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Americans Not Really That Angry After All

| Wed Jan. 27, 2016 3:13 PM EST

Aaron Blake makes an interesting point today about the notion that Donald Trump and other presidential candidates are uniquely appealing this year because voters are so angry:

They're simply not — or at least, not abnormally angry. Despite the rise of two candidates who have embraced the idea of anger, our country simply isn't unusually angry about how things are going in Washington.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows just 24 percent of Americans describe themselves as "angry" about the way the federal government works. I say "just," because that's actually on the low end of where that number has been in recent years. (An additional 47 percent describe themselves as "dissatisfied but not angry.")

It seems as though I've heard about the seething anger of the electorate before nearly every election in my life. Joe Klein takes a drive through the heartland every few years and reports back about this. But all sorts of polling evidence suggest that Americans aren't really all that unhappy in general and not really all that angry about the government. No more than usual, anyway. Now, maybe this year really is different. Maybe voters are more responsive to angry appeals even if they aren't especially angry in general. But for all the talk, Blake is right: the polling data doesn't really show anything unusual.

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Parenting Tip of the Day: Buy a Backward-Facing Stroller For Your Baby

| Wed Jan. 27, 2016 2:07 PM EST

I just got back from my morning walk, and as usual I saw a bunch of parents taking their babies out for a walk in their strollers. And that got me wondering: does this have any benefit for babies? What do they get out of daily rides around the neighborhood?

When I got home I tried to find some research on this point, but I failed. I guess I don't know where to look. But I did find some research suggesting that if you're going to take your baby for a stroll, you should do it in a stroller where the baby faces you rather than the outside world. Why? One researcher suggested (without data, apparently) that babies just felt more comfortable when they could see mommy or daddy. But two researchers have actual data. Although they come up with raw numbers that are different enough to make you wonder just how accurate any of this is, both Suzanne Zeedyk and Ken Blaiklock performed observational studies of parents pushing their kids around and found that parents talked to their babies a lot more when the babies faced them.

This makes perfect sense, of course, and both Zeedyk and Blaiklock recommend parent-facing strollers because it encourages more interaction, which is a good thing. This doesn't answer the question of whether taking your baby for a stroll has any effect one way or the other, but at least it suggests the best kind of stroller to get. Consider this your parenting tip of the day.

#OscarsSoWhite Is Targeting Precisely the Wrong Thing

| Wed Jan. 27, 2016 12:43 PM EST

Caroline Framke argues that the #OscarsSoWhite movement is targeting the wrong part of Hollywood:

Ever since the Oscar nominations were announced and it became clear that talk of supporting diversity did not translate into tangible recognition, white actors have contributed astonishingly tone-deaf thoughts in droves....But even as these actors make gaffes about the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood, there are countless producers, agents, directors, and executives who aren't getting the same kind of grilling — and they're the ones who most stand a chance of making real change.

....The lion's share of real power in Hollywood lies with its behind-the-scenes players. Producers, agents, and directors rarely have the glossy profiles, red carpet looks, or motivation to keep us interested in their day-to-day lives. Thus, they can operate in a publicity vacuum more than those making a living onscreen. When something like #OscarsSoWhite breaks, they're usually not the ones sitting on folding chairs at press junkets and putting their words on the record.

Framke is right, but you don't even need to stray this far to make her point. The chart on the right tells you everything you need to know. As I mentioned the other day, the acting categories at the Academy Awards are actually pretty diverse: the number of black nominees has gone up steadily and reached 9 percent during the last decade. That's not bad. The songwriting category is even better: 14 percent of all nominees have been black over the past decade.

But everywhere else it's a wasteland: less than 1 percent of all nominees in every other category combined have been black.1 If I bothered looking through the technical awards, the percentage would be even lower.

This is hardly a big Hollywood secret. And it makes Framke even more right: we should leave the actors alone. Hollywood actually does a decent job of making sure the face of the industry is fairly diverse. But dig an inch below the surface and black faces are all but nonexistent.

1I didn't include two categories: Best Picture, because the winner is usually a team of producers; and Best Foreign Language Film, since by definition none of the winners are African-American. For the record, five African-Americans have been nominated as part of a group for Best Picture over the past decade.

