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November 13th, 2022:

Weekend link dump for November 13

“One of the cores of democracy is neighborhood trust. You need to trust others in your society and in your community for democracy to work. Period. When there’s a very high level of distrust, you will see a fracturing of community.”

“So there you have it. Banks charge higher swipe fees for reward cards—mostly paid by merchants—and then rebate that money in the form of rewards mostly paid to customers who are middle class and above. The net result is that richer, more sophisticated cardholders end up paying less than poorer, less sophisticated cardholders. And that’s before we even get to the higher interest rates they’re charged on unpaid balances, which is at least notionally justifiable.”

“The Disney Parks have seen better days. What was once a desirable, affordable vacation for some American middle class families has devolved into something prohibitively expensive and stressful. Every aspect of the Disney experience must be premeditated and scheduled to maximize its declining worth. But despite the backlash, the problem isn’t getting better.”

“Google is funneling revenue to some of the web’s most prolific purveyors of false information in Europe, Latin America and Africa, a ProPublica investigation has found. The company has publicly committed to fighting disinformation around the world, but a ProPublica analysis, the first ever conducted at this scale, documented how Google’s sprawling automated digital ad operation placed ads from major brands on global websites that spread false claims on such topics as vaccines, COVID-19, climate change and elections.”

I guess Tony Blair won’t be watching the latest season of The Crown.

It’s How Elon Is Screwing Up Twitter all the way down, isn’t it?

“Even if Trump never again holds public office, his anti-statist conspiratorial politics dominate contemporary Republicanism. This is bad news not just for public employees who have become targets in an increasingly scary culture war. It’s bad for the rest of us, too, because the services public employees provide will decline in quality. As loyalty to the regime becomes the key criterion for hiring, it will grow harder to attract good people into government.”

RIP, Leslie Phillips, British actor who was the voice of the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter movies.

“The tale goes something like this: Some notable Twitter advertisers have paused their expenditures with the site. General Motors, General Mills, and Audi are some of them. But contrary to Musk’s version of events, the problem is less that leftists are bullying the company that makes Cheerios and more that Musk is not as good at business as he thinks he is. Advertisers don’t like to run their ads in places where they might appear alongside abuse, harassment, spam, racism, misogyny, slurs, and the like.”

“Musk’s fans see the billionaire as a visionary, but it’s worth noting that many casual observers—people whose only real understanding of Musk is as the guy who put the fancy electric cars on their streets—have also internalized the heuristic that he is Good at Business and the type of man who spends his waking moments dreaming of how to save humanity from its existential problems. But what the past two weeks demonstrate is that Musk is, at best, a mediocre executive—and undoubtedly a terrible, distracted manager.”

“While many of Musk’s detractors may hope the platform goes through the equivalent of thermonuclear destruction, the collapse of something like Twitter happens gradually. For those who know, gradual breakdowns are a sign of concern that a larger crash could be imminent. And that’s what’s happening now.”

“Want to know whether the charity organization, celebrity, political figure, reporter, or corporation you’re following on Twitter is the real one or an imitation identity meant to deceive you? There won’t be one. It appears there won’t be a way for Twitter itself to differentiate between the real and fraudulent accounts, either. There’s little chance that’s a salvageable situation, when it comes to the FTC consent agreement Twitter is required to follow. What turns this into a potential multi-billion dollar catastrophe is the strong suggestion, from Musk, that his own actions are intended to allow Twitter to financially profit from fraudulent user behavior.”

“But Musk should be afraid of the FTC, for no other reason than that the agency can fine Twitter literally billions of dollars—and Musk’s own message to employees this week suggests that the company is already in significant financial trouble. So rockets notwithstanding, Musk should tread cautiously with the FTC. The rest of us should tread cautiously with turning over sensitive information (like, say, credit card numbers or bank account information) to Twitter at a moment when the company seems more insecure than ever.”

