How good is the current economy? There's no single variable that tells us and no single index that everyone agrees on. Depending on what they care about, different economists will put different weights on things like productivity growth, the trade deficit, the strength of the dollar, and so forth. However, if we only want to know how workers and consumers feel about the overall economy right now, things are a little easier. They care about the things that are visible to them: jobs, wages and debt. With that in mind, here's how the US economy did in 2015 on the five big variables that households pay attention to:

 

2015
Value

How Good?

Grade

Inflation

0.1%

Low and steady. Inflationary expectations are well anchored.

A

Unemployment

5.3%

Generally very good, but a bit worse than it looks since it's partly due to a decline in labor participation.

B+

Real GDP
Growth

2.4%

About average for the past few decades, but below average for an economic expansion.

C-

Real Wage Growth

2.0%

This is hourly wages for production and nonsupervisory workers. It's well above the average of the past few decades.

B+

Household Debt

10.0%

This is debt service as a percent of disposable income. It's currently at its lowest level since 1980.

A

Total

 

 

B+

This is pretty good. So why does everyone feel so lousy about the economy? We can't ask them directly, since polls have long since showed that answers about the economy are almost entirely driven by partisan feelings these days. But it's still pretty easy to intuit what's going: people feel lousy partly because we really have gone through a long and grinding recovery, and partly because everyone keeps telling them the economy is lousy.

On one side of the aisle, conservatives have every incentive to insist that the economy is still in terrible shape. The party out of power always says that. In 2016, Republicans want voters to feel lousy about the economy so that they'll kick the Democrats out of the White House.

On the other side of the aisle, liberals don't want to admit that things are going well either. They have a broad structural critique of the economy, and they can only get traction for that critique if voters continue to feel a lot of pain. In 2016, liberals want a higher minimum wage; restraints on Wall Street; student debt relief; spending on infrastructure; continued monetary looseness; and more. All of this is less likely to happen if Democrats start praising how well the economy is doing.

This is an unusual situation. Usually one party wants to badmouth the economy and the other wants to celebrate it. This year, both parties are insisting that the economy is listless and stagnant, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. The truth is that for the past year the economy has been in pretty good shape. We're all just afraid to say so.

From the New York Times today on the grim job prospects of high school grads with no college:

Only 10 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds have a college or advanced degree, according to a new study by the Economic Policy Institute, although many more of them will eventually graduate.

And for young high school graduates, the unemployment rate is disturbingly high: 17.8 percent....“It’s improved since the recession, but it’s still pretty poor,” said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, who noted the average hourly wage for high school graduates had declined since 2000 despite increases in the minimum wage in some places.

Ms. Gould is part of a growing chorus of economists, employers and educators who argue more effort needs to be put into improving job prospects for people without college degrees.

Is it unreasonable to expect reporters to hop over to FRED for five minutes and check this stuff out? I don't know how EPI measures unemployment, but the federal government measures it in a consistent way every single month. For young high school grads, the average unemployment rate during the expansion of the aughts was around 11 percent. Today it's 11.2 percent. In other words, it's not "pretty poor," it's completely normal. And there's no need to be grudging about how much it's improved since the recession. It's down by more than ten points since its peak.

It's true that young high school grads have seen their incomes drop over the past decade: their cash earnings have declined about 7 percent since before the recession. But that's also true of every other age and education cohort.

When it comes to both employment and earnings, young high school grads are doing about the same as everyone else. Maybe we should put more effort into improving their job prospects, but we don't need to wildly misstate the data in order to make the case.

Meet the chairman of the American Freedom Party:

William D. Johnson, J.D., is an international corporate lawyer practicing in Los Angeles....As Chairman of the American Third Position, he serves the purpose of speaking on behalf of the party, and championing its sensible and just policies before the American people. He is also, more than any other, responsible for safeguarding the course, values, and program of the party.

And now, meet the American Freedom Party:

White Americans should push back! Change your party allegiance to the American Freedom Party. A Nationalist party that shares the customs and heritage of the European American people....Return to Americans their traditional right of freedom of association, including freedom in racial matters, along with the abolishment of all forms of government- and corporate-mandated racial discrimination and racial preferences, such as affirmative action, quotas, and all forms of “sensitivity training.”

