When I first saw this picture, I figured it was just a dumb Photoshop and skipped on by. But no. This is real:

King Salman seems genuinely fascinated by this modern miracle. El-Sisi obviously doesn't give a shit and is just being polite. Trump looks like he's trying to commune with Sauron. Naturally this turned into a huge Twitter meme instantly, and I imagine we're going to be seeing this picture around for years.

And contrary to what I reported earlier, it turns out that Trump didn't quite manage to recite today's speech off the teleprompter correctly. He was apparently so nervous about the whole radical Islamic terrorism vs. violent extremism vs. Islamist extremism thing that he blew it:

Trump had been in Saudi Arabia for about 36 hours at that point. Only 150 hours to go.

UPDATE: ZOMG! The full picture of Trump and the orb might be even more awesome than the cropped shot.

By the way, Donald Trump is getting good marks for today's speech in Saudi Arabia because he managed to recite it adequately off the teleprompter and didn't veer off topic into any of the usual Trump idiocy.

Seriously. This is what the coverage is like. Apparently that's all we expect from a president these days.1

One other note: I'm not sure how many people have noticed this, but Trump has a long history of talking big when he's on a stage or on TV but backing down when he meets people face-to-face. It's already happened with China, Japan, Mexico, Germany, and a host of others. Now it's happening with Saudi Arabia, which seems to have Trump practically in thrall. This should come as no surprise to anyone.

1Of course, the last time this happened was Trump's state-of-the-union address, and he managed to bollox that up within two days. I won't be surprised if he does the same this time.

Last year, President Obama offered Saudi Arabia an arms deal worth $115 billion. President Trump just closed a deal valued at only $110 billion. He's also spoken viciously about Islam on the campaign trail and tried to ban the entry of visitors from seven Muslim countries. And yet the Saudis are thrilled to have Trump in office. Why? Molly Hennessy-Fiske explains:

The White House they see now is presided over by a strong leader — a model Gulf monarchs recognize from their own governing styles — and if Trump surrounds himself with business-friendly family members high in his administration, well, so do they.

....“The GCC countries are not only excited about Trump, but the people he’s chosen to have around him,” said Alibrahim, who dismissed Obama as “the worst president ever,” unwilling to confront Iran and its Shiite Muslim proxies in Syria and neighboring Yemen, whom the Sunni leaders of the Gulf see as rivals.

....“Trump is a welcome change from Barack Obama because he does not remind them, does not pressure them, about American values and ideas about human rights and democracy. This president is a hardcore realist: He just doesn’t care. This goes well with many leaders in this part of the world,” Gerges said.

Trump has already impressed Gulf Arab leaders by escalating the war against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria and supporting the Saudi fight against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

As far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, Trump's anti-Muslim rabble-rousing is just red meat for the American rubes. They don't take anything Trump says seriously, only what he does. And what's clear is that (a) Trump's personal brand of corruption is reassuringly Middle Eastern, (b) he hates Iran, (c) he's not going to harass the Saudis over trivia like human rights, and (d) he doesn't care how brutal they get in their war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

That's it. That's all they care about. Trump isn't bringing in more business and he's not selling them more arms. Nor is his actual policy toward Iran and Yemen more than a few degrees different from Obama's. He's just carrying it out with no strings attached. They like that.

A few days ago, Australian real-estate mogul Tim Gurner had some harsh words for millennials who are unhappy that they can't afford to buy a house:

“When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocado for $19 and four coffees at $4 each,” he said. “We’re at a point now where the expectations of younger people are very, very high. They want to eat out every day; they want travel to Europe every year.

“The people that own homes today worked very, very hard for it,” he said, adding that they “saved every dollar, did everything they could to get up the property investment ladder.”

This prompted a snarky, avocado-centric Twitter meme for a while, and the next day the New York Times even tried to fact check Gurner's claim:

According to the Food Institute, which analyzed Bureau of Labor Statistics expenditure data from 2015, people from 25 to 34 spent, on average, $3,097 on eating out. Data for this age group through the decades was not readily available....As for Mr. Gurner’s second suggestion — skipping the European vacation — there is indeed an opportunity for savings, but research suggests millennials are the generation spending the least on travel.

