Here's some cheery news:

President-elect Donald J. Trump on Tuesday fired one of his transition team’s staff members, Michael G. Flynn, the son of his designated national security adviser, for using Twitter to spread a fake news story about Hillary Clinton that this weekend led to an armed confrontation in a pizza restaurant in Washington.

As near as I can tell, Flynn Jr. is batshit crazy. It's good to see him gone. The only problem is that Flynn Sr. isn't much better, and he's going to be running our foreign policy before long. I guess the best we can hope for is that sometime soon he does something so mind-bogglingly barmy that even Donald Trump will feel obligated to fire him. Hopefully sometime before January 20.

I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry at this. The health insurance industry is outlining what it wants to keep when Republicans repeal Obamacare:

The insurers, some who have already started leaving the marketplaces because they are losing money there, say they need a clear commitment from the Trump administration and congressional leaders that the government will continue offsetting some costs for low-income people. They also want to keep in place rules that encourage young and healthy people to sign up, which the insurers say are crucial to a stable market for individual buyers.

....[Marilyn] Tavenner acknowledged that the current law “needed to be improved.” But she emphasized that there was widespread agreement among Republicans about the need for some the law’s provisions, including covering people with expensive medical conditions. President-elect Donald J. Trump has also signaled his support of this popular provision. “There are common starting platforms,” she said.

....Ms. Tavenner said the industry wanted to know more about what the Republicans were planning, including information on the fate of the Medicaid expansion under the law. “We still have more questions than answers,” she said. “We don’t want to disrupt individuals who are relying on our coverage,” she said.

Here's the case for laughing: the insurance industry says it's OK with repealing Obamacare, but we should maintain the pre-existing conditions ban, the individual mandate, the subsidies for low-income families, and the Medicaid expansion. Needless to say, that is Obamacare.

Here's the case for crying: "The market has already been a little wobbly this year," Tavenner said. If it looks like any of these four provisions are going to be repealed with nothing to replace them, insurers will simply pull out of the market at the "next logical opportunity." That would be about six months from now.

And as I've mentioned before, there's a good chance this doesn't just mean pulling out of the Obamacare exchanges. If the mandate and the subsidies go away, but the pre-existing conditions ban stays in place, insurers might very well pull out of the individual market entirely. Republicans are playing with fire here, and it's not clear if they even know it. Someone in the insurance biz really needs to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with them.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a paper which claimed that declining female labor force participation was a result of increasing childcare costs. I was skeptical because the paper clearly showed that participation rates for women with children declined less than rates for women without children.

Today, Chris Herbst of Arizona State University emails to say my skepticism is justified. The problem, he says, is that well-off families increasingly spend a lot for premium childcare, and this boosts the average. If, instead, you look at medians, childcare expenditures haven't really gone up that much. Instead of rising 32 percent between 1990 and 2011, the median increase is only 16 percent. What's more, virtually all of that increase happened during the 90s. Since childcare is labor intensive, he uses the earnings of childcare workers as a proxy for the cost of childcare. Here's what that looks like:

Long story short, if the cost of childcare hasn't gone up much for working-class and middle-class families, then it probably has little effect on the labor force participation rate of women. The full paper is here, and it has some other interesting tidbits. For example, Herbst finds that the modest increase in childcare expenditures masks a big split: expenditures have gone up a lot for children under five, but have actually gone down a bit for older children. Perhaps there's some further work to do comparing the labor force participation of women with toddlers vs. women with school-age children?

There's been an ongoing debate for the past few weeks over a weighty topic: should we pay attention to every damn thing Donald Trump tweets?

Argument for: He's president-elect. If he says something, it's news.

Argument against: His tweets are just shiny objects meant to distract us from the more boring but far more important ways he's destroying our great nation.

Today brings evidence for ignoring the tweets. Earlier this morning, for no particular reason, Trump decided that we should cancel the contract for a new pair of Air Force Ones. Why? Trump says they're too expensive. My guess is that he's just mad that they won't be ready until 2024, which means the president after him will get a better plane than the POS he has to fly around in.

Anyway. This is big news everywhere. It's on CNN, it's on the front pages of all the newspapers, and a Google search for "Air Force One" brings up a results page that's dominated by Trump's tweet.

If there were ever a shiny object, this is it. It came out of the blue. It's completely ridiculous. Trump obviously has no idea what goes into these planes. (Hint: surviving a nuclear war.) It will never get seriously followed up. It's just random crap designed to get him some attention. Why are we wasting our time with this?