Robert Gates Not Impressed With Modern Republican Party

| Wed Jan. 27, 2016 11:42 AM EST

Former defense secretary Robert Gates has had a few uncomplimentary things to say about Hillary Clinton over the past couple of years, but they've mostly been fairly restrained. Not so much for the current crop of Republican presidential candidates:

“The level of dialogue on national security issues would embarrass a middle schooler,” Gates said of the Republican contenders at a Politico Playbook event in Washington on Monday. “People are out there making threats and promises that are totally unrealistic, totally unattainable. Either they really believe what they’re saying or they’re cynical and opportunistic and, in a way, you hope it’s the latter, because God forbid they actually believe some of the things that they’re saying.”

....“In some cases, the things they’re saying they’re going to do are unconstitutional or merely against the law and others are, from a budgetary standpoint, inconceivable, and so it seems to be that the press has not hammered hard enough and been relentless in saying, ‘How the hell are you going to do that?’”

In fairness to the press, the candidates have flatly refused to provide any more detail about how they'd do any of the things they say they're going to do. And the public doesn't seem to care. So what are reporters supposed to do? In other remarks, Gates explained why he didn't want photos of the Bin Laden raid released to the public:

The intelligence veteran of nearly 27 years also spoke about the danger of leaks and recalled the 2011 raid in Pakistan that killed terrorist Osama bin Laden. A friend later emailed him a Photoshopped version of the famous picture in the situation room with the occupants wearing superhero costumes: Obama as Superman, Joe Biden as Spider-Man, Clinton as Wonder Woman and Gates himself as the Green Lantern.

“And we all had a good laugh, and then I said, ‘Mr President, this is the reason the photographs of the dead Bin Laden must never be released, because somebody will Photoshop them and it will anger every Muslim in the world, even those that hated Bin Laden, because of being disrespectful of the dead, and it will create greater risk for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and for all Americans, especially in the Middle East.’ And to the best of my knowledge, those photographs are the only things about that raid that have never leaked.”

Fair enough.

Factoid of the Day: The IMF is 0 for 220 In Predicting Recessions

| Wed Jan. 27, 2016 11:07 AM EST

Larry Summers points us to this remarkable statistic:

Forecasts of all sorts are especially bad at predicting downturns. Over the period [1999-2014], there were 220 instances in which an economy grew in one year before shrinking in the next. In its April forecasts the IMF never once foresaw the contraction looming in the next year. Even in October of the year in question, the IMF predicted that a recession had begun only half the time.

I guess no one likes to be the skunk at the party, even the IMF. But I wonder who did better at predicting recessions? Goldman Sachs? The CIA? A hedge fund rocket scientist in Connecticut? Whoever it is, it sounds like the IMF might want to look them up.

UPDATE: It gets better! Via Twitter, Mark Gimein points me to Prakash Loungani's article 15 years ago about recession predictions during the 1990s:

How well did private forecasters do in predicting recessions in these cases? Quite simply, the record of failure to predict recessions is virtually unblemished. Only two of the 60 recessions that occurred around the world during the 1990s were predicted a year in advance.

....If private sector growth forecasts are of little use in spotting recessions, why not use the forecasts provided free by the official sector?...There is not much to choose between private sector and official sector forecasts. Statistical "races" between the two tend to end up in a photo-finish in most cases.

Loungani doesn't provide a precise number for IMF predictions, but he implies it's roughly the same as private-sector predictions: 2 out of 60. If that's the case, the IMF has gotten even worse since then. A hit rate of 3.3 percent might be pretty lousy, but at least it's better than 0 percent.

Watch Mike Huckabee Cover Adele in a Campaign Ad

| Wed Jan. 27, 2016 11:06 AM EST

On Wednesday morning, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign tweeted its latest campaign video—and it's a cover of pop superstar Adele's hit song "Hello."

Instead of talking about strained relationships, Huckabee's "Hello" focuses on Iowa's highlights and idiosyncrasies. "Amish chairs, Casey's jerky, Quad Cities has quite a port," sings the unnamed, unseen vocalist. 

The ad includes dramatizations of text message exchanges with Hillary Clinton and Sen. Ted Cruz—with the latter sending Huckabee a text claiming he is Canadian. There's really a lot to unpack here. It's probably best to watch it for yourself.

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Almonds Are Getting Cheaper, But Here's the Catch

| Wed Jan. 27, 2016 6:00 AM EST

Ye almond-loving hipsters, rejoice! The revered—and lately quite expensive—nut is likely to get cheaper soon. The wholesale price for almonds—the one paid by supermarkets to stock their bulk bins, or by processors to make their trail mixes—has fallen from a high of $4.70 last August down to $2.60, reports the Financial Times.

