From the Time Capsule: Ebola and Donald Trump

Lenny Bernstein of the Washington Post reminds us today of Donald Trump's calm and reassuring response to the Ebola crisis two years ago:

This, of course, fits with Trump's apparent panic toward bodily functions of any sort, as well as his basic callousness. Definitely the kind of guy you want in the White House.

I have my issues with Scott Winship and the way he calculates income and inflation, and in particular I continue to wrestle with his contention that PCE is generally a better way of measuring the cost of living than CPI. That said, he also has some good points to make. This week, on the 20th anniversary of the Welfare Reform Act, he's released a paper suggesting that since it was passed in 1996 child poverty has decreased dramatically—but only if you measure it right. If you measure only cash income, poverty has increased. But if you also account for welfare benefits, as you should, it's gone down. Here's his key chart:

I have a couple of issues with this. I remain skeptical of PCE for this particular kind of measurement, and I doubt that health benefits should be counted as part of a poverty measure. (Winship defends the inclusion of health benefits in an appendix.) Still, the overall picture suggests that actual poverty has been decreasing for a long time, and continued decreasing after 1996. Winship makes the same argument for deep poverty (income less than half the poverty level) and extreme poverty (living on $2 per day).

Is this due to welfare reform? I doubt it. In this and other charts, Winship shows the poverty rate declining since about 1980. I'd guess that this is the reason why:

Roughly speaking, we spend nearly a trillion dollars more on social welfare programs than we did three decades ago. That's about $8,000 per low-income person. This spending increased steadily during the 80s, steadily during the 90s, and steadily during the aughts. The amount of money we've spent dwarfs anything that welfare reform did or didn't do.

More to the point, there's simply no way that this amount of money hasn't reduced poverty. There are really only two alternatives here:

  • Social welfare spending has reduced poverty considerably.
  • Throwing even vast amounts of money at poverty doesn't work, so we might as well give up.

I wouldn't support welfare spending at all if it truly had the minuscule effect that partisan studies sometimes seem to show. I support it because I think it's done some real good. I think it's increased living standards for the poor, increased health care for the poor, and increased food security for the poor. I'd like to see us do more, but not because we haven't made a dent in poverty. I support it because I think it has made a dent.

Yes, Politics Is Sort of a Grubby Business

I've been genuinely confused about the whole Foundationgate thing. Did big donors to the Clinton Foundation get extra special access to Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State? By all the evidence, no. They may have tried to get access, but for the most part they didn't. So far I haven't seen any emails that even remotely suggest otherwise. If anything, Hillary seems to have been unusually careful to avoid entanglements with the Foundation.

So what's the problem? I chatted about this on Twitter last night with Rick Hasen, a guy I trust on these kinds of things. But I still came away confused. So here is Hasen at greater length this morning in USA Today. After talking a bit about Donald Trump, he turns to Hillary:

And now revelations from the latest batch of State Department emails released through actions of the group Judicial Watch show that the largest donors to the Clinton Foundation had easy access to Clinton’s inner circle. S. Daniel Abraham, for example, the billionaire behind the Slim Fast diet and a Clinton fundraising bundler, got eight meetings with Clinton while she was secretary of State to discuss Middle East issues he cared about. An AP analysis found that at least 85 people who met with Clinton at the State Department were donors or connected to donors.

None of these things — Trump courting super PAC donors, Clinton getting paid by the wealthiest companies as a private citizen, or Clinton as secretary of State giving access to big donors to her foundation — amounts to criminal activity or even what we might term corruption. In the Supreme Court’s Citizens United case, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the Court, declared that “ingratiation and access are not corruption.”

But there’s still something wrong with a political system in which access goes to the highest bidder. The Clinton team is quick to argue that there’s no evidence the meetings Clinton gave to big donors led to any official actions. But those donors get more than just a picture with a candidate; they get a chance to make their pitch for the policies they want pursued or blocked, a pitch the rest of us don’t get to make because we don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars or more to contribute to campaigns.

This is fine. If the beef with Hillary is that she's an ordinary politician who's more likely to see you if you're (a) important, (b) a party wheelhorse, and (c) an important donor, then I have no argument. I also have no argument that this is unseemly.

