It Was Immigration Wot Won It

Josh Marshall today:

The UK always had one foot in and one foot out of the EU. (This is the main reason departure seemed such folly; the UK had already opted out of the worst parts of EU membership.)

I've seen a lot of people making similar comments. Britain wasn't part of the euro. They aren't part of Schengen. They're not fully part of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. They've retained a case-by-case opt-out in Justice and Home Affairs issues. They get a special rebate on contributions to the EU budget. And earlier this year, David Cameron negotiated a further package of British opt-outs.

So what's the deal? What more did the British want?

The answer is simple: an end to immigration. That's it. Elderly Brits didn't vote to leave because of EU laws over the shape of bananas. They voted to leave because they had reached their "breaking point" over the flow of immigrants. They didn't want any more Poles or any more Muslims or any more Pakistanis.

It's pretty simple: 52 percent of the electorate voted to keep Britain white. Let's not overthink this.

EU to Britain: Drop Dead

The folks who were opposed to Brexit want Britain to get the hell out as soon as possible:

The EU’s top leaders have said they expect the UK to act on its momentous vote to leave the union “as soon as possible, however painful that process may be” and that there will be “no renegotiation”....The German MEP Elmar Brok, who chairs the European parliament’s committee on foreign affairs, told the Guardian...“They will have to negotiate from the position of a third country, not as a member state. If Britain wants to have a similar status to Switzerland and Norway, then it will also have to pay into EU structural funds like those countries do. The British public will find out what that means.

But Brexit's biggest supporter suddenly wants to go slow:

Boris Johnson has said Britain should not immediately trigger article 50 to start exit negotiations with the EU after the momentous referendum verdict. In sombre tones and accompanied by fellow Brexit campaigners Gisela Stuart and Michael Gove, the former mayor of London said there was “no need for haste” and “nothing will change in the short term” in his first press conference since the vote.

....The downbeat press conference reflected a decision by the victorious Vote Leave campaign to try to calm the collapse of the financial markets as the magnitude of the political and economic repercussions unfold.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump says the plummeting pound is great news for his golf course in Turnberry, so it's all good.

Blue Cross Pulling Out of Minnesota

See update below.

This is some genuine bad news for Obamacare:

Minnesota's largest health insurer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota has decided to stop selling health plans to individuals and families in Minnesota starting next year. The insurer explained extraordinary financial losses drove the decision. "Based on current medical claim trends, Blue Cross is projecting a total loss of more than $500 million in the individual [health plan] segment over three years," BCBSM said in a statement.

....The decision will have far-reaching implications. Blue Cross and Blue Shield says the change will affect about, "103,000 Minnesotans [who] have purchased Blue Cross coverage on their own, through an agent or broker, or on MNsure."

When United Healthcare closed up shop, it wasn't that big a deal. UH is a huge insurer, but not a major Obamacare player. Blue Cross is different. It's a huge insurer and a major player in the individual health care market.

If this is just a problem with Minnesota, it's not too big a deal. If it's a sign of broader Blue Cross problems nationwide—and Blue Cross has previously announced losses in Illinois, Michigan, and other states—then it's a big deal indeed. Fasten your seat belts.

UPDATE: Apparently Blue Cross isn't actually pulling out of Minnesota completely:

In a sign of continuing tumult in the health insurance industry, the state’s largest insurer said Thursday it will no longer offer its traditional suite of flexible and broad-reaching policies for those consumers who don’t get coverage through the workplace. Instead, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota will sell only health plans with a narrow network, which limits patient coverage to specific doctors, hospitals and prescription drug benefits.

....“It’s a very difficult decision for us,” said Michael Guyette, CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, who described the move as a “refocusing of our portfolio” rather than an all-out exit from the individual market.

So Blue Cross is staying in the individual market, but offering only narrow network plans. That's still bad news for Obamacare, but not nearly as bad as Blue Cross leaving the market entirely.

Brexit Wins

British voters have voted to leave the EU. What a waste. I'm skeptical that this will cause economic Armageddon, but I doubt that it will do Britain any good either. Now they'll spend the next three or four years up to their gills in rancorous negotiations on the terms for exit, and all to accomplish next to nothing.

