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Anchor Babies Exist, But Probably Not Very Many of Them

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 11:07 AM EDT

Do "anchor babies" exist? Or are they just a pernicious myth invented by the anti-immigration right? The LA Times sent reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske to Rio Grande City in Texas to check things out:

In this county in the heart of the impoverished Rio Grande Valley, so-called anchor babies have been delivered for decades, some to women who have already settled in Texas, others to those who crossed the river expressly to give birth on U.S. soil. "About six months ago I got one who was literally still wet from the river," [Dr. Rolando] Guerrero said.

....Just how many Mexican mothers come to give birth to the babies and the cost of caring for them are unclear. "They do come on purpose," said Thalia Munoz, chief executive of Starr County Memorial. "We have to absorb the costs.… It's a persistent problem. It's a fact: They come over here for the anchor baby, they come over for the benefits."

....The doctors said they saw fewer women coming to have babies after Texas officials ordered a surge of law enforcement and National Guard troops to the border last summer in response to an influx of Central American immigrants. Instead of gunfire at night, Margo heard U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Department of Public Safety helicopters. But since then, "slowly, it's been going back up," Guerrero said.

....At Starr County Memorial, most of the mothers the doctors see do not cross intentionally to give birth, they said — they were already living on the U.S. side of the border with families of mixed status. "I have families where I've delivered three or four" U.S.-born babies, Guerrero said.

It's unlikely that we'll ever get a firm handle on how common this phenomenon is. But if the evidence of this story is typical, we can say that (a) anchor babies certainly exist, but (b) probably not in very large numbers. That's not likely to satisfy anyone, but sometimes life is like that.

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Why Do High Schools Erase All the Test Score Gains of the Past 40 Years?

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 10:22 AM EDT

SAT scores have been dropping slowly but steadily for the past decade:

The steady decline in SAT scores and generally stagnant results from high schools on federal tests and other measures reflect a troubling shortcoming of education-reform efforts. The test results show that gains in reading and math in elementary grades haven’t led to broad improvement in high schools, experts say. That means several hundred thousand teenagers, especially those who grew up poor, are leaving school every year unready for college.

“Why is education reform hitting a wall in high school?” asked Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank. “You see this in all kinds of evidence. Kids don’t make a whole lot of gains once they’re in high school. It certainly should raise an alarm.”

It is difficult to pinpoint a reason for the decline in SAT scores, but educators cite a host of enduring challenges in the quest to lift high school achievement. Among them are poverty, language barriers, low levels of parental education and social ills that plague many urban neighborhoods.

I'm delighted to see an education story that acknowledges the plain evidence of test score gains, even if just in an aside. The simple fact is that through middle school, standardized test scores have risen significantly over both the past decade and the past four decades. Elementary and middle school test scores have not been either stagnant or dropping, but based on the usual reporting of this stuff, I doubt that one person in a hundred is aware of this.

But I'm also happy to see the flip side of this acknowledged: in general, all these gains wash away in high school. On the "gold standard" NAEP test, math scores have gone up just a few points among 17 year olds and reading scores have been flat. The usual explanation is that education reforms have initially been centered on elementary and middle schools, and scores will go up for older kids once those reforms start to become widespread in high schools.

Maybe. But that excuse is starting to look old in the tooth. And even if high schools haven't seen a lot of reforms yet, why is it that they seem to have a negative effect on student performance? If math scores were up, say, ten points by the end of middle school and remained ten points up by the end of high school, that would be one thing. High schools wouldn't be adding anything, but they wouldn't be doing any harm either. But that's not the case. Kids come out of middle school better prepared today, but come out of high school no better than they did in 1971. High school is actually erasing gains.

This is, needless to say, troubling. Poverty, language barriers, low levels of parental education and social ills are problems at all ages, so that explains little. Nor does disaggregating scores by race, since demographic changes have been similar at all age levels. But the plain truth is that the only thing that really matters is how well prepared kids are when they finish high school. All the test score gains in the world mean nothing if they're gone by age 17. This is something we really need to figure out.

Kentucky Clerk Held in Contempt of Court for Refusing to Issue Gay Marriage Licenses

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 9:56 AM EDT

Update (9/3/2015, 1:09 p.m. EST): A federal judge has found Kim Davis in contempt of court. She has been taken into federal custody.