And the reason has nothing to do with a viral screed against almond milk penned by a certain wag in 2014. Rather, it's the same set of forces that triggered California's massive almond boom in the first place: the vagaries of global demand.

The state's growers, who churn out 99 percent of almonds grown in the United States, have rapidly expanded their almond groves over the past decade and a half.

But that expansion didn't happen just to satisfy your trendy almond-milk latte habit. California farmers are almond growers to the world: They supply about 80 percent of the almonds consumed globally, and export demand has risen steadily for most of the past 15 years. About 70 percent of California's almonds are exported. According to the Almond Board of California, the great bulk of this massive outflow goes to Asia, the destination of 44 percent of California's almond exports, and Western Europe, which gets about 40 percent. 

As a result of that booming global demand, the price farmers get for almonds has risen dramatically despite the big acreage expansion.

But in recent months, the global appetite for almonds has plunged. Here's the Financial Times:

Last year's surge in prices depressed demand, and buyers in China, the Middle East and India, who have led consumption over the past three to four years, have disappeared. Trading has ground to a halt as prices continue to decline and the number of rejected containers by buyers refusing to honor contracts has jumped.

"It's a bloodbath," one California-based nut trader told the Financial Times. What happened was that California's multiyear drought took a bite out of crop yields, making almonds more scarce and pushing up their price. And then, in 2014, the US dollar began to rise in value against major Asian currencies and the euro, making US exports, including almonds, even more expensive in those regions.

"It's a bloodbath," one California-based nut trader told the Financial Times.

To make matters worse, the European economy stagnated, and China—the globe's biggest almond importer—saw its economic growth slow and its stock market tumble. Snack makers in Asia and Europe began to balk at pricey almonds, putting fewer in nut mixes and reducing the portion size of almond offerings, the FT reports. In 2015, almond exports to Asia and Western Europe fell 12 percent and 7 percent, respectively, according to the Almond Board of California.

And now, with a historic El Niño triggering a wet and snowy winter in California, the market expects a big harvest in 2016. Econ 101 tells us that abundant supply and weak demand means lower prices going forward. That likely means you'll soon be getting at least a slight break on that bag of salty roasted almonds you keep at your desk. But what does it mean for California's almond boom?

In previous posts, I've questioned whether the state has the water resources—or access to sufficient bee hives for pollination—to continue devoting ever more land to the crunchy treat. Unlike, say, vegetables or cotton, which can be fallowed during dry years, planting an almond grove requires farmers to commit to finding a steady water source for about 20 years, or risk losing a very expensive investment. (According to the Almond Board of California, establishing an almond grove—paying for land, saplings, an irrigation system, etc.—costs about $8,700 per acre, or about $2.6 million for a new 300-acre grove.)

During the drought, water from California's massive irrigation projects, which deliver melted Sierra Nevada snow to the state's farms, was largely cut off. Farmers responded by fallowing a portion of annual crops like cotton and vegetables and irrigating the rest—including their ever-expanding almond groves—with water drawn from finite underground aquifers. While the current El Niño might spell the end of a drought that has haunted California since 2012, California agriculture has gotten so ravenous for water that aquifers in its largest (and most almond-centered) growing region, the Central Valley, have been declining steadily for decades.

For my deep dive into the almond boom last year, I asked David Doll, an orchard adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension, how long growers could keep devoting ever more land to almonds despite the long-term water crunch. He told me it would only stop "when the crop stops making money."

If the Asian and European appetite for almonds returns to normal growth rates, the almond boom will likely continue unabated.

I checked back in with him to see what he thought about the current price drop. He said under normal conditions, when water is flowing from the state's irrigation projects, the break-even farmer price for almonds is about $1.45 per pound—at that price, farmers neither lose nor make money. But when water is scarce, farmers face higher irrigation costs, and the break-even price rises to somewhere between $2.60 and $2.85—roughly where prices are now. So even with the current price drop, most almond growers are breaking even. But if we get another wet winter this year, water prices could drop by 2017 and almond farmers will be right back to profitability.

