As the cost of living there continues to increase while the overall quality of life falls, New York City is suddenly worried about people leaving. As one of those places that has never really had to worry about either attracting new residents or holding onto its population, this is not a problem New Yorkers have had to spend a ton of time on. The linked article makes the very important point that residents do not owe the city anything. If you are being gouged on rent for the privilege of living there, you have a reasonable expectation that services will be provided and that your quality of life will be reflective of your costs. If you cease getting out of the city what you are paying to live in it, it's OK to move.

I have never lived in New York but this argument resonates with me because one encounters it often in the Rust Belt – particularly in Central Illinois during my time there. It is often suggested or said that each individual has an obligation to stay put and do the hard work of fixing their community. In practice this means struggling mightily to fix it until suffering a mental breakdown from stress and repeatedly banging your head against a wall. It turns out that the forces responsible for something like urban decay and the collapse of the economy of an entire region bigger than most countries is well beyond the power of one person or even a dedicated group of people to change. Huh.

You are not a traitor for wanting to stop giving part of yourself to a futile effort to fix what others have broken. You have a responsibility to your community and to the people around you, but not at the expense of yourself. Read The Giving Tree for god's sake. You have the right to live somewhere affordable, safe, and with a quality of life that supports your needs. If the place where you live stops meeting those criteria, it is worth your effort to try to fix it. But don't fool yourself into believing that the problem can always be fixed. Sometimes it can, sometimes it cannot. Sometimes it is beyond anyone's power to fix it; other times the people with the power to change things simply don't want to. In either case it is not your job to sit there and waste your life in a place that is falling down around you just because you happened to be born there or found yourself living there for whatever reason.

You do not owe it to New York City to spend 75% of your income on rent unless that is what you really want to do. You have agency, and the ability (if not responsibility) to decide if the problems in your community are simply too big for you or the like-minded people around you to fix. Sometimes they will be.


I have recently binge-read (I must admit some of the reading was skimming) all of Bob Woodward's books about the presidents between 1992 and 2016. And reading them all at once more or less in order makes one thing really jump out. In the Bill Clinton and Obama books, the congressional Republicans make regular appearances in the narrative. In the George W. Bush books, Democrats in Congress – or anywhere else for that matter – don't exist.

To make sure I wasn't imagining things, I checked the indexes. In State of Denial (late W years) Tom Daschale, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid are mentioned once each. Once. And not in any way that is significant. Reid is quoted as being "disappointed" about some committee appointed to look into money spent in Iraq. Daschale was called to schedule some kind of hearing. Pelosi I couldn't find at all, although the index lists her on a page she does not appear.

The Clinton books, which incidentally I think are the best reads in the sense of being enjoyable, focus predominantly on characters around the White House, obviously. But people like Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich are in it a lot. They are physically present every chapter or so, and when they aren't the White House staff are talking about them. The names of minor Republicans in Congress come up too, as potential targets to be wooed.

It's not just a majority/minority thing; Obama and Clinton had a congressional majority for only two years compared to six* (The Senate was a coin flip for two years, so I guess four years depending on how you look at it) for Bush. That certainly matters. But I think there's more to it than that. Even after losing Congress in 2006, the Bush administration inner circle continued to act as though the Democrats did not exist. What they wanted was not a topic of conversation, even idly.

It could be tempting to write this off as an artifact of Woodward; that for some reason, Woodward was biased and portrayed the situations differently. I find it hard to come up with a convincing logic to support that. As far as Access Journalism goes, Woodward is a pretty reliable Scribe. And I'm unaware of allegations that he has some kind of big bias that leads him to want to write the Democrats out of the Bush story. It seems to reflect the reality around him, that in the Bush White House they didn't particularly give a shit about the opposition party. I think that matches reality to those of us who remember the W years and "unitary executive theory."

Clinton was somewhat successful at getting GOP buy-in, albeit at the cost of constantly giving them (and moderates in his own party) concessions. Obama, though, got nothing. Unfortunately it took him too long to discover that no amount of bringing them to the table or giving them sweeteners was going to get him anything in return.

Anyway, this is hardly an observation I quantified beyond checking the indexes to make sure I'm not crazy. Nonetheless I think it says something that comports with the current election – that Democrats are wired to try to woo moderate Republicans while Republicans make no effort whatsoever.


