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Most police departments in America are small. That's partly why changing policing is difficult, experts say.

By Mark Berman
Most police departments in America are small. That's partly why changing policing is difficult, experts say.
A police officer watches from his vehicle as demonstrators demand the release of body-camera video of the fatal shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City, N.C., on April 27, 2021. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Joshua Lott

While big-city police tend to get the most attention, the agencies that have been in the spotlight recently for uses of force - fatal shootings of Black men in Brooklyn Center, Minn., and Elizabeth City, N.C., and pepper-spraying a Black and Latino man in Windsor, Va. - are more illustrative of what American law enforcement looks like: small departments in places that rarely make the news.

According to a federal survey in 2016, there are more than 12,200 local police departments nationwide, along with another 3,000 sheriff's offices. And most of those don't look like the New York Police Department, which employs more officers than Brooklyn Center, in suburban Minneapolis, has residents.

Nearly half of all local police departments have fewer than 10 officers. Three in 4 of the departments have no more than two dozen officers. And 9 in 10 employ fewer than 50 sworn officers. Brooklyn Center, which has 43 officers, and Windsor, which reported a seven-member force, fit comfortably in that majority.

Experts say that while smaller departments have their benefits, including being able to adapt to their communities and hire officers with local ties, these agencies also are typically able to avoid the accountability being sought as part of the national movement to restructure and improve policing. These departments' often limited resources and the decentralized structure of American law enforcement complicate efforts to mandate widespread training and policy changes, experts say.

"You want to change American policing, figure out how to get to . . . the departments of 50 officers or less," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based group that works with police departments. "How do you reach them? How do you get to them? . . . That's what the American people keep wondering."

Former Charlotte police chief Darrel Stephens said smaller departments will have a harder time diverting officers to training to learn new tactics or practices, since they have fewer officers to put on the streets overall.

"I don't want to denigrate them, because there's a lot of good people doing things in the right way for the right reasons," Stephens said. "But their capacity is just limited."

But there are also other differences, owing to the remarkably localized nature of American policing.

Policies and practices can vary significantly from department to department. These differences can include how departments approach the use of force as well as the levels of training and specialization involved.

"It's unlike any other country," Wexler said. "In places like the United Kingdom, you have a Home Office, you have standards. In Germany or Israel . . . they have a national police. Our policing is completely fragmented, decentralized, with no national standards."

The smaller departments in the spotlight recently have come from three very different communities, and all involved officers doing what police described as relatively routine police work: traffic stops and serving warrants.

In Brooklyn Center, an officer shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop; the police chief said the officer, who resigned and was charged with manslaughter, meant to user her Taser, not her service weapon.

Police in Windsor stopped and held Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario at gunpoint in December for not having a permanent rear license plate. In video footage that spread widely last month, the officers are heard yelling and berating Nazario and are seen striking and pepper-spraying him before handcuffing him. One of the officers involved was fired amid the public outrage over the footage, recorded by the officers' body cameras and Nazario's cellphone.

On April 21, sheriff's deputies in Elizabeth City shot and killed Andrew Brown Jr. while attempting to serve a felony warrant, officials said, an episode that has spurred intensifying questions, criticism and protests.

These were not the only police departments to have drawn attention recently. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder last month in the death of George Floyd, and police in Chicago and Columbus are under scrutiny after fatal shootings of children. But those departments, all among the country's largest, are the outliers.

The Pasquotank County Sheriff's Office in North Carolina, whose officers were involved in the Elizabeth City shooting, for instance, has 55 sworn deputies for a county of more than 39,000 residents. Sheriff's offices differ from police departments in that police chiefs are usually appointed and sheriffs are typically elected. But the numbers remain pronounced: More than 3 in 4 sheriff's departments have fewer than 50 officers, according to the federal survey.

While policing has become the subject of protests and fraught national debates, exactly what kinds of departments are charged with keeping citizens safe - including how many there are, the number of officers they employ and their demographic makeup - often gets glossed over.

The 2016 federal survey is the most recent available, according to the Justice Department. A new survey is in the field, but it is unclear when that data will be released, the department said.

The latticework of law enforcement draped across the country doesn't just include departments of varying sizes, but forces with distinct procedures that often exist side by side in neighboring communities.

That means "the rules of policing change depending on where you are," said Dennis Kenney, a former Florida police officer and a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

"It's not even county to county," he said. "It's city to city. Within a county, you can have one police department that has one set of policies and another that has another set of policies. And certainly the level of training varies greatly."

Kenney was an officer with the Bartow, Fla., police department in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it had around 40 officers, he said. Since then, he has consulted with a number of other police agencies, including national departments in Colombia and Thailand.

One key difference in having thousands of police departments, rather than one central force, is how long it takes for changes in training or policies to ripple outward, he said.

"I spent a good amount of time working with the Colombian national police," Kenney said. "And if you want to make a change in their agency, basically you've got a general to convince and it flows downhill from there."

In the United States, "if you're trying to do systemwide things or things that involve collaboration, then it's much more difficult," he said.

Kenney pointed to community policing, a concept that involves building ties between officers and the communities they patrol, as an example. Advocates of the approach had to sell it to thousands of different agencies, he said.

"Local policing is the most decentralized institution in the United States and the world," said Stephens, the former Charlotte chief.

"There are pros and cons" to the American system, said Christy Lopez, who oversaw the Justice Department's investigation into the Ferguson, Mo., police department after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in 2014.

"It's a very big country with different challenges in parts of it," said Lopez, who now teaches law at Georgetown University. "I like the idea we have different agencies that can experiment . . . and be responsive to that particular community. I think there's value to that."

