Donald Trump Is Frying My Brain

Here is Donald Trump talking to an evangelical audience on Tuesday about how he raised his children:

I always tell people, “No drugs, no alcohol, no cigarettes.” And I add to some — if it’s appropriate: I say, if they go to church and if they start at a young age, that’s a tremendous asset.... I went to Sunday school at First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica.... It was like, you go to Sunday school, you have to do that.... Today, I don’t think it’s so automatic. And maybe we can get back into a position where it’s automatic.

I know I'll never get an answer, but I have to ask: Did any of Trump's kids go to Sunday school back in the day? Does Barron go to Sunday school now? Does Trump ever attend church? How about his grown kids? Just asking.

You might have noticed that this item is from yesterday. So was the picture of Trump with Jerry Falwell Jr. My post this morning about Utah v. Strieff is two days late. What's going on with that? Well, you know how your inbox can get filled up and you just get behind on everything? That's how I feel. My brain is hopelessly backed up and I'm behind on everything. Sometime tomorrow I'll finally figure out what happened today.

I blame Trump for this. He's brought a level of gobsmacking idiocy to the news that worms its way into my brain and won't let go. I get obsessed with what he's blathering about. Did he really say that? And people believed it? There has to be something more to it. But what? Has our national bullshit detector suddenly gone pear shaped? Why? How is it that 45 percent of the country apparently doesn't realize that he's basically just a talented used car salesman? It makes no sense. There's no way that anyone with even the slightest experience of real life could fail to see that he lies practically every time he opens his mouth. That he can't be trusted to do even the smallest thing he promises. What's going on? WTF. IS. GOING. ON?

This is my brain on Trump. It wants answers. But there are no answers. Just endless, endless spinning. It is trapped in a world gone haywire.

How are our big cities doing when it comes to educating their students? It's easy to look at overall test scores, but that doesn't tell you much. In general, whites score better than Hispanics and Hispanics score better than blacks on the "gold standard" NAEP test. This means that some cities will do better or worse than others depending on how many kids of different racial groups they have, and nearly all cities will do worse than the national average, which is whiter than most large urban areas.

What to do? Matt Yglesias points us to a study from Kristin Blagg of the Urban Institute, who controlled for a whole bunch of factors1 and then produced "adjusted" scores for 23 different cities. (Spoiler alert: Boston is best, Detroit is worst.) That's useful, but there's an easier way to look at this—cruder, admittedly, but still useful: just look at the scores for a single ethnic group and see how they do in different cities. Here, for example, are the scores in 8th grade reading for black kids in our four biggest cities plus Washington DC:

By 2015, all four of the biggest cities were doing about equally well, and they were all right around the national average. This suggests that the underlying quality of schooling is roughly average in all four. Washington DC, however, is an outlier. Black kids perform a full ten points worse than black kids in other cities. By the usual rule of thumb, that's a full grade level.

But how about improvement? Here's how scores have increased since 2003:

This time, the big outlier is Los Angeles, which has improved by about 6 percentage points. The others have all improved by about 1 percentage point—except for Washington DC again. Basically, the DC school district looks like a disaster. Its absolute quality is low and its rate of improvement is abysmal.

I picked this example more or less at random. You could look at math scores instead, or a combination of both math and reading. You could look at 4th grade scores. You could look at Hispanics or whites. I chose reading because I think it's a better indicator of learning; 8th grade because later grades are more important than earlier grades; and blacks because there are big issues with well-off white kids self-selecting into private schools at different rates in different cities. If you want to look at things differently, the raw data is easily accessible, and it only takes a few minutes to turn it into a colorful chart.

Bottom line: If you live in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Houston, your school district is probably OK. Not great, necessarily, and obviously there can be big differences from school to school. But contrary to conventional wisdom, it's probably OK. Go ahead and send your kids to public school.

As for Washington DC, I don't know what the deal is. But if you have the wherewithal, avoiding the public school system might be a good idea.


1Blagg controls for gender, race and ethnicity, eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch, limited English proficiency, special education status, age, whether the student was given a testing accommodation, the amount of English spoken at the student’s home, and the student’s family structure (e.g., two-parent, single-parent, and foster). This is obviously far more sophisticated than merely looking at a single ethnic group, as I'm doing. On the other hand, I confess to a vague unease with studies that try to control for so many variables, especially when a lot of them are collinear. But that's just me.

On the other hand, income—and, in particular, concentrated poverty—are pretty important. Just looking at a single ethnic group doesn't control for that. On the other hand, eligibility for the school lunch program is the only income proxy available, and as a measure of poverty it's pretty lousy and getting lousier over time. We just don't have a very good way of comparing levels of poverty between school districts.

