Kevin Drum

We're Going to Ring Out 2015 With Marshmallows

| Thu Dec. 31, 2015 10:58 AM EST

Look what I found at the 99¢ store last night: Mexican marshmallows. (Cat shown for scale.) According to the package, they can be used to make all manner of tasty treats. So what should I make? Or should I just toss them into a bowl tonight as a New Year's Eve party appetizer?

And speaking of that, when did New Year's Eve become NYE? I've only just noticed it this year, which probably means it started five or ten years ago. Is this a texting thing invented by those ubiquitous "millennials" I hear so much about, because they didn't want to spell out the whole thing once a year on their "smartphones"? Or what?

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BREAKING: The United States Spies on Israel

| Wed Dec. 30, 2015 8:52 PM EST

The latest outrage in conservative circles is the NSA's surveillance program. They aren't outraged by spying on American citizens, of course—though more on that later. They're outraged by spying on Israel. You see, when NSA surveillance of foreign leaders was exposed by Edward Snowden, President Obama promised to stop it—but with exceptions. And it turns out that Israel was one of those exceptions. As the Wall Street Journal reports:

There was little debate over Israel. “Going dark on Bibi? Of course we wouldn’t do that,” a senior U.S. official said, using Mr. Netanyahu’s nickname.

That's not exactly surprising. I don't imagine George W. Bush ever contemplated going dark on Bibi either—or any other Israeli leader, for that matter. Nor, quite obviously, have the Israelis ever eased up on their spying of us.

So what's the outrage? First of all, NSA surveillance allowed Obama to keep current on Netanyahu's relentless efforts to undermine his negotiations with Iran. Charles Krauthammer finds that outrageous:

This was about trying to get through the Congress the Iran agreement. That is not a validated "national security" purpose. This is a way to win a battle with Congress....And that is, I think, a violation of the power of the executive interfering with legitimate activities and interactions of the Congress.

Spare me. The executive branch negotiates treaties. Netanyahu was doing everything he could to torpedo an active negotiation. So Obama kept an eye on him. Right or wrong, there isn't a president in history who wouldn't have done the same thing.

But it turns out there was one thing even the White House was concerned about: when you spy on Bibi, you're also going to end up spying on members of Congress, since Bibi talks to them all the time. When this happens, the intercepted information is supposed to be "minimized," and that's especially the case when it comes to members of Congress. Apparently the NSA did this, delivering only Bibi's side of intercepted communications. Still, Republicans in Congress are suspicious.

I can't say that I blame them. On the other hand, my sympathy is pretty limited since this is a very general problem, and Republicans in Congress seem aggressively uninterested in it when it affects anyone other than themselves.

So that's that. The NSA spied on Netanyahu. That's a nothingburger. Of course they spied on Netanyahu. And the NSA says that they properly minimized the congressional end of any conversations between Netanyahu and a member of Congress. Since conservatives insist that we should take their word for this in general, why shouldn't we take their word for it now? Wake me up if it turns out there's anything more to this story.

Star Trek is Now Officially Forever

| Wed Dec. 30, 2015 3:16 PM EST

In 2016 the postal service will be honoring Sarah Vaughan, Richard Allen, Shirley Temple, Indiana, the repeal of the Stamp Act, pickup trucks, various holidays, and, of course, the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. Here are the deets:

Star Trek
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the television premiere, the new Star Trek Forever stamps showcase four digital illustrations inspired by classic elements of the television program:

  • the Starship Enterprise inside the outline of a Starfleet insignia against a gold background;
  • the silhouette of a crewman in a transporter against a red background;
  • the silhouette of the Enterprise from above against a green background; and,
  • the Enterprise inside the outline of the Vulcan statue (Spock’s iconic hand gesture) against a blue background

The words “SPACE... THE FINAL FRONTIER,” from Captain Kirk’s famous voice-over appear beneath the stamps against a background of stars. The stamps were designed by Heads of State under the art direction of Antonio Alcalá.

The Vulcan statue? Oh well. At least they're trying. So you see? 2016 is already a better year than 2015.

I Got Married At the Perfect Age

| Wed Dec. 30, 2015 2:23 PM EST

Via Christopher Ingraham, we have some new research showing when to get married if you want to minimize your risk of divorce. Here is Nicholas Wolfinger: "My data analysis shows that prior to age 32 or so, each additional year of age at marriage reduces the odds of divorce by 11 percent. However, after that the odds of divorce increase by 5 percent per year."

