Kevin Drum

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in March

| Fri Apr. 1, 2016 10:58 AM EDT

The American economy added 215,000 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 respectable 125,000 jobs. Both the number of workers and the number of unemployed increased, and the headline unemployment rate increased from 4.9 percent to 5.0 percent. About a tenth of the new jobs were in the public sector, which is a little more than usual. Labor force participation was up by 0.1 percentage points. Overall, this was a fairly typical jobs report in the post-recovery era: not bad but not great. The labor market is showing slow and steady progress, but not enough to make up for the output gap from the Great Recession anytime soon.

Hourly earnings of production and nonsupervisory employees were up at an annual rate of about 2.4 percent compared to last month, and weekly earnings rebounded from last month's decline. This is also the new normal. It's better than nothing, but it's not exactly a sign of a booming labor market.

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Reality Is Bearing Down on Paul Ryan

| Thu Mar. 31, 2016 5:20 PM EDT

Lisa Mascaro reports that the honeymoon may be over for Paul Ryan. He only lasted five months:

As Congress is careening toward another budget crisis and the Republican Party is ripping itself apart over Donald Trump’s rise, the man best known as the architect of the GOP’s austere spending blueprint is likely to miss an April 15 deadline to approve a new funding plan for 2017.

He’s been unable to overcome the same resistance from the conservative House Freedom Caucus that doomed his predecessor, and is so far similarly unwilling to use the power of the speaker’s office to force stragglers to fall into line.

....To some, Ryan’s repeated calls for Republicans to “raise our gaze” and his frequent attempts to position himself as the GOP’s deep thinker are starting to give off an air of ivory tower insignificance. Conservatives wonder if he's still a "young gun" trying to shake up the party. At a Trump rally in Ryan’s Wisconsin hometown of Janesville last week, the crowd booed the mention of his name.

....In many ways, the speaker’s problems are of his own making, the result of a leadership strategy he helped forge to recruit the most conservative candidates to run for office and then, after Republicans won the House majority in the 2010 midterm election, reject almost all of Obama’s initiatives.

Well, it's still early days. Maybe Ryan is just working slowly and steadily to gain some kind of consensus. More likely, though, the tea partiers aren't any more willing to compromise under Ryan than they were under Boehner—and that leaves Ryan high and dry. If he can't convince them to be flexible even during an election year, he obviously doesn't have much conservative credibility left. Hard to believe.

Email Newsletters Are a Blight on Mankind

| Thu Mar. 31, 2016 1:04 PM EDT

Justin Wolfers is annoyed by the email newsletter bubble. Brad DeLong comments:

Authors seeking both eyeballs to sell to advertisers and a committed, engaged audience with which they can conduct a conversation are now trying to ride two horses—a clickbait audience served by self-contained pieces, and a newsletter audience with which they can interact and converse. I don't think it is working very well.

Is that what's happening? I've always thought there was something different going on: the professionalization of the blogosphere has, ironically, made blogs too stuffy and corporate. If you want to write a post complaining that the local supermarket doesn't carry the brand of peanut butter you like, you can hardly do this at Vox.com or 538 or the Washington Monthly.1 Those sites are reserved for serious commentary. So if you still want to write that kind of stuff, you do it in a newsletter that's all yours and nobody else controls.

But Brad is suggesting that the real motivator is a desire to—what? Avoid the trolls? (Who cares about trolls?) Write in a more interactive space? (How are newsletters more interactive than blogs?) Write in a more private space where you can toss out weird ideas with less potential for blowback? (Cowards.) Create "added value" for subscribers who will hopefully donate money to you/your employer? (You corporate shill, you.)

I think we should toss this question to the newsletter writers. What's the deal? If you need a second writing space, why not a quick-and-dirty blogspot blog or Tumblr or Medium? Why the throwback to email?

1I typically solve this problem by writing this kind of stuff on weekends, which I consider a more personal space. So far, nobody has disabused me of this notion.