Can brain-training games increase your IQ? Some studies suggest they can, but a group of George Mason psychologists were suspicious. Maybe IQs increased only because participants knew they were engaging in a study of intelligence, with the placebo effect doing all the heavy lifting. To test this, the GMU researchers recruited two different groups of students: one was told they were participating in a brain-training study, while the other was told it was just "a study." Brian Resnick tells us what happened:

The researchers had 25 participants in each group. They then tested their fluid intelligence, had them play a memory training game for one hour, and then tested their intelligence again.

It’s important to note that there’s absolutely no reason one hour of training should make any reasonable difference when it comes to enhancing IQ. But amazingly, the placebo group’s IQ jumped, while the other group’s IQ remained flat....The placebo group grew "smarter" because they expected to grow smarter. (Perhaps they were more focused and concentrated on the tests, which increased their scores. It’s also evidence for how important motivation can be for cognitive performance.)

The conclusion is that brain-training games don't really do anything to increase intelligence and that brain-training research should be rigorous. But that sure seems like it's burying the lead. If this research is reliable, it tells us that a mere expectation of brain training will increase your IQ by a whopping five points. And I don't mean "whopping" in a sarcastic sense, either. An IQ of 100 means you're smarter than half the population. Raising that to 105 makes you smarter than 63 percent of the population. All that from mere expectations.

Sadly, the research probably isn't reliable. It's based on two groups of 25 students. I'll bet ten dollars that it doesn't replicate if someone else tries it.

But I'd sure like to see someone try to replicate it. If it pans out, we've just discovered the easiest way ever to increase IQs.

In case you're curious, here's what's currently making the rounds in evangelical circles. I've helpfully annotated it for you. You're welcome.

A couple of days ago the Supreme Court released its opinion in Utah v. Strieff. The facts of the case are pretty simple. Working from an anonymous tip about drug dealing, a police detective staked out a house and then randomly detained a man named Edward Strieff as he was leaving. He had no probable cause to do this, but he did it anyway. Then he demanded Strieff's ID, ran a background check, and discovered that Strieff had an outstanding warrant for a traffic violation. Bingo. That was enough to arrest him and conduct a search, which turned up some meth.

There's no argument about whether the stop was valid. It wasn't. It was plainly unlawful, and the officer who made the stop certainly knew that. However, the court ruled that the illegality of the stop was "attenuated" by the outstanding warrant. Here is Clarence Thomas's astonishingly cavalier decision:

Officer Fackrell was at most negligent.... two good-faith mistakes.... lacked a sufficient basis to conclude that Strieff was a short-term visitor.... should have asked Strieff whether he would speak with him, instead of demanding that Strieff do so.... his conduct thereafter was lawful.... the warrant check was a “negligibly burdensome precautio[n]”.... search of Strieff was a lawful search incident to arrest.... no indication that this unlawful stop was part of any systemic or recurrent police misconduct.

....Strieff argues that, because of the prevalence of outstanding arrest warrants in many jurisdictions, police will engage in dragnet searches if the exclusionary rule is not applied. We think that this outcome is unlikely. Such wanton conduct would expose police to civil liability.

Nickel version: There's no reason to think that Officer Fackrell knew he was acting unlawfully. And no reason to think that this kind of "innocent mistake" happens frequently. After all, this would expose police departmentd to civil liability, and history suggests that's plenty to deter police from illegal conduct. And anyway, everything following the illegal conduct was just standard procedure. No need to be concerned about it.

This willful exercise in ivory tower fantasy is breathtaking. Does anyone seriously believe that Officer Fackrell just made an innocent mistake? That goes far beyond garden variety naivete. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who apparently knows a little more about the real world than Thomas, wrote a blistering dissent:

To the Court, the fact that a warrant gives an officer cause to arrest a person severs the connection between illegal policing and the resulting discovery of evidence. This is a remarkable proposition: The mere existence of a warrant not only gives an officer legal cause to arrest and search a person, it also forgives an officer who, with no knowledge of the warrant at all, unlawfully stops that person on a whim or hunch.... Remember, the officer stopped Strieff without suspecting him of committing any crime. By his own account, the officer did not fear Strieff.

....The majority also posits that the officer could not have exploited his illegal conduct because he did not violate the Fourth Amendment on purpose.... Never mind that the officer’s sole purpose was to fish for evidence..... [But] even officers prone to negligence [note the obvious sarcasm here. –ed.] can learn from courts that exclude illegally obtained evidence. Indeed, they are perhaps the most in need of the education.

