Let Us Now Psychoanalyze Young Ben Rhodes

A couple of days ago the New York Times posted a long profile by David Samuels of White House communications guru Ben Rhodes. It turns out that in private Rhodes is pretty contemptuous of the foreign policy establishment, and thanks to the Times profile he's now contemptuous in public too. He also has some harsh words for the press, and as you might expect, the press has taken this with its usual thick skin. This piece by Carlos Lozada is typical. And here's a typical headline:

Is that a fair summary? In the Times profile, Rhodes describes how his communications shop tries to spin the news. By itself, this isn't much of a revelation. That's what communications people do. But was Rhodes really bragging about how easy it was to con reporters? The relevant excerpt comes after the reporter (not Rhodes) explains the "radical and qualitative" ways the news business has changed recently:

Rhodes singled out a key example to me one day, laced with the brutal contempt that is a hallmark of his private utterances. “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”

Is Rhodes displaying arrogance or smugness here? That's not how I took it when I initially read the piece. To me it scanned as an expression of regret. Rhodes himself is never quoted as being cocky or patronizing about his ability to shape foreign affairs reporting. He's just describing what he has to deal with, and explaining how that affects the way a modern White House press shop works. More digital, less print. More tutoring of young reporters, fewer tough questions from area experts.

Am I nuts for reading it this way? For those of you who have read the Times piece—And don't lie! Did you really read it?—what was your takeaway? Is Rhodes arrogant and manipulative? Or unhappy with the state of journalism but realistic about how it affects the way he does his job?

UPDATE: It's worth being very careful when you read the Times profile. You need to distinguish between what Rhodes says and how Samuels frames the quotes. Rhodes himself is fairly anodyne. In the quote above, for example, Rhodes is merely saying something that lots of reporters say too. It's Samuels who labels this as "brutal contempt."

Forget ethnic profiling. The real danger facing America these days is economists and their differential equations:

On Thursday evening, a 40-year-old man — with dark, curly hair, olive-skinned and an exotic foreign accent — boarded a plane. It was a regional jet making a short, uneventful hop from Philadelphia to nearby Syracuse.

....The curly-haired man tried to keep to himself, intently if inscrutably scribbling on a notepad he’d brought aboard His seatmate, a blond-haired, 30-something woman sporting flip-flops and a red tote bag, looked him over....He appeared laser-focused — perhaps too laser-focused — on the task at hand, those strange scribblings.

....Then, for unknown reasons, the plane turned around and headed back to the gate....Finally the pilot came by, locking eyes on the real culprit behind the delay: that darkly-complected foreign man....The curly-haired man was, the agent informed him politely, suspected of terrorism.

The curly-haired man laughed. He laughed because those scribbles weren’t Arabic, or some other terrorist code. They were math. Yes, math. A differential equation, to be exact.

It's about goddam time, I say. Personally, I'd say that economists and their math have done a lot more damage to the world recently than terrorists and their bombs. We owe this flip-flop-wearing woman our thanks.

On a more serious note, can it really be true that no one recognized what decorated young Italian economist Guido Menzio was doing? Sure, maybe his seatmate didn't recognize math. But neither the flight attendant nor the pilot recognized math-ish scribblings when they came back to take a look at things? "What might prevent an epidemic of paranoia?" Menzio wrote on Facebook. "It is hard not to recognize in this incident, the ethos of [Donald] Trump’s voting base." And that's quite true: Donald Trump is notoriously an idiot at math. I suppose his followers are too.

POSTSCRIPT: You know what's missing from this story? The actual page of math Menzio was working on in the plane. Admit it: you want to see it too. You're all such a bunch of nerds.

Health Update

Everything is good news this month. My M-protein level continues to decline, which means the level of cancerous plasma cells in my bone marrow is declining too. I'm still a long way from zero, but heading in the right direction.

At the same time, my immune system rebounded. Last month I was down to 1,300, which is uncomfortably close to the danger level of 1,000. This month I'm back up to 1,900, so perhaps March was just an outlier.

In other news, the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review has released a report evaluating the tsunami of new multiple myeloma treatments that have been brought to market recently. Three of them received a grade of B+, which sounds pretty good—although it turns out to mean only "moderate certainty of a small net health benefit." In numbers, that's an increased survival rate of 5-9 months. And do you remember all those recent news reports about how pricey new cancer treatments are these days? This is now more than an intellectual curiosity for me. These new drugs are really, really expensive: upwards of $400,000 per year of extra life.

