Kevin Drum

The Media Weighs In On Carly Fiorina

| Wed Apr. 27, 2016 5:12 PM EDT

The reviews are in on Ted Cruz's choice of Carly Fiorina as his running mate. Can you spot the consensus opinion?

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Trump's Foreign Policy Doesn't Improve When Read From a Teleprompter

| Wed Apr. 27, 2016 2:31 PM EDT

I kinda sorta listened to Donald Trump's foreign policy speech this morning. You know, the one we were all looking forward to because it was written by an actual speechwriter and would be delivered via teleprompter. That's Trump being presidential, I guess.

So how did Trump do? That depends on your expectations. For a guy who never uses a teleprompter, not bad. By normal standards, though, he sounded about like a sixth grader reciting a speech from note cards. On content, it was the same deal. Compared with normal Trump, it wasn't bad. By any real-world standard, it was ridiculous.

Fact-checking his speech is sort of pointless, basically a category error. Trump is a zeitgeisty kind of guy, and that's the only real way to evaluate anything he says. In this case, the zeitgeist was "America First"—and everyone's first question was, does he know? Does he know that this is a phrase made famous by isolationists prior to World War II? My own guess is that he didn't know this the first time he used it, but he does now. Certainly his speechwriter does. But he doesn't care. It fits his favorite themes well, and the only people who care about its history are a bunch of overeducated pedants. His base doesn't know where it came from and couldn't care less.

So: America First. And that's about it. Trump will do only things that are in America's interest. He will destroy ISIS, crush Iran, wipe out the trade deficit with China, eradicate North Korea's bomb program, and give Russia five minutes to cut a deal with us or face the consequences. Aside from that, Trump's main theme seemed to be contradicting himself at every turn. We will crush our enemies and protect our friends—but only if our friends display suitable gratitude for everything we do for them. We will rebuild our military and our enemies will fear us—but "war and aggression will not be my first instinct." We will be unpredictable—but also consistent so everyone knows they can trust us. He won't tell ISIS how or when he's going to wipe them out—but it will be very soon and with overwhelming force. He will support our friends—but he doesn't really think much of international agreements like NATO.

Then there was the big mystery: his out-of-the-blue enthusiasm for 3-D printing, artificial intelligence, and cyberwar. Where did that come from? In any case, the Pentagon is obviously already working on all three of these things, so it's not clear just what Trump has in mind. (Actually, it is clear: nothing. Somebody put these buzzwords in his speech and he read them. He doesn't have the slightest idea what any of them mean.)

So what would Trump do about actual conflicts that are actually happening right now? Would he send troops to Ukraine? To Syria? To Libya? To Yemen? To Iraq? Naturally, he didn't say. Gotta be unpredictable, after all.

But whatever else you take away, America will be strong under Donald Trump. We will be respected and feared. Our military will be ginormous. No one will laugh at us anymore. We will proudly defend the values of Western civilization. This all serves pretty much the same purpose in foreign policy that political correctness, Mexican walls, and Muslim bans serve in Trump's domestic policy.

And there you have it. Did he really need a teleprompter for that?

Cruz-Fiorina in 2016!

| Wed Apr. 27, 2016 1:17 PM EDT

The rumor mill says that Ted Cruz plans to announce today that Carly Fiorina will be his running mate. Jim Geraghty comments:

Announcing Fiorina today would be a big gamble for Cruz. There’s a lot to like about Fiorina, but will this announcement help lock up Indiana and give Cruz a slew of delegates in places like California? If Fiorina is today’s big news, we may look back on this as a key moment where Cruz united the anti-Trump factions of the party... or we may look back on this as a Hail Mary pass.

Hmmm. Pretty sure I know which one of these it will be. In fact, it's even worse than it seems. Given Fiorina's popularity in California, it's more like a Hail Mary pass to the wrong end zone.

Do Lucky People Feel Better About Paying Taxes?

| Wed Apr. 27, 2016 12:08 PM EDT

Robert Frank thinks that we can get rich people to support higher taxes by reminding them of how lucky they are:

Underestimating the importance of luck is [] a totally understandable tendency....Most highly successful people are very talented and hardworking, after all, and when they construct the narratives of their own lives, the most readily available memories are the difficult problems they've been solving every day for decades. Less salient are the sporadic external events that also invariably matter, like the mentor who helped you during a rough patch in 11th grade or the promotion you got because a more qualified colleague had to turn it down to care for an ill spouse.