....Most striking about the Court’s opinion is its insistence that the event here was “isolated”... .nothing about this case is isolated. Outstanding warrants are surprisingly common.... The States and Federal Government maintain databases with over 7.8 million outstanding warrants, the vast majority of which appear to be for minor offenses.... The Department of Justice recently reported that in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, with a population of 21,000, 16,000 people had outstanding warrants against them.

....By legitimizing the conduct that produces this double consciousness, this case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.

There's more, and it's worth reading. Sotomayor marshals a considerable amount of real-world evidence in her dissent. Thomas marshals none whatsoever. One justice just blandly assumes that this whole affair was a minor mistake that shouldn't affect the end result. The other knows perfectly well that this kind of thing happens all the time; that it happens to some kinds of people more than others; and that by legitimizing it, the court is sending a message that fishing expeditions against suspicionless pedestrians are perfectly OK. Elena Kagan, if anything, is even more dumbfounded than Sotomayor by the court's casual indifference to how the real world works:

The majority chalks up Fackrell’s Fourth Amendment violation to a couple of innocent “mistakes.” But far from a Barney Fife-type mishap, Fackrell’s seizure of Strieff was a calculated decision, taken with so little justification that the State has never tried to defend its legality. At the suppression hearing, Fackrell acknowledged that the stop was designed for investigatory purposes—i.e., to “find out what was going on [in] the house” he had been watching, and to figure out “what [Strieff] was doing there.” And Fackrell frankly admitted that he had no basis for his action except that Strieff “was coming out of the house.”

And Fackrell’s discovery of an arrest warrant—the only event the majority thinks intervened—was an eminently foreseeable consequence of stopping Strieff. As Fackrell testified, checking for outstanding warrants during a stop is the “normal” practice of South Salt Lake City police. In other words, the department’s standard detention procedures—stop, ask for identification, run a check—are partly designed to find outstanding warrants. And find them they will, given the staggering number of such warrants on the books.

Both the opinion and the dissents are remarkable pieces of writing. But the end result is clear. Police can now stop you in hopes of finding an outstanding warrant, and if they get lucky the Supreme Court says everything they do afterward is fine. This is exactly the kind of behavior the Supreme Court is supposed to stop, not the kind of behavior they're supposed to excuse.

This will never affect me. It will never affect anyone on the court. But will it affect the poor and the nonwhite in far greater numbers than anyone else? Oh yes. But you'd have to care even slightly about how the real world works to be worried about that. Thomas and four others don't.

Republicans announce a lot of health care plans. All of them are essentially the same, "a familiar hodgepodge of tax credits, health savings accounts, high-risk pools, block granting of Medicaid, tort reform, and interstate purchase of health plans." Today, after months of cogitating, House Republicans have finally agreed on yet another health care plan. It's not a hodgepodge, however, it's a "backpack." Beyond that, however, it should sound pretty familiar:

In place of President Barack Obama’s health law, House Republicans propose providing Americans with refundable tax credits.... catastrophic insurance.... health-savings accounts.... plans offered in other states.... fee-for-service insurance through a newly created Medicare insurance exchange [not a voucher! not a voucher! absolutely positively not a voucher! –ed.].... pay taxes on the value of whatever health insurance employers provide.

Hmmm. There's no mention of high-risk pools or tort reform or Medicaid block grants. What the hell is going on here? Who was responsible for—oh, wait. Maybe the Wall Street Journal just did a lousy job of describing the GOP plan. I can hardly blame them for not taking it too seriously. Let's check in with the Washington Post:

The GOP plan floats a variety of proposals.... refundable tax credit.... health savings accounts.... “high-risk pools”.... Medicaid funds would be handed to the states either as block grants or as per-capita allotments.

Now we're talking. Every single buzzword is there except for tort reform. But maybe I should check in with Reuters:

The Republican proposal would gradually increase the Medicare eligibility age, which currently is 65, to match that of the Social Security pension plan, which is 67 for people born in 1960 or later....The Republican plan includes medical liability reform that would put a cap on non-economic damages awarded in lawsuits, a measure aimed at cutting overall healthcare costs.

Tort reform is there after all! And as an extra added bonus, the Medicare eligibility age goes up to 67. Hallelujah!

How could this possibly have taken more than five minutes to write? It's identical to every health care plan ever proposed by Republicans. There is, of course, no funding mechanism, possibly because Republicans know perfectly well that it will do nothing and therefore require no funding. But here's my favorite bit of well-hidden snark from the Washington Post account:

The most significant omission from the Republican health-care plan, though, is to what degree it will maintain — or, more likely, reduce — insurance coverage for Americans....Asked about the plan’s effect on coverage, a Republican leadership aide said Monday, “You’re getting to the dynamic effect of the plan and we can’t answer that until the committees start to legislate.”