Surprising exactly no one, Trump has announced his intent to send Nonspecific Federal Law Enforcement (NFLE) into more cities after seeing how, uh, successful that has been in Portland. As Zoe Carpenter called it recently in The Nation, Portland is and always has been a pilot program. Proof of concept.

It's a transparent authoritarian move that is likely to backfire in the short-term (between now and the election, which of course is what this is all about). He's hoping that there will be enough of a backlash that he can revel in "chaos in the streets" footage and pull a Nixon. It's pretty difficult to argue that you, the person who introduced the chaos, is the only person who can stop it. I mean, there's a kind of logic to that. You almost have to admire it. But right now, if you think there are undecided / fencesitting voters who aren't sure about Trump but will be really impressed by Cop Rock 2020, I think you are fooling yourself. Every single person who responds positively to "unidentified cops whisking people into vans" is already on board with Trump, believe me. "I'd vote for Biden if I thought he'd do more secret police stuff" is not a voting bloc.

I'm more focused on the long-term danger, the precedent this establishes. I've been throwing R.G. Swing's book "Forerunners of American Fascism" at people a lot lately, and there's a good reason: people think Trump is a fascist. He's got characteristics, and certainly counts as an authoritarian, but he's what Swing characterizes as "pre-fascist." He's the guy you get before the proper fascists show up. He's the canary in the coal mine. He's the warning sign, the warm-up act, the clown who fools around with things that someone else will do later in deadly earnest.

See, the saving grace with Trump is that he's a moron, a narcissist, and a giant child. He can't focus on anything long enough to do it "properly." He will send Federal law enforcement into cities the same way he does everything else: without forethought, with no clear sense of what the obvious consequences of his actions will be, with no logic greater than that he thinks it makes him look Strong. He cannot understand anything except in terms of ratings (attention) and self-aggrandizement. He has no ideological commitment to anything, good or bad. He isn't committed to this, just as he isn't committed to any decision he's ever made. Odds are he'll reverse course shortly, as he always does.

In the future, though, the American right will find its Hitler. And by that I mean, someone 100% ideologically committed to what he is doing. Someone like Stephen Miller or Tom Cotton (although maybe someone more outwardly appealing is required) for whom things like "Send snatch squads around to disappear people" is the core of their entire worldview. Trump doesn't have that. The man spends most of his life watching TV and beefing with the media on Twitter.

When that person arrives in American politics we will be in trouble deeper than anything we can imagine at the moment. Because someone who is committed, really committed, to doing this stuff will have the benefit of Trump warming up the stage for him. "Sending in Federal troops" will strike people as something that has already happened, and something that ultimately was resolved – probably by Trump losing interest in it. And if there's anything to learn from the history of fascism, it's that when things go from "bad but fairly normal" to "pits full of bodies", they make that leap real quick. So quickly that it disorients all the institutions that are supposed to be able to prevent it. While everyone is standing around scratching their heads going "What? Is this really happening?" it will already be too late.

What Trump wants more than anything is adulation, and when he doesn't get it (or get enough of it) he changes course, like a divining rod that finds whatever he thinks will earn him pats on the back. Once an even more dangerous person is in power, that won't save us. They will focus on whatever evil it is they want to inflict on us and nothing will discourage them.

This kind of escalation in policing has another more immediate risk, too. It makes "normal" – i.e., policing without jackboots snatching people in vans – seem a lot more appealing. For some people, it will even seem satisfying. Maybe Biden wins the election and takes things back to "normal", e.g. before Trump, and it will strike us as so much better that we'll feel like we've found heaven. But "normal" in the context of policing means 1000 people getting killed by cops annually, mostly people of color, and a thoroughly broken criminal justice system from top to bottom. When someone turns the heat up to 120, 100 seems comfortable in comparison.

With Trump, much of the incoherent sort-of-a-worldview he espouses is metaphorical, because doing the things he says should be done requires focus, dedication, and hard work. It requires him to put smart, capable people in charge of tasks, not his idiot kids and hangers-on and the dregs of the Federal bureaucracy. He isn't willing to do work, or to surround himself with people based on any criteria beyond nepotism. In the future, someone willing to do the work, to press on toward his or her (but likely his) goal, and put people capable of doing ghastly things efficiently and effectively in positions of power.

When that happens, it will already be too late.