Hmmm. In the chart it looks more like 29 is the ideal age, but I got married at 32, so I'll take it. Unfortunately, this is for people getting married now. For people who got married back when I got married, the older the better. Today, for some reason, it's the older the better until age 32, and then the divorce risk curves back up. Why the change? After a bit of statistical argle bargle, Wolfinger admits he can't really figure it out. But he's willing to guess:

My money is on a selection effect: the kinds of people who wait till their thirties to get married may be the kinds of people who aren’t predisposed toward doing well in their marriages. For instance, some people seem to be congenitally cantankerous. Such people naturally have trouble with interpersonal relationships. Consequently they delay marriage, often because they can’t find anyone willing to marry them. When they do tie the knot, their marriages are automatically at high risk for divorce. More generally, perhaps people who marry later face a pool of potential spouses that has been winnowed down to exclude the individuals most predisposed to succeed at matrimony.

I totally agree on the congenitally cantankerous observation, but I'm not sure that's changed much since 1995. There were lots of cantankerous people back then too. So I'll put my money on some other explanation. I'm just not sure what it is yet.

Republican Demographic Problems Aren't Just for the Future Anymore

| Wed Dec. 30, 2015 1:14 PM EST

Here's an interesting poll analysis from Reuters. It shows demographic shifts since the 2012 elections, and it turns out that most groups are pretty stable. There are three exceptions. On the plus side for conservatives, Jews have become slightly more Republican. But on the minus side, Hispanics and young whites have become significantly more Democratic.

Hispanics are no surprise. Republicans have spent the past three years loudly opposing comprehensive immigration reform and playing "can you top this?" when it comes to border security. Then along came Donald Trump, with his murderers and rapists and his big, beautiful wall. The only surprise here is Hispanics haven't moved further away from the Republican Party.

But it's certainly odd that Republicans are losing both Hispanics and young whites. Or maybe not. Older whites are generally attracted to traditional conservative values and the vague racial dog whistles that Republicans specialize in. But younger whites are probably turned off by social troglodytism—especially anti-gay animus—and don't respond to the dog whistles one way or another. So they're leaving.

I guess it's time for yet another Republican post mortem that they can then proceed to ignore. Why wait until after the election, after all?

Does Donald Trump Have Any Friends?

| Wed Dec. 30, 2015 12:36 PM EST

One of the things that kind of fascinates me about Donald Trump1 is the fact that he doesn't even pretend that his attacks are real. His latest 2-minutes hate has been directed at Bill Clinton, and he's pretty much admitted that he doesn't really believe the stuff he's saying. But if Hillary attacks him, he has to attack back. Here's Rebecca Sinderbrand:

Trump on HRC: "Had to mention her husband's situation. And now it's the biggest story on television by a factor of 10. So you have to do it"

He had to do it—delivered with the usual Trumpish shrug of the shoulders. That's all. And if Hillary stops, he'll stop. It's business, not personal.

This is an odd quirk in Trump's personality. He seems to have an ironclad rule against ever attacking someone first. Even Vladimir Putin. Putin says nice things about Trump, so Trump has to say nice things back. Opposing candidates who don't attack him are "great guys." But if you attack first, then he has to fire off a nuclear retaliation. There's an odd kind of chivalry at work here, and I suppose it also provides people with a motivation to leave him alone.

This may also be responsible for the odd silence about Trump from everyone who knows him. I've been wondering for a while whether Trump has any friends. Real friends, that is. Not family members, not people who work for him, and not celebrity buddies who have a casual acquaintance with him. I'm talking about people he's worked with frequently and who like him. People he hangs out with regularly. People from his childhood or college years that he's stayed close to. Are there any?

I can't tell. Nobody from the New York development community seems willing to say anything about him, which would make sense if they all dislike him but don't want to trigger a temper tantrum. Who needs the grief, right? How about childhood friends? Not that I've heard of. Trump seems to view people almost entirely transactionally, as assets to be deployed, so it would hardly be surprising if none of them had stayed close. Given his penchant for demanding sycophancy, and lashing out instantly against even a hint of criticism, I suppose it would be hard to have any real long-term friends or even any long-term business pals. It's kind of sad, actually.

1Against my will, but there you have it.

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Racists Hate the Idea of Paying College Athletes

| Wed Dec. 30, 2015 11:29 AM EST

Well, I'll be damned:

Could racial prejudice also affect attitudes toward paying college athletes? There are good reasons to believe that it could.

....To find out whether racial prejudice influences white opinion on paying college athletes, we conducted a survey of opinions on “pay for play” policies using the 2014 CCES. In a statistical analysis that controlled for a host of other influences, we found this: Negative racial views about blacks were the single most important predictor of white opposition to paying college athletes.

