• Donald Trump Is a Very Serious Man

    This photo from Camp David is making the rounds today:

    I’m semi-face blind, so I’ll let others do the zooming in. I just want to say that I’m glad we have such a serious-looking National Security Council. I’ll sleep like a baby tonight.

  • Friday Cat Blogging – 18 August 2017

    I was over at my mother’s house on a digital mercy mission a few days ago, so I took the opportunity to photograph her cats. This one is Tillamook. Tilly is a very photogenic cat, but unfortunately he’s also a camera-shy cat. In fact, he’s just generally people shy. He doesn’t run away and hide under a chair when I come over, but he does generally make himself scarce. So good pictures are rare.

    The odd thing is that if he’s snoozing and I walk up to him, there’s no problem. He opens one eye, streatches a bit, and starts purring when I pet him. Just like a normal cat. But if he’s already awake, he skitters off. Very odd.

  • We Need a Backup Plan In Case Robots Don’t Work Out

    With today’s Trump O’Clock news seemingly out of the way, I want to make one more comment about James Surowiecki’s robot story in Wired. There’s one issue he highlights that deserves more attention than it gets:

    The peculiar thing about this historical moment is that we’re afraid of two contradictory futures at once. On the one hand, we’re told that robots are coming for our jobs and that their superior productivity will transform industry after industry. If that happens, economic growth will soar and society as a whole will be vastly richer than it is today. But at the same time, we’re told that we’re in an era of secular stagnation, stuck with an economy that’s doomed to slow growth and stagnant wages. In this world, we need to worry about how we’re going to support an aging population and pay for rising health costs, because we’re not going to be much richer in the future than we are today. Both of these futures are possible. But they can’t both come true. Fretting about both the rise of the robots and about secular stagnation doesn’t make any sense. Yet that’s precisely what many intelligent people are doing.

    The irony of our anxiety about automation is that if the predictions about a robot-dominated future were to come true, a lot of our other economic concerns would vanish. A recent study by Accenture, for instance, suggests that the implementation of AI, broadly defined, could lift annual GDP growth in the US by two points (to 4.6 percent). A growth rate like that would make it easy to deal with the cost of things like Social Security and Medicare and the rising price of health care. It would lead to broader wage growth. And while it would complicate the issue of how to divide the economic pie, it’s always easier to divide a growing pie than a shrinking one.

    This is totally true. But I don’t think it’s quite as paradoxical as Surowiecki says. I fret about both those futures, and it makes sense because I’m not 100 percent sure about the future of artificial intelligence. If you asked me to put a number to it, I’d say I’m 80 or 90 percent sure that it’s coming in the next two or three decades, and that it will, in fact, render concerns about Social Security and health care obsolete. My biggest concern—about which I’ll have more later—is the near-term transition period: what happens during the years from, say, 2025 to 2045, when workers are being disemployed in big numbers but we haven’t quite gotten to the point of figuring out how to give them all decent incomes?

    However, I’m still 10 or 20 percent unsure about all this. Maybe AI won’t come for another century. In that case, we still have to worry about Social Security and health care. It always makes sense to have a backup plan, doesn’t it?

  • Here’s Who Has Survived the First Seven Months of the Trump Presidency

    I gave up on the Dead Pool a while back. It just got too long and unwieldy keeping track of everyone who got fired or was forced to resign from the Trump administration. However, with the departure of Steve Bannon, it’s worth putting up a miniature version that includes only Donald Trump’s closest advisors. Here it is:

    Who do you think is next? McGahn? Cohn? Maybe Trump will fire Ivanka. That would be pretty interesting.

  • Bannon Out?

    Consider the source, but….

    UPDATE: The New York Times reports the same thing:

    President Trump has told senior aides that he has decided to remove Stephen K. Bannon, the embattled White House chief strategist who helped Mr. Trump win the 2016 election, according to two administration officials briefed on the discussion….As of Friday morning, the two men were still discussing Mr. Bannon’s future, the officials said. A person close to Mr. Bannon insisted the parting of ways was his idea, and that he had submitted his resignation to the president on Aug. 7, to be announced at the start of this week, but it was delayed in the wake of the racial unrest in Charlottesville, Va.

