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Donald Trump Screws Up GOP Loyalty Pledge, Making it Extra-Meaningless

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 2:41 PM EDT

On Thursday, Donald Trump pledged his fealty to the Republican Party with a largely meaningless pledge not to run as an independent candidate during the 2016 campaign for the White House. In doing so, it appears the billionaire presidential hopeful also affixed the wrong date to his signature:

Brilliant.

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Marx and Keynes Put Economics on the Map, and They Can Take It Right Off Again

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 2:38 PM EDT

Over at PostEverything, Dan Drezner wonders why economics has managed to wield such an outsized influence among the social sciences. His strongest point—or at least the one he spends the most time on—is that economists "share a strong consensus about the virtues of free markets, free trade, capital mobility and entrepreneurialism." This makes them catnip to the plutocrat class, and therefore the favored social scientists of influential people everywhere.

Fine, says Adam Ozimek, but what about liberal economists? "Why is Paul Krugman famous? Robert Shiller? Joe Stiglitz? Jeff Sachs? 'To please plutocrats' is not a good theory." And this: "Why do liberal think tanks with liberal donors supporting liberal causes hire so many economists? To please plutocrats?"

I think Drezner and Ozimek each make good points. Here's my amateur historical explanation that incorporates both.

The first thing to understand is that in the 19th century, economists were no more influential than other social scientists. Folks like David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus were certainly prominent, but no more so than, say, Herbert Spencer or Max Weber. What's more, economics was a far less specialized field then. John Stuart Mill had a strong influence on economics, but was he an economist? Or a philosopher? Or a political scientist? He was all of those things.

So what happened to make economists so singularly influential in the 20th century? I'll toss out two causes: Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes.

The fight for and against communism defined the second half of the 20th century, and Marx had always identified economics as the underpinning of his socio-historical theories. Outside of the battlefield, then, this made the most important conflict of the time fundamentally a fight over economics. In the public imagination, if not within the field itself, the fight between communism and free markets became identified as the face of economics, and this made it the most important branch of the social sciences.

Then Keynes upped the ante. In the same spirit that Whitehead called philosophy a series of footnotes to Plato, economics in the second half of the 20th century was largely a series of footnotes to Keynes. Rightly or wrongly, he became the poster child for liberals who wanted to justify their belief in an activist government and the arch nemesis of conservatives who wanted no such thing. In the same way that communism was the biggest fight on the global stage, the fight over the size and scope of government was the biggest fight on the domestic stage. And since this was fundamentally a fight over economics, the field of economics became ground zero for domestic politics in advanced economies around the world.

And that's why economists became so influential among both plutocrats and the lefty masses. Sure, it's partly because economists use lots of Greek letters and act like physicists, but mostly it's because that window dressing was used in service of the two most fundamental geo-socio-political conflicts of the late 20th century.

So does that mean economics is likely to lose influence in the future? After all, free market capitalism and mixed economies are now triumphant. Compared to the 20th century, we're now arguing over relative table scraps. And, as Drezner points out, the profession of economics has hardly covered itself with glory in the opening years of the 21st century. Has their time has come and gone?

Maybe. I mean, how should I know? Obviously there's a lot of inertia here, and economics will remain pretty important for a long time. But the biggest fights are gone and economists have an embarrassing recent track record of failure. If the rest of the social sciences want to mount an assault on the field, this would probably be a pretty good time to do it.

Kansas Republicans May Have Just Shut Down the State's Court System

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 1:42 PM EDT

What happens to a legal appeal when there's no court to hear it?

That's the tricky question before Kansas Republicans today as they grapple with the results of their own law, which threatens to shutter the state court system.

On Wednesday night, a district judge in Kansas struck down a 2014 law that stripped the state Supreme Court of some of its administrative powers. The ruling has set off a bizarre constitutional power struggle between the Republican-controlled legislature and the state Supreme Court. At stake is whether the Kansas court system will lose its funding and shut down.

Last year, the Kansas legislature passed a law that took away the top court's authority to appoint chief judges to the state's 31 judicial districts—a policy change Democrats believe was retribution for an ongoing dispute over school funding between the Supreme Court and the legislature. (Mother Jones reported on the standoff this spring.) When the legislature passed a two-year budget for the court system earlier this year, it inserted a clause stipulating that if a court ever struck down the 2014 administrative powers law, funding for the entire court system would be "null and void." Last night, that's what the judge did.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt warned that last night's decision “could effectively and immediately shut off all funding for the judicial branch.” That would lead to chaos. As Pedro Irigonegaray, an attorney for the Kansas judge who brought the legal challenge against the administrative law, put it, “Without funding, our state courts would close, criminal cases would not be prosecuted, civil matters would be put on hold, real estate could not be bought or sold, adoptions could not be completed."