But with this diffuse system, much more attention is usually paid to the largest departments, such as those in New York (which has roughly 36,000 police officers), Chicago (more than 12,000 officers) and Los Angeles (about 9,000 officers).

While most individual police departments are small, the majority of officers nationwide work for the biggest forces, patrolling communities where the largest populations live. Departments with at least 100 officers account for 5% of all police agencies nationwide, but they employ more than 6 in 10 full-time officers.

Those officers police communities that also may still have news organizations who can provide scrutiny and coverage.

"The places you hear the most about might not be the worst places," Lopez said. "They might be the places with the loudest advocacy groups, the most robust media markets or even just they're better about sharing their information."

Additionally, policing across the country is still shrouded in opacity in significant ways. The number of people shot and killed by police is tracked by The Washington Post. Other details of uses of force - including how many times police across the country fire their guns and miss, or hit people who survive - remain unknown.

When it comes to smaller police departments, "there's just no oversight and no accountability, to a very large extent," Lopez said.

"They're never going to have a police commission. They're never going to have a civilian review board," she said. "They're never going to have a major media outlet focus on them."

That, she said, is why there needs to be more transparency built into policing, such as state policies mandating certain details be made public. "So that no matter how small the agency is, there are certain things they're required to do and certain things we are required to know about them," Lopez said.

Some experts said it might be good to review whether every police agency is necessary and whether any could be consolidated. Such calls are not new, they said.

"You don't need to have five or 6,000 or 10,000 officers. Sometimes you get lost in all of that," said Stephens, who was Charlotte's second police chief after the city consolidated its police with Mecklenburg County. "An agency of 150 or 200, 250 officers isn't that large to begin with, but it's generally in a much better position to provide the full array of services."

But trying to merge departments could be difficult in some cases, because many politicians are loath to give up an agency operating under their aegis.

"Mayors and city managers and city council people just don't want to give up control," said Kenney, the former Florida police officer. "As a result, small cities will maintain very small agencies because they like . . . being able to get a response from the police when they want it."

Ultimately, he said, "we like localized control over the police."

How a rural Virginia town came together for an unforgettable pandemic prom

By Hannah Natanson
How a rural Virginia town came together for an unforgettable pandemic prom
Demi Cockram sprays Taylor Jo Gary's prom hairdo to ensure it stays in place. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Matt McClain

EDEN, N.C. - Prom started off the way all proms do - a bit awkward.

A teen with magenta hair plopped down at a corner table and locked eyes with an iPhone screen. Four girls giggled as they rushed to the empty dance floor, while two boys eyed them nervously from the fringes of the room, their hands plunged into rented-tuxedo pockets.

And nobody knew what to do with their hands when they posed for pictures between bunches of yellow and gold balloons. "Why not put your arm around her?" suggested the photographer, wiping her brow in the glare of a standing lamp.

Behind the check-in table, parent Sherry Flanagan sat taking temperatures and dispensing blue surgical masks, compliments and advice. "You look so beautiful, girl!" she told a teenager in black sequins. "When you're walking around you have to have a mask on. Did you bring one?" Sherry, like all the prom chaperones, wore a mask and a black T-shirt designed for the event. "2021," it read, "A Night to Remember."

After a year when nothing had gone right, when learning had been mostly online in their rural town of Bassett in southern Virginia, Flanagan and a small army of parent volunteers hoped to make the T-shirt's prophecy come true. For the Bassett High School seniors - who had watched every other American high school milestone slip away - it was their first and last prom, a chance to grab hold of at least one teenage tradition before it slipped away, too.

Some students would not be there at all. The town had seen two children die by suicide during the pandemic. Like millions of high-schoolers nationwide, Bassett teenagers - from straight-A students whose grades dipped, to some who dropped out of school entirely, to a boy who was facing a recent cancer diagnosis - had been forced to navigate a world robbed of certainty and filled instead with disappointments and losses, big and small, encountered almost every day.

But not on prom night. Not if Sherry - and a network of parents, teachers and small-business owners spanning the tiny town - could prevent it.

Prom was being put on by parents, and in another state: in a large, barnlike venue here in Eden, N.C., a 45-minute ride from Bassett. State health restrictions were too tight to allow for prom in Virginia but sufficiently relaxed just over the border. The high school itself was not hosting or helping, but individual teachers had volunteered as chaperones.

Bassett High football coach Brandon Johnson stood outside in a blue gaiter and button-down shirt greeting students, many of whom he'd last seen more than a year ago. He had a word for everyone. But he lit up for his players, teasing them about their formal wear, their slicked-back and braided hair, their dates.

"Ty," he told a 16-year-old linebacker emerging from a white convertible, "you better go around and get that door for her."

At a lull in arrivals, Johnson peeked through a sliding door at the dance floor. Earlier, he'd worried nobody was dancing; he'd circled the dining tables whispering a challenge into his players' ears: "I want to see if y'all can get the kids out there. Show me how popular you really are!" But now - around 8 p.m. - something had changed.

A small sea of teens were jumping and wriggling to V.I.C.'s "Wobble." Masks slipped down, dresses slipped down, and boys and girls yanked them up, laughing. They gasped out the chorus: "Wobble baby, wobble baby, wobble baby, wobble yeah!"

Watching, Johnson got chills. It took him a few seconds to realize why: because he was seeing something he hadn't seen in more than a year.

The kids, Johnson thought, looked like they were having fun.

- - -

Two nights before, a half-dozen women in an empty dance studio sat sandwiched between rows of hanging prom dresses: black dresses, bright turquoise dresses, a daring dress with the middle cut out, and one dress with a bust exploding into rills of hot-pink and leopard-print fabric.