(Yes, I know, it’s another Musk-and-Twitter-palooza. What can I say, I’m having fun. I promise I’ll eventually stop.)

The Speaker math for Kevin McCarthy could be very dicey if the Republicans do win the House.

“Kentuckians voted down an anti-abortion proposal that would have amended the state constitution so that it does not protect the right to an abortion, Decision Desk HQ projects. It is now the second conservative state this year to reject such a proposal.”

“I heard from women who spent the entire summer post carding and phone banking and registering voters, post Dobbs, and most of them never doubted for a moment that they were invisible to pollsters and pundits and journalism as it is currently practiced. The spiraling story about who cared about what didn’t stop them. Bless them, every one.”

RIP, Harold Cook, longtime and well-loved Democratic strategist, pundit, blogger, storyteller, and all around good guy. I got to hang with him once in person but engaged with him online for years. He was a hoot and a mensch and will be greatly missed. I commend you to read Rachel Truair’s eulogy as well.

“If Mitch McConnell Is Still in the Minority It’s His Own Damn Fault“.

“State legislative races are on pace to be the highlight of the Democratic ballot. If Democrats hold on to Nevada, this will be the first time the party in power hasn’t lost a single chamber in the midterms since 1934, according to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.”

“Alex Jones ordered to pay an additional $473 million to Sandy Hook families“. This is all good, but I would like to see some actual money get taken away from him. It’s just headlines and things he can continue to thumb his nose at until he is made to feel the pain.

RIP, Gallagher, prop comedian known for smashing watermelons as part of his act. Mark Evanier has a cool Gallagher story to tell.

And just like that, after a week that can’t even be described as chaotic because that doesn’t begin to capture it, RIP, Twitter Blue. We’ll always have the mocking tweets.

In which Harris County Republicans look for moral victories

Believe me, as a Texas Democrat and a longtime fan of the Rice Owls, I know what it looks like to search for moral victories in the face of defeat. It looks like this.

Feel the power…

Harris County Republicans on Tuesday posted their strongest showing in years, appearing to capture their first countywide race since 2014 and nearly unseating County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

In the end, though, Hidalgo eked out a narrow victory over Republican Alexandra del Moral Mealer, leaving the party all but empty-handed despite massively outspending Democrats and launching an all-out push to reclaim control of Harris County Commissioners Court.

Under new precinct boundaries crafted by Democrats last year to expand their court majority, Republican Commissioner Jack Cagle also came up short against Democrat Lesley Briones, whom he trailed by more than 3 percentage points with all voting centers reporting. Democratic Commissioner Adrian Garcia also held off Republican Jack Morman by more than 5 points in Precinct 2.

Mealer conceded early Wednesday morning, cementing a 4-1 majority for Democrats on Commissioners Court.

Even Republicans acknowledged this year could be their last realistic chance, and certainly their best shot in recent years, at winning a county that has seen pronounced demographic shifts over the last couple of decades. Harris County’s population is growing younger and more racially and ethnically diverse, while adding more college-educated residents — groups that all tend to favor Democrats, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

However, Harris County Republicans saw a confluence of factors — the felony indictment of three Hidalgo aidesa rise in homicidesDemocrats bracing for a Republican wave year nationally — that appeared to put the county judge race and other countywide seats in play. Also fueling their optimism was the removal last cycle of straight-ticket voting, meaning voters no longer can cast their ballots for every candidate from one party by pressing a single button.

“The best chance to unseat a Democrat in Harris County is when they’re new to office, when they’re somewhat vulnerable, and when national trends cut against the Democrats,” Rottinghaus said. “That’s the perfect storm.”

Typically a low-profile affair, this year’s county judge race unfolded into one of Texas’ marquee election battles. Republican and business community donors, sensing Hidalgo was vulnerable, poured millions of dollars into Mealer’s campaign and political action committees backing Republican candidates, leaving Hidalgo and other local Democrats financially overwhelmed in a race few expected to be truly competitive a year ago.

