Kevin Drum

PPP Uses the Power of Pyramids to Figure Out Which Republican Candidate Has the Weirdest Supporters

| Tue Nov. 10, 2015 12:17 PM EST

One of the charming things about Public Policy Polling is that they have a habit of asking weird questions that no one else will. Today's example: What do you think the pyramids were built for? This is for South Carolina only, and sadly, they only asked Republicans. Still, the breakdown by candidate gives us a peek at which of them has the weirdest supporters. Results are on the right.

It's a close call, but Donald Trump's supporters seem to have the best handle on reality. Marco Rubio (!) runs away with the grain crowd, beating out even heavy favorite Ben Carson. And Jeb Bush ekes out a win from the aliens crowd. This is not, perhaps, what you would expect. I wonder why Rubio has so many supporters who believe the grain theory but none who believe the aliens theory? It is a mystery.

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Tonight's GOP Debate Will Be All About Pressing Hard on Tax and Budget Proposals

| Tue Nov. 10, 2015 11:46 AM EST

Tonight's Republican debate starts up at 9 pm Eastern.1 One of the moderators has some advice for the candidates:

Fox Business Network anchor Maria Bartiromo believes the Republicans are not helping themselves by whining about the moderators at the primary debates. “President Obama said it, and it was true,” she said during a conversation at the FBN offices in midtown Manhattan a few days before she takes the stage for the channel’s Nov. 10 primary debate in Milwaukee. “If these guys can’t deal with the moderators, how are you going to be able to deal with Russia and China?”

“I guess it’s become cool to slap around the moderator. That’s OK,” said Bartiromo....Her approach will include pressing the candidates for details on their tax and budget proposals. “I’m clear on where the holes may be in their plans so I can try to solicit information and help the viewer,” she said. “As far as worrying ‘what if he says this to me, what if he does that to me’ — I don’t have time for that.”

Amusingly, both of the moderators of tonight's debate used to work for CNBC, which got trashed by Republicans for its performance a couple of weeks ago. So they have an extra special incentive to show that they can do better.

Anyway, I'm eager to hear Bartiromo press the candidates on their phantasmic tax and budget proposals, and I'm especially eager to hear her ferociously attack the holes in their plans. I wonder how that's going to go?

1Of course I'll be liveblogging it. What else would I be doing with my evening? First, though, I need to figure out what channel my cable provider has consigned the Fox Business Network to. For those of you who don't get FBN, they will be livestreaming the debate on No cable subscription required.

Here's a List of 8 Discrepancies in Ben Carson's Yale Hoax Story

| Tue Nov. 10, 2015 10:50 AM EST

A team of reporters from BuzzFeed has been busy calling everyone they could find who was associated with the Yale Record in 1970, when they hoaxed some students into retaking the final exam in a psychology class. Nobody could remember anything about it except for Curtis Bakal, who confirmed that the hoax had been carried out:

“We did a mock parody of the Yale Daily News during the exam period in January 1970, and in this parody we had a box that said: ‘So-and-so section of the exam has been lost in a fire. Professor so-and-so is going to give a makeup exam.’”

“We got a room to do the test in and one of us from the Record impersonated a proctor to give the test,” he said....Bakal, the Record editorial assistant at the time, remembered other details about the prank that are compatible with Carson’s account, such as the unusual difficulty of the test. “Several students showed up, and the fake exam, a parody of exam — in fact, it had real psych questions, because I had taken the class the year before, but it was a more difficult and probing personal exam,” he said.

....Bakal also backed up Carson’s claim that “at the end what few students remained — it may have just been one or two, I wasn’t there — received a small cash prize.”

