Facebook has caved in to conservative demands that it revamp its Trending Topics feed. Brian Fung describes how the algorithm works:

To be considered for a place in the Trending Topics portion of the site, a topic must generally be mentioned 80 times per hour or more. Facebook takes steps to exclude repeated events that don’t constitute news, such as the hashtag “lunch,” which usually produces more activity during lunchtime, the company said in its letter.

I'm glad to see that Facebook is on top of this. However, I suspect that conservatives are going to be disappointed in the results. Facebook has agreed to stop using external news sites to help it decide which topics are truly trending, and this is likely to have two effects: It will make the Trending Topics feed (a) stupider and (b) more liberal. After all, if you rely entirely on Facebook users, you're relying on an audience that skews young and college educated. How likely is it that this will favor stories about Agenda 21 and Benghazi?

Bernie Sanders gets tossed a bone today:

Top Bernie Sanders supporters Dr. Cornel West and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) will be among those on the Democratic Party's important Platform Drafting Committee after the Vermont senator won a key concession as he looks to leave his mark on the party's platform. The roster of the drafting committee, released by the Democratic National Committee on Monday, reflects the party's agreement that Sanders would have five supporters on the committee, compared to six for Hillary Clinton.

First off: If Bernie has officially agreed to accept five out of 11 members on the Platform Committee, isn't that a tacit admission that he's already lost the nomination?

But also: Does anyone care about the platform? Seriously. I know it's a big fight every four years, but does either party platform ever have any effect at all on the election?

And as long as we're talking about Bernie, Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels write today that his supporters don't actually support his lefty politics:

In a survey conducted for the American National Election Studies in late January, supporters of Mr. Sanders...were less likely than Mrs. Clinton's supporters to favor concrete policies that Mr. Sanders has offered...including a higher minimum wage, increasing government spending on health care and an expansion of government services financed by higher taxes.

…Mr. Sanders has drawn enthusiastic support from young people, a common pattern for outsider candidates. But here, too…the generational difference in ideology seems not to have translated into more liberal positions on concrete policy issues—even on the specific issues championed by Mr. Sanders. For example, young Democrats were less likely than older Democrats to support increased government funding of health care, substantially less likely to favor a higher minimum wage and less likely to support expanding government services. Their distinctive liberalism is mostly a matter of adopting campaign labels, not policy preferences.

That's interesting, if not especially surprising. We're all basically tribalists at our cores. Except for you and me, of course.

*Okay, okay, it's not official. It's…um, a semi-admission of reality? Or something. In any case, I've gotten a bunch of non-ranty emails about this, which is a welcome change. So I'm happy to clarify that I was sort of semi-joking. Or something.

From conservative Jim Geraghty on the ongoing spat between right-wingers about who's selling out to whom in the great Facebook War of 2016:

I’m pretty darn sure that throwing around accusations of gutlessness and useful idiocy are far more about deciding who should be deemed First Gnat than they are about actually changing behavior in Silicon Valley.

The ostensible subject of this war is whether Facebook is deliberately suppressing conservative stories in its Trending Topics feed. A bunch of conservatives met with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about this, and when it was all over Glenn Beck praised Zuckerberg for listening while Tucker Carlson insisted that Beck was a Zuckerberg toady. It went downhill from there.

But here's what gets me. Unless I've missed something, this entire squabble is based on the claims of one (1) anonymous former member of the team responsible for Trending Topics. That's it. Am I wrong about this? Has there been any other serious evidence one way or the other about Facebook's alleged bias? Are conservatives really rending their garments over something so thin?

Of course, we liberals are going through the same thing on a larger scale in the current war between Hillarybots and Berniebros (or whatever we call them these days). But at least that's tediously normal, since it happens every time Democrats are competing for the White House. I recommend that conservatives go back to fighting over Donald Trump. At least that matters.

Harold Pollack says that Bernie Sanders has started a political revolution:

Not enough of one to win the Democratic presidential nomination, but enough to put the dream of single-payer health care back on the national political agenda in a way few would have expected five years ago....Just this week, Gallup released a poll indicating that "58% of U.S. adults favor the idea of replacing [the Affordable Care Act] with a federally funded healthcare system that provides insurance for all Americans." Politico Magazine reports that Sanders’s health plan "is the most popular of the three remaining candidates."