The conditions in Harris County’s high-profile races appeared to boost Republicans in down-ballot judicial contests, five of which swung in favor of the GOP. Through unofficial results, Democrats appeared to lose control of two criminal district courts and three county misdemeanor courts, marking the party’s first countywide defeats in eight years.

Republicans also held a number of Democratic judicial candidates under 51 percent, far narrower results than their recent courthouse sweeps.

“We are light years from where we were four years ago. Light years,” state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said to a crowd at the Harris County Republican Party’s election night watch party.

Atop the ballot, Democrat Beto O’Rourke carried Harris County over Republican Gov. Greg Abbott by about 9 percentage points — far less than his 17-point margin over U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018.

That year, O’Rourke helped usher in a wave of Democratic wins in down-ballot county races. Under less favorable conditions atop the ticket this year, Democrats running for administrative countywide offices still narrowly retained the seats they had first captured four years ago.

I wrote three posts talking about the connection between statewide performance and Harris County performance for Democrats. This might be a good time to point out that when Republicans were running the table in Harris County in the off-year elections, they were also absolutely stomping Democrats statewide. This was a worse year for Dems statewide than 2020 and 2018 were, but it was (ahem) light years from where they were in 2014 and 2010. Light years.

I mean, I had plenty of moments of doubt and worry going into this race. Some of those late polls, the ones that had Beto down by 12 or 13 points, were in line with the expectation that Harris County would be at best a mixed bag for Dems, with the real possibility of not only losing Judge Hidalgo’s race but also the majority on Commissioners Court. Hell, having both Lesley Briones and Adrian Garcia also lose wasn’t out of the question if things were really going south. I would have preferred to not lose any of those judicial races, but I can live with it. At least now there will be benches to run for that don’t require primarying someone. Oh, and by the way, all five of the losing Democratic judges had a higher percentage of the vote than Mealer did. Just so you know.

I will say, and I’ll say it again when I write another post about the state-county connection to update it for 2022, I do think the campaign to blame Democrats for crime, and all the money spent on it, probably moved the needle enough to get at least a couple of those Republican judicial candidates over the hump. They still needed the good statewide showing to be in a position to take advantage, but every little bit helps. But crime has been declining, and the crime rate has basically nothing to do with who’s on the bench anyway, so good luck replicating that in 2026.

I must note, by the way, that some people (on Twitter and on the CityCast Houston podcast) have mentioned that the five losing Democratic judicial candidates were all Black and all had names that might suggest they are Black. On the podcast, Evan Mintz noted this and mentioned the 2008 election, in which several Democratic judicial candidates with uncommon names had lost. I will just say that if you scroll through the Election Day results you will see quite a few Democratic candidates who are Black and whose names might also suggest they are Black that won. I’ve said before, there is always some variation in the range of performance for the Democratic judicial candidates. I’ve never found a pattern that consistently explains it, and that includes this year. As such, I am very reluctant to offer reasons for why this happens. I do think as I have just stated that the millions of dollars spent on blaming crime on the judges had some effect, but if it did then the effect was an overall one, with the range of scores being a bit lower than it might have been. That was enough to push a handful of Dems below fifty percent.

By the way, the two Republican judicial candidates who lost by the largest margins were named “Geric Tipsword” and “Andrew Bayley”. Make of that what you will.

I guess the question I’d ask is how confident are you right now that things will be better for your team in 2024, and in 2026? I feel pretty confident right now that Dems will sweep Harris County in 2024. The track record in Presidential years is a bit longer and more decisive. For 2026, it’s much harder to say. The possibility of a bad year in what could be Year 6 of President Biden or Year 2 of President Some Other Democrat is one that can’t be dismissed. You couldn’t get me to wishcast a 2026 gubernatorial frontrunner right now for love or money. Current trends suggest Dems would be in a better position in four years even with those possibilities, but trends don’t always continue as they have in the past, and even when they do they can slow down or bounce around a bit. With all that said, I still like our chances. Ask me again in three years when it’s filing season for that election.