Over nearly 20 years (!!!) I feel like the point that has come up the most here, were I to go back and tally everything up, is that compromises are often really bad. We are conditioned to believe compromise is good. Whether we are talking explicitly about politics or about life in general, compromises usually result in both parties being unhappy and neither set of goals being achieved. You get the worst of both worlds more often than you get the best.

It is taken as given by the wise people of politics that the correct solution to a problem lies between what the opposing parties want. I used a textbook that tactfully referred to this as a setup for "mixed policy outcomes," meaning we spend a great deal of money but don't actually solve the problem. We do a little bit, which is enough to cost a lot but not enough to accomplish the goal. Some problems are binary. Some questions have yes or no answers with no nuance or third way.

We are seeing the real limitations of our bias toward "meeting in the middle" to solve problems right now. Last evening I listened to the North Carolina governor – a Democrat in a state that isn't exactly super liberal, and thus a guy always trying to find solutions that please everyone – explain what K-12 school reopening will look like in the fall. It doesn't make a lot of sense. Something about Plan B but also keeping Plan C on the table. Reopening but like, keeping all these protections in place so that opening won't spread the virus.

This, of course, is the Magic Bullet everyone is looking for right now. The two opposing viewpoints are 1) shut everything down until the virus is under control, and 2) the virus is no big deal, keep everything open and go about life as pre-COVID normal. And everybody is looking for some point in between those two, and I just don't think it exists. We can't be "sort of open, but in a way that will be safe like if everything was closed." Making that work would require assumptions about human behavior that simply do not hold, or a level of enforcement that is probably neither possible nor desirable.

This is a collective action problem, and "most people" wearing masks and being smart is not enough. It doesn't work unless everybody does it. And none of this compromise stuff is going to work either. If things are open as "normal" the number of cases will continue to rise; there is political pressure as well as economic incentives to re-open, but that doesn't mean bars and universities can come up with some half-assed "plan" and that resolves things. Either Congress will get its head out of its ass, send every single person $5000 and offer payroll support to employers, and shut everything down for 60 days, or we will continue to do this kind of "we're open but stand six feet apart" routine all but indefinitely. Because it absolutely will not stop what is happening now.

I'm probably prone to overestimating the number of issues that are black-and-white, zero or one. But I have confidence that this is one of them. Either things are shut down and people are staying home, or everything might as well be open. A half-measure isn't going to resolve this.


Predictably, a terrible decision to try to hold a large political rally in a medium-sized city right now turned out poorly. For some reason the coverage is emphasizing the role Reddit, K-Pop fans (??), and other groups of Youths on the Internet played in allegedly thwarting the President's attempt at self-glorification.

I don't know why people reach for these narratives other than that it makes them feel a sense of power (People like us can shut it down!) or adds to the larger obsession with understanding politics largely as entertainment. But aside from the obviously ridiculous math of the Tulsa rally (Did anyone actually believe that a million people ordered a ticket?) you have a story that played out exactly the way common sense would dictate, even without the benefit of hindsight.

We are in the middle of three crises – a pandemic, a severe economic depression, and civil unrest – that would strongly argue against people turning out in big numbers for a meaningless pep rally. Not a spontaneous protest in response to a specific incident or issue, mind you – just a big stupid "Thank You President Trump!" event with all the usual D-list hangers-on of the Trump Extended Universe. I'd argue that even without several exogenous, powerful arguments against going to a big stadium event right now, enthusiasm for these things could be waning. It would be shocking and unprecedented if it wasn't.

Beyond that, for all their bold talk and faux-populist defiance about rules intended to prevent the spread of COVID, it appears that some portion of Trump's aging, maybe-not-in-awesome-health base is worried about the potential of getting sick at a big public gathering where it is all but certain that most attendees will refuse even the most basic precautions against contagion. It's cheap talk to boast about how the virus is Fake News, but even the most brain-addled older people have to understand on some level that people over 70 have greater than a 10% chance of buying the farm if they get sick. All but the most slavish Fox News enthusiasts are likely to have some reservations, or to have a spouse unwilling to indulge their fantasies. Again, these events are tired and stale and pointless. Hardly the kind of thing you're going to risk your life to attend.

