Shaun King says he's giving up on the Democratic Party. He can't abide Hillary Clinton's establishment views and thinks the Democratic Party is fundamentally corrupt and in thrall to moneyed interests. Fair enough. This isn't my position, but I understand it.

But there are times when I wonder if we've all succumbed to some kind of mass memory wipe. Although King dislikes Hillary, he says he respects President Obama "a great deal." This prompts interviewer Emmett Rensin to ask an obvious question: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have pretty similar domestic policy positions. So why loathe one but like the other? Here is King's answer:

I think we would have to go down each and every one of the president’s positions to really evaluate, what does the president think about health care? Yes, there is a thing called Obamacare — but was that what he campaigned on? What came out of the sausage factory, was that his dream? No. Of course not.

So is the president for universal health care? Well, he was. For years and years and years. And I don't know that he stopped being for universal health care. It was just that he used virtually all the political capital he had in his first term to get something decent through Congress, and what came out was very different.

What? I don't doubt that Obama, in his heart of hearts, favors truly universal health care. He's said as much in the past—though in the next breath he's always added that it might take a while to get there. But the only thing he ever campaigned on was Obamacare. He unveiled his health care plan nine years ago almost to the day, and—well, let's roll the tape:

Obama's plan retains the private insurance system but injects additional money to pay for expanding coverage. It would also create a National Health Insurance Exchange to monitor insurance companies in offering the coverage. Those who can't afford coverage would get a subsidy on a sliding scale depending on their income, and virtually all businesses would have to share in the cost of coverage for their workers. The plan is similar to the one covering members of Congress.

Obama's package would prohibit insurance companies from refusing coverage because of pre-existing conditions. The plan doesn't have the mandate that rival Democratic candidate John Edwards is proposing to ensure that all Americans get coverage. The 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee would require everyone to have health insurance, much like state requirements for auto insurance for every driver. Both candidates would require businesses to help cover their workers.

Obama was, by universal consensus, less ambitious on health care than either Hillary Clinton or John Edwards. He introduced his plan in 2007, he campaigned on it for the next 18 months, and it's quite close to what eventually got passed. The big difference is that the final version of Obamacare added an individual mandate, something that Hillary had in her plan from the start.

There are plenty of reasons to like Obama more than Hillary Clinton. I certainly do. But we all need to stay reality-based too. On domestic policy there was very little difference between Obama and Clinton during the 2008 campaign, and to the extent there was, it was generally Obama who was considered a bit more centrist. It was Obama who was the darling of Wall Street. His climate change plan was all but identical to Hillary's but included lots of happy talk about clean coal. Etc. etc.

This whole thing is crazy. Do people even remember the 2008 campaign? Obama was an inspirational speaker, for sure, but on policy matters he was a relentlessly pragmatic, mainstream Democrat. And that's how he's governed ever since he won. If you like Obama on domestic policy, it's really hard to see just what you'd have against Hillary. Their differences lie mostly in foreign policy instincts, and not anywhere else.

Chart of the Day: Housing Is Back!

Well, maybe. April saw sales of 619,000 new single-family homes. This is starting to get very close to the average from 1980-2001, before the housing bubble and subsequent crash. At our current rate, we'll exceed the old average by this time next year.

Is this good or bad? It's nowhere near bubble territory, so it should be good. If people are buying new homes, it's a sign not just that the economy is picking up (we already knew that), but that people are confident enough in the economy to tie themselves into 30-year mortgages at the same rate they did back when the economy was motoring along. So: two cheers for housing!

For the past several months, the press—and sadly, I suppose I have to include myself in this—has demonstrated an eager willingness to chatter away about literally anything Donald Trump says. Trump's MO is pretty simple: say ridiculous stuff, but say it with utter confidence. If any other politician said the kinds of things he said, reporters would take it as obvious—and fairly desperate—spin. But Trump's apparently total belief in what he says causes reporters to shed their years of well-earned cynicism and write with an almost wide-eyed fascination.