Bakal also says he's "99% certain the way Carson remembers it is correct." But that's not so clear. Let's keep all the discrepancies front and center:

  1. Carson says the class was Perceptions 301. It was actually Psychology 10. (Carson now says that his ghostwriter might have made up a course name and number "just to give it more meat.")
  2. Carson says the professor handed out the exam papers and picked them up. Bakal says it was a fake proctor.
  3. Carson says there were 150 students in the retest. The writeup of the hoax the next day says "several" students showed up.
  4. Bakal says the remaining students received a "small cash prize" at the end. But ten dollars was a fair sum at the time, about equivalent to $60 today.
  5. Carson says the hoax happened during his junior year (1972). The Record hoax actually took place in 1970.
  6. Carson says a photographer took his picture at the end. Bakal doesn't mention this.
  7. Carson says the professor was a woman. That's unlikely since Yale had very few female instructors at the time, but it's possible. However, Bakal says "one of us" from the Record impersonated a proctor. Yale only began admitting women that year, and it's pretty unlikely that the Record would have sent over a freshman woman to impersonate a proctor.
  8. Finally, and most importantly, Carson says the professor/proctor told him he was the most honest person in the course because he had stuck it out to the end. This is absolutely central to Carson's story. But that never happened. The Record proctor might have told him he was the most gullible person in the course, but that's about it.

The likely response from the Carson camp is that I'm nitpicking. When Carson wrote about this, the hoax was 20 years in the past and he may have gotten a few details wrong. Fair enough for minor stuff. But a hoax like this would have been pretty memorable. He wouldn't misremember a female professor with a starring role. The fact that it took place in his junior year was a key part of the story, but it didn't happen then. The photographer seems entirely made up. And the business about getting an award for honesty, which is also central to his story, didn't happen.

At best, the hoax happened during Carson's freshman year in Psychology 10, and he then embellished it considerably in order to make it a proper testimonial to the power of God. At worst, he simply heard about the hoax and used it as the basis for a completely invented story in his book. I don't know which. But either way, the story in his book is substantially exaggerated in ways that really matter. This is not just nitpicking.

How Honest Is Your State?

| Mon Nov. 9, 2015 11:27 PM EST

This year, the Center for Public Integrity has once again ranked all 50 states for their transparency and accountability. A high score means your state is tolerably honest. A low score means corruption galore. AJ Vicens has the whole story here, along with plenty of detail.

But for those of you who just want the tl;dr version, I'm here to help. The chart below shows how all 50 states did. Congratulations, Michigan! You're our most corrupt state, edging out Wyoming by a few tenths of a point. In the "beats expectations" category, I think I'd give the award to Illinois, with New Jersey as runner-up. In the "most disappointing" category, I'd pick Oregon, which really brought down the otherwise impressive performance by the Western states.

Health Update

| Mon Nov. 9, 2015 8:38 PM EST

I just got back from a visit with the oncologist, and she says all my test results are normal. My IgG levels are normal. My light kappa chains are normal. Hooray!

Except, of course, for the one test that really matters, the M protein marker (a proxy for the level of cancerous cells in my bone marrow). It's now gone down from 0.9 to 0.72 to 0.63 to 0.55. My own amateur analysis suggests that this means it will plateau at around 0.3 or 0.4, which is not great news since we want to get it to zero. My oncologist's professional analysis is that, hey, maybe the cancer is already gone and the protein markers are just hanging around for a while.

Do I sound a little annoyed at my inability to ever get anything but happy talk from these folks? Yeah, I guess so. I understand that there's not much point in getting bent out of shape about these results until I've been on the new meds long enough to get a truly reliable reading. I also understand that oncologists want to keep their patients from getting depressed. Still, I wish I had a little more visibility about what's likely to happen over the next year or so.

Oh well. At least the M protein marker level is going in the right direction. This means I'm basically in good shape for a while. And I feel pretty good, though I think the higher dose of the new med is making me a little bit more tired than usual. Nothing serious, though. For the time being, everything is in pretty good shape.

The Press Needs to Fight Back on Republican Tax Lunacy

| Mon Nov. 9, 2015 5:46 PM EST

Steve Benen on the Rubio-Lee tax plan:

At first blush, it’s tempting to see Marco Rubio’s economic plan as a dog-bites-man story: Republican presidential campaign proposes massive tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, even while saying the opposite.

