This comes as no surprise, but...

Facing a prospective tab of more than $1 billion to finance a general-election run for the White House, Donald Trump reversed course Wednesday and said he would actively raise money to ensure his campaign has the resources to compete with Hillary Clinton’s fundraising juggernaut....“I’ll be putting up money, but won’t be completely self-funding,” the presumptive Republican nominee said in an interview Wednesday....The campaign will tap his expansive personal Rolodex and a new base of supporters who aren’t on party rolls, two Trump advisers said.

The new plan represents a shift for Mr. Trump, who has for months portrayed his Republican opponents as “puppets” for relying on super PACs and taking contributions from wealthy donors that he said came with strings attached.

Needless to say, this about-face will have no effect. Trump has long made it clear that he doesn't really mean anything he says, and his supporters are OK with this. If he attacks you, it's only because he wants to win. He'll take it back once you drop out. If he offends an important constituency on a policy issue, he explains that he was just providing "an answer." Nobody should have taken it seriously. If he's caught in an outright lie, he simply denies ever having made the offending statement—even if he made it just yesterday and even if it's on tape.

This is all fine. His supporters accept that this kind of behavior is not just OK, but positively admirable. After all, once he wins he's going to deploy this kind of combat on their behalf. Right?

You betcha.

Will the 2016 Campaign Be All About Race?

Greg Sargent says that Donald Trump is in for a rough time:

The general election will differ from the primaries in an important sense: Unlike Republicans, Democrats will not be constrained from brutally unmasking the truly wretched nature of his racial appeals. Trump’s GOP rivals had to treat his xenophobia, bigotry, and demagoguery with kid gloves, because many Republican voters agreed with his vows to ban Muslims and carry out mass deportations. But the broader general electorate does not agree with those things. Indeed, many voters that populate key general election constituencies are likely horrified by them. As a result, Democrats will be able to prosecute Trump mercilessly in ways his GOP rivals simply could not — with a relentless, non-diluted, non-euphemistic focus on his white nationalism.

I'm a little less sure about this. Highlighting Trump's racial appeals will help Hillary among liberals, but those are votes she's going to get anyway. The question is whether it will help her among centrist folks who are undecided, and I'm less sure about that. I suppose we'd need some polling data to get a clearer picture of this, but I suspect there are plenty of people in the middle who favor building a wall; are suspicious of Muslim immigrants; and really hate it when support for those things is called racist. Hillary doesn't have to tread as lightly as Trump's Republican opponents, but she might still have to be careful on this score.

Luckily, there are plenty of other avenues to attack Trump. Unluckily, there are plenty of avenues for Trump to attack Hillary too. I expect a pretty brutal campaign. Here's the opening salvo:

Every living Republican president has decided not to endorse Donald Trump:

Bush 41, who enthusiastically endorsed every Republican nominee for the last five election cycles, will stay out of the campaign process this time. He does not have plans to endorse presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump, spokesman Jim McGrath told The Texas Tribune.

....Bush 43, meanwhile, "does not plan to participate in or comment on the presidential campaign," according to his personal aide, Freddy Ford.

I agree that Republicans partly brought Trump on themselves. But only partly. They were hoping for an ideological extremist, and before this year it wasn't obvious either to them or to liberal critics that they might instead get a demagogic populist extremist. All of us assumed that eventually Republicans would nominate a hardcore conservative, and we were all taken by surprise when Trump stepped in instead.

So the truth is that I feel sorry for them. A lot of conservatives have an agonizing choice to make now: either support Trump or, effectively, support Hillary Clinton, a candidate they loathe. If I had a similar choice—say, between supporting a liberal Trump or supporting Ted Cruz—what would I do? I'd like to think I'd bite the bullet and support Cruz. But honestly? I don't know. Serious Republicans have a helluva rough six months ahead of them.

I've been saying for a while that (a) the elevated lead levels in Flint were fairly moderate and probably didn't cause a huge amount of damage, and (b) the water is now safe to drink. A reader wants me to put my money where my mouth is:

OK. The exact data I'd like to have doesn't seem to be available, but I can provide a rough sense of the landscape. Between 2013 and 2015, the number of children in Flint with elevated blood lead levels (above 5 m/d) rose from 2.4 percent to 4.9 percent. If you plot this out, it suggests that the average increase in BLL was somewhere between 0.2 m/d and 1 m/d. Increases in BLL are approximately associated with a loss of one IQ point per m/d, so this corresponds to an average loss of perhaps half an IQ point. However, most studies are based on children with elevated BLLs throughout their childhood. The elevated blood levels in Flint only lasted for about 18 months, which suggests that even half an IQ point is probably high. It's more like a quarter or a third of an IQ point. That's not even measurable.

Now, this is cocktail-napkin stuff, and I'm not an expert. All I'm trying to do is give you a rough idea of the magnitude of the problem. Anyone who has better data and knows how to analyze it more rigorously is welcome to set me straight if I've made a mistake.