And who pays for this? In the narrowest sense, Mother Jones. In a broader sense, everyone who pays premiums to Kaiser Permanente. And in the broadest sense of all, everyone in the country. So you have to decide: is it worth $400,000 to have Kevin Drum around for an extra year? That depends a lot on whether you happen to be Kevin Drum, doesn't it?

But there's no need to decide yet. It will likely be years before I need a third-line treatment, and by then maybe something better will be around. Personally, I'm counting on nanobots, so get cracking, nanotechnologists.

Friday Cat Blogging - 6 May 2016

Yesterday was a tough day: my computer went nuts and wouldn't let me get any work done. The symptoms were bizarre: I couldn't open any menus. They'd just flash on the screen and disappear. I couldn't open apps. I couldn't close apps. I could highlight text, but I couldn't copy or paste it. I couldn't even open the Start menu to reboot the machine. What the hell is going on with Windows 10?

Perhaps you can already figure out how this story ends? It turns out that Windows is fine. I'm sorry for doubting you, Microsoft. The bug turned out to be neither software nor firmware, but catware. Hilbert had his paw hanging out of the pod and was pressing the Escape key. When I removed his paw, everything worked fine again.

Really, the things we cat owners staffers put up with is astounding.

Quote of the Day: Debt? What Debt?

From Donald Trump, on his plans to run up the deficit in order to rebuild infrastructure:

I’ve borrowed knowing that you can pay back with discounts. I’ve done very well with debt....Now we’re in a different situation with the country, but I would borrow knowing that if the economy crashed, you could make a deal. And if the economy was good it was good, so therefore, you can’t lose.

There you have it. If Trump crashes the economy, he'll just default on our sovereign debt. Easy peasy. Why is everyone so worried?

POSTSCRIPT: This is a pretty good example of the Trump Dilemma™. Do you ignore this kind of desperate plea for attention? Or do you write a long, earnest piece about just why it's a very bad idea indeed? You can hardly ignore it since it's now coming from the Republican Party's presidential nominee. But giving it oxygen just gives Trump the free media he was angling for in the first place. In this case, I'm semi-ignoring it. Josh Marshall takes the opposite tack here. Decisions, decisions.

In the New York Times Magazine this week, David Samuels has a long profile of Ben Rhodes, the chief messaging guru for foreign affairs in the White House. Generally speaking, Rhodes seems like my kind of guy, but what's most interesting about the profile isn't really Rhodes himself, but his take on modern journalism. For example:

It is hard for many to absorb the true magnitude of the change in the news business — 40 percent of newspaper-industry professionals have lost their jobs over the past decade....Rhodes singled out a key example to me one day, laced with the brutal contempt that is a hallmark of his private utterances. “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.

Or this on how to spin the news:

Ned Price, Rhodes’s assistant, gave me a primer on how it’s done. The easiest way for the White House to shape the news, he explained, is from the briefing podiums, each of which has its own dedicated press corps. “But then there are sort of these force multipliers,” he said, adding, “We have our compadres, I will reach out to a couple people....And I’ll give them some color,” Price continued, “and the next thing I know, lots of these guys are in the dot-com publishing space, and have huge Twitter followings, and they’ll be putting this message out on their own.”

....In a world where experienced reporters competed for scoops and where carrying water for the White House was a cause for shame, no matter which party was in power, it was much harder to sustain a “narrative” over any serious period of time. Now the most effectively weaponized 140-character idea or quote will almost always carry the day, and it is very difficult for even good reporters to necessarily know where the spin is coming from or why.

Or this:

[Rhodes] developed a healthy contempt for the American foreign-policy establishment, including editors and reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker and elsewhere, who at first applauded the Iraq war and then sought to pin all the blame on Bush and his merry band of neocons when it quickly turned sour. If anything, that anger has grown fiercer during Rhodes’s time in the White House. He referred to the American foreign-policy establishment as the Blob. According to Rhodes, the Blob includes Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and other Iraq-war promoters from both parties who now whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order in Europe and the Middle East.

....Barack Obama is not a standard-issue liberal Democrat. He openly shares Rhodes’s contempt for the groupthink of the American foreign-policy establishment and its hangers-on in the press. Yet one problem with the new script that Obama and Rhodes have written is that the Blob may have finally caught on.