But there is a significant clue in the GOP plan that it anticipates a surge in the ranks of the uninsured. Before the Affordable Care Act, the federal government’s primary mechanism for compensating health providers for delivering care to the uninsured was through “disproportionate share hospital” payments, or DSH, which are allocated to facilities that treated large numbers of the uninsured. Under Obamacare, DSH payments were set to be phased out because coverage rates were expected to increase dramatically.... The Republican plan would repeal those cuts entirely.

Bottom line: this is just the usual conservative mush. It would accomplish nothing. It would insure no one. It would wipe out all the gains of Obamacare. Millions of people would have their current health care ripped away from them, all so that Republicans can repeal the 3.8 percent tax on high-earner investment income that funds Obamacare.

And just for good measure, it will also raise the Medicare eligibility age to 67. Because apparently, the old hodgepodge just wasn't quite Scrooge-like enough.

Tomorrow is Brexit Day, and by far the biggest demographic split is between young and old. Young voters overwhelmingly want to remain in the EU. Older voters overwhelmingly want to leave:

If young voters don't bother to turn out, Britain will end up with the worst imaginable world—and that's regardless of whether you support or oppose Brexit. This isn't an ordinary election, after all. It's one thing for older voters to to get their way about, say, a presidential candidate. In a few years you get another crack at things, and maybe your generation wins that one.

But Brexit is a permanent thing. If a bunch of nostalgic/resentful/racist oldsters vote Britain out of the EU, they'll be forcing their bitterness on a generation that doesn't want it. The truth is that Brexit will barely affect older voters either way: they mostly don't work and they mostly have only local friendships. But it will certainly affect all of the younger generations, who have decades left to live in whatever Britain is bequeathed to them. They want to grow up in a continent where they can work wherever they want and associate with whomever they please. It would be a travesty for a sour group of elderly misanthropes to deny them that.

Your Daily Trump Idiocy

What first? Today was religion day for Donald Trump, who met with conservative Christians in New York. So how did he do?

Trump's lack of religious faith is...what's the right word? I mean, it's obvious. Really, really, glaringly obvious. He plainly hasn't thought about religion for more than a few seconds in his entire adult life. And yet, apparently conservative Christians are willing to close their eyes and pretend otherwise. Why? Because he panders to them harder and more explicitly than anyone ever:

As president, he said, he’d work on things including: “freeing up your religion, freeing up your thoughts. You talk about religious liberty and religious freedom, you don’t have any religious freedom if you think about it,” he told the group, which broke in many times with applause.

Throughout the talk Trump emphasized that America was hurting due to what he described as Christianity’s slide to become “weaker, weaker, weaker.” He said he’d get department store employees to say “Merry Christmas” and would fight restrictions on public employees, such as public school coaches, from being allowed to lead sectarian prayer on the field.

....Marjorie Danenfelser of Susan B. Anthony List, which works to oppose abortion...said she couldn’t recall a candidate explicitly stating they would pursue “pro-life” justices. “They usually couch it in other words, like ‘constitutional,’ ” she said.

Remarkable. The reason that even committed religious ultras talk about appointing "constitutional conservatives" to the Supreme Court is that they understand you aren't supposed to have specific issue litmus tests for judges who are, in theory, making decisions based solely on the law. You're supposed to just hint at it. Trump is too ignorant to know that, so he just spouts off about appointing pro-life justices—and for people like Danenfelser, Trump's ignorance becomes a huge selling point. She views it as straight talking.

What else? Mark Cuban had this to say about Trump:

It's rare when you see someone get stupider before your eyes, but he's really working at it....But at some point, you’ve got to start learning and understanding the issues. You know, Donald has been at this a year but you don’t look at him and say, ‘Wow, he’s gotten so much smarter on this topic or that topic.' In fact, you look at him and say, ‘What the hell are you talking about?' That’s not good for America.

Trump's ignorance really is phenomenal. Just by osmosis, most people would pick up a fair amount of knowledge if they ran for president. It would be hard not to. But Trump is apparently so proud of his ignorance that he takes considerable pains to avoid learning anything. Even by Trump standards, this is truly peculiar.

