In some ways, it's sort of entertaining to have a president who's literally learning the most basic facts of the world on the job:

President Trump began a two-day visit to Israel on Monday with a blunt assessment for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: If Israel really wants peace with its Arab neighbors, the cost will be resolving the generations-old standoff with the Palestinians....“I was deeply encouraged by my conversations with Muslim world leaders in Saudi Arabia, including King Salman, who I spoke to at great length. King Salman feels very strongly and, I can tell you, would love to see peace with Israel and the Palestinians.”

It's an open question whether a Palestinian peace deal would really produce comity with the rest of the Arab world, but it's certainly a prerequisite and has been for decades. But I guess Trump hadn't really considered that a serious obstacle until he heard it face-to-face from the king.

Anyway, we all know where this is going, right? Benjamin Netanyahu wants to stay on good terms with Trump, and Trump wants a peace deal. Everyone on the planet knows perfectly well that Netanyahu has no interest in this, but he'll string Trump along anyway. A "peace process" will be set up, Jared Kushner will preside over a meeting or two, and Netanyahu will settle back and wait for some kind of bombing or other terror attack to declare that he tried but the Palestinians just can't be dealt with. Every neocon in America will immediately jump on the bandwagon and insist that this is the final straw. Things were so hopeful thanks to Trump's goodwill, but they bombed innocent women and children while Israel was earnestly trying to make peace! They're savages! Netanyahu will ask Trump for a statement of support, and of course Trump will provide it because terrorists are bad. And that will be that.

The whole thing will be a ridiculous charade, and everyone except Trump will know it.

Lunchtime Photo

I was out in Santa Monica for a few hours last week, and that means a bunch of Santa Monica pictures got added to the lunchtime photo queue. This one is a picture of a name painter on the pier.

What's interesting technically is that I actually wanted more grain in the photo. I was hoping for that old-school Tri-X-pushed-to-ISO-1600 look. But even at ISO 3200, there's really not a lot of grain here. I'll have to try this again someday at ISO 12800.

Here's a helluva weird story from Jim Puzzanghera of the LA Times:

The House Republican legislation scaling back Dodd-Frank financial regulations would reduce federal budget deficits by $24.1 billion over the next decade....Would reduce federal spending by $6.9 billion from 2018 through 2027....The bureau received $565 million in the 2016 fiscal year....The House Republican legislation would reduce the bureau’s funding to $485 million in 2018, and the CBO estimated that Congress would keep annual funding at about that level, adjusting for inflation, over the next decade.

So the bill would (a) reduce funding by $800 million, (b) reduce spending by $6.9 billion, and (c) reduce deficits by $24.1 billion. How do we get from $800 million to $24.1 billion?

I'm glad you asked! And trust me, you're going to love the answer. Here's how it breaks down:

This is a work of art. The savings come almost entirely from two places: eliminating the Orderly Liquidation Fund and modifying the way Dodd-Frank agencies are funded. Here's the impressive part: neither of these things actually saves any money.

The OLF is funded entirely by the financial industry. If the government has to liquidate a big bank, it foots the bill and then recoups the money via a fee on the banking sector. However, the money has to be spent immediately, while it gets recouped over time. So it's possible that, say, the feds would spend $10 billion to rescue a bank in 2027, but all the money would be recouped in later years. That counts as a $10 billion deficit in the the ten-year window 2018-2027.

So CBO guessed the probability of the OLF being used in each of the next ten years, along with the possible cash flow imbalances, and then calculated the expected value. They came up with $14.5 billion. CBO acknowledges that this estimate has "considerable uncertainty," and that's true. More to the point, though, the whole thing is just gimmickry. Using the OLF will cost the government nothing (or close to nothing), but expenses might fall inside the ten-year window while revenues fall outside the ten-year window. That's all.

Then there's the agency funding. It gets reduced $800 million, but somehow that becomes a deficit reduction of $9.2 billion. This one is even more impressive. Two agencies are affected—NCUA and CFPB—which currently get their funding from outside sources. This means their outlays count as "direct spending." Under the Republican law, their funding would come from Congress and be subject to annual appropriations. For some reason—and I admit this remains inscrutable to me—reducing "direct spending" and replacing it with the same amount of appropriated spending counts as deficit reduction even though CBO assumes that actual funding levels won't change.

