Last year, Michael Flynn received half a million dollars as part of a contract with the Inovo Group, headed by Ekim Alptekin, the chairman of the Turkey-US Business Council. Was this legit? Or is Inovo just a front for the Turkish government? David Corn investigates:

The paperwork Flynn filed with the government is confusing. Some of the records note that his company, the Flynn Intel Group, was hired to compile opposition research on Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in Pennsylvania whom the Turkish government claims helped orchestrate an unsuccessful coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last summer....It was through his contract with Inovo that Flynn ended up in a September 19 meeting set up by Alptekin at the Essex House hotel in New York City with Turkish government officials, where reportedly the participants considered kidnapping Gulen. (A Flynn spokesman insisted Flynn had not discussed any illegal actions, and Alptekin has denied there was any talk of abducting Gulen at this gathering.)

OK. But there's also this:

An attachment to the filing, citing an American law firm representing Alptekin, says that "Inovo represented a private sector company in Israel that sought to export natural gas to Turkey".... In March, Alptekin told one reporter that he had hired Flynn "principally to produce geopolitical analysis on Turkey and the region" for a "regional energy company that is considering an investment in Turkey."

Digging up dirt on Gulen doesn't sound like something a private consulting group would be interested in. It sounds like something the Turkish government would be interested in. This is all the more mysterious because we don't know who was funding Flynn's work:

In an interview with a Dutch newspaper in April, Alptekin said the funds for the Flynn project came from a loan from his wife and payments from Ratio Oil Exploration, an Israeli natural gas company.

It seems unlikely that an Israeli oil company would have much interest in Michael Flynn's assessment of the potential market in Turkey for Israeli natural gas—especially since the oil company in question flatly denies that it has any connection with Alptekin at all. And it seems even more unlikely that Alptekin's wife would have any interest in this.

So was Flynn actually acting as an agent of the Turkish government, with the money being thinly laundered through Alptekin? Or was it, as both Flynn and Alptekin claim, really all about Alptekin's belief that Flynn had keen insights to offer regarding geopolitical analysis of Turkey and the region? We report, you decide.

A couple of days ago I tossed off a late-night post pointing out that health care is expensive, so it's hardly surprising that estimates of California's proposed single-payer plan have clocked in at a net additional cost of around $200 billion. That was pretty much my only point, but this post caused quite a...stir...on Twitter from the usual suspects, who were outraged that I hadn't assumed single-payer would radically slash medical costs. Today, Jon Walker provides a more measured version of the argument:

It is critical to address this weird claim from Drum because the idea that single-payer would cut health care costs isn’t some optimistic liberal talking point. It is a near universal assumption and the main reason achieving single-payer has politically been so difficult. It is the heart of the whole debate.

Again, this is not a liberal idea. The Lewin Group, a health care consulting firm owned by UnitedHealth Group, has repeatedly concluded that single-payer would cut health care costs. For example, they analyzed a single-player plan for Minnesota and concluded, “that the single-payer plan would achieve universal coverage while reducing total health spending for Minnesota by about $4.1 billion, or 8.8 percent.” It reached the same basic conclusion looking at a national single-payer plan in years past.

As it happens, I've found Lewin Group estimates in the past to be a little optimistic, but set that aside. I put the ballpark additional cost of national single-payer health care at $1.5 trillion, but if someone wants to assume it would be $1.36 trillion instead, that's fine. That's still in the ballpark. More important, though, is this chart, which accompanies that Lewin report on Minnesota:

This is basically right. As I mentioned in the original post, "If we're lucky, a good single-payer system would slow the growth of health care costs over the long term, but it's vanishingly unlikely to actually cut current costs." And that's pretty much what Lewin shows. The initial cost saving is small, but the cost containment measures inherent in a government-funded plan push the cost curve down over time. Their estimate is that within a decade Minnesota's proposed plan would have been a third less expensive than business-as-usual. This is roughly what I'd expect for a national single-payer plan too.

Is it technically possible to cut initial spending more? Sure. We could nationalize the whole medical industry, cut nurse and doctor pay by a third across the board, and create a mandatory formulary for drugs at a tenth of the price we currently pay. When the revolution comes, maybe that will happen—and doctors and pharma executives will be grateful we didn't just take them out and shoot them. In the meantime, I'm more interested in real-world movements toward single payer. Obamacare was a good start. Adding a public option would be another step. Medicare for all might be next. And something better than Medicare would be the final step. That will be hard enough even if we don't make mortal enemies out of every single player in the health care market.