But it's also something I can't get too upset about. It's not just that everyone does this. It's not just that everyone in American politics does this. It's the fact that everyone, everywhere, throughout all of human history has done this. It's just the way human societies work. I'm all in favor of trying to reduce the influence of money on politics, but I doubt there's any way to truly make much of a dent in it. And as I've mentioned before, I don't consider it one of our nation's biggest problems anyway.

So here are several possible takes on Hillary:

  1. Powerful people all run in the same circles. They all know each other. They all ask favors from one another. Hillary is part of this circle.
  2. People who are big party donors and big policy influencers have more access to politicians than, say, you or me. On this score, Hillary is a garden variety politician.
  3. Donating to the Clinton Foundation was a well-known requirement for getting a meeting with Hillary.

I've simply seen no evidence of #3, and that includes the AP's strained effort yesterday. Besides, if this were truly well known, by now someone would have come forward to spill the beans.

As for #1 and #2, I don't doubt that they're as true of Hillary as they are of every other politician in the country. This might be an unfortunate state of affairs, but it's certainly no scandal. So I remain confused. If you want to criticize the role of money in politics, that's fine. If you want to criticize the outsize influence of the connected and powerful, that's fine. If you want to criticize Hillary Clinton for being an ordinary part of this system—as Bernie Sanders did—that's fine. (As long as you're not also part of that same system, of course.) But is there some kind of special scandal associated with Hillary in the State Department? I sure don't see it.

Good Morning America’s Amy Robach apparently had a brain fart the other day and referred to blacks as “colored people,” rather than the acceptable—even au courant—"people of color." But why does this stuff keep changing? Why have we gone from colored to negro to black to African-American to POC? I was going to write a bit about this, but John McWhorter says precisely what I was going to say, so I'll just let him say it:

“So what do they want to be called now???” one might ask about black people, differently abled people, cognitively challenged people, and others. However, the rolling terminology is not based on willful petulance or a deliberate way of keeping other people off guard. It stems from the way euphemism works—or better, always starts to work but doesn’t.

Namely, a euphemism is designed to step around an unpleasant association. When it comes to societal terms, the idea is to rise above pejorative connotations that society has linked to the thing in question. Hence while cripple was once a perfectly civil term, negative associations accreted upon it like rust or gnats, such that handicapped was felt as a neutral-sounding innovation. However, after a time, that word was accreted in the same way, such that disabled felt more humane. Yet, as we have seen, even that didn’t last.

The lesson is that when there are negative associations with something or someone, periodic renewal of terminology is not a feint, but something to be expected. Until the thoughts or opinions in question change, we can expect the rust to settle in, the gnats to swarm back on—and the only solution, albeit eternally temporary, is to fashion a new term....The rolling terminology, then, is an attempt to refashion thought, not to be annoying.

And that's why these things seem to change so often. We're trying to break the bad associations of the past, so we create a new word. A few decades later, if those bad associations still exist, we try again with another new word. This keeps happening until the associations are finally and completely severed. Needless to say, that can take a while.

Bernie Sells Out, According to Bernie Fans

Bernie Sanders has finally announced the next step in his political revolution, but he's learning that it's no easy task to ride herd on a bunch of idealists who have been promised the moon:

The announcement of the group, which will be livestreamed Wednesday night, also comes as the majority of its staff resigned after the appointment last Monday of Jeff Weaver, Mr. Sanders’s former campaign manager, to lead the organization. Several people familiar with the organization said eight core staff members have stepped down. The group’s entire organizing department quit this week, along with people working in digital and data positions.

....“I left and others left because we were alarmed that Jeff would mismanage this organization as he mismanaged the campaign,” she said, expressing concern that Mr. Weaver would “betray its core purpose by accepting money from billionaires and not remaining grass-roots funded and plowing that billionaire cash into TV instead of investing it in building a genuine movement.”

Live by the sword, die by the sword. But if Bernie isn't pure enough for these folks, where will they go next? Jill Stein?

Matt Yglesias speaks truth to power today:

I can't tell you the number of times I've cut off a conversation on Twitter with something like "Signing off now. Twitter is a horrible place to discuss anything more complicated than a cookie." And it is! People try endlessly to turn it into something it isn't, and the result is that I routinely get told to go take a look at some "epic tweetstorm" or other that "must be Storified." Usually it turns out to be a grand total of about 300 words split up into awkward 20-word chunks. Milton would not be impressed. It could be done way better, and possibly faster, as a simple blog post.

