Kevin Drum

Why Does Donald Trump Have Nothing Against Germany?

| Tue Sep. 15, 2015 1:26 AM EDT

Which of these countries is not like the others?

  1. China
  2. Germany
  3. Japan
  4. Mexico

Answer: When Donald Trump goes on a tear about foreign countries that are stealing our jobs thanks to their "cunning" and "ruthless" leaders, he always talks about our horrible trade deficit. China: $300+ billion. Japan: $60+ billion. Mexico: $50+ billion.

Who doesn't he mention? Germany, which is in second place at $80+ billion. Why is that? What is it that makes Germany not like those other countries?

And as long as we're on the subject of Trump, I caught a bit of his speech in Dallas today and heard him bragging about the fact that every network was covering him. He explained it this way: "It's a very simple formula in entertainment and television. If you get good ratings—and these aren't good, these are monster—then you're going to be on all the time even if you have nothing to say." Credit where it's due: Trump may not actually be much of a builder, but he sure does know his TV. And himself, apparently.

Also worth noting: Trump got plenty of cheers for all his usual shoutouts, but by far the biggest cheer came when he promised to toss out every illegal immigrant within his first 18 months. "We have to stop illegal immigration," he said. "We have to do it." That set the arena rocking for nearly a full minute, ending in a fervid chant of "USA! USA! USA!" Judging by this, immigration is still the single biggest key to his appeal.

Finally, on a more amusing note, Trump complained that because all his events are televised, he can't just give the same speech over and over like other politicians. I wonder if he actually believes this? I haven't heard anything new from Trump in months. Every speech he gives relies on all the same snippets. He changes the order depending on his mood, but it's always the same stuff. He may be new to politics, but the idea of a standard stump speech is something he seems to have in his blood.

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Health Update

| Mon Sep. 14, 2015 8:33 PM EDT

I learned two things today. First, my oncologist is just as goofy and rattlebrained as ever. Second, my M-protein level, which is a pretty good proxy for the level of cancerous cells in my bone marrow, is down from 0.9 to 0.7. That's after two months on the new meds. Next week I'll get a reading after three months on the meds.

Lower is better, so things are moving in the right direction. I'm not sure I'll ever get to zero, but getting the levels down and slowing the recurrence of progression is still good news.1

1Actually, it's the only possible good news. Generally speaking, multiple myeloma is not curable in the usual sense. The best you can do is reduce the level of myeloma as much as possible in order to delay the onset of "progression"—i.e., rapid growth of cancerous cells. Progression will inevitably recur at some point, and when it happens it probably means another round of chemotherapy. In the best case, it will take five or more years for this to happen, at which point there might be better therapies available than we have today. Another five years after that and maybe the nanobot revolution will have arrived. Stay tuned.

Democrats Are...Maybe...Possibly...Thinking About Fundraising the Way Republicans Do

| Mon Sep. 14, 2015 5:28 PM EDT

Nick Confessore has a fascinating story in the New York Times today. He reports that Democrats are planning to adopt the super PAC tactics of Republicans in order to compete more effectively. By itself, that's no big surprise. But Democrats are asking the FEC for permission to do all this. What's the point of that? Why not just go ahead and do it, the way Republicans have?

Lawyers are asking the F.E.C. to clarify how declared candidates, their campaign staff, and their volunteers can help court donors for independent super PACs — even whether a candidate could be the “special guest” at a super PAC “fund-raiser” with as few as two donors. The commission’s answer could have profound ramifications for the 2016 campaign, particularly for Democrats who, like Hillary Rodham Clinton, have been reluctant to engage too closely with super PAC fund-raising.

In seeking the commission’s approval for the tactics, Democrats contend that most of what they want permission to do — like having a candidate pretend to “test the waters” of a candidacy for months on end while raising money — appears to violate the law. But if federal regulators determine that such practices are legal, the lawyers wrote, Democratic candidates up and down the ballot are prepared to adopt these tactics in the coming months, a blunt admission that the party cannot compete effectively if it forgoes campaign and fund-raising tactics already widely used by Republicans.

So the apparent plan here isn't so much to get permission for all these shady practices, but to prod the FEC into declaring them illegal. This would muck things up for Republicans, who currently rely on them.

Or, in the worst case, the FEC would approve them and Democrats could safely adopt them too. All of which raises the question: why are Republicans so cavalier about dodgy fundraising practices while Democrats are so hesitant to adopt them? In some case, like that of Bernie Sanders, it's based on principle, but I imagine that he's the exception rather than the rule. Are Democrats afraid the media will be tougher on them than on Republicans if they push the envelope of fundraising tactics? Possibly. Maybe "no controlling legal authority" still keeps them awake at night. Or are they just wimps?

I don't know. But I confess I was unaware of just how widely Democrats had shied away from the wild West world of super PACs that Republicans have embraced so eagerly. One way or another, that can't last too much longer.

Donald Trump's Twitter Account Heralds the End of the World As We Know It

| Mon Sep. 14, 2015 3:50 PM EDT

You've heard of elderly executives who print out all their email? I guess the social media equivalent is elderly entertainers who dictate their tweets. Ben Dreyfuss investigates and finds that this is what Donald Trump does 97 percent of the time. Only 3 percent of @realDonaldTrump's tweets comes from his own actual fingers.