UPDATE: Maybe there's more to this than I thought. Last year, after a century of producing planes in the US, Boeing began construction of a plant in China. It also gets a lot of its business from Chinese airlines, and perhaps privately told the Trump team that it was nervous about Trump's outreach to the president of Taiwan. Historically, after all, Boeing is one of the first to suffer when China gets mad. Plus it turns out that this wasn't just harmless guff: Boeing stock dropped about 1.5 percent after Trump's tweet.

I'm still not sure about how much attention we should give to Trump's tweets, but now you know both sides of the story. Except for one thing: what does Trump have against Boeing? That's still a bit of a mystery.

Wesley Smith is an absolute foe of assisted suicide in any form, for any reason, at any time. For that reason I don't usually read his stuff over at National Review. We disagree, and that's that.

But things are slow today, and I found his latest sort of interesting. He's furious over an interview of Timothy Quill, an advocate of assisted suicide, despite the fact that Quill is very deliberately taking a moderate view. The interviewer basically asks him if people should have access to assisted suicide drugs regardless of their reason, and Quill says no:

In my opinion, the more you have terminal illness with severe physical suffering as a major piece of the puzzle, the more you’re on solid ground....That envelope will get tested as we move along with this, so we are going to need to find edges to it. Severely terminal illness is a good edge. It’s not the firmest edge in the world, but it’s a good edge, and predominant physical suffering as a piece of the puzzle seems to me a good edge.

Obviously Smith disagrees with even this much, but at least Quill is setting limits. Yet Smith is still outraged. Why?

Baloney. Not one law in the United States allowing physician-assisted suicide requires proof of physical suffering to obtain a lethal prescription....Moreover, the statistics from Oregon and elsewhere show that very few people commit assisted suicide due to physical suffering. Rather, the issues are predominately existential, such as fears of being a burden or losing dignity.

....As I said, assisted suicide advocates are so full of crap.

But Quill isn't especially making the case that physical suffering is a major component of assisted suicide laws, he's using it to argue against broadening the justification for assisted suicide to include "psychological or spiritual suffering." You'd think Smith would appreciate at least that much, but apparently not.

In any case, I think Smith is missing something here. It's true that most people with terminal conditions don't name physical suffering as a primary reason for wanting to die. But it's a significant consideration anyway. First, there's fear of physical suffering as their disease progresses. Second, there's fear of losing control. That is, there's a fear that at some point they'll become physically unable to control their own destiny, including the option of assisted suicide if they want it. Would you call that "physical suffering"? I'd put it in that category. It's not related to depression or fear of being a burden. It's a clearheaded fear of almost certain future physical decline that will take away the ability to choose their treatment.

Now, Smith obviously disagrees that this should be the basis for assisted suicide, because he thinks nothing should be the basis for assisted suicide. But Quill is very clearly not full of crap. He's a proponent of a slow, moderate approach to assisted suicide; he thinks a physical suffering standard is a good way to restrict assisted suicide; and presumably he takes the view that loss of physical control is a very rational, very understandable fear.

However, on one thing Smith is unquestionably correct: the assisted suicide laws on the books today don't require a show of physical suffering. So the whole conversation is moot anyway. Nor do I see what good it would do if they did. It would just require patients to claim they were in a lot of physical pain. There's no way to prove this one way or the other, so why bother?

Should we penalize businesses that send jobs offshore? I'm embarrassed to admit that I'd forgotten about President Obama's persistent efforts to do just that. Jim Tankersley reminds us:

He called to end tax breaks for companies that outsource jobs, to cut taxes for domestic manufacturers and to levy a minimum tax on multinational corporations....Obama has included changes to the tax code, meant to penalize companies that move jobs overseas and boost those that invest in America, in every budget he submitted to Congress since 2009. Since 2012, he has repeatedly proposed an “insourcing” tax credit and eliminating deductions for moving expenses incurred in shipping jobs abroad.

Congress ignored nearly all those proposals....Since 2010, Obama has also proposed several steps meant to discourage so-called corporate inversions, which is the practice of companies moving their headquarters out of the United States in order to avoid corporate taxes. When his Treasury Department moved to crack down on that practice this year, Republicans howled.

But now things are different:

When Trump cajoled Indiana manufacturer Carrier into canceling part of its plans to ship jobs to Mexico last week, in part by offering a state tax incentive package to the company, House Speaker Paul Ryan dismissed criticism of Trump's efforts. “I'm pretty happy that we're keeping jobs in America, aren't you?” he said.

....Republicans and business lobbyists have long said the best way to end inversions and reduce outsourcing is to cut corporate taxes....Conservatives, business groups and even financial markets appear optimistic that Trump will deliver on that rate cut, then abandon the trade threats.

Will concern for the working class finally outweigh concern for put-upon American multinational corporations? It never did while Obama was president, and there's no special reason to think it will now.

It does make me wonder, though. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that, but why didn't Hillary Clinton make this stuff into a major campaign issue? It would have helped her against both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, but she barely ever mentioned these kinds of reforms. Odd.

The Washington Post has a big article up tonight about military waste:

Pentagon hid study exposing $125 billion in wasteful spending

The Pentagon has buried an internal study that exposed $125 billion in administrative waste in its business operations amid fears Congress would use the findings as an excuse to slash the defense budget, according to interviews and confidential memos obtained by The Washington Post....The report, issued in January 2015, identified “a clear path” for the Defense Department to save $125 billion over five years. The plan would not have required layoffs of civil servants or reductions in military personnel.

Hmmm. I have some doubts about this. For starters, that $125 billion is over five years. That comes to $25 billon per year, or about 4 percent of the defense budget. That's not peanuts, but it hardly seems big enough to represent "far more wasteful spending than expected," as the article says.

But that's not the main thing that makes me skeptical about this. My big problem is that this is a McKinsey report, and I have a fairly cynical view of McKinsey-driven "process improvement" blather. For example, the report suggests that the Pentagon can save loads of money by increasing its back-office productivity by 4-8 percent per year. "Private sector industries commonly show similar gains," they say merrily, so why not the Pentagon?

This is exactly the kind of thing that gives business consultants a bad name. Do private sector businesses really show routine annual productivity gains like this in their back-office operations? I doubt it very much. And even if they do, can the federal government do the same things that private industry does? Hard to say. In any case, it turns out that McKinsey's biggest finding is that the Pentagon is spending more on its contracts than it should. Here's how they propose to fix this:

The buzzword-to-reality ratio here is astronomical. I could have written this without knowing a thing about Pentagon procurement. Here's the McKinsey timeline:

Seriously? They think the Pentagon can massively transform its entire procurement process in eight months, at which point, they blandly say, it's time to "Validate savings and begin renegotiating contracts"? That's insane. I used to work for a pretty well-run private-sector company with 200 employees, and I don't think we could have done this in eight months. Hell, later on McKinsey even admits that "only about 17% of fundamental change projects deliver their full potential." But they blithely recommend full steam ahead anyway, because success will come with:

  • Strong, consistent top leadership
  • Clear vision, aligned with strategy and widely communicated
  • Effective governance structure with clear decision-making authority
  • Defined accountability at all levels with reward and enforcement mechanisms
  • Engaged workforce and supportive stakeholders

This is cribbed out of a book you can buy at Barnes & Noble for $29.95, and it basically describes the platonic ideal of a corporation. No one ever has all this stuff, and certainly not a gigantic federal bureaucracy. And that's not all. There's much, much more biz blather, but I won't bother trying to summarize it. I'll just show you a few slides:

McKinsey wants DoD to establish core IT as "a shared-services organization." This might be a good idea, or it might not. But it's straight out of a textbook, and it's something that takes years to do decently—assuming it's a good idea in the first place. Would it save money in the long run? Maybe, but I wouldn't bet on it.

And don't even get me started on the "Process Redesign Factory." Holy crap.

So why did the study get scrapped? Here is Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work, who ordered it in the first place:

In an interview with The Post, he did not dispute the board’s findings about the size or scope of the bureaucracy. But he dismissed the $125 billion savings proposal as “unrealistic” and said the business executives had failed to grasp basic obstacles to restructuring the public sector....Work said the board fundamentally misunderstood how difficult it is to eliminate federal civil service jobs — members of Congress, he added, love having them in their districts — or to renegotiate defense contracts.

Normally this would sound like defensiveness from someone who was set in their ways and just didn't want anything to change. But this guy wanted McKinsey to come in. He simply concluded that their report was shallow and uninformed, and I can't say I disagree. The Powerpoint deck looks like it's little more than boilerplate that's lightly massaged by a 22-year-old "senior analyst" for each client.

I can sympathize with anyone who thinks the Pentagon could make its back-office operations more efficient, but can't do it thanks to bureaucratic inertia. I don't doubt for a second that this is true. But if you want to change this, you'd better do more than bring in a few McKinsey suits to provide you with the exact same recommendations they provide to everyone else, using the exact same swarm of buzzwords. This report sounds like dreck.

The #1 most popular article at the Wall Street Journal right now is "My Unhappy Life as a Climate Heretic," by Roger Pielke Jr. His piece is basically a complaint that he has been pilloried for years because he holds the view that climate change is real, but that it hasn't been responsible for a change in the number or intensity of hurricanes, floods, or drought. I can't comment much on that since I haven't followed Pielke's fights with climate scientists, but I did take notice of this bit from his article:

More is going on here than thin-skinned reporters responding petulantly to a vocal professor. In 2015 I was quoted in the Los Angeles Times, by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Paige St. John, making the rather obvious point that politicians use the weather-of-the-moment to make the case for action on climate change, even if the scientific basis is thin or contested.

Ms. St. John was pilloried by her peers in the media. Shortly thereafter, she emailed me what she had learned: “You should come with a warning label: Quoting Roger Pielke will bring a hailstorm down on your work from the London Guardian, Mother Jones, and Media Matters.”

Hey! I recognize one-third of that hailstorm: it's me.

I don't know what the other two-thirds of the hailstorm said, but my criticism was calm, factual, and straightforward. St. John's article was about wildfires, and my post noted that "Pielke doesn't actually say climate is unrelated to increased wildfire activity"—and then noted that practically no one else St. John quoted says that either:

Virtually everyone quoted in this article either (a) says nothing about climate change or (b) says climate change is an important factor in the rise of wildfires in California and the West. And yet, somehow all of this is written in a way that makes it sound as if climate change has nothing to do with wildfires, and it's topped by a headline that says in no uncertain terms, "Gov. Brown's link between climate change and wildfires is unsupported, fire experts say."

Very peculiar.

As near as I can tell, St. John pretty seriously misrepresented the evidence in her piece. The critiques of it deserved a response, not a cozy email to one of her sources. But as far as I know, they never got one.

The current hotness in Republican circles is "repeal and delay." That is, they want to pass legislation that repeals Obamacare in, say, 2019, but doesn't replace it with anything. Then they can spend the next couple of years figuring out what should take its place. There's only one problem with this:

Republicans. Can't. Repeal. Obamacare.

Oh, they can repeal big parts of it. Anything related to the budget, like taxes and subsidies, can be repealed via the Senate procedure called reconciliation, which needs only 51 votes to pass. But all the other parts can be filibustered, and it takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. Republicans don't have 60 votes in the Senate.1

This leaves quite a few elements of Obamacare that can't be repealed via reconciliation, but I think Democrats should focus on one: pre-existing conditions. This is the provision of Obamacare that bans insurers from turning down customers or charging them extra for coverage, no matter what kind of pre-existing conditions they have. I tell the whole story here, but there are several reasons this is the best provision to focus on:

  • It's an easy thing to understand.
  • It's very popular.
  • Republicans say they favor keeping it.
  • Donald Trump says he favors keeping it.
  • It's not a minor regulation. It is absolutely essential to any health care plan.
  • It's fairly easy to explain why repealing Obamacare but leaving in place the pre-existing-conditions ban2 would destroy the individual insurance market and leave tens of millions of people with no way to buy insurance.

The last point is the most important. Take me. I'm currently being kept alive by about $100,000 worth of prescriptions drugs each year. If I can go to any insurer and demand that they cover me for $10,000, that's a certain loss of $90,000. If millions of people like me do this, insurance companies will lose billions of dollars. In the employer market, which covers people who work for large companies, this is workable because insurers have lots and lots of healthy, profitable people at each company to make up these losses. In the individual market—after you've repealed the individual mandate and the subsidies—they don't. They will bear huge losses and they know it.

What this means is not just that Obamacare would collapse. It means the entire individual market would collapse. Every insurance company in America would simply stop selling individual policies. It would be political suicide to make this happen, and this means that Democrats have tremendous leverage if they're willing to use it. It all depends on how well they play their hand.

The current Republican hope is that they can repeal parts of Obamacare and then hold Democrats hostage: Vote for our replacement plan or else the individual insurance market dies. There's no reason Democrats should do anything but laugh at this. Republicans now control all three branches of government. They've been lying to their base about Obamacare repeal for years. Now the chickens have come home to roost, and they're responsible for whatever happens next. If the Democratic Party is even marginally competent, they can make this stick.

Plenty of Republicans already know this. Some have only recently figured it out. Some are still probably living in denial. It doesn't matter. Pre-existing conditions is the hammer Democrats can use to either save Obamacare or else demand that any replacement be equally generous. They just have to use it.

1Of course, Republicans do have the alternative of either (a) getting rid of the filibuster or (b) firing the Senate parliamentarian and hiring one who will let them do anything they want. If they do either of those things, then they can repeal all of Obamacare and replace it with anything they want. I don't think they'll do either one, but your mileage may vary on this question.

2Just for the record, it's worth noting that Republicans can't modify the pre-existing-conditions ban either. Democrats can filibuster that too.

Donald Trump, eight days ago:

Donald Trump, in a legal filing five days later, as reported by the Washington Post's Philip Bump:

Trump is a serial, compulsive liar. Soon he will be president of the United States.