....I've seen even brief discussions of the link between success and luck temper the outrage many wealthy people feel about taxes....In my own recent conversations with highly successful people, I've seen opinions change on the spot. Many who seem never to have considered the possibility that their success stemmed from factors other than their own talent and effort are often surprisingly willing to rethink. In many instances, even brief reflection stimulates them to recall specific examples of good breaks they've enjoyed along the way.

I've long wondered how it is that so many people are completely clueless about how lucky they are. Off the top of my head, here's the story of my life:

I was born in the richest state in the richest country in the richest era of human history. I was born white, male, straight, and healthy. I was born with a high IQ and an even temper. My parents loved me and took care of me. We weren't rich, but I never wanted for anything important. I attended good quality state schools free of charge for 17 years. I never had any catastrophic money problems after I left home. By a rather unlikely chance, I ended up marrying the most wonderful person in the world. I had a great mentor at one job who helped me make an improbable move into high-tech marketing. Later I found myself working for a guy I happened to click with, and ended up vice president of marketing. Our company eventually got acquired and I made a bunch of money. After I left, I just happened to start blogging as a hobby right at the time blogging became big. A couple of years later I got a call out of the blue asking if I wanted to blog for pay. A few years after that I got another call out of the blue and ended up at MoJo.

There's more, but that's enough for now. And of course, recently I've had some bad luck. But even that hasn't been so bad. Thanks to all the good luck I had before, I've received hundreds of thousands of dollars of top-notch medical treatment at practically no cost.

Does any of this mean I didn't work hard and diligently? Of course not. But lots of people work hard and diligently. In fact, most people do. If I had worked hard and diligently but been born in a small village in Pakistan, I'd be...living in a small village in Pakistan right now. All the hard work and diligence in the world wouldn't have done much of anything for me.

I can easily believe that most people give short shrift to all this stuff. Hell, I've known people who were smug about their real estate acumen because they happened to buy a house in 2002, and then cried about their terrible luck when they failed to sell it in 2007. We all like to fool ourselves into believing that good things are due to our smarts while bad things are all down to bad luck. But for most of us, there's an awful lot of good luck involved in our lives too.

But here's the thing I'm interested in: is it really true that pointing this out to a rich person is likely to turn them into a tax-loving supporter of the welfare state? That hasn't been my experience, but then, I've never gone whole hog on the luck argument. Maybe it works! But if it does, we liberals have sure been remarkably negligent for the past few decades. This is a pretty easy argument to make, after all.

So: has anyone (other than Robert Frank) tried this? Ideally with a rich person, but even an upper-middle-class Republican will do. Did it work? Inquiring minds want to know.

Hillary Clinton Wants All Millennials to Feel Free to Use Her Lawn

| Wed Apr. 27, 2016 10:51 AM EDT

I guess I'm finally curious enough about something to write a post about it. The subject is The Kids Today. Here are a couple of recent posts from Atrios:

I know I keep returning this subject, and I probably don't have anything especially new to say about it, but I guess support for Bernie by The Kids Today has brought a lot of it out recently. I'm increasingly amazed that The Kids Today seems to include anyone under 40, and that the olds (#notallolds) hate them with white hot passion. The Kids Today are Generation Screwed, and the Old Economy Steves of the world really should shut their pie holes.

And:

Hope to be wrong, but suspect that team Clinton (very broadly defined) will still be talking about Berniebros in September. I'm quite happy for Hillary Clinton to be the nominee, as I always thought she would be. I'm not happy with the months of "we would have won it easy if not for these meddling kids who won't vote in November" rhetoric. Better figure out how to appeal to them. Stop calling them immature and stupid. The goal is to win, not to make early excuses for why you're going to lose.

I realize that our personal takes on this subject are strongly influenced by which blogs/tweets/etc. we happen to read, and Atrios and I are probably reading different stuff. But I still wonder where this is coming from. Do older folks really hate millennials with a white hot passion? Is Team Clinton obsessed with Berniebros? I just don't see it. What I've seen is a competitive primary where both sides have been sniping at the other, just like 2008. And now that it's over, the sniping will fade away. Just speaking personally, my Twitter feed and general reading list has been about equally full of rancor aimed at both sides. The youngs are starry-eyed idealists; the olds are corrupt sellouts. Berniebros are disgusting; Hillarybots are cutthroat. Bernie is clueless about how to get things done; Hillary is a warmonger. Etc.

