By now we all know the story of President Trump's sudden U-turn on NAFTA earlier this week. But just to refresh your memories, here is the Washington Post:

“I was all set to terminate,” Trump said in an Oval Office interview Thursday night. “I looked forward to terminating. I was going to do it.”...At one point, he turned to Kushner, who was standing near his desk, and asked, “Was I ready to terminate NAFTA?”

“Yeah,” Kushner said, before explaining the case he made to the president: “I said, ‘Look, there’s plusses and minuses to doing it,’ and either way he would have ended up in a good place.”

The basic story here is that Trump is a child. He was all ready to pull the trigger, but then his advisors brought in a colorful map showing that lots of red states and counties would be harmed by pulling out of NAFTA. Eventually Trump calmed down and normalcy reigned for another day.

But here's the part of the story I still don't understand: what happened on Wednesday that suddenly put a burr up Trump's ass to pull out of NAFTA? Just a few weeks ago he sent a list of negotiating points to Congress, and both Mexico and Canada have agreed the treaty needs some updating. Things were moving along fairly normally, and then suddenly Trump woke up one morning and decided to light off a nuclear bomb.

What was that all about? Was it really because of Trump's obsession over having some kind of accomplishment to show for his first hundred days? Did he eat a taco that didn't agree with him? Did Steve Bannon have a late-night talk with him?

This was the reason all along that Trump was a far more dangerous candidate than Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. From a liberal point of view, his incompetence was a bonus that might restrict the short-term damage he could do. But Trump also brought to the table a noxious racist appeal, an ugly nationalism, an appalling level of ignorance, and a mercurial temperament. All of these were on display Wednesday. Apparently out of nowhere, and for no particular reason, he just strolled into the Oval Office and decided he wanted to formally withdraw from NAFTA.

Why? And what are the odds he's going to do this again on something more important? Something that, for whatever reason, his aides can't talk him out of with a colorful map and another diet Coke?

I'm not sure everyone realizes that this is the most dangerous thing Trump has done so far. It was a close-run thing, but next time it might not be. And we still have 1,361 days left to go of Trump's presidency.

Our cats' favorite activity is playing under the sheets after we strip the bed and put on freshly laundered bedclothes. Last week I stuck the camera under the sheets and snapped a few photos while the cats went nuts. Look at those eyes! Like saucers! This was taken during one of the few microseconds when Hilbert wasn't just a blur.

A reader emailed this morning suggesting that GDP growth in the first quarter was low because GDP growth in the first quarter is always low:

Something I’ve long wondered is if the seasonal adjustments BLS is making on these numbers is artificially skewing the 1Q results every year. As you recall 1Q09 was the bottom of the Great Recession, it feels like they are overcorrecting for that phenomenon. When you look at the quarterly progression of every year (minus 2015 it looks like) 1Q sucks and then you get q/q improvement during the year.

I remember having read some criticisms of BEA's seasonal adjustments, so I got curious. Is Q1 growth routinely lower than later quarters?

[NOTE: The original chart I used showed GDP growth compared to the previous year. That's not what BEA reports. The headline number is annualized growth from the previous quarter. I've revised the chart, which significantly revises the text below too.]

On average, reported first quarter growth really is considerably lower than it is in the other three quarters. Nor is this an issue of unusually high revisions from the advance print to the final print. For the past seven years, the advance number has been a little higher on average than the final revision.

FWIW, if you look at GDP compared to the previous year (i.e., Q1 of 2017 compared to Q1 of 2016 etc.), average growth rates are about the same in all four quarters. This is probably a better measure.

While we're on the subject, though, the weather is one of my favorite topics when it comes to making excuses for poor growth. Here is Nelson Schwartz in the New York Times today:

Michelle Meyer, chief United States economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said healthier business investment indicated that the overall economy was performing better than the headline numbers would suggest. “Warm weather meant consumers weren’t spending as much on electricity and natural gas and home heating,” Ms. Meyer said. “Government spending can also be affected by seasonal factors, and defense spending is especially volatile.”

