I don't have any special reason to post this except for the fact that trade is very much in the news following Donald Trump's election victory. For the record, then, here's the US trade deficit since 1980:

And just for extra fun, here's the same chart excluding trade with China and imports of crude oil:

The main lesson here is that the US trade deficit hasn't been spiraling out of control for the past decade. It's been declining. And practically all of it for the past five years has been accounted for by oil and China.

Alex Tabarrok draws my attention to an article in the New York Times Magazine this weekend. It's about machine learning in general, but it starts out with this:

Late one Friday night in early November, Jun Rekimoto, a distinguished professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Tokyo, was online preparing for a lecture when he began to notice some peculiar posts rolling in on social media. Apparently Google Translate, the company's popular machine-translation service, had suddenly and almost immeasurably improved. Rekimoto visited Translate himself and began to experiment with it. He was astonished. He had to go to sleep, but Translate refused to relax its grip on his imagination.

That explains it! About a week ago I happened to be clicking some links from somewhere and ended up on a Chinese site. Just for laughs I ran it through Google Translate, and I was surprised at the quality of the text I got. It was much more readable than usual and seemed to be a pretty accurate translation. I chalked it up to either coincidence or the fact that I hadn't used Google Translate in a while, and went on my way.

But no. Google Translate really has taken a quantum leap:

The Google of the future, [CEO Sundar] Pichai had said on several occasions, was going to be "A.I. first." What that meant in theory was complicated and had welcomed much speculation. What it meant in practice, with any luck, was that soon the company's products would no longer represent the fruits of traditional computer programming, exactly, but "machine learning."

A rarefied department within the company, Google Brain, was founded five years ago on this very principle: that artificial "neural networks" that acquaint themselves with the world via trial and error, as toddlers do, might in turn develop something like human flexibility…It was only with the refugee crisis, Pichai explained from the lectern, that the company came to reckon with Translate's geopolitical importance…The team had been steadily adding new languages and features, but gains in quality over the last four years had slowed considerably.

Until today. As of the previous weekend, Translate had been converted to an A.I.-based system for much of its traffic, not just in the United States but in Europe and Asia as well: The rollout included translations between English and Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Turkish. The rest of Translate's hundred-odd languages were to come, with the aim of eight per month, by the end of next year. The new incarnation, to the pleasant surprise of Google's own engineers, had been completed in only nine months. The A.I. system had demonstrated overnight improvements roughly equal to the total gains the old one had accrued over its entire lifetime.

The robots are coming. Go ahead and scoff at the fact that some Uber cars ran red lights last week, but that doesn't change anything. Every technology has hiccups at first, and AI is the biggest, toughest, and most important technology ever attempted. It will provide plenty of laughs over the next decade or two.

Until suddenly it doesn't and the economy has permanently lost 20 million jobs—with many more to come. We're not ready for that day, not by a long way. We should get started.

Reuters reports on lead poisoning:

ST. JOSEPH, Missouri — On a sunny November afternoon in this historic city, birthplace of the Pony Express and death spot of Jesse James, Lauranda Mignery watched her son Kadin, 2, dig in their front yard. As he played, she scolded him for putting his fingers in his mouth.

In explanation, she pointed to the peeling paint on her old house. Kadin, she said, has been diagnosed with lead poisoning. He has lots of company: Within 15 blocks of his house, at least 120 small children have been poisoned since 2010, making the neighborhood among the most toxic in Missouri.

Of course, it's not just St. Joseph. Reuters got hold of neighborhood-level lead testing records and found thousands of high-lead communities across the country:

Reuters found nearly 3,000 areas with recently recorded lead poisoning rates at least double those in Flint during the peak of that city’s contamination crisis. And more than 1,100 of these communities had a rate of elevated blood tests at least four times higher.

The poisoned places on this map stretch from Warren, Pennsylvania, a town on the Allegheny River where 36 percent of children tested had high lead levels, to a zip code on Goat Island, Texas, where a quarter of tests showed poisoning. In some pockets of Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia, where lead poisoning has spanned generations, the rate of elevated tests over the last decade was 40 to 50 percent.