The Financialization of the World Is Kind of Mysterious

| Thu Mar. 31, 2016 12:03 PM EDT

In the course of a general critique of the US economy over the past few decades, Brad DeLong says this:

The US today spends 8% of GDP on finance. That is twice as much as 40 years ago. Once again, the U.S. gets nothing for it—gets, in fact less than nothing, because the lion's share of responsibility for the 10% growth shortfall of the past decade rests on the shoulders of the hypertrophied dysfunctional finance system. It is not as though anybody claims that the plutocrats of high finance and of our corporations are doing a materially better job at running their organizations and allocating capital by enough to justify their now even-more outsized compensation packages. It is not as though we can see the impact of paying more to financiers in the tracks of faster economic growth. Rather the reverse.

I know I'm probably revealing more ignorance here than I should, but how did this happen? Finance isn't a monopoly. In fact, it's one of the most globalized, fluid, and competitive industries on the planet. Why haven't its profits long since been reduced to zero, or close to it? I can understand occasional blips as markets change—CDOs and SIVs get hot for a while, so experts in CDOs and SIVs make a killing—but the overall industry? How has it managed to hold onto such outlandish rents for such a sustained period?

Real answers, please, not buzzwords or conspiracy theories. What's the deal here?

Everybody Is Wrong

| Thu Mar. 31, 2016 11:43 AM EDT

Atrios is unhappy with how the left is treated:

I'm struck by how everything The Left does is wrong. Not just in terms of policy, but tactics. Running a third party candidate is wrong (I actually agree with this generally!), running in a major party primary is wrong, protesting is wrong, protesting the wrong way is wrong, not protesting is wrong, having a journal of important Lefty ideas is wrong, not catering to the feefees of Real Americans is wrong, proposing legislation is wrong, objecting to racism and sexism is wrong. There's a longer list, I'm sure, but self-styled "moderates" chastise Lefties no matter what they do.

I dunno. I'm pretty sure we all feel this way. I'm a more moderate liberal than Atrios, but as near as I can tell I'm also wrong about pretty much everything. Hillary is a liar, Glass-Steagall did too cause the economic collapse, nobody votes for a squish, it's all just privilege, Bernie is going to lead a revolution and his numbers add up just fine, I'm a shill for big corporations, Obama is a total sellout, etc.

On the conservative side, where I can take a more Olympian view of things, it's pretty obvious the same thing is true. The tea partiers hate the RINOs, the RINOs hate Trump, and the Trumpettes hate everyone. One side are sellouts, the other side is just a bunch of purity mongers.

That's life. In politics, you're always wrong according to everyone who's not you—and the more extreme you get, the wronger you are. That's the price of being in the arena, or even just being a spectator cheering against the Romans.

Hillary Clinton, Enemy of the Status Quo

| Thu Mar. 31, 2016 10:44 AM EDT

The headline news from today's Washington Post poll is the astonishing unpopularity of Donald Trump. His net favorable rating is -37 percent: 30 percent like him and 67 percent don't. The other candidates have net negative ratings too, but nothing close to this.

On another subject, 69 percent of respondents claim to believe that the "current political system" is dysfunctional. I don't know whether to take that seriously, or just as a generalized gripe about politics. What's interesting, though, is who would do the most to address this. Trump is the top choice, unsurprisingly, but Hillary Clinton is close behind—which is a bit surprising. It certainly suggests, along with other evidence in this and other polls, that support for Hillary isn't just strong, but roughly as enthusiastic as it is for anyone else.

On the Republican side, enthusiasm for Trump sure seems to be waning. That hasn't translated into votes for Cruz or Kasich—not yet, anyway. But it might.

