfaction over the outcome isn’t important. I grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, in the 1970s, just as the schools were desegregated by court order. Since third grade, I’ve watched as my Black friends, despite Congress passing and the legal system attempting to enforce laws designed to promote their civil rights (and by extension my own), continued to face discrimination and racism. I’ve seen us slide backwards over the past decade or so, from the election and re-election of Barack Obama (which was so hopeful and was, frankly, something I didn’t expect to see in my lifetime) to the nakedly nationalist and xenophobic Trump presidency.

I’ve tried throughout my life to remain an ally for civil rights of all people. Unfortunately, white people are often self-satisfied by their symbolic gestures of support while not really doing very much of substance to change things in America, which leaves a justifiable skepticism on the part of those who have been repeatedly let down by the system. As Stevie Wonder sang in “You Haven’t Done Nothin'”:

But we are sick and tired of hearing your song
Telling how you are gonna change right from wrong
‘Cause if you really want to hear our views
You haven’t done nothin’.

Stevie recorded that song in 1974, 47 years ago. Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” was ten years before that. And here we are in 2021, still wondering whether a jury will find a white police officer guilty of murder, even though we could all see it as it actually happened. Even now, Chauvin’s attorney thought criticizing George Floyd for not being perfect, for having character flaws and personal demons, for being, you know, different and not worthy of respect, might just get Chauvin off in the eyes of the jury. At least this time it didn’t work.

A change is gonna come. Perhaps a small step in that direction happened today. But not if we – and particularly white Americans – think the job is finished because of a single verdict. President Kennedy, almost sixty years ago, said “[T]his nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.”

This is not an ending, but instead another chance to begin.

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.

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.

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.