Over the weekend, Scott Winship commented on the latest CBO report about income inequality:

The best way to view the state of the middle class is to look at the median household incomes CBO reports. The pre-tax and -transfer median was only 12 to 20 percent higher in 2013 than in 1979....After accounting for [transfers and] taxes, which have declined significantly since 1979, median income rose 40 to 47 percent....This post-tax and -transfer measure is what really counts — it’s the closest measure we have to disposable income. From 1979 to 2013, the median grew by just shy of $20,000. Cite that number the next time the Economic Policy Institute tells you the middle class is doing terrible.

This kind of thing is really annoying. Post-tax-and-transfer is not what "really counts." It all depends on what you want to know. If you want to know how the market economy is doing, you have to look at market income before taxes and transfers. Conversely, if you want some insight into the lived experience of families, then you want to look at post-tax-and-transfer income. They're both useful for different things. Neither one is the "real" measure of income growth.

That said, many people, including me, are very interested in market income. That's because we're not big fans of letting the market go wild and then trying to make up for its worst excesses via social welfare programs. We'd rather try to regulate the markets to provide more equal outcomes in the first place, and you can only do that if you know what market incomes are to begin with. So here's a look at market income growth since 1979:

That's an increase of about half a percent per year for the non-rich. We ought to do better. In real life, however, there's a limit to how much balance you can squeeze out of the market, which means that social welfare programs are important too. So I'm also interested in post-tax-and-transfer income, which gives me an idea of how well we're doing to help the people who need it most. In other words, both measures of income are important, and neither one is "what really counts."

But there's more! Winship wants to focus on post-tax-and-transfer earnings because his life goal is to convince everyone that income growth for the middle class has actually been pretty good lately. Toward that end, he makes the point that baby boomers are retiring, and many of them have modest market incomes because they rely mostly on Social Security and Medicare. "As retirees become a bigger share of the middle class over time, their lack of pre-transfer income pulls down the median." So please ignore market income, which has increased a dismal 12-20 percent since 1979! It only looks stagnant because of all those retiring boomers. Look instead at average post-tax and transfer income, which has increased 40-47 percent.

Well, maybe seniors do pull down the average a bit. But we shouldn't stop there, should we? If seniors rely heavily on transfer income, it stands to reason that working-age families don't. In fact, it turns out that only about a quarter of all transfer income goes to non-seniors,1 and nearly all of that goes to low-income families. Middle-class families of working age get very little.2

This means that non-elderly middle-class families have had to rely mostly on market income since 1979—along with a few crumbs of tax cuts.3 Which in turn means the increase in middle class earnings for working-age families since 1979 is a whole lot closer to 12-20 percent than it is to 40-47 percent. Cite that the next time you decide to sneer at the Economic Policy Institute.


1Page 5 of the CBO report: "On average, households received $13,900 in government transfers in [2013]—$9,900 from Social Security and Medicare and $4,000 from other government transfers." In other words, of the $13,900 that households received on average, seniors got $9,900 plus, at a guess, an additional $1,000 in other benefits. That leaves $3,000 out of $13,900 for the average non-elderly household, or 22 percent of all transfers.

2Table 3 of the CBO report. Excluding benefits for the elderly, the middle quintile gets only 7 percent of its income from government transfers, mostly from Medicaid.

3Figure 2 of the CBO report.

David French doesn't want effete liberals telling him what kind of gun he can and can't use to defend himself:

Any person who breaks into my house or who threatens my family on my property will very soon find themselves staring at the business end of an AR-15 — specifically this one, made by the DoubleStar Corporation, a Winchester, Ky., arms manufacturer.

Here's the product product pitch: "The Mil Spec Dragon is what black rifle purists dream about! The MSD is built as close to military specifications as possible while maintaining its semi-auto, civilian legal status. No frills, no flash, just a high quality, reliable, carbine that is ready for any mission." It comes standard with an A-2 flash suppressor and a forged “F” front sight tower with taper pins. Popular upgrades include a detachable carry handle, Hogue pistol grip, Ace SOCOM stock, “H” buffer, winter trigger guard, and DS 416 4-rail slimline handguards.

