Max Ehrenfreund passes along the latest from the Congressional Budget Office today:

Here’s proof President Obama really did reduce inequality

Income inequality declined abruptly in 2013 after President Obama and Congress negotiated an increase in taxes on the wealthiest Americans, according to new federal data. The legislative changes resulted in the most onerous federal tax system for the rich in almost 20 years. As a result, 2013 was an unusual year for the economy, one of only a handful of years in recent decades in which inequality has decreased, outside recessions.

The CBO report is here. The reduction in inequality from the tax change is the blip at the very end of the chart:

I'd take a couple of lessons from this. First: yes, taxes can affect inequality. CBO estimates that the reduction in GINI attributable to federal taxes got bigger (i.e., more negative) after the Clinton tax increase; got smaller after the Bush tax cuts; and got bigger again after the Obama tax increase. Second: these effects usually seem to wash out after a few years, reverting to the mean. Third: taxes matter, but not nearly as much as spending. Inequality reductions from government spending (Social Security, SNAP, Medicaid, etc.) are more than double those from taxes.

If you want to increase taxes on zillionaires, I'm with you. But if you really want to make a dent in inequality, you should also be eager to raise taxes across the board and then spend the money on things like pre-K, health care, and so forth. That's probably where you'll get the biggest bang for the buck.

Finally, for your enjoyment, here's a chart of increasing GINI (i.e., increasing income inequality) in the United States since 1967 as measured four different ways. There's really no good reason to include it here. However, I thought I had a point to make before realizing, after I'd finished, that I didn't.1 There's no good reason to waste a perfectly good chart, though, so here it is.

1This pretty much describes my entire morning, by the way.

I was taking a look at something else this morning, and then decided to put it off because I wasn't sure I was measuring the right thing. But along the way I happened to take a look at one of my favorite wage series, the one for production and nonsupervisory workers. I think of this as basically measuring "blue-collar wages."

Anyway, it turns out to be a bracing example of how important seemingly arcane technical points can be. How have blue-collar workers done over the past half century? Well, if you measure inflation via the Consumer Price Index (brown line), they've gone nowhere. Literally. They're making exactly as much today as they did in 1970. But if you measure inflation via the Personal Consumption Expenditure Index (red line), their wages have gone up nearly 30 percent. That's not spectacular—real GDP per capita has increased 121 percent since 1970—but it's a lot better than zero.

So which is it? You can make a case for both, and it has a big impact on how you view the economy of the past half century and what kinds of policies you support. Which one do you think is more accurate?

Mid-Week Waterfowl Blogging

Still no sign of the baby geese. Where do they hide? So that means the water torture continues. I'm reliably informed that yesterday's bird was a cormorant, which seems like an odd way to spell duck. But English is a funny language. So here he is again, this time in non-diving mode.

A few random hits from my reading list today:

Stimulus. Softball pitchers are awesome! "Pit a professional baseball player against a top fastpitch pitcher, and he’ll most likely strike out, as hitting legends Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Mike Piazza all did when they faced fastpitch pitchers at charity events."

Response. Hold on. I've heard this before. But if it were really true, everyone in baseball would pitch underhanded. So it must not be true. Right?

Stimulus. "A new study of physicians’ incomes finds white males earn substantially more than their black counterparts, even after adjusting for a variety of factors — including their specialty."

Response. Actually, once all the controls are in place, the study finds that the difference is $202,000 vs. $224,000. That's 9 percent, which is less than I would have guessed. What's more, the sample that includes the controls has only 518 black male physicians—and as near as I can tell, the difference in income is almost entirely due to the difference in the top earning level, which includes only 140 black physicians. That's a pretty small sample, and it's not even a random sample. If you move a mere 31 black physicians from the $200K group to the $250K group, the difference goes away. I don't doubt for a second that white doctors make more than black doctors, but the delta is actually modest, and is quite possibly due to a small number of white doctors who have extremely lucrative practices. Take this with a grain of salt.

Stimulus. "The world of The Handmaid’s Tale been invoked many, many times throughout the current election cycle as the world we are clearly hurtling toward."

Response. I had to read endless nonsense like this on Handmaid's 25th anniversary. But it's not true. At all. Not even the tiniest little bit. I mean, read the book, for chrissake. It's now been over 30 years since it was published, and we're still no closer. Knock it off, folks.

Stimulus. The ad for used Toyotas that's been running lately in the Los Angeles area.

Response. All the hot chicks are attracted to guys with used Camrys? Seriously? Who comes up with this stuff?