Here is Nelson Schwartz in the New York Times three years ago:

In their initial estimate for growth in the months of January, February and March, government statisticians said output expanded at an annual rate of just 0.1 percent, although experts noted that figure was affected by one-time headwinds like unusually cold weather and slower inventory gains after businesses aggressively built up stockpiles in the second half of 2013.

Too hot, too cold, the weather is never just right, is it?

Presidenting Is Hard

Poor Donald Trump. Being president is harder than he thought:

"I loved my previous life. I had so many things going," Trump told Reuters in an interview. "This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier."...Midway through a discussion about Chinese President Xi Jinping, the president paused to hand out copies of what he said were the latest figures from the 2016 electoral map.

"Here, you can take that, that's the final map of the numbers," the Republican president said from his desk in the Oval Office, handing out maps of the United States with areas he won marked in red. "It’s pretty good, right? The red is obviously us."

There are three takeaways from this. First, Trump's old life was pretty easy because other people ran his companies and he didn't really do much. Second, he thought presidents just consulted their guts and made decisions, sort of like Celebrity Apprentice, and then stuff magically happened. Third, he still can't maintain discussion of a real topic (Chinese President Xi Jinping) for more than a few moments before getting sidetracked by one of his obsessions (his huge victory in November). Here are the maps he handed out. He obviously had copies made just for the occasion:

But Trump still hasn't learned his lesson. I've dealt with lots of people who will regale you endlessly with tales of how complicated their own business is, but the less they know about some other business the easier they think it is to fix. For example:

Sure, Donald. You can't even get Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon to stop squabbling, but the Middle East? Piece of cake. There's no reason to think this is a difficult problem that requires a lot of hard work. It's just that all the presidents before you have been really, really stupid.

Still, they were all bright enough to know that if you want to get things done, you need to get people who support your agenda running the bureaucracy. Trump still hasn't figured that out:

It's hard to find Republicans to work in the federal government in the first place, and harder still to find Republicans willing to work for a man-child like Trump. Even at that, though, he's barely even trying. Not counting cabinet positions, he's managed to nominate about three people per week. That's pathetic.

Politico has released its fourth annual survey of the White House press corps. Here's an excerpt:

A full 63 percent of the press corps has been lied to by the Trump administration. It might even be as high as 88 percent. And that's in just the first three months.

For comparison, the only other time Politico asked this question was in 2014. After six years of covering the Obama White House, 50% of the reporters said they had been lied to. That's not exactly a result to be proud of, but I imagine that if Trump is still in office in 2022, his number will be hovering right around 99 percent.1

1The remaining one percent will be a reporter who had just been assigned to the White House beat the week before.

The LA Times reports that House Republicans have steadfastly refused to reach out to Democrats in an effort to pass their health care bill. This is no surprise. They're well aware of how they suckered Democrats in 2009, killing months of time in "talks" even though none of them ever planned to support Obamacare. They figure Democrats would do the same to them, and they're right.

But then we get this:

And senior House Republicans and White House officials have almost completely shut out doctors, hospitals, patient advocates and others who work in the healthcare system, industry officials say, despite pleas from many healthcare leaders to seek an alternative path that doesn’t threaten protections for tens of millions of Americans.

....Health insurers, who initially found House Republicans and Trump administration officials open to suggestions for improving insurance markets, say it is increasingly difficult to have realistic discussions, according to numerous industry officials. “They’re not interested in how health policy actually works,” said one insurance company official, who asked not to be identified discussing conversations with GOP officials. “It’s incredibly frustrating.”

Another longtime healthcare lobbyist, who also did not want to be identified criticizing Republicans, said he’d never seen legislation developed with such disregard for expert input. “It is totally divorced from reality,” he said.