That said, it's unlikely that I'm off by a lot. What happened in Flint was a horrible tragedy, but it's unlikely to have a major cognitive impact on the city's children. However, this is on average. It could have a major impact on individual children, and this is why parents should have their kids tested for lead exposure. This is doubly true in areas of Flint that are known to have had especially high water lead levels.

As for the question about drinking the water today, that's easier to answer: thousands of residential tests confirm that lead levels in Flint's water are below the EPA's action level of 15 parts per billion. What's more, blood testing confirms that elevated BLLs have returned to their 2013 levels. All of this is strong evidence that Flint water is now safe to use.

Several years ago a Romanian hacker broke into the email accounts of several high-ranking US officials. One of the email accounts he hacked belonged to Clinton pal Sidney Blumenthal, and it was this hack that eventually led to the revelation that Hillary Clinton had a private email address.

In early April he was extradited from Bucharest, where he had been serving a seven-year prison sentence, and conservatives have been drooling with anticipation ever since. Well, guess what? It turns out the hacker claimed in a jailhouse interview that he had, indeed, downloaded "gigabytes" of Hillary Clinton's email. Imagine that! Let's listen in:

"It was like an open orchid on the Internet," Marcel Lehel Lazar, who uses the devilish handle Guccifer, told NBC News in an exclusive interview from a prison in Bucharest. "There were hundreds of folders."

....A source with knowledge of the probe into Clinton's email setup told NBC News that with Guccifer in U.S. custody, investigators fully intend to question him about her server.

When pressed by NBC News, Lazar, 44, could provide no documentation to back up his claims, nor did he ever release anything on-line supporting his allegations, as he had frequently done with past hacks. The FBI's review of the Clinton server logs showed no sign of hacking, according to a source familiar with the case.

Well, I'm sure he's telling the truth, not just making up shit. Naturally Fox News is on the case with a more recent jailhouse interview:

Wearing a green jumpsuit, Lazar was relaxed and polite in the monitored secure visitor center, separated by thick security glass. In describing the process, Lazar said he did extensive research on the web and then guessed Blumenthal’s security question. Once inside Blumenthal's account, Lazar said he saw dozens of messages from the Clinton email address.

Asked if he was curious about the address, Lazar merely smiled. Asked if he used the same security question approach to access the Clinton emails, he said no — then described how he allegedly got inside.

“For example, when Sidney Blumenthal got an email, I checked the email pattern from Hillary Clinton, from Colin Powell from anyone else to find out the originating IP. … When they send a letter, the email header is the originating IP usually,” Lazar explained. 

He said, “then I scanned with an IP scanner." Lazar emphasized that he used readily available web programs to see if the server was “alive” and which ports were open. Lazar identified programs like netscan, Netmap, Wireshark and Angry IP, though it was not possible to confirm independently which, if any, he used.

In the process of mining data from the Blumenthal account, Lazar said he came across evidence that others were on the Clinton server. "As far as I remember, yes, there were … up to 10, like, IPs from other parts of the world,” he said.

So there you have it. Not only did Lazar hack into the Clinton server, but nearly a dozen other hackers did too. And every single one of them, apparently, has said nothing about it until now. Nor have they released any actual hacked emails. And they were all able to do it without leaving behind even the slightest trace.

Nonetheless, the resident expert at Fox News called Lazar's story "plausible."

Sigh. I'm sure this will lead to yet another whirlwind of emailgate activity. Buckle your seat belts.

Obama Visits Flint, Tells the Truth

President Obama visited Flint today and told residents, "It's not too much to expect for all Americans that their water is safe."

Obama made the comments during a speech in the city on Wednesday, a few hours after he drank filtered Flint water after a briefing by federal officials on the city's lead-contaminated water. He also requested a glass of filtered water during his speech, saying "I really did need a glass of water. This is not a stunt."

The president vouched for the safety of certified filters and encouraged most city residents to start drinking filtered water instead of bottled water. "If you're using a filter ... then Flint water at this point is drinkable," Obama said after taking a brief sip of filtered water, adding that the Environmental Protection Agency says using the filter makes the water safe and drinkable.

The only exception is pregnant women and children under 6, who should continue to use bottled water "out of an abundance of caution," he said.

Good for Obama. He told them the truth: Flint water is safe to drink. My own take is that Flint water is safe for children too, but if I were president I suppose I might back off on that a little. A president's words carry a bit more weight than a blogger's. Still, residential testing shows that lead levels in Flint water have been well below 15 ppb since the beginning of the year. Obama is right about the precautions residents should take (flush your pipes, get blood tests for your kids, etc.), but the bottom line is that most Flint residents should feel comfortable drinking, cooking, and bathing with tap water.

The biggest problem with Donald Trump is that he's a charlatan and a demagogue who could do immense damage to the United States. But this is my blog, which means everything is about me me me. And my biggest problem with Trump is trying to figure out just how much to mock the guy. Given the amount of crap that spills out of his mouth daily, I could do nothing but mock Trump and easily keep this blog churning along for the next six months.