In the short term, however, everyone is going to freak out. Financial markets are already throwing a fit, with the pound absolutely cratering. It had strengthened earlier in the week as it looked like Brexit would lose, but earlier tonight, as the first results started trickling in, it dropped like a stone. It lost more than 10 percent of its value in just a few hours, and is now trading at it lowest level against the dollar in 30 years.

I don't have any personal axe to grind on Brexit. Except for one: I am sick and tired of watching folks like Boris Johnson, Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump, and others appeal to the worst racial instincts of our species, only to be shushed by folks telling me that it's not really racism driving their popularity. It's economic angst. It's regular folks tired of being spurned by out-of-touch elites. It's a natural anxiety over rapid cultural change.

Maybe it's all those things. But at its core, it's the last stand of old people who have been frightened to death by cynical right-wing media empires and the demagogues who enable them—all of whom have based their appeals on racism as overt as anything we've seen in decades. It's loathsome beyond belief, and not something I thought I'd ever see in my lifetime. But that's where we are.

Jamelle Bouie makes a seemingly indisputable point about Donald Trump:

Let's dispute this anyway. Bouie is referring to an interview by Lester Holt that's airing tonight on the NBC Nightly News. Here's a slightly cleaned up version of the portion he's talking about:

LESTER HOLT: You also made the claim that [Hillary Clinton's] e-mail, personal e-mail server, had been hacked, probably by foreign governments, suggesting that...she would be compromised as president. What evidence do you have?

DONALD TRUMP: Well first of all, she shouldn't have had a personal server, okay? She shouldn't have had it. It's illegal. What she did is illegal. Now she might not be judging that way because, you know, we — we have a rigged system. But what she did is illegal. She shouldn't have had a personal server —

HOLT: But is there any evidence that it was hacked other than routine fishing attacks?

TRUMP: I think I read that and I heard it and somebody —

HOLT: Where?

TRUMP: — that also gave me that information. I will report back to you. I'll give it to you.

HOLT: But you just said it with such certainty yesterday.

TRUMP: I don't know if certainty. Probably she was hacked. You know, you can be hacked and not know it, but she probably was hacked. The fact is she should not have it, she should not have had a personal server.

"I will report back to you." How lame! But before you scoff too much, think about what happened during this brief exchange:

  1. Holt repeated the claim that Hillary Clinton's email server had been hacked, "probably by foreign governments."
  2. Trump made a little speech about her personal server being illegal
  3. Holt repeated the claim, using the words "hacked" and "fishing attacks."
  4. Trump says he read that somewhere and he'll get back to Holt with the evidence.

To folks like us, who follow this stuff obsessively, this seems obviously ridiculous. But to the average viewer it's exactly the opposite. Trump has managed to maneuver Holt into spending 40 seconds of his evening newscast repeating damaging charges against Hillary Clinton. Between the two of them, in the space of that 40 seconds, you hear the words personal server four times, hacked five times, illegal three times, and compromised, rigged, and fishing attacks once each. When it's over, Trump promises to produce evidence backing this up. "I will get it to you," he says, in a tone that very much suggests he will indeed get it to us. (Click the link and listen to Trump if you don't believe me about this.)

This is the farthest thing from lame. It is an awesome display of media manipulation. The average person will come away from this with one and only one impression: Hillary Clinton probably used an illegal email server that was hacked by foreign governments. Period. Holt's skepticism doesn't even come through because he's too worried about trying to sound professional—and Trump took advantage of that to make Holt into yet another of his unwitting media dupes. This entire interview was nothing but a huge win for Trump. Holt served up every single thing he wanted on a silver peacock feather.

If you don't want to give Trump air time to make baseless charges, then you should refuse to air his baseless charges. This whole section of the interview should have been left on the cutting room floor. If everyone did that, eventually Trump would learn that making wild accusations won't get him precious exposure. But TV news loves wild accusations and pretends that airing them is OK as long as they follow up with a knowing, eyes-raised pronouncement that "no evidence was forthcoming from the Trump campaign." Haha. All of us who are in the know understand what that means.

