• Friday Cat Blogging – 28 July 2017

    What happens when you plant a cat in a pot? It ripens! Ours went from light gray to deep black, and is now ready for picking from the cat bush.

    As you can guess, what really happened is what always happens. Hilbert saw Hopper in the pot, and suddenly decided he wanted to be in the pot. So he wandered over, circled around, and eventually Hopper left for sunnier climes. Then the pot was all his.

  • Long Island Crime Is At a 50-Year Low

    Earlier this year from the Wall Street Journal:

    Overall crime fell to an all-time low in Long Island’s Suffolk County last year….The 19,877 crime incidents reported in 2016 were down 5.7% from the previous year’s 21,076 crime incidents and represented the fewest since the department began tracking them in 1975….Violent-crime incidents, including murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault, fell by 10.9%.

    And this:

    Crime in Long Island’s Nassau County fell to its lowest level in at least 50 years, according to statistics released Thursday….The Nassau County Police Department said the 26,153 crime incidents reported in 2016 were down nearly 2% from the previous year. Major-crime incidents, including murder, rape, robbery and assault, fell 9%.

    And here is Donald Trump today speaking in Long Island:

    I’m all in favor of taking down the MS-13 gang, although this is something that’s been a priority for many years already. But no, despite the presence of MS-13 on Long Island, it’s not a blood-stained killing field. In fact, it’s a pretty safe place that can boast of an all-time low crime rate. Trump, as usual, is just being Trump.

  • The Unemployment Rate Is Still a Little Higher Than It Was In 2007

    Inspired by this, here’s an interesting chart:

    This shows the unemployment rate by education level starting at its low point in 2007 and going through today. For high school dropouts, unemployment is now the same as it was at the top of the housing boom. However, unemployment for everyone else is still about half a point higher than it was in 2007. This suggests that despite the headline unemployment rate being at its 2007 low, there’s still some labor slack in the system.

    So how is it that the headline number is the same as it was in 2007 but its constituent parts are higher? It’s all about demographics and disaggregation. There are more college grads and high school grads than there were ten years ago, and they bring down the overall number. However, if you disaggregate, you find that we still have a little ways to go before we truly reach 2007 levels. If you’re interested, there’s more about how disaggregation works here.

  • John McCain Did Mitch McConnell a Big Favor Last Night

    I don’t imagine this will make Mitch McConnell feel any better, but McCain, Murkowski, and Collins didn’t kill health care reform. They just put it out of its misery a little sooner so the Senate could move on to other things.

    If the skinny repeal bill had passed, the Senate would have spent the next month or two in negotiations with the House. I doubt they could have come up with anything that met the parliamentarian’s requirements and was still acceptable to the House, but maybe they could have. If they did, the result would have inevitably been even more horrendous than the bill that had already failed 43-57. There’s virtually no chance a conference bill could have passed the full Senate.

    The last week has made it clear that Obamacare repeal was doomed. John McCain probably understood that and did McConnell a favor by killing it now. I don’t imagine McConnell sees it that way, though.

  • The Obamacare Exchanges Don’t Suck

    Atrios channels a common liberal complaint about Obamacare:

    I was too pessimistic about Obamacare. The Medicaid expansion — despite Roberts and the evil Republican governors — was very good. The insurance regulations that applied across the board (coverage, pre-existing conditions, etc.) were very good. The exchanges still suck — private insurance is very expensive and not so fun to have and the subsidies are not generous enough and the magic competition doesn’t exist and poor people really wish they were just a bit more poor so they could get that sweet sweet medicaid — but for many people barely affordable shitty insurance is preferable to no insurance at all.

    I don’t want to pretend that the exchanges are wonderful. They started off with a crash (remember that?). The subsidies fade out at too low an income. In some areas there aren’t many providers. The website can be difficult to navigate. The low metal levels have deductibles and copays that are too high.

    And yet, this still deserves some pushback: Exchanges account for half of Obamacare. Roughly speaking, Medicaid expansion covers about 10 million people and the exchanges cover about 10 million people. At low incomes, the cost of insurance is extremely modest. For the poor, silver plans with CSR subsidies cover about 90 percent of medical expenses, which makes them more generous than most of the single-payer systems we admire so much in the rest of the world. The average subsidized cost of insurance on the exchanges is probably similar to what people in other countries pay in taxes for their universal systems, and the income limits on premiums prevent most people from suffering sticker shock when insurance carriers raise prices. Navigators help people choose the best coverage in their region.