Stimulus. “You stress over outfits for days,” the Warriors’ Stephen Curry said in an interview....“I’ve got to make sure everything looks good coming out of the car,” Curry, the league’s most valuable player, said. “You don’t want to have a missed button or a wrinkled shirt.”

Response. See? It's not only Hillary Clinton who has to worry about her outfits. I wonder if Curry has any $12,495 $7,497 Armani jackets in his closet?

Tim Lee says we routinely sell technology short:

People underestimated the first PCs in the 1970s. They were so underpowered that you could hardly do anything useful with them....The same thing happened with the internet. In the 1980s it was hard to use and couldn't do very much. People mocked the idea that it could eventually support billion-dollar businesses. Then we got Amazon, Google, and Facebook, and people stopped laughing. It happened again with mobile phones. People mocked the concept of using phones to check email or take photos. And then ... you get the idea.

Lee goes on to say that now, just as we've all learned our lesson and have stopped dissing new tech, a lot of new tech is starting to look like it deserves a bit of dissing:

By 2010, these stories had become the default way technology pundits like me looked at the world. "New technologies always look overly complex and underpowered at the outset," we'd say. "But they don't stay that way." But in this decade, we've been seeing more and more examples where the PC analogy doesn't seem to be working....Google Glass....Nest....Roomba.

I know the whole world is desperate for my take on this. Here it is: Lee is suffering from—oh, hell, what's it called? One of those memory bias things. Basically, we remember stuff from the past that became famous and forget everything else.

First off: We all like to make fun of past naysaying that looks stupid today. "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home," Ken Olsen said in 1977. Hahaha! What an idiot.1 But the truth is that, generally speaking, PCs weren't underestimated in the 70s—not for long, anyway. Visicalc and Electric Pencil and even early database managers were quite usable enough for most people to see their promise. And by 1983, when Lotus 1-2-3 was released on the IBM PC, everyone took PCs seriously. At most, there were a few short years when early PCs were unfairly disparaged, and probably not even that.

Ditto for the internet. It was opened to commercial use in 1992, and the dotcom boom started within a couple of years.2 And nobody mocked the idea of using cell phones to take photos. The first camera phone came to the US in 2002, and was almost instantly hailed as a terrific next step. Within a year or two every phone sold had a camera.

And also this: We tend to remember anything that became big. Because, you know, it became big. This is the memory bias I was talking about. All along, however, we've also disparaged a lot of stuff that deserved to be disparaged, and hyped a lot of stuff that never panned out. We've since forgotten about all those failures, leaving behind a memory of only the big, successful innovations. It's like thinking that the 1850s must have been a golden age of novels because of Moby-Dick and Uncle Tom's Cabin, but forgetting about all the dreck that deservedly disappeared from bookshelves almost immediately. Consumer tech is the same way. Remember when everyone said 8-tracks was stupid? They were right! Remember when Pascal was going to revolutionize programming? It never happened.

Ditto for today. A lot of dumb stuff gets hyped and then never pans out. A lot of smart stuff gets ridiculed and then takes off. Same as always, even if the tech itself has changed immensely. But our memories fail us, and that makes the present seem a lot more different from the past than it really is.

1Ken Olsen was no idiot. He claims he was quoted out of context, but even if he wasn't, he was just talking his book. His extremely successful company sold minicomputers, so it behooved him to criticize everything that was both bigger (mainframes) and smaller (PCs).

2For the record, nobody mocked the idea of supporting big business enterprises on the internet. Just the opposite. In the 80s, the internet was restricted to the academic and science communities, and they were afraid of big businesses taking over the internet. That's why ordinary schmoes like you and me couldn't use it until 1992.


Yet another scandal for Hillary Clinton! This one revolves around a report that she wore a $12,495 Armani jacket recently. And she wore it to a speech on income inequality. It's Armanigate! But in a fearless act of investigative journalism, Fashionista has discovered that, in fact, the jacket has been marked down to $7,497. I demand to see the receipts. What does Hillary have to hide?

This is all ridiculous, so let's change the subject to something important. In what universe is this jacket worth $7,497? Seriously. Come on. It's made of lambskin, not unobtanium. And if there's any couture tailoring involved here, we might as well stop using the word. Amirite?

This post is dedicated to my sister, who will probably call in a few minutes to tell me this jacket is to die for and totally worth seven grand. That would be my clothing budget, pretty much my entire life to this point, I think. But then again, I don't have to put up with a press corps obsessed with what I wear, do I?