Sandy Gary and Lacey Flanagan bent over a large white binder. Among the women, this binder was known as "The Family Bible." It held 238 registration forms listing the names, emails, phone numbers and preferred T-shirt sizes of all 238 students, and their guests, who had signed up for prom.

At least, Lacey Flanagan hoped it did. She thumbed page after page, but couldn't find the registration papers for a boy named Dave.

"Hey y'all," she called to the room through her blue surgical mask. "Y'all remember what size T-shirt Dave wanted?"

The women, busy stuffing 238 drawstring gift bags with "A Night to Remember" T-shirts, paused. This was the core group of parents who'd begun planning prom a month and a half before - led by Lacey's mother, Sherry, who first got the idea while chatting with women from her church.

Sherry knew the school wasn't planning a prom this year, the second miss in a row. Last year's prom was canceled when the pandemic hit, and it had been a long, lonely slog ever since: Classes stayed virtual through October, when some kids began heading back for two days a week of in-person school. In the spring, Henry County schools upped that to four days a week - but many seniors decided not to go back. It just didn't feel worth it.

At first, Sherry looked for venues in Virginia. But under rules laid out by Gov. Ralph Northam, D, at the time - mid-March - social gatherings were capped at 25 people outdoors, 10 people indoors. So she called the health department for Eden, N.C., the closest town across the border. Then she Googled, "event centers in Eden North Carolina."

In short order she found Jeff Wright, of the Wright Memorial Event Center in Eden, who gave Sherry a 35% discount when he learned why she wanted to rent the space. He also explained the rules: He could host up to 50% capacity. The kids would have to wear masks when not eating.

Sherry booked one of the two weekend openings Wright had left, a Sunday six weeks away. Then she got to work, soliciting donations and prom dresses. Parents and kids posted about prom to Facebook, Instagram, TikTok. Sherry took out space in school newsletters, delivered in both English and Spanish.

Money flowed from households that couldn't really afford it: more than $10,000, enough to cover the venue rental, gifts for promgoers and a caricature artist. One anonymous man donated $2,000.

Local businesses stepped up, too: The owners of Gotcha Covered, a linen and party rental service, gave Sherry a 50% discount, plus $10 off for every tux a Bassett kid rented. A DJ known as "Smiley" offered his services for free; his stepson is a Bassett senior.

And the dresses came - more than 300 of them, nabbed from dusty shelves and the far-far-back of closets. Sherry expected girls would be in search of dresses.

The teens came on a handful of days to the dance studio, owned by a one of Sherry's church friends, to try the dresses on and pick one out. Now, only about 100 gowns were left.

Sandy Gary, whose daughter Taylor Jo is a senior, eyed a sad-looking yellow gown without really seeing it. She struggled to recall anything she knew about the boy named Dave.

"Aha!" she slammed a palm on the table. Sandy had remembered the name of Dave's girlfriend - Bassett is the kind of town where dating lives never stay private for long - and told Lacey to look in the binder near the papers belonging to someone named Faith. Lacey looked, and found Dave's sheet.

"I knew it was in there," Sherry called out. "I knew I wasn't crazy."

"Most importantly," Sandy said, peering at his page, "the boy needs a large."

- - -

Taylor Jo Gary, 18, flinched a little when she heard the boy's name - then looked apologetically at the woman bending over her with a sponge.

It was the afternoon of prom, and Taylor Jo was midway through her first-ever professional makeup appointment. It wasn't the kind of thing Taylor Jo normally did; she preferred going fishing to watching the YouTube makeup tutorials beloved by some of her friends. It wasn't the kind of thing the Garys normally spent money on, either. But Sandy Gary had insisted, for her daughter's senior prom.

Demi Cockram had opened her salon on a Sunday - her day off - specially to serve Bassett students. She leaned in and corrected the line of silver above Taylor Jo's right eye, disturbed a little by the girl's flinch. Demi had been keeping up a soft patter of chat, but just now she wasn't sure what to say.

Sandy had just mentioned the boy who died by suicide over Thanksgiving. There were seconds of silence broken only by the squish of the sponge.

"We were really good friends," Taylor Jo said slowly.

She closed her eyes at Demi's nudge, and the next words came faster. "The week before that, a girl on my swim team committed suicide."

Sandy Gary, watching from a corner of the room, checked the time. They had to meet Taylor Jo's boyfriend for pictures in a little under an hour. "That's one of the big reasons we decided to do prom," she told Demi. "The mental health has just been - "

Taylor Jo's eyes snapped open and she leaned forward. "Terrible," she said.

She thought about friends who had given up on dreams of college during the pandemic. She thought about the friends she had seen drop out of high school. And she thought about two households in Bassett where no preparations for prom were taking place.

Soon after Sherry Flanagan put out the call for donations, the mother of the girl who died - who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her family's privacy - had shown up with a light-blue dress, overlaid with white sparkles.

She told Sherry it was the dress her daughter would have worn.

- - -

When a white limo pulled up in front of the barn just before 9, Sherry Flanagan whipped out her phone. She snapped six pictures as a boy walking with a cane and wearing a black beanie emerged, followed by a girl holding a picnic basket.

"Look at your baby!!" Sherry texted the boy's mother, Patricia Kidd. "He looks amazing!!!"

Back at home in her bedroom, Patricia started crying. "He is so handsome," she wrote back, adding a purple heart. Her son Xander Wilson looked different without his beard, once so dark and full, tinged with red.

In early February, he noticed a "tough spot" on his neck while helping his mother with the groceries. Less than a month later, he received his diagnosis: Hodgkin's lymphoma, Stage 3B. It meant he had a high chance of recovery - up to 80 percent - but it also meant his cancer had reached a very advanced stage. All Xander felt at the time was irritation. First the pandemic, now this.