Both parties in the case have agreed to ask that Wednesday's ruling remain on hold until it can be appealed to the state Supreme Court, so that there is a functioning court to hear the appeal. On Thursday, a judge granted the stay. Meanwhile, lawyers involved in the case and advocates for judicial independence are preparing a legal challenge to the clause of the judicial budget that withholds court funding. Sometime in the next few months, the state Supreme Court is likely to rule on whether the legislature has the right to strip the Supreme Court of its administrative authority, and whether it can make funding for the courts contingent on the outcome of a court case.

“We have never seen a law like this before," Randolph Sherman, a lawyer involved in fighting the administrative law, said in a statement, referring to the self-destruct mechanism in the judicial budget. "[I]t is imperative that we stop it before it throws the state into a constitutional crisis.”

This story has been updated.

Florida Governor Refuses to Admit That His Own Investigators Have Cleared Planned Parenthood

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 1:08 PM EDT

Good news! Florida regulators have finished their investigation of Planned Parenthood and concluded that there were no problems with the group's handling of fetal tissue. But you might not know that if you read their press release about the investigation. It turns out that Florida Gov. Rick Scott preferred to keep this under wraps:

Emails between the governor’s office and AHCA, obtained by POLITICO Florida through a public records request, show the agency prepared a press release that same day noting that “there is no evidence of the mishandling of fetal remains at any of the 16 clinics we investigated across the state.”

Scott's office revised the release to exclude that sentence, an email sent by Scott’s communications director, Jackie Schutz, shows. Additionally, the revised release noted the AHCA would refer physicians who worked at the clinics to the Board of Medicine for possible disciplinary action.

Kinda reminds you of a half-bright middle schooler who thinks he has a genius idea, doesn't it?

Republicans Shot Themselves in the Foot Over Iran

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 12:06 PM EDT

Why did Republicans fail to kill the Iran nuclear deal?

Opponents of the deal may have miscalculated the degree of public interest in the debate. They hoped for the kind of outpouring of public anger that gave rise to the tea party and nearly doomed Obamacare in August 2010. But the Iran deal “just hasn’t had that kind of galvanizing effect” on the public, said Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), who backs the agreement.

....A Republican invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address both houses of Congress in March appears to have backfired. His harsh denunciation of the negotiations then underway, which the White House portrayed as a snub of Obama’s foreign policy, made the debate more polarizing and partisan, pushing Democrats to the president’s side.

Another factor, said one frustrated Republican on Capitol Hill: “Trump happened.” The GOP leadership aide, granted anonymity to discuss the setback, said billionaire Donald Trump’s attention-grabbing presidential campaign, along with scrutiny of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s email server, overshadowed all other issues this summer, making it harder for the Republicans’ message to attract attention.

....Democrats have felt free to back the deal in part because they heard from many in the American Jewish community who split from the more hawkish AIPAC....The dozen or so Democratic opponents in Congress come mainly from parts of New York, New Jersey and Florida with large politically conservative Jewish populations. But the opponents failed to mount a serious effort to persuade other lawmakers to buck the White House.

First things first: don't blame this on Donald Trump. He's been scathing about the deal, and has probably drawn more attention to it than all the AIPAC-funded ads put together. As for Hillary Clinton's email woes, it would please me no end if Republicans had shot themselves in the foot by focusing the fever swamps on that and leaving no room for outrage about Iran. But I doubt it. There's always stuff going on. Nobody ever fights a political battle in a pristine environment. There was plenty of room for Iran outrage.

As it happens, though, I think Republicans did shoot themselves in the foot, but in a different way. Ever since 2009, their political strategy has been relentless and one-dimensional: oppose everything President Obama supports, instantly and unanimously. They certainly followed this playbook on Iran. Republicans were slamming the deal before the text was even released, and virtually none of them even pretended to be interested in the merits of the final agreement. Instead, they formed a united, knee-jerk front against the deal practically before the ink was dry.

This did two things. First, it made them look unserious. From the beginning, the whole point of the economic sanctions against Iran was to use them as leverage to pressure the Iranian leadership to approve a nuclear deal. But by opposing it so quickly—based on an obviously specious desire for a "better deal" that they were never willing to spell out—Republicans made it clear that they opposed any agreement that lifted the sanctions. In other words, they opposed any agreement, period.

Second, by forming so quickly, the Republican wall of opposition turned the Iran agreement into an obviously partisan matter. Once they did that, they made it much harder for Democrats to oppose a president of their own party. A more deliberate approach almost certainly would have helped them pick up more Democratic votes.

All that said, keep in mind that Democrats only needed 34 senators or 145 House members to guarantee passage. That's not a high bar for a historic deal backed by a Democratic president. In other words, it's quite possible that Republicans actually did nothing wrong. They simply never had a chance in the first place.