But it goes beyond mere ignorance. In today's edition of the Trump Files, Max Rosenthal shows us a video of Trump not being able to multiply 17 times 6. (Neither could his kids, who acted as if they'd just been asked to solve a differential equation on the fly.) But that's not what's so great about this video. Lots of people might screw up this kind of mental arithmetic. What's great is that even after he's given the correct answer, he insists that his answer is really the correct one. So be sure to vote for Trump on November 9th! That's the right day. Not the 8th. No, no, no. It's the 9th. The 9th. It's really the 9th.

OK then. Aside from a momentary laugh at Donald Trump's expense, why else was I reading James Surowiecki's recent piece about startup companies? The pointer came from Jim Pethokoukis, who has been writing about the decline of American entrepreneurship for quite a while. This is potentially something to be concerned about, but I've always held back a bit. The problem is distinguishing between different kinds of startups. There's no question that we have fewer of them than we used to, but a lot of that is due to large companies taking over the mom-and-pop space in restaurants, retail, and other small businesses. Whatever your personal opinion of that is, there's not much reason to think the country as a whole is suffering because Wal-Mart has made it harder to start up a small general store and McDonald's has made it harder to start up a small local diner.

What we really care about are the kinds of startups that launch innovative products or adopt innovative business techniques to build whole new markets. Think light bulbs, radios, cars, package delivery, software, and social networks. Those are the kinds of entrepreneurs we don't want to discourage.

And apparently we aren't discouraging them—at least in the true startup phase. Surowiecki points us to some recent research suggesting that "high-quality" startups are as plentiful as ever:

New work by the MIT economists Scott Stern and Jorge Guzman shows that in 15 U.S. states between 1988 and 2014 there was no long-term decline in the formation of what they call “high-quality” startups...But there is a catch. While Stern and Guzman show that high-growth firms are being formed as actively as ever, they also find that these companies are not succeeding as often as such companies once did....As many seeds as ever are being planted. But fewer trees are growing to the sky.

Stern and Guzman are agnostic about why this is happening. But one obvious answer suggests itself: the increased power of established incumbents. We may think that we have been living in a business world in which incumbents are always on the verge of being toppled and competitive advantage is more fragile than ever. And clearly there are industries in which that has been the case—think of how Amazon transformed book retailing, or how digital downloads and streaming disrupted the music business. But as Hathaway and Litan document, American industry has grown more concentrated over the last 30 years, and incumbents have become more powerful in almost every business sector. As they put it, “it has become increasingly advantageous to be an incumbent, and less advantageous to be a new entrant.” Even in tech, the contrast is striking between the ferment of the late 1990s, when many sectors had myriad players struggling for share, and the seeming stability of today’s Google/Amazon/Facebook-dominated world.

I would argue that this is yet another reason to be very skeptical of modern antitrust law and its emphasis on "consumer welfare." Forty years of experience suggests that it just hasn't worked: instead of producing an economy that's good for consumers, it's produced an economy dominated by large companies that have little to fear from antitrust authorities. They're allowed to get as big as they want as long as they're able to make a plausible case that increased bigness is good for consumers—and they're very, very good at making that case. As a result, big market incumbents get ever bigger, and startups have an ever harder time in ever more markets. In the long run, this is decidedly not very consumer friendly.

If we want a more dynamic economy, we should quit protecting large, hulking incumbents. Our key interest should be ensuring plenty of competition, not engaging in pointless arguments about consumer welfare—a concept that's inherently fuzzy and far too easy to manipulate by smart corporate legal teams. To accomplish this, antitrust law needs to return to its older, cruder goal of simply keeping companies from getting too big and too dominant.

Competition is the engine that drives capitalism. Without it, governments have to rely on ever larger stacks of regulation to keep corporations in some semblance of order. But why bother? Focus instead on making markets friendly to startups, and then let competition do the heavy lifting of keeping them in line. It's better for consumers in the long run and it scales back the need for heavy-handed regulation. This really ought to be something that both Republicans and Democrats can manage to agree on.

I'm reading James Surowiecki's piece about startup companies, and couldn't help but laugh when I got to this:

New work by the MIT economists Scott Stern and Jorge Guzman shows that in 15 U.S. states between 1988 and 2014 there was no long-term decline in the formation of what they call “high-quality” startups. Stern and Guzman have figured out the characteristics of startups that are trying to become high-growth firms, which include being chartered in Delaware, registering for patents, and not being named after the company’s founder.

Hmmm. Can we all think of an entrepreneur who (a) names all of his startup companies after himself, and (b) runs about the lowest-quality businesses imaginable? Sure we can. In fact, I'd like Stern and Guzman to rerun their correlations after removing all Trump businesses from their dataset. They might find out that he's personally responsible for the entire effect.