We learned today that President Trump wants to increase defense spending by $54 billion. How much is that, anyway?

This is tricky. Normally, you'd just take a look at defense spending over the past decade or so and see how it compares to the trend. However, ever since 9/11, a big chunk of defense spending has been for "Overseas Contingency Operations," known to the rest of us as "wars." You don't want to count that as part of the baseline. On the other hand, the OCO account sometimes acts as a sort of slush fund for ordinary spending, which basically hides increases in baseline defense expenditures.

With that caveat in mind, here is baseline defense spending since 2001:1

There are two ways you can look at this:

  • All this is doing is getting defense spending back up to its Obama-era levels prior to the sequester.
  • Yikes! That's a 45 percent increase since 2001.

Do we really need to be spending 45 percent more than we did in 2001 for baseline defense? Remember, if we decide to invade Iraq and take their oil, that would get funded separately. The baseline budget is just to support basic military readiness.

I guess we can all make up our own minds about this, though I can't say that I've heard any persuasive arguments that the Pentagon is truly suffering too much with a $550 billion budget. The real question is whether Trump's $54 billion increase can get through Congress. Normally, Republicans would pass it via reconciliation and they wouldn't need any Democratic votes. However, this increase would blow past the sequester limits put in place in 2013, and this can only be done via regular order.2 That means Republicans need at least eight Democratic votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster.

Normally, they could probably get that. But if they try to balance this $54 billion increase with a $54 billion cut to the EPA and safety net programs, there are very few Democrats who will play ball. So what's the plan here?


1Historical budget authority here. OCO levels here. I adjusted for inflation using the GDP deflator. This seemed more appropriate than consumer inflation measures like CPI and PCE, but it doesn't actually make much difference. They all show pretty similar inflation levels over a short period like this.

2Though I admit I can't find an authoritative confirmation of this. I think that any spending above the sequestration levels can be filibustered, but I'd appreciate confirmation from someone knowledgeable about this. The sequester applies only to discretionary spending, and it's possible that Republicans can add $54 billion to defense if they slash $54 billion from mandatory spending elsewhere.

UPDATE: OK, Stan Collender confirms that spending above the sequester caps can filibustered. If Stan says it's true, then it's true. He goes on to say that the only options for Republicans are (a) to put the increase in the OCO fund, or (b) to authorize the spending, trigger the sequester, and then for Trump to ignore the sequester. They're both illegal, but it's hard to tell if anyone cares these days.

President Trump long ago gave up on the fib he told repeatedly throughout the campaign about having a secret plan to defeat ISIS. There was never any plan, so now it's up to the Pentagon to come up with one. They should have it ready for Trump in a few days, and this morning the LA Times gives us a preview:

The month-long strategic review, which Trump requested Jan. 28, is expected to include proposals to send more U.S. troops to both countries, deploy more U.S. forces near the front lines, give greater authority to ground commanders, and possibly provide weapons to Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria.

....U.S. analysts said they don’t expect the new plan to differ dramatically from the Obama administration’s approach, at least in Iraq.

No, of course it won't differ much from Obama's approach. That's because Obama's approach is pretty much the only possible approach unless you're willing to send tens of thousands of front-line troops to Iraq to do the fighting. Nobody, including Trump, is willing to do that, so you're left with only tweaks here and there. A few more advisors, an uptick in bombing runs, small changes in the rules of engagement, etc. That's been true from the start.

Trump, of course, will sell his base on the fiction that this plan is a radical toughening up of Obama's feckless approach, and they'll believe him. Eventually it will work, whether or not they make changes to Obama's plan, and then Trump will crow endlessly that this is what happens when you put a man of action in the White House. Sigh.

OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG. We are all so screwed.

Our story so far: Republicans spent years vilifying Obamacare and promising to repeal and replace it at their first opportunity. Then that opportunity came, but they still couldn't agree on the "replace" part, so they suggested something called repeal-and-delay: repeal Obamacare now, and work on a replacement plan later. But that turned out to be pretty unpopular even among Republicans, who naturally wanted to know what they were going to get before Obamacare was dismantled. So Republican leaders went back to the drawing board and tried to draw up a replacement plan. So far this has been a dismal failure, for the obvious reason that even a mediocre replacement plan will cost a lot of money, and they don't want to spend a lot of money.

What to do? The Wall Street Journal reports that repeal-and-delay is back:

Republican leaders are betting that the only way for Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act is to set a bill in motion and gamble that fellow GOP lawmakers won’t dare to block it.

Party leaders are poised to act on the strategy as early as this week, after it has become obvious they can’t craft a proposal that will carry an easy majority in either chamber. Lawmakers return to Washington Monday after a week of raucous town halls in their districts that amplified pressure on Republicans to forge ahead with their health-care plans.

Republican leaders pursuing the “now or never” approach see it as their best chance to break through irreconcilable demands by Republican centrists and conservatives over issues ranging from tax credits to the future of Medicaid.