    It’s only August, and the worst of the crazy ideologues in Trump’s cabinet are both gone (Bannon and Michael Flynn). When will it be Jeff Sessions’ turn?

    UPDATE 2: And there’s this:

    Who can it be?

  • New Study Suggests Minimum Wage Increases Have Small Effect on Blue-Collar Jobs

    Marshall/Rex Shutterstock via ZUMA

    The minimum wage debate has settled into a dreary format: you can pretty much guess what a paper concludes just by reading the author’s name on the title page. The latest entry is from Grace Lordan and David Neumark, and since Neumark has never met a minimum wage he liked, it’s a pretty good guess that his latest paper describes job losses from increases in the minimum wage. Sure enough, it does.

    That doesn’t mean he’s wrong, though, and the issue described in the paper is a real one: a higher minimum wage increases the financial motivation to automate jobs. Lordan and Neumark focus on workers with only a high school education working at “automatable tasks.” Here’s the basic result:

    In the aggregate across all industries, as indicated in column (1), we find that minimum wage increases cause a statistically significant reallocation of labour away from automatable tasks. We find that a $1 increase in the minimum wage leads to a 0.43 percentage point decrease in the share of automatable jobs done by low-skilled workers.

    If I’m reading Table 1 correctly, “automatable” tasks make up 30 percent of the total. This means that among all blue-collar workers, a $1 increase in the minimum wage leads to a 0.13 percentage point decrease in total employment. However, the authors also report that only 12 percent of these workers become unemployed (the rest move into other jobs). That implies a 0.016 percentage point decrease in actual employment

    Nationwide, the unemployment rate is 4.5 percent among workers with only a high school degree. Raising the minimum wage by a whopping $6 would increase that to 4.6 percent.¹ This is probably why the authors focus less on unemployment and more on how minimum wage increases could lead to job changes:

    Our work suggests that sharp minimum wage increases in the United States in coming years will shape the types of jobs held by low-skilled workers, and create employment challenges for some of them….Given data limitations, we cannot address the permanence of the effects.

    The effects they find are higher for some groups than others (old and young vs. middle aged), and higher in some industries than others (manufacturing vs. transportation). And the reallocation of labor is likely to increase in the future as automation becomes more and more capable. At the moment, however, the effect is pretty small.

    ¹This actually seems surprisingly low to me. I would have expected a bigger effect. Perhaps it’s because industries with lots of automatable jobs (manufacturing, for example) already pay more than the minimum wage, while industries that actually depend on minimum wage labor (housecleaning and fast food) aren’t easily automatable.

  • Robots: Our New Overlords, Or Just the Latest Bit of Silicon Valley Hype?

    Will artificial intelligence take away all our jobs in the fairly near future? I think so, but I acknowledge that the case either way is speculative since there’s no way to know for sure how fast we’re going to make progress on AI. All any of us can do is marshal the evidence about how fast AI is progressing and then make our best case one way or the other about the likely pace of future progress.

    That said, there are good argument and bad ones against AI-driven robots taking away all our jobs. Here are the two absolute worst:

    • If automation were taking away jobs, we’d see it in high productivity growth figures. But productivity growth is low, not high.
    • Automation creates jobs, it doesn’t eliminate them. Just take a look at the Industrial Revolution.

    I say these are the worst because they’re almost literally hot air:

    • It’s true that productivity growth is low, and and it’s also true that this means AI isn’t taking away jobs right now. That’s because AI doesn’t exist yet. My best read of the evidence is that we’ll see the first glimmers of true AI in about ten years, with full AI coming 20 or 30 years later. That’s a guess, but nobody—not one single person—thinks we’re anywhere close to AI today. So of course it’s not reflected in the current productivity statistics.
    • The AI Revolution will be nothing like the Industrial Revolution except for the fact that both have “Revolution” in their names. AI, by definition, implies human-level intelligence. Thus, by definition, if the AI Revolution creates new jobs, those new jobs will also be done by AI-equipped robots.¹ There’s really no way around this if you accept that AI is coming anytime soon in the first place.

    I truly don’t understand why smart people keep making these arguments.² They’re embarrassing. And yet here is Wired, which surely knows better, publishing an article by a very good writer, who ought to know better, telling us not to worry about this whole robot thing. And it’s based almost entirely on exactly these two arguments. Why?