Much is made, including by me, of how unwavering support for Trump is. You can't find a historical example of a president whose approval rating covered a smaller range. People who are on board with him are on board. They won't be dissuaded, and people who hate him most likely can't be persuaded. I have no doubt that Trump supporters will still vote for him, even if they're tired enough of the circus or worried enough about current events to decline his exhortations to serve as props at his rallies. Even the morons working for the campaign had to have known that this rally was going to be an embarrassment, the kind of thing one will spend weeks making excuses for.

It's worth paying attention to even a tiny dip in enthusiasm among the Trump base, though, given how narrowly he won the last election thanks only to an antidemocratic quirk in the system. In reality, the poor outcome of the rally probably reflects some combination of reduced enthusiasm, worries about getting sick (even if that sentiment is held privately), and the lack of novelty surrounding what feels like a TV show everyone has been watching nonstop for four years. If anything "defeated" the rally it was its protagonist's own lack of contact with reality, not internet interlopers.


I write a lot less about the day-to-day of politics than I used to, mostly because I can't keep up with it (while maintaining other responsibilities) anymore but also because it's so self-evident the way in which most of what happens is bad that I don't feel like I have a lot to add. At some point there's only so many times you can say "Well, this is stupid!" or "They sure did fuck that up!" before you feel like the local news weather reporter in San Diego saying "78 and sunny" every single day until death takes you.

The billion ways in which the response to the COVID pandemic have been cataloged ably by many others, and in fact you probably figured them all out on your own without a real need to have what is bad about "Let's just reopen everything, masks are for pussies" explained to you. I used to have the energy for that; I no longer do. I salute anyone out there who has managed to continue doing that all day, every day. What it must be doing to your psyche, I can only imagine.

To me, the COVID response in the US will play out for History Books as not only the best example of everything wrong with us, but as the perfect representation / culmination of our last forty years of politics. The best way to summarize the response of the people in charge of managing this public health crisis is: Look, just do whatever is best for you. Handle it however you want to handle it. Go out or don't go out. Wear a mask or don't wear a mask. Stay home or don't stay home. Take quack drug treatments or don't. There's nothing the government or anyone else can tell you to do, and if they tried it wouldn't work, and they'd probably tell you the wrong thing, so I mean really what can we say other than "You make the choice" because ultimately you know what's best for you.

We've been pushing that line of thinking – nobody can tell anyone what to do, only you know what's best for you – in a million different policy areas and as an answer to every social, political, and economic question for a long time now. It has been pushed so hard and so effectively that not only is it the default solution to every problem but we can conceive of no other. Make everyone stay home? The government can't even do that!

On the first day of class in introductory American Politics, and in the first few pages of nearly every textbook on the subject, there is a discussion of the very basic concept of collective action problems. Government exists because there are some goods neither we as individuals nor "The Free Market" can provide. We cannot provide security for ourselves because we have to sleep sometime, and therefore we organize into groups that make rules and laws. We cannot provide our own roads so we tax everybody and build them as a cooperative effort. Public health is a collective good, too – it has an individual component, of course, because beneath the statistics there are real people getting sick (or not). But this isn't choosing Coke vs Pepsi, public schools vs private schools. We can't have pandemic for some people and no pandemic for others, especially without a vaccine or effective treatment. With a vaccine, a specious but technically accurate argument could be made ("Hey, get the vaccine if you want! I'm not!") that the individual has some control over the outcome. But in this situation you don't. You don't control whether you get it or not. You can protect yourself and reduce the odds, but you can't eliminate the risk.

And here we are, taking a purely individualistic approach – the do as thou wilt rule – to a basic collective action problem. It is idiotic and nonsensical on the most basic level possible, and here we are. We tried some collective action for a couple weeks, people got bored and business owners got mad because they weren't able to force their employees back to work and their customers back to shopping, and then we just decided that the collective action problem no longer required collective action. Not that it went away – that it simply wasn't a thing we needed to plan and execute a collective response to anymore. We didn't solve the problem so much as we simply decided it is not a problem anymore, or that it is, but we are powerless to stop it, but I guess we aren't powerless, but ok I guess what we really mean is we just don't want to.

Read that run-on sentence again and tell me there is a better way to summarize what the idea of governing has become in this country; it's not merely that we can't solve the problems we face, but that we can conceive of the solutions and have decided that we simply can't or won't implement them.

This is how systems collapse, albeit slowly – when everyone can see what is wrong but nothing can be done because the solutions would violate the consensus imposed by The System. And the system and the consensus around it are worth more to decision-makers than any single problem it causes, and so nothing changes, until eventually the problems pile up high enough that the whole edifice collapses.

