Kevin Drum

Benghazi Staffers Spent Their Days Designing Personalized "Tiffany Glocks"

| Sun Oct. 11, 2015 1:31 AM EDT

Who said this?

He described to CNN an office environment in which employees spent their days Web surfing and sometimes drinking at work. He said staffers joined a “gun buying club” for “chrome-plated, monogrammed, Tiffany-style Glock 9-millimeters,” and some would spend hours at a time at work designing the personalized weapons.

Answer: Maj. Bradley Podliska, a former member of the House Benghazi committee, who claims he was fired for refusing to spend his time focused solely on Hillary Clinton instead of actually investigating Benghazi. I don't know yet if I believe him, but the whole Tiffany Glock thing sounds way too weird to have been made up.

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Was the "California Stop" Really Invented in California?

| Sat Oct. 10, 2015 8:15 PM EDT

On my way home from lunch today I saw the billboard on the right. Seems like it should be "California Alto" or something, shouldn't it? I guess "California Stop" is one of those things that's famous enough that it's always rendered in its native language.

But I'm curious: where did "California Stop" come from, anyway? I won't claim that I have a ton of experience driving all over the country, but I've driven in plenty of places both east and west, and it seems to me that people are pretty casual about stop signs everywhere. Sure enough, on a message board that posted a question about this, various folks said that in their neck of the woods it was called a:

  • St. Louis Stop
  • New York Stop
  • Hollywood Stop
  • New Orleans Stop

This suggests that it really is common everywhere, but it's equally common to think it's unique to your own city/state/region. But if that's the case, why is it so common to call it a California Stop? Did we do it first? Is it related to California pioneering the right-on-red rule? Anybody know what the deal is?

Have You Ever Thought About the Republican Party? I Mean, Really Thought About It?

| Sat Oct. 10, 2015 1:08 PM EDT

As much as we've talked about it, I wonder if we've really gotten our heads around the fact that Paul Ryan is literally being begged to be the leader of the Republican Party. He is Literally. Being. Begged. To be the leader of one of America's two major parties! And he doesn't want it, no how, no way. Because he knows there's a substantial faction of his party that's insane. And who would know better?

I feel like this is one of those things that maybe you can only truly comprehend after a couple of blunts:

Boehner: Dude, have you ever thought about the Republican Party? I mean, really thought about it?

Ryan: I know. I know. It's, like, insane, man. (Giggles, coughs.) This is good stuff. Medical, right?

Boehner: That's it! Totally insane. I mean, completely batshit fucked up.

Ryan: But awesome. Insane but still awesome. I mean, seriously, it's our only defense against, like, total socialism.

Boehner: Oh man, you been reading Atlas Shrugged again? You're bumming me out, dude.

And while we're on the subject, I have another idea. As thousands of people have pointed out, nothing in the Constitution says the Speaker has to be a member of Congress. This has spawned a whole cottage industry of jokes. Donald Trump! Bibi Netanyahu! Rush Limbaugh! But I have another idea: does it have to be one person? Here's the relevant text:

The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers....

Sure, "Speaker" is singular in that sentence, but "Speaker and other Officers" suggests that maybe leadership of the House could be shared. How about a triumvirate, like Rome in its glory days? Ryan could be one, some tea party nutcase could be another, and the third could be, um, Mia Love, who's a black woman and the daughter of immigrants. I'm not sure how they'd make decisions, but I guess they'd figure out something. Maybe rock paper scissors.

Donald Trump Has Big Plans to Reform the NIH

| Sat Oct. 10, 2015 11:30 AM EDT

A few days ago Donald Trump called into Michael Savage's radio show. Savage suggested that if Trump wins, he would like to be appointed head of the National Institutes of Health. Trump responded:

Well, you know you'd get common sense if that were the case, that I can tell you, because I hear so much about the NIH, and it's terrible.

This is appalling on several levels, but the part that made me laugh is in bold. It's such vintage Trump. Can you just picture this? People practically mobbing Trump in the streets to complain about the NIH? Hell, I'd be willing to bet a week's salary that Trump had never even heard of the NIH until Savage mentioned it.

Then again, maybe I'm just easily amused these days.

Friday Cat Blogging - 9 October 2015

| Fri Oct. 9, 2015 2:55 PM EDT

Hmmm. What happened here? There is no documentary record, so perhaps if Hopper hides no one will connect her with it. Worth a try! Meanwhile, Hilbert hangs around absentmindedly, not realizing that his sister is doing her best to pin the rap entirely on him. That's family values, folks.

The "Gig Economy" Is Mostly Just Silicon Valley Hype

| Fri Oct. 9, 2015 2:22 PM EDT

How big is the "gig economy"? An Uber driver is the archetypal gig worker, but more generally it refers to anyone who works independently on a contingent basis. This means, for example, that an old school freelance writer qualifies.