    Is it perfect? Nope. Does it suck? Nope. Overall, it’s pretty good. Sure, I’d prefer something simpler, but given the realities of the American health care system, private insurance is what we have to work with. If politics is the art of the possible, Obamacare does a pretty damn good job of delivering what’s possible.

    Unfortunately, it turns out there is one fatal problem with the exchanges: they can be sabotaged pretty easily by Republicans. Doing this is so unnecessarily cruel to the poor and working class that I can hardly blame Democrats for not foreseeing this problem, but there you have it. Sabotaging Medicaid is hard, but sabotaging the exchanges is easy. And Republicans have given every indication that this is exactly what they plan to do. Their bitterness over a successful law that helps 20 million people is seemingly without bounds.

  • Chart of the Day: GDP Growth in Q2

    The economy grew 2.6 percent in the second quarter of 2017, slightly better than the average of 2.1 percent over the past four years. Federal expenditures contributed more than usual, especially increases in defense spending. Overall, however, there’s not much of a story here. It’s a decent reading, but the big picture is that the American economy continues to do OK, but not great.

  • Skinny Repeal Is Dead

    The Senate has voted down the skinny repeal bill. John McCain joined Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski as no votes, and the bill went down 49-51.

    So now what? I’m not sure anyone knows. Maybe yet another bill? That doesn’t seem likely. Most likely, Obamacare repeal is dead and it’s now time to begin Operation Sabotage. One way or another, Republicans are hellbent on taking health coverage away from millions and I don’t think anything is going to stop them.

    UPDATE: Mitch McConnell has just delivered a bitter speech, declaring that it’s “time to move on.” It doesn’t sound like he has any stomach for another go-round on health care. Next up are budget bills and tax reform.

  • “Skinny Repeal” Is On Deck For a Midnight Vote

    Diet health care is here! The New York Times reports that Mitch McConnell has finally released his “skinny repeal” bill, and it has six provisions:

    1. Repeals the individual mandate.
    2. Repeals the employer mandate.
    3. Allows states to waive Obamacare’s essential benefits.
    4. Expands Health Savings Accounts.
    5. Delays the medical device tax.
    6. Forbids payments to Planned Parenthood and increases funds for community health centers.

    What’s the deal here? Didn’t the Senate parliamentarian already rule that #3 and #6 don’t pass muster in a reconciliation bill and can’t be included? What am I missing? Is there some small change in wording that makes the “skinny repeal” versions of these things more directly related to taxes and spending?

    Also, is this revenue neutral? #4 and #5 cost money. #3 and #6 do nothing. So are they assuming that repealing the mandates will save money? It certainly reduces the number of people who will buy insurance, which means that federal subsidies go down. On the other hand, repealing the mandates also causes premiums to go up for everyone else, which means that federal subsidies are increased. Do we know how that pencils out? Can this bill be passed without a CBO score to clear this up?

    Nothing matters, I guess. Maybe tonight’s vote is, yet again, “procedural.” If so—and I can’t quite get a straight answer about that—I guess they can put anything they want in the bill. Except for one thing: several senators are worried that if this passes, the House might double-cross them. Instead of using it as a placeholder for negotiation, they might just vote on the thing and pass it into law. Paul Ryan could have cleared this up with a definitive statement this afternoon, but instead he delivered a waffly statement. There’s no honor among Republicans, I guess.

  • The White House Is Now Doctoring Its Transcripts

    Chris Kleponis/CNP via ZUMA

    Remember when Sarah Palin came along? She was insane, but eventually her influence waned and we all breathed a sigh of relief. But then along came Donald Trump: even more insane, and he got elected president. But that’s not all. Now we have Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s new director of communications. He might be the craziest of the lot.

