• My Quasi-Annual Black Friday Post

    According to the retail industry, “Black Friday” is the day when retail profits for the year go from red to black. Are you skeptical that this is really the origin of the term? You should be. After all, the term Black ___day, in other contexts, has always signified something terrible, like a stock market crash or the start of the Blitz. Is it reasonable to think that retailers deliberately chose this phrase to memorialize their biggest day of the year?

    Not really. But to get the real story, we’ll have to trace its origins back in time. Here’s a 1985 article from the Philadelphia Inquirer:

    [Irwin] Greenberg, a 30-year veteran of the retail trade, says it is a Philadelphia expression. “It surely can’t be a merchant’s expression,” he said. A spot check of retailers from across the country suggests that Greenberg might be on to something.

    “I’ve never heard it before,” laughed Carol Sanger, a spokeswoman for Federated Department Stores in Cincinnati…”I have no idea what it means,” said Bill Dombrowski, director of media relations for Carter Hawley Hale Stores Inc. in Los Angeles…From the National Retail Merchants Association, the industry’s trade association in New York, came this terse statement: “Black Friday is not an accepted term in the retail industry…”

    Hmm. So as recently as 1985 it wasn’t in common use nationwide. It was only in common use in Philadelphia. But why? If we go back to 1975, the New York Times informs us that it has something to do with the Army-Navy game. The gist of the story is that crowds used to pour into Philadelphia on the Friday after Thanksgiving to shop, they’d stay over to watch the game on Saturday, and then go home. It was the huge crowds that gave the day its bleak name.

    But how old is the expression? When did it start? If we go back yet another decade we can find a Philly reference as early as 1966. An advertisement that year in the American Philatelist from a stamp shop in Philadelphia starts out: “‘Black Friday’ is the name which the Philadelphia Police Department has given to the Friday following Thanksgiving Day. It is not a term of endearment to them. ‘Black Friday’ officially opens the Christmas shopping season in center city, and it usually brings massive traffic jams and over-crowded sidewalks as the downtown stores are mobbed from opening to closing.”

    But it goes back further than that. A couple of years ago I got an email from a Philadelphia reader who recalled the warnings she got from the older women at Wanamaker’s department store when she worked there in 1971:

    They warned me to be prepared for the hoards of obnoxious brats and their demanding parents that would alight from the banks of elevators onto the eighth floor toy department, all racing to see the latest toys on their way to visit Santa. The feeling of impending doom sticks with me to this day. The experienced old ladies that had worked there for years called it “Black Friday.”

    “For years.” But how many years? Ben Zimmer collects some evidence that the term was already in common use by 1961 (common enough that Philly merchants were trying to change the term to “Big Friday”), and passes along an interview with Joseph Barrett, who recounted his role in popularizing the expression when he worked as a reporter in Philadelphia:

    In 1959, the old Evening Bulletin assigned me to police administration, working out of City Hall. Nathan Kleger was the police reporter who covered Center City for the Bulletin. In the early 1960s, Kleger and I put together a front-page story for Thanksgiving and we appropriated the police term “Black Friday” to describe the terrible traffic conditions. Center City merchants complained loudly to Police Commissioner Albert N. Brown that drawing attention to traffic deterred customers from coming downtown. I was worried that maybe Kleger and I had made a mistake in using such a term, so I went to Chief Inspector Albert Trimmer to get him to verify it.

    So all the evidence points in one direction. The term originated in Philadelphia, probably sometime in the 50s, and wasn’t in common use in the rest of the country until decades later. And it did indeed refer to something unpleasant: the gigantic Army-Navy-post-Thanksgiving day crowds and traffic jams, which both retail workers and police officers dreaded. The retail industry originally loathed the term, and the whole “red to black” fairy tale was tacked on sometime in the 80s by an overcaffeinated flack trying to put lipstick on a pig that had gotten a little too embarrassing for America’s shopkeepers. The first reference that I’ve found to this usage was in 1982, and by the early 90s it had become the official story.

    And today everyone believes it, which is a pretty good demonstration of the power of corporate PR. But now you know the real story behind Black Friday.

  • Happy Thanksgiving!

    As always, Hilbert and Hopper wish you a happy and stress-free Thanksgiving day.