Still, it's tech that's driving the gig hype, and if the hype is true then the number of gig workers should be going up. Lydia DePillis takes a look at this today and recommends two sources:

The Freelancers Union, which advocates for self-employed people of all kinds, recently came up with the 53 million number Warner mentioned. MBO Partners, which provides tools for businesses that use contractors, put it at 30.2 million. But for lawmaking purposes, it's probably a good idea to get your information from a source that doesn't have a commercial interest in the numbers it's putting out.

True enough, but let's start with these folks. The Freelancers Union reports that in 2015 the gig economy "held steady" at 34 percent of the workforce. MBO Partners reports that it "held firm" at 30 million. They additionally report that it's increased 12 percent in the past five years, which is not especially impressive considering that total employment has increased 9 percent over the same period.

The government does not track this directly, and I assume that these two sources are generally motivated to be cheerleaders for the gig economy, which means their numbers are about as optimistic as possible. If that's true, it looks as though the gig economy is almost entirely smoke and mirrors. After all, if it were a big phenomenon it would be getting bigger every year as technology became an ever more important part of our lives. And yet, both sources agree that 2015, when the economy was doing fairly well, showed no growth at all in the gig economy. What's more, as Jordan Weissmann and others have pointed out, what little government data we have isn't really consistent with the idea that the gig economy is growing.

So be wary of the hype. Maybe the gig economy will be a big thing in the future. Maybe the tech portion is growing, but the growth is hidden by a decline in traditional freelancing. Maybe. For now, though, it appears to be mostly just another example of the reality distortion hype that Silicon Valley is so good at.

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Here's Why Sea World in San Diego Can't Breed Killer Whales Any Longer

| Fri Oct. 9, 2015 1:37 PM EDT

You may have seen the news that Sea World in San Diego will no longer be allowed to breed killer whales:

After an all-day meeting that drew hundreds of supporters and critics of the park, the California Coastal Commission moved to ban captive whale breeding and drastically restrict the movement of whales in and out of the park.

The California Coastal Commission? Why do they have any say over Sea World's orca breeding? One of the charmingly idiosyncratic aspects of governance in California is that the Coastal Commission regulates all construction done within about 1000 yards of the coastline. As you can see, Sea World is well within that boundary, and it so happens that they wanted to build a bigger tank for their killer whales. But they could only do this if the Coastal Commission approved it.

Still confused? Well, the initiative that created the Coastal Commission didn't really put any boundaries on the commission's power. They can pretty much cut any deal they want, which is why they're so furiously hated by every gazillionaire who lives near the coast. In this case, their deal was this: you can build the bigger tank, but only if you stop breeding whales and don't bring any new ones in. And that was that.

This has been today's California Explainer for all you poor folks who are forced to live in less desirable parts of the country and don't understand our tribal customs. You're welcome.

Ben Carson Is Wrong About Hitler and Guns

| Fri Oct. 9, 2015 12:16 PM EDT

More guns, fewer holocausts?

Ben Carson said Thursday that Adolf Hitler’s mass murder of Jews "would have been greatly diminished” if German citizens had not been disarmed by the Nazi regime…"But just clarify, if there had been no gun control laws in Europe at that time, would 6 million Jews have been slaughtered?" Blitzer asked.

"I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed," Carson said…"I’m telling you that there is a reason that these dictatorial people take the guns first."

This got me curious: Did Hitler take away everyone's guns? As you can imagine, I know zilch about the history of gun control in Germany, so I surfed over to Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge, for a quick refresher course. Here's what they say:

  • In 1919, the Treaty of Versaille disarmed Germany. "Fearing inability to hold the state together during the depression, the German government adopted a sweeping series of gun confiscation legislation." This was long before Hitler came to power.
  • In 1928 this legislation was relaxed. "Germans could possess firearms, but they were required to have [] permits…Furthermore, the law restricted ownership of firearms to '…persons whose trustworthiness is not in question and who can show a need for a permit.'" Again, this was before Hitler came to power.
  • In 1938, Hitler relaxed the law further. Rifles and shotguns were completely deregulated, permits were extended to three years, and the age at which guns could be purchased was lowered to 18.

Now, Hitler did effectively ban Jews from owning guns in 1938. However, this is highly unlikely to have affected the fate of the Jews even slightly. The Nazis were considerably better armed and organized, and if Jews had taken to shooting them it would have accomplished nothing except giving Joseph Goebbels some terrific propaganda opportunities. The 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is a good example of this: Jews fought back, and the result was a few dead Germans and 13,000 dead Jews.

The bottom line is familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of history: Hitler was popular. He didn't need to take away anyone's guns. Whatever you think about gun control, using Hitler to defend your position is a bad idea.

Hillary Clinton Wants to Cut Mega-Banks Down to Size

| Fri Oct. 9, 2015 11:24 AM EDT

Bring back Glass-Steagall! This is a popular cry among lefty populists, but it's probably not a very good idea on the merits. Glass-Steagall is a New Deal law that split up commercial banks and investment banks, and it was repealed in 1999. Ten years later Wall Street went up in smoke. But commercial banks and investment banks both had problems, and so did combined banks. The repeal of Glass-Steagall really had nothing to do with it.

