Kevin Drum

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in August

| Fri Sep. 4, 2015 10:10 AM EDT

The American economy added 173,000 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 83,000 jobs. The headline unemployment rate fell from 5.3 percent to 5.1 percent. Hourly earnings of production and nonsupervisory employees were up at an annualized rate of 2.9 percent.

Roughly speaking, there was nothing interesting in the guts of the report. The unemployment rate was down both because there were more employed workers and because the size of the labor force shrank a bit. The labor force participation rate stayed steady. There were no big surprises in any particular industry.

This has left everyone free to speculate on what this report means for the prospect of the Fed increasing interest rates later this month. On the one hand, the jobs report fell a bit below expectations. On the other hand, the unemployment rate was down nicely and wages showed a bit of life. On the third hand—well, everyone's just guessing here. Basically, this month's jobs report is ordinary enough that it probably won't have much impact at all. The Fed will consider overseas weakness, labor market slack, and all the other things that have been on their plate for a while. If they were planning to raise rates before this report came out, they probably still are.

Advertise on

Protester Attacks Trump Guard's Fist With His Head; Trump to Press Charges

| Fri Sep. 4, 2015 1:31 AM EDT

At Donald Trump's ceremonial loyalty-oath signing on Thursday, a group of protesters showed up holding a big blue banner that read "Trump: Make America Racist Again." A Trump security guard took offense at this sign of insolence and ripped the banner away from them. One of the protesters then chased the guard and grabbed him, at which point the guard turned around and clocked the guy. The New York Times picks up the story from there: "The Trump campaign said that the security team member on Thursday was 'jumped from behind' and that the campaign would 'likely be pressing charges.'"

The banner disappeared into Trump Tower, never to be seen again. Quite rightly, I might add. This sort of impudence from losers and lightweights will not be tolerated when Donald Trump is president. Truly he is already making America great again.

Sentence of the Day: Court Must Rule on Whether Court Can Rule

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 11:10 PM EDT

From my colleague Pema Levy:

Sometime in the next few months, the state Supreme Court is likely to rule on whether the legislature has the right to strip the Supreme Court of its administrative authority.

Well, I guess someone has to do it. You will perhaps be unsurprised to learn that this sentence refers to Kansas.

Why Has Conservative Talk Radio Gone Gaga Over Donald Trump?

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 8:30 PM EDT

Roughly speaking, I think the reason Donald Trump will eventually flame out is because people will get tired of his act. This is the downside of getting lots of media attention: when you recycle the same sentence fragments over and over, people eventually figure out that you have nothing more to say. His supporters get bored. The press gets bored. The whole country gets bored. And while the endless insults might be amusing for a while, eventually even his fans will conclude that he sounds an awful lot like a fourth grader, not a president. In the end, Trump will end not with a bang, but a whimper.

In the meantime, though, I'm a little curious about why conservative talk radio has been so consistently gaga over Trump. For example, here's a little snippet from Hugh Hewitt's show today:

HH: You know everything about building buildings. You could build the wall. I have no doubt about that....But on the front of Islamist terrorism, I’m looking for the next commander-in-chief, to know who Hassan Nasrallah is, and Zawahiri, and al-Julani, and al-Baghdadi. Do you know the players without a scorecard, yet, Donald Trump?

DT: No, you know, I’ll tell you honestly, I think by the time we get to office, they’ll all be changed. They’ll be all gone. I knew you were going to ask me things like this, and there’s no reason, because number one, I’ll find, I will hopefully find General Douglas MacArthur in the pack. I will find whoever it is that I’ll find, and we’ll, but they’re all changing, Hugh.

....HH: Now I don’t believe in gotcha questions. And I’m not trying to quiz you on who the worst guy in the world is.

DT: Well, that is a gotcha question, though. I mean, you know, when you’re asking me about who’s running this, this this, that’s not, that is not, I will be so good at the military, your head will spin.

....HH: Last question, I want to go back to the beginning, because I really do disagree with you on the gotcha question thing, Donald Trump. At the debate, I may bring up Nasrallah being with Hezbollah, and al-Julani being with al-Nusra, and al-Masri being with Hamas. Do you think if I ask people to talk about those three things, and the differences, that that’s a gotcha question?