The state of the AstroWorld lawsuits

We’re still at the beginning of a very long road.

The roughly 2,500 plaintiffs who filed lawsuits in the aftermath of the Astroworld Festival are now part of what is expected to be a yearslong legal process to seek recourse from a variety of defendant for deaths and injuries suffered during the Travis Scott performance. 

Who can be held responsible is one of the first questions the team of prominent personal injury lawyers is tackling as the lawsuits have been consolidated into one case in the Harris County civil courts against nearly a dozen defendants, including Live Nation Entertainment and rap icon Travis Scott. Other targeted for contributing to the deadly chaos include Apple, concert promoter Scoremore Shows and event management ASM Global, all of who deny responsibility.

While Judge Kristen Hawkins has issued a gag order, preventing attorneys, plaintiffs and defendants from addressing the cases outside of court proceedings — and upheld it despite the objection of news outlets — records show an arduous process that has attorneys bogged down in debates over jurisdiction and responsibility for the 10 compression asphyxia deaths and the hundreds more injured.

Tactically, defendants can either point blame at one another or become a unified front to fight off the lawsuits, he continued.

He likened the sweeping multi-district litigation to the aftermath of the 2005 BP plant explosion in Texas City, which similarly had numerous plaintiffs and fatalities and was consolidated by the courts as a result. At one point, there were 4,000 lawsuits stemming from the explosion. Civil suits stemming from the BP plant explosion stretched on through 2008.

Astroworld may be an even larger undertaking because the case has about a dozen defendants, he said.

William Hubbard, professor of law at the University of Chicago, said many of the defendants will try shirking responsibility in order to dismiss the case against them.

Most of the cases will likely never go to trial in their original courts, he continued. As lawyers from both sides continue to meet in court, debating over evidence and jurisdiction, the end game is likely to settle and for how much.

“The defendants don’t want to defend thousands of trials,” Hubbard said.

At least two lawsuits have been settled, and suits for hundreds of plaintiffs have been resolved — although it remains unknown if those disputes were settled or dismissed. Most surviving plaintiffs are seeking $1 million, contending they suffered physical pain, emotional distress and mental anguish as a result of the concert chaos.

See here for the previous update and read the rest. I seriously doubt I’m going to be able to keep track of everything with this story, since a lot of the basic procedural stuff happens out of sight of the news and thus bloggers like myself, but I’ll at least keep an eye on the things that do get into the papers. In re: the reference to the 2005 Texas City explosion, I fully expect this to take more than the three years indicated for that because there will be appeals, and we know how long those can take. The one thing that can shorted this process is a settlement. I suspect we’re in for the long haul.

IKEA gets self-driving trucks

Not for home delivery. Not yet, anyway.

California-based self-driving big rig firm Kodiak Robotics is teaming up with IKEA to deliver ready-to-assemble furniture and home furnishings to the Swedish retailer’s store in Frisco.

It marks Kodiak’s first time delivering goods directly to a store, said Don Burnette, co-founder and CEO of Kodiak Robotics. The 300-mile pilot routes on Interstate 45 from IKEA’s Baytown distribution center to Frisco will operate through November with a safety driver behind the wheel to oversee deliveries.

Kodiak has been making daily trips since early August between the distribution center and the store. Kodiak and IKEA are discussing a long-term, multiyear commitment to work together, Burnette said.

“The purpose of this is to get a better understanding of Kodiak’s autonomous driving technology and how it can contribute to increased road safety and ultimately determine how to improve the quality of life for drivers,” Burnette said.

So far, so good for Kodiak. Burnette said the company hasn’t had any safety issues on its Interstate 45 routes, even though its trucks encountered everything from construction to stalled vehicles.

“Our autonomous driving technology is able to handle just about everything that the highway can throw at it,” Burnette said.

Just adding this to the pile of other self-driving trucks on I-45. At some point I suppose this won’t be news any more.