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Is This the Most Astonishing Obamacare Result Ever?

| Thu Mar. 31, 2016 1:11 AM EDT

Phil Price points us today to an intriguing chart from the Department of Health and Human Services. It shows readmission rates within 30 days of a hospital stay for Medicare patients—including both "official" readmissions and short-term "observations"—and it's pretty stunning. When Obamacare passed, readmission rates started to fall dramatically almost instantly. They fell most sharply for a subset of conditions specifically targeted by Obamacare, and by a smaller amount for other conditions. If this is accurate, it means that hospitals could have done something about readmission rates all along, but they just hadn't bothered. Only after Obamacare provided an incentive to get their readmission rates down did they do anything about it.

So how should we think about this? I'll confess to some skepticism because the chart is almost too perfect. For four years the readmission rate is dead stable. Then, in a single month between December 2010 and January 2011 it suddenly drops by a full percentage point, and continues dropping for two years. This decline started about eight months after the passage of Obamacare, and it's hard to believe that hospitals could react that quickly.

Then, the very instant that penalties begin for high readmission rates, everything stabilizes again. Apparently America's hospitals unanimously decided that once they'd hit a certain level, that was good enough and they wouldn't bother trying to improve even more.

Maybe. But even for those of us who believe in incentives, this is the damnedest response to a new incentive I've ever seen. I guess my advice is to treat this with cautious optimism. It looks like a great result, but as with most Obamacare outcomes, it's too early to tell for sure how things are going to work out. When we have five or ten years of experience, we'll start to be able to draw some concrete conclusions. Until then, we can say how things seem to be going so far, but not much more.

Yet More Obama Tyranny Turns Out to Be Pretty Non-Tyrannical

| Wed Mar. 30, 2016 9:08 PM EDT

Stanley Kurtz is yet again in a lather about a HUD program called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, the centerpiece of President Obama's plan to fight housing discrimination:

Federal Tyranny Gags GOP in Hillary’s Backyard

The Obama administration’s AFFH policy has morphed from “mere” massive regulatory overreach into a bald attempt to quash the freedom of speech of its political opponents. The new federal effort to muzzle Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino’s attacks on the Obama administration’s housing policy is very arguably designed to silence public opposition to AFFH, and to remove a potential political time-bomb from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Hillary Clinton’s hometown of Chappaqua, in Westchester County, New York is ground zero in the national controversy over AFFH....And now it just so happens that the “Federal Monitor” appointed to oversee the settlement of a court case compelling Westchester to “affirmatively further fair housing” has asked a court to muzzle Astorino.

But here's a funny thing: Westchester's problems were caused by a private lawsuit filed in 2006, which it lost in February 2009. It hardly seems likely that Obama had much to do with that. And it seems doubly unlikely that AFFH, which was announced a mere nine months ago, could possibly be "ground zero" for a fight that's been ongoing for over a decade.

Still, I suppose those are nits. Regardless of when it all started, it's certainly outrageous for the feds to try to gag an opponent of their policies. This is the kind of thing that—

What's that? Maybe I should take a look at the federal monitor's actual court filing? How tiresome. But we're professionals around here. Let's see now...ah, here it is on page 55: "Recommended Remedies." This is what the monitor wants:

  • a Court declaration reemphasizing the essential terms of the Settlement and issuing findings making clear that none of the terms have been changed and the County’s statements analyzed in Section II of this report are false;
  • distribution by the County, voluntarily or by order, of the declaration and findings described above to the leadership of all of the eligible communities;
  • posting the declaration and findings described above prominently on the County website and the removal of press releases inconsistent with the declaration and findings;
  • unsealing the videotapes of the depositions of, at the least, the County Executive, the Commissioner of Planning, and the Director of Communications, inasmuch as each made or reviewed unsupported public statements that were inconsistent with both the terms of the Settlement and their own sworn testimony; and
  • hiring, within 30 days of the issuance of this report, a public communications consultant that will craft a message and implement a strategy sufficiently robust to provide information broadly to the public that describes the benefits of integration, as required by Paragraph 33(c)....