....To check our findings’ validity, we also conducted an experiment. Before we asked white respondents whether college athletes should be paid, we showed one group pictures of young black men with stereotypical African American first and last names. We showed another group no pictures at all. As you can see in the figure [on the right], whites who were primed by seeing pictures of young black men were significantly more likely to say they opposed paying college athletes. Support dropped most dramatically among whites who expressed the most resent towards blacks as a group.

Apparently this gap is also visible in ordinary poll results: "In every survey to date, blacks are far more likely to support paying college athletes when compared to whites. For instance, in the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, 53 percent of African Americans backed paying college athletes–more than doubling the support expressed by whites (22 percent)."

I'm basically willing to believe that race and racial animus permeate practically everything of significance in America. But I wouldn't have guessed this. I'm not sure why, but it just never occurred to me to think of big-time college sports as a "black thing," even though it obviously is. It just goes to show how deeply our racial sickness infests us.

Here's a Whole Bunch of Interesting Facts and Figures About Births and Babies

| Tue Dec. 29, 2015 8:37 PM EST

Let us continue our year-end search for random things to write about because nothing important is happening. Did you know that the number of twin births has been rising steadily for the past three decades? It has. And the number of triplet births skyrocketed through 1998, but has been dropping ever since.

This comes from the CDC's final report on births for 2014, which is chock full of everything you might want to know about US birth and fertility rates. The increase in triplet births is most likely due to the rising use of fertility therapies, and the drop after 1998 is likely due to improvements in fertility therapies. The reason for the steady increase in twins is less clear, since it seems too large to be accounted for by fertility treatments.

Interestingly, blacks have the highest twin rate and Hispanics have the lowest. For triplets, whites have the highest rate—probably because the triplet rate is influenced by expensive fertility treatments, which whites are more able to afford than others. Other statistics for 2014:

  • Number of cesarean births: 32 percent
  • Number of babies that are firstborns: 38.8 percent
  • Number of babies that are 8th-borns or higher: 0.5 percent
  • State with the most births: California
  • State with the highest birth rate: Utah
  • State with the lowest birth rate: New Hampshire
  • Births to unmarried women: 40.2 percent
  • Number of mothers with weight gain of less than 11 pounds: 8.7 percent
  • Number of mothers with weight gain of more than 40 pounds: 21.6 percent
  • Number of births in hospitals: 98.5 percent
  • Number of births 3+ weeks early: 9.5 percent
  • Number of babies with very low birthweight: 1.4 percent
  • Number of black babies with very low birthweight: 2.9 percent
  • Teen birth rate: 2.45 percent, yet another record low

2016 Is Here, But I Still Haven't Caught Up to 2015

| Tue Dec. 29, 2015 2:09 PM EST

Over at the Washington Post, Jessica Contrera has a list of what's out and what's in for 2016. I assume that all the out stuff used to be in, and I was curious how many I had heard of. Answer: 45 out of 64. There were 19 items on the list that I had no clue about. Vetements? Ghosting? Pulp? (Actually, I've always liked my OJ pulpy, but I didn't know this had become a thing.) Additionally, there are items like squad goals and walls, which I either understand or can figure out, but which I also didn't know had become things. I assume squad goals are like group goals, but for small groups? Let's google it.

Crap. I was totally wrong:

Everyone has a different name for that group of friends you do everything with....A group of friends is called a squad now (as seen in the phrase: squad deep, when your whole crew is together). Squads, of course, have goals....So, what are squad goals, then? Well, there's no official definition for it (yet), but here's mine:

Squad Goal (skwäd/ɡōl) (noun) (plural noun: squad goals): an aspirational term for what you'd like your group of friends to be or accomplish.

Your squad goals are entirely dependent on the members of your squad; so, while some people's squad goals involve looking like the celebs in the famous Ellen selfie, others might involve reading every Jane Austen book in the NY Public Library. Much like eating a Reese's, there is no wrong way to squad goal.

This was a thing in 2015? Seriously? I guess this is yet another reason I'm not really going to miss 2015. I'm guessing that 2016 is the year that Donald Trump finally gets his inevitable comeuppance, so it's almost bound to be better. Right?

Chart of the Day: The Uninsured Rate in America Just Keeps Dropping

| Tue Dec. 29, 2015 12:41 PM EST

I forgot to blog about this when the numbers came out, but the CDC has now updated their survey of the uninsured through the second quarter of 2015. Results are on the right.

The number of uninsured adults under 65 continues to decline, from 10.7 percent in Q1 to 10.3 percent in Q2. Four percent of all Americans under 65 have now purchased health insurance via the exchanges, and many others have purchased Obamacare coverage off exchange. Not bad.