    Last night, Scaramucci called New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza out of the blue to complain bitterly about Lizza’s routine tweet that Scaramucci had broken bread that evening with Trump, Sean Hannity, Bill Shine, and Melania Trump. Lizza posted the blow-by-blow today:

    Who leaked that to you?” he asked. I said I couldn’t give him that information. He responded by threatening to fire the entire White House communications staff. “What I’m going to do is, I will eliminate everyone in the comms team and we’ll start over,” he said….“You’re an American citizen, this is a major catastrophe for the American country. So I’m asking you as an American patriot to give me a sense of who leaked it.”

    In Scaramucci’s view, the fact that word of the dinner had reached a reporter was evidence that his rivals in the West Wing, particularly Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, were plotting against him….The issue, he said, was that he believed Priebus had been worried about the dinner because he hadn’t been invited. “Reince is a fucking paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac,” Scaramucci said. He channelled Priebus as he spoke: “ ‘Oh, Bill Shine is coming in. Let me leak the fucking thing and see if I can cock-block these people the way I cock-blocked Scaramucci for six months.’ ”

    This is bugeye nuts, and it just gets weirder. There’s no point in summarizing; you need to click the link and read it for yourself. Then this morning, while Lizza was on CNN talking about the Scaramucci call, Scaramucci himself called in. He spoke with Chris Cuomo about many things, including his delusional belief that Priebus had also leaked financial information about him, and the FBI should investigate it:

    CUOMO: So should the FBI or DOJ be investigating who leaked your disclosure form?

    SCARAMUCCI: I don’t know. I don’t know.

    CUOMO: Well, you talked to them about it, right?

    SCARAMUCCI: You know why I like bringing up to the Department of Justice or the FBI, because people who have done things that are wrong, it makes them nervous, Chris. I haven’t done anything wrong so I am not nervous at all. But when people do things wrong and you mention the FBI and Department of Justice — I told the President this morning, when the iceberg hits the boat, the rats start flying up from steerage, right, because the water comes in in steerage. So, when you mention the FBI and Department of Justice, you watch how the rats lift in the boat—

    Again, you really have to read the whole thing to get just how nuts it is. Or you can read Josh Marshall’s amusingly annotated version. But Scaramucci is more than just nuts. Here he is at his first press briefing a few days ago:

    Scaramucci says Trump is a super-competitive guy: “He sinks 3-foot putts.” But here’s the official White House transcript:

    He’s the most competitive person I’ve ever met….He sinks 30-foot putts.

    This is mostly being treated like a joke. It’s the Kim Jong-Il-ization of the president: He sets world records at Scrabble! He once hit a home run off Sandy Koufax in a pickup game! He swam to Staten Island in less than an hour!

    But this is not a joke and it’s not a mistake. It was deliberate. And that’s a bigger deal than anyone is letting on. Transcripts are not supposed to be “revised” after the fact. Official White House transcripts record exactly what the person said, regardless of “what they meant to say.” Every White House has abided by that rule, including Trump’s.

    Until now. And guess who’s ultimately in charge of transcripts? The White House communications director. Anthony Scaramucci. It might be wise not to fully rely on White House transcripts any more.

  • Republicans Just Announced That They’ll Need Democratic Votes For Their Tax Bill

    When politicians are working on a new policy, you’d normally expect to get a short statement of principles first, followed later on by a document that fleshes things out a bit more. Finally, as a last step before actual legislation, you’d get a white paper that outlines specific details of the new policy.

    Obviously we didn’t get that from Republicans on health care, and we’re not getting it on tax reform either. As the Wall Street Journal points out, we’re getting just the opposite:

    Top congressional Republicans and the Trump administration agreed to drop a plan to tax imports and exempt exports as part of their strategy to rewrite the U.S. tax code….Dropping the idea was part of a broad statement of principles released by Republicans for tax policy on Thursday.

    ….The new document included less detail than the president’s campaign plan, the House GOP’s June 2016 blueprint or the one-page offering from the White House in April. For instance, it makes no mention of a specific corporate tax rate or rates for individuals. It also doesn’t mention staples of GOP plans such as a higher standard deduction or estate-tax repeal, perhaps a sign that the statement doesn’t cover the breadth of where the party may yet go.