This should stop. Period. Everyone is playing Trump's game, and it's way past time to knock it off.

Will increasingly intelligent automation eventually put humans out of work? There are some plausible reasons to think this might never happen. But there are also some really dumb reasons to think it won't happen. The dumbest, by a mile, is basically, "That's what everyone said about the Industrial Revolution and it just made us richer." This is such a phenomenally stupid argument that I can't even bring myself to waste time explaining why it's so dumb.

But there's another surprisingly common bad argument: "Look around, automation is opening up more jobs for people than ever!" I'm not especially trying to pick on Tim Lee here, but I'm pretty surprised to see him pushing a version of this claim:

Our collective obsession with job-stealing robots can cause us to overestimate the impact of automation — and obscure an important point about the economy. In many service industries, human labor is a mark of luxury. So at the same time robots destroy manufacturing jobs, the demand for labor-intensive services is soaring. We can see the signs of this all around us. There's the rise of Etsy, an online marketplace whose main selling point is that the products are not mass-produced. [etc.]

....One way to see this is by looking at the US Labor Department's projections of the fastest-growing occupations in the United States between 2014 and 2024. A bunch of slots are taken up by therapists and caretakers: physical therapists and their aides and assistants, occupational therapy aides and assistants, home health aides.

....In a sense, it's possible to automate many aspects of these jobs. Instead of having a therapist come to your home, someone could send you a video demonstrating therapy techniques....For someone who needed therapy care, this kind of semiautomated therapy service would probably be better than nothing. But it's a lot worse than having a face-to-face meeting with a human being...."Therapy" delivered by an app or even a robot is a different kind of service, just as coffee delivered by a vending machine is a different kind of service than a cup of coffee prepared by a human barista.

This is crazy. All he's saying is that automation isn't yet good enough to replace human caretakers or human baristas. But no one says otherwise. As for "handmade," that's been a mark of luxury for centuries, ever since "handmade" became a retronym in the first place.

It's pointless to argue that automation isn't currently taking away jobs. The evidence is just too ambiguous to allow a firm conclusion on that score, and at most it's had only a small effect anyway. The only interesting question is whether artificial intelligence will eventually get to the point where robots can drive cars and dig trenches and do your taxes and help old people get around. I happen to think the answer is yes, probably by around 2030 or 2040 or so—but I acknowledge that I might be wrong about that. Maybe it will be more like 2070. Or maybe there's some not-yet-understood reason that it will never happen at all. Arguments on that score are welcome.

But pointing to the present as evidence that automation is over-hyped is a non-sequitur. Nobody's arguing that robots today can make your coffee or keep the elderly company, so why even bring it up? In another few decades, though, I'll bet the elderly will prefer robot caretakers who are endlessly patient, willing to talk on any subject, and never screw up. There won't be a person in the country who'd prefer the crappy, ill-trained, and unreliable level of care and attention that most nursing home residents receive today.

Just to wrap up, then, here are the two worst arguments against the eventual job-killing rise of intelligent robots:

  • The Industrial Revolution didn't put us all out of work.
  • Automation today isn't putting us all out of work.

Neither one of these arguments offers the slightest insight into what will happen if and when AI becomes human level or close to it. If you come across either one, just back away slowly and move on to the latest cute cat video on YouTube.

<rant>I had a slight meltdown about an hour ago when a little ScreenTip® showed up in Excel. It was covering something I needed to see and I couldn't get rid of it and I'd finally had enough. I started pounding the keyboard and yelling and just generally scaring the hell out of the cats. This is probably a sign that I need to restart my meds,1 but it's also a sign that I'm so sick and tired of the endless crap that pops up on my computer that I feel like screaming sometimes. Seriously, does every goddam page on the internet have to feature some kind of popup either when I land or when I leave or when I mouse over the wrong thing or whatever? Can't I just read in peace? For a few minutes at least? Please?</rant>