In fact, I've long imagined that Twitter originated something like this:


JACK DORSEY and BIZ STONE are sitting in a dorm hallway at NYU, where they are undergrads.1 A half-smoked joint lies between them. Earlier in the day they got assigned their class project for Communications 152.

DORSEY: Oh man. "Develop a communications medium that demonstrates as many principles of accurate information exchange as possible." WTF?

STONE: I know. Jesus.

Next day. DORSEY and STONE are in DORSEY's dorm room.

DORSEY: Hey, I had an idea. How about if we do a proof by contradiction?

STONE: What?

DORSEY: Let's develop the worst communications medium possible and show how it screws things up!

STONE: Dude. That's brilliant. Like what?

DORSEY: Well, good communication requires enough bandwidth to express an idea fully. Let's limit ours to just a few words at a time.

STONE: And strong emotions interfere with accuracy. Let's develop something that encourages outrage. That means digital. Like a chatroom or something. People are always going postal on those.

DORSEY: We could make it even worse. Maybe by screwing around with response times?

STONE: Sure. Latency should be just long enough to allow other people to barge in during the middle of a conversation. It would drive people crazy.

DORSEY: You'd never be sure who's responding to what!

STONE: Right. And it should be wide open to everyone, so people can join in even if they have no idea what the conversation is about.

DORSEY: And then other people see the newcomers, and barge in themselves. It's like the ultimate game of telephone.

STONE: You'd end up with viral mobs! It's the worst possible environment for communicating.

DORSEY: Sure, because no one who piles on knows if they're the only critic, or if thousands have already jumped in. You never really know who your audience is, which is one of the linchpins of good communication.

STONE: Nuance and tone are important too. We need to eliminate those.

DORSEY: We can do that by making messages really short. Text message sized. You can barely even speak English in text messages, let alone add caveats and nuance.

STONE: And no editing. Once you've said something, you can't change it even if you realize you screwed up.

DORSEY: It's tailor made for misunderstanding.

STONE: And if it were marketed right, highly verbal people would be its main consumers. They'd go nuts trying to carry on conversations on complex topics 140 characters at a time.

DORSEY: And the campus language police! Can you imagine how they'd react to every little miscue?

STONE: This is great. It's like cutting out everyone's tongues and dumping them into a big overheated room.

DORSEY: And it would still be good for jokes and cat videos, which would demonstrate something important about jokes and cat videos.

Twelve weeks later. DORSEY and STONE are back in the hallway.

DORSEY: He gave us a C-? That's brutal.

STONE: "Interesting concept, but too divorced from reality."

DORSEY: Sheesh.

Ten years later. DORSEY and STONE are drinking margaritas on DORSEY'S yacht.

DORSEY: Man, people sure are stupid.

STONE: But we're rich!

DORSEY: Yeah. It'll be kind of a drag if Trump wins, though. I wasn't really expecting that.

STONE: Chill, dude. We're rich!

Ship sails into sunset. DORSEY and STONE have enigmatic expressions on their faces. Curtain.

1Yes, I know they didn't go to college together. Work with me here.

Here is the Wall Street Journal today:

Donald Trump Courts Black Vote While Avoiding African-American Communities

Donald Trump for the last week has been asking for support from African-American voters who have long backed Democrats, but his campaign has for months rebuffed invitations from supporters for the Republican presidential nominee to appear before black audiences.

....Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said he has passed along requests from historically black colleges for Mr. Trump to speak....“You don’t go to a white community to talk about black folks. Hello, it doesn’t make sense.”

Ms. Manigault,1 who was appointed to her position in July, said she would answer questions about her work for the Trump campaign over email but then didn't respond to emailed questions. Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks didn't respond to requests for comment.

In a way, I guess I feel sorry for the authors of this piece. I mean, it's obvious what's going on. Trump couldn't care less about black votes. His speeches are aimed like a laser at his white base, using language carefully calculated to assuage their fear of being called racist if they support him. Nobody in their right mind would give the speeches he gave if they were truly trying to address African-Americans.

But even though this is obvious to everybody, Reid Epstein and Michael Bender can't come right out and say it. They can sort of imply it, if you're smart enough to read all the hints in their piece. But most people probably aren't that savvy. They'll just see yet another back-and-forth about process and strategy in the Trump campaign and then turn the page.