    The entire statement is about the length of a blog post, and the single paragraph that actually talks about principles is less than 200 words long:

    Above all, the mission of the committees is to protect American jobs and make taxes simpler, fairer, and lower for hard-working American families….We also believe there should be a lower tax rate for small businesses so they can compete with larger ones, and lower rates for all American businesses so they can compete with foreign ones. The goal is a plan that reduces tax rates as much as possible, allows unprecedented capital expensing, places a priority on permanence, and creates a system that encourages American companies to bring back jobs and profits trapped overseas….While we have debated the pro-growth benefits of border adjustability, we appreciate that there are many unknowns associated with it and have decided to set this policy aside in order to advance tax reform.

    There you have it. Lower taxes for hardworking Americans, lower taxes for business, and the ability for businesses to write off 100 percent of their capital expenses in a single year. Also, the border adjustment tax is dead.

    Now here’s the interesting part:

    The goal is a plan that…places a priority on permanence….Our expectation is for this legislation to move through the committees this fall, under regular order.

    Translated into English, this means that Republicans don’t want a ten-year tax cut like George Bush’s. They want a permanent tax cut. The problem is that with the border adjustment tax out of the picture, there’s nothing to balance the tax cuts and no way to make their tax bill revenue-neutral. It’s going to increase the deficit,¹ and that means Republicans can’t use reconciliation, as they’re doing with health care. It has to be passed under regular order, and bills require 60 votes under regular order. That means they need to corral at least eight Democratic votes in the Senate.

    And yet, so far they’ve done exactly zero to get Democrats on board. The whole plan is being put together by the Big Six: four Republican members of Congress and two Republican members of Trump’s administration. So what are they planning to offer Democrats in order to get their support for this budget-buster of a bill? Anything? Or just more bluster about how Dems are obstructionists blah blah blah? We’re all eager to find out, aren’t we?

    ¹Demonstrating once again—as if we needed it—that Republicans only care about the deficit when a Democrat is president and the topic is spending money on the poor.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    As our week drifts toward its end, a nice peaceful sunset is in order. This is an electric pylon right off the 405, a few hundred yards from my house. It just goes to show that even the ugliest artifacts of human technology can become beautiful if the sun is setting behind them.

  • Sam Brownback Officially Leaves Kansas With the Worst Economy in the Plains

    Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has decided to step down from the governorship of Kansas in order to assume the vital post of ambassador at large for international religious freedom. If you’ve never heard of this position, you’re not alone.

    Anyway, this marks the official end of the Brownback era in Kansas. As you may recall, he took office at the start of 2011, declaring that Kansas would be ground zero for a true test of conservative economic principles: slashing taxes on the rich and then making up for it by slashing spending on everyone else. It didn’t work out. To commemorate the full Brownback era, here is employment growth in Kansas compared to its neighboring states:

    Brownback had a chance to beat one neighboring state, but at the last minute Oklahoma pulled out of a tie and recorded employment growth a little better than Kansas—despite a brutal recession caused by falling oil prices.

    So that’s that. Over the course of the entire Brownback era, Kansas had the worst employment growth of any state in the region. Ditto for GDP growth. I don’t expect this to change any minds, though. Cutting taxes on the rich has never been about economic growth anyway.

  • Transgender Ban Took the Pentagon Completely By Surprise

    Truly remarkable:

  • How Long Can the Mooch Last?

    Ron Sachs/CNP via ZUMA

    Oh man. It turns out I missed something hilarious yesterday.

    As you probably know, Politico published a piece a few days ago that included financial disclosures made by Anthony Scaramucci, Donald Trump’s shiny new communications director. Mooch immediately went ballistic on Twitter, apparently blaming the leak on chief-of-staff Reince Priebus. Reporters soon got confirmation that Mooch was on the outs with Priebus, but a few hours later Mooch deleted the tweet and claimed that he and Priebus were best pals.

    That’s not the hilarious part, of course. The hilarious part is the reason that Mooch suddenly went quiet:

    There was a reason Scaramucci didn’t respond further: There had been no leak. The Politico reporter, Lorraine Woellert, obtained Scaramucci’s disclosures by making a routine request to the Ex-Im bank for the form 278e that Scaramucci completed before working there. Woellert tweeted: “Mr @Scaramucci’s Form 278e is publicly available from ExIm. Just ask.”

    The form had been filed on June 23, and became publicly available on July 23. So Woellert asked for it and got it.

