On Wednesday President Obama joined the retirement crisis bandwagon:

A lot of Americans don’t have retirement savings. Even if they’ve got an account set up, they just don’t have enough money at the end of the month to save as much as they’d like because they’re just barely paying the bills. Fewer and fewer people have pensions they can really count on, which is why Social Security is more important than ever.

We can’t afford to weaken Social Security. We should be strengthening Social Security. And not only do we need to strengthen its long-term health, it’s time we finally made Social Security more generous, and increased its benefits so that today’s retirees and future generations get the dignified retirement that they’ve earned.

I concur in part and dissent in part. First the dissent: it's not true that "fewer and fewer" people have pensions they can count on. There has been a change in the number of old-style pensions ("defined-benefit plans") vs. 401(k)-style pensions ("defined-contribution plans"), but the overall share of workers covered has stayed pretty steady:

The total share of workers in pension plans of one kind or another was 45 percent in 1979 and 45 percent in 2011. There's been virtually no change over the past 30 years.

But wait! Those old-style pensions were more generous. Surely that's what Obama meant by pensions that people "can really count on"? Not so much, it turns out. The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College has been warning about the retirement crisis for some time, but recently they re-analyzed pension data based on new NIPA data that allows a more accurate look at pension accruals. Here's their updated chart:

The total pension wealth of the American public has barely budged even as the source of pension wealth has changed dramatically. It was about 13 percent of total wages in 1984 and 14 percent in 2012. CRR's conclusion from this new data is that "the accumulation of retirement assets has not declined as a result of the shift from defined benefit to defined contribution plans." As they cheerfully admit, "We are going to have to change our story!"

Now it's true, in theory, that old-style pensions were safer than 401(k) plans, which bob up and down with the stock market. But this difference is often overstated. For one thing, 401(k) plans generally show fairly steady growth over any time frame more than three or four years. Even the Great Recession only weakened them from 2009-12, and they've recovered very nicely since then. For another, all those old pension funds were invested in stocks and bonds as well, and if the market goes south, they go south as well. The most recent example of this is the Teamsters’ Central States Pension Fund.

That said, I concur in part with President Obama. Probably the biggest problem with 401(k)-style plans is that they tend to benefit high earners more than old-style pensions did. The difference isn't enormous—though we can't say for sure since distributional detail isn't available for past decades—but it's probably true that 401(k)s are somewhat less generous to low earners than older defined-benefit plans were. This is not a fatal defect, however, and it's one that's being addressed fairly successfully already. Another problem with 401(k) plans is high fees, and that's also a problem that's being addressed—though for my money it could stand to be addressed with considerably more vigor.

Here's what all this adds up to: the best way to address retirement security is to continue reforming 401(k) plans and to expand Social Security—but only for low-income workers. Middle-class workers are generally doing reasonably well, and certainly as well as they did in the past. We don't need a massive and expensive expansion of Social Security for everyone, but we do need to make Social Security more generous for the bottom quarter or so of the population that's doing poorly in both relative and absolute terms. This is something that every liberal ought to support, and hopefully this is the bandwagon that President Obama in now on.

The Wall Street Journal passes along good news today:

Fed’s Beige Book: ‘Tight Labor Markets’ Are Pushing Up Wages

Tight labor markets are good. But how tight are they, really? The full Fed report is here. Here's the super-abridged version of the twelve regional reports:

  • Boston: Labor demand was robust.
  • New York: The labor market has continued to tighten.
  • St. Louis: Wage growth was strong.
  • Philadelphia: Wage pressure was modest.
  • Richmond: Labor demand rose moderately.
  • Atlanta: Wage pressure was modest.
  • Chicago: Wage pressure picked up some.
  • Minneapolis: Wage pressure was moderate.
  • San Francisco: Wage inflation picked up somewhat.
  • Kansas City: Wages grew slightly.
  • Dallas: Wage pressures were minimal.
  • Cleveland: Payrolls were little changed on balance.

I score it like this: Three districts reported strong labor demand; six reported modest tightening; and three reported minimal change. There's some good news here and there, and overall growth seems to be decent, but that's about it. There's certainly not the slightest suggestion that labor markets are truly tight, or in any danger of overheating. Nor is inflation is danger of overheating: it's still piddling along at well under the target range of 2 percent. As former Fed governor Narayana Kocherlakota says, there's simply nothing either here or in the official inflation figures to suggest that the Fed should do anything to put the brakes on the economy right now.

Go Ahead. Have a Potato Chip.