On the other hand, the repeal of Glass-Steagall did allow banks to get bigger, and that increased size was a problem. When small banks go bust, we just clean up the mess and get on with things. When gigantic banks go bust, Wall Street goes up in smoke.

So rather than turning back the clock and reinstating Glass-Steagall, a better idea is to address bank size directly. The Fed approved one approach to this a couple of months ago by requiring the very biggest banks to hold larger capital reserves than smaller banks:

As well as making the big banks safer, the rules may also persuade them to get smaller. Capital is an economically expensive funding source for a bank. As regulators demand that large banks have more capital, their overall expenses rise. In turn, the banks may decide to pare down their less profitable businesses and shrink over time. Previous regulatory initiatives that increased capital already seem to have had that effect, and the Fed may want to see that continue.

Hillary Clinton wants to go even further by directly taxing big banks, and taxing them even more if their capital structure is relatively risky. Matt Yglesias runs down her plan for us:

Clinton doesn't spell out precise numbers for her fee, perhaps recognizing that in the real world this would all be subject to negotiation in Congress anyway. But the key pillars are:

  • The fee would be assessed on banks with more than $50 billion in assets (34 banks fit the bill as of today, though two of them are very close to the line) as well as on a handful of other institutions that the government has already flagged for extra regulatory scrutiny.
  • The fee rate would be higher on short-term debt than on long-term debt.
  • The fee rate would be higher on banks with more debt in their financing structure.
  • FDIC-insured bank deposits would be exempt from the fee.

The upshot of all this would be to nudge the banking system toward institutions becoming either smaller or else more boring, because risky activity would be more profitable in a smaller institution than in a larger one. The result would be to push risk out of the kinds of institutions whose failure would be catastrophic, without impeding banks' ability to become big per se.

So wonky. So boring. But, as Yglesias says, also a pretty good idea. That's often the case with well-thought-out plans.

In any case, the Fed plan affects the eight biggest banks in the country. Hillary's plan would affect 34 banks. And of course, the eight mega-banks would have to abide by the Fed's higher capital requirements and Hillary's tax.

All of these plans, by the way, are roundabout methods of reducing the amount of leverage that big banks can engage in. As a purist, I'd prefer to just pass rules that directly regulate leverage levels. But that's easier said than done, and higher capital requirements are a close substitute. Hillary's plan is even more indirect, but it also reduces risk by nudging banks to get smaller. Lots of leverage is still bad, but a smaller bank that goes bust is less catastrophic than a bigger one that goes bust.

More details are here, part of the Clinton campaign's rather startling array of detailed policy statements. It's enough to make you think she might be a wee bit more serious than anyone on the Republican side.

All Those Annoying Drug Ads on TV Might Be Paying Off

| Fri Oct. 9, 2015 10:48 AM EDT

Good news! According to a new study, the placebo response is getting stronger, and if this continues perhaps all our pain woes will soon be treatable with sugar pills. But this is happening only in the United States for some reason. Why?

One possible explanation is that direct-to-consumer advertising for drugs — allowed only in the United States and New Zealand — has increased people’s expectations of the benefits of drugs, creating stronger placebo effects. But Mogil’s results hint at another factor. "Our data suggest that the longer a trial is and the bigger a trial is, the bigger the placebo is going to be," he says.

Longer, bigger US trials probably cost more, and the glamour and gloss of their presentation might indirectly enhance patients’ expectations, Mogil speculates. Some larger US trials also use contract research organizations that can employ nurses who are dedicated to the trial patients, he adds — giving patients a very different experience compared to those who take part in a small trial run by an academic lab, for instance, where research nurses may have many other responsibilities.

So good old glamor and gloss—American specialties, for sure—could be making anything in the shape of a pill more effective. On the other hand, the paper itself suggests a more prosaic possibility:

Our study results are of course potentially influenced by trends in study quality and/or publication bias....In the past, small studies were conducted. If they had a large placebo response, they did not show a positive treatment advantage and therefore they were not published. In contemporary U.S. studies, trials are typically large enough to detect positive treatment advantage despite large placebo responses, and therefore reported placebo responses appear to have increased.

So it's possible this is all an artifact of publication bias. In the past, studies with null results for the target drug (i.e., large placebo responses) never saw the light of day. Then pharma companies got smart, and started running larger trials that would show statistically significant results no matter what. So all the studies got published, even those with large placebo responses.

You may decide which to believe. I recommend believing the glitz and glamor explanation, since glitz and glamor are bound to get ever glitzier and more glamorous over time, and are thus likely to improve your pain more. And really, who cares why your pain gets better? If it's better drugs, fine. If it's because pharma companies are spending lots of money on marketing, fine. Just make it go away, please.