Wednesday Edition


1. Both Sides Got It Wrong (and Right) on COVID

Bubba’s Two Cents: The COVID-19 debate shows how the extreme sides of both Republicans and Democrats push away people with middle-ground views. It’s no wonder Americans increasingly don’t want to belong to either party. And it’s a big reason why the share of people identifying as independents has hit an all-time high.

A new chart published by The New York Times on the fourth anniversary of the pandemic shows COVID death rates between blue and red counties were pretty similar until the vaccines came out. (NYT)

Chart: The New York Times

What does that tell us? Democrats pretty much got it wrong on the success of things like mask mandates and lockdowns. Even though blue states were locked down more heavily and were bigger on wearing masks, there wasn’t a big difference early on in the red-blue death toll (if anything Trump-voting counties had lower death rates).

On the other hand, that changed once vaccines became widely available. The pandemic opened up a big gap between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to vaccinations. And it looks like the vaccine skepticism in pro-Trump counties led to higher COVID mortality.

2. Test-Optional Regret

Bubba’s Two Cents: Most Americans aren’t against correcting old injustices. But so many progressives policies aimed at fixing inequality end up having unintended consequences that make things worse. The idea of systemic racism has made it pretty unfashionable to say we should just treat everybody the same.

The University of Texas at Austin is the latest school to reinstate standardized testing requirements for admission, after data showed test-optional students performed much worse than their peers. (NYT)

  • 42% of Fall 2024 applicants opted to send in their standardized test scores.

  • Students who included their scores had a median SAT score of 1420, while those who didn't had a median of 1160.

  • On average, students who included their scores performed considerably better in college, with estimated average GPAs that were almost a point higher in their first semester.

In recent years, around 2,000 colleges started to make standardized tests like the SAT optional over inequality concerns. Racial justice advocates say these tests discriminate against poorer and nonwhite students who can’t afford expensive test prep services. Some experts say metrics like high school GPA are better predictors of future success in college.

But schools have found not having standardized tests actually makes things worse when it comes to admitting students from disadvantaged backgrounds.’

Dartmouth University President Sian Beilock said last month a data analysis by Dartmouth economics and sociology professors found “SAT/ACTs can be especially helpful in identifying students from less-resourced backgrounds who would succeed at Dartmouth but might otherwise be missed in a test-optional environment.”

3. Non-White Voters Defy Expectations

Bubba’s Two Cents: One takeaway from non-white voters’ shift toward the right is that neither side should take demographics from their coalition for granted. Another is that talking heads, political strategists and all the other “experts” often just follow conventional wisdom, and it can result in lazy takes (such as assuming Republicans can’t appeal to blacks and Latinos).

The evidence that black and Latino voters are moving rightward just keeps piling up. (Financial Times)

Chart: The Financial Times

A decrease in support among blacks and Latinos has brought Democrats' advantage to its lowest since 1960. Less than half of black self-identified conservatives now back Democrats, down from three-quarters in 2012.

  • The decline is partly due to younger generations of black Americans wavering in their support, compared to those who lived through the civil rights era.

Financial Times chief data analyst John Burn-Murdoch: “Many of America’s non-white voters have long held much more conservative views than their voting patterns would suggest. The migration we’re seeing today is not so much natural Democrats becoming disillusioned but natural Republicans realising they’ve been voting for the wrong party.”

4. The Perks of Being a Gig Worker?

Bubba’s Two Cents: Gig workers are caught in the middle of a fight between businesses and unions. A new Biden administration rule is a nod to unions who see the growth of the independent contractor as a threat. The concerns about businesses potentially exploiting these non-unionized workers are legit, but it’s not like freelancers don’t get perks from their status as independent contractors (mainly, flexibility).

The Independent Contractor Rule, which could lead to millions of gig workers getting reclassified as full-time employees, went into effect Monday. (Reason)

The Labor Department's new rule requires employers to use six criteria to determine if a worker is an independent contractor or an employee. While the intention of the rule is to bolster protections for gig workers, experts say it effectively encourages businesses to err on the side of caution by classifying workers as employees.

The share of gig workers in the U.S. has increased dramatically, and . According to McKinsey, 36% (58 million Americans) of workers identified as independent contractors in 2022. That’s a good-sized jump from 27% in 2016.

Surveys suggest they’re pretty happy with their roles. Less than 10% of independent contractors would prefer a traditional job over their current freelance work. About 80% of independent contractors are happier working for themselves than in a traditional job. 59% value workplace flexibility and autonomy more than salary or other benefits, according to a Harvard Business Review study.

Public policy analyst and Reason contributor Amanda Griffiths on the pros and cons of the new gig worker rule: “It makes it harder for workers to be their own boss, to choose their own schedules, to represent themselves, to set their priorities as they see fit. If you believe in the evolution of the workplace and worker self-determination, this is bad. But if you believe in a one-size-fits-all work model where individuals are employed by traditional businesses and represented by traditional unions, this is great.”

5. Biden’s Comeback?

Bubba’s Two Cents: Polls are a snapshot. That is, they’re inherently telling us something about a fleeting moment. The most useful thing about polling is it tells us the direction things are pointing. That President Biden is starting to take back some ground from Donald Trump might show people are warming up to him or souring on Trump. More likely, it’s a product of more positive media coverage for the president. It’ll be interesting to see if the trend holds.

While Trump still leads Biden in most polls, things are starting to look up for the president. (Newsweek)

Multiple recent polls show him beating Trump — it’s the first time that’s happened in a while.

  • Kaiser Family Foundation: Biden leads 47% to Trump's 44%

  • Emerson College: Biden ahead by two percentage points, 51% to 49%

  • Morning Consult: Biden at 44%, Trump at 43%

  • TIPP: Biden leading 43% to Trump's 42%

Another good sign for Biden: These polls took place before his State of the Union address. Biden’s last SOTU gave him a bit of a polling bump.

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