I'd be thrilled about this if it were true, but I have my doubts. The problem is that Americans have a long history of supporting things in the abstract but not so much when they become concrete partisan proposals. Take Obamacare. In 2013, a CNBC poll showed 37 percent unfavorability toward the "Affordable Care Act," but 46 percent toward "Obamacare." In 2014, a Morning Consult poll showed 71 percent support for offering Medicaid to all adults under the poverty line, but only 62 percent support for expanding Medicaid "as encouraged under the Affordable Care Act." A Marist poll in Kentucky showed 57 percent disapproval of Obamacare but only 22 percent disapproval of kynect—Kentucky's version of Obamacare. And of course, we have years of polling showing that lots of people like nearly all the individual elements of Obamacare, but then turn around and insist that they hate Obamacare itself.

As for universal health care, a Harris poll last September found 63 percent approval. A Kaiser poll in December found 58 percent support for Medicare-for-all. Gallup polls going back 15 years show higher support for government guarantees of health care during the Bush years than they do now.

So color me skeptical that Bernie Sanders has really had much effect on the health care debate. Gallup's poll last week didn't so much as breathe the word "taxes," and if it did, support for the universal health care option would sink like a stone. Americans have long had mixed feeling about universal health care, and those feelings are deeply tied up in partisan attitudes and willingness to pay. Unfortunately, Sanders doesn't seem to have moved the needle on this at all.

I was pretty gobsmacked last night watching Norah O'Donnell's interview with Obama chum Valerie Jarrett. O'Donnell has been covering politics for a long time, but she nonetheless badgered Jarrett for nine consecutive questions about whether Obama is a failure because he's not friendly enough with congressional Republicans. Here's her side of the interview:

Norah O'Donnell: Valerie, this is probably one of the last big fights of the president's term in office. And he can't even get Senate Republicans to give him a hearing. Most Republicans won't even meet with Judge Garland. Does that say something about President Obama's inability to reach across the aisle? To have friends on the other side?

Norah O'Donnell: But in two terms, seven years, why hasn't the president been able to find a Republican that he can call up and say, "Help me out on this"? Does he have any Republican friends?

Norah O'Donnell: Isn't that part of the president's job? Is to convince people on the opposite side to do something like this? To get a judge up on the Supreme Court?

Norah O'Donnell: So since the president doesn't have a personal relationship with Republicans, instead you're gonna go to the American people and put political pressure on them? It's a campaign? It's a political campaign--

Norah O'Donnell: Isn't politics about schmoozing, though? And isn't politics about friendship?

Norah O'Donnell: Maybe they don't feel welcome here.

Norah O'Donnell: But Valerie, it's front page news when the Republicans come here to the White House. That shouldn't be front page news.

Norah O'Donnell: This has nothing to do with the president's style of leadership, or his ability to reach across the aisle?

Norah O'Donnell: It's all the Republicans' fault?

I'll give O'Donnell a break only this far: Valerie Jarrett is one of the toughest interviews in Washington. I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone as relentlessly on message as Jarrett and as unwilling to provide any actual information. So maybe O'Donnell figured that repeated badgering was the only way to break her down.

It didn't work, though, because she was asking about something so patently dumb. As Jarrett said repeatedly, what's going on with Merrick Garland has precisely nothing to do with Obama's schmoozing or lack thereof. Hell, Republicans themselves say the same thing. They have nothing against Garland and nothing new against Obama. They just don't want to allow another liberal onto the Supreme Court. End of story. They make no bones about it.

More generally, the idea that Obama's problems with Congress have to do with schmooziness betrays a truly puerile view of politics. It's remarkable that there are reporters out there who are apparently still in thrall to this nonsense.

Sunday Goose Blogging - 22 May 2016

As promised, here's our local crop of Canada goose babies. First up, this is one of the goslings that we originally saw a few weeks ago. As you can see, he's going through those traumatic teenage weeks. But I'm sure he'll get over it and grow up to be a majestic, honking adult:

And here comes the brand new crop of babies:

Aren't they adorable? But I'll tell you something: I'll never complain about photographing the cats again. These little guys are hard. You can't get too close or else the mama geese get upset. So that means using the longest zoom setting on the camera. And these goslings zigzag along relentlessly. Keeping them in focus and in the middle of the viewfinder is tricky business. But I succeeded a few times:

Here's a couple of them taking a (very) short break from the grueling task of eating whatever it is they're eating.

Finally, breakfast is over and it's nap time under the watchful eye of mama.