As of prom night, he was two cycles into a six-cycle course of chemotherapy, which they were seeking to fund through community donations. The chemo itself didn't hurt too much. But the shots Xander had to get five times every two weeks to boost his white blood cell count made him feel like something had shattered his bones.

Xander's doctor had allowed him to delay one of those shots by a few days, so he could go to prom without pain. A Bassett parent had leaned on a friend to donate a limo ride. Someone else paid for his tux.

Now Xander and his girlfriend of two years, Madison Osborne, walked slowly inside to find a party gone raucous, turned wild with joy.

At the dining tables, kids chattered at top volume and speed, shouting over each other and the music, food forgotten. A boy stretched out a hand to rest on the thigh of his date, sheathed in a red dress that matched her red hair. Another girl removed her shoes and traced her bare soles in rapid circles on the floor.

But most were dancing - gathered in groups, jumping together, holding hands. An impatient date strolled to one girl, pulled her away from her friends, yanked down her mask and his own. He leaned in for a long, deep kiss as the girl's friends rolled their eyes.

A slow song came on. The dancers paired off to the strains of Ed Sheeran: " 'Cause we were just kids when we fell in love / Not knowing what it was."

Xander leaned his cane against the wall. He removed his beanie, then his mask.

"I know," he whispered to Madison, "you're not sick."

She took her mask off, too, and looped it around her wrist. She wove her arms around his neck. He rested his head on her shoulder. He closed his eyes; then she did. Everywhere around them, couples were doing the same.

For the length of a song, they were all just teenagers at prom.

A sign of post-pandemic spring: Sniffing Mother's Day lilacs

By Carey Goldberg
A sign of post-pandemic spring: Sniffing Mother's Day lilacs
A woman smells a lilac at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston on May 6, 2021. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Scott Eisen.

Olivia Schneider pulled down her mask and inhaled the perfume from purple blossoms, their sweetness casting the engineer back to her Wisconsin kick-the-can childhood and her mother clipping lilacs for the dinner table.

Last spring, the simple act would've flouted signs imposing pandemic rules for the Harvard-owned Arnold Arboretum's more than 400 lilac bushes. "Please enjoy the lilacs from a distance," they read, warning that they should be treated "like any other surface that can spread covid-19."

This Mother's Day, lilac-sniffing is fair game -- another small reminder of how data and experience have refined our tools for combating the virus.

"It wasn't that we had any kind of hardcore scientific information saying the lilacs are going to be a vector" for transmission, said Stephen Schneider, the arboretum's director of operations and public engagement. "But there was so much that we didn't know."

Last spring, the pandemic hit Boston early and hard. Dozens of Massachusetts residents were dying every day, and hospitals were so strapped that the city used its convention center as a field hospital.

The arboretum remained open; public-health experts advised that outdoors seemed to be far safer than indoors. The greatest risk appeared to come from breathing someone else's air, so masks and distance would help keep people safe.

But the typical crowds of "Lilac Sunday" caused extra concern. The Mother's Day festival has been a tradition at the 281-acre (114-hectare) arboretum for more than a century, a celebration of floral beauty much like cherry-blossom festivals in Japan and Washington, D.C. In recent years, it draws 40,000 or more visitors.

"Lilac Sunday is the antithesis of people keeping their distance," Schneider said.

The arboretum canceled the official event, but the staff knew that even the pandemic wouldn't dissuade crowds. So they did what would later become familiar to any American walking the aisles of a grocery or hardware store: painted arrows to move visitors past the lilacs in only one direction. To be extra safe, signs asked people not to sit on benches -- and not to smell the flowers.

It was a question of "What's the best thing to do when you don't know?" arboretum director William "Ned" Friedman said. Sniffing was banned "out of an abundance of caution," he said.

"There's very little epidemiological research on lilac-based covid transmission," he deadpanned.

This year, Lilac Sunday festival activities are officially canceled once again, but pandemic progress can be felt. Benches may be sat upon. In hindsight, the ban was unnecessary -- the accumulated evidence now is that the risk from contaminated surfaces or objects is very low, and droplets exhaled by someone with the virus are by far the main danger. Evidence also has accumulated that outdoor air is dramatically safer than indoor spaces, to the point that outdoor mask mandates are dwindling.

So unlike when lilacs last in the arboretum bloomed, they may once again be smelled up close -- though distance from other humans remains important because people remove masks to sniff.

"This year, I think the message is, 'Sure, you can sniff the lilacs,'" said Schneider, the arboretum's director of operations. "But you probably want to wait your turn."

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

Can we all get vaccinated and get back to work?

By kathleen parker
Can we all get vaccinated and get back to work?


Advance for release Sunday, May 9, 2021, and thereafter

(For Parker clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Kathleen Parker

The day before Friday's disappointing jobs report, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster followed Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte in calling on their respective states to end their participation in covid-related unemployment programs.

In both cases, the two Republicans cited worker shortages in their states to explain their decisions. Contrary to the way things may appear, the United States isn't suffering a jobs shortage so much as it is suffering a shortage of people willing to work.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics report, which comes out the first Friday of every month, apparently caught financial wizards by surprise with its unexpectedly low numbers. Employers created only about one-fourth of the 1 million jobs economists had been expecting. Reacting to the numbers, many commentators were careful not to say what was obvious to McMaster and Gianforte: Giving away money and other goods has a predictable and undesirable effect on human incentive.

Both governors plan to end their participation in the extra $300-a-week benefit that Congress and the Biden administration extended until Sept. 6. In Montana, where combined state and federal unemployment benefits came out to around $600 weekly -- and the minimum wage is $8.65 an hour -- well, you do the math.

Now, Montana workers will receive one-time, state-funded bonuses of between $600 and $1,200 for returning to work and staying in the workforce for a month.

