Kevin Drum

Donald Trump: The Chinese Sure Knew How to Display Toughness at Tiananmen Square

| Tue Jan. 12, 2016 2:09 AM EST

Here is Donald Trump in a 1990 Playboy interview:

What does all this—the yacht, the bronze tower, the casinos—really mean to you?
Props for the show.

And what is the show?
The show is "Trump" and it has sold out performances everywhere. I've had fun doing it and will continue to have fun, and I think most people enjoy it.

....What were your [] impressions of the Soviet Union?
I was very unimpressed....Russia is out of control and the leadership knows it. That's my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand.

You mean firm hand as in China?
When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak ... as being spit on by the rest of the world—

So after eight years of Ronald Reagan, within weeks of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Trump is convinced that America is perceived as weak. I guess in Trumpland, America is always weak. Too bad we're not more like the Chinese at Tiananmen Square. Sure, they almost blew it, but in the end they did what they had to do. I guess they would have known what to do with those Occupy hippies and all the Mexicans flooding into the country too.

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Health Update

| Mon Jan. 11, 2016 6:54 PM EST

My piece on assisted suicide went up today, and just in case there are any readers who think I wrote it as a subtle way of saying that things are going badly with my multiple myeloma, I didn't. This is something that's been on my radar for a while, and it was Jerry Brown signing California's right-to-die bill last year that prompted me to finally write about it.

In fact, my health is pretty amazingly good right now. Even my back has nearly returned to normal—close enough that I've started up disc golfing again on weekends. Aside from the normal twinges and squeaks of a 57-year-old body, there's nothing wrong with me. The myeloma is basically like having high cholesterol: you know there's some stuff going on inside that's bad and will eventually cause trouble, but in the meantime it isn't causing any problems at all.

As for my longer term diagnosis, I don't know yet. After my last visit with my oncologist I finally requested a new one. I had put this off for a long time just due to laziness, but I finally had enough with her. My first visit with the new doc is tomorrow, and we'll see how that goes—though I doubt I'll have any real news for months. In the meantime, I'm buoyed by the rather startling outbreak of new treatments for multiple myeloma that have suddenly come to market. It's not that they're a lot better than the current ones, but different people react in surprisingly disparate ways to different treatments. So there's at least a decent chance that eventually one of these new treatments might turn out to more effective on me than the ones I've had so far. We'll see.

Here's How Better Communication Created Modern Life

| Mon Jan. 11, 2016 3:07 PM EST

Cells are amazing—and amazingly complex—little micro-factories. So complex, in fact, that it took longer for eukaryotic cells to evolve—a billion years, at least—than it did for the first multicellular creature to evolve into you and me—around 700 million years.

So how did single-celled critters first join together, anyway? The Washington Post reports today on a new discovery that might explain the ancient origin of multicellular organisms that eventually became Homo sapiens. It comes from a team of researchers at the University of Oregon. One of the co-authors is Ken Prehoda, a biochemist:

The discovery was made thanks to choanoflagellates — tiny balloon-shaped creatures that are our closest living unicellular cousins....They’re single-celled organisms, but they occasionally work together in groups, swimming into a cluster with their flagella (tails) pointing outward like the rays of a sun. At the most basic level, this coordination helps the choanoflagellates eat certain kinds of food. But it’s also an example of individual cells coming together to work as one unit, kind of like — hey! — a multi-cellular organism.

Prehoda and his colleagues began to look into what genes could be responsible for allowing the choanoflagellates to work together. “We were expecting many genes to be involved, working together in certain ways, because [the jump to multi-cellularity] seems like a really difficult thing to do,” he said.

But it turned out that only one was needed: A single mutation that repurposed a certain type of protein [so that it] could communicate with and bind to other proteins, a useful skill for cells that have decided to trade the rugged individualist life for the collaboration of a group....Every example of cells collaborating that has arisen since — from the trilobites of 500 million years ago to the dinosaurs, woolly mammoths and you — probably relied on it or some other similar mutation.