This is some strange stuff. In its current form, the BLS Consumer Expenditure Survey goes back to the 80s, so this data is indeed available through the decades. Still, at least this is an attempt to take Gurner seriously: he's not literally complaining about avocados on toast, but about a cavalier attitude toward money in general. So let's take a look at that. First, here are total expenditures for 25-34-year-olds:

As you can see, millennials spend a smaller proportion of their income than 25-34-year-olds did a generation ago. In the Reagan era, this age group spent 91 percent of their income. Today's millennials spend only 81 percent of their income.1 Still, thanks to rising incomes their total expenditures clock in about $3,000 higher (adjusted for inflation) than young households in the 80s.

But do they spend a big part of that income on fripperies, like lavish vacations and expensive dinners out? Let's look:

Three decades ago, 18-34-year-olds spent 10.5 percent of their income on entertainment and eating out. Millennials spend 8.6 percent. In real dollars, that represents a small decline. In other words, millennials are more frugal about dining and entertainment than past generations.

So what do millennials spend their money on each year? They may have $3,000 more in disposable income than young families of the 80s and 90s, but they also spend:

  • About $1,000 more on health care.
  • About $1,500 more on pensions and Social Security.
  • About $2,000 more on overall housing (rent, maintenance, utilities, etc.).
  • About $700 more on education.

If they're not buying houses, this is why. It's not because houses are more expensive: the average house costs about a third more than it did in the 80s and early 90s, but thanks to low interest rates the average mortgage payment is about the same or even a bit lower. But it's tough to scrape together a down payment when you're already running a tight ship on dining and entertainment and paying more than previous generations for health care, education, retirement, and student loans.

That said, I'll add one more thing: our perceptions are probably a bit warped about this. Millennials who write about this stuff tend to live in media centers like New York or San Francisco or Washington DC, where housing is extremely expensive. Even with a decent income it's hard to afford anything more than a cramped apartment. In the rest of the country things are different, but we don't hear as much about that. Caveat emptor.

1The share of income not counted as expenditures includes taxes, student loans, credit card payments, savings, etc.

President Trump's trip to Saudi Arabia is going great! Here's the first family arriving in Riyadh:

At least Melania isn't kowtowing to sexist Muslim custom by wearing a headscarf. Oh wait:

Fine. But Trump himself is standing up for masculine American values, right?

And here's the official readout of Trump's visit with the Saudi king:

What kind of pusillanimity is this? "Violent extremism" is an Obama-era euphemism used by people who refuse to look reality in the eye:

If Trump isn't even willing to name the problem when he meets with the Saudi king, how can he possibly fight it?

Yesterday I wrote about the mystery of drunk driving: if stricter laws and harsher punishments really are responsible for a decline in drunk driving, why is it that alcohol-related fatalities have only declined at the same rate as every other kind of road fatality? Is it possible that all those laws have been useless?

I got several good responses, which confirmed that there's a bit of a mystery here but pointed out that my data only went back to 1994. This misses the significant drop in drunk driving during the 80s and early 90s. Then I got an email from Darren Grant, an economics professor at Sam Houston State University, pointing me to a paper that decomposes exactly what happened and when. Grant's paper, which relies on a microdata-based model of traffic fatalities, concludes that it's legitimate to use the percentage of all road fatalities that involve alcohol—which has been flat for many years—as a proxy for the amount of drunk driving. It also breaks down the reason for the decline in drunk driving during the 80s and 90s. Without further ado, here is his chart:

There are several takeaways from this:

  • During the 80s and early 90s, drunk driving decreased significantly.
  • By the mid-90s, the level of drunk driving flattened out and has been flat ever since.
  • The effect of laws on drunk driving has been pretty modest. That's the red band in the chart. Stricter laws are responsible for only a small fraction of the total decline.

There's potentially some good news here. Grant concludes that the biggest effect by far has been from social forces, namely the increased stigma associated with drunk driving. If you discount demographics, which we have no control over, social stigma accounts for about half the drop in drunk driving. This suggests that what we need isn't so much stricter laws, but a revitalized campaign to even further stigmatize drunk driving. I'm on board with that.

Look, I get that the Saudis want to ingratiate themselves with our gold-obsessed president. It makes total sense. But isn't this just a little too obvious?