The pandemic is a signal that we are entering the terminal phase, although there's no telling how long it will last – the phase in which the solutions are there but we can't do them and nobody can quite understand or explain why. It's the lemmings jumping off the cliff asking "Hey why are we doing this?" and then just doing it because everyone else did, without bothering to demand or propose an answer. We are doing what we're doing because this is the way it has to be, silly.

That works as an epitaph for a lot of empires.


The problem of police violence is underscored by the fact that protests over one killing are still ongoing when the next high-profile incident happens. Such is the case with the killing by Atlanta PD on Friday of Rayshard Brooks, whose crime was falling asleep (allegedly) in a Wendy's Drive-Thru.

The Brooks incident struck me not because it is unusual – sadly, it is a story every American whose head is not buried in sand has heard many times over the years – but because it so perfectly encapsulates everything that is wrong and cannot be fixed with blandishments about "reform."

The APD version of events was so stupid that even if it were correct – which history tells us these things almost never are – it would still demonstrate that they acted inappropriately. If Brooks was unarmed, whether or not he "got belligerent" when approached by police they flat-out murdered him; shooting a man fatally because he, what, didn't put his hands behind his back fast enough? Told a cop to fuck off? Pulled his arm back when they reached for it? That's straight-up murder.

However, they've attempted to cover their asses by claiming Brooks reached for their Taser, i.e. that he was "armed" theoretically, in that they thought he might have a weapon in a moment. Now answer this: if police had justification to shoot every single person they encounter armed with something – gun, knife, pepper spray, taser, medieval halberd – they'd be gunning down dozens of people in every city every day. Being armed is a hobby for a lot of Americans. Police encounter people – especially white people, obviously – who are armed all the time. If they can arrest a white guy with three loaded handguns on his person without shooting him, they can apprehend a man they outnumber 3-to-1 who might be, allegedly, kinda sorta reaching for a stun-gun.

The point is, even the version of events given by the police and carefully crafted to justify what the police did fails to do so. Even their lies, as I am comfortable assuming the Official Version of Events will once again turn out to be, incriminate them.

Most of all, the Brooks incident highlights something that is only rarely given much attention in these stories: why would *anyone* feel the need to call the police because a man seemed to be asleep in a car? This is an obvious example of bringing police into a situation in which, knowing everything we know about the racial aspects of policing and police violence in this country, a bad outcome was more likely than a good one. This situation seems like it could have been handled with five hard taps on the windshield by one of the drive-thru employees. What, you're going to tell me people working the weekend overnight shift at the Atlanta Wendy's drive-thru have no experience with or ability to problem-solve drunks? Or people who are just tired, or whatever?

These situations are always described as "tragic" or "sad." Murder isn't "sad" so much as it is infuriating in these cases. What is tragic, and sad, and dumb, and so completely unnecessary is that the police were involved in this situation at all. Their actions are the second of two problems here. One is that they cannot handle a simple incident without shooting someone. The other is that this situation was somehow judged to require armed cops to show up to address it.

I know we are all wary of each other in this country, and especially late at night when people may be drunk or whatever, but for christ's sake, if the guy in the drive-thru seems like he is asleep just go tap on his fucking window. If we don't figure out some way to start interacting with other people except to call the cops to come and deal with them this problem is only going to get worse. I know there's no easy answer here, and it's a slippery slope to vigilantism if you take this argument too far. But this is serious. We can carp about how cops act – with good reason for carping – but we, all of us, need to contribute to a solution by not calling 9-1-1 at the drop of a fucking hat.


It is human nature for groups of people to see themselves as right and other groups as wrong. This is especially true when the groups are defined in opposition to each other, as with political parties. Republicans are bad, Democrats are good.

When it comes to the problems with policing in this country, Democrats seem fundamentally unable to conceive of themselves as a big part of the problem. At best there is an argument about the Republicans being worse – which is true, and is almost universally true – that is used to deflect criticism. It is necessary to face up to the reality that many of the places with the worst problems with police violence are, and have been, controlled by Democrats at the local level for a long time. If you look at protesters and don't understand why they burn property rather than channel their anger into voting, the very obvious answer is that there is no imaginary future in which voting for Joe Biden and whoever they just elected Mayor will actually solve the problem. Republicans offer pure authoritarianism – they actively *encourage* police to be brutal – while Democrats have done nothing to stop them, or in many cases abetted them.