It's increasingly obvious that Republicans aren't actually trying to pass a health care bill. They just want to be able to tell their base that they tried. And President Trump wants to erase the taste of defeat from the first health care bill.

If House Republicans were serious, they'd engage with the health care industry. They haven't. If they were serious they'd care about the CBO score. They don't. If they were serious they'd be crafting a bill that could pass Senate reconciliation rules. They aren't even trying. If Senate Republicans were serious they'd be weighing in with a bill of their own. They aren't wasting their time.

In the beginning, I think Paul Ryan really did want to pass something, mainly so that it would make his tax cut plan easier to pass. But he's given up on that. At this point he just wants a piece of paper that gets 218 votes and demonstrates that the Republican caucus isn't hopelessly inept. He knows it will be DOA in the Senate, but at least it will get health care off his plate once and for all. Then he can move on to cutting taxes on the rich, which is what he really cares about. And he'll have no trouble rounding up votes for that.

GDP growth was terrible in the first quarter, rising at an annual rate of only 0.7 percent. That's the worst quarterly performance in two years:

Unfortunately, the details behind the headline number are bad too. Growth was driven almost entirely by investment in buildings, both residential and nonresidential. Personal consumption was up an anemic 0.3 percent. The most common excuse for this miserable performance is that it's for the first quarter, and first quarters are always bad. There's some truth to this: first quarter growth has averaged 1.0 percent since 2010. However, we've had a pretty mild winter in 2017, so there's no weather excuse this year.

We'll see. Maybe the revised numbers will be better. Maybe we'll make up for this in the second quarter. Maybe.

Let me get this straight. First, Donald Trump pisses off South Korea by parroting the Chinese president's claim that Korea was once part of China. Then he pisses them off again by saying the USS Carl Vinson is on its way to the Yellow Sea when, in fact, it's cruising around in Indonesia. Then, today, he pisses them off again by saying he might terminate our trade agreement with them, and then demanding that they pay us a billion dollars for the anti-missile system we're installing there.

But...we need good relations with South Korea if we're planning to take on North Korea in some way. Right? Why would we be going out of our way to piss them off repeatedly?

It is a mystery. It is a Trumpism. Perhaps Trump still doesn't realize that it's not like the old days, when doing something stupid would get him some attention for a couple of news cycles and then go away. I thought maybe he'd finally figured that out after the whole Obama wiretapping fiasco.1 I guess not.

1In retrospect, it's pretty obvious that he was delighted with those tweets at first because they turned the spotlight back on him and that's all he wanted. He figured it would be like the campaign, when he'd do this kind of stuff, bluff his way through it for a couple of days, and then everyone would get tired and let it go. I imagine he was pretty shocked that everyone took it seriously for weeks on end. Come on! It was a weekend tweet! It's not like I'm the presi— Oh.

Like everyone, I've been watching as the free speech debate on college campuses has morphed from its usual steady background hum into a Big Issue Of The Day. First there was Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley. Then Charles Murray at Middlebury. Heather Mac Donald at Claremont McKenna. Ann Coulter at Berkeley. The right is naturally outraged that these speakers were harassed or banned, and the left is—well, what is the left's reaction to all this? At first, it was mostly a matter of not really sticking up for free speech rights on campus. That was bad enough, but then the conversation changed. Instead of a collective mumble, I began reading affirmative arguments that there was absolutely nothing wrong with "no-platforming" these folks. For example, a few days ago a New Republic article showed up in my Facebook feed and got high fives from several people I follow. Here is Aaron Hanlon:

When departments or groups arrange for a speaker, invitations are usually authorized by small committees or localized administrative offices without a campus-wide discussion or debate....Instead of community-wide discussion and debate over the merits of bringing a given speaker to campus, the debate happens after the invitation, giving the misleading impression that no-platforming is about shutting down speech.

