Ever since the Benghazi attacks four years ago,1 conservatives have been hawking the "stand down" theory. Basically, they're convinced that troops could have gotten to Benghazi in time to help, but someone—Hillary Clinton? President Obama? Ben Rhodes?—overrode the military and told them not to deploy. This has been debunked several dozen times, and never made sense in the first place, but it's still a big part of the whole conspiracy theory.

A couple of days ago, the ranking Democrat on the Benghazi committee sent a letter to chairman Trey Gowdy claiming that the GOP's own counsel, Dana Chipman, had admitted during interviews that nothing more could have been done to help. Is that true? Gowdy says no:

When you see the full transcript—and you will—then you will see what Dana was talking about was a very small point: the posture of the troops, the order that was given by [Leon] Panetta and the president, how that order was received, all of that is what we want to ask people about. Whether or not they could have gotten there in time, I don't think there's any issue with respect to that. They couldn't. The next question is, why could you not, why were you not positioned to do it?

Fascinating! Apparently there was never any "stand down" conspiracy theory in the first place. I guess Democrats just made up the whole thing. The only thing Gowdy is really concerned about is why all the troops around the Mediterranean were positioned so far from Benghazi—though that might seem like a fairly easy question to answer: just ask the Pentagon. Once you boil it down, their answer is basically that our military posture in the Med wasn't based in any way on protecting the city of Benghazi, so there was no special reason they should have been close by.

Anyway, I'm sure Gowdy and his troops will get around to asking all these questions eventually. They just need more time. In the meantime, it's good to know that nobody is accusing the White House2 of deliberately preventing the military from saving American lives. That would just be crazy, wouldn't it?

1Seriously. It's been three years and eight months. Hard to believe, isn't it?

2Or, presumably, Hillary Clinton. The theory was always even crazier applied to her, since she never had the authority to order troops around anyway.

Apparently Donald Trump's team is vetting VP candidates and will be requesting tax returns from them:

"Trump's not running for vice president." True enough! The guy's got an answer for everything.

Still, it's kind of funny. Didn't Trump tell us the other day that you can't really learn anything from tax returns? I wonder when he changed his mind?

Here's a fascinating little chart from the good folks at 538:

This whole thing, of course, is an artifact of scheduling births instead of just letting Mother Nature take her course. "The effect for the 13th," says Carl Bialik, "was twice as high as it had been in the 1970s and 1980s, as we’d expect since births were scheduled less often then."

But there's one odd anomaly: The 13th of the month is an unpopular day for giving birth except in September. What's up with that?

California's bullet train has already taken hit after hit, with costs rising ever skyward and schedules getting extended relentlessly. Today, Mike Grunwald reports on the latest schedule hit:

The first segment of California’s first-in-the-nation bullet-train project, currently scheduled for completion in 2018, will not be done until the end of 2022, according to a contract revision the Obama administration quietly approved this morning. That initial 119-mile segment through the relatively flat and empty Central Valley was considered the easiest-to-build stretch of a planned $64 billion line.

....State and federal officials downplayed the shift in the timetable, saying it partly reflected more ambitious plans for the Central Valley work, and in any case merely ratified construction realities on the ground....While they described today’s agreement as a routine bureaucratic clarification, they said they expect an explosive reaction from opponents looking to score political points in Sacramento and Washington. “We’re just doing due diligence, but everything about California high-speed rail gets magnified and overblown,” said FRA head Sarah Feinberg.

A routine bureaucratic clarification! I think that's the excuse I'll use the next time I miss a magazine deadline. But I suppose Clara will just blow it all out of proportion and wonder if I'm ever going to finish. Everything with me is magnified and overblown, I tell you.

By the way, for those of you wondering what "Central Valley" means, it means Bakersfield to Fresno. Exciting, no? The official reason for building this leg first is blah blah blah. The real reason for building it first is to get something—anything—done. Once you've got some track laid, it's really hard to kill the project because, hey, you don't want all that money to have been wasted, do you?

Why Is the Murder Rate Increasing?

Over at Vox, Dara Lind has a longish piece about the "Ferguson Effect," the notion that homicides are up because police are afraid to do their jobs in an era of viral videos and public backlash against police violence:

Just like there's been a certain reluctance to admit homicide is rising at all among people who don't want to blame Black Lives Matter protesters for it, there's been reluctance to attribute any rise in homicides to changes in policing....But the reality is that changes in policing do affect crime rates. Indeed, "proactive" policing — in forms that have officers walking around neighborhoods and building relationships with their residents — is one of the most effective things a city can do to prevent crime. You just have to look at the correct scale: Police departments are local institutions, and they affect things on a local scale.

"Gun violence is very local," says crime analyst Jeff Asher. "And changes in gun violence patterns probably have local explanations." So he doesn't give much credence to Comey's version of the Ferguson effect theory — that the hypothetical fear of being the subject of a viral video somewhere is changing how cops around the country do their jobs. "There's little evidence in the places we can measure it," he says, "that proactivity in, say, Louisville, went down because of events in St. Louis or Baltimore."

The problem, of course, is that this kind of thing is difficult to measure, which means the Ferguson Effect is all but impossible to verify. Personally I'm skeptical: homicide rates appear to be up a lot more than overall violent crime rates, and that's hard to square with any kind of policing theory. And it's important to get this right: If we choose the wrong theory about why murder rates are up, we have almost no chance of getting them back down. Liberals and conservatives alike need to be willing to go wherever the data leads them.