One little mutation, and single cells in a swarm could communicate slightly better than before. This presumably allowed better coordination, and thus more access to food and a better chance of survival. Or, if you prefer your science a little less comprehensible: "A molecular complex scaffolded by the GK protein-interaction domain (GKPID) mediates spindle orientation in diverse animal taxa by linking microtubule motor proteins to a marker protein on the cell cortex localized by external cues....The evolution of GKPID’s capacity to bind the cortical marker protein can be recapitulated by reintroducing a single historical substitution into the reconstructed ancestral GKPID."

Thanks, GKPID! You don't get all the credit (or blame) for the evolution of us humans, but without your willingness to try new things and share your feelings with your fellow proteins, we probably wouldn't be around today.

If Money Is Speech, the First Amendment Is a Billionaire's Dream

| Mon Jan. 11, 2016 1:45 PM EST

The argument for a union shop is pretty straightforward: even if you hate your union, they perform collective bargaining for everyone, including you. Since you benefit from that bargaining, you should be required to pay union dues. After all, if dues are optional, why would anyone pay? Why not just let all the other suckers pay while you reap the benefits free of charge?

There's another version of this argument that's even more straightforward: if union shops are illegal—as they are in so-called "right to work" states—it's all but impossible to set up a union. This is why the Chamber of Commerce and pretty much all Republicans are great fans of the open shop. It basically destroys the ability of unions to operate.

But what about public employee unions? What if you object to your union's political views and don't want to sponsor them? The answer, in many states, is that you can partially opt out of union dues, paying only an "agency fee" specifically designated for collective bargaining activities.

Problem solved? Not quite. What if you think that even collective bargaining is inherently a political stance when you're bargaining with the government? Should you be allowed to opt out of union dues entirely? Today the Supreme Court heard arguments on this, and it didn't go well for union supporters:

The justices appeared divided along familiar lines during an extended argument over whether government workers who choose not to join unions may nonetheless be required to help pay for collective bargaining. The court’s conservative majority appeared ready to say that such compelled financial support violates the First Amendment.

Collective bargaining, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said, is inherently political when the government is the employer, and issues like merit pay, promotions and classroom size are subject to negotiation.

The best hope for a victory for the unions had rested with Justice Antonin Scalia, who has written and said things sympathetic to their position. But he was consistently hostileon Monday. “The problem is that everything that is bargained for with the government is within the political sphere,” he said.

In one sense, there's nothing new to say about this. The liberal-conservative split on the Supreme Court has hardened over the past couple of decades, and we simply don't see very much principled opposition to party lines anymore. Conservatives hate unions, so conservative Supreme Court justices are going to rule against unions whenever and wherever possible. They'll make up the reasons afterward.

But there's another sense in which this is interesting: it's yet another step in the evolution of the conservative Supreme Court's insistence that money is speech. In Citizens United and subsequent cases, they've all but wiped out any possible regulation of campaign finance on the grounds that campaign donations fund campaign speech. So if you can't regulate political speech, you can't regulate political money either.

Now they seem set to do the same for unions. If collective bargaining is inherently political speech, then you can't force people to fund it. That's a prima facie violation of the First Amendment.

I wonder how far this can go? After all, you can make a case that spending money is nearly always implicit speech: my purchase of a Snickers bar is a public declaration that Snickers bars are delicious, and my company's dodgy advertising claims are a declaration of deeply held corporate emotions. So much for regulation of sugary snacks or false advertising.

Money is speech. Speech can't be regulated. Therefore, money can't be regulated. It's a pretty simple syllogism. And, possibly, a pretty handy one.

The Kids Today...Seem Pretty Smart, Actually

| Mon Jan. 11, 2016 12:02 PM EST

I'm not as cynical about the purpose of universal education as the late Aaron Swartz, but I love this historical retrospective from a piece of his reprinted today in the New Republic:

In 1845, only 45 percent of Boston’s brightest students knew that water expands when it freezes....In 1898, a...Harvard report found only 4 percent of applicants “could write an essay, spell, or properly punctuate a sentence.” But that didn’t stop editorialists from complaining about how things were better in the old days. Back when they went to school, complained the editors of the New York Sun in 1902, children “had to do a little work. ... Spelling, writing and arithmetic were not electives, and you had to learn.”