In my lifetime Chicago has elected one Democratic mayor after another, backed by a lockstep Democratic county board and city council and a veto-proof Democratic state legislature in many cases. All that has happened with the Chicago PD is that it has gotten worse. Much the same can be said for Minneapolis, St. Louis, New York, Los Angeles, and other places with notoriously bad police departments.

For decades Democrats have offered solutions that simply do not work. Training sessions that are ignored. Rules and regulations that are not followed. Oversight boards that do little more than rubber-stamp police. Always something technocratic, always something that sounds like a waste of time and money the moment it hits people's ears. People have been getting Oversight Boards and Investigations and Committees for as long as anyone can remember, and it has done nothing. With regularity, another person's name becomes a hashtag and a horrible video.

So when you watch senseless rioting and think "Well VOTE, silly!" is an answer, consider what the ostensibly liberal party has achieved on this issue and imagine how hollow that has to sound to the people most directly affected by police brutality. Ferguson and Freddy Gray happened under Barack Obama and Eric Holder. So did the rapid, expensive militarization of American police. Obama called looters "thugs" too. Democratic mayors around the country today are smart enough not to say that, but their criticisms lean far more heavily on protesters than on police. The truth is they are terrified of their own police forces, and they are terrified of the most reliable voters – old white people – who adore law enforcement to an extent that is pathological.

No one, from Joe Biden to the Senate to the local mayor, is coming out and saying the obvious here: the problem is that American police are totally out of control, operating under their own rules and effectively independently of any meaningful control. The courts coddle them. Prosecutors coddle them. The public coddles them. Legislatures coddle them. Local politicans coddle them. Democrats are not The Good Guys here, and it is idiotic to expect voters to flock to Joe Biden, a lifelong proponent of tougher policing and tougher criminal justice, in response to these events. No one has been The Good Guys. That is the problem. The party that is supposed to care about police brutality has gone all-in on the kinds of Management tactics that look like action but accomplish nothing (town hall meetings, "community engagement", training, fake "oversight") and even now, that seems to be the extent of what they can offer.

This problem is too big and too serious to fix with some spackle and paint. Nothing is left but to defund law enforcement until they begin to rein in their excesses, to end practices like qualified immunity that let them act with impunity. If defunding them does not work, these departments must be disbanded and rebuilt from the ground up. It has been done. It can be done. What's totally absent is the will to do it.

If the best Joe Biden can do is tell people he wants to set up an oversight board and to train police to shoot people in the leg rather than in the heart, you cannot continue to be surprised that Democrats fail to get people to come out for them on election day. The thing about politics that they seem to have forgotten is that you don't get people to vote for you by screaming at them that they have to, especially when you have promised them things again and again that you have not delivered. You have to offer them something that is appealing to them and then actually deliver on the promise.

Forming a committee or "having a conversation" is what your boss does when he wants the employees to feel like problems are being addressed while nothing actually changes. Four decades is plenty of time for everyone to figure out that nothing that goes into the Suggestion Box or is said at Town Hall Meetings is actually taken seriously.

Democrats have exhausted the number of times they can tell people, vote for us now and we will deliver for you later. Deliver, and cynical non-voters will come back. And most of all, stop framing police violence as an issue where We are good and virtuous while the GOP is evil. The second half of that statement is true, but if you believe the first is then your mindset is part of the problem.


I understand and accept the validity of the major criticism of standardized testing in higher education. Research has found repeatedly something that, subjectively, we all know: test scores are sensitive to the amount of test-specific preparation that the student receives. I do believe that standardized tests measure some useful academic skills, but the truth is that the difference between an ACT 25 and 29 is often thousands of dollars of expensive test prep courses and tutoring rather than a meaningful indicator that the two students are different. In short, money and resources can readily turn a 22 into a 25 or a high-20s to a low-30s.

The reason is simply repetition and familiarity with the exam. No test prep is going to prepare you for the exact questions you will see on the test, but they're excellent at drilling students on what each part of the test is and how to analyze the possible answers. Test prep is possible outside the confines of a paid prep course; however, that requires a very young person to be disciplined enough to figure out what needs to be done (lots of practice questions / sections / tests), how to find them, and regular application of time to them. Not a lot of high school kids lacking guidance are going to do that on their own.