Benen goes on to manfully make the case that Rubio's tax crankery actually does deserve extra special attention, but I'm not sure he does the job. Sure, Rubio's deficit would be humongous, but so would everyone else's. And Rubio has a helluva mountain to climb to take the top spot in the tax craziness derby. Let's roll the tape:

  • The "sensible" candidate says his tax plan will boost growth to 4 percent a year. His advisors have basically admitted that this number was pulled out of thin air.
  • A second candidate, not to be outdone on the absurd growth front, says his plan will cause the economy to take off like a rocket, producing growth as high as 6 percent. How will he manage this? "I just will."
  • Another candidate suggests we adopt a tax plan based on the Biblical practice of tithing.
  • Yet another candidate, apparently thinking that tithing isn't quite crazy enough, proposes an even lower flat tax.

This is all fantasyland stuff. So why doesn't the media hammer them more on it? Why do debate moderators let them get away with such lunacy? Good question. John Harwood tried the only honest approach in the last debate, suggesting that Donald Trump was running a "comic book" campaign—and it was Harwood who got hammered. Harwood gamely tried a second time with Trump, telling him that "you have as much chance of cutting taxes that much without increasing the deficit as you would of flying away from that podium by flapping your arms." Trump brushed him off. Harwood tried yet again with Rubio, this time citing numbers from the Tax Foundation, and Rubio brushed him off. That's a couple of tries at mockery and one try at arithmetic, and they both had the same effect.

There's not much left to do. If candidates want to say that brass is gold, and people choose to believe them despite piles of evidence to the contrary, you're stuck. Eventually you feel like you have to move on to something else.

But maybe you don't. Maybe you just keep asking, over and over. Maybe you ask every candidate the same question. Republicans will scream about how the liberal media hates them, and then they'll trot out their pet economists to insist that tax cuts really do hypercharge the economy. The moderators will take a lot of heat over this. But it might actually turn supply-side nuttiness into a real topic that gets its 15 minutes of fame. That's better than nothing.

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Here's the Latest in the GOP Horserace

| Mon Nov. 9, 2015 3:11 PM EST

Apropos of nothing in particular, here's the latest Pollster aggregate for the Republican nomination. It looks to me like Trump is finally sliding, while Carson seems to have plateaued around 20 percent or so. Rubio and Cruz are up over the past few weeks, but it's too soon to tell if this just a blip, or the start of something real. Jeb Bush is declining slightly, but not out of it yet.

So who gets all the Trump and Carson votes when those two inevitably implode? And is it really inevitable? Beats me. This is just the weirdest Republican race ever. Ever since Scott Walker, my early favorite, displayed such awesome ineptitude that he literally dropped to 0 percent in the polls, I've been reluctant to utter a peep about who seems likely to win this year. Who knows? Maybe it will all come down to a savage brawl between the two Floridians.

New Suitcase Offers Nothing New, Gets Big Writeup in Slate

| Mon Nov. 9, 2015 1:56 PM EST

Today, in what is apparently not an ad, Slate is running an ad for Away, a fabulous new carry-on suitcase designed by two former Warby Parker executives. Here's the skinny:

To create their carry-on, Rubio and Korey spoke with thousands of people to determine what travelers look for most. They found that many consumers want attractive, well-constructed luggage that provides organization and....

With that in mind, they created a carry-on that has four durable double wheels—a design detail that alone took 20 designs iterations to get right—plus a laundry separation system that keeps belongings organized, YKK zippers that provide stability, and a....

Hmmm. So far that sounds like pretty much every other carry-on suitcase in the galaxy. But wait! What's behind those ellipses? This:

....and a built-in 10,000 mAh battery that can be charged beforehand and power a smartphone up to five times during a trip.

So let me get this straight. The big selling point of this suitcase is that it includes a built-in battery that's a lot less convenient than a standalone battery you can put anywhere you want? Or is it just that it has a special pocket for a battery? Either way, who cares? Buy a suitcase and a 10,000 mAh battery (about 20 bucks on Amazon) and you'll have the same thing the Warby Parker execs are hawking. And probably pay less.

What am I missing? Why did Slate run this?