  • Congress Is Hearing From the Teamsters About Driverless Trucks

    Alexis Georgeson/Tesla Motors via ZUMA

    This is sort of fascinating:

    In its race to embrace driverless vehicles, Washington has cleared away regulatory hurdles for auto companies and brushed aside consumer warnings about the risk of crashes and hacking….New Trump administration regulations don’t require industry to submit certain safety assessments, leaving it voluntary. And legislation — already approved in the House and expected to pass in the Senate — strips authority from states to set many of their own safety guidelines.

    ….Lobbying from the Teamsters succeeded in stripping commercial vehicles from the rapidly advancing congressional action. Automated commercial trucks would not get the exemptions to state and many federal rules as robot cars would in the legislation. The concession — heralded as a big victory by the Teamsters — was met with a shrug by many in the automation world. They don’t expect it to slow the arrival of fleets of self-driving trucks on the road.

    I’m inclined to agree that this strategy won’t have much near-term success. The technology will either work or it won’t, and if it does then people are going to use it. Trying to artificially slow it down is a dead end.

    At the same time, what the Teamsters see happening in a few years is something that everyone will see happening in a decade or two. So the fact that they’re bringing it to the attention of Congress now is a very positive development. More people in the political world need to understand how this is likely to play out, and what it means for their constituents. You can read more about it from me here. Or, if you want to hear me talk about it—something you do at your own risk—you can listen to my recent podcast with Carl Etnier here. (Search for the November 23 edition of “Relocalizing Vermont.”)

  • How to Handle Thanksgiving With Your Crazy Relatives

    I’m lucky enough to have a family that’s all in sync politically, which means that Thanksgiving is a fun time for everyone. But lots of families aren’t so lucky: they have that one crazy relative who makes the whole holiday awkward with their constant TV-inspired rants about retrograde politics. So what do you do if you don’t want Thanksgiving dinner to turn into a war zone?

    The main thing to keep in mind is that your crazy SJW niece probably doesn’t share your value system. Research shows that liberals think differently than we do—they care almost exclusively about “fairness” and are unmoved by appeals to loyalty, order, and traditional morals—so arguing on your terms will often just make things worse. She’s a product of both her times and the liberal media, and you need to appeal to her on her terms.

    It’s equally important that you keep your proposals modest. Don’t meet anger with anger. Liberals, especially young ones, are full of fury over politics, and a little sympathy can go a long way. Agree with her that the economy should be doing better and there ought to be more good-paying jobs for new college grads. (Maybe you can even sneak in a pitch for tax cuts!) Don’t get angry over jargon. You had yours when you were a kid too: remember “supply-side economics” and “evil empire”? Keep things mild, and invite her to explain her views in ever more detail. Act interested, and keep asking for more. It’s possible she’s never had to do this in her entire life, and all by itself it might be enough to make her start doubting things she’s believed for years.

    Finally, remember that this is a long-term project. Rome wasn’t built in a day. You may not settle down your crazy niece in a single year, but you might make next year a little better.

    Here are some examples of how you might deal with a few common subjects.

    Race. Liberals are obsessed with race. Unlike you, they weren’t raised to be color blind, and they’re likely to bring up race as the underlying cause of practically everything. Try to make your crazy niece see what a rabbit hole this sends them down. Does she really want to harm Asian-Americans with affirmative action policies? Should well-to-do blacks get more assistance than poor whites? Is she familiar with research showing that illegal immigrants take jobs away from the very poorest Americans? Eventually a light bulb might come on, and she’ll realize that even using her own values, all she’s doing is pitting one “oppressed” group against another.

    Climate change. Because this is a scientific subject, your first instinct will probably be to engage in a torrent of facts and figures. Don’t bother. For most liberals, this is an emotional issue, not a fact-based one. You can tell them all about measurement error in the troposphere, variability in solar forcing, and corruption in the research community, but you won’t make any headway. Your niece is in an epistemic bubble, surrounded by friends and media who have convinced her that “97 percent of scientists agree” that climate change is real. She’s probably never even heard that there is any evidence against climate change, so take this slowly.

    Point out that reducing fossil fuel use hurts the poor more than the rich. Make the case that developing countries shouldn’t be stuck forever in impoverishment just to make privileged liberals in first world countries feel better about themselves. Explain that most of the “scientific” models don’t have good track records, and that even tiny errors can make a huge difference a century down the road. This may or may not make a dent, but you might at least spark a realization that climate change is a complicated subject that’s not as cut and dried as she’s been led to believe.