This is the immaculate conception of congressional legislation. It doesn't actually reduce spending more than trivially, but thanks to obscure budget gimmicks it gets scored as a $24 billion reduction in the ten-year budget deficit. It's magic! Maybe it's the power of the orb at work.1

1You all know what this refers to, don't you?

Every year the International Energy Agency publishes the World Energy Outlook, which, among other things, forecasts the growth rate of solar PV installations. The 2016 edition even included a whole "special focus" on renewable energy. Presumably this means they took an extra careful look at their solar PV forecast. Here it is:

That looks...odd, doesn't it? Solar PV has grown at a pretty fast clip over the past decade, but the IEA assumes the growth rate will suddenly level out starting this year and then start to decline. And this is their optimistic scenario that takes into account pledges made in Paris.

What can we make of this? Auke Hoekstra provides some context:

Every single year, the IEA projects that solar is a passing fad and its growth rate will level out that year. And every single year, solar continues to grow anyway. But the next year the IEA makes the exact same forecast. It's almost as if they have some kind of hidden agenda here.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was in Saudi Arabia with President Trump this weekend, and today he appeared on CNBC to chat about it. This comes via TPM:

Ross: I think the other thing that was fascinating to me ... there was not a single hint of a protestor anywhere there during the whole time we were there, not one guy with a bad placard, instead ...

Host: But Secretary Ross, that may be but not necessarily because they don’t have those feelings there but because they control people and don’t allow them to to come and express their feelings quite the same as we do here.

Ross: In theory that could be true. But boy there was certainly no sign of it, there was not a single effort at any incursion. There wasn’t anything. The mood was a genuinely good mood. And at the end of the trip, as I was getting back on the plane the security guards from the Saudi side who’d been helping us over the weekend all wanted to pose for a big photo-op. And then they gave me two gigantic bushels of dates, as a present, as a thank you for the trip that we had had. That was a pretty from the heart, very genuine gesture. It really touched me.

Is everyone in the Trump administration a senile old man? The alternatives here are: (a) Ross is an idiot, (b) he's just spinning but doing an epically bad job of it, or (c) he's losing his mind. What the hell is it with this administration?

Remember the top secret intel that President Trump shared with the Russians in the Oval Office? We all pretty much know that it came from Israel, but for some reason Trump decided to confirm this today:

As many people have pointed out, this was just a photo op. Trump didn't have to say anything. But he's Trump, so he had to have the last word. It continues to be remarkable how easy it is to bait the guy.

The campaign to destroy Obamacare continues apace:

The Trump administration on Monday plans to ask a federal court for another 90-day delay in a lawsuit over Obamacare insurance subsidies, according to two administration sources, leaving the future of the health care marketplaces in limbo through late August. The suit, House v. Tom Price, centers on Obamacare’s cost-sharing program, which reimburses health insurers to help low-income people make co-payments at the doctor or hospital.

This is the suit filed by the House against Obamacare's CSR subsidies. The delay means insurers won't get assurance one way or the other about the fate of these subsidies, which in turn means they have to assume they're going away. Anything else would be irresponsible.

And that means insurers have to raise premiums substantially to make up for the potential loss of CSR payments. The Obamacare market could be stabilized easily by continuing them, but that's not what Trump wants. He wants Obamacare to fail without his fingerprints all over it, and this is his best try. Premiums will almost certainly rise 20-25 percent this year thanks to uncertainty about the CSR payments, and that will contribute to a narrative that Obamacare is imploding. Republicans are betting that no one will connect it to their lawsuit, and that might be a good bet.

Unless, of course, Democrats and the media make it crystal clear what's going on here. Remember: this won't affect poor people much because their premiums are capped. But it will affect middle-class people who don't qualify for Obamacare tax credits. They're going to see their premiums spike up yet again, and Democrats need to make it clear just whose fault that it.

Good times:

May 2015: "I'm not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican and I'm not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid."

Today: "President Trump's first major budget proposal on Tuesday will include massive cuts to Medicaid....Trump's budget plan would follow through on a bill passed by House Republicans to cut more than $800 billion over 10 years. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that this could cut off Medicaid benefits for about 10 million people over the next decade."

In fairness, back in 2015 Trump probably had no idea that Medicare and Medicaid were different things. By now, however, he understands that Medicaid is a whole separate program that's mainly for poor people. So naturally he wants to slash it. What's the point of spending money on people who aren't already rich, after all?