If you yourself are a millennial, I suppose it's only natural to pay special attention to every single op-ed ever written on the subject of millennials. But I don't think this particular genre is any more prevalent today than op-eds about young Gen Xers a couple of decades ago or op-eds about young boomers back when I was graduating from college. They're no more critical, either. Just the same old stuff about middle-aged folks trying to understand younger folks, sometimes with sympathy and sometimes without.

I guess I'm doing that annoying oldster thing where I use my personal experience to shrug off what's happening today as just more of the same. But honest, I wouldn't do it if I saw endless streams of criticism of Bernie and Bernie supporters—and millennials in general—that truly seemed way out of proportion to what I've seen before. But I just haven't.

As for Hillary, I can guarantee that the only thing she and her team want from millennials is their support. That's been crystal clear from the start, and the fact that there are some assholes on her side doesn't change that. There are always assholes on all sides. But Team Hillary itself, even broadly defined, has no greater desire than to prove itself to millennials and get their votes in November. Just wait and see.

Obamacare's Competitive Markets Are Starting to Work Pretty Well

| Wed Apr. 27, 2016 12:43 AM EDT

The decision last week by United Healthcare to drop out of Obamacare got a lot of attention, but the truth is that UH was a pretty small player in the exchanges. What's more important—but hasn't gotten much attention—is the fact that more and more Obamacare insurers are getting close to profitability. Richard Mayhew comments:

2014 was a year where there were only guesses about both the Exchange population, the market structure, and federal policy structure (specifically the risk corridor revenue neutrality restrictions. 2015 had a bit more clarity on who was coming into the market, what was working and what was not working, and what federal policy on risk corridors would actually be. 2016 is the first year where the policies are priced on functionally decent real information and some of the amazingly dumb strategic decisions have been unwound through either course changes or through exiting the market.

As a simple reminder, competitive markets should see some companies make money and some companies that offer more expensive and less attractive products lose money. I would be extremely worried if everyone was making money after three years, just like I would be extremely worried that everyone was losing money after three years of increasingly better data.

Obamacare critics have spent a lot of energy trying to pretend that premiums on the exchanges have skyrocketed, but that's never been true. What is true is that premiums started below projections and have since risen moderately as insurers get a better grasp on their customer base. This is how competitive markets work: players enter the market with prices designed to attract market share; customers pick winners and losers; prices adjust over time; and some companies are successful while others drop out. Eventually you reach a rough equilibrium, which we're getting close to with Obamacare.

It's ironic (or something) that the problems conservatives are making such a fuss about are the result of precisely what they say they want: competitive insurance markets. Apparently Obamacare has produced a little more competition than they're comfortable with.

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Three Awesome Paragraphs — And Only You Can Decide Which Is the Awesomest of All

| Tue Apr. 26, 2016 6:18 PM EDT

While we wait for polls to close on Super Tuesday 4 (seriously), I've been catching up on news in the tech biz. And I need your help. Which of these is the greatest paragraph of the day? You have three choices.

The first one, from Michael Hiltzik of the LA Times, is part of an interview with Michael Ferro, chairman of the company that owns the LA Times, about how they plan to supercharge the LA Times:

The strategic plan also includes a "content monetization engine" that will use artificial intelligence to redistribute Tribune Publishing content to multiple destinations and market the content in a way "we think will revolutionize our content strategy," Ferro said. "We think it'll be a rock-star business" that can "create more revenue ... than you've ever seen." That module will also be unveiled May 4, he said.

A content monetization engine! That is so awesome. And it will create more revenue "than you've ever seen." I've heard plenty of hyperbole from tech evangelists before, but nothing quite like that. Next up is Twitter:

The increase in users, which reversed a decline in the previous quarter, was a rare positive for the ailing company....The company reported 310 million monthly active users, up from 305 million the previous quarter....For the first three months of the year, the company reported $595 million in revenue, missing the $608 million Wall Street had expected....Overall, Twitter said it saw a net loss of $80 million, or 12 cents a share, which was a bit better than analysts had forecast.

