The Washington Post says Donald Trump will pick Gen. James Mattis as his Secretary of Defense. I gather Mattis is pretty well respected, though I continue to believe that Trump himself was swayed solely by his "Mad Dog" nickname.

Mattis will need a special exemption from Congress, since he's only been retired from the military for three years rather than the legally required seven. That will probably sail through, though I sort of hope it runs into at least a few bumps. I don't have anything against Mattis, but the 7-year rule is a pretty good one. Civilian control of the military is an important tradition.

According to Paul Ryan, he has six top priorities for the upcoming year:

Regulatory relief....Obamacare relief....reforming the tax code....foreign policy, rebuilding the military....securing the border....And then while we work on that, we want to work on poverty and restoring our constitutional separation of powers....So those are effectively the six pieces that we’ve been talking about.

I have a couple of comments about this. First, there's nothing here about entitlement reform, or Medicare reform in particular. This doesn't mean Medicare is safe forever, but it does suggest it's not a briar patch Ryan wants to jump in right away.

Second, these are all really, really complex. Regulatory relief—whatever that actually means—is dauntingly complicated. Repealing Obamacare is all but impossible without Democratic support, which means months or years of negotiation. Tax cuts are easy, but Ryan seems to want wholesale tax reform on the 1986 model, which has a ton of moving parts. Securing the border is a lot more than just building a wall. And "working on poverty"—I shudder to think what he means by this—is obviously no cakewalk.

On the bright side, rebuilding the military is fairly easy. You just give them more money and hope it doesn't go down a rat hole.

If Ryan is serious about this stuff, he's mapped out two years of work already—and that's not even counting whatever Donald Trump wants to throw in the mix. Put it all together, stir in Trump's promise not to touch entitlements, and I suspect that we're not going to see any serious movement on Medicare for at least a year, maybe more.

The Wall Street Journal passes along the latest news on the Carrier deal:

Indiana officials agreed to give United Technologies Corp. $7 million worth of tax breaks over 10 years to encourage the company’s Carrier Corp. unit to keep about 1,000 jobs in the state, according to people familiar with the matter....The deal would cover 800 Carrier workers from the Indianapolis furnace plant and an additional 300 research and headquarters positions that weren’t slated to go to Mexico, according to another person briefed on the deal.

Two things. First, we're now down to 800 jobs saved. The other 300 weren't going to Mexico in the first place, while another thousand are still scheduled to head south of the border. Second, this comes to about $1,000 annually per job saved. As these kinds of deals go, that's not too bad.

However! Keep your eyes open. Call me cynical if you want, but I have a feeling it might eventually turn out that Carrier got a few more tidbits out of Trump than just this.

Back in October, when Democrats were in charge of the White House and seemed set to continue that, 32 percent of Americans said they wanted to repeal Obamacare. After the election, when Republicans had won total control of everything, that number dropped sharply to 26 percent. Here are the results of the latest Kaiser tracking poll:

Apparently, when repeal of Obamacare became a concrete reality, rather than just a rallying cry, a fair number of people started to think twice. Even among Trump voters, only half want to see the law repealed.

In any case, Democrats have a secret weapon to rescue Obamacare—one that's hiding in plain sight. More on that later.

Over at the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza presents a chart showing the dismal fortunes of the Democratic Party in recent years:

But 2008 was a landslide year for Democrats. Of course they'll look bad if you start from there. If, instead, you start at 1994—the post-Gingrich era—and eliminate the 2008 results, you get this:1

Neither of these charts is "correct." What's more, both show that 2016 was, indeed, a fairly dismal year for Democrats, especially at the state level. Still, it matters where you start. If your starting point is a landslide year, things are automatically going to look bleak. But if you expand your vision to the past two decades, 2016 looks bad, but it's not an epic disaster.

2016 was a pretty good year for Republicans. But that's all.

1For the record, I cobbled together these numbers from several sources, and they may be off slightly. But they show the trend accurately.

Earlier this evening I promised more on the TIMSS math test, and now I'm here to deliver. I could pretty easily just copy the full ranking table and consider it a job well done, but there's a problem with that: a bunch of Asian tigers are always at the top, light years ahead of everyone else. There's not much point in comparing ourselves to them. Do we really care that we do worse than countries that goad their kids into studying math until their eyes fall out? Likewise, there are lots of poor countries clustered near the bottom. There's not much point in comparing ourselves to them either. It might make us feel good, but do we really care that we beat out Malaysia and Oman?

Really, what we want to know is how we compare to peer countries. We also want to know if we're improving over time. So without further ado, here's the answer for 8th graders:

Basically, this isn't bad. We do pretty well among our peers, and our scores have been improving steadily for the past two decades. The full report is here, and it has lots of interesting tidbits.

It's worth noting that there are two big international math tests: TIMSS and PISA. The United States usually does fairly well on TIMSS and not so well on PISA, which claims to be more about concepts and actual problem solving. If your ideological preference is to show that American kids are doing fine, you'll focus on TIMSS. If your ideological preference is to show that American education is a cesspool and needs massive reform, you'll focus on PISA. Take your pick.