Though I hesitate to use the word socialism, larded as it is with potential for hysteria (on both sides of the political arena), Americans are being schooled in what socialism looks like, how it operates and how easily some people can be lulled into complacency. The gentle caress of the benevolent hand of Big Government slowly becomes the grip of dependence.

I don't want to overstate the case. One of Ronald Reagan's favorite gags was that the scariest words in the English language were, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." It was a good line and conservatives loved it.

But covid-19 forced even the strictest fiscal conservatives to admit that there are some things only government can do. Without government, there would have been no help for the sick and needy; there would have been no vaccine in record time; there would have been no essential stimulus aid to keep businesses afloat and the millions of unemployed Americans fed and housed in a time of desperate need. In March and April last year, the labor market lost an unprecedented 22 million jobs. Since then, more than 14 million jobs have been restored, or about 63% of what was lost.

Finding people to take jobs as they reappear, however, has become daunting if not impossible, particularly at the lower end of the pay scale. Ask almost any employer and you'll hear the same: There are plenty of jobs but filling them is another matter. In South Carolina, where tourism matters and the hospitality industry has been hardest hit, 80,000 jobs are currently available, according to the governor's office. Restaurants can't stay open without servers and other staff who, thanks to the extra stimulus money, don't see the point of working. The same goes for hotels and other establishments.

There is certainly no shame in taking government help when it is needed. But liberals may be hoping the new-wage expectations brought on by the stimulus aid will force lawmakers into raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour when the pandemic ends. But, alas, nothing is free; higher wages inevitably will result in higher prices; and no one seriously thinks this Congress is going to raise the minimum wage.

Some of the reasoning behind continuing stimulus and other supplemental funds, meanwhile, is pinned to people's understanding of covid-related health risks. While conservatives have tended to play down the risks of infection -- often to the point of absurdity -- liberals are slow to let go of the dangers despite the rise in vaccinations and scientific evidence that it's safe to go and play outside. Today, roughly half of all American adults have received at least one shot of a vaccine. I suspect the same folks who blasted conservatives for being allergic to science remain the most afraid of infection.

Political scientist Marc Hetherington, who has studied public attitudes toward covid-19, found last year that a third of "very liberal" people were "very concerned" about becoming seriously ill from covid-19, compared with a quarter of both liberals and moderates. Today, even though public health advice has begun shifting -- and the infection rate was reported Friday at its lowest in seven months -- progressives I know remain concerned.

The governors know what the economists are only now just sensing. Economic incentive is what drives human beings. What began as a helping hand now looks like an incentive to take a nap. For the economy's sake, let's get vaccinated and back to work.

- - -

Kathleen Parker's email address is

The decline and fall of Elise Stefanik

By ruth marcus
The decline and fall of Elise Stefanik


Advance for release Sunday, May 9, 2021, and thereafter

(For Marcus clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Ruth Marcus

WASHINGTON -- Ambition isn't a demerit in politics -- it's a job requirement, along with its needier cousin, the instinct for self-preservation. The politician's version of the Hippocratic oath is equally simple: "First, get elected."

Still, the past five years -- of Donald Trump's alarming rise and regrettable persistence -- have witnessed Republican lawmakers sublimating principle and decency to survival and advancement. Too many who know better have fallen meekly in line.

Meantime, as Trump has warped the Republican Party from belief system into loyalty test, the ordinary metrics of political measurement have given way. The primary axis on which to understand -- and judge -- party officials is no longer the spectrum of conservatism but the intensity of professed Trump devotion.

These realities offer the best frame for understanding the remarkable and depressing trajectory of Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., who appears poised to oust Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., as GOP House conference chair. Stefanik is far from the only Republican to sell her soul to Trump, but she has to be counted among the most disappointing. Her transformation from Trump doubter to Trump champion is another sign of the end of ideology as a defining feature of the GOP.

The Harvard graduate who worked in George W. Bush's White House, who prepped vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan for his debate, who helped write the party's 2012 platform, who backed John Kasich in the 2016 primary and opted out of attending the convention - that product of the GOP establishment dutifully appeared on pardoned Trump aide Stephen K. Bannon's podcast Thursday in her bid for the number three leadership post.

There she vowed to "fully support" the bogus audit of the Arizona presidential election results, and praised Trump as the "strongest supporter of any president when it comes to standing up for the Constitution."

None of this was foreseen. Stefanik represents a sprawling district in Upstate New York that twice voted for Barack Obama (plus John Kerry, Al Gore and Bill Clinton -- twice) in previous contests. Democrats held the seat for 22 years until Stefanik won in 2014 -- at 30, then the youngest woman ever elected to the House.

Whether out of conviction, belief that it was smart politics in a purplish district, or both, Stefanik at first distanced herself from Trump. During the 2016 campaign, she criticized his convention attack on a Gold Star military family, his "inappropriate, offensive comments" on the "Access Hollywood" tape, and his statements on NATO and Vladimir Putin.

Even after Trump took office (and outpolled Stefanik in her own district), she nonetheless condemned his "rushed and overly broad" travel ban questioned his plan to build a border wall ("I don't think that's realistic"), criticized his reported comments on "shithole countries" as "wrong and contrary to our American ideals," and said it was a "mistake" to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. Co-chair of the Tuesday Group of moderate House Republicans, Stefanik voted against Trump's signature 2017 tax cut because its limitation on deductions for state and local taxes would hurt her constituents. She described herself as "an outspoken supporter" of the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, and lamented Trump's "attacks on law enforcement and the Department of Justice."