Sounds nice. Let's continue:

But now I’m told — largely by people who don’t know the first thing about firearms — that no American “needs” an AR-style rifle. But when your life is on the line, what do you want? More accuracy or less? More firepower or less? More recoil or less? More reliability or less?

Quite so. And French is right when he says later that banning assault rifles like this one wouldn't have much effect on international terrorists. I assume he'd agree with what I said on Sunday: "Banning Muslim visitors or ramping up the air war against ISIS would have done nothing to stop Omar Mateen. Banning guns would have done nothing to stop either the Paris attacks or any other act of international terrorism."

So here's my question. It's a real question. Like most AR-15 variants, the Mil Spec Dragon comes with a 30-round magazine. Is that really necessary for self defense? I can't pretend that there are literally no circumstances where it might come in handy, but it sure seems pretty unlikely in your basic home robbery scenario. Surely a 10-round magazine would be sufficient for virtually any real-world self-defense application? At a guess, three or four rounds would be more than enough. Or one.

So what's the argument against a ban on large-capacity magazines? Other than, "they're bitchin," that is. A ban on large magazines would surely slow down folks like Omar Mateen without infringing in any real way on anyone's Second Amendment right to defend themselves. Is there an answer that doesn't rely on absurdly unlikely scenarios?

It's sophisticated these days to remind everyone that national polls don't matter much in presidential races. You really need to dig down to the state level. That's true enough, and you can check out Sam Wang's detailed look at state polls here if you want to really dive into things. Spoiler alert: Hillary Clinton has a pretty clear lead right now, but control of the Senate is neck-and-neck.

All that said, national polls aren't totally useless. Voting patterns tend to be nationwide, and generally speaking, it's very unlikely for a candidate who's more than a couple of points behind in the national polls to win in November. So here's your good news for the day: Pollster says that Donald Trump is currently losing in the national polls by about 10 points. It's only June, and a lot of things can change between now and Election Day. Nonetheless, perhaps America is finally coming to its senses.

Weekly Flint Water Report: June 2-9

Here is this week's Flint water report. As usual, I've eliminated outlier readings above 2,000 parts per billion, since there are very few of them and they can affect the averages in misleading ways. During the week, DEQ took 103 samples. The average for the past week was 6.20.

One of Flint's peculiar problems has been the large number of residences with astronomical lead readings. This got me curious: the average lead levels in Flint's water seem to be under control, but how about the number of outliers? Is that going down? The sample size here is necessarily small, but the answer seems to be: apparently not. In fact, the number of very high readings has been going steadily up:

The Kaiser Family Foundation has a new report out suggesting that Obamacare premiums are going to skyrocket next year. Maybe so. But before everyone gets into another Trump-inspired tizzy about this, please note the highlighted section of the Kaiser table below:

Insurers always ask for more than they get. In the 13 states that Kaiser examines, insurers have asked for rate increases averaging 11 percent. And who knows? Maybe they'll get it. More than likely, though, they won't. This is an opening bid, and the final contract won't be set for several more months.

So, as usual, take this with a grain of salt. The truth is that Obamacare premiums started out lower than most analysts predicted, because (a) insurers turned out to be really interested in lowballing their prices in order to gain market share, and (b) they didn't have much data to base their rates on. As the market shakes out, real-world data will become more available and market shares will start to settle down. It's possible that this will drive a couple of years of semi-large-ish premium increases, but that's about it. And maybe not even that much.

So don't panic. We don't know yet if premiums are really going up 11 percent. But even if they are, it shouldn't be a huge surprise. The real test will be how the original Obamacare projections compare to real-life premiums in, say, 2019. My guess is that they'll be fairly close. More here from Charles Gaba, who basically says we just don't know yet what will happen in 2017.

Phones Sure Are Gigantic These Days

A while back Dave Roberts was on Twitter complaining that he wanted a new cell phone, but they were all too damn big. I naively suggested a Moto X. I've got one and it's reasonably sized.

But it turns out that it was reasonably sized—back when I got it. Since then it's been super-sized. So too bad for Dave.

I forgot about all this until yesterday, when I ambled into my local T-Mobile store for an entirely different reason, but ended up looking at phones. The battery on mine is getting iffy, and as near as I can tell there's no way to fix this except to toss the phone in the trash and buy a new one.1 But every single phone in the store was way bigger than my puny 4.7" model. Aside from the iPhones, there was literally not a single phone anywhere close to the size of mine.