There you have it. It has "become obvious" they can't craft a decent replacement plan now, so instead they're going to try to convince everyone that they can craft a replacement plan later. This is obvious nonsense, but they're just going to bull ahead and dare anyone to stop them.

This is extremely high-risk-high-reward. First of all, they might just lose. All it takes is three defections in the Senate. Second, they can't repeal everything, and a partial repeal will send the individual insurance market into chaos. Third, President Trump has already gone on record opposing this strategy, and he's not a guy who likes to publicly back down. And fourth, they're leaving themselves open for the mother of all Democratic attacks. I don't think Democrats are nearly as divided as the press would have us believe, but if Republicans go ahead with this plan it will unite the party instantly. Politically, it would be a godsend for Democrats.

The desperation Republicans are showing here is remarkable. They are all but admitting that they flatly can't pass a health care plan that's worth the paper it's printed on. This is not an auspicious start to their plan to show the country how great things can be if they'd just put the GOP in charge once and for all.

The Wall Street Journal writes today about Japan's stagnant economy and persistent deflation:

During Japan’s go-go 1980s, Hiromi Shibata once blew a month’s salary on a cashmere coat, wore it a few times, then retired it. Today, her daughter’s idea of a shopping spree is scrounging through her mom’s closet in Shizuoka, a provincial capital.

....The U.S. appears to be leading other parts of the globe out of an extended era where central banks relied heavily on low and negative interest rates and stimulus to jump-start growth and keep prices from falling....Japan remains definitively stuck, despite a long and aggressive experiment with ultralow rates. A quarter-century after its property bubble burst, a penny-pinching generation has come of age knowing only economic malaise, stagnant wages and deflation—a condition where prices fall instead of rise.

....Since then, annual growth has averaged less than 1% amid periodic recessions. Prices began falling in the late 1990s....Many economists believed the Bank of Japan’s 2013 stimulus would be enough to jolt the nation out of its downward spiral of weak growth and falling prices....Some economists contend the government should try even more fiscal stimulus and monetary easing. Others argue the stimulus has already saddled Japan with so much debt—now 230% of gross domestic product—that it could end in an economic collapse.

It's true that Japan has suffered through two decades of low growth:

But there's way more to this story. Obviously, the bigger your population, the bigger your GDP. The fact that the Russia has a bigger GDP than Switzerland doesn't mean it has a better economy. It just means it's bigger. The key metric to judge whether an economy is in good shape is GDP per working-age adult, since that tells you how productive your workers are. So let's look at that:

Despite its persistently low inflation, Japan's economy is doing fine. Their GDP per working-age adult is actually higher than ours. So why are they growing so much more slowly than us? It's just simple demographics:

Japan is aging fast. Its working-age population peaked in 1997 and has been declining ever since. Fewer workers means a lower GDP even if those workers are as productive as anyone in the world. Now put all this together, and here's what you get:

This is GDP per capita. That is, the amount of stuff that Japan produces for each person in the country. Over the past two decades it's grown 20 percent. And aside from the Great Recession, that growth has been pretty steady. It's not declining. It's not stagnating.

Under the circumstances, Japan is doing fine. Each of their workers is as productive as ours, and their productivity has actually grown a little faster than ours. But there's only so much you can do when your population is declining. Given the demographic realities, Japan is probably doing about as well as they could.

There are two things I take away from this. First, there's not much the Bank of Japan can do to stimulate their economy. It's already running pretty well. Second, despite this, Japan is suffering from persistent deflation. Why? If their economy is productive and growing, deflation shouldn't be any more of a problem for them than it is for us. Somehow, though, the very fact of a declining working-age population—and, since 2011, a declining overall population—seems to be driving deflation. This is very mysterious, especially since Japan's deflation has persisted even in the face of massive BOJ efforts that, according to conventional economics, should have restored normal levels of inflation.

So why didn't it? Is it really a consequence of demographic decline? Or is it something else?

The New York Times tells us about President Trump's TV strategy:

One West Wing official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about strategy, said the administration craved the split-screen television images of Mr. Trump at round-table discussions with business executives every few days on one side, and the vehement protesters of his administration on the other.

This sounds right. Trump seems to believe that sitting around a table with powerful business executives is "presidential." It's basically a child's idea of what a president looks like. So that's what he does. I don't think it's even cynical image manipulation on his part. He really does think this is what makes a president presidential.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, we have this:

A day before delivering a high-stakes address on Tuesday to a joint session of Congress, Mr. Trump will demand a budget with tens of billions of dollars in reductions to the Environmental Protection Agency and State Department, according to four senior administration officials with direct knowledge of the plan. Social safety net programs, aside from the big entitlement programs for retirees, would also be hit hard.

This is obviously the work of Mike Pence and OMB Director Mick Mulvaney more than it is of Trump himself, but Trump will nonetheless be the master showman selling this plan. It's also more symbolic than anything else, but it's symbolism that matters since it means Trump is signaling that he's willing to go along with Paul Ryan's feverish devotion to cutting spending on the poor. We already know that Trump is also eager to cut taxes on the rich, so it appears he and Ryan are entirely on the same page. The next few months promise to be bloody.