Finally, courtesy of MoJo's own Josh Harkinson, meet Donald Trump's newest delegate from the great state of California:

Trump's slate includes William Johnson, one of the country's most prominent white nationalists...."I just hope to show how I can be mainstream and have these views," Johnson tells Mother Jones. "I can be a white nationalist and be a strong supporter of Donald Trump and be a good example to everybody."

....Armed with cash from affluent donors and staffed by what the movement considers to be its top thinkers, AFP now dedicates most of its resources to supporting Trump. Johnson claims that AFP's pro-Trump robocalls, which have delivered Johnson's personal cellphone number to voters in seven states, have helped the party find hundreds of new members. "[Trump] is allowing us to talk about things we've not been able to talk about," Johnson says. "So even if he is not elected, he has achieved great things."

....Johnson also now finds it easier to be himself: "For many, many years, when I would say these things, other white people would call me names: 'Oh, you're a hatemonger, you're a Nazi, you're like Hitler,'" he confessed. "Now they come in and say, 'Oh, you're like Donald Trump.'"

See? Donald Trump is already making America great again.

UPDATE: No worries, folks. This was all just a big misunderstanding: "A database error led to the inclusion of a potential delegate that had been rejected and removed from the campaign's list in February 2016." OK then.

The latest micro-flap for conservatives to feel victimized by is an allegation by one guy that the Facebook team that selects "trending" topics is staffed by a bunch of Ivy League 20-something liberals:

“Depending on who was on shift, things would be blacklisted or trending,” said the former curator. This individual asked to remain anonymous, citing fear of retribution from the company. The former curator is politically conservative, one of a very small handful of curators with such views on the trending team. “I’d come on shift and I’d discover that CPAC or Mitt Romney or Glenn Beck or popular conservative topics wouldn’t be trending because either the curator didn’t recognize the news topic or it was like they had a bias against Ted Cruz.”

That was yesterday. Here is today:

The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, led by Republican Sen. John Thune, has launched an inquiry in response to recent news that Facebook was reportedly suppressing conservative news items in the "trending" section of the site. The committee, which oversees Internet communication and media issues, drafted a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking about the curated section, telling the tech giant to "arrange for your staff including employees responsible for trending topics to brief committee staff on this issue." Thune signed the letter, which also asks for "a list of all news stories removed from or injected into the Trending Topics section since January 2014."

Here's my question: Even if the allegations are true, in what way is this the business of the United States Senate? Facebook is a private entity and it can highlight any kind of news it wants. Ditto for the Drudge Report, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and Mother Jones. Thune should take a closer look at the First Amendment before he goes any further.

Donald Trump Is a Big Fat Idiot

For today's sermon, I have chosen a passage from Al Franken's Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, written back when he was allowed to be funny. We no longer condone fat shaming, of course, but we do condone mockery of those who deserve it, especially when it allows me to make a strained point about the upcoming election. Here is today's text:

Limbaugh knows what's good for him. Whenever he's ventured outside the secure bubble of his studio, the results have been disastrous. In 1990, Limbaugh got what he thought was his chance at the big time, substitute hosting on Pat Sajak's ailing CBS late night show. But the studio wasn't packed with pre-screened dittoheads. When audience members started attacking him for having made fun of AIDS victims, he panicked, and they had to clear the studio. A CBS executive said, "He came out full of bluster and left a very shaken man. I had never seen a man sweat as much in my life."

Limbaugh later apologized for joking about AIDS and promised to "not make fun of the dying." But by early '94, he had forgotten the other lesson: he needs a stacked deck. This time disaster struck on the Letterman show. The studio audience turned hostile almost immediately after Rush compared Hillary Clinton's face to "a Pontiac hood ornament." Evidently, that's the kind of thing that kills with the dittoheads, but Letterman's audience wasn't buying.

So here's my question: Is this what's going to happen to Donald Trump? Obviously he's not going to panic the way Limbaugh did, but so far his carnival barker act has only had to appeal to a smallish subset of angry white conservatives. Like Limbaugh's dittohead radio audience, they think he's great. But when he goes out into the great wide world of the general election, he's going to learn that most people just aren't buying what he's selling. What will he do then? Change his tune? Dig himself an even deeper hole? Open an Instagram account? Claim that his private investigators have confirmed that Hillary Clinton is actually Canadian? Fire away in comments.

Spring Is Springing, and So Are Our Ducks

Spring is here, and that means everything is blooming—including our local ducks. Here is our first ducklet of the season. We also have a fine crop of Canada gooselets, but they were hiding this morning. Maybe I'll catch them tonight.