    ¹It’s possible, of course, that a few jobs will still be left for humans: legislators, CEOs, a few artists, who knows? But this is just nitpicking. If 1 percent of the jobs stay around—or even 10 percent or 20 percent—we still have mass unemployment on our hands.

    ²So what are the good arguments that mass unemployment is a long way away? You can argue that Moore’s Law is breaking down and it’s going to be a very long time before we have the computing power for true AI. You can argue that robots will be smart but never very sociable, so humans will all move into jobs that require social skills. You can argue that our knowledge of the human brain is rudimentary and we’re still underestimating what it will take to emulate it. I think all of these arguments have weaknesses that undermine them, but they aren’t ridiculous.

  • Here’s an Odd Thing About the Stock Market

    I was doodling away on some stuff and happened to notice something odd: the broader the stock index, the less it’s grown since the end of November. All of the widely tracked stock indexes spiked upward in the two weeks after Donald Trump’s victory, but since then they’ve grown very differently. Unadjusted for inflation, the Dow Jones has gone up about 15 percent. Pull out a bit, and the S&P 500 has gone up 11 percent. Pull out even further and look only at mid-size companies, and the Russell 2000 has gone up only 4 percent.

    This might mean nothing. The Russell 2000 spiked a lot after Election Day, so maybe it just didn’t have a lot higher to go. Alternatively, it might mean that investors have remained pretty bullish on big companies in the Trump era but not so much on smaller ones. Here’s what the Russell 2000 looks like since November 8:

    It’s barely moved since the end of November. Is this meaningful, or just some odd artifact of this particular index? I’m not sure, but I thought I’d share anyway.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    As this week drags to its dismal and depressing close, it’s time to start relaxing. Or to start thinking about it, anyway. So here’s a pair of sunsets at Santa Monica beach from a couple of months ago. Now start reciting your mantra. Breathe in. Breathe out.

  • Trump Doubles Down on the Yahoo Vote

    Not happy this morning with merely defending the “history and culture of our great country” in the form of “beautiful” Confederate statues, President Trump decided a few minutes ago to respond to the terrorist attack in Barcelona by explicitly condoning war crimes and mass executions:

    There’s no evidence that Pershing actually did any of the stuff Trump thinks he did, but that’s hardly surprising. Trump is just doubling down on the bloodthirsty yahoo vote this week.

    A NOTE TO THE YAHOOS: Those of you who think the Pershing Method is great might want to think about why we still aren’t using it. Trump has been president for seven months now. Why hasn’t he ordered the army to start dipping bullets in pig’s blood and then massacring everyone in sight? It’s almost like he’s just talking big to impress you, isn’t it?

  • But Is It Art?

    w. marsh via flickr

    Are all those Confederate statues worth preserving as examples of public art? Let’s consider one of the most popular monuments:

    Known as the “Silent Sentinel,” “Single Soldier” or similar names, the figure tops many of the thousands of Civil War monuments to be found in more than 30 states….Estimates of Confederate monuments range between 500 and 1,000, including hundreds of the rebel version of the solitary soldier.

    “In Georgia, there must be one in practically every county in every town square and cemetery, and it’s facing north, by the way,” said Ben Jones, a former Georgia congressman who played the role of Cooter on “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

    And where did these statues come from?

    One of the leading manufacturers was the Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut, which specialized in a cast zinc it called “white bronze” (a light gray or pale blue color)….It sold life-size statues for just $450 and larger eight-and-a-half foot versions for $750. Commissioning marble or granite statues, meanwhile, would have cost tens of thousands of dollars.

    “It’s like going to Wal-Mart,” Timothy S. Sedore, who wrote An Illustrated Guide to Virginia’s Confederate Monuments, told the news wire. “It’s less expensive.”

    The Monumental Bronze Company mostly made cemetery headstones and markers, but they did public statuary as well. There was a version of the Silent Sentinal for northern towns and a different one for Southern towns:

    Just pick something that fits your budget, and a few months later it would arrive, ready for installation. Here is Trevor Schoonmaker, chief curator at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art in Durham:

    “You can argue that any sculpture is art in some way, but it’s a loose argument,” Schoonmaker said Tuesday. “I don’t know that these statues are worthy of preservation as art objects so much as historical objects – made to preserve a lost cause, a lost war. They weren’t made with great artistic intent, but with political intent. And intent matters in this case.