I don't know what the answer is. Tossing objective reporting onto the ash heap of history isn't the answer. It's extremely useful to have people who at least try to write neutrally. And yet, too often this gets in the way of reporting plain facts. So what should we do about this?

1This would be Omarosa Manigault, a contestant on the first season of The Apprentice. She is now Trump's director of African-American outreach, which should give you a pretty good idea of just how much he cares about the black vote.

The debate continues over whether Donald Trump's blue-collar supporters—virtually of them white—are motivated by economic anxiety or racial anxiety. I think the evidence is pretty clear that racial anxiety plays the larger role, but it's hardly the only role. Economic anxiety is real too.

The usual response is that this just can't be true. White men make more money than black men, which means they have less economic anxiety than black men. So why do they support Trump and black men don't? It must be racial animus.

But this is wrong. I've made this point before, but I want to make it again: economic contentment is largely related to change, not to absolute levels of income. A Chinese peasant who makes $10 per day lives in dire poverty. But if that peasant made $5 per day a few years ago and now has indoor plumbing, he's probably pretty happy. Things are getting better. On the flip side, an American manager who makes $80,000 has a pretty good income. But if he made $100,000 a couple of years ago, he's probably tearing his hair out. He built a life around his $100,000 income—mortgage payments, car payments, property taxes, insurance, etc.—and suddenly he has to cut back and probably go into debt. Life sucks.

This should be obvious. In the Middle Ages, pretty much everyone lived in grinding poverty by today's standards. Do we suppose that all of them were desperately unhappy? Of course not. As long as things were going the same as always, they were probably about as happy as us. But if a crop failed, they became desperate.

I've long thought that the single most interesting finding of behavioral economics is the fact that people respond to loss far more sharply than they respond to gain.1 In money terms, it's a factor of about 2:1. Even a small loss—in money, in status, in living standards—will cause enormous anxiety. And that loss can be relative as well as absolute.

I've posted the chart on the right before, and I can't guarantee that it's precisely accurate. But it's roughly correct, and what it shows is that every demographic has made economic progress over the past 40 years except for one: white men. Some of those gains might be small—11 percent over four decades for black men isn't much—but at least it's a gain. White men alone have lost ground. And more to the point, in relative terms they've lost lots of ground.

So is it plausible that a lot of white men feel economically anxious even if their absolute incomes are still higher than women, higher than blacks, and higher than Hispanics? Sure. What matters is loss, and white men have been losing relative ground for a long time. They've lost ground economically and they've lost status as well. White men used to be kings of the hill, but now they can hear the footsteps of other folks catching up to them. Economic anxiety, gender anxiety, and racial anxiety are all perfectly normal consequences of this.

1Needless to say, economists didn't really discover this. They just quantified it. But this dynamic has been obvious for a very long time to observers of human nature. Examples are legion, but here's one my readers might appreciate. It's from Isaac Asimov's Caves of Steel, published in 1953:

It was the addition of status that brought the little things: a more comfortable seat here, a better cut of meat there, a shorter wait in line at the other place. To the philosophical mind, these items might seem scarcely worth any great trouble to acquire. Yet no one, however philosophical, could give up those privileges, once acquired, without a pang.

There's more after that. Just generally, though, writers throughout history have acknowledged that the humiliation which accompanies a loss of status is a very strong emotion indeed.

The way Washington works—in fact, the way everything works—is that people socialize; they develop relationships; and they often try to leverage those relationships to call in favors. We have laws and institutions to try to put boundaries on this kind of thing, but it's still ubiquitous. This is just the way homo sapiens is wired.

So now we have some more emails related to Hillary Clinton, and what have we learned? The crown prince of Bahrain wanted to meet with the Secretary of State, and in addition to making a request through normal channels he also talked to someone at the Clinton Foundation, who then called Huma Abedin. The meeting took place, which is entirely unexceptional since meeting with people like this is the Secretary of State's job. There's no indication that the extra push by the Foundation had any particular effect.

Another time, someone at the Foundation called Abedin to see if she could expedite a visa. She said this made her nervous, and the Foundation guy backed off.

On another occasion, a lobbyist who had formerly been a Democratic staffer asked for a meeting with her client, a coal company executive. Abedin blew her off.