Explaining his decision, US District Judge David Bunning told Davis, "You don’t strike me as someone who's contentious. I simply [find that] making this contempt finding is necessary."

"Oaths means things," he added, according to the Guardian. Davis will be released if she agrees to comply with the judge's order to issue marriage licenses. "The court cannot condone the willful disobedience of its lawfully issued order," the judge said.

Kim Davis, the defiant Rowan county clerk who cited "God's authority" for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, appeared in court Thursday in Kentucky. Groups both supporting and opposing Davis held dueling, boisterous rallies in front of throngs of journalists outside the courthouse. US District Judge David Bunning heard a motion from lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union Davis arguing Davis should be held in contempt of court

The appearance came amid Davis's ongoing failure to comply with the Supreme Court's landmark ruling that invalidated gay marriage bans nationwide. Since the decision in June, Davis has refused to issue marriage licenses to both straight and same-sex couples. Despite the Supreme Court denial of her emergency application requesting a delay on Monday, Davis continued to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples, creating testy scenes inside and outside the clerk's office, and drawing national attention.

The showdown in Kentucky, the first time the issue of same-sex marriage has returned to the Supreme Court since June, has become a lightening rod for gay marriage opponents who argue that Davis' religious beliefs should allow her to defy the constitutional mandate. Both legal experts and same-sex marriage supporters say she has no legal standing.

The scene on Thursday:

"The ACLU has asked she be fined in an amount sufficient to compel her compliance to the court's ruling," Ria Tabacco Mar, an ACLU attorney, told Newsweek. "No one wants Kim Davis to go to jail, we just want her to follow the law and do her job."

This is a breaking news post, and we'll update with more information as it becomes available.

Chart of the Day: The Future of Health Care Costs Looks Surprisingly Rosy

| Wed Sep. 2, 2015 9:25 PM EDT

You've seen various versions of this chart from me before, but perhaps you'd like to see it from a pair of highly-qualified researchers rather than some shorts-clad blogger? Not a problem. A recent paper out of the Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics at USC shows that the annual increase in health care costs has been dropping steadily for more than 30 years. The green arrow shows the trendline.

Obviously this won't go on forever. But once again, it shows that the recent slowdown in health care costs isn't just an artifact of the Great Recession. That probably helped, but the downward trend far predates the recession. Bottom line: there will still be spikes and valleys in the future, but there's every reason to think that the general trend of health care costs over the next few decades will be either zero (i.e., equal to overall inflation) or pretty close to it.

Donald Trump Has Lost Between $1 and $6 Billion Over His Business Career

| Wed Sep. 2, 2015 7:06 PM EDT

This post is about Donald Trump—sorry!—but the topic is something I've been a little curious about for a while: how much of Trump's wealth is inherited vs. earned? The basics are easy: Trump's father turned over control of the family real estate business to him in 1974. At the time, it was worth about $200 million. Trump would eventually inherit one-fifth of this, so his share of the company was worth about $40 million to start with.

Over at National Journal, Shirish Dáte estimates that if Trump had put that money into an index fund of S&P 500 stocks, it would be worth about $3 billion today. If he'd taken the $200 million he was reportedly worth in 1982 and done the same, he'd be worth $8 billion. So how does that compare to Trump's actual net worth? Here's Dáte:

“Every year, Trump shares a lot of information with us that helps us get to the figures we publish. But he also consistently pushes for a higher net worth—especially when it comes to the value of his personal brand,” Forbes reporter Erin Carlyle wrote this June, explaining the magazine’s assessment that Trump was worth $4.1 billion, less than half of his claimed net worth. A subsequent review by Bloomberg found he was worth $2.9 billion.

....Perhaps the most deeply researched account of his wealth is a decade old: the book TrumpNation, by former New York Times journalist Tim O’Brien, who found three sources close to Trump who estimated that he was worth between $150 million and $250 million....Trump wound up suing O’Brien for defamation, claiming his book had damaged his business. The suit was eventually dismissed, but not before Trump sat for a deposition in which he admitted that he routinely exaggerated the values of his properties.

