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Inflation: It's a Real Thing!

| Tue Jan. 26, 2016 1:32 PM EST

Petula Dvorak has gotten a lot of, um, pushback for this column about the kids these days—including hers:

The work ethic of our kids: Where is it? Where are the entrepreneurial snow shovelers? For generations of enterprising children, snowflakes may as well have been dollar bills, y’all, falling from the sky. Kids jostled to be the first to ring the doorbells of the snowed-in, the $5 driveways added up, and that new Atari Defender game cartridge, those rainbow Vans — yours and yours.

But in 2016? Not so much.

....Last year, when we had a mere dusting compared with Snowzilla and the boys were 8 and 10 years old, they shoveled our stairs and sidewalk with verve, and then struck out to ring doorbells to make a buck. The novelty of responsibility was fresh and delicious.

They got three customers: a politician’s wife who was encouraging and delightful, giving them a crisp $5 bill and a load of praise; another neighbor who paid $5; and $0 from a bleary-eyed millennial renter who promised to pay them but didn’t have cash. And never paid up long after the snow melted.

As school was closed for the big dig-out, I tried again to inspire some hustle in my little childlumps, whose only hustle was to get a sleepover going. “There are still lots of cars buried out there,” I said. “I bet you can make enough money for that Lego Poe Dameron X-Wing you want.” No spark in their eyes. What’s going on?

Hmmm. Last year the kids shoveled three houses and they each earned $1.66 per house for their efforts. This year the snow is far heavier. They could probably double their earnings! I wonder why they're not feeling enthusiastic about this? It's a head scratcher, all right.

As it happens, lots of kid jobs—snow shoveling, burger flipping, lawnmowing, etc.—have been largely taken over by adults these days. But the real issue here is that adults simply have no feel for inflation. Petula's father probably got paid $5 for shoveling a walk in 1950, so that's what he paid Petula. Now she wants to pay her kids $5. Ditto for everyone else in their generation. But $5 in 1950 is about $50 today.

Sure enough, a 30-second bit of googling suggests that the going rate for getting a neighborhood kid to shovel your walk is about $40 or so. More if the storm is heavy and you have a big lot. A professional goes for about $70.

Maybe kids these days are lazy. I don't know—though the most recent kids I met were so smart and well-behaved that Marian and I were in awe. But hey—maybe they're lazy too! I didn't invite them to mow my lawn, after all. But this complaint about snow shoveling is just a personal version of that old chestnut, the business owners who complain they can't find good workers but then admit they aren't willing to raise their wages to attract them. Bottom line: don't whine about lazy kids unless you're willing to pay them enough to make it worth their time to work for you. For five bucks they'll feed your cats while you're on vacation. But only newbie suckers would shovel a walk after Snowzilla for that.

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Why Do So Many People Believe Bernie Sanders?

| Tue Jan. 26, 2016 12:47 PM EST

OK, now for the Democrats. It's really hard to get excited about the state of the race, isn't it?

The Clinton campaign's focus on gun control is absurd. Hillary has an NRA grade of F and Bernie gets a D-. That's what we're arguing about? For chrissake. How dispiriting can you get?

On health care, Bernie wants single-payer. Me too. And I'll bet Hillary does as well. She's just decided that it's not politically useful to say so. And since neither one of them is going to get it anytime soon, does it really matter much?

The same is true on nearly every other domestic issue. Bernie is off to Hillary's left—either genuinely or rhetorically—but in office they'd both be constrained to the same place. Neither one could accomplish even what Hillary wants, let alone what Bernie wants.

The one place where they have real differences and those differences might matter is national security. But for reasons of their own, neither of them really wants to talk much about that. Hillary doesn't want to highlight her relative hawkishness in a Democratic primary, and Bernie doesn't really want to highlight what his dovishness would mean in practice. Besides, it just gets in the way of the only message he really cares about: plutocracy and income inequality.

Bottom line: given the realities of American politics, they'd both be highly constrained in what they can accomplish in the White House. It doesn't matter what's in their hearts. What matters is (a) whether they can win in November and (b) what kind of deals they can broker with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.