Basically, Westchester is under court order to do certain things. They haven't done them. In fact, county leaders have been loudly and habitually lying about both the consent decree and HUD's affordable housing requirements for years. So now the monitor wants (a) the actual terms of the settlement to be widely distributed, (b) depositions to be unsealed so everyone can see what county leaders have been saying under oath, and (c) a third-party consultant to craft the court-ordered PR plan, since the county plainly has no intention of obeying the consent decree on its own.

But nobody is being muzzled. As near as I can tell, Astorino can continue saying anything he wants. However, the county, in its official capacity as an arm of the government, is required to carry out the consent decree. In the face of repeated intransigence, the federal monitor is asking the court to force it to do just that.

I like reading The Corner. It's a good place to get a lot of different conservative opinions on the headlines of the day. But there are a few bylines I routinely skip because the authors are basically unhinged. Kurtz is one of them. Among other things, he was part of the crowd that went bananas about Bill Ayers during the 2008 campaign, and he's been flogging Obama's "war on the suburbs" for years. Today's post is just the latest installment.

Anyway: No muzzling. No gagging. No tyranny. Just a county that refuses to obey a court order and a federal monitor who wants a judge to push harder on them. It's hard to think of anything more routine.

Donald Trump Wants to Punish Women Who Have Abortions

| Wed Mar. 30, 2016 2:47 PM EDT

Sigh. Yet another news cycle for Donald Trump:

Donald Trump Is Galactically, Deliberately Ignorant

| Wed Mar. 30, 2016 1:07 PM EDT

The depth of Donald Trump's ignorance is inexplicable. Seriously. How is it that after nine months of campaigning he still knows less about most subjects than your average guy in a bar working on his fourth beer?

At the CNN town hall last night, an audience member asked Trump, "In your opinion, what are the top three functions of the United States government?" That's not a bad question. I think that pretty much every presidential candidate will say that national security is No. 1, but there are plenty of good choices for the next two. Protecting the environment. Keeping taxes low. The social safety net. Protecting religious liberty. Climate change. Gun rights. Creating jobs. Etc.

But watching last night, it was obvious that Trump had no idea what to say. So after mentioning national security, he paused a bit and then decided on health care and education. This produced incredulity from Anderson Cooper:

COOPER: Aren't you against the federal government's involvement in education? Don't you want it to devolve to states?

TRUMP: I want it to go to states, yes. Absolutely. I want—right now…

COOPER: So that's not part of what the federal government's…

TRUMP: The federal government, but the concept of the country is the concept that we have to have education within the country, and we have to get rid of Common Core, and it should be brought to the state level.

COOPER: And federal health care run by the federal government?

TRUMP: Health care—we need health care for our people. We need a good—Obamacare is a disaster. It's proven to be…

COOPER: But is that something the federal government should be doing?

TRUMP: The government can lead it, but it should be privately done. It should be privately done. So that health care—in my opinion, we should probably have—we have to have private health care. We don't have competition in health care.

In his panic to pick two subjects—any two subjects—Trump managed to light on precisely the two that every conservative in the country thinks the federal government shouldn't have a role in. So then Trump fumbles around and starts talking about "the concept of the country" that we have to have education. Brilliant! And Common Core has to be "brought to the state level," because apparently Trump has no idea that Common Core has been a state program from the very start.

Then we get to health care. "We need health care for our people," but it should be privately supplied even if the government leads it. This, of course, is precisely what Obamacare is: a program that coordinates and regulates health care provided by private suppliers. But apparently Trump doesn't know that either.

I know that mocking Trump for his policy ignorance is sort of boring. I mean, what else is new? But is it possible that he's actually getting dumber over time? Out of every possibility available to him, he managed to pick possibly the worst two for any conservative.

It's obvious that Trump not only resists the idea of being briefed about anything, but actively tries to avoid learning anything about the government. Just by accident you'd learn more than this just by running for president. What's the deal here?