Is this really where the market is? There's not even a small niche of users who want a fairly premium phone in a smallish form factor? No women with small hands who want a phone that's more comfortable to hold? No men who don't want a gargantuan phone in their pocket all the time? There's no market for this at all?

Weird. And what's weirder is that it's mostly the height of the phones that's changed. The width of a phone with a 5" screen isn't all that different from mine, but they're mostly a good inch taller. Why? Are there any phone engineers or product managers out there who can educate us about this?

1No, I'm not really willing to do this.

James Pethokoukis comments on an Economist cover story making the case that teacher quality is important:

Among the many studies cited: a University of Melbourne review of more than 65,000 papers on the effects of various classroom interventions. It concludes that what matters most is teacher expertise: “All of the 20 most powerful ways to improve school-time learning identified by the study depended on what a teacher did in the classroom.”

Another paper found that students taught by teachers in the top 10% for effectiveness learn 1.5 years’ worth of material in an academic year, three times as much as those taught by teachers in the bottom 10%....The big question, then, is to what extent good teaching can be taught. Are high-quality teachers born that way or can they be made?

I've been hearing about this approximately forever. And I don't really doubt it. Some teachers are better than others. Duh. The most effective 10 percent of teachers help their students more than the other 90 percent. Duh. It would be great if we could train all teachers to be as good as the top 10 percent. Duh. We ought to fire the really bad teachers. Duh.

Here's what I don't get: Why is it that this frenzy about "quality" is mostly reserved for teachers? Isn't it true of literally every profession? Some prison guards are better than others. The most effective 10 percent of accountants will do your taxes better than the other 90 percent. It would be great if we could train all police officers to be as good as the top 10 percent. The Senate would be a better place if we could fire Jeff Sessions and train all the rest to be as good as Ron Wyden.

I'm all for training teachers to be as good as possible. But the existence of a bell curve of quality is pretty much inevitable everywhere. So why are politicians and academics so obsessed with teachers? Why not a national campaign called "A Nation at Risk" declaring that policing is in crisis and we won't rest until we've fired all the bad ones and put in place a comprehensive quality testing regime that rates every single police officer in the country?

I'm serious about this. Every profession has a top ten percent and a bottom 3 percent. Every profession would be better if more of its members were as good as the top 10 percent while the bottom 3 percent were systematically fired. This is, frankly, so obvious, that it barely even deserves to be called an observation, let alone an insight. And yet, we all ooh and ah when these banalities are applied to teachers. What's the deal with this?

Donald Trump's Fantasies of the Third Reich

As I continue reading the reaction to Donald Trump's big Muslim hatefest last night, I keep coming back to Andrew Sprung. He does the best job I've seen of describing Trump in a nutshell:

The manifest depravity of this speech, which raised demonization of Muslims to something approaching Nazi levels, does highlight something basic about the choice before us that's perhaps hiding in plain sight.

The speech rendered all the more obvious truths about Trump that have long been obvious: 1. He is obviously promising to abrogate the Constitution in fundamental ways. 2. He will say anything that he senses will inflame his followers and throw the media into a frenzy. 3. His solipsism is so extreme that there is no boundary line in his mind between what works for him and what is true. 4. He's such a transparently self-aggrandizing fraud that anyone, regardless of education or political engagement, should be able to see through him in two minutes.

His proposals to proscribe a religion adhered to by a fifth of humanity, round up  and deport 11 million people, muzzle the press, and commit war crimes are not subtle. You don't need a business degree to see that Trump University and the Trump Network (a vitamin-selling scheme involving a urine test) — were fraudulent to their core.

A few days ago I wrote a post semi-jokingly suggesting that the word fascist should be removed from the English language. I didn't say it at the time, but in the back of my mind was this: people who throw around the term are often just cowards who are unwilling to come right out and call their target a Nazi. That's understandable: Mussolini may have been a bad sort, but he didn't send 6 million Jews to their deaths. For obvious reasons, you want to be careful comparing people to Hitler.