The FDA wants the food industry to cut down on sodium. Julia Belluz reports:

Public health groups have been sounding the alarm for years about how the food industry's liberal use of sodium is harmful to our health....As it stands, the average American consumes about 3,400 mg of sodium per day. Health officials recommend that people aim to eat no more than 2,300 mg per day.

....The new guidelines, which are still in draft form, set targets for the gradual lowering of salt in a range of products including both processed and restaurant foods over the short term (two years) and long term (10 years).

I don't have anything against cutting back on salt. It's always struck me as sort of a vicious circle: we put more salt in our food; we get accustomed to the higher sodium level; so we put even more salt in our food. What's the point?

But that's just a personal opinion. When it comes to the actual health risks of salt, that 2300 mg recommendation is almost certainly bogus. Here's master debunker Aaron Carroll on a recent study of sodium intake in the New England Journal of Medicine:

Americans consume, on average, 3.4 grams of sodium per day....This is on the low end of the “safe zone” of 3-6 grams in the study. The United States Food and Drug Administration thinks that’s not low enough. It recommends 2.3 grams per day.

Why? There’s surprisingly little rationale for this belief. Last year, experts convened by the Institute of Medicine assessed the evidence concerning sodium intake around the world. They agreed that efforts to reduce excessive sodium were warranted. But they cautioned that no such evidence existed to recommend a very low salt diet....What [the NEJM study] found was worrisome. When compared with those who consumed 3-6 grams per day, people who consumed less than 3 grams of sodium per day had an even higher risk of death or cardiovascular incidents than those who consumed more than 7 grams per day.

This result would be shocking if we in the medical community hadn’t seen it before. But we have. In 2011, researchers published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association after following 3,681 people over almost a decade. They, too, found that excessive salt intake was associated with high blood pressure. They also found that a low-sodium diet was associated with higher mortality from cardiovascular causes.

The inevitable chart is below. The lesson here is simple: As with everything else, you shouldn't overdo the salt. And if you have a specific medical condition that requires low sodium, then listen to your doctor. Beyond that, though, the chances are that your sodium intake is fine. As near as I can tell, our nutritional establishment remains hellbent on hectoring us about our diets based on a combination of weak evidence and folk wisdom from Satchel Paige. Then they wonder why no one pays attention to them. It's a puzzler, all right.

Jared Bernstein takes on one of my favorite hobbyhorses today: the supposed anger of the American electorate. He concludes that, yes, the economy is in pretty decent shape, but:

For every statistic you can find, I can find one that tells if not a different story, a more nuanced one. Yes, the jobless rate is 5 percent, but the underemployment rate, juiced by 6 million part-timers who want full-time jobs, is a considerably less comfortable 9.7 percent. No question, wages are rising, but the major source of real income growth over the past year has been low inflation. Paychecks aren’t growing so fast as much as prices have been growing a lot more slowly.

....So I think I get why some people are unsatisfied with the economy and beyond. Growth hasn’t reached all corners by a long shot, and policymakers have too often been at best unresponsive to that reality and at worst, just plain awful.

I think this misses the point. Sure, no economy is perfect, certainly not this one. So of course you can always find plenty of things to kvetch about.

But why bother when you can just ask people directly how they're doing? If you do that, you'll find that their responses are fairly positive: better than in 2009, worse than in 1999. But overall, pretty unremarkable. No matter how many economic statistics you haul out, the bottom line remains the same: on average, Americans don't say they're any more or less happy about the economy than they usually are. So unless they're lying, the economy just isn't a big factor in the anger driving this year's election.

So why are voters so angry? That's a good question, except for one thing: it assumes that voters are angry in the first place. It's true that if you go out and talk to people, you can find plenty of angry folks. That's always the case, but it's completely meaningless. The only interesting question is: Are Americans angrier than usual? It sure doesn't look like it, does it?

You can take a look at every poll you want, and what you'll find is that, generally speaking, Americans just aren't unusually unhappy or unusually angry right now. They just aren't. There's virtually no serious data to suggest otherwise.

Except for one thing: Americans are pissed at the government. Especially Republicans. Among Democrats, trust in government since 1980 has bounced around a bit depending on who's president, but it's generally in the range of 20-40 percent. Among Republicans it's more like a range of 10-60 percent:

Right now, trust in government is around 30 percent among Democrats, which is pretty average. But among Republicans it's at a blood-boiling 10 percent—and has been for the past eight years. Obama's presidency—presumably egged on by Fox News etc.—has sent them into an absolute rage about the government.