If the Asian and European appetite for almonds returns to normal growth rates, Doll added, the almond expansion will likely continue unabated, which will in turn limit large upward price swings as supply rises to meet demand. The limiting factor, of course, is water. Back in 2014, California shook off a history of Wild West aquifer stewardship and passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires that by 2025, the state's aquifers can't be drawn down faster than they're recharged—a dramatic reversal of the status quo. "From my observations, there are many [almond] operations that are not planning for this policy," Doll said, meaning they're not prepared for a future when aquifers can't be tapped at will.

But 2025 is nearly a decade away. Enjoy those relatively inexpensive almonds, you ignorant hipsters.

Fox News Needs to Show Some Spine

| Wed Jan. 27, 2016 1:30 AM EST

Gabriel Sherman reports on Donald Trump's declaration that he won't participate in the Fox debate on Thursday:

Yuck. Fox's written statement is suitably firm: "Capitulating to politicians’ ultimatums about a debate moderator violates all journalistic standards, as do threats, including the one leveled by Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski toward Megyn Kelly." But if Ailes and Hannity are really calling Trump to beg him to reconsider—which, admittedly, we have only Trump's word for—it suggests that Trump is winning. They should knock it off. Let him go sulk in his tent.

Planned Parenthood Sting Felony: Using a Fake Drivers License

| Wed Jan. 27, 2016 1:19 AM EST

Today we learned more about the felony charges leveled at David Daleiden, the guy who masterminded the sting videos against Planned Parenthood. The basic charge is a misdemeanor, according to Josh Schaffer, a lawyer for Planned Parenthood in Houston:

Daleiden emailed Planned Parenthood in June [2015], asking to buy fetal tissue for $1,600....Planned Parenthood, Schaffer said, never responded to Daleiden’s email. “He probably didn’t know he was breaking the law,” Schaffer added.

And from a follow-up story: “It doesn’t matter if he intended to buy it,” Schaffer said, “making the request is illegal, even if an offer isn’t accepted.”

But the charge got upgraded to a felony because Daleiden used a fake ID:

Daleiden and an associate breezed past the building’s metal detector, and allegedly presented as identification a phony California drivers license with the name of an alias, Robert Sarkis. In normal cases, the use of a fake ID would not warrant felony charges....But Texas state law includes a provision that elevates this transgression—knowingly using a fake government document—to a second-degree felony if “the intent is to defraud or harm another.” The grand jury decided that Daleiden’s goal was to do just that, by using his cover story to make a covert recording designed to damage Planned Parenthood’s reputation.

So there you have it. Offering to buy fetal tissue is a misdemeanor, whether or not you actually go through with it. And using a fake government ID is a felony in Texas if you use it with intent to harm another—which Daleiden very much intended and hoped to do.

I continue to have some doubts about these charges. As much as I dislike what Daleiden did—and the egregiously deceptive videos he put together after the sting—Texas law seems to make it almost inherently illegal for a reporter or anyone else to try to expose illicit activity. That's often going to require a solicitation to commit a crime; it's frequently going to require some kind of bogus ID; and it's pretty much always done with an intent to harm. But if you put those together, you've automatically got a felony, even if the target of your investigation turns out to be a mafia front.

I dunno. Any lawyers in the audience are invited to chime in here. Maybe I'm overstating how often these three elements come together. But somehow this doesn't quite sit right with me.

POSTSCRIPT: I wonder why Daleiden used a fake ID with a fake expiration date of 2014 for a sting he carried out in 2015? Sloppy.

Donald Trump Steals the Spotlight Yet Again

| Tue Jan. 26, 2016 8:44 PM EST

Donald Trump has figured out yet again how to dominate the news cycle: he's announced that he won't participate in Thursday's debate on Fox because host Megyn Kelly isn't fair to him. It's childish, but it's probably a smart move. The debate likely wouldn't help him much, but with everyone gunning for him there's at least a chance it could hurt him. And since Trump's appeal is mostly rooted in grievance culture, picking a fight like this probably goes over well with his base. Besides, as you can see, his announcement got him a ton of press. Everyone even used the same picture for some reason.

Alternatively, Trump might decide at the last minute to show up after all. This would get him even more attention.

But there's at least one news organization that didn't get the news. Fox News still thinks Trump is going to be center stage. Are they behind the curve, or do they know something we don't?

UPDATE: They're just behind the curve. Fox now has a "Breaking News" banner at the top of their page announcing that Trump won't be participating.