Evil Dex For the Win!

The Evil Dex is becoming eviller. Or perhaps more cunning. As you already know if you obsessively follow every word I write, my doctor recently switched me to a lower dose of dexamethasone. I now take only 12 mg once a week, so my sleeping should be less disrupted. Right?

Well...not so much. The problem is that the effects of dex accumulate over time, so it becomes hard to predict exactly how it's going to work. In my case, it takes 4-5 hours to kick in and lasts for about 36 hours. But I'm taking a lower dose! So on Friday I decided to try taking it in the morning. On the bad side, that meant it would be at full strength by bedtime. On the good side, it would be worn off completely by Saturday night.

So I took the dex in the morning and then took a double dose of sleep meds at bedtime. Remarkably, this had no effect. None. I was up all night and only barely a little drowsy. This accounts for the late night blogging (remember to subtract three hours when you look at the time stamps on my posts). The silver lining to this is that my experiment had extremely clear results, so next week I'll go back to taking the dex at night.

So why the headline? You may recall that a couple of weeks ago I promised you pictures of our Canada goose babies. That turned out to be harder than I expected. I found them again once, but the pictures I took were pretty so-so. After that, they just weren't around. But yesterday, since I was up at 6 am anyway, I figured I'd go out and see if they were active in the morning. And they were! So later this morning I'll regale you with a photo album of adorable Canada goslings. Never say that this isn't a full-service blog.

What's So Great About 401(k)s, Anyway?

After I wrote my Thursday post on 401(k) plans, I got a fair amount of pushback. Essentially it boiled down to "What's so good about them compared to old-style pensions? Why not just get rid of them and expand Social Security instead?"

The answer to the second question is simple: 401(k)s are meant as supplements to Social Security. If we want to expand Social Security, that's fine. But that's no reason not have additional options to save privately for retirement.

Fine. But why 401(k)s? What is so good about them? The basic answer, of course, is that they're set up to encourage monthly contributions in a hassle-free way and the money you contribute is tax-deferred. Beyond that, though, there are several advantages that a 401(k) plan has over a traditional pension. Here are five:

  • 401(k) plans are portable. They begin accumulating immediately (or close to immediately) when you start a new job, and if you leave your job your 401(k) comes with you. This isn't true of old-style pensions.
     
  • If you want, you can withdraw your 401(k) as a lump sum when you retire. This can be handy if you want to use a portion of your retirement savings for a single large purchase, like a house or a motor home.
     
  • If you die early, your kids will inherit your 401(k). They won't get a dime from Social Security or an old-style pension. This may or may not be something you personally care about, but a lot of people do.
     
  • The main drawback of a 401(k) is that it's risky: since you don't know how long you'll live, you can never be sure how much you can safely withdraw each year. But in 2014 the Treasury issued guidance that made it easier for 401(k) owners to allocate all or part of their contributions into an annuity fund that pays out steadily upon retirement.
     
  • Annuities are getting better, but it's still true that you have to be pretty careful selecting one. Some are bad deals. But there's another way to effectively annuitize your 401(k) without paying a dime: delay your Social Security retirement age. Here's how it works.

    More and more people are retiring at age 62, but this reduces your Social Security payment by about 20 percent compared to retiring at age 65. For example, a $2,000 monthly Social Security payment would be reduced to $1,600 if you retire at 62.

    Instead, use your 401(k) to fund your retirement from 62 to 65. In this example, it would require a final 401(k) balance of about $72,000 or a little less. You'd draw out $2,000 per month and then, at age 65, switch over to your Social Security payout. You've basically guaranteed yourself a lifetime income of $24,000 per year instead of $19,200 without any worries about whether your 401(k) will last forever.

Nothing in life is perfect. There are also advantages to old-style defined-benefit pensions, as well as to a simple expansion of Social Security. And 401(k)s require workers to shoulder more responsibility for figuring out how to invest their savings. They also have to shoulder more of the risk of market downturns.

Nonetheless, 401(k)s aren't bad. The 2006 Pension Protection Act improved them by allowing employers to sign up workers automatically (they can opt out if they want), and this has significantly increased the number of workers who participate. It's especially raised the number of low-income workers who participate. The PPA also allowed employers to automatically increase the contribution rate over time (again, workers can opt out), which promises to make 401(k)s more substantial retirement vehicles. It also encouraged the use of low-fee lifecycle funds that make riskier investments when you're young and slowly switch to safer investments as you get closer to retirement.