    As for intent, timing plays a part in that, too. “To Our Confederate Dead” on Hillsborough Street is less a relic of the Civil War than of the Jim Crow era of segregation, erected in 1897. That’s more than three decades after the war’s end. The statue that was taken down in Durham went up even later, in 1924.

    “Look at any memorial or monument, and it’s always more about the time it was put up than the time it celebrates,” said Catherine Bishir, an architecture historian at NC State libraries. “As long as you can see when a monument was done and who did it, you have a clue what it’s all about.”

    As for the bigger statues of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate heroes, they were pretty much churned off an assembly line too. They just cost more.

  • Who Benefits From Donald Trump’s Tax Plan?

    The Tax Policy Center has published a new estimate of Donald Trump’s tax plan. But wait! Don’t go away yet! You’re right that the results are pretty much the same thing we’ve seen from every Trump tax plan—and, for that matter, from every Republican tax plan over the past few decades:

    The poor and the middle class get a teensy little benefit while the rich get a huge benefit. But then TPC asked another question: eventually this tax cut will be paid for, either in spending cuts or future tax increases. Spending cuts seem most likely as long as Republicans are in charge. If we generously assume that everyone shoulders an equal share of the spending cuts—as opposed to the more likely scenario of the poor shouldering most of the cuts—what does the Trump tax plan look like then?

    Over the long term, this is most likely what Trump’s tax plan will look like. The poor, the middle class, and even the upper middle class see their incomes go down, while the top 10 percent see an increase and the top 1 percent see a huge increase. Welcome to Trumpland.

  • Canadian Carrot Wins Vegetable of the Year Award

    I don’t want to start my day with more Trump shamefulness, so instead I’ll start it with this:

    After losing her engagement ring on her family farm more than a decade ago, Canadian Mary Grams resigned herself to the idea she would never see it again. That is, until the diamond ring showed up this week – 13 years after she lost it –wrapped tightly around a misshapen carrot that had been freshly plucked from the garden.

    Never give up, never surrender.

  • Give It Up, Folks: Confederate Statues Are All About Racism

    Last night I posted a chart showing when all those Confederate statues were erected. Here it is again:

    I wouldn’t normally bother with this, but I got a bunch of pushback from folks offering non-racist explanations for why these bursts of monument building happened to coincide with periods of white terror campaigns against blacks. For your entertainment, here are the three most popular arguments:

    This is right around the 50th and 100th anniversaries of the Civil War. No. The first spike starts in 1895, the second in 1955. Those are the 35th and 95th anniversaries. Maybe those numbers have some special significance in the South?

    The Civil War generation was dying right around 1895. The average Confederate trooper would have been about 55 then. They weren’t dying off. As for the Confederate leaders who seem to attract the most statue attention, I looked them up. Robert E. Lee died in 1870, Stonewall Jackson in 1863, Nathan Bedford Forrest in 1877, Roger Taney in 1864, and Jefferson Davis in 1889. Of the eight full generals in the Confederate army, only three died later than 1880.

    Maybe there was just a big explosion of statue building right around then. Anything is possible, I guess. Knock yourself out if you want to dig up evidence for this.

    A lot of people desperately want to find some reason why these statues aren’t actually symbols of white terror against blacks. And you know what? There are always multiple motivations for everything. But honestly, the primary motivation here is pretty clear. They were only incidentally meant as commemorations of honorable men in a brutal war. Far more often they were erected as very deliberate messages of white supremacy to brutalized blacks.

    POSTSCRIPT: One other thing. I’ve heard a few liberal friends pick up on the slippery slope argument. Where do we draw the line? Which statues should we tear down? Did you hear what Al Sharpton said about the Jefferson Memorial? Just stop it. There are times for airy arguments like this, but this isn’t one of them. How about if we just start at the top with all the statues of Confederate leaders and then decide what to do next?