DT: Yes, I do. I totally do. I think it’s ridiculous....I’ll have, I’m a delegator. I find great people. I find absolutely great people, and I’ll find them in our armed services, and I find absolutely great people.

Here's the thing: I don't know if obsequious is the right word to describe Hewitt's attitude, but it's close. Throughout the interview he takes considerable pains to compliment Trump on every little piece of knowledge he manages to dredge up, like a teacher complimenting a dim third-grader for remembering five times three. This is despite the fact that Trump makes it crystal clear that he's comically ignorant about practically everything that Hewitt thinks is important.

But Hewitt is no idiot. He's a partisan warrior and a trained killer on the radio, but he's not a stupid one. He's a very smart guy.

So why does he put up with someone like Trump? Is it just for the ratings? Does he think Trump actually might become president? Is he embarrassed by this? Or what? Inquiring minds want to know.

Rhetoric vs. Reality, Police Safety Edition

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 5:45 PM EDT

Here's the rhetoric:

Scott Walker: "In the last six years under President Obama, we've seen a rise in anti-police rhetoric....[This] rhetoric has real consequences for the safety of officers who put their lives on the line for us and hampers their ability to serve the communities that need their help."

Ted Cruz: "Cops across this country are feeling the assault. They're feeling the assault from the president, from the top on down....That is fundamentally wrong, and it is endangering the safety and security of us all."

Donald Trump: "I know cities where police are afraid to even talk to people because they want to be able to retire and have their pension....And then you wonder what's wrong with our cities. We need a whole new mind-set."

And here's the reality. During the George Bush administration, police fatalities per 100 million residents averaged 58 per year (54 if you exclude 2001). During the Obama administration, that's dropped to 42.

Marx and Keynes Put Economics on the Map, and They Can Take It Right Off Again

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 2:38 PM EDT

Over at PostEverything, Dan Drezner wonders why economics has managed to wield such an outsized influence among the social sciences. His strongest point—or at least the one he spends the most time on—is that economists "share a strong consensus about the virtues of free markets, free trade, capital mobility and entrepreneurialism." This makes them catnip to the plutocrat class, and therefore the favored social scientists of influential people everywhere.

Fine, says Adam Ozimek, but what about liberal economists? "Why is Paul Krugman famous? Robert Shiller? Joe Stiglitz? Jeff Sachs? 'To please plutocrats' is not a good theory." And this: "Why do liberal think tanks with liberal donors supporting liberal causes hire so many economists? To please plutocrats?"

I think Drezner and Ozimek each make good points. Here's my amateur historical explanation that incorporates both.

The first thing to understand is that in the 19th century, economists were no more influential than other social scientists. Folks like David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus were certainly prominent, but no more so than, say, Herbert Spencer or Max Weber. What's more, economics was a far less specialized field then. John Stuart Mill had a strong influence on economics, but was he an economist? Or a philosopher? Or a political scientist? He was all of those things.

So what happened to make economists so singularly influential in the 20th century? I'll toss out two causes: Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes.

The fight for and against communism defined the second half of the 20th century, and Marx had always identified economics as the underpinning of his socio-historical theories. Outside of the battlefield, then, this made the most important conflict of the time fundamentally a fight over economics. In the public imagination, if not within the field itself, the fight between communism and free markets became identified as the face of economics, and this made it the most important branch of the social sciences.

Then Keynes upped the ante. In the same spirit that Whitehead called philosophy a series of footnotes to Plato, economics in the second half of the 20th century was largely a series of footnotes to Keynes. Rightly or wrongly, he became the poster child for liberals who wanted to justify their belief in an activist government and the arch nemesis of conservatives who wanted no such thing. In the same way that communism was the biggest fight on the global stage, the fight over the size and scope of government was the biggest fight on the domestic stage. And since this was fundamentally a fight over economics, the field of economics became ground zero for domestic politics in advanced economies around the world.

And that's why economists became so influential among both plutocrats and the lefty masses. Sure, it's partly because economists use lots of Greek letters and act like physicists, but mostly it's because that window dressing was used in service of the two most fundamental geo-socio-political conflicts of the late 20th century.