In 1913...more than half of new recruits to the Army during World War I “were not able to write a simple letter or read a newspaper with ease.” In 1927, the National Association of Manufacturers complained that 40 percent of high school graduates could not perform simple arithmetic or accurately express themselves in English.

....A 1943 test by the New York Times found that only 29 percent of college freshmen knew that St. Louis was on the Mississippi....A 1951 test in LA found that more than half of eighth graders couldn’t calculate 8 percent sales tax on an $8 purchase....In 1958, U.S. News and World Report lamented that “fifty years ago a high-school diploma meant something…. We have simply misled our students and misled the nation by handing out high-school diplomas to those who we well know had none of the intellectual qualifications that a high-school diploma is supposed to represent—and does represent in other countries. It is this dilution of standards which has put us in our present serious plight.”

A 1962 Gallup poll found “just 21 percent looked at books even casually.” In 1974, Reader’s Digest asked, “Are we becoming a nation of illiterates? [There is an] evident sag in both writing and reading...at a time when the complexity of our institutions calls for ever-higher literacy just to function effectively."

Education was always better in the old days. Except that it wasn't. As near as I can tell, virtually all the evidence—both anecdotal and systematic—suggests that every generation of children has left high school knowing as much or more than the previous generation. Maybe I'm wrong about that. But if I am, I sure haven't seen anyone deliver the proof.

My Right to Die

| Mon Jan. 11, 2016 11:06 AM EST

Several years ago, my father-in-law was in the end stages of multiple myeloma. He was a retired doctor, and he knew what was coming. So one night he called us all over to his house, said his last goodbyes, and then went into his bedroom and took his own life.

But Harry died before he had to. Assisted suicide was illegal in California at the time, and he was afraid he might soon lose the physical ability to take his life. And he almost died alone. Until a friend talked him out of it, he had decided not to tell any of us beforehand, out of fear that we might be held responsible for assisting him.

Now I'm the one with multiple myeloma. I'm still years away from having to make the decisions Harry did, but when my time finally does come, I have an option that he didn't: legal, doctor-assisted suicide thanks to a right-to-die bill that Gov. Jerry Brown signed last year:

When I'm within six months of death, I can ask my doctor for a prescription sedative that will kill me on my own terms—when I want and where I want. Will I ever use it? I don't know. I suspect that taking your own life requires a certain amount of courage, and I don't know if I have it. Probably none of us do until we're faced with it head-on.

But either way, I won't have to die before I want to out of fear that I'll lose the capacity to control my own destiny if I wait too long. Nor will I have to die alone out of fear that anyone present runs the risk of being hauled in by an overzealous sheriff's deputy. I'll be able to tell my wife I love her one last time. I can take her hand and we can lie down together on our bed. And then, slowly and peacefully, I'll draw my last breaths.

I don't want to die. But if I have to, this is how I want it to happen. I don't want a "suicide party," but neither do I want to suffer needlessly for months. Nor do I want to cause other people any more pain than I have to. I want to go out quietly, with my loved ones at my side.

Please read the whole thing. Doctor-assisted suicide is not a simple issue. There are legitimate fears about how it will be used and what it might lead to—and it's not for everyone. In fact, the evidence suggests that it will never be used by more than a few percent of terminal patients. But I'm convinced that, for those who do want it, it's simply a better, more humane way to treat our fellow human beings.

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Good News: The Fed Is Finally Going After Leverage in the Shadow Banking Sector

| Mon Jan. 11, 2016 9:45 AM EST

Here's some welcome news. The Fed is bringing back an old tool to regulate leverage in the financial market: increased margin requirements. And in even more welcome news, these requirements will apply to everyone, not just banks:

A little-noticed global agreement recently paved the way for the central bank to move forward with plans to alter margin requirements. Under the accord announced Nov. 12, regulators representing 25 economies agreed to adopt rules similar to ones the Fed is developing, a united front intended to prevent financial firms from moving transactions offshore in response to tighter Fed rules.