The answer is no, of course. And surely one of the most hated popups on the internet is the omnipresent ForeSee survey popup. And just to piss me off even more, check out the gloriously buzzword-laden gobbledegook they serve up on their "About Us" page:

As a pioneer in customer experience analytics, ForeSee continuously measures satisfaction with the customer experience and delivers powerful insights on where organizations should prioritize improvements for maximum impact. ForeSee applies its trusted technology across channels and customer touch points, including websites, contact centers, retail stores, mobile and tablet sites and apps and social media initiatives. Executives and managers confidently prioritize efforts that achieve business goals because ForeSee’s proven methodology is predictive of customer loyalty, purchase behavior, future financial success and even stock prices.

Jesus Christ. Is there anyone left in the tech industry who can write in ordinary English? And more to the point, is there some cookie or something I can install that will prevent all ForeSee popups from ever sullying my screen ever again?</rant for real this time>

1Unfortunately, this is not a joke. My med-free experiment doesn't seem to be working well. It's probably time to start up the Effexor again.

From Vox today:

A new analysis published in JAMA this week looked at US eating habits from 1999 to 2012 and found that...there was no change in total fruits and vegetables consumed. (When Americans do eat vegetables, fully half of them are tomatoes and potatoes — often in the form of sugar-laden ketchup and greasy fries.)

Wait. Potatoes are a vegetable? Wikipedia skirts the question entirely by calling them a "starchy, tuberous crop"—and pretty much everything that grows is a crop. Britain's Department of Health dithers: "Potatoes are botanically classified as a vegetable, but they are classified nutritionally as a starchy food." The USDA just flatly calls them vegetables. As the chart on the right shows, potatoes account for 30 percent of America's consumption of "vegetables and legumes." And they aren't legumes, are they?

Fine. Technically they're a vegetable. You learn something new every day. And I'm not just saying that. You really can learn something new every day from the USDA. Following the link to this little pie chart led me to ERS Charts of Note, a daily chart from the USDA's Economic Research Service. And it's great! Here are some recent charts:

  • Supermarket shrink varies by type of fresh fruit and vegetable
  • Most U.S. farm estates exempt from Federal estate tax in 2015
  • U.S. milk production continues to grow
  • India is the world’s leading importer of soybean oil
  • U.S. honey consumption per person has risen in recent years
  • U.S. stocks of natural cheese are at the highest levels since 1984
  • A growing number of school meals are served at no charge to students
  • Avocado imports grow to meet increasing U.S. demand

They're not kidding about the avocado imports, either. In the past 15 years, per-capita avocado consumption has increased from two pounds per person to seven pounds per person. Virtually all of that increase has been supplied by imports from Mexico, which are probably super cheap thanks to NAFTA. If Donald Trump had his way, your typical guac-drenched fast-food burrito wouldn't exist. What kind of a world would that be?

Weekly Flint Water Report: June 10-16

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 137 samples. The average for the past week was 7.05.

The LA Times headline for Donald Trump's big attack speech yesterday is on the right. Trump called Hillary Clinton a "liar," but his own speech included "falsehoods." Here's a small sample of other headlines:

  • New York Times: Donald Trump Returns Fire, Calling Hillary Clinton a ‘World-Class Liar’
  • USA Today: Amid campaign troubles, Trump blasts Clinton as 'world-class liar'
  • Wall Street Journal: Donald Trump Attacks Hillary Clinton as ‘Corrupt’....Presumptive Republican presidential nominee accuses Democratic rival of using State Department for ‘personal profit’
  • CBS: Donald Trump's speech on Hillary Clinton filled with distortions

The traditional media has something of a taboo against using the word lie. Generally speaking, this is for the best. But now we're faced with a new situation: a presidential candidate who uses the word constantly while spouting obvious lies himself. This is not a partisan complaint: Virtually everyone who covers Trump agrees that he lies constantly and with gusto.

So should the old custom still hold? I'm not so sure. If Trump is going to loudly call Hillary Clinton a liar at every opportunity, perhaps his own lies should be called what they are. Not falsehoods. Not distortions. Lies.