What the fall of the Roman empire might tell us about our current times

Rome was not built in a day, the saying goes, but it did not fall in a day either, instead decaying slowly as norms got eroded until there was a sudden, final collapse, like a building whose structures were slowly weakened by termites before it imploded. A 2018 review of the book MORTAL REPUBLIC: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny by Edward J. Watts summarizes that the fall was preceded by a steady erosion of norms that had held it together and what insights that process might provide for our current times.
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So far, so good on the stimulus bill

The Democrats in the House of Representatives have unveiled their legislation for the stimulus and they have stuck close to the original Biden plan, resisting Republican calls to water it down.

The House bill would provide direct payments worth up to $1,400 per person. A family of four could receive up to $5,600.

Individuals earning less than $75,000 a year and married couples earning less than $150,000 would be sent the full amount.

The House bill would extend two key pandemic unemployment programs through August 29. It would also increase the federal weekly boost to $400, from the current $300, and continue it for the same time period.

It would lengthen the duration of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program to up to 74 weeks, from 50 weeks, and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program to 48 weeks, from 24 weeks.

The former provides benefits to freelancers, gig workers, independent contracts and certain people affected by the pandemic, while the latter increases the duration of payments for those in the traditional state unemployment system.

In an effort to combat poverty, it would expand the child tax credit to $3,600 for children under 6 and $3,000 for children under age 18.

It will also raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour over a period of a few years.

There is a lot more detail at the link.

You can expect Republicans to oppose it because the bill is targeted at those who are really hurting and there is little or nothing for the very wealthy (at least as far as I can see) and so will a couple of conservative Democrats who have bought into the deficit-inflation argument or are in Republican-friendly districts.

But it is a good start.

Leftist wins first round of Ecuador’s presidential elections

Leftist candidate Andrés Arauz has won the first round of the Ecuadoran presidential elections, coming ahead of the neoliberal candidate that was heavily backed by the US. Dennis Rogatyuk describes the complicated politics of that country with its various factions and shifting alliances that remind me a lot of Sri Lankan politics.

The first round of the Ecuadorian presidential election held on February 7 was engulfed in chaos and controversies. But it also saw the overhaul of the political map — and an end to the short-lived dominance of the country’s main neoliberal actors.

The top-placed candidate was left-winger Andrés Arauz, close to former president Rafael Correa and his “Citizens’ Revolution”: he won nearly 33 percent support and his Union for Hope (UNES) coalition became the largest force in the National Assembly. Meanwhile the alliance of the two traditional conservative parties Creating Opportunities party (CREO) and the Social Christian Party (PSC) headed by the country’s most notorious corporate banker, Guillermo Lasso, obtained less than 20 percent — a loss of more than half of its strength since 2017. Yet more surprising was the emergence of two newcomers — Carlos “Yaku” Pérez of the indigenist Pachakutik party (19.5 percent) and Xavier Hervas of the liberal Democratic Left (16 percent).

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How the Mars rover landed

The rover named Perseverance landed on the surface of Mars. It is big, weighing about a ton, and since the atmosphere of Mars is so thin, parachutes are not sufficient to slow it enough to use airbags to cushion the final landing so they had to find another way.

Perseverance approached Mars at around 12,400 miles per hour, although when it hit the top of the atmosphere, a heatshield slowed it down to about a tenth of this speed. Then a supersonic parachute popped out of the rover to reduce its speed to a few hundred miles per hour.

At that point, descending under the parachute, Perseverance was still travelling far too fast to land safely. So it cut itself loose from the parachute and used rocket thrusters to slow down further. The thrusters allowed it to hover roughly 20 metres above the surface, before the rover was lowered by cables to the surface using a rocket platform called a sky crane.

Here is a video simulation of the landing.

You have to hand it to the engineers and scientists behind this project for a really impressive achievement.

You can see some of the first still images sent back here. There should be video soon too.

Sanitizing Rush Limbaugh

Rush Limbaugh died earlier this week. Dan Froomkin castigates the media’s downplaying of Limbaugh’s toxic legacy after his death, by portraying his vilest racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic attacks on his political enemies as humor.

Our newsroom leaders still cannot bring themselves to declare that the hysteria and conspiracy theories that once only inhabited the lunatic fringes of our political discourse — until Rush Limbaugh, and then Donald Trump, came along — don’t merit respect, but should be banished, rejected and denied.

And that is why, even with a year to pre-write and edit them, major media outlets on Wednesday published obituaries celebrating Limbaugh’s extraordinary success as a “conservative provocateur.” They whitewashed his once-unimaginably vile and divisive demagoguery as “comic bombast.” They hailed him as “the voice of American conservatism,” when what really matters about Rush Limbaugh is that he spread hatred more effectively and lucratively than any American before him. He didn’t hide his bigotry and, eventually, neither did the Republican Party.

“What he did was to bring a paranoia and really mean, nasty rhetoric and hyperpartisanship into the mainstream,” said Martin Kaplan, a University of Southern California professor who is an expert on the intersection of politics and entertainment and a frequent critic of Limbaugh. “The kind of antagonism and vituperativeness that characterized him instantly became acceptable everywhere.”

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Great moments in politics

It always amazes me when politicians get caught behaving in ways that contradict what they tell others to do. During the pandemic, we have seen multiple occasions where political leaders violated the social distancing and other precautionary features that they were urging on others and going to parties, traveling, etc. Then earlier, remember how Chris Christie, when governor of New Jersey, was enjoying with his family a state beach that the state had ordered closed to the public due to a budget impasse? Surely they must realize that their actions are under a microscope and that they should act more circumspectly?
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Going big on stimulus is a no-lose proposition for Biden and the Democrats

Republicans are fighting to reduce the $1.9 trillion stimulus plan put forward by Joe Biden. I hope the Democrats do not agree. As I see it, there is nothing to lose by going big.

If they go big and the pandemic is curbed and the economy bounces back in a year or two, they will be praised for their actions. If the economy does not recover as much as expected, the stimulus cannot be blamed for being too big and instead it could be argued that it was not big enough. On the other hand, if the stimulus is trimmed back by a lot and the economy does not recover, Biden and tee Democrats will be blamed for going too small.

Republicans are saying that the large stimulus will add to the deficit and ‘overheat’ the economy and cause inflation. But we know that Republican concerns over the deficit are bogus and are always, always, just a way to oppose spending that does not benefit the wealthy. Furthermore both Fed chair Jerome Powell and treasury secretary Janet Yellen (who was Powell’s predecessor as Fed chair) have discounted the danger of inflation and said they have the tools to curb it if it does occur.

So Biden and the Democrats should go big and ignore the ‘sky is falling’ bad faith arguments of the Republicans.

The consequences of the Republican-libertarian point of view

Texas is reeling from a severe winter storm that has resulted in huge swathes of the state being without power and caused 20 deaths so far.

Anger over Texas’s power grid failing in the face of a record winter freeze is mounting, as millions of residents remained shivering, with no assurances that their electricity and heat – out for 36 hours or longer in many homes – would return.

Between 2 and 3 million customers in Texas still had no power, nearly two full days after historic snowfall and single-digit temperatures created a surge in demand for electricity to warm up homes unaccustomed to such extreme lows, buckling the state’s power grid and causing widespread blackouts. Meanwhile, people’s water pipes are bursting and hours long lines have been wrapping around grocery stores as people search for food.

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