All of these things have improved the 401(k) landscape. The economic recovery has too: a lot of the scare stories about 401(k) plans were based on using data through 2011 or 2012, which meant choosing an end date literally in the middle of the worst recession since World War II. That's cherry picking of the worst kind. 401(k) plans were bound to recover within a couple of years, and they did. If you look at data through 2014 or 2015, average 401(k) returns look pretty good. When it comes to retirement funds, you have to look at the long term, not just the best or worst years.

I'm going to venture into dangerous territory and just hope that everyone will give this a sympathetic reading. I'm not trying to shift blame or dismiss a real problem.

The problem in question is the treatment of women by men on Twitter and other social platforms. In a word (or two), there's a subset of really loathsome assholes out there who harass women mercilessly: comments about looks, about rape, about death threats, etc. etc. The best solution, of course, is to get these men to knock it off, but there's no way that will happen quickly. At best, it will take many years to leach this kind of misogyny out of the internet.

In the meantime, the problem is that this treatment causes women genuine pain and stress. I don't get anywhere near this kind of abuse, but I sometimes get a bit of it, and it's no fun. So I have at least a glimmer of what it's like.

So here's my question: is there any kind of relatively simple therapy that can train people not to succumb to panic attacks over Twitter mobs attacking them? I'm not talking about ignoring genuine threats, like folks posting addresses and suggesting someone should be raped. Those should go straight to the police. It's all the rest that I'd like to learn to take in stride as nothing more than the meaningless ravings of cretinous sad sacks.

So: Is there anything like this? Does anyone know a reliable method for building up a thicker skin? Sort of like the hypnosis of Peter Gibbons in Office Space, except something that actually works. I know we shouldn't have to, but sometimes it's worth it even if it's galling that we need to do it at all.

How About a Constitutional Right to Vote?

I have a longstanding belief that a liberal democracy is basically in good shape if it guarantees three rights:

  • Freedom of speech/press.
  • The right to a fair and speedy trial.
  • The right to vote.

I don't mean to denigrate other important rights. Freedom of religion is important, but plenty of free countries operate just fine with state religions. Freedom of assembly can probably be mandated by law. Warrants for searches are necessary, but again, could probably be mandated by law. A ban on slavery is important, but we already have it, and it's not really a pressing issue in the 21st century anyway. And lots of democracies take wildly different views on the right to bear arms. The bottom line is that all these things can be in the Constitution, but if they're not they probably don't preclude a pretty free society.

The first two rights on my list are already enshrined in the Constitution (speech and press freedom in the First Amendment; fair trials in the Fifth through Eighth Amendments). The third, for generally disgraceful reasons, isn't. But for some reason, among the dozens of pet amendments that various interest groups propose even though they're mostly pie in the sky, this one gets almost no attention. Why not?

Don't worry too much about the precise wording of a voting rights amendment. Here's a proposal from Reclaim Democracy! that originated with Jesse Jackson:

All citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, shall have the right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides. The right to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States, any State, or any other public or private person or entity, except that the United States or any State may establish regulations narrowly tailored to produce efficient and honest elections.

Reps. Pocan and Ellison have recently proposed a shorter version:

Every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides.

Maybe you'd want to add some further protections: change voting day to voting week; mandate early voting; make changes to redistricting rules to better guarantee that all votes count equally. I'm agnostic about this.

Needless to say, this would open a can of worms. Basically, anyone who shows up to vote is assumed to have the right to vote unless the government has actively put them on a list of non-voters. Possibly some kind of ID would be required: maybe a Social Security card or a national ID card. Perhaps everyone would be required to enroll for voting on their 18th birthday, and would be given a card that identifies them as a voter. They could do it at the same time they enroll with Selective Service (just as soon as women are added to Selective Service requirements).

There would be exceptions. Can prisoners vote? The Supreme Court has already ruled that prisoners have limited access to free speech rights. They obviously have no right to freedom of assembly, and the right to bear arms has been curtailed with extreme prejudice. This would almost certainly be the case with voting rights as well, though it could easily be written into the text of an amendment if it was considered important enough to spell out specifically.

So why not do it? It seems like a pretty populist idea for a Democratic presidential candidate. How about it, Hillary? She already supports automatic voter registration at age 18, and that's a short jump to a constitutional amendment.