For example, a few weeks ago Trump was asked if women who get abortions should be punished. "The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment," he said. "Yes, there has to be some form." Today, Jonah Goldberg passes along Trump's follow-up on Morning Joe:

WILLIE GEIST: What about what you told Chris Matthews a few weeks ago, which is that women who get abortions should be punished? Do you still believe that to be true?

 TRUMP: No, he was asking me a theoretical, or just a question in theory, and I talked about it only from that standpoint. Of course not. And that was done, he said, you know, I guess it was theoretically, but he was asking a rhetorical question, and I gave an answer. And by the way, people thought from an academic standpoint, and, asked rhetorically, people said that answer was an unbelievable academic answer! But of course not, and I said that afterwards.

That's so Palinesque it makes me nostalgic for the 2008 election. But is it ridiculous enough to deserve a place on the blog? Or is it just garden variety Trump?

Also: I'm going to spend a lot of time over the next few months agreeing with people like Jonah Goldberg, which is not something I'm used to. Ditto for conservatives agreeing with me, which they're not used to either. This is going to be a weird campaign season.

POSTSCRIPT: The great part about Trump's answer is that, basically, he said, "Hey, the guy asked me a question, so I gave an answer. What are you gonna do?" This is his excuse. It doesn't mean he actually meant what he said. And apparently his supporters are fine with this.

How Badly Off Is the Middle Class?

I've coincidentally run into a couple of things this week that have sparked a question. The first is from Atrios, who describes in caustic terms how the well-off political class views the world:

I think they see the world as a combination of the way their peers see it (and they're mostly rich!), some 30 year old vision of Middle Class America, and The Poors. They don't get that middle class America are increasingly becoming like the poors. Maybe a bit more money, maybe a bit better lifestyle, but living paycheck to paycheck with student debt and one financial (medical, etc..) event away from nothing.

So is this true? Is the American middle class getting worse off with time? By coincidence, a new paper by John Komlos tries to answer this question. First, he takes a look at income, and comes to the usual conclusion: the richer you are, the more your income has grown over the past few decades (with an odd exception for the very poorest, who have done better than the middle class). But then he goes further: "Income growth is of interest primarily to the extent it is welfare enhancing," he says, and then produces some estimates of welfare growth since 1979. This involves a bunch of Greek letters, including one that can't be estimated at all, but let's ignore all that and just assume that Komlos did his sums properly. His basic result is on the right (I've edited and annotated it to make his estimates a little clearer).

Unsurprisingly, overall welfare doesn't differ much from income: the richer you are, the faster your welfare has increased. Overall, the rich have done spectacularly well, while the middle-class has endured decades of sluggish growth.

But — there's a big difference between "should be better" and "gotten worse." There's no question that middle-class income growth has suffered since the Reagan era. That said, middle-class welfare has nonetheless grown, not declined. Using my rough central estimate of Komlos's numbers (the red line), the welfare of middle-class families has increased about 0.3 percent per year, meaning that middle-class families today are about 10 percent better off than they were in 1979.

I can't stress enough that this is grim news. That number should be way higher. Still, if you want to make the argument that middle-class families today are in deeper absolute financial stress than they used to be ("increasingly becoming like the poors") you need to provide some evidence. I can't find it. I've looked all over, and everything I can find suggests that middle-class families are about as financially secure as they've always been—both in current income and future retirement income. That is, some are doing OK, some are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and some are in deep trouble. Just like always.

Are there any good measures of personal financial stress that cover the past few decades and show an increasing problem? I've read loads of anecdotal pieces, but all they show is that some families have a lot of financial problems. What I want to know is whether more families are having lots of financial problems.

Everybody thinks Donald Trump will lose the general election in November. If that's true, what should Republicans do about the Supreme Court?

  1. Go ahead and confirm Merrick Garland. He's about as good as they're likely to get from a Democrat.
  2. Continue their holdout and let Hillary Clinton nominate someone even more liberal next year.

Decisions, decisions. But it's a live question. Garland is now officially a pretty serious dilemma for Republicans.

Chart of the Day: Cheap Pot!

It's now been three years since Washington State legalized the sale of marijuana. So what happened? Answer: it got cheaper. The price of pot has fallen from $25 per gram to about $9 per gram, and it's still dropping. Keith Humphreys comments:

Falling pot prices create winners and losers. Because state taxes are based on a percentage of the sales price, declining prices mean each sale puts less money in the public purse. On the other hand, bargain-basement prices undercut the black market, bringing the public reduced law enforcement costs, both in terms of tax dollars spent on jail and the damage done to individuals who are arrested.

For consumers who enjoy pot occasionally while suffering no adverse effects from it, low prices will be a welcome but minor benefit....On the downside, young people tend to be price-sensitive consumers, and their use of inexpensive pot may rise over time, as might that of problematic marijuana users.

Are falling prices in Washington due to legalization? That seems like a reasonable guess. On the other hand, if the folks at priceofweed.com have things right, $9 per gram is roughly the market rate everywhere west of the Rockies. So there might be something else going on. Maybe legalization in Washington and Colorado have affected the entire regional market. Or maybe there's been a bumper crop of pot in Mendocino County. It's a little hard to say without more data.