Meh. Maybe not. Anyone with any self-awareness would sense overtones of mockery in such an over-the-top attempt to suck up, but not Trump. Subtlety is not the way to his heart. It's shiny! He likes it!

The Daily Beast has talked to a bunch of folks close to Donald Trump, and as usual they can't help themselves:

“Okay, he fired Comey,” the official conceded. “With a semi-competent comms operation, that would blow over in 24 hours. And that’s the worst part: he has a competent comms staff. But they can’t do their jobs because he keeps running his mouth.

....Trump’s repeated media missteps have frustrated even longtime supporters. “Every day he looks more and more like a complete moron,” said one senior administration official who also worked on Trump’s campaign. “I can’t see Trump resigning or even being impeached, but at this point I wish he’d grow a brain and be the man that he sold himself as on the campaign.”

Asked whether an administration staff change-up would ameliorate this latest crisis, a Republican source formerly involved with a pro-Trump political group told The Daily Beast, “yes, if it comes with a frontal lobotomy for Trump.”

Remember, these are people who are on Team Trump. Elsewhere, Reuters reports that Trump is already working on ways to sabotage its own special counsel:

The Trump administration is exploring whether it can use an obscure ethics rule to undermine the special counsel investigation into ties between President Donald Trump's campaign team and Russia, two people familiar with White House thinking said on Friday.

....Within hours of Mueller's appointment on Wednesday, the White House began reviewing the Code of Federal Regulations, which restricts newly hired government lawyers from investigating their prior law firm’s clients for one year after their hiring, the sources said....Mueller's former law firm, WilmerHale, represents Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, who met with a Russian bank executive in December, and the president's former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who is a subject of a federal investigation.

Hmmm. Preventing the special counsel from investigating Manafort hardly seems worth the trouble. He's not close enough to the White House to cause too many problems even if he does turn out to be involved in something fishy. So that leaves Kushner. Is he the guy the Trumpies are trying to protect?

On the bright side of all this, if you have some embarrassing news you've been waiting to release, now would be a good time. It's almost sure to be forgotten as soon as the next Trump shoe drops, which will probably take no more than a few hours.

Oh come on:

President Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office this month that firing the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, had relieved “great pressure” on him, according to a document summarizing the meeting.

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Mr. Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

....The White House document that contained Mr. Trump’s comments was based on notes taken from inside the Oval Office and has been circulated as the official account of the meeting. One official read quotations to The Times, and a second official confirmed the broad outlines of the discussion. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, did not dispute the account.

That's from the New York Times, and it's what Trump told the Russian ambassador and foreign minister the day after he fired Comey. Of course, Trump probably didn't realize that the Russians were already keenly familiar with Comey since the FBI is America's primary counterintelligence agency—that is, the agency that tracks down Russian spies. So they know perfectly well he's not crazy and not a nut job. I'll bet they also knew perfectly well that firing Comey was only going to increase the pressure on Trump over Russia. That's because they aren't idiots.

The Washington Post reports on just what this increased pressure is turning into:

The law enforcement investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign has identified a current White House official as a significant person of interest, showing that the probe is reaching into the highest levels of government, according to people familiar with the matter.

The senior White House adviser under scrutiny by investigators is someone close to the president, according to these people, who would not further identify the official.

Stay tuned.

First things first: the answer to the origin of yesterday's lunchtime photo. It's a picture of the neon-lit Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica Pier. It's a 1-second exposure at night, one of several I took where I deliberately moved the camera while the shutter was open. Then I ran it through the dry brush filter in Photoshop.

And now for catblogging. Here is Hopper trying to leap from one branch to another on one of our trees. It looks touch-and-go, but it actually wasn't. She immediately chinned herself onto the target branch, but the camera just happened to catch her mid-swing. I assure you that no cats were harmed in the making of this photo.

However, you're all lucky I didn't make this into some variation on "donate to Mother Jones or the cat gets it." That would have been totally tasteless, and I'd never do that. But I could do it if I were that kind of person—and maybe I will if we don't make the $500,000 goal for our muckraking fund to investigate the Trump-Russia connection. We're getting close, but we're not quite there. So donate! Read more about it here. Or go straight to the donation page here.