In broad terms, if we adopted national single-payer health care today it would cost us something like an additional $1.5 trillion in taxes. That's reality, and as a good social democrat I'm fine with that. In theory, after all, my taxes might go up 30 percent, but Mother Jones will also increase my salary 30 percent because they no longer have to provide me with health insurance. Roughly speaking, this would be a good deal for half the country, which pays very little in income taxes; a wash for another third; and a loss for the top 10 percent, whose taxes would go up more than the cost of the health insurance they currently receive. If we decide to tax corporations instead of individuals, the incidence of the tax would pass through to individuals in a pretty similar way.

So that's that. I don't believe in Santa Claus, and I don't believe that we can pass a bill that slashes health care costs to European levels. They've had decades of cost containment that got them to where they are. We, unfortunately, haven't, so we have to start with our current cost structure. One way or another, that's what we have to deal with.

The Washington Post confirms what we've already heard about Senate Republicans doing away with the blue-slip rule:

Leaders are considering a change to the Senate’s “blue slip” practice, which holds that judicial nominations will not proceed unless the nominee’s home-state senators signal their consent to the Senate Judiciary Committee....Removing the blue-slip obstacle would make it much easier for Trump’s choices to be confirmed. Although Trump and Senate Republicans have clashed early in his presidency, they agree on the importance of putting conservatives on the federal bench.

....The Senate acted Thursday on Trump’s first appeals-court nomination, elevating U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar of Kentucky to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.

....“Eliminating the blue slip is essentially a move to end cooperation between the executive and legislative branch on judicial nominees, allowing nominees to be hand-picked by right-wing groups,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, wrote in a memo this week. She pointed out that the vacancy for which Thapar is nominated exists only because McConnell refused to return a blue slip for Obama’s nominee, Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Lisabeth Tabor Hughes. The seat has been vacant since 2013, and Tabor Hughes never received a hearing, because blue slips were not returned.

Christopher Kang, who advised Obama on judicial nominations, said that was the reason 17 of the president’s picks did not receive hearings, killing the nominations. But the impact was even greater than that, because Obama gave up on trying to find nominees in some states, such as Texas, with two Republican senators. One vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, has been open for five years.

Were Republicans snickering in private for six years because Democrats continued to be Boy Scouts during the Obama presidency, respecting the blue-slip rule despite blanket Republican opposition of the kind that Republicans now say will prompt them to kill it? Probably. Was it the right thing to do anyway? I guess I'm still unsure. But it sure doesn't look like it.

The Brookings table above shows the effect of all this for circuit court vacancies. The absolute numbers aren't huge, but both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama simply gave up nominating judges in states where there were any Republican senators. They would object as a matter of course and their objections would be honored. George Bush, by contrast, continued nominating judges everywhere. Democratic senators sometimes objected, but not always—and Republicans often ignored their objections anyway when they controlled the Senate.

Yesterday Greg Gianforte melted down and assaulted a reporter who tried to ask him a question. Today he issued one of the most repugnant apologies I've ever heard:

Yesterday, when it might have hurt his election chances, Gianforte went the full Trump: he belligerently denied doing anything wrong and issued a craven statement that basically blamed Ben Jacobs for assaulting Gianforte's fist with his nose. His supporters all roared their approval. That Jacobs guy had it coming for having the bad manners to ask a question about some breaking news.

Now, when there's no longer any price for apologizing, he apologizes. That's squalid enough. But to pretend that he's manning up is just stomach turning. What a disgusting human being.

We now know for sure who the person "close to Trump" is:

Investigators are focusing on a series of meetings held by Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and an influential White House adviser, as part of their probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and related matters, according to people familiar with the investigation.

So the Russia investigation now has at least three targets: Manafort, Flynn, and Kushner. That seems like a lot. But maybe it's all just a big coincidence.

