The folks at Webster's might be unhappy about this, but WTF seems like a lock for Word-of-the-Year honors in 2017. Today, the Trump administration is apparently promising regime change in Syria and hoping that Vladimir Putin will help them:

Before departing Italy — where he met with “like-minded” allies in the Group of Seven major advanced economies and diplomats from largely Muslim nations — [Rex] Tillerson told reporters that the United States is aiming for a negotiated end to six years of conflict in Syria and wants Russia's help in ushering Assad out of office....Claiming that Assad's rule “is coming to an end,” Tillerson previewed his message to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

....In a sign of escalating tensions — even before Tillerson exited his plane in Moscow — Putin told a news conference the Kremlin has “information” that provocateurs are planning to plant chemical substances in suburban Damascus and blame it on Syrian authorities. He gave no further details on the stunning claim.

Um....

Does anyone here know how to play this game? A week ago Donald Trump didn't give two fucks whether Assad stayed in power. He had somehow missed the news of Assad's brutality over the past six years, and cared only about ISIS. Now he's suddenly figured out that Assad is a monster and is promising regime change. Sure, he's "aiming" for a negotiated settlement, but that's pretty plainly not in the cards since Assad, after six brutal years of civil war, is finally on the verge of winning.

And Putin, informed of all this, responds with a Trumplike conspiracy theory about false-flag operations. These are not the words of a man who plans to back down. I've read reports that Putin is privately enraged at Assad, and that may be, but there's really not much room for doubt about the positions of both Assad and Putin here. Neither one has the slightest intention of abruptly giving up and allowing American-sponsored rebels to take over in Damascus.

So what happens next? Putin or one of his functionaries will tell Tillerson to bugger off, and there will be no negotiations. Does Trump start bombing Damascus? That would be stupid and wouldn't work anyway. Does he send a huge American ground force? There's zero chance of public or congressional approval for that. Does he just back down? Trump seems temperamentally incapable of this.

And yet, the US government is now officially committed to regime change in Syria even though it wasn't last week. In fairness, so was Obama. But Obama was always clear that this was merely aspirational. Trump hasn't said one way or another, and he's avoiding the press, which would like to hear a little more about his new foreign policy. The problem, it appears, is that Trump doesn't know what his foreign policy is. He doesn't know what to do about ISIS. He doesn't know what to do about Afghanistan. He doesn't know what to do about China. He doesn't know what to do about Syria. He doesn't know what to do about North Korea. He only knows how to send tweets into the atmosphere about how all these folks better watch out because there's a new sheriff in town. But there's nothing more. Trump has taken strategic ambiguity to whole new levels.

Personally, I guess I'm rooting for the meaningless Twitter rants to continue. It's better than the alternative.

Somebody please tell me this is a joke. It's a joke, right? Ha ha ha.

The most important story of the past 24 hours—by a mile—is the guy who was dragged off an overbooked United flight yesterday by a security team. The details are still a little sketchy, but the YouTube video is awesome and the guy has an actual scratch on his face. The Chicago PD officer who dragged off the passenger has been suspended, and United's president has apologized. Luckily for social media, he apologized in kind of a ham-handed way that gave the incident a whole new cycle of snark on Twitter. So far President Trump hasn't weighed in, but give him time. He might get bored and decide later today to nationalize UAL.

In the meantime, Felix Salmon wants us to believe that this hasn't hurt United's stock price. Hah! What a corporate shill he is. Behold the chart below:

That's about $1 billion in market cap right there. This is the power of Twitter and Facebook, my friends.

On the bright side for UAL, this will probably last only a day or so, sort of like Donald Trump's random taunts at companies he doesn't like. Tomorrow some other airline will do something outrageous and we'll all vow never to fly them ever again. I'm pretty sure most of us have vowed never to fly every airline at some point or another, but since they all suck we don't have much choice, do we? And they all overbook. And they all ferry their crews around on their own planes. And they all call security if a passenger won't follow crew orders. This particular passenger just fought back a little more intensely than most. And people with cell phones were around.

Bad luck for United. Really, it could have happened to any of the fine holding companies that control the surly skies of America these days.