Anybody who's read my blog for a while can guess where I fall on this. I think Bernie has done a great job of pushing Hillary a bit to the left and demonstrating that she can expect continued pressure on that front. But the truth is that Hillary wins on both points A and B. She's not the most charismatic politician in the world, but as we all like to say, we're voting for president, not someone to have a beer with. What's more, I've long admired her tenacity; her ability to withstand decades of crude invective and political destruction derby; and her very obvious, lifelong commitment to using politics as a way of improving people's lives. There have been a million noxious compromises along the way, but that's how politics works in the real world. Plus I'd love to see a woman in the White House.

I like Bernie. I like what he says. If I believed he could do all the stuff he talks about, he'd have my vote. But I don't.

Why Do So Many People Believe Donald Trump?

| Tue Jan. 26, 2016 12:14 PM EST

I'm sort of bored with the Republican race (and the Democratic race too—about which more later) but I do wonder if a lot of Republicans are getting things fundamentally wrong. Here's Jonah Goldberg:

The level of distrust among many of the different factions of the conservative coalition has never been higher, at least not in my experience. Arguments don't seem to matter, only motives do.

Here's Rush Limbaugh on Friday: “Forget the name is Trump. If a candidate could [guarantee to] fix everything that's wrong in this country the way the Republican Party thinks it's wrong, if it were a slam dunk, if it were guaranteed, that candidate will still be opposed by the Republican Party establishment.... If he's not part of the clique, they don't want him in there.”

In other words, the GOP establishment has become so corrupted, its members would knowingly reject a savior just to protect their comfortable way of life.

This really does get at a key part of Trump's popularity: a lot of people believe him. Hell, I'd almost vote for him if I believed him. We're talking about a guy who says he's going to grow the economy at 6 percent, save Social Security, cut taxes on everyone, get rid of unemployment, crush ISIS, rebuild the military, erase the national debt, and make America great again. And the icing on the cake for conservatives is that he claims to be solidly pro-life, pro-gun, pro-religion, and in favor of nice, right-wing Supreme Court justices like Clarence Thomas. What's not to like? A few minor deviations from movement conservatism? That's piffle. Why are all those establishment Republicans opposed to him?

There are reasons, of course. But primary among them is that no one with a 3-digit IQ believes he can do this stuff. Lots of it is flatly impossible, and the rest is politically impossible. And if you don't believe Trump, then he's just a charlatan with nothing left except bad qualities: he's erratic, narcissistic, boorish, racist, thin-skinned, ideologically unreliable, opportunistic, etc. etc. It's pretty obvious why you'd oppose him.

So, really, it all comes down to whether you believe Donald Trump can do the stuff he says. It's pretty plain that he can't. So why do so many people think he can? That's the $64 trillion question.

Only a Week to Go Before the Republican Race Starts for Real

| Tue Jan. 26, 2016 11:35 AM EST

With only a week to go, here's the latest poll aggregate for the Republican caucuses in Iowa. No surprise: it's a two-man race between Trump and Cruz, with Trump still holding the lead. But it's close enough that turnout is probably going to be the deciding factor. Can Trump get his supporters to the caucus sites? Or will they turn out to be just a bunch of grumblers who'd rather yell at the TV than brave the rain and snow to vote for their guy? Monday will tell the story.

Ted Cruz Trumpets Endorsement From a Man Who Thinks God Sent Hitler to Hunt the Jews

| Tue Jan. 26, 2016 11:28 AM EST

Last week, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas proudly announced the latest endorsement of his presidential bid. It came from Mike Bickle, the founder and director of the International House of Prayer of Kansas City. Bickle is a controversial pastor who has attacked same-sex marriage as a sign of the End Times and seemingly blamed the Jews for the Holocaust.

Here's Bickle on how the legalization of gay marriage would tear the United States apart:

He's more explicit in this sermon, in which he calls gay marriage "a unique signal of the End Times":

Cruz's new backer had some unique observations about celebrity talk show host and billionaire Oprah Winfrey. Bickle said Oprah is charming, kind, and reasonable but, unfortunately, also a forerunner of the Antichrist:

In a 2011 speech, Bickle suggested that millions of Jews were killed during the Holocaust because they didn't accept God's gift of Jesus. At this event, he read from Jeremiah 16:16 and used this passage from the Bible to explain why Hitler executed millions:

The Lord says, "I'm going to give all 20 million of them the chance to respond to the fishermen. And I give them grace." And he says, "And if they don't respond to grace, I'm going to raise up the hunters." And the most famous hunter in recent history is a man named Adolf Hitler.