Via Tyler Cowen I learn that "Bankspeak," the jargon of the World Bank, is a big issue. Who knew? Here's an excerpt from a 2015 report of the Stanford Literary Lab:

The biggest surprise came with the most frequent collocate of all: “and”. “And”? The most frequent word in English is “the”: everybody knows that. So, what is “and” doing at the top of the list? Two passages from the 1999 Report may help to explain:

  • promote corporate governance and competition policies and reform and privatize state-owned enterprises and labor market/social protection reform
  • There is greater emphasis on quality, responsiveness, and partnerships; on knowledge-sharing and client orientation; and on poverty reduction

The first passage—a grammatico-political monstrosity—is a small present to our patient readers; the second, more guarded, is also more indicative of the rhetoric in question. Knowledge-sharing has really nothing to do with client orientation; poverty reduction, nothing to do with either. There is no reason they should appear together. But those “ands” connect them just the same, despite the total absence of logic, and their paratactical crudity becomes almost a justification: we have so many important things to do, we can’t afford to be elegant; we must take care of our clients, yes (we are, remember, a bank); but we also care about knowledge! and partnership! and sharing! and poverty!

Paratactical? The Stanford folks might want to think about their dedication to clear language too.1 That aside, here's a lovely scatterplot showing the skyrocketing use of the word and in World Bank reports:

Hmmm. "Frequency per million words (thousands)"? I'm just spitballing here, but maybe this could be "frequency per thousand words" instead? Once again, the Stanford folks have some work of their own to do on the plain-speaking front.

Anyway, this brings us to the meat of our story. Apparently Paul Romer, highly-respected macroeconomist and scourge of lazy thinking, decided to start a campaign to improve World Bank writing. He was well placed to do this since he is, these days, the chief economist of the World Bank. Here is the Financial Times:

Circulating a draft of the upcoming World Development Report, Mr Romer warned against bank staff trying to pile their own pet projects and messages into the report. The tendency, he argued, had diluted the impact of past reports and led to a proliferation of “ands”.

....“A WDR, like a knife, has to be narrow to penetrate deeply,” he added. “To drive home the importance of focus, I’ve told the authors that I will not clear the final report if the frequency of ‘and’ exceeds 2.6%.”...The use of the word “and” over the years had doubled to almost 7 per cent in World Bank reports, Mr Romer pointed out in a January memo to his staff.

And Bloomberg:

Romer expressed to those around him that the department should communicate more clearly, dive right into public debates, and align its work with the institution’s goals of ending extreme poverty and reducing inequality....Romer asked for shorter emails and insisted presentations get straight to the point, cutting staff off if they talked too long, said another person familiar with the matter. He canceled a regular publication that didn’t have a clear purpose, one of the people said.

....Romer said the limit on “and” was a “gimmick” he used to show he’s serious about good writing. “They’ve worked it down to 3.4 percent. They said, ‘We’re getting there’.”

It seems to me that Romer is cheating. If you take the lowest and highest numbers from the Stanford report, use of and has gone from about 2.9 percent to 5.5 percent. But using outliers isn't kosher. An eyeball regression suggests that the real increase has been from 3.1 percent to 4.5 percent. That's not great, but not quite so horrible, either. But then again, maybe the report Romer commissioned came up with different numbers. Who knows?

In any case, my guess is that the proliferation of and has less to do with "pet projects" and more to do with bureaucratic dynamics. If you leave out knowledge-sharing, the communications staff get upset. If you leave out client orientation, the field workers get upset. If you leave out poverty reduction, the poverty folks get upset. So it's easier just to cut and paste them all in to keep everyone from getting upset. Who needs the grief?

The ending of this story is a sad one: the World Bank staff rebelled and Romer no longer manages the research group. "They felt under-appreciated," he said. "It reflected a kind of siege mentality that I can't quite understand." It's possible, of course, that they were on high alert already. After all, shortly before he took over at the World Bank Romer gave a speech in which he called modern macroeconomics a "pseudoscience" that was now "post-real." This probably gave him a rough start managing a group of macroeconomists.

As for better writing at the World Bank, I wouldn't count on it. The key imperative for anyone in a big bureaucracy is to make sure that (a) you don't offend anyone, and (b) no one can blame you for anything. In a big international bureaucracy, this imperative is even stronger since God only knows who you might accidentally offend if you choose the wrong words. Mushspeak is a natural reaction to this.