So does that mean economics is likely to lose influence in the future? After all, free market capitalism and mixed economies are now triumphant. Compared to the 20th century, we're now arguing over relative table scraps. And, as Drezner points out, the profession of economics has hardly covered itself with glory in the opening years of the 21st century. Has their time has come and gone?

Maybe. I mean, how should I know? Obviously there's a lot of inertia here, and economics will remain pretty important for a long time. But the biggest fights are gone and economists have an embarrassing recent track record of failure. If the rest of the social sciences want to mount an assault on the field, this would probably be a pretty good time to do it.

Advertise on

Florida Governor Refuses to Admit That His Own Investigators Have Cleared Planned Parenthood

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 1:08 PM EDT

Good news! Florida regulators have finished their investigation of Planned Parenthood and concluded that there were no problems with the group's handling of fetal tissue. But you might not know that if you read their press release about the investigation. It turns out that Florida Gov. Rick Scott preferred to keep this under wraps:

Emails between the governor’s office and AHCA, obtained by POLITICO Florida through a public records request, show the agency prepared a press release that same day noting that “there is no evidence of the mishandling of fetal remains at any of the 16 clinics we investigated across the state.”

Scott's office revised the release to exclude that sentence, an email sent by Scott’s communications director, Jackie Schutz, shows. Additionally, the revised release noted the AHCA would refer physicians who worked at the clinics to the Board of Medicine for possible disciplinary action.

Kinda reminds you of a half-bright middle schooler who thinks he has a genius idea, doesn't it?

Republicans Shot Themselves in the Foot Over Iran

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 12:06 PM EDT

Why did Republicans fail to kill the Iran nuclear deal?

Opponents of the deal may have miscalculated the degree of public interest in the debate. They hoped for the kind of outpouring of public anger that gave rise to the tea party and nearly doomed Obamacare in August 2010. But the Iran deal “just hasn’t had that kind of galvanizing effect” on the public, said Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), who backs the agreement.

....A Republican invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address both houses of Congress in March appears to have backfired. His harsh denunciation of the negotiations then underway, which the White House portrayed as a snub of Obama’s foreign policy, made the debate more polarizing and partisan, pushing Democrats to the president’s side.

Another factor, said one frustrated Republican on Capitol Hill: “Trump happened.” The GOP leadership aide, granted anonymity to discuss the setback, said billionaire Donald Trump’s attention-grabbing presidential campaign, along with scrutiny of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s email server, overshadowed all other issues this summer, making it harder for the Republicans’ message to attract attention.

....Democrats have felt free to back the deal in part because they heard from many in the American Jewish community who split from the more hawkish AIPAC....The dozen or so Democratic opponents in Congress come mainly from parts of New York, New Jersey and Florida with large politically conservative Jewish populations. But the opponents failed to mount a serious effort to persuade other lawmakers to buck the White House.

First things first: don't blame this on Donald Trump. He's been scathing about the deal, and has probably drawn more attention to it than all the AIPAC-funded ads put together. As for Hillary Clinton's email woes, it would please me no end if Republicans had shot themselves in the foot by focusing the fever swamps on that and leaving no room for outrage about Iran. But I doubt it. There's always stuff going on. Nobody ever fights a political battle in a pristine environment. There was plenty of room for Iran outrage.

As it happens, though, I think Republicans did shoot themselves in the foot, but in a different way. Ever since 2009, their political strategy has been relentless and one-dimensional: oppose everything President Obama supports, instantly and unanimously. They certainly followed this playbook on Iran. Republicans were slamming the deal before the text was even released, and virtually none of them even pretended to be interested in the merits of the final agreement. Instead, they formed a united, knee-jerk front against the deal practically before the ink was dry.

This did two things. First, it made them look unserious. From the beginning, the whole point of the economic sanctions against Iran was to use them as leverage to pressure the Iranian leadership to approve a nuclear deal. But by opposing it so quickly—based on an obviously specious desire for a "better deal" that they were never willing to spell out—Republicans made it clear that they opposed any agreement that lifted the sanctions. In other words, they opposed any agreement, period.

Second, by forming so quickly, the Republican wall of opposition turned the Iran agreement into an obviously partisan matter. Once they did that, they made it much harder for Democrats to oppose a president of their own party. A more deliberate approach almost certainly would have helped them pick up more Democratic votes.