Then came the first impeachment, and Stefanik's overnight makeover into a Trump acolyte, lambasting the "Russia hoax" and assailing Democrats for pursuing the issue. "A new Republican star is born," Trump tweeted -- and the campaign contributions began pouring in, $13.3 million in the 2020 election cycle, compared to $2.8 million two years earlier. A newly launched PAC brought in another $1 million. That's a lot of positive feedback for a politician to ignore.

After the election, Stefanik doubled down. She signed a disgraceful friend-of-the-court brief supporting Texas's bid to get the Supreme Court to overturn the election results. She voted along with 146 fellow House Republicans against certifying the election results for President Joe Biden.

Longtime Stefanik observers suggest she understands that survival in this new GOP requires either making accommodations to the reality of Trumpism or consigning yourself to irrelevance in the party. "She's too intelligent to be a convert in the dyed-in-the-wool sense," said a person who has known Stefanik for years. "Most people who know Elise say they don't recognize her."

The richest irony of Stefanik replacing Cheney is that Cheney is the real conservative of the two. Cheney's voting record is not only more conservative than Stefanik's, but also she has voted more often with Trump than Stefanik has.

There has been some agitation on this front. "Elise Stefanik is NOT a good spokesperson for the House Republican Conference," tweeted the conservative Club for Growth. "She is a liberal with a 35% [Club for Growth] lifetime rating, 4th worst in the House GOP. House Republicans should find a conservative to lead messaging and win back the House Majority."

It would be a gratifyingly Shakespearean finale if Stefanik ended up losing her soul and the House conference post. Don't get your hopes up. He Who Must Be Obeyed has bestowed on Stefanik "my COMPLETE and TOTAL Endorsement."

In Trump's GOP, that's all that matters.

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Ruth Marcus' email address is

Cheney was more loyal to Trump's agenda than Stefanik was. But Trump only cares about loyalty to him.

By marc a. thiessen
Cheney was more loyal to Trump's agenda than Stefanik was. But Trump only cares about loyalty to him.


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By Marc A. Thiessen

WASHINGTON -- House Republicans are preparing to oust Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., from the No. 3 Republican position in the House and replace her with Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y. Why? Is Stefanik more conservative than Cheney? No, Cheney has an 80% lifetime rating with Heritage Action for America compared with a 48% rating for Stefanik.

Well, did she vote more loyally with President Trump? No, Cheney voted with Trump 92.9% of the time, while Stefanik voted with Trump just 77.7% of the time. Indeed, Stefanik steadfastly opposed key elements of the Trump agenda. She voted against Trump's singular legislative achievement -- his 2017 tax reform bill -- and against making his tax cuts permanent. She voted to block Trump from withdrawing from the Paris climate accords. She voted to condemn Trump for calling on the courts to invalidate the Affordable Care Act. She voted to overturn Trump's emergency declaration at the southern border so he could fund the border wall, and then voted to override Trump's veto of a bill that reversed his emergency declaration. Trump calls Cheney a "warmongering fool" who wants to "fight ridiculous, endless wars," but Stefanik voted with Cheney to oppose Trump's withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria.

That is not all. In his statement Wednesday supporting Cheney's ouster, Trump once again slammed the congressional certification of the 2020 election results, declaring, "Had Mike Pence referred the information on six states (only need two) back to State Legislatures . . . we would have had a far different Presidential result." But Stefanik voted to certify the election results in Arizona (though not Pennsylvania).

Don't get me wrong; I like Stefanik. We were colleagues in the George W. Bush administration, and I agree wholeheartedly with some (though not all) of her Trump-dissenting votes. But if this is a fight about loyalty to Trump -- and it is -- then Cheney has a far better record of supporting the Trump agenda than Stefanik does.

So why is Trump giving Stefanik his "COMPLETE and TOTAL endorsement" to replace Cheney? Because none of these votes matter to the former president. This is not about ideology or public policy. It's not even loyalty to Trumpism. It's about loyalty to Trump. And even though Cheney supported Trump's agenda in Congress, she must be purged because she supported impeachment and the certification of the election -- and refuses to apologize for it.

One anonymous GOP House member told the Hill, "This isn't about Liz Cheney wanting to impeach Donald Trump; this isn't about Donald Trump at all. It's about Liz Cheney being completely out of synch with the majority of our conference." But it is Stefanik who is out of sync with the majority of the Republican conference on the issues. Cheney is being ousted by her Republican colleagues, and replaced by someone who opposed much of Trump's agenda, for one reason and one reason only: because she is not sufficiently obeisant to the former president.

After the Jan. 6 riot, Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) declared on the House floor that "The president bears responsibility for Wednesday's attack on Congress by mob rioters" and demanded that Trump take "immediate action" to "accept his share of responsibility." While McCarthy didn't support impeachment, he supported what would have been a resolution to censure Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 riots -- which would have been a historic rebuke.

The real difference between Cheney and McCarthy? McCarthy has backtracked on his criticism of Trump, while Cheney refuses to do so. After the riots, McCarthy declared that Trump "should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding," but now he says the opposite, telling Fox News Sunday that Trump told him on the phone during the riot that he would "put something out to make sure to stop this. And that's what he did, he put a video out later." Yes, several hours later -- and telling the rioters that he loved them and that they were "very special." He did not condemn the riots until the next day. Cheney's crime is that she won't follow McCarthy's lead and try to whitewash what happened on Jan. 6.

House Republicans say Cheney is a distraction from their efforts to win back the majority in 2022 and check the Biden administration's worst excesses. Sorry, it is Trump who is attacking Cheney and insisting the election was stolen. She just refuses to go along with that lie. What is the bigger distraction? Cheney's tweets responding to Trump? Or the House Republican leadership feeding the left-wing media with weeks of drama over GOP fratricide with this shameful effort to purge her?

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Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.

Waiving intellectual property rights is popular policy. It won't get more vaccines into arms.

