Joe Manchin, COVID complications, and Biden's supertrain! Oh my!

The filibuster isn't going away. Neither are jet airliners.

This is one of those days when there is a lot to talk about so I’m going to do several brief hits rather than a more in-depth look at a single topic. Having said that, let’s get the ball rolling and jump right in on Joe Manchin.

The West Virginia senator kicked over an anthill with an op-ed in the Washington Post last night in which he vowed, “I will not vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster.” Manchin explained, “If I can’t go home and explain it, I can’t vote for it.” Manchin’s decision was not unexpected because he’s been saying the same thing for months.

The result from the two tribes was predictable. This morning, Democrats are attacking Manchin as a traitor while Republicans are reveling in the likelihood that much of Biden’s agenda will be DOA. Neither party really wants people in Congress who think for themselves because that leads to deviations from the party line. They just want someone who will check the box.

Manchin is not that kind of guy. This might be for reasons of conscience or it might be for self-preservation. A Democrat in a red state like West Virginia is on thin ice from the get-go. Checking the boxes on the progressive wish list would be a surefire way for the Democrats to lose Manchin’s seat.

The question then becomes, “At what point is it worth losing a seat, and possibly the majority, to enact the Biden agenda?” Joe Manchin and AOC are going to have different answers to that question.

For my part, I’m on record as opposing an end to the filibuster, but I do think the measure should be reformed. What we have today is more like “filibuster-lite” than the original filibuster.

In the early days, senators had to keep talking to hold the floor and stop a vote. This was used rarely but led to demands for a way to invoke cloture and cut off debate. In 1917, the rule was amended to allow for a cloture vote by a two-thirds majority. In 1975, the requirement was reduced to three-fifths, 60 senators, where it stands today.

The current filibuster is clearly too easy to invoke and has been abused by both parties. Possible reforms would be to either lower the number of votes required for cloture or eliminate cloture entirely and return to the old marathon monologue tradition. But whatever reforms are proposed will likely have to pass without Joe Manchin’s vote.

One of the more troubling pieces of news that I’ve seen recently is a study published in The Lancet and reported in Reuters that found that more than a third of COVID-19 survivors developed brain or psychiatric disorders within six months.

The researchers looked at a large sample size of more than 230,000 “mostly American” patients and examined them for 14 disorders including anxiety, depression, stroke, and dementia. Anxiety was most common, reported in 17 percent of patients, but other disorders were at an elevated risk compared with pre-COVID numbers. Fourteen percent of patients reported mood disorders, seven percent had a stroke, and two percent developed dementia.

The findings did not establish a link between mental disorders and how severe or mild the Coronavirus infection had been. This could mean that even asymptomatic cases are at risk for long-term mental health problems.

“Although the individual risks for most disorders are small, the effect across the whole population may be substantial,” said Paul Harrison, a professor of psychiatry at Oxford University.

That statement describes COVID-19 in general. While the individual risk may not be extremely large, the risk for entire states and countries could be significant in terms of straining the health care system. The findings also underscore the reality that death is not the only possible negative outcome from a COVID infection.

While I’m curious about how age and other health complications may relate to the findings, as well as whether other studies will duplicate these results, the study provides yet another reason that avoidance of COVID through social distancing and vaccines is the smartest policy.

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Finally, President Biden raised a stir with a speech in which he touted high-speed trains. Here is the money quote from Biden’s speech as it appeared in the New York Post, which also has the video:

What we’re really doing is raising the bar on what we can imagine. Imagine a world where you and your family can travel coast to coast without a single tank of gas on a high-speed train close to as fast as you can go across the country in a plane.

Now, I like trains as much as the next guy, but I’ve never quite understood the liberal fascination with high-speed trains. Maybe it’s because I’m a plane guy. But I did wonder about the scientific and technical accuracy of Biden’s claim.

As it turns out, the fastest train in the world is the L0 Series Maglev in Japan, which clocks in at 374 mph. That’s fast but far slower than jet airliners, which cruise at about 470 knots on average. That’s 540 mph or almost twice as fast as the fastest train.

The downside for the plane is that it is slowed by headwinds when going west. In the winter, those high-altitude winds can reach 170-230 mph, which takes a large bite out of the airplane’s advantage. Conversely, the plane’s speed gets a tailwind boost when flying back to the east coast.

Given the geography of the United States, I also wonder whether a high-speed train would be able to keep that top speed for anything near the full length of the trip. Going over the Rockies at 374 mph would be a wild ride. Keeping the speed up might require extensive tunnels to create straightaways. This would add to the cost and complexity of the system.

In the end, Biden didn’t say the train would be as fast as the plane, but he did say it would be “close.” That’s a subjective term. I have a hard time believing that trains could complete the trip in less than twice the time a jet airliner takes, but maybe some people think that is close. And to be fair, Biden didn’t specify a jet. The train stacks up more favorably against turboprop like a Dash 8 regional airliner.

There are other disadvantages to long-haul passenger trains as well. For example, if the tracks run from New York to LA, then the train is going from New York to LA, even if most of the passengers ultimately want to go to Seattle. In the case of air travel, more airliners can be added to specific routes to meet demand. Further, airports are huge, sprawling complexes, but the environmental impact of an airport and airliners is almost certainly less than building a rail line across the country.

Trains have a place in the transportation system, but the era of long-haul passenger trains is gone forever. Trains are good at hauling freight over long distances at a low cost or carrying passengers over short, well-defined routes, but trains will never replace jet airliners for transcontinental travel. I think we can all agree, however, that “Supertrain” would be a great name for a band.


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