    Obamacare. Unlike climate change, this is an area where facts and figures might help. Your niece probably has plenty of them at hand, which gives you an opening to throw in a few she might never have heard before if she’s been getting all her news from Rachel Maddow and HuffPo.

    Does she realize that premiums have skyrocketed since Obamacare went into effect? Last year Arizona premiums were up 116 percent and they’re up again this year! Does she know that insurers are fleeing the market, and lots of areas are now down to a single provider? Try to explain what a “death spiral” is, which she might actually be interested in. Liberals love to think of themselves as wonks. Does she know that the Obamacare pool started out older and sicker than anyone projected, and has been getting worse every year? She may be skeptical that “the market” does a better job of running health care than the government, so try to get her to realize that every time the government interferes, it just creates yet another problem to be solved. Even with its faults, maybe the free market is best in the long run after all?

    Guns. This can be an emotional subject. Most liberals have never even handled a gun, let alone fired one, and this often produces unreasoning fear. That’s just human nature: we’re afraid of what we don’t know. The best way to handle this is by showing rather than telling. Don’t push too hard, but offer to introduce her to some of your shooting buddies. Show her one of your hunting rifles and explain how it works. Appeal to her sense of “tolerance” by offering to take her down to the range to fire a few rounds. If she’s going to oppose guns, isn’t it fair that she should know a little more about them?

    Take this a step at a time: introduce her first to few easygoing shooters, not the Second Amendment know-it-alls. (You know the ones I’m talking about!) Start her out with an easy-handling sidearm that won’t scare her off. Point out casually that the ACLU supports gun rights, just like they support freedom of speech and religion.

    Patriotism. This can turn into a shouting match pretty easily. The idea of a callow twenty-something confidently claiming that her country is responsible for the world’s ills is hard to take. But rein it in. Remember that the only war she’s ever known is the Iraq War, and let’s be honest with ourselves: that wasn’t America at its best. But it’s hardly her fault that she didn’t live through any of the struggles that produced the country she lives in.

    Try to introduce her to some history. Talk about the real-life horrors of communism: gulags, famines, and show trials. She probably never learned any of that at her liberal arts college. The wealth of the modern world may seem obvious to her—like water to a fish—so point out that 50 years ago it was far from obvious. It only exists because America persistently defended capitalism and free trade even when it wasn’t always popular. And while every country has its problems to deal with—she’s certain to chime in with something about slavery, and you should just nod your head without getting into it—America really has been a beacon of democracy and anti-fascism ever since World War II.

    And remember: your niece is young! She was brought up in different times. You’re not going to change her mind overnight, but remember what the Bible tells us: A soft answer turneth away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger. So take it easy. Don’t get into shouting matches. A better Thanksgiving dinner for everyone will be your reward.

  • Please Cut the Crap About Red States Subsidizing Blue States

    The New York Times reports that many state governments are concerned that the Republican tax plan will hurt them:

    Of primary concern is the Senate’s plan to repeal the state and local tax deduction….The tax break is claimed by people across the nation, but is more heavily utilized in higher-tax states like Oregon, California, New Jersey and New York. Eliminating the deduction has long been a goal of many Republican lawmakers, who view the tax break as a subsidy that poorer red states provide to richer blue ones that spend heavily on government services.

    This is tiresome as hell. I don’t begrudge the fact that poorer red states tend to receive more in government benefits than they pay in taxes. Nor do I begrudge the fact that it’s mostly richer blue states who fund this state-level social welfare. That’s how things should work. But I do begrudge Republicans weaponizing the tax code against liberals with sanctimonious lies about how red states are subsidizing blue states. Via the Tax Foundation, here’s the truth:

    The biggest takers in the nation are almost all red states. The biggest net givers are unanimously blue states.

    Now, this chart is from a study done in 2005. Although I doubt things have changed a lot since then, it’s unfortunate that the Tax Foundation doesn’t have more recent data. Their website says they are “currently seeking funding to update this study,” but apparently none of their conservative donors are much interested in that. Odd, isn’t it? Maybe George Soros should step up to the plate.

    However, the Tax Foundation does have a recent study that looks at how much state budgets rely on federal aid. Here it is:

    Once again, the top takers are almost all red states, while the most self-reliant states are almost all blue. Any way you slice it, blue states heavily subsidize red states when it comes to federal spending. Can’t we at least be honest about this much?