....That 2007 deposition also revealed that in 2005, two separate banks had assessed Trump’s assets and liabilities before agreeing to lend him money. One, North Fork Bank, decided he was worth $1.2 billion, while Deutsche Bank found he was worth no more than $788 million.

So....at a guess, Trump is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 billion in 2015. Anything above that is based on valuations of his personal brand—which might be worth something in theory, but buys no jet fuel or campaign ads. In terms of actual, tangible net worth, he's worth considerably less than the $3 billion (or $8 billion) he'd be worth if he'd just dumped his share of the family fortune into a Vanguard fund.

In other words, over the course of the past four decades, Trump's business acumen has netted him somewhere between -$1 billion and -$6 billion. Ouch. Virtually every person in America can claim a better financial record than that.

Now, in fairness, Dáte's numbers for the S&P fund assume that all dividends are reinvested, which would have meant Trump had no income to live on. Obviously he spends a fair amount every year, and if you take that into account the Vanguard strategy wouldn't look as good. Plus, of course, there's the fact that Dáte is a THIRD-RATE LOSER who is JEALOUS of Trump's BRILLIANT CAREER and does anything he can to DEMEAN Trump's SUCCESS. So take him with a grain of salt.

Hillary Clinton Announces Support to Ban Wall Street Bonuses for Government Officials

| Wed Sep. 2, 2015 3:33 PM EDT

On Monday, Hillary Clinton came out in support of legislation seeking to end the so-called "golden parachute" payouts that traditionally benefit private sector executives who take on jobs within the federal government—a practice long criticized by Wall Street reformers such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

"The American people need to be able to trust that every single person in Washington—from the President of the United States all the way down to agency employees—is putting the interests of the people first," Clinton wrote in an blog post for the Huffington Post, published Monday. "We want to do more to make sure that happens."

Clinton's backing of the the Financial Services Conflict of Interest Act comes after a report in the Intercept last month that revealed two senior-level State Department officials during her time as secretary, Thomas Nides and Robert Hormats, had received hefty payments from Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs respectively after taking on jobs with the State Department.

In July, Warren issued a challenge to all presidential candidates to support the legislation, calling it "a bill any presidential candidate should be able to cheer for."

"We have a presidential election coming up," she told a crowd in Phoenix. "I think anyone running for that job—anyone who wants the power to make every key economic appointment and nomination across the federal government—should say loud and clear that they agree: we don't run this country for Wall Street and mega corporations. We run it for people."

Clinton's announcement on Monday shows she is listening closely to what Warren has to say.

Since announcing her second run for president, the former secretary of state has embraced a number of policies close to Warren's heart, specifically on Wall Street reform. Last December, Clinton reportedly met privately with Warren to discuss her policy ideas. News of the conversation signaled Clinton could be ready to take a more populist approach to her campaign for the White House.

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Hillary Clinton's Favorability Ratings Are Right In Their Normal Groove

| Wed Sep. 2, 2015 2:55 PM EDT

Greg Sargent says that Hillary Clinton's tanking favorability ratings should take no one by surprise. It's what happens every time an election starts up and she's once again viewed as a partisan political figure. "Her drop was probably inevitable once she made the transition from Secretary of State — a job that carries the trappings of above-politics statesmanship, or if you prefer, states-womanship — to candidate for president."

There's much more at the link, but the annotated chart below pretty much tells the story. When she's removed from the fray, her unfavorability ratings bounce around between 20 and 40 percent. When she's involved in an election, they go up to 45-55 percent or even a little higher. The same thing is happening this time around.

3 Hurricanes Are Hitting the Pacific at the Same Time, and the View From Space Is Amazing

| Wed Sep. 2, 2015 2:05 PM EDT
Three hurricanes are churning across the Pacific right now.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station are marveling at a particularly awesome view from orbit right now. This week marks the first time that three major hurricanes—dubbed Kilo, Ignacio, and Jimena—have been captured simultaneously churning across the Pacific Ocean, according to the United Kingdom's Met Office. (The National Hurricane Center agrees.)