Anchor Babies Exist, But Probably Not Very Many of Them

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 11:07 AM EDT

Do "anchor babies" exist? Or are they just a pernicious myth invented by the anti-immigration right? The LA Times sent reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske to Rio Grande City in Texas to check things out:

In this county in the heart of the impoverished Rio Grande Valley, so-called anchor babies have been delivered for decades, some to women who have already settled in Texas, others to those who crossed the river expressly to give birth on U.S. soil. "About six months ago I got one who was literally still wet from the river," [Dr. Rolando] Guerrero said.

....Just how many Mexican mothers come to give birth to the babies and the cost of caring for them are unclear. "They do come on purpose," said Thalia Munoz, chief executive of Starr County Memorial. "We have to absorb the costs....It's a persistent problem. It's a fact: They come over here for the anchor baby, they come over for the benefits."

....The doctors said they saw fewer women coming to have babies after Texas officials ordered a surge of law enforcement and National Guard troops to the border last summer in response to an influx of Central American immigrants....But since then, "slowly, it's been going back up," Guerrero said.

....At Starr County Memorial, most of the mothers the doctors see do not cross intentionally to give birth, they said — they were already living on the U.S. side of the border with families of mixed status. "I have families where I've delivered three or four" U.S.-born babies, Guerrero said.

It's unlikely that we'll ever get a firm handle on how common this phenomenon is. But if the evidence of this story is typical, we can say that (a) anchor babies certainly exist, but (b) probably not in very large numbers. That's not likely to satisfy anyone, but sometimes life is like that.

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Why Do High Schools Erase All the Test Score Gains of the Past 40 Years?

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 10:22 AM EDT

SAT scores have been dropping slowly but steadily for the past decade:

The steady decline in SAT scores and generally stagnant results from high schools on federal tests and other measures reflect a troubling shortcoming of education-reform efforts. The test results show that gains in reading and math in elementary grades haven’t led to broad improvement in high schools, experts say. That means several hundred thousand teenagers, especially those who grew up poor, are leaving school every year unready for college.

“Why is education reform hitting a wall in high school?” asked Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank. “You see this in all kinds of evidence. Kids don’t make a whole lot of gains once they’re in high school. It certainly should raise an alarm.”

It is difficult to pinpoint a reason for the decline in SAT scores, but educators cite a host of enduring challenges in the quest to lift high school achievement. Among them are poverty, language barriers, low levels of parental education and social ills that plague many urban neighborhoods.

I'm delighted to see an education story that acknowledges the plain evidence of test score gains, even if just in an aside. The simple fact is that through middle school, standardized test scores have risen significantly over both the past decade and the past four decades. Elementary and middle school test scores have not been either stagnant or dropping, but based on the usual reporting of this stuff, I doubt that one person in a hundred is aware of this.

But I'm also happy to see the flip side of this acknowledged: in general, all these gains wash away in high school. On the "gold standard" NAEP test, math scores have gone up just a few points among 17 year olds and reading scores have been flat. The usual explanation is that education reforms have initially been centered on elementary and middle schools, and scores will go up for older kids once those reforms start to become widespread in high schools.

Maybe. But that excuse is starting to look old in the tooth. And even if high schools haven't seen a lot of reforms yet, why is it that they seem to have a negative effect on student performance? If math scores were up, say, ten points by the end of middle school and remained ten points up by the end of high school, that would be one thing. High schools wouldn't be adding anything, but they wouldn't be doing any harm either. But that's not the case. Kids come out of middle school better prepared today, but come out of high school no better than they did in 1971. High school is actually erasing gains.

This is, needless to say, troubling. Poverty, language barriers, low levels of parental education and social ills are problems at all ages, so that explains little. Nor does disaggregating scores by race, since demographic changes have been similar at all age levels. But the plain truth is that the only thing that really matters is how well prepared kids are when they finish high school. All the test score gains in the world mean nothing if they're gone by age 17. This is something we really need to figure out.

Kentucky Clerk Held in Contempt of Court for Refusing to Issue Gay Marriage Licenses

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 9:56 AM EDT

Update (9/3/2015, 1:09 p.m. EST): A federal judge has found Kim Davis in contempt of court. She has been taken into federal custody.

Explaining his decision, US District Judge David Bunning told Davis, "You don’t strike me as someone who's contentious. I simply [find that] making this contempt finding is necessary."

"Oaths means things," he added, according to the Guardian. Davis will be released if she agrees to comply with the judge's order to issue marriage licenses. "The court cannot condone the willful disobedience of its lawfully issued order," the judge said.

Kim Davis, the defiant Rowan county clerk who cited "God's authority" for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, appeared in court Thursday in Kentucky. Groups both supporting and opposing Davis held dueling, boisterous rallies in front of throngs of journalists outside the courthouse. US District Judge David Bunning heard a motion from lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union Davis arguing Davis should be held in contempt of court

The appearance came amid Davis's ongoing failure to comply with the Supreme Court's landmark ruling that invalidated gay marriage bans nationwide. Since the decision in June, Davis has refused to issue marriage licenses to both straight and same-sex couples. Despite the Supreme Court denial of her emergency application requesting a delay on Monday, Davis continued to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples, creating testy scenes inside and outside the clerk's office, and drawing national attention.

The showdown in Kentucky, the first time the issue of same-sex marriage has returned to the Supreme Court since June, has become a lightening rod for gay marriage opponents who argue that Davis' religious beliefs should allow her to defy the constitutional mandate. Both legal experts and same-sex marriage supporters say she has no legal standing.

The scene on Thursday:

"The ACLU has asked she be fined in an amount sufficient to compel her compliance to the court's ruling," Ria Tabacco Mar, an ACLU attorney, told Newsweek. "No one wants Kim Davis to go to jail, we just want her to follow the law and do her job."

This is a breaking news post, and we'll update with more information as it becomes available.

Chart of the Day: The Future of Health Care Costs Looks Surprisingly Rosy

| Wed Sep. 2, 2015 9:25 PM EDT

You've seen various versions of this chart from me before, but perhaps you'd like to see it from a pair of highly-qualified researchers rather than some shorts-clad blogger? Not a problem. A recent paper out of the Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics at USC shows that the annual increase in health care costs has been dropping steadily for more than 30 years. The green arrow shows the trendline.

Obviously this won't go on forever. But once again, it shows that the recent slowdown in health care costs isn't just an artifact of the Great Recession. That probably helped, but the downward trend far predates the recession. Bottom line: there will still be spikes and valleys in the future, but there's every reason to think that the general trend of health care costs over the next few decades will be either zero (i.e., equal to overall inflation) or pretty close to it.

Donald Trump Has Lost Between $1 and $6 Billion Over His Business Career

| Wed Sep. 2, 2015 7:06 PM EDT

This post is about Donald Trump—sorry!—but the topic is something I've been a little curious about for a while: how much of Trump's wealth is inherited vs. earned? The basics are easy: Trump's father turned over control of the family real estate business to him in 1974. At the time, it was worth about $200 million. Trump would eventually inherit one-fifth of this, so his share of the company was worth about $40 million to start with.

Over at National Journal, Shirish Dáte estimates that if Trump had put that money into an index fund of S&P 500 stocks, it would be worth about $3 billion today. If he'd taken the $200 million he was reportedly worth in 1982 and done the same, he'd be worth $8 billion. So how does that compare to Trump's actual net worth? Here's Dáte:

“Every year, Trump shares a lot of information with us that helps us get to the figures we publish. But he also consistently pushes for a higher net worth—especially when it comes to the value of his personal brand,” Forbes reporter Erin Carlyle wrote this June, explaining the magazine’s assessment that Trump was worth $4.1 billion, less than half of his claimed net worth. A subsequent review by Bloomberg found he was worth $2.9 billion.

....Perhaps the most deeply researched account of his wealth is a decade old: the book TrumpNation, by former New York Times journalist Tim O’Brien, who found three sources close to Trump who estimated that he was worth between $150 million and $250 million....Trump wound up suing O’Brien for defamation, claiming his book had damaged his business. The suit was eventually dismissed, but not before Trump sat for a deposition in which he admitted that he routinely exaggerated the values of his properties.

....That 2007 deposition also revealed that in 2005, two separate banks had assessed Trump’s assets and liabilities before agreeing to lend him money. One, North Fork Bank, decided he was worth $1.2 billion, while Deutsche Bank found he was worth no more than $788 million.

So....at a guess, Trump is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 billion in 2015. Anything above that is based on valuations of his personal brand—which might be worth something in theory, but buys no jet fuel or campaign ads. In terms of actual, tangible net worth, he's worth considerably less than the $3 billion (or $8 billion) he'd be worth if he'd just dumped his share of the family fortune into a Vanguard fund.

In other words, over the course of the past four decades, Trump's business acumen has netted him somewhere between -$1 billion and -$6 billion. Ouch. Virtually every person in America can claim a better financial record than that.

Now, in fairness, Dáte's numbers for the S&P fund assume that all dividends are reinvested, which would have meant Trump had no income to live on. Obviously he spends a fair amount every year, and if you take that into account the Vanguard strategy wouldn't look as good. Plus, of course, there's the fact that Dáte is a THIRD-RATE LOSER who is JEALOUS of Trump's BRILLIANT CAREER and does anything he can to DEMEAN Trump's SUCCESS. So take him with a grain of salt.