Weekly Flint Water Report: May 27-June 2

Here is this week's Flint water report. As usual, I've eliminated outlier readings above 2,000 parts per billion, since there are very few of them and they can affect the averages in misleading ways. During the week, DEQ took 383 samples. The average for the past week was 6.91.

POSTSCRIPT: A number of people have asked why I eliminate outlier readings and then take the mean value. Why not just use the median? Here is last week's dataset of lead readings from Flint:

0,0,0,0,0...[197 zeroes]...1,1,1...[40 ones]...2,2...[23 twos]...175,194,219,977

This is typical: Lots and lots of zeroes and ones, and a small number of readings over ten. The median is zero. It's always zero. So the median doesn't tell you anything.

That said, there are several alternatives. For example, I could just report the percentage of tests over 15 ppb, which is the EPA "action level." This week it was 6.0 percent. Or I could report the 90th percentile level, which is a common testing method for lead in water. This week it was 7 ppb. Both of these measures are going to be pretty much the same from week to week because they don't give any special weight to the small number of very high readings. On the other hand, the mean might give too much weight to the high readings, even after I remove the readings over 2,000 (usually there's no more than one of those per week).

Bottom line: there are several reasonable ways of doing this, and they all have pros and cons. The only one that's completely useless, however, is the median. It tells you nothing.

What *Did* Donald Trump Mean by "No PP"?

As you'll recall, after forgetting what "TPP" meant in a speech last night, Donald Trump smirked and made a little joke to his audience: What you mean is, "No PP." Or, perhaps, "no pee pee." But what did he mean? Readers have offered three suggestions:

  1. It's some kind of reference to the trans bathroom controversy.
  2. It's some kind of cryptic reference to his penis size and capabilities.
  3. It's an obnoxious and juvenile reference to a conservative joke that Hillary Clinton is incontinent.

#1 seems unlikely to me. I just don't see it. #2 is not out of the question. We certainly know that Donald is puerile enough to think this would be funny. But it seems a little too obscure for the situation. That leaves #3, which is a cretinous "joke" that refers to a photoshopped picture circulated on Facebook by the fever swamp right a few weeks ago. It's quite possible that Donald recently saw it and thought it was so hilarious he just had to share. After all, we already know that Trump finds the mere thought of Hillary Clinton taking a bathroom break during a debate "disgusting."

Anyway, that's that. It's my best guess until someone asks him about this.

POSTSCRIPT: Another possibility: it was short for "No Planned Parenthood." That doesn't seem likely to me, but really, with Donald who the hell knows?

This year's general election for the California Senate seat being vacated by Barbara Boxer will feature no Republicans: The top vote-getters in our open primary were a pair of Democrats, Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez. This is a historic result, but to get a real feel for the depth of the GOP's debacle, take a look at this deceptively simple chart:

This tells you so much. The GOP's only hope was to unite on a single candidate; instead they ended up with a field of 12, mostly crackpots and no-hopers. Why? Partly because it doesn't cost much to qualify for a Senate race in California, and there were a lot of people who thought it would be amusing to be on the ballot. But it's also because the party is such a joke that it has virtually no influence anymore, even over its own members.

What else does this chart tell us? These 12 candidates won a cumulative total of 29.4 percent of the vote. Not even a third. The top vote-getter, Duf Sundheim, was a complete unknown: a former state GOP chairman with no experience in office of any kind.

Why didn't anyone with more name recognition run? Largely because the California GOP no longer has anyone with any name recognition. They're completely shut out of statewide office and hold only about a third of the seats in the legislature. Only two cities of any size have Republican mayors (San Diego and Fresno), and they're both unknown in the rest of the state.

But there are still a few GOP members of Congress who have enough stature to command an occasional TV camera (Kevin McCarthy, Darrell Issa, Duncan Hunter). Why didn't any of them run? Because in 2010 they watched Meg Whitman flush $144 million of her personal fortune down the toilet running for governor and Carly Fiorina do the same with $7 million in the Senate race, and the results were grim: Fiorina lost by ten points and Whitman lost by 13 points. Even candidates only loosely associated with the Republican Party lost in a landslide.

So there you have it. Put all of this together and you get the chart above: a dozen nobodies with no name recognition and no chance, with the top vote-getter receiving a pathetic 8 percent of the vote. It's the California GOP in a nutshell.

The Diving Duck of Irvine

I still haven't been able to track down our new baby geese, and I'm going to torture you with daily waterfowl pictures until I do. Today you get a video! It's the diving duck of Irvine.