So, with many high profile universities going "test optional" for admissions, the enormous (and very good) University of California system has followed suit and announced plans to phase out the tests. This met with predictable widespread applause from everyone who has internalized the message that testing is bad, testing is racist, and testing is classist. All of these things are true.

At the same time, I think the UC move highlights some of the extreme disingenuousness of the testing-optional trend, and how the headline news stories misrepresent what is actually happening when reporting that another school has made the change. There is a lot going on here, so bear with me.

First and foremost, in the specific case of UC the faculty voted to *replace the SAT/ACT with a new standardized test of the system's own devising.* That option was not endorsed by the regents but it is currently "being studied." Sounds an awful lot like the UC's major concern is not that standardized testing is bad, but that the money devoted to admissions testing by schools and students in California is leaving the state. If standardized tests have the flaws that critics have repeatedly highlighted, replacing one standardized test with another offers no improvement. "But if only the ACT were better" is not the argument; the argument, which has ample support, is that on any standardized test it is possible to game the outcomes with parental wealth.

Second, I have never heard a convincing explanation of what is going to replace standardized testing in admissions. High school grades? Come on. Not only are they inflated (and uneven among different schools) beyond any meaningful interpretation, but in what world are they not subject to boosts from parental wealth? Are the kids who do not have to work during the schoolyear not at a significant advantage to poor kids who do?

What about other applicant attributes? Well, extracurricular activities are a great proxy for family/parental resources. They require time and money, sometimes in very large amounts.

Written application materials? The hiring of coaches, tutors, and editors can dramatically improve an application essay much more than they can boost performance on a test.

A final important point is to read "optional" literally. Every student who thinks his or her SAT/ACT score is impressive is going to submit that score anyway. All the rich people will still have their kids taking the tests. If it helps your file, you will include your score. Nobody's going to ace the SAT and keep it a secret on principle. Not reporting a test score will quickly become a way to identify the files of applicants who didn't feel like their test score was impressive, or assumed they'd do poorly so didn't take it.

In short the process of trying to improve admissions always runs into the same wall. Once we all agree standardized tests have problems, we either do nothing (because we can't think of a better alternative) or we switch to something that has all the same inherent biases and flaws as the SAT.

I have heard all of the same things you have, about how a new and better admissions process needs to consider each applicant's file holistically. It doesn't sound persuasive in my experience. It sounds like a subjective system that creates the ability to see whatever an admissions committee wants to see out of any file. And if you think lawsuits are a problem now, with testing, wait until you see the legal fees and battles that result from "We will read and interpret each file individually and holistically." So either that will turn into a rubric (a score system awarding points for various criteria the applicant meets) or it will be essentially subjective but with some reference to objective criteria that – see above – are all biased on parental income anyway.

I don't have the answer. I wish I did – I would sell it, at great expense for academia. What I do have is enough cynicism about the system to believe that this is a lot more about money than it is about improving admissions. Going test-optional is appealing to two types of schools in particular. One is the low end of schools struggling to get bodies in classrooms, schools hoping that waiving the test will net them a few extra apps and admits. The other is high-end schools (University of Chicago, Harvard, Vanderbilt, etc.) who can afford to do whatever they want because they'll never stop receiving tens of thousands of extremely high-quality apps every year anyway.

For all the publicity the UC decision received – and god knows any media attention is short-lived these days – I'm afraid it created an inaccurate impression of what was decided. "Ahh, no more SATs!" is the gist of the headline scanned quickly on Twitter. But not only will the most well-off and ambitious students continue to take standardized tests in an effort to help themselves, the UC system whispered the part where they are tiptoeing toward making their own standardized admissions test – for which all expenses and revenue would flow to the system instead of out of state. "The pie is bad" is a different argument than "But what if we make the pie, then it's good."

I understand and have always understood exactly what it is about standardized testing that is problematic and biased. What I have never heard is a remotely convincing explanation of what is better. Every part of a student's academic life in high school is influenced by parental resources. Everything. Not just the ACT/SAT. The current arguments about the specific ways in which college admissions are unfair are going to grow substantially in volume and quantity if the ultimate replacement for testing amounts to, well, we just kinda look at the applications and take who we want to take.