Cruz publicly thanked Bickle for his endorsement. "Through prayer, the Lord has changed my life and altered my family's story," Cruz said in a statement on his website. "I am grateful for Mike's dedication to call a generation of young people to prayer and spiritual commitment. Heidi and I are grateful to have his prayers and support. With the support of Mike and many other people of faith, we will fight the good fight, finish the course, and keep the faith."

Obama Just Announced Sweeping Reforms To The Prison System

| Mon Jan. 25, 2016 9:17 PM EST

President Obama announced a set of sweeping prison reforms on Monday night, ending solitary confinement for juveniles and prohibiting the practice for punishment of those who've commited low-level infractions. The reforms, adopted from recommendations by the Justice Department, will also expand treatment for mentally ill prisoners. About about 10,000 people in the federal prison system will be affected.

While the announcement is a significant step in Obama's criminal-justice reform agenda, the new policies won't affect the overwhelming majority of US inmates, who are imprisoned for state-level crimes.

In a Washington Post op-ed, Obama outlined the argument against solitary confinement

How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people? It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.

(...)

The Justice Department has completed its review, and I am adopting its recommendations to reform the federal prison system. These include banning solitary confinement for juveniles and as a response to low-level infractions, expanding treatment for the mentally ill and increasing the amount of time inmates in solitary can spend outside of their cells. These steps will affect some 10,000 federal prisoners held in solitary confinement — and hopefully serve as a model for state and local corrections systems. And I will direct all relevant federal agencies to review these principles and report back to me with a plan to address their use of solitary confinement.

While solitary confinement is a "necessary tool" under some circumstances, according to the op-ed—though terribly inhumane, according to people who have actually experienced it—the practice has been subject to "overuse."

There are as many as 100,000 people held in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons — including juveniles and people with mental illnesses. As many as 25,000 inmates are serving months, even years of their sentences alone in a tiny cell, with almost no human contact.

Research suggests that solitary confinement has the potential to lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences. It has been linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behavior. Some studies indicate that it can worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones. Prisoners in solitary are more likely to commit suicide, especially juveniles and people with mental illnesses.

The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance. Those who do make it out often have trouble holding down jobs, reuniting with family and becoming productive members of society. Imagine having served your time and then being unable to hand change over to a customer or look your wife in the eye or hug your children.

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Sting Video Creator Indicted on Charges of Tampering With Federal Documents

| Mon Jan. 25, 2016 8:20 PM EST

Huh:

A county grand jury here that was investigating allegations of misconduct against Planned Parenthood has instead indicted two anti-abortion activists who made videos of the organization.

In a statement, the Harris County district attorney, Devon Anderson, said Monday that the director of the Center for Medical Progress, David Daleiden, had been indicted on a felony charge of tampering with a governmental record and a misdemeanor count related to purchasing human organs.

....Ms. Anderson said in the statement that grand jurors had cleared Planned Parenthood of any wrongdoing. She did not specify in the statement what record or records were allegedly tampered with.

I wonder what this is all about? There's not enough detail to know if these are serious charges or just a bit of petty harassment.

Quote of the Day: The Simple, Ever-So-Simple World of Donald Trump

| Mon Jan. 25, 2016 6:38 PM EST

Behold the business acumen of Donald Trump:

Donald Trump says he's unfazed by the prospect of running against Michael Bloomberg....At one point, Trump cast doubt on Bloomberg's business success, suggesting that the head of the Bloomberg media empire wasn't actually worth the $36.5 billion estimated by Forbes. "I don't believe it, I don't believe it," Trump said.

"I mean if somebody came in...and comes up with a better machine than him, people stop using it," Trump said. "I don't even know why other companies haven't come up with a better machine. I mean why? It's so simple."

This comes from a man who managed to run into the ground an airline, a hotel, a casino empire, and an endless series of late-night shills. But he apparently has no idea why Bloomberg terminals are popular, nor any idea that Bloomberg has a number of large competitors. Compare to this:

"I mean if somebody came in...and builds a better car than Toyota, people stop buying them. I don't even know why other companies haven't come up with a better car. I mean why? It's so simple."

This is the same man who says it's "so simple" to get Mexico to pay for a wall and force China to stop devaluing its currency; that he would "totally succeed" in creating jobs, reducing the budget deficit, stopping nuclear weapons in Iran, and saving Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid; that it's "easy" to get OPEC to produce more oil; and that it's "very simple" to get ISIS to surrender.