1From parataxis, "the placing together of sentences, clauses, or phrases without a conjunctive word or words."

This from Der Spiegel:

US President Donald Trump complained bitterly about the German trade surplus on his meeting with the EU top in Brussels. "The Germans are evil, very evil," said Trump. This was learned by the SPIEGEL from participants in the meeting. Trump said, "Look at the millions of cars they sell in the US, and we'll stop that."

....According to a report from the "Süddeutsche Zeitung", the EU side was terrified about the lack of awareness of the Americans about trade policy. Apparently, it was unclear to the guests that the EU countries concluded trade agreements only jointly.

Two comments. First of all, this is a remarkably lifelike translation from Google Translate. There were a few hiccups elsewhere, and I doubt that Trump called the Germans "evil." I'm guessing he called them "nasty," which Spiegel translated to "böse," which Google then translated back to "evil." Nevertheless, I could read the entire article and figure out what everything meant without any trouble.

Second, forgodssake, when are the Trumpies going to learn that they can't do a trade deal with only Germany? It's the whole EU or nothing. Last month we heard reports that Angela Merkel had to tell Trump a dozen times before he finally got it, but it sounds like he's already forgotten.

UPDATE: It turns out that Trump said bad, not nasty or evil.

Lunchtime Photo

Here's a morning glory with a busy little bee inside. Actually, two bees, I guess. Isn't it nice to see everyone doing the job nature has assigned them?

UPDATE: Not a bee! I thought it looked a little small. Apparently it's a hoverfly, or some related critter, mimicking a bee.

An appeals court has upheld the injunction on President Trump's travel ban:

Trump's order "speaks with vague words of national security, but in context drips with religious intolerance, animus and discrimination," Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in his ruling.

The 10-3 ruling relied heavily, as other courts have done, on Trump's statements during his campaign in which he called for a ban on Muslims immigrating to the United States. The plaintiffs who have challenged the travel order have argued that it is a disguised version of the Muslim ban that he called for during the campaign.

Please note that this comes from the centrist 4th circuit, not the radical lefty zealots of the 9th circuit. The vote was 10-3. And the opinion was written by a guy who was appointed by Bill Clinton and re-appointed by George W. Bush.

Is Donald Trump committed to NATO? Here's what the press says about that today:

New York Times: "President Trump on Thursday once again refused to explicitly endorse NATO’s mutual defense pledge, instead lecturing European leaders on what he called their 'chronic underpayments' to the military alliance."

Wall Street Journal: "Mr. Trump’s refusal to say he supports NATO’s common defense provision, known as Article 5, left European diplomats dismayed."

The Washington Post: "Trump refuses to back NATO Article 5." (This is from memory. It was something like that.)

The Washington Post quickly realized it was practicing pack journalism and rewrote their story. It doesn't even mention Article 5 anymore.

As well it shouldn't. At today's unveiling of an Article 5 memorial at NATO headquarters, Trump said this about the aftermath of 9/11: "Our NATO allies responded swiftly and decisively, invoking for the first time in its history the Article 5 collective defense commitments." Later he added: "This twisted mass of metal reminds us not only of what we have lost but also what forever endures: the courage of our people, the strength of our resolve, and the commitments that bind us together as one. We will never forget the lives that were lost, we will never forsake the friends who stood by our side."

It's true that Trump didn't explictly say "We stand behind Article 5," but it's hard to read his comments any other way. Within a few minutes Sean Spicer confirmed this:

Everyone needs to calm down. Sure, Trump probably was trying to be cute. Alternatively, the failure to repeat our commitment to Article 5 might have been yet another example of Trump's ham-handed approach to negotiation, trying to create leverage for more defense spending by making everyone in Europe nervous. Or it could be nothing more than Trump's familiar resolve never to back down: If they want him to say he's committed to Article 5, then that's the one thing he won't say. (He also insisted on doubling down on his much-mocked description of terrorists as "losers," for example.) Or maybe Trump is just being a dick. He wants attention, and this is a way to get it.

Still, he was clear enough, and his press secretary was as explicit as he could be afterward. What's more, before the speech his Secretary of State said without qualification, "Of course we support Article 5." Campaign bluster aside, there's really no indication that the Trump administration is any less committed to NATO than previous administrations. Here's the whole speech: