The White House is propagating the conventional wisdom about non-compete employment clauses:

The main economically and societally beneficial uses of non-competes are to protect trade secrets, which can promote innovation, and to incentivize employers to invest in worker training because of reduced probability of exit from the firm. However, evidence indicates that non-competes are also being used in instances where the benefit is likely to be low (e.g., where workers report they do not have trade secrets), but the cost is still high to the worker.

This is in response to the increasing use of non-competes among low-income workers, which is a particularly egregious bit of overreach. You may recall the case of Jimmy John's, which apparently considers its sandwich-making process so unique and innovative that it forces its employees to sign non-competes. No working at Subway for you!

I have a different view of this whole thing since I've spent my entire life in California, where non-compete agreements have been generally unenforceable for over a century. As near as I can tell, we nonetheless have a thriving software market, plenty of lawyers, a prosperous content industry (Hollywood), and a generally dynamic economy. Our lack of non-competes doesn't seem to do us any harm at all. In fact, it might be responsible for a lot of our growth.

So forget the difference between high-powered jobs and sandwich makers. If it were up to me, I'd just outlaw non-competes nationally. It would help empower workers and it would probably be an overall net positive for the economy. The corporate hacks would howl, but they all do business in California and know perfectly well that they can survive just fine without them.

Are pro-business reforms good for economic growth? You'd think so, but the evidence is actually unclear. So Evan Soltas tried a different approach to the question: taking a look at countries that had big, sustained jumps in the World Bank's Doing Business Index:

This is, I think, a reasonable way of doing things: Even if you are distrustful of the index, as am I, if the World Bank says that your country is in the top 5 percent of reformers in some year, there's probably something to that. In my sample, it took at least a 10-point increase in the ease of starting a business to qualify as a "reform" year. That is like going from India to China.

A bit of Greek-letter math later, he has an equation that links per-capita GDP growth with the World Bank index:

What I find is that neither term has a significant coefficient. In fact, I can bound the effect of pro-business reforms quite precisely around zero, with a 95-percent confidence interval for the effect of a 10-point reform on the level of per-capita output of -1.4 percent to 3.5 percent. That is far away from the claim that such a reform could double per-capita output.

Now, this isn't nothing. The reforms led to an increase in economic growth of about 1 percent. And especially in poor countries, there may be other compelling reasons to adopt pro-business reforms. But if Soltas is right, the economic benefits are modest.

Sadly, Soltas did not put this in colorful chart format, which he needs to do if he expects to meet the expectations of his fans. But the bottom line is simple: the United States is already one of the top performers in business friendliness. Incremental improvements are all that's left to us, and the impact of these improvements plateaus at high levels anyway. More than likely, pro-business reforms in the US would have little to no effect on economic growth. Here's Soltas:

Maybe the lesson here is to beware the TED-talk version of development economics. Shortening the time it takes to incorporate a small business is not a substitute for deeper institutional reforms, such as those that support investment in human and physical capital, remove economic barriers that hold back women and ethnic or religious minorities, or improve transportation, power, and sanitation infrastructure. Easy pro-business reforms should not distract countries from pursuing changes that, while harder to make, we know to be richly rewarding in the long run.

Roger that.

The Washington Post's fact checker, Glenn Kessler, is upset with the way the press treats Donald Trump:

Most politicians will drop a talking point if it gets labeled with Four Pinocchios by The Fact Checker or “Pants on Fire” by PolitiFact....But the news media now faces the challenge of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president. Trump makes Four-Pinocchio statements over and over again, even though fact checkers have demonstrated them to be false. He appears to care little about the facts; his staff does not even bother to respond to fact-checking inquiries.

But, astonishingly, television hosts rarely challenge Trump when he makes a claim that already has been found to be false.

This has been a problem during the primaries, but I'm pretty sure it's set to change. Now that Trump is the presumptive nominee for a major party, with a real shot at becoming president, he just can't get away with being the bullshitter-in-chief. The press is going to treat him a lot—

Hmm? What's that? I should check out Meet the Press this morning? Sigh. What fresh hell awaits?

Trump has been retailing this particular tidbit of bullshit for months, and it's not just untrue, but obviously untrue. Conservatives know it perfectly well, because they're constantly talking about the high tax rates in Sweden and Germany and France and so forth, and trying to demonstrate that these high tax rates have strangled their economies. There's really no disagreement about this.

But there's good news! Since Trump has said this before, I already have the relevant chart at hand. No need to waste my time looking up the numbers and tossing them into Excel. So here it is. Not only are we not the highest, we're the third lowest among rich economies:

I honestly don't care much about Ben Rhodes, but reaction to David Samuels' profile of him is getting out of hand:

Everyone is circling the wagons around Laura Rozen, and that's fine. She's a very good reporter. But once again, let's take a look at what the Times profile actually says. It's about the campaign to sell the Iran nuclear deal:

The person whom Kreikemeier credits with running the digital side of the campaign was Tanya Somanader, 31, the director of digital response for the White House Office of Digital Strategy, who became known in the war room and on Twitter as @TheIranDeal. Early on, Rhodes asked her to create a rapid-response account that fact-checked everything related to the Iran deal.

....For those in need of more traditional-seeming forms of validation, handpicked Beltway insiders like Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor helped retail the administration’s narrative. “Laura Rozen was my RSS feed,” Somanader offered. “She would just find everything and retweet it.”

A few points:

  • This quote comes from Somanader, not Rhodes.
  • An RSS feed is something you read. Somanader seems to be saying only that she relied on Rozen to keep her up to speed on who was saying what in the Twitterverse.
  • The idea that Rozen was a "handpicked Beltway insider" comes solely from Samuels' framing of the quote, not from what Somanader actually said.

It's common in profiles for authors to intersperse their own impressions with actual quotes. There's nothing wrong with that. But in this profile, Samuels goes overboard. It's possible that every quote is well framed, but he'd have to produce far more context to demonstrate that. As it stands, he seems to be a little desperate to spin quotes to make points he wants to make.

This is why I said in my previous post that you have to read Samuels' profile very carefully. Take a look at what people actually said vs. what Samuels says in his own voice. The quotes themselves are more anodyne than they seem.

A Vote For Not-Trump Is a Vote For Hillary

Jay Nordlinger is confused at the idea that if he doesn't vote for Donald Trump, he's effectively voting for Hillary Clinton:

People tell me that, if I don’t vote for either Trump or Hillary, I’m voting for Hillary. My first response is, “So?” My second response is, “What are you smoking?” If it’s true that, if I don’t vote for either Trump or Hillary, I’m voting for Hillary, why isn’t it equally true that I’m voting for Trump? You see what I mean? How come Trump doesn’t get my non-vote? Why does just Hillary get it?

Am I missing something?

Perhaps it’s this: Perhaps people think that Trump has some kind of claim on my vote, because I’m a conservative (and, until earlier this week, I was a Republican)....

Let's stop right here. I think I see the problem. If not-Trump voters are distributed randomly, the effect would indeed be small. That's what happened with Ross Perot in 1992. But if millions of people who otherwise would have voted for the Republican nominee are defecting, then the effect is large and decidedly non-random. You really are effectively voting for Hillary since there's no plausible third-party candidate to take votes away from her.

And it doesn't even take millions. Ralph Nader effectively elected George W. Bush in 2000 with only a few thousand votes in Florida. It wasn't his intent, and the odds against it were high, but nonetheless that's how it worked out.

This is all predicated on the fact that Nordlinger almost certainly votes for Republicans most of the time and for Republican presidential candidates all the time. I'm pretty sure that's true. And if millions of formerly loyal Republicans stay away from the polls or vote for Gary Johnson or just leave their ballots blank, then Hillary is a shoo-in. I kinda hate to be the one making this case, but there's really no way around this.

Donald Trump knows exactly how to appeal to the women's vote:

"Have you ever read what Hillary Clinton did to the women that Bill Clinton had affairs with? And they're going after me with women?" he added, incredulously, without citing any specific examples or sources.

Oh goody. I guess in a few days we'll be treated to a barrage of thumbsuckers relitigating the titillating tales of Kathleen Willey, Gennifer Flowers, and Paula Jones. Christ. But the BinC didn't stop there:

Trump also took sharp aim at Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren....In front of a crowd of thousands on Friday night, Trump unveiled a new nickname for the Massachusetts senator: "Goofus."

Clinton's "got this goofy friend Elizabeth Warren, she's on a Twitter rant, she's a goofus," he said. "This woman, she's a basketcase. By the way, she's done nothing in the United States. She's done nothing."

Well, nothing except for all the stuff that conservatives apparently hate her for. Like being the godmother of the CFPB, which is great for most of us but loathed by banks—and therefore also loathed by Trump and the entire Republican Party. And despite being in the minority party and therefore having zero power, Warren has been a pretty effective advocate for reining in Wall Street during her 39 months as a senator. Effective enough to piss off Donald Trump, anyway.

Next up: Trump claims that Chelsea Clinton knew all about Benghazi. Huma Abedin is disgusting for sticking with her husband. Beyoncé wouldn't have any fans if she were a man. Shonda Rimes is an affirmative-action hire who has ruined ABC's Thursday-night TV lineup. Malia Obama is going to Harvard on the taxpayer's dime. Kim Kardashian is a total slut. Laura Bush is a loser. Amal Clooney defends terrorists. Gloria Steinem sure hasn't aged well. Natalie Portman was terrible in Star Wars.

Keep it up, Donald. You're doing great so far.

UPDATE: This should help him out with the little ladies:

Let Us Now Psychoanalyze Young Ben Rhodes

A couple of days ago the New York Times posted a long profile by David Samuels of White House communications guru Ben Rhodes. It turns out that in private Rhodes is pretty contemptuous of the foreign policy establishment, and thanks to the Times profile he's now contemptuous in public too. He also has some harsh words for the press, and as you might expect, the press has taken this with its usual thick skin. This piece by Carlos Lozada is typical. And here's a typical headline:

Is that a fair summary? In the Times profile, Rhodes describes how his communications shop tries to spin the news. By itself, this isn't much of a revelation. That's what communications people do. But was Rhodes really bragging about how easy it was to con reporters? The relevant excerpt comes after the reporter (not Rhodes) explains the "radical and qualitative" ways the news business has changed recently:

Rhodes singled out a key example to me one day, laced with the brutal contempt that is a hallmark of his private utterances. “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”

Is Rhodes displaying arrogance or smugness here? That's not how I took it when I initially read the piece. To me it scanned as an expression of regret. Rhodes himself is never quoted as being cocky or patronizing about his ability to shape foreign affairs reporting. He's just describing what he has to deal with, and explaining how that affects the way a modern White House press shop works. More digital, less print. More tutoring of young reporters, fewer tough questions from area experts.

Am I nuts for reading it this way? For those of you who have read the Times piece—And don't lie! Did you really read it?—what was your takeaway? Is Rhodes arrogant and manipulative? Or unhappy with the state of journalism but realistic about how it affects the way he does his job?

UPDATE: It's worth being very careful when you read the Times profile. You need to distinguish between what Rhodes says and how Samuels frames the quotes. Rhodes himself is fairly anodyne. In the quote above, for example, Rhodes is merely saying something that lots of reporters say too. It's Samuels who labels this as "brutal contempt."

Forget ethnic profiling. The real danger facing America these days is economists and their differential equations:

On Thursday evening, a 40-year-old man — with dark, curly hair, olive-skinned and an exotic foreign accent — boarded a plane. It was a regional jet making a short, uneventful hop from Philadelphia to nearby Syracuse.

....The curly-haired man tried to keep to himself, intently if inscrutably scribbling on a notepad he’d brought aboard His seatmate, a blond-haired, 30-something woman sporting flip-flops and a red tote bag, looked him over....He appeared laser-focused — perhaps too laser-focused — on the task at hand, those strange scribblings.

....Then, for unknown reasons, the plane turned around and headed back to the gate....Finally the pilot came by, locking eyes on the real culprit behind the delay: that darkly-complected foreign man....The curly-haired man was, the agent informed him politely, suspected of terrorism.

The curly-haired man laughed. He laughed because those scribbles weren’t Arabic, or some other terrorist code. They were math. Yes, math. A differential equation, to be exact.

It's about goddam time, I say. Personally, I'd say that economists and their math have done a lot more damage to the world recently than terrorists and their bombs. We owe this flip-flop-wearing woman our thanks.

On a more serious note, can it really be true that no one recognized what decorated young Italian economist Guido Menzio was doing? Sure, maybe his seatmate didn't recognize math. But neither the flight attendant nor the pilot recognized math-ish scribblings when they came back to take a look at things? "What might prevent an epidemic of paranoia?" Menzio wrote on Facebook. "It is hard not to recognize in this incident, the ethos of [Donald] Trump’s voting base." And that's quite true: Donald Trump is notoriously an idiot at math. I suppose his followers are too.

POSTSCRIPT: You know what's missing from this story? The actual page of math Menzio was working on in the plane. Admit it: you want to see it too. You're all such a bunch of nerds.

Health Update

Everything is good news this month. My M-protein level continues to decline, which means the level of cancerous plasma cells in my bone marrow is declining too. I'm still a long way from zero, but heading in the right direction.

At the same time, my immune system rebounded. Last month I was down to 1,300, which is uncomfortably close to the danger level of 1,000. This month I'm back up to 1,900, so perhaps March was just an outlier.

In other news, the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review has released a report evaluating the tsunami of new multiple myeloma treatments that have been brought to market recently. Three of them received a grade of B+, which sounds pretty good—although it turns out to mean only "moderate certainty of a small net health benefit." In numbers, that's an increased survival rate of 5-9 months. And do you remember all those recent news reports about how pricey new cancer treatments are these days? This is now more than an intellectual curiosity for me. These new drugs are really, really expensive: upwards of $400,000 per year of extra life.

And who pays for this? In the narrowest sense, Mother Jones. In a broader sense, everyone who pays premiums to Kaiser Permanente. And in the broadest sense of all, everyone in the country. So you have to decide: is it worth $400,000 to have Kevin Drum around for an extra year? That depends a lot on whether you happen to be Kevin Drum, doesn't it?

But there's no need to decide yet. It will likely be years before I need a third-line treatment, and by then maybe something better will be around. Personally, I'm counting on nanobots, so get cracking, nanotechnologists.

Friday Cat Blogging - 6 May 2016

Yesterday was a tough day: my computer went nuts and wouldn't let me get any work done. The symptoms were bizarre: I couldn't open any menus. They'd just flash on the screen and disappear. I couldn't open apps. I couldn't close apps. I could highlight text, but I couldn't copy or paste it. I couldn't even open the Start menu to reboot the machine. What the hell is going on with Windows 10?

Perhaps you can already figure out how this story ends? It turns out that Windows is fine. I'm sorry for doubting you, Microsoft. The bug turned out to be neither software nor firmware, but catware. Hilbert had his paw hanging out of the pod and was pressing the Escape key. When I removed his paw, everything worked fine again.

Really, the things we cat owners staffers put up with is astounding.