Now you understand why Trump thinks everything is easy. It's because he has no idea what goes into any of this stuff. Every time he tries to do something that's even slightly out of his wheelhouse (namely property development and bluster) he fails miserably, but he still thinks everything is easy. And his fans believe him.

Raw Data: Lead Poisoning of Kids in Flint

| Mon Jan. 25, 2016 5:48 PM EST

I wanted to get a read on historical levels of lead poisoning of children in Flint, Michigan, so I put together the chart on the right. There's no consistent data available for the entire 20-year period, but I think I made fairly reasonable extrapolations from the data available.1 What you see is very steady and impressive progress from 1998 to 2013, with the number of children showing elevated blood lead levels (above 5 micrograms per deciliter) declining from approximately 50 percent to 3.6 percent.

Then Flint stopped using Detroit water and switched to Flint River water, which corroded the scale on their lead pipes and allowed lead to leach into the water. The number of children with elevated lead levels rose to 5.1 percent and then 6.4 percent.

In late 2015, Flint switched back to Detroit water. Preliminary testing suggests that this had a beneficial effect: the number of children with elevated lead levels dropped back to 3.0 percent. However, these numbers are still very tentative, so take them with a grain of salt.

UPDATE: I've added a line that shows the percentage of children with lead levels above 10 m/d. I wouldn't want my kids to have anything above 5 m/d, but 10 is where things really start to get scary.

1Here are my data sources and extrapolations. For early years, only data for children above 10 m/d was available, but later years showed both 10 m/d and 5 m/d, which suggests a rough factor of 6x between the two. Also, some years only show data for Genesee County, but other years show both Genesee and Flint, which suggests that Flint levels are about 1.6x higher than Genesee.

  • 1998-2000: From Michigan Department of Health & Human Services chart here, extrapolated from Michigan ---> Flint (factor = 0.87) and 10 m/d ---> 5 m/d (factor = 6x)
  • 2001-2004: From 2005 MDHHS report here, page 54, extrapolated from 10 m/d ---> 5 m/d
  • 2005-13: From MDHHS data here.
  • 2014: From Hurley Medical center data here, adjusted for Genesee ---> Flint (factor = 1.6)
  • 2015: From Hurley Medical center data here, slides 10-11, adjusted for Genesee ---> Flint.
  • 2016: From preliminary MDHHS data for post-switch levels here.

Full spreadsheet here.

Texas Probe of Planned Parenthood Indicts Anti-Abortion Videographers Instead

| Mon Jan. 25, 2016 5:40 PM EST

The Harris County, Texas, grand jury tasked with investigating Planned Parenthood announced today that it has cleared the women's health provider of breaking the law. Instead, the grand jury has indicted David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt of the anti-abortion Center for Medical Progress. Last summer, their group released a series of secretly recorded and deceptively edited videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of fetal tissue—which would be illegal. Houston Public Media reports on today's grand jury indictment:

David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt have been indicted for Tampering with a Governmental Record, which is a felony. Daleidan was also indicted for Prohibition of the Purchase and Sale of Human Organs, meaning he illegally offered to purchase human organs in the video recording. A violation of this section is a Class A misdemeanor.

Following the release of the CMP's videos, six states tried to defund Planned Parenthood, 11 states have investigated the women's health provider (none found evidence of fetal tissue sales), and three congressional committees launched their own inquiries.​

The grand jury's review was extensive and lasted more than two months, noted Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson in a press release. "We were called upon to investigate allegations of criminal conduct by Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast," Anderson said in the statement. "As I stated at the outset of this investigation, we must go where the evidence leads us. All the evidence uncovered in the course of this investigation was presented to the grand jury. I respect their decision on this difficult case."

Earlier this month, Planned Parenthood filed a federal lawsuit against Daleiden and other activists that worked with the CMP. The lawsuit accuses the CMP of racketeering, illegally creating and using fake identification, and illegally recording Planned Parenthood staff.

"These anti-abortion extremists spent three years creating a fake company, creating fake identities, lying, and breaking the law," said Eric Ferrero, vice president of communications for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in an emailed statement. "When they couldn't find any improper or illegal activity, they made it up."

This is a breaking story. We are updating this post as the story develops.