The Sad Decline and Fall of Bernie Sanders

So tonight's Democratic primaries basically ended in a tie. There's really nothing of interest left anymore: Hillary Clinton will win the nomination, as we've all known she would for at least the past month.

The one thing I do keep wondering about is what happened to Bernie Sanders. Before this campaign, he was a gadfly, he was a critic of the system, and he was a man of strong principles. He still is, but he's also obviously very, very bitter. I wonder if all this was worth it for him? By all objective measures he did way better than anyone expected and had far more influence than anyone thought he would, and he should feel good about that. Instead, he seems more angry and resentful with every passing day.

I know this happens all the time in presidential primaries. Everyone starts out promising to run high-minded campaigns, but the attacks always come sooner or later—and the targets inevitably believe the attacks are unfair and slanderous. As a result, the losers develop a deep personal disdain for their opponents.

That's what's happened this time, and I suppose there's nothing unusual about it. I don't even blame anyone in particular. Maybe Hillary's team played too rough. Maybe Bernie's team is too thin-skinned. I just don't know. But it's sort of painful to see a good person like Bernie turned into such a sullen and resentful man. And doubly painful to see him take his followers down that path too.

Usually these things fade with a bit of time. Politics is politics, after all. But for Bernie, it's always been more than politics. I wonder if he's ever going to get over this?

Inflation Is...Still Pretty Low

Ylan Mui reports on the latest CPI inflation numbers:

Excluding the volatile food and energy sectors, prices rose a more modest 0.2 percent in April, a measurement economists often refer to as core inflation. Compared to a year ago, that figure has risen 2.1 percent....The solid data helps bolster the case for the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates at its next meeting in June.

Mui might well be right that this is how the Fed will choose to respond. But there are a couple of things that make this supposedly scary 2.1 percent number a little less impressive:

  • The core inflation rate did indeed go above the magical 2 percent barrier in December, but it's gone back down for two months in a row since then and is now only barely above 2 percent. It doesn't really look like core CPI is on fire.
  • The Fed doesn't even use core CPI anyway. It uses core PCE as its preferred measure of inflation, and core PCE has been well below 2 percent during the past couple of years. What's more, the markets all seem pretty convinced that inflation will stay below 2 percent. The forward-looking inflation rate has done nothing but tumble since 2013, and it's at 1.7 percent right now.

The Fed might be looking for excuses to raise interest rates, but inflation just isn't it. It remains subdued and well anchored. They'll need some other pretense if they insist on tightening policy rates a bit.

The latest CDC figures on the uninsured are out, and after a small uptick last quarter they were back down again by the end of 2015. The uninsured rate clocked in at 10.3 percent,1 compared to a projection of 11 percent from the CBO back in 2012 (this was the projection published after the Supreme Court made Medicaid expansion optional but before the exchanges were up and running). This means that Obamacare has been consistently running ahead of projections for the past two years.

It's worth noting, of course, that this number could be even lower. If red states adopted the Medicaid expansion, the number of uninsured would likely be around 8 percent or so. Also: among the poor, the number of uninsured has plummeted under Obamacare, from above 40 percent to below 25 percent. Needless to say, this number would plummet even further if red states were willing to accept federal money to help the poor. But they aren't.

1You may have seen news reports that the uninsured rate was 9.1 percent. That number includes everyone, including the elderly, who bring down the average because they basically have a 0 percent uninsurance rate. I use the nonelderly rate because that corresponds to the original CBO estimates.

Our own Tim Murphy, in a triumph of data journalism, reports that if Bernie Sanders "can beat Hillary Clinton in Kentucky's Clinton County, he will have defeated Clinton in all nine of the Clinton Counties in the United States." I have to admit that would be pretty awesome.

But! If Hillary Clinton can beat Bernie Sanders in Montana's Sanders County on June 7, she will have defeated Sanders in all of the Sanders Counties in the United States. Also awesome. Though perhaps not as awesome as the fact that Montana has two counties right next to each other named Phillips and Petroleum.

Jesus. I knew this was happening, but I guess I didn't really know it was happening:

The House Judiciary Committee’s decision to hold hearings a week from today on whether to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen is a victory for the chamber’s far-right caucus, still smarting over the agency’s treatment of conservative groups.

....One of the biggest questions now is whether the 76-year-old tax commissioner will show up for the grilling. IRS officials said Monday they have made no decision on whether Koskinen will accept the Judiciary committee’s invitation to appear May 24 and at a hearing in June.

They're really and truly going forward with this farce? Somehow this stuff continues to surprise me even though it certainly shouldn't by this point.

I think it must absolutely enrage Republicans that Barack Obama has very plainly run one of the cleanest, least scandalous administrations in recent history. Not mistake free, but scandal free. Nonetheless, they keep trying and trying and trying to find something that proves he's the Chicago thug they keep saying he is, and they keep coming up empty. They've spent collective decades investigating Fast & Furious, Benghazi, Solyndra, the IRS, and anything else they can think of, and they keep coming up empty handed. There's never anything there aside from a bit of the usual bureaucratic bungling you can find anyplace in a gigantic organization if you look for it.

So now they're going hold pointless impeachment hearings on an IRS commissioner who only has eight months left to serve anyway? What a bunch of loons.