We might yet find a smoking gun in all these emails. But so far, the trend is clear: lots of people talked to Huma Abedin to try to set up meetings with Hillary Clinton. Generally speaking, Abedin treated them politely but told them to get lost. That's about it.

If some of these efforts had succeeded, that would hardly be noteworthy. It's the kind of thing that happens all the time. What's really noteworthy about the most recent email releases is that they demonstrate a surprisingly high level of integrity from Hillary Clinton's shop at Foggy Bottom. Huma Abedin was tasked with running interference on favor seekers, and she seems to have done exactly that. There's no evidence at all that being a donor to the Clinton Foundation helped anyone out.

So tell me again what the issue is here?

Atrios says that 401(k) retirement plans have been a disaster:

The current system has failed, and the exciting plan to "fix" the failed system is run the same experiment, with minor tweaks, over for another 40 years and see how that works. Of course if you just grab your trusty envelope back and do The Math, the pittance people will save in these exciting new plans will be just that, a pittance.

This is a common view on the left, usually delivered with no evidence because it's considered so obvious that no evidence is needed. On the occasions when there is evidence, it's usually something about the stock market being in bad shape circa 2010.

So let's take a look at the evidence. I've put all of this up before, but not in one place. So let's collect it. Here's chart #1:

Retirement-age folks have done better than any other age group since 1974, and way better since 2000. So far so good. Here's chart #2:

This is Social Security's projection of median elderly income over the next 25 years. It looks pretty good too. There's no evident crisis in these numbers. And this is not from some think tank with an axe to grind. It's from the Social Security Administration's MINT projection, which is probably the most comprehensive look we have at all sources of income among retired folks. Here's chart #3:

This comes from the Center for Retirement Research, a decidedly liberal outfit. They've been a longtime proponent of the view that 401(k) plans are worse than old-style defined benefit pensions, but last year they revisited this question using better data. What they found is that for the past 30 years, pension wealth has stayed steady even as 401(k) plans have become more popular and DB plans have gone the way of the dodo (except in the public sector, where they're still common). In other words 401(k)s aren't a failure.

My final bit of data, sadly, doesn't lend itself to chart format, so we shall have to use words instead. In 2006, Congress passed the Pension Protection Act, something that most critics of 401(k) plans seem to ignore—or perhaps are blissfully unaware of. In the past 10 years, it's accomplished the following:

  • Allowed companies to automatically enroll workers (subject to an opt-out), thus increasing the number of people with 401(k)s.
  • Made 401(k)s more accessible to small businesses.
  • Increased 401(k) participation considerably among young workers and low-income workers, who need them the most.
  • Encouraged the use of lifecycle funds, the best type for retirement plans.

Put all these things together, and there's very little evidence for any kind of broad retirement crisis. Retirement readiness in America seems to be about the same as it's always been.

Does that mean everything is hunky-dory? Of course not. 401(k) fees are still too high, something that I'd dearly love to see Hillary Clinton address with new federal regulation. It's probably also true that old-style pensions were a little more generous for low-income workers than 401(k)s, though the evidence on this score is fuzzy. What's more, although retirement readiness is no worse than it's been in the past, it's not really any better either. In particular, folks at the bottom of the income ladder still don't participate much in 401(k) programs and rely entirely on Social Security, which is pretty stingy for low earners.

My answer to this is Kevin's One-Third-One-Third plan. That is, Social Security payments for the bottom third should be increased by a third. This would make a huge difference to the lowest-income workers, but at a pretty reasonable price. My back-of-the-envelope chicken scratchings suggest it would cost about $20-30 billion. That's politically within reason.

There's one other change I'd like to see, but I'll leave that for another time. In a nutshell, there really doesn't appear to be any kind of broad-based retirement crisis. 401(k) plans have performed decently and are likely to perform even better in the future. Our biggest retirement problem is with the lowest-income workers, and that could be fixed at a pretty modest cost if we could only muster the political will to do it.

UPDATE: I really wanted my plan to be called "One-Third-One-Third-One-Third," but I couldn't think of a third "One-Third." However, @Noman suggested raising the Social Security earnings cap to pay for my plan, and it turns out that an increase in the cap of one-third would raise roughly $30 billion. Isn't it great when a plan comes together?

So now it's the One-Third-One-Third-One-Third plan: payments to the bottom third should be boosted one-third by raising the earnings cap one-third. Take that, Herman Cain.