  • Steve Bannon: Fighting Racism Is For Losers

    Cheriss May/NurPhoto via ZUMA

    Apparently having learned nothing from Moochgate, Steve Bannon decided to call up the editor of the American Prospect yesterday to chew the fat. Mostly he wanted to shoot off his mouth about North Korea (nothing we can do, just have to live with it) and China (Sina delenda est). But he also had something to say about the news of the day. What do you think about combating racism and white supremacy, Steve?

    “The Democrats,” he said, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

    We sure have a charming bunch of folks in the White House these days, don’t we?

    POSTSCRIPT: I can’t keep up with this stuff. It appears that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer got an email last night and decided to forward it to a bunch of administration officials and conservative journalists. According to the New York Times, it “echoed secessionist Civil War propaganda and declared that the group Black Lives Matter ‘has been totally infiltrated by terrorist groups.’ ” Plus this:

    The email forwarded by John Dowd, who is leading the president’s legal team, painted the Confederate general Robert E. Lee in glowing terms and equated the South’s rebellion to that of the American Revolution against England. Its subject line — “The Information that Validates President Trump on Charlottesville” — was a reference to comments Mr. Trump made earlier this week in the aftermath of protests in the Virginia college town.

    ….The email’s author, Jerome Almon, runs several websites alleging government conspiracies and arguing that the F.B.I. has been infiltrated by Islamic terrorists….In a telephone interview, Mr. Almon said he sent the email to follow up on a phone call he had last week with Mr. Dowd.

    FFS. Is there anyone close to Trump who isn’t a racist?

  • I Wonder If Donald Trump Saw Fox & Friends This Morning?

    Fox & Friends got a little more than it bargained for today when it invited a couple of guests to talk about Confederate statues. Abby Huntsman thought it would be fun to debate Donald Trump’s fascinating question about whether George Washington would be next if we started tearing down statues of Robert E. Lee. Her two guests were decidedly not interested in that. Instead they nearly broke down in tears:

    I don’t think Huntsman was prepared for this display of raw emotion. I guess next time the Fox bookers will screen their black guests a little more closely.

  • Fake News: It’s Mostly a Right-Wing Phenomenon

    The Berkman Klein Center at Harvard has just released a new report of the role of online media in the 2016 election. Some of it is stuff we’ve seen before: for example, coverage of Hillary Clinton was massively weighted toward her emails and other “scandals,” while coverage of Trump was weighted toward the issues.

    Generally speaking, however, the big thread that runs through the whole report is the asymmetry of social media. Liberals tend to share items about equally from centrist sites and far-left sites. Conservatives, however, almost literally have no interest in centrist sites. They only share items from extremely partisan sites:

    Here’s what the report has to say:

    Prominent media on the left are well distributed across the center, center-left, and left. On the right, prominent media are highly partisan. From all of these perspectives, conservative media is more partisan and more insular than the left….Breitbart emerges as the nexus of conservative media….Seven sources, all from the partisan right or partisan left, receive substantially more attention on social media than links from other media outlets….In this group, Gateway Pundit is in a class of its own, known for “publishing falsehoods and spreading hoaxes.”

    The report also includes a detailed analysis of how the media got played on the story of the Clinton Foundation. I may have more on that later.

  • NAFTA Talks Begin This Week

    NAFTA talks begin this week. Just to set the stage, here’s a history of US trade deficits with Canada and Mexico for the past 15 years:

    Our trade deficit with Canada is pretty much all oil. When you look at the trade deficit ex energy, it’s actually positive: we export more to Canada than we import.

    In the case of Mexico, we import practically no oil anymore, so excluding energy makes little difference. In 2016, the trade deficit ex energy reached $70.8 billion.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    For the past week or so I’ve been playing around with long exposures of our orchid tree when the wind is blowing. I wanted to let the breeze paint a sort of abstract image, but I wasn’t especially taken with the results, even after letting the camera operate on autopilot for a while and getting a couple hundred shots. This is the best of the bunch, I think. You’ll have to decide for yourself if you like it.

  • Trump Ends His CEO Councils

    And so it ends:

    The “pressure,” of course, is for decent people to condemn Trump and resign from his sham councils. But there’s no need for these shows of principle now! After all, it might piss off the racists, and CEOs shouldn’t be expected to risk that. Nice work, Mr. President.