Kevin Drum

Congratulations on a Great Century, Gravity

| Fri Nov. 6, 2015 1:41 PM EST

Science News has a big package in the current issue about Gravity's Century. I'd just like to add a personal note of congratulations to this. I think gravity has had a great century. It has kept me from floating into space for 57 years. It's kept our atmosphere intact so we can all breathe. It's remained weak enough that Earth hasn't spiraled into the sun. It's helped produce thousands of adorable kitten videos. And black holes! Those are just awesome.

All in all, terrific job, gravity. You deserve all the kudos you're getting. What's more, I hope this makes up for our inexcusable neglect of your first big century in 1787. We're really sorry about that. You deserved better. I guess we were busy with the whole Constitution thing and it slipped our minds. It won't happen again, I promise.

On the constructive criticism side, though, what's with all the fancy math? It makes you seem a little elitist. A little KISS could go a long way. Just a thought.

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Russia Is Very Unlikely to Launch a War Against ISIS

| Fri Nov. 6, 2015 1:24 PM EST

Charles Krauthammer on what's going to happen if it turns out ISIS was responsible for bombing Metrojet Flight 9268:

“As for the Russians, the Russians have had a decades long struggle with the radical Islam in the Caucasus and Chechnya,” he said. “But they have a reputation of being utterly ruthless – you don’t want to mess with Boris.”

“If this turns out to be an attack on a Russian airline, they’re going to have — either their deterrent is going to be diminished, or they’re going to have to have a furious response,” Krauthammer argued. “Which would incidentally help us, because it would be against ISIS.”

Actually, I'm a little curious about something. Further investigation will probably tell us whether it was a bomb that brought down the plane, but what could possibly tell us that it was an ISIS bomb? Unless ISIS takes public responsibility—and so far they haven't—it would take some pretty lucky breaks in the investigation to pin the blame specifically on them.

In any case, I think Krauthammer is wrong. Russia does indeed have a reputation for being ruthless against radical Islam on its own soil, and this goes way beyond just Vladimir Putin. But they have no reputation for caring even a tiny bit about radical Islam anywhere else. A "furious response" against ISIS would require a projection of power that they likely don't have, and a less-than-furious response would make them look weak. So they'll probably do nothing. Either way, though, I doubt it will change anyone's beliefs about what they're willing to do within their own borders.

ISIS can be destroyed. But roughly speaking, this can happen in only a few different ways: (a) a massive ground campaign, (b) essentially a long siege that eventually ravages them—though probably at the cost of lots of civilian life, (c) internal strife that ultimately consumes them, or (d) an impressive, and rather unlikely, improvement in the Iraqi military. It's hard to see Russia playing much of a role in any of these.

Carson in Hot Water Over West Point Claim

| Fri Nov. 6, 2015 12:04 PM EST

Oh hell. While I was busy nattering on about Ben Carson's pyramid theory, it turns out that Carson was busily destroying his campaign. Or Politico was, anyway:

Ben Carson’s campaign on Friday admitted, in a response to an inquiry from POLITICO, that a central point in his inspirational personal story was fabricated: his application and acceptance into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

The academy has occupied a central place in Carson’s tale for years. According to a story told in Carson’s book, “Gifted Hands,” the then-17 year old was introduced in 1969 to Gen. William Westmoreland, who had just ended his command of U.S. forces in Vietnam, and the two dined together. That meeting, according to Carson’s telling, was followed by a “full scholarship” to the military academy.

West Point, however, has no record of Carson applying, much less being extended admission....When presented with this evidence, Carson’s campaign conceded the story was false.

Evangelicals love stories of youthful rebellion followed by redemption and a full Christian life. They do not like serious lies told many years after finding God. They especially don't like lies about military service.

If Carson's fans blow this off, then he's truly invulnerable. There's just no excuse. He told this lie in 1992, when he was 39 years old and already director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He wasn't running for president at the time, so he figured no one would ever check up on it. He deliberately invented a story just because it made him look good.

Ben Carson is either a serial liar or else he lives a very rich fantasy life. At this point, I'm honestly not sure which.

Ben Carson's Pyramid Nonsense Is Not a Religious Belief

| Fri Nov. 6, 2015 11:46 AM EST

Tyler Cowen thinks we're all being too hard on Ben Carson for his belief that the pyramids were built by Joseph to store grain:

We mock Ben Carson for this, but we do not make fun of those who believe openly in the Trinity, Virgin Birth, ex cathedra, and many other beliefs which are to my mind slightly less plausible claims. It’s not so different from the old prejudice that Mormon beliefs are somehow “weirder” than those of traditional Christians, except now it is secularists picking and choosing their religious targets on the supposed basis of sophistication. The Seventh Day Adventists, Carson’s church, are of course weirder yet.