So if you want to know what's going on, that's it. In general, the economy is OK. Americans are fairly satisfied with their lives. Consumer sentiment is fine. Right track/wrong track has been pretty steady. Only one thing has really changed: The Republican base is furious about the Obama presidency.

That's it. That's your anger right there. That and nothing more.

Those newly unsealed documents in the Trump University case don't paint a pretty picture of either the "university" or Donald Trump himself:

Jason Nicholas, another witness for the plaintiffs who worked as a sales associate for five months in 2007, also said he was appalled by what went on at the university. "They were unqualified people posing as Donald Trump's 'right-hand men,'" he wrote. "They were teaching methods that were unethical, and they had had little to no experience flipping properties or doing real estate deals. It was a facade, a total lie."

In his sworn declaration, Mr. Schnackenberg [said] he quit his job after refusing to pitch the seminars to a couple that he thought couldn't afford them. "They had no money to pay for the program but would have had to pay for the program using disability and taking out a loan based upon equity in his apartment." He said another sales manager "talked them into buying a $35,000 seminar."

And this:

Donald Trump was personally involved in devising the marketing strategy for Trump University, even vetting potential ads, according to newly disclosed sworn testimony from the company's top executive taken as part of an ongoing lawsuit…"Mr. Trump understandably is protective of his brand and very protective of his image and how he's portrayed," Michael Sexton, Trump University's president, said in the 2012 deposition. "And he wanted to see how his brand and image were portrayed in Trump University marketing materials. And he had very good and substantive input as well."

And this:

Corrine Sommer, an event manager, recounted how colleagues encouraged students to open up as many credit cards as possible to pay for classes that many of them could not afford. "It's O.K., just max out your credit card," Ms. Sommer recalled their saying.

Ms. Sommer recalled that a member of the Trump University sales team, who had previously sold jewelry, was promoted to become an instructor. He had "no real estate experience," she said. She added that many of the instructors had the quality that the school seemed to value most: "They were skilled at high-pressure sales," she said.

In other words, Trump was eager to squeeze every cent he could out of his students but played no role in choosing instructors or creating the curriculum. He cared about his image, but that was it. What a guy.

Elon Musk spends all his time on the Tesla factory floor these days. Based on what he's learned, he says that "physics first" principles will soon produce a production revolution:

In a freewheeling talk before shareholders Tuesday, Musk said he and his Tesla team will completely rethink the factory process, hoping to bring “factors of 10 or even 100 times” in improvements in efficiency....“The most important point I want to make is … that we’ve realized that the true difficulty and where the greatest potential lies is in building the factory,” Musk said.

Charging the world's best automotive factories with using outmoded and inefficient systems, Musk said, “We can make dramatic improvements to the machine that makes the machine. A lot of people will not believe us about this, but I am absolutely convinced this can be accomplished.”

Well, he's right about a lot of people not believing this. Increasing the efficiency of an auto factory by 100x is way, way beyond anything Musk has ever done before. Compared to that, building a nice battery-powered car or landing a rocket at sea is child's play. I'll believe this when Musk does more than just talk about it.

Max Ehrenfreund points me today to a remarkable new study of vocational school students. We're all aware in a sort of general way that for-profit vocational schools are basically a rip-off, but check out the chart on the right. On average, counting both grads and dropouts, students at for-profit schools earn less after leaving school than they did before. And even graduates don't do very well: They earn only about $1,300 more than they did before, compared to $4,500 for community college grads.

The study was done by Stephanie Riegg Cellini and Nicholas Turner, and as usual, there are some caveats. Some of the negative effect may be driven by unreported tip income. The study ended in 2008, which means it might be picking up the first bits of the Great Recession. And it's hard to infer causality: it's almost certainly the case that better students enroll in community college programs in the first place.

All that said, however, the results are pretty stunning. Once you take into account the debt load from attending for-profit schools, virtually no one benefits. Even graduates probably never make up for the cost of the program.

With rare exceptions, there are three lessons here. First: Just don't attend a for-profit vocational school. If you can't attend a community college, skip the whole thing. Second: At the very least, don't do it unless you're absolutely, 100 percent sure you're going to finish. If you drop out, you'll most likely end up with a bunch of debt and a lower income than you had going in. Third: Don't even think about going to a for-profit school to get a certificate in therapeutic services. That's the biggest killer out there.