But we've now crossed that bridge with Trump. He's not just a fascist. Nor a fan of McCarthyism. He's not a bully or a fraud or a demagogue. He's all those things, but he's crossed the line into something much more. It's not as if Trump is getting ready to set up an American version of Auschwitz or something, but his speech last night sure did sound eerily like something Hitler could have delivered circa 1933. And his statements since have been even more overtly Third Reichish, conjuring up cabals of treacherous elites who "know what's going on" but refuse to do anything to save America from the dangers surrounding her.

Trump may be a toy Hitler, more swagger and bombast than genuine danger. But movements like his have a dynamic all their own, and they can spiral out of control fast given the right circumstances and the right person. The right circumstances are impossible to forecast, but obviously they're hardly out of the question sometime over the next few months. And Trump, whose first instinct is to double down when he's criticized, is all too likely to become the right person. Yesterday's speech wasn't Trump's first step in the direction of industrialized racism, it was about his third or fourth. He needs to be thoroughly crushed before he takes the seventh or eighth.

Never Cut the Truth

I'm going to put my old friend, Washington Monthly editor Paul Glastris, on the spot. The current issue of the magazine features a piece by Harold Pollack about the problem of over-aggressive police response to people with intellectual disabilities who are causing a public disturbance. Pollack himself is more than normally attuned to these issues because his brother-in-law has fragile X syndrome. Here's the conclusion of his piece:

Vincent didn’t pose safety issues in the three years he lived with us; he is blessed with a sweet disposition, and is wonderfully gentle with Veronica and our two young daughters. Still, the possibility of behavioral crisis remains in the back of our minds, in the queue of anxieties and worries. As does our concern about whether it would ever be safe or wise to summon law enforcement help.

Veronica and I were sitting at breakfast one morning. She was reading a Tribune story about a mentally ill young man who was shot and killed by police called to the family home. Veronica looked up and calmly stated: “I don’t care what Vincent is doing. Never call the police.” We have no particular reason to believe we’ll need to make that call. I just wish we had greater confidence in what would happen if we ever did.

That was the conclusion, anyway. The last paragraph got cut. This is going to sound harsher than I mean it to, but that was a very bad call, and it sort of pisses me off. It basically forced Pollack to lie, and editors shouldn't do that. Very plainly, Veronica Pollack is more than just uneasy about calling the police if Vincent is ever in trouble. She's flatly decided not to, and was willing to say so publicly. That's important, and not just because it most likely represents a widespread view, which makes it relevant from a policy point of view. It's important because it's the truth. We should never turn that down when it's handed to us on a silver platter.

Byron York notes "a new tone in straight-news general election reporting on Trump." Sounds exciting! Let's check out the New York Times first:

Mr. Trump carefully read his remarks from a teleprompter and offered more detail than his stump speeches generally contain, but his speech was still rife with the sort of misstatements and exaggerations that have typified his campaign.

He repeatedly stretched the facts, for example, in describing the United States as overrun by dangerous migrants. He claimed the country has an “immigration system which does not permit us to know who we let into our country,” brushing aside the entire customs and immigration enforcement infrastructure. And he asserted that there was a “tremendous flow” of Syrian refugees, when just 2,805 of them were admitted into the country from October to May, fewer than one-third of the 10,000 Syrians President Obama said the United States would accept this fiscal year. Mr. Trump described the gunman in the Orlando shooting as “an Afghan,” though he was born an American citizen in New York City to parents who had emigrated from Afghanistan to the United States over three decades ago.

And now the Washington Post:

In a speech laden with falsehoods and exaggeration, Trump was antagonistic and pugnacious, in stark contrast with his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, who also spoke Monday about combating terrorism....Trump’s address contained a number of inaccuracies and overstatements. Among other things, he wrongly claimed that Clinton wanted to abolish the Second Amendment; said the United States is “not screening” refugees, who undergo a rigorous vetting program that can take two years or more; and said the New York-born shooter was born “an Afghan, of Afghan parents who immigrated to the United States.”

I'm sorry to report that the LA Times didn't follow suit. They should. I know it's not much in the face of Trump's tsunami of lying, but the job of the press is to tell the truth. They should do it, regardless of whether it makes much difference or not.