....What I find strangest of all is not Ben Carson’s pyramids beliefs, but rather the notion that we should selectively pick on some religious claims rather than others. The notion that it is fine to believe something about a deity or deities, or a divine book, as long as you do not take that said belief very seriously and treat it only as a social affiliation or an ornamental badge of honor.

Generally speaking, I agree. As a nonbeliever, I find pretty much all religious beliefs pretty odd. Some I find odder than others, but this is just a literary reaction. I also find Lovecraft odder than Baum, but is he really?

But here's what Cowen misses about the pyramid thing: it's not even a religious belief. Muslims don't say the pyramids were for grain storage. Neither do Mormons or Jews or Christian Scientists or Southern Baptists or Catholics or Seventh Day Adventists. There's nothing in the Bible about this. It's not a religious belief. It's just Carson's weird, personal theory.

What's more, this isn't something like evolution or the Big Bang, where the evidence is arcane enough that lots of people feel comfortable dismissing it. Our knowledge of the pyramids is plain and unambiguous. I mean, thousands of Christian tourists have been inside. They aren't hollow. They have lots of passages and rooms. We've found burial chambers and sarcophagi. We can read the hieroglyphics on the walls. Anyone with a TV set knows this.

What's more, Carson's defense is ridiculous. He figures Joseph needed something big to store all that grain in the Bible, and something that big would still be around. But why? He could have stored it in lots of little things. He could have stored it in medium-sized things. Ten thousand silos a few yards on a side would have provided the same amount of storage space and been a helluva lot easier to construct. Only an idiot would store grain in a few humongous pyramids. Was Joseph an idiot?

Cowen says, "Bully for Ben Carson for reminding us that a religion actually consists of beliefs about the world." But that's not what Carson did. His pyramid theory isn't a religious belief. It has nothing to do with dogma, nothing to do with scripture, and nothing to do with any kind of divine intervention. It's just a dumb personal invention. Plain old secular dumb.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in October

| Fri Nov. 6, 2015 10:58 AM EST

The American economy added 271,000 new jobs last month, 90,000 of which were needed to keep up with population growth. This means that net job growth clocked in at a brisk 181,000 jobs—nearly all of it in the private sector. Not bad! The headline unemployment rate ticked down to 5.0 percent, and virtually of this gain was because more people were employed, not because folks were dropping out of the labor force. This is pretty good news if it translates into wage growth too.

Which it did. Hourly earnings of production and nonsupervisory employees were up 5.3 percent on an annualized basis, and weekly earnings were up an impressive 9.1 percent, which suggests workers are getting more hours and more overtime.

There's really nothing much to dislike about this jobs report. As usual, it carries the risk that it will prompt the Fed to raise interest rates, but I think that's inevitable at this point barring some kind of economic catastrophe. And a small increase won't have much effect anyway. Now let's see if we can keep this up through the holiday season.

The Uninsured Rate Just Keeps Going Down, Down, Down

| Thu Nov. 5, 2015 8:20 PM EST

I'm back. I've now done my civic duty yet again, so I'm safe until the next time the Orange County justice system wants me to sit around all day and curse at unreliable Wi-Fi coverage. Oddly, their Wi-Fi is worse than it was the last time I was there, three or four years ago. I think they've outsourced it since then. On the bright side, this time around I could provide my own internet connection, so I don't care that much. Plus, since I never get actually called for a jury these days, I've once again preserved my record of being foreman on 100 percent of the juries I've ever sat on.

As your reward for waiting around all day for me, here's the latest CDC data on the uninsured rate. Being the big government agency they are, they're just getting around to crunching the numbers for the second quarter, and they report that Obamacare has driven the uninsured rate down yet again, to 10.3 percent.1 Not bad for a program that, I'm told, is in a death spiral and will implode any second now.

1Gallup says the uninsured rate in the second quarter was 11.4 percent. The difference comes from who they count. Gallup counts everyone over 18. CDC counts everyone under age 65.