By megan mcardle
Waiving intellectual property rights is popular policy. It won't get more vaccines into arms.


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By Megan McArdle

WASHINGTON -- The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it would support waiving international intellectual property protections for coronavirus vaccines. On first glance, this seems like a hard call: Make patents too strong and prices too high, and people are deprived of life-saving treatments; weaken them too much, and drive prices too low, and you lose the next generation of such treatments.

The trade-off between current distribution and future innovation is tough, even without a pandemic. Who could fault the Biden administration for deciding that the urgent need to vaccinate 7 billion people outweighs the long-term risks?

No one, if that's what the administration had done. But this step isn't going to do much to get more shots in arms, because patents aren't what's holding up vaccine production. Indian firms have licensed multiple vaccines from rich-world pharma, and more are licensed to Chinese and South African pharmaceutical firms. Global manufacturers are simply struggling to meet unprecedented demand: Never before have 7 billion people needed a new vaccine all at once.

"India's manufacturing capacity is basically tapped out at the moment," says Chad Bown, a senior fellow at the Washington D.C.-based Peterson Institute for International Economics. "It's not as if their massive pharmaceutical industry hasn't been able to figure out how to get vaccine technology."

The constraint on expanding that capacity isn't the patents. It's manufacturing capacity, and skill. Vaccines, it turns out, are a lot harder to make than pills.

"This stuff is so hard to do," Bown says, "especially the newer ones, the mRNAs." Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech are scaling up their production, and they "don't really have a whole lot of staff ready to send around the world to teach other people to do it." Nor is breaking the companies' patents likely to encourage them to cooperate with that technology transfer.

Even if it could, however, that wouldn't magically unleash all the resources needed to ramp up vaccine production. As pharmaceutical researcher Derek Lowe notes, in addition to a shortage of skilled workers, pharmaceutical supply chains are struggling to source reagents, filters and other vaccine components.

Trying to solve this bottleneck with patent waivers gets the problem backward, by suggesting that firms are making too much money. In fact, they're selling the vaccines at special pandemic bargain pricing. But that's one reason we have shortages, as economist Alex Tabarrok notes.

"The pharmaceutical manufacturers at the end of the line, they're not actually making money hand over fist," he told me. "If they were, they could go to their suppliers and say, 'We will pay you double.' They're still not making enough, because they're not making enough to call up the supply chain."

Rich countries, including the United States, should be doing whatever it takes to uncork those bottlenecks. That won't solve the problem overnight; skilled workers take time to train. But Bown points out that most of the businesses making those inputs are small firms that can't afford to invest massively in rapid expansion unless they know that investment will be repaid. Tabarrok suggests generously funded procurement auctions could make investments in new capacity more profitable, and speed vaccines to the countries that need them.

It certainly doesn't help to score symbolic points off the industry that just handed the world a science-based miracle: multiple life-saving, pandemic-halting vaccines made in less than a year. Unfortunately, this is not the first time the administration has chosen symbol over substance with vaccines.

President Joe Biden's team initially announced lowball vaccination targets, ones that seemed designed to let it take political credit for the natural ramp-up of vaccination programs established under Donald Trump, instead of setting challenging goals that could spur greater effort, even at some risk of political embarrassment. Team Biden also sat on warehouses of the AstraZeneca vaccine as India's covid nightmare worsened, though it isn't even authorized for use in the United States, apparently for fear of the optics of shipping vaccines abroad. And now this.

Waiving IP rights for coronavirus vaccines is what I call a "Washington Issue": a policy proposal of negligible impact but immense popular charm. Washington Issues are not on the table because they represent real solutions to hard problems but because they are intuitively appealing and can be described very quickly to a low-information voter.

Embracing this particular Washington Issue may bring some political benefits to the Biden administration. It will please progressive activists who view the pharmaceutical industry as a parasite, and no doubt please the South African and Indian governments, which have sizable pharmaceutical industries and which have, not coincidentally, long pushed this issue.

It will not, however, address the deadly pandemic that is still raging around the globe and potentially giving rise to dangerous new variants that could kill even more people. Including Americans. At such a moment, neither our country nor the rest of the world can afford to chase political side issues. Not until we've hunted the virus into extinction.

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Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.

Only I know the real Mitch McConnell

By alexandra petri
Only I know the real Mitch McConnell


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By Alexandra Petri

Don't worry, when Mitch McConnell said that "100 percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration," I'm sure what he meant was . . . something different.

Why do I say this? Because I know Mitch. Trust me.

There is a Mitch only I can see. Nobody else understands him, but I do. Other people see someone who created the "party of no," a man who vowed a "scorched-earth Senate" when people tried to work around him to move legislation he did not support. Others see someone who said the single greatest achievement he could hope for was for Barack Obama to be a "one-term president." I don't see that at all.

My Mitch is a wonderful guy who loves to cooperate. That's all he wants, really: bipartisanship. It is the one dream and passion of his heart. He got "BIPARTISAN COMPROMISE" tattooed on his knuckles, but unfortunately the letters had to be so small for them all to fit that they are invisible to the naked eye.

Mitch is always saying, "Let's cooperate on bipartisan initiatives!" but he says it very quietly, where only I can hear him, and the second anyone else comes into the room or a microphone is turned on, he stops.

Once we walked on the beach together for a long time discussing how open he was to compromise and how willing he was to hear out what President Joe Biden had to say, but when I looked back over the sand, there was only one set of footprints. I took a picture of him saying he was going to make a compromise, but when I developed it, it was just a picture of me staring into an empty mirror.