....But no-platforming is better understood as the kind of value judgment that lies at heart of a liberal arts education....This has always meant deciding what people needed to know, but also what they don’t need to know—or at least which knowledge and skills deserved priority in one’s formal education.

....No-platforming may look like censorship from certain angles, but from others it’s a consequence of a challenging, never-ending process occurring at virtually all levels of the university: deciding what educational material to present to our students and what to leave out. In this sense, de-platforming isn’t censorship; it’s a product of free expression and the foundational aims of a classically liberal education.

The sophistry here is breathtaking. If it's just some small group that invites someone, then it's OK if the rest of the university blackballs their choice. After all, universities are supposed to decide what students don't need to know. It may "look like censorship from certain angles," but it's actually the very zenith of free expression. Juliet Kleber followed up today:

As Aaron Hanlon argued in the New Republic earlier this week, choosing not to host Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos on campus is not a suppression of their free speech. Academia certainly has an important place in selecting and elevating certain voices to relevance in a broader culture, but let’s not forget that a college isn’t a town hall: it’s a particular community of people engaged in intersecting missions of education. Coulter is not a member of that community and she has no claims upon it. Campus life is curated, and none of us outside of it are guaranteed access to that platform.

Enough. I don't usually pay a lot of attention to the latest outrages on college campuses because college campuses are teeming with smart, verbal, overconfident 19-year-olds. Of course they do stupid things. We all did stupid things at that age. I'm generally happy for all these micro-outrages to remain local controversies handled by local administrators.

But now everyone is weighing in, and here on the left we're caving in way too often to this Hanlon-esque lunacy. Is some of the speech he's concerned about ugly and dangerous and deliberately provocative? Of course it is. But that's not a reason to shut it down. That's the whole reason we defend free speech in the first place. If political speech was all a harmless game of patty-cake, nobody would even care.

Speech is often harmful. And vicious. And hurtful. And racist. And just plain disgusting. But whenever you start thinking these are good reasons to overturn—by violence or otherwise—someone's invitation to speak, ask yourself this: Who decides? Because once you concede the right to keep people from speaking, you concede the right of somebody to make that decision. And that somebody may eventually decide to shut down communists. Or anti-war protesters. Or gays. Or sociobiologists. Or Jews who defend Israel. Or Muslims.

I don't want anyone to have that power. No one else on the left should want it either.

Lunchtime Photo

I keep mentioning the blimp hangars on the old MCAS Tustin base, so here's a picture of one of them. (The other one is identical.) They were built during WWII as housing for blimps used to patrol the West Coast, and according to the American Society of Civil Engineers they are the biggest wooden frame structures in the world. You can read a book about them here. Or watch a 25-minute video about them here. Every year or two I read a story about how we've finally decided what to do with them, but nothing ever happens. At the moment, they're still behind fencing around the old base and closed to the public.

However, I was invited inside one of them once. Back when the base was still open, Goodyear used the hangars to do maintenance on their local blimp based in Carson. In my senior year in college I was interning at the Orange County bureau of the LA Times when a storm drove a tailfin through the blimp and it was hauled out to Tustin for repairs. The Marine Corps invited the press to come out and see it, and I got the assignment to go. In a preview of Twitter days to come, I wrote a snarky story about how there was nothing to see, really, except a huge piece of flat polyester. Surprisingly, my editor thought it was great even though I offered to write a straight version of the story if he wanted it. The Marine Corps was not so excited. One of their press folks called the next day, reminding me that they had only offered the tour because the press itself asked for it. That was true enough. Live by the snark, die by the snark.

BONUS PHOTO: Here's the interior of the blimp hangar from the 2009 movie Star Trek, where it served as the set for the shuttle bay sequence. Orange County film commissioner Janice Arrington describes the shoot: "The entire Starfleet was built in the north blimp hangar in 2008," she said—not quite accurately, but close enough for government work I suppose. "It was overwhelming to see endless rows of space vehicles lined up and stretching to the ends of the 300,000-square-foot hangar."