One other note. If you really want a takeaway from the latest TIMSS test, it's the same as the takeaway from every other test ever administered to America schoolkids: we do a terrible job of educating black children. The single biggest thing we could do to improve education in this country is to cut out the half measures and focus serious money and resources on poor, black school districts. But I guess the white working class wouldn't be very happy about that.

Yesterday I warned everyone to keep an eye out for details about the size of the bribe that Carrier got from Donald Trump to stay in Indiana. We still don't know that, but we do know a little bit more:

Carrier, the company that changed its plans to shutter a plant in Indianapolis and shift production to Mexico after talks with President-elect Donald Trump, confirmed Wednesday that it would receive financial assistance from the state of Indiana as part of the deal to keep the plant open.

....A statement from the company...“The incentives offered by the state were an important consideration.” The Indiana Economic Development Corp., a state agency, will grant Carrier a tax break in exchange for keeping the plant open, said John Mutz, a member of the corporation's board and a former lieutenant governor.

How big a tax break? And what else will Carrier get? Stay tuned as we learn more details about how many taxpayer dollars are being spent in order to provide Donald Trump with a PR opportunity.

Excellent news! The 2015 TIMSS test results are out. This is one of two international math tests for 4th and 8th graders (the other is PISA), and it provides us with yet another chance to bemoan the shoddy education of American students.

I'll get to that later tonight. First, though, I want to point out an odd thing about the TIMSS test. This year, for only the second time, they decided to add a third "advanced" math test for high school seniors who were in advanced math courses. Eight countries participated, and the United States did pretty well. We lagged behind only Lebanon.

Lebanon? You bet: their average score was 532, a whopping 50 points ahead of the two second-place countries (Russia and the US). But then I noticed something: only 3.2 percent of Lebanese students were in advanced math courses compared to 34 percent of Slovenian students. It makes sense that if you compare the top 3.2 percent of one country to the top 34 percent of another, the former is going to do a lot better.

So are differences in these scores just due to differences in how selective different countries are in accepting students into advanced math courses? Here's the scatterplot you've been waiting for:

Selectivity doesn't account for everything, but it does have a significant impact. If you restrict your classes to only the very brightest students (like Lebanon, Russia, and the US), they'll do well. If you open them up to more than a quarter of your students (like Italy, Portugal and Slovenia), the average kids will drag down the mean score. But which country is actually doing a better job of education? It's hard to say.

Regardless, there's always something to complain about. Here is Jeffrey Mervis in Science:

Students taking the most challenging math and science courses in their senior year were found to have performed progressively worse as they moved from elementary to middle to high school. The U.S. cohort, for example... deteriorated over time, from 29 and 9 points ahead of the midpoint in fourth and eighth grade, respectively, to 15 points below as seniors. Italy recorded the steepest drops, a startling 126 points below the midpoint in physics and 78 points in advanced math by the end of high school.

It's not clear to me that the "midpoint" of the TIMSS test means anything at all. In the advanced math test, every single country except Lebanon scored below it. What kind of midpoint is that? A pretty arbitrary one, I'd guess.

This is weird as hell. Between 12:55 and 12:57 pm on the East Coast this afternoon, the Office of Government Ethics sent out a tweetstorm addressed to Donald Trump:

We can't repeat enough how good this total divestiture will be....Brilliant! Divestiture is good for you, very good for America!....OGE applauds the "total" divestiture decision. Bravo!....As we discussed with your counsel, divestiture is the way to resolve these conflicts....OGE is delighted that you've decided to divest your businesses. Right decision!....Bravo! Only way to resolve these conflicts of interest is to divest . Good call!....this aligns with OGE opinion that POTUS should act as if 18 USC 208 applies. http://bit.ly/2fRpIG0....this divestiture does what handing over control could never have done....we told your counsel we'd sing your praises if you divested, we meant it.

Needless to say, Trump has made no decision to divest his holdings. He has said only that he plans to hand over control of "business operations" to his kids.

So what happened? Here's a few theories:

  1. Trump really does plan to divest, and his lawyers have told OGE this. Then OGE screwed up and scheduled a tweetstorm about it before Trump's announcement.
  2. OGE did this "accidentally" in order to put pressure on Trump to divest.
  3. OGE did this deliberately in order to put pressure on Trump to divest.
  4. Something else.

As near as I can tell, #4 is the winner. Here's what the New York Times reports:

In a statement, Seth Jaffe, an agency spokesman, said that officials there were “excited” by Mr. Trump’s announcements on conflicts of interest and that the messages were not based on any information about the president-elect’s plans beyond what was shared on his Twitter feed.

Asked later about the disclosure of the advice that the Office of Government Ethics had given to Mr. Trump’s lawyers, Mr. Jaffe said he could not provide additional comment. But the agency has left the posts on its official government account.

So...they just misinterpreted Trump's tweets and got so excited that they couldn't contain themselves. I can't say that this seems especially likely, but I guess anything is possible.

UPDATE: NPR has more here. Their account seems to imply that maybe #3 is the right answer. If it is, then bravo. After all, if Donald Trump can make waves via Twitter, then so can everyone else.