    NOTE: State colors are taken from here to ensure that I’m not fudging the data.

  • Inflation is Weak, Weak, Weak

    The Wall Street Journal reports today on the most recent meeting of the Federal Reserve. They’re still planning to raise interest rates in December, but “many participants” are worried about weakness in inflation:

    Minutes of the Oct. 31-Nov. 1 meeting, released Wednesday with the usual three-week lag, indicated that officials thought persistently weak inflation could stay below their 2% annual arget for longer than many expected, raising questions about the pace of rate increases next year.

    ….After touching the Fed’s 2% annual target earlier this year, inflation has been weak for seven consecutive months, according to the Fed’s preferred gauge, the Commerce Department’s personal-consumption expenditures price index.

    ….For much of this year, Ms. Yellen and other Fed officials said the shortfall in inflation could be caused by transitory factors, like a drop in pricing for wireless phone plans and subdued growth in health-care prices. But in the weeks since their last meeting, some have questioned how transitory the price weakness may be.

    ….There is also “some hint” that after many years of low inflation, inflation expectations may be drifting down, and “that would be a very undesirable state of affairs,” she said.

    I don’t have anything new to say about this. I’m just reproducing it to revel in the sheer novelty of the writing. Until just a couple of years ago, can you even imagine a front-page Journal article describing 1-2 percent inflation as “weak” six times in less than a thousand words? It would have been low or steady or well-controlled, all of which sound like good things. But never weak, which sounds like a very bad thing.

    And yet, it is bad. Low inflation makes it hard to maintain low interest rates when you need them. If the inflation rate is 1.6 percent, then a zero percent interest rate is effectively -1.6 percent in inflation-adjusted terms. That’s it. That’s as low as you can go. The Fed may think this isn’t a problem right now, but when the next recession hits it will be.

    In theory, a central bank can engineer any inflation rate it wants. In reality, politics makes this asymmetrical. We’re willing to tolerate a recession of almost any size if we need to reduce inflation, but we’re not willing to tolerate money creation of any size if we need to raise inflation. This is perverse, but there you have it.

  • Ron Johnson Is Making an Epic Run For “Greediest Senator” Award

    Bill Clark/Congressional Quarterly/Newscom via ZUMA

    Over at National Review, Jibran Khan reports that several Republican senators are still skeptical about the tax bill:

    Most of the skeptics are concerned about debt. Susan Collins (Maine) questions the inclusion of individual-mandate repeal and the removal of SALT deductions. And Ron Johnson (Wis.) opposes the different treatment of different kinds of business taxes.

    ….Senator Johnson has emphasized the Senate tax bill’s treatment of pass-through businesses as the reason for his opposition to the bill as currently written. Pass-throughs are over 90 percent of American businesses and “generate over half of U.S. business income,” per a 2015 NBER paper. While they would face a lower tax rate under the reforms than they do now, pass-throughs would still face higher taxation than corporations. Johnson, whose family runs such a business, thinks this is unfair.

    I’m an idiot. I wasn’t paying attention to this and vaguely thought that Johnson was taking a principled stand against the reduction in rates on pass-through income. After all, the whole point of pass-through income is that it passes through the business untouched to the owners and becomes personal income that’s taxed at personal rates. It’s absurd that under the Republican tax bill, the CEO of a big corporation has to pay 43.4 percent on her income (the top tax rate of 39.6 percent plus the 3.8 percent Obamacare tax) while the CEO of a pass-through business only has to pay 25-35 percent.

    But no! Johnson is all in favor of this. He’s only griping about the bill because the pass-through tax rate isn’t being lowered even more. He wants it to be set at 20 percent, just like the corporate rate.

    Think about this. Under the Republican bill, a corporate CEO who’s paid $100 will have $56.60 left after taxes. But pass-through business income is taxed at a lower rate that ranges between 25 and 35 percent. Out of that same $100 paycheck, $65-75 is left over. This is the greatest, least defensible gift to the rich in the entire bill, but Johnson thinks it’s still not enough. After all, the guy owns a pass-through business himself and he’s tired of having to pay so much.

    Holy greedballs, Batman. It just never ends, does it?