Donald Trump Melts Down In Epic Whinefest

Donald Trump is pissed off again. Surprise! This morning he held a press conference to announce who was getting the money from his January veterans fundraiser, and immediately proceeded to tee off on the press for...lèse-majesté? I'm not sure what else to call it. Trump pretty plainly tried to avoid making the personal $1 million contribution he promised at the time, and now he's outraged about being held accountable for this. Here's a quick rundown.

What Trump Says Now

What He Said Then

On why it took so long to disburse the money: "When you send checks for hundreds of thousands of dollars to people and to companies and to groups that you’ve never heard of, charitable organizations, you have to vet it. You send people out. You do a lot of work."

The organizations had been chosen before the event even took place: "The night benefited twenty-two different organizations, a number of which are Iowa based Veterans groups."

On the purity of his motivations: "I wanted to do this out of the goodness of my heart. I didn’t want to do this where the press is all involved."

This was a publicity stunt from the start, driven by Trump's feud with Fox News: "When they sent out the wise guy press releases a little while ago done by some PR person along with Roger Ailes, I said 'Bye bye.'"

On his well-known penchant for low-key philanthropy: "If we could, I wanted to keep it private because I don’t think it’s anybody’s business if I wanna send money to the vets."

This might be the most laughable thing Trump has ever said. When he announced his boycott of the Fox debate, Trump explicitly made it all about ratings: "They can't toy with me like they toy with everybody else...So let 'em have their debate and let's see how they do with the ratings."

On his bad press: "I'm not looking for credit. But what I don't want is when I raise millions of dollars, have people say, like this sleazy guy right over here from ABC. He's a sleaze in my book. You're a sleaze because you know the facts and you know the facts well."

Trump very plainly tried to avoid making the personal $1 million donation he promised. From David Farenthold a week ago: "In the past few days, The Post has interviewed 22 veterans charities that received donations as a result of Trump’s fundraiser. None of them have reported receiving personal donations from Trump....To whom did Trump give, and in what amounts? 'He's not going to share that information,' Lewandowski said."

On the media's lack of suitable gratitude: "Instead of being like, ‘Thank you very much, Mr. Trump,’ or ‘Trump did a good job,’ everyone said: ‘Who got it? Who got it? Who got it?’ And you make me look very bad. I have never received such bad publicity for doing a good job."

Poor baby. Apparently the press hasn't yet gotten into the habit of kowtowing to him the way his employees are required to do. Trump still has a lot to learn about running for president.

Greg Sargent is a little tired of the current conventional wisdom about a Trump-Clinton general election:

Democrats should not underestimate Trump or imagine that defeating him will be easy....Democrats should obviously be prepared for any manner of attack that Trump will throw at [Hillary Clinton], and they’ll need to figure out how to create a more positive narrative around her.

Rather, the point is that we should stop over-inflating impressions of Trump’s strength. We should stop ascribing magical political powers to Trump based on the questionable notion that his “unconventional” and “unpredictable” campaign makes him a more formidable foe than anyone expected. Trump will be difficult to beat, but that might be mainly because these elections are always hard.

I'll go a little further: chill out, people. Trump is likely to get at least 45 percent of the vote. That's just the way our country works at the moment. Ditto for Hillary. There's probably not much more than 10 percent of the electorate that's really, truly undecided.

This means that at any given moment, all it takes is a tiny bump based on some outside event, combined with a little bit of normal poll error, to make either candidate look like a winner. Especially this early in the campaign, this stuff is meaningless. For what it's worth, though, the very least you should do is rely on poll aggregations, not single polls. Sam Wang has personally investigated 2 quadrillion outcomes—and boy are his eyes tired—and figures that Hillary is currently likely to win the electoral college by 336-202. Likewise, Pollster puts Hillary ahead in the popular vote by 44-40 percent. This will flutter around, and there will be times when panic seems like the best response, but it's probably not. It's just life in 50-50 America.

News You Can Use: Gas Gauge Edition

Here's a picture of the dashboard on my Mazda 3:

Answer: it points to the side of the car with the gas tank. This has become a standard feature of cars in the past few years, but apparently it's still unknown to about 90 percent of the population. Not to readers of this blog, though. Now you know!

This may not seem very useful since you probably remember which side of the car your gas tank is on. But back in the day I used to drive a lot of rental cars, and this would have been pretty handy. I never paid attention to the gas tank, and you can't see them from the side mirror, so about half the time I'd guess wrong and drive into gas stations on the wrong side. Mostly, of course, this was when I was headed back to the airport to turn in the car, and therefore in a little bit of a hurry, which made it all the more annoying.

But no more. No matter what car you're driving now, you can instantly tell which side the gas tank is on. Progress marches on.