Here's a map of the worst hotspots in the country:

The whole piece is worth reading. My only disappointment is that the authors spent most of the article talking about the dangers of lead paint. That's worth talking about, but lead-saturated soil is even more worth talking about. That's why Lauranda Mignery doesn't want her son digging in their front yard: there may not be any paint there, but there's probably lots of old lead that settled in the soil decades ago when we were all burning leaded gasoline.

Sadly, there's barely any money in the federal budget these days for testing, let alone remediation. It would cost tens of billions of dollars to clean up all the old lead, which is mostly a problem in poor communities populated by people of color. And though it's not polite to say this, nobody cares enough about them to spend tens of billions of dollars.

Judd Legum of ThinkProgress reports that "members of the Trump Organization" pressured the government of Kuwait to switch their annual National Day celebration from the Four Seasons to the Trump International:

In the early fall, the Kuwaiti Embassy signed a contract with the Four Seasons. But after the election, members of the Trump Organization contacted the Ambassador of Kuwait, Salem Al-Sabah, and encouraged him to move his event to Trump's D.C. hotel, the source said.

Kuwait has now signed a contract with the Trump International Hotel, the source said, adding that a representative with the embassy described the decision as political. Invitations to the event are typically sent out in January.

Abdulaziz Alqadfan, First Secretary of the Embassy of Kuwait, told ThinkProgress last week that he couldn't "confirm or deny" that the National Day event would be held at the Trump Hotel. Reached again Monday afternoon, Alqadfan did not offer any comment. An email sent directly to Ambassador Al-Sabah was not immediately returned.

Legum writes that his source is a person "who has direct knowledge of the arrangements between the hotels and the embassy," and that he was able to "review documentary evidence confirming the source's account." I have a feeling that a lot of foreign governments are going to be getting phone calls from the Trump Organization over the next four years.

Now, Trump's defense, if he bothers to offer one, will be that nothing happened. Someone in his company made a sales call to the Kuwaiti government, offered them a deal they couldn't refuse, and closed the business. What's wrong with that? But Newt Gingrich has a whole different idea about how Trump should deal with potential violations of the law:

"We've never seen this kind of wealth in the White House, and so traditional rules don't work," Gingrich said Monday during an appearance on NPR's "The Diane Rehm Show" about the president-elect's business interests. "We're going to have to think up a whole new approach."

And should someone in the Trump administration cross the line, Gingrich has a potential answer for that too.

"In the case of the president, he has a broad ability to organize the White House the way he wants to. He also has, frankly, the power of the pardon," Gingrich said. "It's a totally open power. He could simply say, ‘Look, I want them to be my advisers. I pardon them if anyone finds them to have behaved against the rules. Period. Technically, under the Constitution, he has that level of authority."

Jeez, it's too bad we didn't have this Newt Gingrich around in the '90s. He and Bill Clinton would have gotten along a lot better if he'd had this kind of charitable attitude toward presidential ethics back then.

On a more serious note: Are you fucking kidding me? The Trump Organization is going to poach business away by "encouraging" foreign governments to see the benefits of holding their events at a Trump property? And Newt Gingrich thinks we should just go ahead and change the law to allow this kind of thing? And if nobody salutes when that gets run up the old flagpole, then Trump should just go ahead and issue pardons to anyone who gets harassed by overzealous prosecutors.

What country do I live in, anyway?

Just for the record, I want to make sure I understand something:

  • During the presidential campaign, Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republicans promised to raise hell if President Obama responded aggressively to Russia's interference in the election.
  • Now that the election is over, Republicans are bashing Obama for not having a more aggressive response to a ruthless cyberattack by a hostile foreign power. It's yet another example of Obama's fecklessness on the foreign stage.

Do I have this right? Just curious.

Eric Levitz writes about the strange habits of President-elect Donald Trump:

Donald Trump won't content himself with the standard-issue presidency—he's going to have his customized. Daily intelligence briefings are out, along with the norms that prohibit the appearance of corruption. "Victory rallies" are in—as is the private security force that policed dissent at Trump's events throughout his campaign.