    UPDATE: I did the math wrong in the initial version of this post. It’s fixed now.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    This is the very last picture I took on our vacation. We landed right at sunset, and this was taken from inside Terminal 2 at LAX, where we deplaned. Circling over Los Angeles just before sunset was a lovely way to return home, and a good reminder that every place has its own beauty. It almost made me wish I were rich enough to rent the Goodyear blimp and take a whole series of aerial pictures of LA when the light is good.

  • Revisiting the Sins of Mark Halperin

    Patrick Fallon via ZUMA

    Eve Fairbanks says that Mark Halperin did a lot more harm than just abusing women. Via his authorship of The Note, he spent years abusing the entire city of Washington DC:

    I want to talk about the deeper, subtler, more insidious effect Mark Halperin had on our politics — one which we’ll be paying for for years to come. The Note purported to reveal Washington’s secrets….It replaced normal words with jargon. It coined the phrase “Gang of 500,” the clubby network of lobbyists, aides, pols, and hangers-on who supposedly, like the Vatican’s cardinals, secretly ran DC….Halperin wrote about Washington like it was an intriguing game, the kind that masked aristocrats played to entertain themselves at 19th-century parties: Everyone was both pawn and player, engaged in a set of arcane maneuvers to win an empty jackpot that ultimately meant nothing of true importance.

    At the same time, The Note made it seem that tiny events — a cough at a press conference, a hush-hush convo between Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell in a corridor — held apocalyptic importance. Cloaked in seriousness, with the imprimatur of Peter Jennings’ ABC News, in reality The Note was not news but simple gossip.

    ….I dare say Halperin is the single journalist most responsible for Donald Trump….After all, what did Trump respond to? Most of all, two things: the sense among Americans that the language of politics has become an incomprehensible jargon of the elite, and the sense that a disaster or a dramatic change that will upend everything looms at every moment — hidden from sight, but still imminent. We have an apocalyptic politics in part because Halperin helped promote an apocalyptic approach to political coverage.

    I don’t really buy this. The Note was gossip and palace intrigue, but that’s the exact opposite of apocalyptic. Gossip makes everything trivial and fleeting, and Halperin’s writing was invariably aimed at the world-weary cynic who was too cosmopolitan to ever find anything truly apocalyptic. Gossip is both the great leveler of men and the great enemy of policymaking, which was always a subject that was just too, too dreary for readers of The Note.¹

    But if Halperin wasn’t responsible for the apocalyptic approach to politics, who was? There’s really not much question about this: it came from post-Gingrich movement conservatives, especially (and fittingly) conservative evangelicals. I don’t feel like digging up chapter and verse here, but all you have to do is read the speeches and emails and newsletters that they produced to understand exactly where this has come from. For years, they’ve told each other that the United States is literally² on the verge of collapse if the liberal agenda continues much longer. That’s what produced Donald Trump, not Mark Halperin.

    That said, Trump is also a creature of gossip, and Halperin certainly helped set the stage for the centrality of gossip—and the disdain for policy—that’s so widespread among thought leaders in modern politics.

    And for what it’s worth, this is why I always refused to read The Note and its imitators from the day I started blogging. It’s not possible to read this stuff “just for fun” and then pretend that it doesn’t affect you. Nor can you read it and pretend that its selection of topics that will “drive the news” doesn’t affect you. The only way to avoid being affected by it—and the only way to avoid boarding its puerile bandwagon—is not to read it at all. Does that mean I missed out on things? Not that I can tell. Over the past 15 years, I can’t recall more than two or three items of any importance that were reported first in one of the morning gossip newsletters. They may not be responsible for apocalyptic politics, but they have plenty of other sins to account for.

    ¹It’s worth noting that Washington DC, like all company towns, has always been a hornet’s nest of gossip. Halperin didn’t start this, he just packaged it for the masses and made it reputable.

    ²Note that I’m using the word literally in its correct sense here.

  • Obamacare Enrollments Continue to Thrive

    CMS reports today that Obamacare enrollments through the federal exchange are now up to 2.3 million this year. That’s about a 50 percent increase over the same period last year. If we assume that state exchange enrollments are up the same amount, total enrollments so far amount to just over 5 million:

    This is all based on eyeballing Charles Gaba’s famous chart, so it might be off slightly. And projections are, obviously, just projections. We don’t have confirmed figures for total national enrollment yet. Still, it’s good to see that signup activity seems to be very robust. With only three weeks left to sign up on the federal exchange, this needs to keep up.