This is sort of inexplicable. It's as if campaign reporters have never encountered a top-notch salesman outside the world of politics. Good sales people aren't slick and oily, folks. They aren't the ones who sell used cars—that's for penny-ante sales people. The really good ones go after much bigger game. They speak with total confidence, they appear to believe everything they say, and they have the gift of seeming completely truthful. Trump is one of the best, and he doesn't try to hide it. He's written whole books about it. He's proud of his ability to snooker folks, and he brags about it openly if you ask him.

But no matter. Say it with enough brio and the marks will come running.

This has been obvious for a long time, so why bring it up now? Because apparently Trump has finally trained an acolyte. A few months ago he hired Paul Manafort to run his delegate operation, but that job is no longer necessary now that he's wrapped up the nomination. So these days Manafort plays some kind of vague role in the Trump campaign that will probably get sorted out eventually when all the current infighting is over. Yesterday he gave an interview to Howard Fineman, and Manafort sounded just like the master himself. It was endless spin delivered with absolute, utter confidence regardless of how ridiculous it was.

And as near as I can tell, Fineman bought it. There's barely a hint of cynicism, barely a nod to the possibility that Manafort is just delivering garden variety political spin. "Manafort's sunny vision may be a little skewed," Fineman says, arousing hope that he does see through Manafort's charade, but no: "Having made millions as an image crafter for foreign tyrants, he can't help but see Trump as an easy lift by comparison." See? The guy's just calling them as he sees them!

This is all bad enough, but there's more: as near as I can tell, Fineman's interview generated as much chatter as an interview with Trump himself—most of it taking Manafort at face value. So now we have two master salesmen who can generate endless chatter just by delivering ordinary spin and making it sound like something more.

I dunno. Maybe I'm overreacting. Maybe this was just a standard bit of beat sweetening, and nothing to get bothered about. But I'm bothered anyway. Trump is a master salesman, and the same reporters who routinely get suckered by Silicon Valley "visionaries" seem to be getting suckered not just by Trump anymore, but by Trump's minions as well. Where's the cynicism, folks?

Bernie Sanders Is Switching Teams

Donald Trump says he'd be delighted to debate Bernie Sanders:

This is just sad. Trump is the master of modern publicity, and he knows perfectly well that a debate like this would (a) help Trump and (b) hurt Hillary. That's it. That's all it would do. And Bernie is all in.

Is Bernie really so aggrieved by losing the Democratic nomination that he's now willing to explicitly campaign on Trump's behalf? Because that's all this is. What happened to the old Bernie Sanders?

It's Time to Kill Off the Scripps Spelling Bee

Sarah Kliff provides the basic argument for killing off the spelling bee:

Here's how the final round of the Spelling Bee works. Once the competition is narrowed to two or three competitors, officials go to a list of 25 words. These are supposed to be the Bee's hardest words, reserved for the very top contenders.

....But something weird happened in 2014: Both finalists got all their words right. It happened again in 2015....Co-championships used to be rare in the spelling bee world. Before 2014, there had only been three such instances in the Bee's 90-year history. And now we've had the unprecedented situation of back-to-back co-champions. All because we're running out of words that are too hard to spell.

I've been unhappy about the spelling bee for years. For starters, I don't like the idea of national TV coverage for kids that young. Like the Little League World Series, it becomes an ever bigger television spectacle every year, and I just flatly think that's wrong. At the very least, we should wait until kids are in high school before they get that much pressure dumped on them.

There's also the fact that the bee has become cool at precisely the time that no one cares about spelling anymore. Computers have made it an obsolete skill, so the bee reinforces the notion that academic prowess is dumb and nerdy. Look at all those kids spending thousands of hours practicing something of no use whatsoever! Suckers!

Finally, as Kliff points out, the bee has finally been hacked. Unlike most competitions, spelling bees have a ceiling. If you can spell every word in the dictionary, you're done. You're the best speller that will ever live. And that makes it time to retire the trophy.

I'm all in favor of academic competitions. Maybe ESPN could hire some color commentators and televise the Academic Decathlon or something. That's mostly for high school juniors and seniors, which is fine, and there's no ceiling on the competition. If the kids keep getting better, just make the questions harder. Or maybe ESPN should make up its own academic version of American Ninja Warrior. "No one has ever made it through the trigonometry ladder in less than two minutes, but it might happen tonight! Tune in!"