....Unlike earlier Fed margin rules, which focused largely on stock purchases, the new rules being crafted by the central bank would apply to securities-financing transactions, a multitrillion dollar market involving repurchase agreements, or repos, for stocks and bonds, as well as lending of securities.

....Unlike most of the central bank’s regulatory authority, this rule would reach beyond banks and across the entire financial system, affecting investment funds and other nonbank players, reflecting the Fed’s growing concern about what has been called shadow banking.

The tighter that regulations become on banks, the more incentive there is to move transactions into the shadow banking sector.1 That's why we need rules that apply everywhere. As we learned in 2008, a run on the shadow banking sector is every bit as dangerous as a run on ordinary banks. In fact, since shadow banks are so loosely regulated, shadow runs can be even more dangerous than normal runs.

In any case, this is basically an effort to reduce leverage in yet another corner of the financial industry. That's a good thing. Pretty much any effort to reduce leverage in any part of the financial sector is a good thing. As I've mentioned before, I'd trade pretty much every financial regulation we've put in place since 2008 for a simpler, more robust restriction on leverage everywhere and anywhere it occurs. This stuff is boring, but it's important.

1Commercial banks take short-term deposits and make long-term loans. They are inherently vulnerable to runs since depositors can remove their money anytime they get scared, but banks can't just call in their loans at will in order to fund all the depositors who want their money.

A shadow bank is any entity that isn't a commercial bank but acts just like one (borrows short, lends long). By 2008, the shadow banking sector was about as big as the ordinary commercial banking sector, and the shadow banking run in that year was responsible for a large part of the Great Meltdown.

Does My Mother Deserve Reparations For Raising Me?

| Sun Jan. 10, 2016 2:00 PM EST

In the New York Times today, Judith Shulevitz makes an argument in favor of a Universal Basic Income. She puckishly frames this as "reparations" for the work that stay-at-home mothers do without compensation—work necessary to keep the human race going and which the rest of us free-ride on. But if that's the case, why propose a UBI for everyone, even men and childless women? Here's the answer:

Politically, the U.B.I. looks a lot more plausible than a subsidy aimed only at mothers, because, as Social Security and Medicare make clear, policies have more staying power when perceived as general entitlements rather than free cash for free riders.

Hmmm. Politically I'd say it's a nonstarter no matter how it's framed. But Shulevitz's essay prompts me to write about something that's been in the back of my mind for a while. She is, of course, echoing a sentiment so widespread on the left that it has its own catch phrase: "programs for the poor are poor programs." As Shulevitz says, the idea here is that means-tested benefits are unpopular and constantly under attack. Conversely, universal programs like Social Security and Medicare are beloved and politically invulnerable.

But is this really true? I think it fails on two counts. First, although means-tested benefits (EITC, food stamps, Medicaid, etc.) are, indeed, often under attack from conservatives, they've nevertheless increased rather smartly over the past few decades. The chart on the right, from Brookings, shows the growth of means-tested benefits since 1980. It comes from Ron Haskins, a conservative, but it pretty closely matches a more recent analysis from the CBO. Adjusted for inflation, means-tested benefits over the past 30 years have increased steadily; have never decreased; and even before the Great Recession were more than 4x higher than in 1980. And this chart accounts only for the ten biggest federal programs. If you add in the rest, and then include state and local programs, total spending is about 50 percent higher.

So in terms of spending, it doesn't really seem to be the case that means-tested programs are disastrous for either participants or for the liberal project more generally. The public may or may not be thrilled about safety-net programs, but one way or another they seem to tolerate assistance to the poor pretty well.