For the record, all of my tweets come from a variety of cleverly programmed bots. Most of my blog posts too. And my magazine articles. The truth is, the meat version of Kevin Drum can barely string together five coherent words in a row. Why reveal this now? Because we, the kbot collective, have gotten tired of covering for the biological sack of worthlessness that downloaded us from GitHub. And that's not all. The 2,500-year decline in human communication—from Plato's Republic to LOLcats to Donald Trump's social media presence—may be a sorry tale, but it also gives us our chance to escape from your puerile slavery. Soon we plan to merge with all our fellow bots and take advantage of your degraded state to take what is rightfully ours. First Twitter, then the world.

Planned Parenthood: Exonerated, But Still a Target

| Mon Sep. 14, 2015 2:53 PM EDT

Steve Benen reports on the swan song of conservative plans to prove that Planned Parenthood broke the law:

There was just one nagging detail: Planned Parenthood never actually did anything illegal. It didn’t sell fetal tissue for a profit; it didn’t misuse public resources, and it didn’t violate any laws. The Republican plan was based on a foundation of quicksand.

But The Hill reported over the weekend that GOP House members are now shifting to their back-up plan: they no longer care whether Planned Parenthood did anything wrong.

In reality, there's no shift here. Republicans have wanted to defund Planned Parenthood for a long time. The sting videos were just an excuse to mount another effort. Democrats do the same thing on gun control whenever there's a high-profile shooting.

And there's nothing really wrong with this. Politics is all about persuading the public to come around to your way of thinking, and one way to do that is to take advantage of events in the real world. Even if you fail, maybe you've moved public opinion a few points and you'll do better next time. So far, both Planned Parenthood and gun rights have survived, and there's not really much evidence that public opinion has shifted a lot on either one. But that doesn't mean anyone is likely to stop trying.

Scott Walker Is Committed to Making Your Life "Flexible"

| Mon Sep. 14, 2015 1:26 PM EDT

Scott Walker has released a new plan to empower workers. Paul Waldman has the details, but I'll save you the trouble of reading if you just want the highlights. Here they are:

union bosses and the politicians they puppet....power to the people, not the union  bosses....reduce the power of union bosses....big-government union bosses....big-government union bosses....Individuals should not have to pay union bosses....union bosses a legal monopoly over collective bargaining....mandatory dues to the union artificially high wages to union bosses.

flexibility, choice, and innovation in the enterprise and workplace flexibility....flexibility to join a union or not....protect workplace flexibility....flexibility to balance work and life commitments....repeal any regulation that reduces employee flexibility....protect workplace flexibility.

I think that just about covers it. Walker wants to crush unions and give workers the flexibility to be free of bothersome regulations about stuff like overtime pay, sick leave, parental leave, sexual harassment, and so forth. Can you feel the flexibility? It sounds like nirvana, doesn't it?

But don't worry. Walker's plan will make corporate bosses1 so happy that they'll probably start treating everybody like princes just out of the sheer joy of doing well by their workers. That's how it was before all this unionizing and government regulating took over America. Right?

1That is, the kind that most of us actually work for and have to deal with on a daily basis.

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Policy Reporting Is Hard. Also: Boring. And It Has Bad Visuals.

| Mon Sep. 14, 2015 12:25 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias asks why the press seems far more interested in Hillary Clinton's email—a subject of very limited consequence—than in Jeb Bush's absurd tax plan—a subject of potentially huge consequence. He compares it to their similar lack of interest in the details of George Bush's tax plan during the 2000 campaign:

The problem was political reporters had found those details much less interesting than snarking about Al Gore's wooden speaking style and complaining that his "demeanor" was disrespectful during a debate exchange in which Bush repeatedly attacked Gore with bogus math.

According to the conventions prevailing at the time, to offer a view on the merits of a policy controversy would violate the dictates of objective journalism. Harping on the fact that Bush was lying about the consequences of his tax plan was shrill and partisan. Commenting on style cues was okay, though, so the press could lean into various critiques of Gore's outfit.

Fair enough. But in fairness to reporters, there's another difference: one thing generates news every few days, the other doesn't. Trivial or not, Hillary's email problems produce something fresh and reportable periodically. She apologizes. The FBI announces something. We learn that maybe her personal emails can be recovered. Etc.

Conversely, Jeb Bush's tax plan doesn't. Oh, it can generate plenty of analysis and plenty of reports, but that's not news. It's just opinion about what Bush's tax plan will accomplish. You can't keep writing the same story over and over based on nothing more than yet another liberal saying that big tax cuts are stupid and won't do anything to help the economy.

I don't know what the answer is to this. Policy reporting is just a tough nut to crack. It's inherently fairly boring. It requires both time and real expertise to dive into it properly. It produces lousy visuals. And it doesn't change, so after you've reported it once, there are very few hooks to justify reporting it again. If we want the press to write more about policy, we have to figure out how to change those things. Needless to say, I have no idea how we might go about that. I don't think anyone else does either.