But the spelling bee? It had a great run. Now it's time to end it.

Economic Productivity Is Looking Bleak

From the Financial Times:

Productivity is set to fall in the US for the first time in more than three decades, raising the prospect of persistent wage stagnation and the risk of a further populist backlash. Research by the Conference Board, a US think-tank, also shows the rate of productivity growth sliding behind the feeble rates in other advanced economies, with gross domestic product per hour projected to drop by 0.2 per cent this year.

The San Francisco Fed tracks a different measure called utilization-adjusted total factor productivity, which they say is a better benchmark of technological improvements than old-school labor productivity. Here's their current series:

These are 4-quarter growth rates, but the San Francisco Fed says that utilization-adjusted TFP has already gone negative on a pure quarterly basis: it was -2.66 percent in the last quarter of 2015 and -0.58 percent in the first quarter of 2016. So everyone agrees: no matter how you measure it, productivity growth is pretty weak these days. Is this because technological change has stagnated? Because low wages have prevented businesses from spending money on new labor-saving machinery? Because we're not measuring the effect of the app economy properly?

Hard to say. Come back in a decade and I'll tell you. In the meantime, it's something to keep an eye on.

Yesterday I nominated Joe Conason to write a series of cheat sheets on all the Hillary Clinton "scandals" of the 90s. Today he emailed to beg off, offering an excuse about having to finish up a "book," which I gather from context is some kind of long, paper-based blog post. Anybody ever heard of this before?

But all is not lost. While we wait for this "book," it turns out that he and Gene Lyons have created "The Hunting of Hillary," an abridged version of their original comprehensive look at all the Clinton crap of the 90s. And it's free! I read most of it over lunch today, and if you need a quick refresher on this stuff, it's pretty good.

For those of you who are new to all this, I'll warn you right off that you might initially feel inundated by a horde of Hales and McDougals and Tuckers and Nelsons and Scaifes. Don't worry, though: it will start to make sense eventually. They're mostly just various types of unsavory Arkansas political fauna.

Anyway, it's all here in PDF form, free for nothing more than an email address. I hate to do this to you, but I have a feeling we're all going to need to brush up on this stuff sooner rather than later. Might as well do it now.

"Roots" Remake Gets the Drudge Treatment

This week's Hollywood Reporter features a 4,000-word cover story about A&E's remake of Roots. About halfway through, reporter Marisa Guthrie inserts this brief sentence:

The original Roots has its deficiencies. It hasn't aged well at all; Burton admits that it feels "dated." At times, it's also overly sentimental and historically dubious. A handful of white characters diverge seriously from Haley's novel, most conspicuously a benevolent slave-ship captain played by Ed Asner.

Here's how this plays at the Drudge Report:

Credit where it's due: Drudge knows his audience well.

I want to make this simple. Here's what Donald Trump did recently:

  • He pledged $1 million to help veterans.
  • He tried to weasel out of it for months and hoped no one would notice.
  • When he finally got caught, he ponied up grudgingly and insulted the reporter who caught him.

Even among sleazebags, this is not normal behavior. This is pathological sleaziness. It's literally beyond belief. Do not let Trump distract you with his latest barrage of insults. Do not turn your attention to the latest polls. Do not let this be normalized away as "just another Trump thing."

Maybe we need to put this in simpler terms. $1 million is one ten-thousandth of Trump's claimed wealth. The average American household has a net worth of about $50,000. One ten-thousandth of that is $5. In terms of its effect on his personal finances, what Trump did was the equivalent of promising five bucks to a homeless vet and then trying to weasel out of it. What kind of person would do that?

This deserves far more attention than it's gotten. If character is supposed to be important in our presidents, this is evidence of the most contemptible kind of character imaginable. He tried to cheat a bunch of veterans! Can we please not shrug our shoulders and let this fade away?

Weekly Flint Water Report: May 14-19

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 189 samples. The average for the past week was 17.08.