Consider this your respite from Donald Trump. Enjoy it while you can.

Via Steve Benen, I see that the Republican Party has released yet another autopsy of the past few elections. This one is written by Gingrich Productions, and Newt explains his thinking toward the end of the report:

At Gingrich Productions we felt that some very profound changes were underway and we knew we did not understand them. We had been as wrong as anyone else about the probable outcome of the 2012 election.

That's some welcome humility, which isn't really in character for Newt. Maybe someone else wrote that bit. In any case, what does Newt recommend? There are nods to minority outreach buried in the middle of the report, and lots of attention to the new technology of campaigning (micro-targeting, social media, etc.). But what's at the very top? What does Newt really want to make sure people see? Here you go:

1. The wrong words cripple or kill. At least 5 Republican Senate candidates (Delaware, Missouri, Nevada, Indiana, Colorado) were defeated in 2010 and 2012 because they used language in a way that isolated them and alienated voters....

2. The right big idea or ideas, expressed in clear and simple language with the right tone, can win campaigns. Larry Hogan's intense focus on cutting taxes while refusing to comment on controversial issues propelled him to a shockingly large and unexpected victory as Governor of Maryland....

3. Big Ideas can attract donations and the lack of ideas can make money irrelevant....

Yeesh. Big Ideas™ and Big Language™ have been Newt's stock in trade for decades. He could have written this in his sleep. And all the stuff about new technology and social media has been obvious for years. Everyone is gaga over this stuff and has been since 2008. I sure hope the RNC didn't pay very much for this report.

The head of the IRS is hiring more people to enforce the tax code, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz is outraged:

The chairman of a powerful House committee is demanding to know how IRS chief John Koskinen has found the money to hire up to 700 enforcement staff when he told Congress a short time ago his agency was more or less broke.

....“Now, less than three months later, without that increase, you have announced plans to increase enforcement activities,” Chaffetz wrote. “The inescapable conclusion is that your testimony to Congress was inaccurate, reflecting either an attempt to exaggerate IRS’s budget needs or a management failure in understanding the needs of your organization.”

The Utah Republican’s May 6 letter, first reported by FoxNews.com, is the latest attack by House Republicans on Koskinen’s management of the IRS since Congress launched a lengthy probe of the agency’s treatment of conservative groups. Chaffetz has been on a campaign since last October to impeach the tax collector.

FFS. These guys are still in a lather over the phony IRS scandal from three years ago? Give it up, guys: nothing happened except a very minor bit of bad judgment.

But I guess it is an election year, isn't it? And who better to go after in an election year than the IRS? Everyone hates the IRS, especially rich people who don't like the idea of enforcing the tax code. That's why Chaffetz and his fellow Republicans have been on a crusade for decades to slash the IRS budget and reduce its auditing staff.

As for Chaffetz's question, such as it is, apparently the answer is that Koskinen is mostly just replacing retiring workers with enforcement staff. Boring, isn't it?

Life at the Top Is Pretty Sweet

The top 25 hedge fund managers earned $13 billion in 2015—which made it something of a so-so year for them. But put that aside. My new favorite hedge fund manager is the guy who ranked #15 on this year's list:

Michael Platt, the founder of BlueCrest Capital Management, took home $260 million, according to Alpha. It was a difficult year for his firm, once one of the biggest hedge funds in Europe with $37 billion in investor money. He lost investors in his flagship fund 0.63 percent over the year and then told them he was throwing in the towel.

Platt's fund lost 0.63 percent and he basically shut it down in disgrace, and for this he earned a quarter of a billion dollars. Pretty sweet gig, no?

Over the weekend Donald Trump said that he's willing to consider higher tax rates on the rich, but he then clarified that he only meant higher rates than the ones in his tax plan. Since his tax plan is obviously just more buffoonery for the rubes, I understand why no one really feels like taking any of this seriously. But just in case a few of you are curious what he means, here is TPC's analysis of Trump's tax plan:

TPC figures the average gazillionaire will save $1.3 million per year under Trump's tax plan. So what Trump is saying is that he's willing to consider a plan in which the gazillionaires will only get a tax cut of, say, a million dollars per year.

Do you want percentages instead? Of course you do! Under Trump's plan—like all Republican tax plans—a middle-class worker gets a tax reduction of only 4.3 percentage points. The gazillionaires get a whopping reduction of 12.5 percentage points.

Quite the man of the people, no?