    This is what happens when you instantly go ballistic over every perceived slight. At best you look like a hothead. At worst you look like a dolt. And as long as we’re on the subject, I think Rich Lowry is right about Scaramucci:

    His current communications gig probably has a limited shelf life for at least two reasons: 1) When you are in front of the cameras every day, even if you are very adept (Anthony is), you are going to get dinged up, especially when you are constantly defending Trump’s various statements; 2) The more time Scaramucci has in front of the camera and as his profile grows, it is more likely that Trump gets sick of seeing him and becomes jealous of the attention he’s getting.

    Scaramucci is essentially taking on a press secretary’s job, since he’ll be on camera a lot. That’s a tough gig no matter what. With Trump, it’s an impossible gig, because the only way to defend the guy is to debase yourself constantly. Eventually you just get worn down. And as Lowry says, on the off chance that you can survive despite this, Trump will get jealous of you and figure out a way to fire you.

    Once again, we’re left with one of life’s imponderables: why would anyone work for Donald Trump? It is a mystery.

  • Donald Trump’s Revenge Is Coming Soon

    So what did I miss yesterday? In the Senate, I guess Obamacare “clean repeal” went down in flames, where it joins “repeal-and-replace.” So what’s left? Republicans can try to amend BCRA enough to win more votes, but considering how many votes they need to pass it, that seems like a lost cause. So now it’s on to “skinny repeal,” aka “let’s punt this off to another committee and see what they come up with.” But any committee that includes House members is only going to push to make the Senate bill even worse, and what are the odds that this will earn more Senate votes?

    Never say never, but it looks like Obamacare repeal is dead. This means that President Trump will almost certainly begin Operation Sabotage, designed to wreck Obamacare while trying to blame it all on Democrats. Politically this seems unlikely to work, but it will certainly make life worse for millions of poor and working-class Americans. But that’s Donald for you. He has to take revenge on someone, and if he can’t take it out on Democrats, he’ll take it out on the ordinary people that Democrats care about.

    And speaking of taking revenge, I see that Trump decided to ban transgender people from the military. This seems to have come out of nowhere. The military wasn’t pushing for it, and was taken by surprise when they read Trump’s tweets announcing the new policy.¹ I don’t think that social conservatives had this on their radar either. So whose idea was it? And what’s the point? Is it to build a bit of credibility with social conservatives, who are starting to get pretty peeved with Trump’s treatment of right-wing darling Jeff Sessions? Is it to stick a finger in the eye of those bad Democrats who are holding up Trumpcare? Is it some Bannon-esque move with a motivation too obscure for us to figure out?

    I don’t know. All I know is that it looks like Trump is close to losing a big battle, and his instinct when that happens is to lash out. We should all assume that he’s going to do his best over the next few weeks to piss off liberals one way or another. Sadly, since he doesn’t have much leverage over actual members of Congress, that may well mean taking out his anger on vulnerable populations that liberals care about.

    ¹Yes, he informed the Pentagon of this new policy via Twitter.

    UPDATE: I see that the reason for Trump’s transgender policy is more prosaic than I thought:

    House Republicans were planning to pass a spending bill stacked with his campaign promises, including money to build his border wall with Mexico. But an internal House Republican fight over transgender troops was threatening to blow up the bill. And House GOP insiders feared they might not have the votes to pass the legislation because defense hawks wanted a ban on Pentagon-funded sex reassignment operations — something GOP leaders wouldn’t give them.

    They turned to Trump, who didn’t hesitate. In the flash of a tweet, he announced that transgender troops would be banned altogether.

    So the transgender ban (a) helps him with defense hawks, (b) helps get his priorities funded, and (c) reverses a policy Obama put in place. Simple.

  • 6 PM Photo

    All done. After an evening full of deep-fried meatballs, funnel cakes, and G Force, this is what the world looks like on the way out. See you next year!

  • 5 PM Photo

    Our evening is coming to a close. How about one last ride on the G Force. Doesn’t it look fun? Sure it does!

  • 4 PM Photo

    I almost forgot. Here’s the Western Hemisphere’s largest transportable observation wheel. Maybe.

  • 3 PM Photo

    With our tummies full of funnel cakes, let’s try a nice, relaxing ride on the carousel.

  • 2 PM Photo

    How about a funnel cake for dessert? What’s a county fair without funnel cakes?