Blue slips. Remember those? They are actual slips of paper, and they are actually blue. Senators sign them to indicate their approval of judicial nominees from their home states. There is no actual rule about this, however, so whoever's chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee can play games with them pretty easily.

Here's how it works. If you require only one blue slip to proceed, that makes it easier for a president to get his nominees confirmed. If you require two blue slips, it's harder.

So when do you want to make it easier? When the president comes from your own party. When do you want to make it harder? When the president is from the other party. Here's how that's worked:

  • Pre-1994: Generally speaking, only one blue slip is required.
  • 1994: Republicans gain control of the senate. The president is a Democrat. Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch decides to require two blue slips.
  • 2001: A Republican becomes president. Hatch decides one blue slip is plenty.
  • 2005: Hatch gets tired of Democratic opposition and decides that no blue slips are required at all.
  • 2007: Democrats win control of the Senate. The president is a Republican. Sen. Patrick Leahy goes back to requiring two blue slips. This seems like normal politicking, but....
  • 2009: A Democrat becomes president. In a stunning display of integrity, Leahy continues to require two blue slips.
  • 2015: Republicans take control of the Senate. Sen. Chuck Grassley naturally continues to require two blue slips since this helps obstruct Obama's nominees.
  • 2017: A Republican becomes president. Suddenly there is chatter about eliminating the blue slip requirement completely. The official excuse is that it should apply only to district court judges, not to circuit court judges. This is pretty obviously ridiculous, but that's their story and they're sticking to it. It will undoubtedly prompt dozens of earnest thumbsuckers about the history of the blue slip and whether there's a case for not applying it to circuit court judges.

Patrick Leahy, the Democratic Judiciary Committee chairman from 2007-2014, applied the blue-slip rule impartially regardless of who was president. This was despite a vast level of obstruction from Republicans to all of Obama's nominees. On the one hand, good for Leahy. We could use more displays of integrity like this. On the other hand, Democrats lost out on a whole bunch of judges that they otherwise would have gotten confirmed.

By contrast, Republicans have a two-decade history of flipping the blue-slip rule whenever it conveniences them. Is there really much doubt that Grassley is going to nuke it just as soon as a single Democrat fails to return a blue slip on a Trump nominee and Fox News starts screaming about obstruction? I don't think so.

Have you heard of Seth Rich? He's a DNC staffer who was murdered at four in the morning last July in the Washington DC neighborhood where he lived. For no good reason except his vague proximity to Hillary Clinton, Rich became the subject of conspiracy theories suggesting that he, not the Russians, had hacked thousands of emails from the DNC's email server and passed them along to WikiLeaks. When Hillary found out about this, she presumably gave the order to have him rubbed out.

Needless to say, this is completely ridiculous. Dave Weigel explains it all here if this is new to you.

But last week the conspiracy theories re-emerged after a local news station claimed it had uncovered new evidence. Their evidence was a single source, an occasional Fox News legal analyst named Rod Wheeler, who recanted his claim within a day. But it was too late: Twitter bots were already running wild, Drudge and Rush Limbaugh were talking about it, and Sean Hannity devoted three nights to the Rich murder. Now Newt Gingrich has weighed in:

“We have this very strange story now of this young man who worked for the Democratic National Committee, who apparently was assassinated at 4 in the morning, having given WikiLeaks something like 53,000 emails and 17,000 attachments,” Gingrich said.

“Nobody’s investigating that, and what does that tell you about what’s going on? Because it turns out, it wasn’t the Russians. It was this young guy who, I suspect, was disgusted by the corruption of the Democratic National Committee. He’s been killed, and apparently nothing serious has been done to investigative his murder. So I’d like to see how [Robert S.] Mueller [III] is going to define what his assignment is.”

Naturally Gingrich said this during an appearance on Fox and Friends, whose hosts offered no pushback at all.

This is vile and disgusting. Seth Rich's parents are distraught enough already about their son's murder, and it's unconscionable for a supposedly serious Republican politician and a supposedly serious Republican news network to drag themselves into the Seth Rich fever swamps like this. As usual, though, I suppose there will be no price to pay. Gingrich will continue to be welcomed on American news shows and his wife will be quickly confirmed as US ambassador to the Vatican. And Republicans will learn, once again, that there are really no depths they can sink to that will get them shunned from polite society.