Wait. What? I knew about this other stuff, but Trump is keeping his private security force? Isn't that what the Secret Service is for? Ken Vogel explains what's happening:

The arrangement represents a major break from tradition…But Trump—who puts a premium on loyalty and has demonstrated great interest in having forceful security at his events—has opted to maintain an aggressive and unprecedented private security force, led by Keith Schiller, a retired New York City cop and Navy veteran.

…In interviews with about a dozen people who interact with Trump, they said even as the president-elect's Secret Service detail has expanded significantly since the election, he remains most comfortable with Schiller and his team…The Trump associates say Schiller is expected to become a personal White House aide who would serve as the incoming president's full-time physical gatekeeper.

Every time we learn more about Trump, we learn what a total whack job he is. He's like a walking encyclopedia of neuroses. But maybe that's not so bad. Maybe this means he's perfect for America, since we seem to be a national encyclopedia of neuroses these days. I predict a land office business in Xanax over the next four years.

In the LA Times today, Jim Puzzanghera writes that "a small U.S. trade surplus with Mexico of about $1.7 billion in 1993 has ballooned into a large deficit — $61 billion last year." Here's the accompanying chart:

This does indeed give the impression of an ever-widening gap. But it's badly misleading because it doesn't take account of inflation and economic growth. Here's a better chart that shows the trade gap directly:

The US trade deficit with Mexico did indeed rise in the first decade after NAFTA. But for the past 15 years it's been flat. In 2002 it was 0.338 percent of US GDP. In 2015 it was 0.336 percent of GDP.

You can't look at stuff like this in nominal dollars. You have to account for economic growth (about 25 percent since 2002) and inflation (about 30 percent since 2002). Once you do that, you can see that, in fact, our trade deficit with Mexico hasn't changed at all for the past 15 years.

According to an article in JAMA Internal Medicine, Medicare patients who are hospitalized fare differently depending on whether their doctor is male or female:

The biggest difference is in the two sickest groups of patients: there's a distinctly higher rate of death among male doctors. And while the difference may look small, it suggests that male doctors are responsible for 32,000 more deaths per year among Medicare patients. The Washington Post helpfully points out that this poses a rather stark contrast to the fact that male doctors are paid an average of $20,000 more than female doctors.

The sample size of this study is very large—about 1.5 million patients—and the authors claim to have controlled for everything under the sun. I'll let others judge that. In the meantime, remember to always ask for a female doctor and never start a hospital stay on a Friday. If you don't have a choice—and you probably won't—then all I can do is wish you well.

For some reason, I've been thinking lately about news memes that I'm tired of hearing about. For example, I'm tired of hearing about how containers revolutionized shipping. I'm tired of hearing about Van Halen's brown M&Ms. And I'm tired of hearing endlessly about how US allies are supposedly worried because we haven't started a war over something. According to the New York Times, the latest sign of America's worrisome restraint is President Barack Obama's response to China's seizure of one of our research drones near the Philippines:

Across Asia, diplomats and analysts said they were perplexed at the inability of the Obama administration to devise a strong response to China’s challenge. It did not even dispatch an American destroyer to the spot near Subic Bay, a former American Navy base that is still frequented by American ships, some noted.

…The end result, analysts said, is that China will be emboldened by having carried out an act that amounted to hybrid warfare, falling just short of provoking conflict, and suffering few noticeable consequences. "Allies and observers will find it hard not to conclude this represents another diminishment of American authority in the region," said Douglas H. Paal, the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Who knows? Maybe this kind of thing really does worry our allies. But if that's the case, maybe our allies need to settle down. Not everything is worth a military response. Not everything is even worth a sternly worded note. These kinds of penny-ante provocations are usually designed precisely to evoke a response, and it's usually best just to ride them out. That's especially true when there's nothing much we can do in the short term anyway, which means that any kind of aggressive response would almost inherently end up looking weak and incompetent.

Anyway, I have a feeling that if Donald Trump starts responding more belligerently, we'll start getting stories about how our allies are worried that America is stirring up trouble and they're the ones who will have to pay the price. They should be careful about what they wish for.