All that said, keep in mind that Democrats only needed 34 senators or 145 House members to guarantee passage. That's not a high bar for a historic deal backed by a Democratic president. In other words, it's quite possible that Republicans actually did nothing wrong. They simply never had a chance in the first place.

Anchor Babies Exist, But Probably Not Very Many of Them

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 11:07 AM EDT

Do "anchor babies" exist? Or are they just a pernicious myth invented by the anti-immigration right? The LA Times sent reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske to Rio Grande City in Texas to check things out:

In this county in the heart of the impoverished Rio Grande Valley, so-called anchor babies have been delivered for decades, some to women who have already settled in Texas, others to those who crossed the river expressly to give birth on U.S. soil. "About six months ago I got one who was literally still wet from the river," [Dr. Rolando] Guerrero said.

....Just how many Mexican mothers come to give birth to the babies and the cost of caring for them are unclear. "They do come on purpose," said Thalia Munoz, chief executive of Starr County Memorial. "We have to absorb the costs....It's a persistent problem. It's a fact: They come over here for the anchor baby, they come over for the benefits."

....The doctors said they saw fewer women coming to have babies after Texas officials ordered a surge of law enforcement and National Guard troops to the border last summer in response to an influx of Central American immigrants....But since then, "slowly, it's been going back up," Guerrero said.

....At Starr County Memorial, most of the mothers the doctors see do not cross intentionally to give birth, they said — they were already living on the U.S. side of the border with families of mixed status. "I have families where I've delivered three or four" U.S.-born babies, Guerrero said.

It's unlikely that we'll ever get a firm handle on how common this phenomenon is. But if the evidence of this story is typical, we can say that (a) anchor babies certainly exist, but (b) probably not in very large numbers. That's not likely to satisfy anyone, but sometimes life is like that.

Why Do High Schools Erase All the Test Score Gains of the Past 40 Years?

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 10:22 AM EDT

SAT scores have been dropping slowly but steadily for the past decade:

The steady decline in SAT scores and generally stagnant results from high schools on federal tests and other measures reflect a troubling shortcoming of education-reform efforts. The test results show that gains in reading and math in elementary grades haven’t led to broad improvement in high schools, experts say. That means several hundred thousand teenagers, especially those who grew up poor, are leaving school every year unready for college.

“Why is education reform hitting a wall in high school?” asked Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank. “You see this in all kinds of evidence. Kids don’t make a whole lot of gains once they’re in high school. It certainly should raise an alarm.”

It is difficult to pinpoint a reason for the decline in SAT scores, but educators cite a host of enduring challenges in the quest to lift high school achievement. Among them are poverty, language barriers, low levels of parental education and social ills that plague many urban neighborhoods.

I'm delighted to see an education story that acknowledges the plain evidence of test score gains, even if just in an aside. The simple fact is that through middle school, standardized test scores have risen significantly over both the past decade and the past four decades. Elementary and middle school test scores have not been either stagnant or dropping, but based on the usual reporting of this stuff, I doubt that one person in a hundred is aware of this.

But I'm also happy to see the flip side of this acknowledged: in general, all these gains wash away in high school. On the "gold standard" NAEP test, math scores have gone up just a few points among 17 year olds and reading scores have been flat. The usual explanation is that education reforms have initially been centered on elementary and middle schools, and scores will go up for older kids once those reforms start to become widespread in high schools.

Maybe. But that excuse is starting to look old in the tooth. And even if high schools haven't seen a lot of reforms yet, why is it that they seem to have a negative effect on student performance? If math scores were up, say, ten points by the end of middle school and remained ten points up by the end of high school, that would be one thing. High schools wouldn't be adding anything, but they wouldn't be doing any harm either. But that's not the case. Kids come out of middle school better prepared today, but come out of high school no better than they did in 1971. High school is actually erasing gains.

This is, needless to say, troubling. Poverty, language barriers, low levels of parental education and social ills are problems at all ages, so that explains little. Nor does disaggregating scores by race, since demographic changes have been similar at all age levels. But the plain truth is that the only thing that really matters is how well prepared kids are when they finish high school. All the test score gains in the world mean nothing if they're gone by age 17. This is something we really need to figure out.