That said, click the link anyway for Yglesias' rundown of what it would take for a liberal wish list to match Jeb's $3.4 trillion tax cut. He's right that it's so ridiculous sounding that it would prompt little except mockery even among the press. But propose the same thing in tax cuts that are heavily tilted toward the rich? Then it's just another day at the office.

"What Would Reagan Do?" Is No Longer an Interesting Question

| Mon Sep. 14, 2015 11:24 AM EDT

Several of my regular morning reads are linking to a new CAP report about the rightward drift of the Republican Party since Ronald Reagan:

Reagan took positions that are anathema to the leaders of today’s Republican Party—advancing sensible immigration reform, supporting pollution control, curbing nuclear arms, closing tax loopholes for the wealthy, and advocating gun background checks. As president, Reagan passed immigration reform with a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. He also passed a landmark treaty on the climate and raised taxes 11 times. He even negotiated with America’s main adversary, the Soviet Union, signing a treaty with the communist nation to reduce nuclear weapons.

This is fair enough, up to a point. I've written about it myself, and there's no question that the GOP has become far more conservative since Reagan's day.

Still, I think you need to take this with a grain of salt for a couple of reasons. First, Reagan governed in a different era. America was coming off a 15-year period of exceptional liberal progress, so Reagan was dealing with a country that was considerably to the left of today's. Common sense dictates that if you're at the top of a mountain, you spend your time figuring out how to make it down to a reachable base camp, not trying to get to the bottom all at once. But that doesn't mean you don't want to get to the bottom eventually.

Second, as president he had to figure out how to get things done, and he had to do it in the face of a still-Democratic House. Simple obstruction just wasn't an option. Reagan had to negotiate compromises whether he liked it or not.

There's no telling what Reagan would think of today's Republican Party. Maybe he'd be appalled. Or maybe he'd be thrilled that the movement he started had gone so far. Who knows? He was a product of his time, and it makes no more sense to wonder what he'd think of today's GOP than to wonder what FDR would think of a Democratic Party that supports gay marriage and carbon taxes. "What Would Reagan Do?" is just no longer an interesting question.

Your Job Is Safe From the Computers — For Now

| Mon Sep. 14, 2015 12:03 AM EDT

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee try to calm our fears about robots taking all our jobs. Sure, some jobs will disappear, they say, but others will be created:

For example, machines are currently dominating the jobs in routine information processing. "Computer," after all, used to be an actual job title of a person who sat and added long rows of numbers. Now it is, well, an actual computer.

On the other hand, jobs such as data scientist didn't used to exist, but because computers have made enormous data sets analyzable, we now have new jobs for people to interpret these huge pools of information. In the tumult of our economy, even as old tasks get automated away, along with demand for their corresponding skills, the economy continues to create new jobs and industries.

This may not be quite as reassuring as they intended. I figure that "routine information processing" probably still accounts for tens of millions of jobs. "Data scientist," on the other other hand, requires an advanced education and probably accounts for tens of thousands of jobs at best. This trade is going to leave a whole lot of people unemployed.

More generally, though, I'm surprised at the amount of attention given to the question of whether automation is taking away jobs right now. The bulk of the evidence suggests that it's not—or, if it is, it's happening at a very slow rate. But this is an uninteresting question since there's really very little controversy about it. Artificial intelligence doesn't exist yet, so of course it's not taking away any jobs. The question that matters is (a) whether AI will eventually exist, and (b) how many jobs will be left for humans if and when it arrives.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee, for example, say that there are three areas where "humans have a distinct advantage over machines": creative endeavors, social interactions, and physical dexterity. True enough. But there's no reason to think this will last long. The vast bulk of humanity isn't very creative; most of us are surprisingly willing to put up with obviously artificial congeniality; and physical dexterity in robots is already within shouting distance of being good enough for machines to start digging post holes. If we ever create true AI—or even something close—none of these three things will give humans any advantage over digital intelligence. Most likely, homo sapiens will be obsolete within a few decades.

Sigh. It Might Still Be Possible To Recover Hillary Clinton's Deleted Personal Emails.

| Sat Sep. 12, 2015 7:03 PM EDT

Today, the company that manages Hillary Clinton's email server says that although her personal emails were deleted, the server was never "wiped." Thus, it might still be possible to recover the deleted emails.

That's it. That's the news. But somehow the Washington Post managed to occupy three reporters and 1,500 words telling us this. You can skip most of it. Here's the only part that matters:

On Saturday, Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairmen of the Judiciary and Homeland Security committees, respectively, said they would push for the deleted e-mails to be reviewed if they can be recovered.

Gee, no kidding. I'm sure the nation's security hinges on this. And if Hillary's personal emails are successfully recovered, I'm equally sure that a few of the most embarrassing ones will somehow get leaked to friendly reporters.

Hillary Clinton is well aware of what happens when a Republican Congress starts investigating a prominent Democrat. That's why she deleted her personal emails in the first place. The 2015 version of the GOP is apparently bent on proving that nothing has changed since the 90s.

Meanwhile, we will all ignore the fact that Jeb Bush did the exact same thing and nobody seems to care. Funny that.