The Blob "catching on" means that a lot of members of the foreign policy establishment have decided that maybe they don't like Obama so much after all. He's just too unwilling to send in the military when there's a problem somewhere. At least, that seems like their big complaint to me.

Anyway, the whole thing is worth a read—not so much for what it says about Rhodes or Obama, but for what it says about the news business circa 2016. In a way, nothing has changed: presidents always try to shape the news, and they use whatever tools are at hand in their particular era. But in another way, everything has changed. It's not just the tools that have changed this time, it's the entire press corps.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in April

The American economy added 160,000 new jobs last month, 90,000 of which were needed to keep up with population growth. This means that net job growth clocked in at a sluggish 70,000 jobs. The number of workers in the labor force declined, but the number of unemployed also declined, which means the headline unemployment rate stayed steady at 5.0 percent. Public sector employment decreased by 11,000 jobs.

Hourly earnings of production and nonsupervisory employees were up at an annual rate of about 2.9 percent compared to last month, which is only slightly higher than the rate of inflation. However, weekly hours worked were up, which means weekly earnings increased at a healthy annual rate of 6.7 percent.

Bottom line: not horrible but nothing to write home about. The economy is growing, but overall we seem to remain mired in a great stagnation.

It's a truism of American politics that candidates run to the left or right during primaries but then "pivot" toward the center for the general election. And the quality of the pivot is a topic of endless discussion. It has to be done smoothly and delicately. Voters won't put up with a brazen flip-flop.

Or will they? Here is the Washington Post on Donald Trump's pivot:

The New York real estate tycoon, who frequently boasted throughout the primary that he was financing his campaign, is setting up a national fundraising operation and taking a hands-off posture toward super PACs.

He is expressing openness to raising the minimum wage, a move he previously opposed, saying on CNN this week, “I mean, you have to have something that you can live on.”

And Trump is backing away from a tax plan he rolled out last fall that would give major cuts to the rich. “I am not necessarily a huge fan of that,” he told CNBC. “I am so much more into the middle class, who have just been absolutely forgotten in our country.”

Trump has been rewriting the rules for the past year, so maybe this rule is going by the wayside as well. It will be especially easy for Trump since (a) he doesn't have an ideological fan base that cares much about his positions, and (b) the press will just shrug and say it's Trump being Trump. Can you imagine what would happen if Hillary Clinton tried to pull a stunt like this?

Are voters really angry this year? The Associated Press says no:

All that talk of an angry America?

An Associated Press-GfK poll finds that most Americans are happy with their friends and family, feel good about their finances and are more or less content at work. It’s government, particularly the federal government, that’s making them see red.

Hmmm. People are generally pretty happy with their finances and their personal lives, but they're really pissed off at the federal government. We've seen this dynamic before. Here's a long-term look at polling data from the Washington Post:

Anger toward the federal government has been on a steady upward trend ever since 2003 (though voters in 2016 are less angry than they were in 2014). And this trend is notably unaffected by economic conditions. Anger didn't spike during the 2000 dotcom bust and it didn't spike during the 2008 crash. So what's going on? The obvious culprits are:

  • Fox News and the rest of the conservative outrage machine
  • The Iraq war, which explains why anger started to rise in 2003
  • The tea party, which explains the spike in 2010
  • The election of Barack Obama, which would explain a spike beginning around 2008 (there's no data between 2004-2010)

Take your pick. Maybe it's a combination of things. But the bottom line seems fairly simple: there's voluminous data suggesting that, in general, Americans are fairly happy with their personal finances and fairly happy with their lives in general. As happy as they've ever been, anyway. But they're pretty pissed off at the federal government. If there's anything interesting to be said about voter anger, this is the puzzle to focus on.

Driverless Taxis By 2017?

Here's the latest on the driverless car front:

General Motors Co. and Lyft Inc. within a year will begin testing a fleet of self-driving Chevrolet Bolt electric taxis on public roads, a move central to the companies’ joint efforts to challenge Silicon Valley giants in the battle to reshape the auto industry.

This is all in addition to a whole bunch of companies claiming they'll have fully autonomous vehicles commercially available by 2020. If this really happens, it's impressive as hell. I'm a longtime optimist on artificial intelligence, but even I figured it would take until 2025 for truly driverless cars to become a reality. Will I have to pull in my prediction of 2040 for full-on strong AI too? Maybe. The next few decades are going to be very interesting indeed.