But if you learn the signs of his willingness to compromise like I did, you start to see them everywhere. Mitch will say no to the Biden agenda with his mouth and his eyes and his written statements - but his tie says maybe! Sure, he said he was "one hundred percent focused" on standing up to the current administration, but if you rearrange the letters in those words, you can spell "Sedocuf trencep neo dredhun!" which means "I'm eager to do bipartisan compromise!" in Klingon. Sometimes when he is asked whether he is open to working with Biden on any issues, his left eyelid flickers, just slightly!

What more evidence do we need? Audible words, coming out of his mouth, where people can hear and record them?

Sure, when Mitch is actually on the record, he promises the opposite of cooperation. But I see that as just another sign of his ultimate desire. Why else would he be so intent on playing hard to get? And I think it is a good sign that he is talking about Biden's agenda, even if what he is saying is, technically, negative. That shows it's on his mind.

My friends are constantly begging me, "Please, we would like even a single time to meet this Mitch that you see! Show us even an iota of tangible proof that he exists!" But I just shake my head and say, "I know my Mitch." These naysayers tell me, "The only time Mitch reaches across the aisle is to slap things down!"

Perhaps, technically - but it is still reaching.

The point is: Just because everything he says and does suggests he is not open to bipartisan compromise doesn't mean anything. I know the real Mitch. The Mitch you see is just the outward face he has presented for his entire career in public life. The Mitch I know is who he really is, deep down.

I believe in him. No, I believe in us. I am sure if I believe hard enough, everything will work out, just as it always has.

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Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

Behind the April jobs report: Is there a shortage of jobs or a shortage of workers?

By catherine rampell
Behind the April jobs report: Is there a shortage of jobs or a shortage of workers?


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By Catherine Rampell

No two ways about it: The April jobs report was extremely disappointing. And it's likely to heat up the debate, now preoccupying the White House, over whether government policy might be subtly discouraging unemployed people from returning to work.

Economists and analysts had been expecting around a million jobs to be added on net in April, given the rising share of vaccinated Americans and relaxation of restrictions on business. Instead, employers created a measly 266,000 positions, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday. Job growth for March was revised downward, too.

The size of the jobs deficit -- the difference between how many jobs there are today vs. pre-pandemic -- remains quite large, with employment in April still 8.2 million jobs, or 5.4%, below the peak from February 2020. If April's hiring pace were to continue indefinitely, it would take 2 ½ more years before we regained all the jobs we had pre-covid (and we actually want more jobs than that, given population growth).

The disappointing numbers are almost certain to strengthen the narrative that there's a labor shortage.

What do I mean by that? Unemployment is still elevated, at 6.1% in April compared with 3.5% in February 2020. So at first blush, that would suggest that there are still a lot of excess workers needing jobs. For about a month, though, a debate has been raging about whether there are too few workers willing to accept the jobs on offer. Restaurants and other small businesses have complained about their inability to hire, which is being disproportionately blamed on (depending on your politics) either Big Government's too-generous unemployment benefits, or stingy employers' reluctance to raise wages.

The industry that has been complaining the loudest about an inability to find workers, accommodation and food services (think hotels, restaurants, bars, etc.), accounted for nearly all of the hiring in April -- 241,400 new jobs. This might suggest that their complaints are much ado about nothing.

Of course, these numbers don't tell us what the numbers would look like in the absence of the federal supplement to unemployment insurance; maybe hotel and restaurant hiring would have been even stronger without those added benefits. We also don't yet know how many job openings were posted in April but went unfilled, though we have some clues.

The National Federation of Independent Business's monthly survey of its members found that a record-high share (44%) reported job openings they could not fill in April. The most recent available Labor Department data on job vacancies are from February, so a bit old, but they showed job openings overall close to their pre-pandemic highs, at about 7.4 million vacancies. Accommodation and food services reported about 761,000 job openings that month. Given that safety-related capacity constraints have been eased around the country, vacancies could be higher now.

Average hourly wages rose faster in the leisure and hospitality industry than in the overall private sector (up 1.6% vs. 0.7% from a month earlier). This would be consistent with the narrative that restaurants, hotels, bars and such are having trouble finding workers, and must raise pay to fill openings.

On the other hand, in April some 9.8 million workers overall and around 850,000 workers specifically in food preparation and serving-related occupations reported being unable to find work. That suggests there are a lot of people who say they want to take these jobs, whether or not they're actually accepting them. (The number for food-prep workers is not adjusted for regular seasonal fluctuations, as other numbers I mentioned are, so take that with a grain of salt.)

It's also worth noting that workers might be reluctant to return to jobs for reasons beyond compensation.

Rand Corp. economist Kathryn Anne Edwards enumerated some of these points in a useful thread recently. They include child-care issues, as many schools and care facilities remain closed; problems with wage- and hour-law violations and sexual harassment (the food-services industry in particular has a bad reputation for both); fear of getting sick at work; and risk of being assaulted by customers angered by employee requests to wear masks or otherwise take basic safety precautions.

I'd add transportation issues to this list, given service cuts in mass transit. It might not be worth a two-hour multi-bus trip each way to take a dangerous and unpleasant job, even if the pay rises slightly from, say, $7.25 an hour to $9.

Even so, high enough compensation might change the calculus for workers on the fence about accepting a given job offer. If employers feel constrained by how much they're able to raise pay, the government could also rejigger other financial incentives to take new jobs. For example, some experts, such as American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Strain, suggest creating a one-time re-employment cash bonus. Montana recently announced it was creating such a program in lieu of continuing expanded unemployment benefits. But alternatively, policymakers could make both expanded benefits and back-to-work bonuses available.

Alleviating all those other obstacles or disincentives to return to work -- by reopening schools, increasing transit services, reducing the risk of illness or assault -- would go a long way, too.

- - -

Catherine Rampell's email address is Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

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