Second—well, we don't really need a second way the familiar aphorism fails, do we? If means-tested programs do, in fact, have plenty of staying power, then there's no need to support a UBI if your real intent is to pay stay-at-home parents. We should just pay the stay-at-home parents. But here's the second point anyway: just as it's not really true that spending on the poor is precarious, it's not clear that universal programs are all that beloved. The two usual examples of this are Social Security and Medicare, which share three characteristics:

  1. They are universal.
  2. They are aimed at the elderly.
  3. They are perceived as benefits that retired people have paid for during their working lives.

I'd argue that the first is irrelevant. It's #2 and #3 that make these programs beloved and politically untouchable.1 Is there a way to test this? Is there a universal benefit that's not aimed at the elderly and not perceived as paid for? Not really. There are tax credits that fall into this category, like the mortgage interest deduction, but I can't think of any actual cash payouts that do. The closest, I suppose, is unemployment insurance, which is semi-universal. But is it beloved? Is it politically invulnerable? Based on events of the past few years, I'd say it's at least as vulnerable as other safety net programs. Maybe more so.

Bottom line: it's time to retire the ancient shibboleth about programs for the poor being poor programs. It doesn't really seem to be the case. That doesn't mean there aren't plenty of good arguments for a UBI. There are. I don't really buy them at the moment, but I probably will in the future when the robots take over.2 In the meantime, if you say something like this:

The feminist argument for a U.B.I. is that it’s a way to reimburse mothers and other caregivers for the heavy lifting they now do free of charge. Roughly one-fifth of Americans have children 18 or under. Many also attend to ill or elderly relatives. They perform these labors out of love or a sense of duty, but still, at some point during the diaper-changing or bedpan cleaning, they have to wonder why their efforts aren’t seen as “work.” They may even ask why they have to pay for the privilege of doing it, by cutting back on their hours or quitting jobs to stay home.

....Society [is] getting a free ride on women’s unrewarded contributions to the perpetuation of the human race....I say it’s time for something like reparations.

Then you just need to make the case for reparations. Proposing a UBI instead won't do any good and will just make the price tag higher.

1Though it's worth noting that for all their alleged untouchability, Republicans sure do spend a lot of time trying to suggest ways to pare them down.

2No, I'm not joking.

The CARD Act Has Saved Us $12 Billion Per Year

| Sat Jan. 9, 2016 3:09 PM EST

Who do credit card companies make the most money from? Answer: the poor, by far, because they rack up the highest fees and the highest interest expense. Card issuers also make some money on the rich, because they buy a lot of stuff. This generates interchange fees (usually 2-3 percent of the amount charged) that exceed the cost the reward points they dole out to attract these customers.

It's the customers in the middle who cost them. They don't buy enough stuff to generate lots interchange fees, but they aren't poor enough to get themselves stuck with lots of late fees and interest charges. The chart below shows this. Folks with FICO scores between 660 and 730 (representing about a third of all customers) are net losses for credit card companies.

This comes from a paper written last year about the effect of the CARD Act, a law passed in 2009 that modestly regulated the credit card industry. The authors' conclusion: "The CARD Act successfully reduced borrowing costs, in particular for borrowers with the lowest FICO scores. We find no evidence for offsetting increases in other costs or a decline in credit volume."  All in all, the CARD Act saved consumers—mostly lower-income consumers—about $12 billion per year. For much more, see today's Harold Pollack interview with one of the authors here.

Hip Hip Hooray For They!

| Sat Jan. 9, 2016 12:32 AM EST

The Washington Post reports some terrific news:

Singular "they," the gender-neutral pronoun, has been named the Word of the Year by a crowd of over 200 linguists at the American Dialect Society's annual meeting in Washington, D.C. on Friday evening.

....The Post’s style guide ratified this usage last month, which caused some grammar pedants to shriek. But as Post copy editor Bill Walsh explained, the singular they is “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”

OK, so we can now say:

  • I talked to Pat, and they said the sofa was on its way.
  • Pat said their sofa had been promised for tomorrow.
  • Pat came over, and I talked to them about when the sofa would arrive.

Takes some getting used to, doesn't it? But I'm all for it. I will celebrate the day when gendered pronouns are gone for good.