Today brings a couple of pieces of tentative good news for Obamacare. First there's this:

The Trump administration says it is willing to continue paying subsidies to health insurance companies under the Affordable Care Act even though House Republicans say the payments are illegal because Congress never authorized them....The Affordable Care Act requires insurers to reduce deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs for certain low-income consumers. The “cost-sharing” subsidies, which total $7 billion a year, compensate insurers for these discounts.

....House Republicans sued the Obama administration, saying that the spending — in the absence of an appropriations law — was unconstitutional. A Federal District Court judge agreed and ordered a halt to the payments, but suspended her order to allow the government to appeal.

This is a huge deal. CSR payments are critical for insurance companies, and the Trump administration could have decided to stop defending the law and let House Republicans kill the payments by default. That could still happen, but it sounds like it won't happen this year, at least. This was the single biggest bit of uncertainty facing insurance companies this year, and this announcement should ease a lot of their short-term concerns.

So with this temporarily out of the way, how does the overall Obamacare market look? According to Standard & Poors, profit levels for insurers are still too low, but they're improving and the market seems to be in pretty good shape:

The U.S. ACA individual market shows signs of improvement, as most insurers' 2016 results were better than 2015 results....2016 results and the market enrollment so far in 2017 show that the ACA individual market is not in a "death spiral."

....We believe the continued pricing correction and network design changes, along with regulatory fine-tuning of ACA rules, will result in closer to break-even underwriting results, on average, for the individual market this year....As insurers continue to adjust their products and pricing, we expect some premium rate increase in 2018 as well. If it remains business as usual, we expect 2018 premiums to increase at a far lower clip than in 2017.

S&P's biggest worry is Congress futzing around with things: "Every time something new (and potentially disruptive) is thrown into the works, it impedes the individual market's path to stability."

Two things are pretty clear. First, contrary to what folks like Donald Trump and Paul Ryan say, the Obamacare market is not on the verge of collapse. It's working pretty well and is likely to get better in the future. But second, Trump and Ryan certainly have the power to put Obamacare on the verge of collapse if that's what they want to do. Now we just have to wait to find out what they want to do.

Health Update

No news is good news, and I've had no news for the past couple of months. My M-protein level remains stable, which means the multiple myeloma is under control for the time being. I saw my oncologist today, and he seemed pretty happy with all my other levels too.

But here's an odd thing. One of the bad side effects of chemotherapy is that it compromises your immune system. I was told early on that the key blood test to keep track of was the absolute level of neutrophils. My first doctor thought that anything under 2000 was dangerous, and put me on a weird diet that I later found out was ridiculous. That's because another doctor told me that, really, anything over 1500 was fine. Later, yet another doctor told me that 1000 marked the danger zone. This month, I was at about 1100, so I asked my oncologist if this was a problem. He said no, everything was OK as long as it stayed above 500.

I'm beginning to think I'm the butt of a very long-winded practical joke. Eventually I'll get down to 550, and some yet newer doctor will tell me not to worry unless it gets below the square root of pi. In the meantime, don't sneeze on me, OK?1

1Not that I'd want you to sneeze on me anyway. This is just some added incentive.

How much was race a factor in the 2016 election? It's pretty obvious that Donald Trump explicitly appealed to racial sentiment more than any Republican presidential candidate in recent memory, but did it work? Did he pick up more votes from resentful, disaffected whites than any other GOP nominee would have?

At first blush, the answer seems to be no. Compared to Mitt Romney, Trump got a smaller share of the white vote and a bigger share of the black and Hispanic vote. That doesn't support the idea that 2016 represented some kind of huge white backlash.

But there are other ways of looking at this. Here's one from Phil Klinkner, a political science professor at Hamilton College. It's taken from the latest release of the American National Election Survey:

This chart is pretty simple: it shows how much correlation there is between a person's level of racial resentment and who they supported for president. In 2000, racial resentment was a weak predictor of who you voted for. In 2016 it was a strong predictor.

But this just adds to the haze. There are two reasonable ways of looking at this:

  1. Racial resentment has been a steadily better predictor of voting behavior for 16 years, with only a slight blip away from the trendline in 2012. Trump just happened to be the nominee in 2016, when it was bound to go up to its present level regardless.
  2. The trendline does inflect modestly upward in 2016. This might be because Obama bent it down a bit in 2012, or it might be because Trump bent it up in 2016.