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Who Is Ben Carson's Mystery Physicist?

| Thu Nov. 5, 2015 1:19 PM EST

By now, we all know that Ben Carson thinks the pyramids were built by Joseph as grain silos. I'm sort of curious about where this idea came from, and maybe eventually we'll find out. In the meantime, I'd like to highlight a different part of Carson's pyramid speech:

“I recently had a discussion with a well-known physicist. He was talking about the Big Bang Theory and how all this obviously culminated into this wonderful, extraordinarily organized solar system that we now have, which you can set your watch by, where scientists can predict 70 years away when a comet is coming. That’s an incredible amount of organization to have originated from just a large explosion.”

Carson then tells the story of how he supposedly stumped the physicist by asking him how he could reconcile such an “organized” universe with the laws of thermodynamics, specifically entropy, which says that systems tend to move towards disorder.

“Well of course he has no answer for that. They never have an answer for any of these things.”

Huh. Not just a physicist, a "well-known" physicist. And Carson says this guy was floored by his question. Apparently he had never given any thought to whether the Big Bang theory was compatible with the second law of thermodynamics.

Conclusion: either this was the stupidest physicist ever, or else Carson was lying. I think you can guess which side I'm on, but Carson can clear this up in a trice by telling us who this hapless physicist was. I sure hope it's not someone who's conveniently dead.

POSTSCRIPT: It's probably worth noting that conservative Christians are just generally a little gaga over the second law of thermodynamics, which they're convinced disproves the theory of evolution. You can yell "In a closed system!" until you're blue in the face, and it makes no difference. They've stumped you! There are dozens of more sophisticated versions of this argument, too. Carson is just extending this chestnut a little further back in time.

Midget Nerd? Seriously?

| Thu Nov. 5, 2015 12:11 PM EST

I guess you don't need me to tell you about Bush 41's opinion of Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld. Poor Jon Meacham spent years writing a biography of Bush, and all anyone cares about is a few quotes calling people "iron-asses," an epithet Bush applied to Rumsfeld and, apparently, the entire Cheney family. Especially Lynne.

But did Bush really call Michael Dukakis "midget nerd"? What is this, junior high school?

Housekeeping Note

| Thu Nov. 5, 2015 9:00 AM EST

Last night I was checking my calendar and realized that I have jury duty today. Exciting! So probably no blogging. Unless I end up waiting around all day and never getting called, in which case maybe I'll do some blogging on my tablet. We'll see.

Is Ben Carson a Liar? Or Does He Just Not Care?

| Wed Nov. 4, 2015 10:18 PM EST

Here is Ben Carson, wandering off topic when the Miami Herald asks him about abuses of our Cuba policy:

"I think the way to fix that is not so much to abolish the act, but dealing with the specific area where the abuse is," Carson said, noting that Medicare and Medicaid fraud is "huge — half a trillion dollars."

"We definitely need to focus on that," he said.

Well, hell, why not say it's a hundred trillion dollars? Or a gazillion? I mean, if you're just going to make stuff up, why not go whole hog?

For the record, total Medicare and Medicaid spending last year—state, federal, everything—was $980 billion. So Carson is suggesting that literally half of all spending on these programs is fraudulent.

So where did Carson come up with this figure? Beats me. There are a few possibilities:

  • It comes from some kind of kooky right-wing conspiracy theory that circulates in newsletters and email lists that the rest of us never see.
  • Carson read somewhere that Medicare fraud totaled $60 billion out of half a trillion dollars, and the only parts that stuck in his brain were "fraud" and "half a trillion dollars."
  • He just made it up.

This stuff is weird. Carson didn't have to say anything about Medicare fraud. The question was about Cuba policy. He wanted to mention it. Fine. He could have just said that Medicare fraud was a huge problem. Sorry: not good enough. He wanted to toss out a scary number, but he couldn't be bothered to know what it actually was—or even know enough about Medicare and Medicaid spending to realize that half a trillion dollars couldn't possibly be right. He just doesn't care. What kind of person running for president just doesn't care?

POSTSCRIPT: Couldn't Carson have just made a mistake? Sure. But here's the thing: some mistakes are so big they give away the fact that you're entirely ignorant of the subject at hand. If I told you that Babe Ruth hit 800 home runs in his career, it might just be a brain fart. But if I told you he hit 5,000 home runs, it's a giveaway that I'm faking. I don't know the first thing about baseball.

That's what Carson did here. He's smart and good with numbers, so if he knew even the basics of Medicare and Medicaid he'd also know intuitively that half a trillion dollars couldn't be right. But he didn't. He's running for president, and hasn't bothered to learn even the kindergarten basics about two programs that make up nearly a third of the federal budget.