The storms are being fueled by warmer waters caused by this year's El Niño, the global climate event that occurs every five to seven years, bringing drought to places like Australia, while heaping rain on the Western United States. The Met Office says temperature anomalies in this part of the world are currently at their highest since 1997-98.

According to the Met Office: "Hurricanes Kilo, Ignacio and Jimena were all at category 4 simultaneously in the Pacific east of the International Dateline—the first time three major hurricanes have been recorded at the same time in this region." The Met Office says tropical cyclone activity across the northern hemisphere this year is about 200 percent above normal. Six hurricanes have crossed the central Pacific, more than in any other year on record, the agency says.

The view from space is incredible:

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says manmade global warming is likely to drive up the number of intense hurricanes like these around the world—despite a predicted overall drop in all types of weaker, tropical storms. By the end of the century, hurricanes will likely produce substantially higher rainfall—up to 20 percent more—than present-day hurricanes.

So far, Hawaii appears to be safe, and no humans are in the paths of destruction, allowing us to enjoy the spectacular view.

Freddie Gray Hearings Open Amid Police Clashes

| Wed Sep. 2, 2015 1:51 PM EDT

Hearings in the case against six Baltimore police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray began this morning against an all-too-familiar backdrop of police confrontations with protesters.

The first pretrial hearing of the case, involving six officers charged in Gray’s death in police custody, opened with victories for the prosecution, as a judge denied motions to dismiss the case and to recuse the state's attorney. Outside the courthouse, protesters clashed with police. People on the scene described police grabbing women, harassing members of the press, and restricting sidewalk access to the courthouse. Netta Elzie, a prominent black activist, also tweeted an account of Kwame Rose, another black activist and Baltimore resident, being hit by a police car and promptly arrested.

Inside the court, Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams denied motions to recuse State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby from the case and to dismiss charges because of alleged prosecutorial misconduct on behalf of Mosby. Defense attorneys for the six officers, who face charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to second-degree assault, argued that Mosby should recuse herself, citing her relationship to the Gray family's attorney and her husband's position as a city councilman as reasons for a conflict of interest.

This story will be updated as it develops.

Iran Will Always Be Three Months Away From Having Nukes

| Wed Sep. 2, 2015 1:43 PM EDT

Paul Waldman writes about the asymmetric political risks that Democrats and Republicans face over the Iran nuclear deal:

If the agreement proves to be a failure — let’s say that Iran manages to conduct a nuclear weapons program in secret, then announces to the world that they have a nuclear weapon — it will indeed be front-page news, and the Democrats who supported the deal might suffer grave political consequences. So in order to vote yes, they had to look seriously at the deal and its alternatives, and accept some long term political peril.

By contrast, there probably is less long term risk for Republicans in opposing the deal.

It’s true that if the deal does achieve its goals, it will be added to a list of things on which Republicans were spectacularly wrong, but which led them to change their opinions not a whit....Iraq War....Bill Clinton’s tax-increasing 1993 budget....George Bush’s tax cuts....But if the deal works as intended, what will be the outcome be? Iran without nuclear weapons, of course, but that is a state of being rather than an event. There will be no blaring headlines saying, “Iran Still Has No Nukes — Dems Proven Right!” Five or ten years from now, Republicans will continue to argue that the deal was dreadful, even if Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been contained.

In a way, it's actually worse than this. Even if Iran doesn't get nukes there will be endless opportunities to raise alarms that it's going to happen any day now. Israeli leaders have been warning that Iran is three months away from a nuclear bomb for over two decades. There will always be new studies, new developments, and new conflicts that provide excuses for hysterical Fox News segments telling us we're all about to die at the hands of the ayatollahs. To see this in action, just take a look at Obamacare. All the top line evidence suggests it's working surprisingly well. Maybe better than even its own supporters thought it would. But that hasn't stopped a torrent of alarming reports that provide countless pretexts for predicting Obamacare's imminent doom. Premiums are going up 40 percent! Workers' hours are being slashed! You won't be able to see your family doctor anymore! Death panels!

So have no worries. Iran could be nuclear free in 2050 and Bill Kristol's grandkids will still be warning everyone else's grandkids that the ayatollahs are this close to getting a bomb. It's kind of soothing, in a way, like a squeaky door that you'd miss if you ever oiled it.