Maybe that's a better system – certainly no worse a system – than the status quo of "We take kids based on their parents' ability to buy them a slightly better SAT score than the kids we don't take." The current system is a real hard system to defend, no doubt. It seems terribly basic that entities like the enormous UC system should have a firm idea of exactly what kind of new system they will be using in place of the current one before announcing a plan to jettison it. If, in a couple of years they cannot come up with a plausible alternative and revert to a different, in-house standardized test, then all they have done is pour the old wine in new bottles. Maybe that's the best that can be done, but it's certainly nothing to get excited about. It's not much of an achievement.


It's well and good to point out that these "Re-Open" protests are astroturfed nonsense, fifty dipshits who would show up to protest literally anything if Fox News encouraged them to. The only reason these events receive media coverage is because the journalists (who outnumber the attendees in some cases) can't say no to a good circus. Other than that, what is the news value? I've seen bigger crowds at a Scrabble tournament.

These people are being used (quite willingly, it must be said from the looks of it) to push the narrative that The People demand a Great Reopening, a resumption of all levels of activity that were normal three months ago as a matter of Freedom or The Economy or Coronavirus is Fake or whatever. Bret Stephens wrote his predictable NYT column about how "people" are eager, so eager, to get things going again. There is zero evidence of this in any data, of course. Poll numbers differ depending on the source and sample, but stay-home orders are not unpopular. Far from it. They are supported by solid to overwhelming majorities, as high as 85% in some surveys. The only people eager to "get back to work" are small business owners who, screwed by the Republicans and their President out of meaningful economic assistance, want the power to force their employees to return to work. That's all this is – they want other people, the people who work for them or provide them with services, to get back to work. It's a temper tantrum from people who are being inconvenienced or are losing money.

I sympathize with people who are losing business. The government should be providing them with assistance. It chose not to. They need to take that up with the people in power, not with their minimum wage workforce.

The lie that people are desperate to get back to work, to shopping, etc. is only useful when the bluff cannot be called; that is, in states where business shutdowns and shelter-in-place are still in effect. But all it takes to destroy the illusion is to give these people what they want. Georgia's "re-opening" was a gigantic wet fart for businesses. The owner of one hip Atlanta bar was told to expect business at 10% of normal levels for the first weekend; instead he got two customers. Two. For the entire weekend. It would have been better financially for him to remain closed. Two customers didn't pay for having the lights on. Unless you sincerely believe that there was a bar around the corner that was mobbed with customers, his example may not be universal but is probably not too far from the norm.

The truth is that people are afraid, and with good cause. They are afraid of unnecessary risk. They're willing to go to the grocery store because, well, food is a necessity. But they're very far from being willing to roll the dice on going to the ballgame or the bar or the bowling alley or the diner. Nobody, perhaps not even most Trumpers, believe the Trump party line about how things are under control and this is no big deal. Yeah there are dead-enders who absolutely believe the virus is fake or whatever, but…at least in Georgia, the data suggest that they didn't go charging out their front door to have a shopping spree as soon as the Governor gave the word.

The other reality that is becoming all too clear is that the "slow drain" theory of capitalism and consumer spending is delusional. That is, demand and consumption haven't been pent up for 8 weeks and once the clog is cleared, it will come bursting forth in torrents. That's not what is happening. The lack of spending isn't a function of the stay-home orders. People are still free to shop online, to order takeout food, and so on. The lack of spending is from tens of millions of people losing their jobs, having their hours reduced, or being in fear of losing their jobs in the near future. It's from the blinking red signs indicating that we are entering an economic downturn that will rival the Great Depression before this is over. Nobody is going to run out and buy a new car when the bottom is about to drop out of the economy, whether the Governor tells them they can or can't.

In short, some of our elites managed to convince themselves that 1) people are barely able to contain their enthusiasm to "get back to work" and 2) once restrictions are lifted, everything will immediately return to normal. Both are complete delusions. The vast majority of people don't want to go anywhere. They don't feel like risking their lives or anyone else's to go to Cracker Barrel.

This isn't complicated. People don't have money. People are trying to save what money they have to cover bare necessities. People can see that a long, hard recession is coming. And most of all, people don't believe a word of what they're hearing from their titular leaders. Some of them may say they believe it, but that lie doesn't travel well. When the restrictions are lifted, their behavior tells you what they actually believe.