Klinkner thinks race played a big role in the election. There's no question this is true, but did it play a bigger than expected role? The two major parties have been splitting further apart by race for years, with Republicans becoming the party of whites and Democrats the party of non-whites. This means that to survive with an ever growing white base, Republicans have to cater to white resentment more and more. Likewise, Democrats have to cater to black and Hispanic interests more and more. This is a cycle with positive feedback, so it's only likely to get worse.

Racial attitudes certainly played a bigger role in this election than in the past. But did Trump himself accelerate this partisan trend, or was he merely the beneficiary of it? That still seems like an open question to me.

Today's ABC/Washington Post poll says that 51 percent of Americans support President Trump's missile strikes on Syria. I suppose it could be worse. But Americans also continue to engage in magical thinking. Take a look at this:

So 51 percent of Americans support removing Assad from power, but only 35 percent support military action to remove Assad. I doubt that the 35 percent who favor military force really know what they're getting themselves into, but at least they're consistent. It's the other 16 percent who are curiosities. Just what do they support doing to remove Assad? Asking nicely?

Lunchtime Photo

It's caterpillar season here, and the caterpillars are busily munching away on our milkweed plant. That's good, since it's the only reason we planted one. Soon—if they survive the evil wasps—they will hatch into glorious butterflies. And then, like the delightful but fickle creatures they are, they'll probably fly away to somebody's else's yard.

Have you noticed that everyone is paying less attention to President Trump's tweets lately? I suppose it's finally started to sink in that his tweets are just performance art for his fans, not an indication of any actual policy views. Plus, Trump's tweets have gotten kind of boring. Maybe he lost his appetite for them after his random ejaculation about Obama wiretapping him—which he apparently intended only to distract the press for a day or two—turned into a massive, multi-month debacle for the entire Republican establishment.

Today, though, we got this:

Um, yeah. I'm sure we can count on that great humanitarian Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to respond effectively and prudently:

Late Sunday night, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi called for a three-month state of emergency....The army chief-turned-president also dispatched elite troops across the country to protect key installations and accused unidentified countries of fueling instability, saying that “Egyptians have foiled plots and efforts by countries and fascist, terrorist organizations that tried to control Egypt.”

As always, we're left to wonder why Trump loves el-Sisi so much. Is it because Trump is an unusually brutal foreign policy realist? Because he likes anyone that kicks butt on the Muslim Brotherhood? Because Obama didn't like el-Sisi? Because Netanyahu does? It's all a mystery.

The Associated Press reports today on various rumors making the rounds about President Trump's tax plan, including this one:

One circulating this past week would change the House Republican plan to eliminate much of the payroll tax and cut corporate tax rates. This would require a new dedicated funding source for Social Security....This approach would give a worker earning $60,000 a year an additional $3,720 in take-home pay, a possible win that lawmakers could highlight back in their districts....Although some billed this as a bipartisan solution, and President Barack Obama did temporarily cut the payroll tax after the Great Recession, others note it probably would run into firm opposition from Democrats who loathe to be seen as undermining Social Security.

Just to be clear: this is pie in the sky, not something that has any real chance of happening. Still, let's go along with the gag. If you wanted my vote for this in return for whatever horrible thing Republicans wanted to do with the rest of the tax code, the easiest way to get it would be to not create a new dedicated funding source for Social Security. Just put the trust fund bonds in a big ol' bonfire and pay for Social Security out of the general fund. This is how we pay for nearly everything else, after all.

If we did this, we could do away with the annual idiocy about Social Security "going bankrupt," which makes about as much sense as the Pentagon going bankrupt. The only reason we say this about Social Security is because it's possible to compare Social Security costs with a specific funding stream. But who cares? Money is money, and if we spend too much it turns into a deficit, regardless of where the money is coming from.

Neither Social Security nor the Pentagon will go bankrupt unless Congress allows it, and Congress will never allow it. So why maintain the charade? Get rid of the regressive dedicated funding stream, fund Social Security from general revenues, and then adjust taxes and/or deficits as necessary to pay for it. This seems to work tolerably well for every other function of government, so why not Social Security?

Now, about Medicare....