Man of the people that he is, Donald Trump likes to pick rich guys for high-level positions in his administration. Unfortunately, that poses a problem:

President Donald Trump’s nominee for Navy secretary, investor Philip Bilden, is expected to withdraw from consideration, sources familiar with the decision told Politico, becoming the second Pentagon pick unable to untangle their financial investments in the vetting process....Like billionaire investment banker Vincent Viola, who withdraw his nomination to be secretary of the Army earlier this month, Bilden ran into too many challenges during a review by the Office of Government Ethics to avoid potential conflicts of interest, the sources said.

To become Secretary of State, maybe all this divesting of huge fortunes is worth it. But Navy Secretary? Probably not.

Generally speaking, the Supreme Court is reluctant to weigh in on gerrymandering cases. There are exceptions, primarily where race is a factor, but for the most part they take the view that legislative redistricting is a political question, not a legal one. If a majority party gerrymanders a state to improve its chances in subsequent elections, that's just politics red in tooth and claw.

But there's another reason that courts shy away from gerrymandering cases: there's no obvious judicial standard to use. If they did rule that gerrymandering was illegal or unconstitutional, they'd have to provide some kind of guidance about what's acceptable and what's not. But what would that be? Some weird topographical algorithm? Something relating partisan breakdowns in individual districts to the overall partisan breakdown of the state? Neither of these would work, and the lack of an easily justiciable rule means it's unlikely the Supreme Court would ban gerrymandering even if it did decide it was a legal issue.

But it turns out there is a rule that can be applied easily and fairly. I've had this in an open tab for weeks, and it's time to either close the tab or share the insight. So here it is:

There is a perfectly good scientific standard for determining whether there is partisan gerrymandering. This is the “partisan symmetry” measure developed by Andrew Gelman and Gary King. Essentially, symmetry requires that a specific share of the popular vote (say, 60 percent) would translate into the same number of congressional seats, regardless of which party won that share of the vote. For instance, if winning 60 percent of the popular vote in a state gives the Republican Party 65 percent of the congressional seats, then the Democratic Party should also win 65 percent of the seats if it wins 60 percent of the vote.

....But as Justice Scalia pointed out in his Vieth opinion, parties do not have a right to equal representation, any more than any other social group. It is only individual voters who have a right to equal treatment under the 14th Amendment and Article 1 of the Constitution....In our book, we show that the partisan symmetry standard can be logically derived from the equal treatment of individual voters, based on recent results in social choice theory. In partisan elections, you cannot treat all individual voters equally without treating all parties equally. This means that the party that gets more votes must get more seats. This sounds obvious, but it is precisely what the Supreme Court did not accept in the Vieth case. We show — line by mathematical line — that this logic is inescapable.

We live in an era of brute-force, computer-driven gerrymandering, which produces results like this:

But if gerrymandering is now a brute-force, computer-driven activity, the best answer is a brute-force computer-driven rule. A few decades ago, applying the partisan symmetry rule would have been all but impossible, but today it's easy. It's also something that can be easily defined, and is therefore pretty easily managed by the courts.

In the past, gerrymandering was a problem, but it was a modest one. Computers have changed all that. Anyone can now produce a map gerrymandered beyond anyone's imagination as recently as 30 years ago. That makes it a much bigger problem and a much bigger source of electoral unfairness. The Supreme Court will have a chance to revisit the issue later this year, and they should think very hard about how technology has affected the ancient art of gerrymandering.

These three things all happened in the course of the past month:

Even if I granted that mistakes can happen and maybe that's all this is, here's the part I've never understood. Whenever we hear stories like these, there's one thing that's constant: the border agents act like complete assholes. Why? Even if you think someone is here on the wrong visa or an expired visa or whatnot, why treat them like shit? What does that buy you?

Behold the echo chamber. Here is Gateway Pundit two days ago:

Here is Herman Cain this morning:

Here is Donald Trump shortly afterward:

The strangest thing about this is that...it's true. I'm not really used to that from Trump. I guess accidents do happen, though.

Now, it's also meaningless, and not just because Trump hasn't actually done anything yet. The deficit bounces up and down monthly depending on how much the government happens to spend and how much tax revenue it takes in. For example, take a look at the following chart:

The month of April is shown in blue. Let's make that into its own chart:

Impressive! During Obama's presidency, he turned around America's finances. We went from a deficit of $80 billion in 2010 to a surplus of over $100 billion in his final year. Why didn't the mainstream media ever report that?

Because who cares, that's why. You know what happens in April? Everyone pays their taxes. Does that mean the deficit is in great shape every April? Of course not. That just happens to be when a lot of the money comes in.

But it doesn't matter. As I've mentioned before, Trump's tweets are for for his fans, not for us. And his fans now think that in his very first month Trump has erased the deficit. The guy promised action, and by God, he's delivered. It just goes to show that all this deficit stuff wasn't really so hard to solve after all. It just needed a man of action to go in and straighten things out.

Not that the FAKE NEWS media will ever admit that, of course.