Charts of the Day: Americans Seem to Be About As Happy As Ever

| Mon Nov. 9, 2015 1:06 PM EST

The new Case/Deaton paper about the rise in white deaths from suicide, alcohol, and drug overdoses has inspired a lot of discussion about why Americans are apparently so despondent these days. Paul Krugman goes so far as to call it "existential despair."

I hate to throw a wet blanket on this pity party, but perhaps we should take a look at a few other data points before we decide that America is on the brink of a mass Jim Jones extinction event. For starters, here's a map from the 2015 World Happiness Report. Basically, it shows that most rich countries are pretty happy, including the United States:

For the record, we came in 15th. That's toward the low end of rich countries, but still pretty happy. Next up is a long-running Gallup poll about personal satisfaction:

Not much change there over the past few decades. Here's the Gallup mood tracking poll:

Not much change there either. Here's the University of Michigan consumer sentiment survey:

It goes down during recessions and up when recessions end. Finally, here's the Pollster aggregate of the right track/wrong track polls beloved of pundits everywhere:

"Right track" took a big jump after Barack Obama was elected president, and then dropped back into the high 20s, where it's pretty much stayed ever since.

If you listen to a lot of Fox News—or pretty much any news, to be fair—you'd think Americans lived lives of torment and despair. But if you actually ask them how they feel, nothing much seems to have changed recently. If you plot the right/wrong track polls back further, I think you'll see a long-term decline, which suggests that Americans are, indeed, increasingly frustrated by politics. But apparently they don't really care much about it either, since they remain pretty chipper regardless.

Now, I just pulled these charts sort of randomly, and perhaps there are others that show something different. I'm wide open to seeing them. I just think that if we're going to talk about "existential despair," we should at least engage with the data a bit. And as near as I can tell, the data suggests that Americans as a whole are about as happy and satisfied with their lives as they've ever been. This doesn't necessarily mean that white Americans—the subject of the Case/Deaton paper—are as happy as they've ever been, but if you want to make the case that they're increasingly morose, at least show me some evidence. OK?

Forget Trump, Let's Talk About the Media

| Mon Nov. 9, 2015 11:25 AM EST

Ashley Parker explains the new landscape of political advertising:

Thirty-second television commercials were once signs of a confident, well-financed candidacy for the White House. Now they are seen as a last resort of struggling campaigns that have not mastered the art of attracting the free media coverage that has lifted the political fortunes of insurgent campaigns like those of Mr. Trump and Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who has surged to the top of the polls.

....In addition to having done countless interviews, Mr. Trump has been effective in using social media to attack his rivals, and many of his acrid and controversial quips on Twitter are rebroadcast by traditional news media outlets.

“I think he’s found ways to gain print and airtime by being available and quotable,” said Mike Schreurs, the founder and chief executive of Strategic America, a marketing and advertising firm based in Iowa. “He’s probably a more sophisticated user of media than any other presidential candidate we’ve ever seen.”

Can we stop right here? Donald Trump's "discovery," if it can be called that, is that the American media is a sucker for anything outrageous. That's it. They aren't covering Trump because he's Trump, they're covering him because he says Mexicans are murderers and rapists and politicians are all losers and Carly Fiorina is ugly. Whatever other virtues and faults Jeb Bush has, he's not willing to say stuff like that—so the media ignores him.

I'd like to see Parker do a follow-up piece that sheds the fiction of Trump somehow discovering a whole new strategy to get publicity. He hasn't. It's the same strategy he's always had to get airtime on entertainment shows. The difference is that most presidential candidates in the past figured they had to act at least nominally presidential if they didn't want to end up as ignored as Alan Keyes. But apparently the political media has changed. Reporters and editors are now as eager as any gossip show to cover obvious buffoonery, and both Trump and Ben Carson have ridden that wave.

Why? Is it just an artifact of struggling mainstream outlets that are desperate for something to pay the bills? Is it a sense that they have to compete with BuzzFeed and HuffPo? Forget Trump and Carson. Someone ought to write about changes in campaign reporting that have made the two of them possible.