This is not an awesome paragraph per se, especially since it's only a paragraph in the first place by virtue of my ellipses. But think about this. Twitter has 310 million users. 310 million! It generates revenues of about $2 billion per year. And yet, it's an "ailing" company that's still losing a ton of money. How tough is the social networking market when 310 million users isn't enough to turn a profit? And how does a company that basically runs a server farm manage to rack up more than $2 billion in operating costs annually? Beats me.

Finally, we have this contender from a piece about Apple's first revenue decline in 13 years:

Analysts do expect that iPhone sales will recover after the company introduces this year's expected model of the iPhone....Reports based on apparent weak links in Apple's supply chain indicate that the new phone could have a new kind of headphone port, be dust-proof and waterproof and may even sport a totally redesigned home button.

OMG. A totally redesigned home button! What will the geniuses at Apple think of next? A totally redesigned on/off button? A totally redesigned microphone? A totally redesigned headphone port? Oh wait....

Anyway, those are your choices. My heart is with #1, which is truly as awesome a paragraph as I've read lately. I can't wait for May 4th.

Lemonade Is the Opiate of the Masses

| Tue Apr. 26, 2016 4:02 PM EDT

I'm having some trouble coming up with political or even quasi-political topics to write about this morning, so instead let's watch Chris Hayes risk his hard-won career in a single tweet:

A few tweets later Hayes is careful to assure us that he hasn't gone completely around the bend: "In conclusion: @Beyonce is legitimately a genius and we're lucky to have her in our shared cultural life." Whew. Even in the polysyncretic, multicultural stewpot that defines modern America, there are still a few norms of required behavior left, and unqualified praise of Beyoncé is high on that list. I was relieved to see that Hayes was questioning only the meaning of Beyonce's lyrics, not her unparalleled genius.

I suppose it comes as no surprise that I don't care one way or the other about Beyoncé. I've read snatches of the lyrics from Lemonade, and they strike me about the same way most popular music lyrics strike me. "Middle fingers up, put them hands high. Wave it in his face, tell him, boy, bye. Tell him, boy, bye, middle fingers up. I ain't thinking ‘bout you." That really doesn't do much for me, but de gustibus. I could name lots of stuff that's meaningful to me but strikes most other people as puerile or just plain dumb.

Still, it really is kind of weird that Hayes is so obviously reticent about asking his question. For those of you who just returned from a trip to Mt. Everest, Lemonade is Beyoncé's latest album, and the lyrics are all about the pain she felt when her husband, music mogul Jay-Z, cheated on her. Or so it's universally assumed. It is very definitely not assumed that Beyoncé is capable of writing searing lyrics that have nothing to do with her own personal life. Odd, isn't it? That's almost the definition of a genius. Why couldn't she do that?

For what it's worth, I'd also point out a couple of other things. First, Beyoncé is famous for her almost fanatical control of her image. Second, as many people have pointed out, Lemonade is available for streaming only on Tidal, which is Jay-Z's company. So that means Beyoncé is helping Jay make a lot of money off his alleged infidelity—and shoring up his faltering streaming service at the same time.

So then. Take your pick:

  • Jay-Z cheated on Beyoncé. She's pissed off about it and wrote an album to exorcise her pain.
  • Nothing happened. It's just an album on the subject of infidelity and other things, which Beyoncé captures with astonishing virtuosity. Geniuses can do that sort of thing.
  • It's all part of Beyoncé's endless pseudo-narrative, which she controls with about the same subtlety that Stalin used to control the Red Army. Art in the service of art may have a long and rich history, but art in the service of great riches does too.

And with that, I'm off to lunch while everyone tears me apart. Have fun!

It Was Chinese Tea That Spawned the Tea Party

| Tue Apr. 26, 2016 12:18 PM EDT

Today brings a new academic entry in the angry voter sweepstakes. A quartet of high-powered economists took a look at congressional districts and divided them up by how much they were exposed to trade with China. Some districts showed lots of job losses due to trade while others showed very little. How did voters react?

Districts with lots of job losses were somewhat more likely to vote out incumbents, but not by a lot. Nor were they more likely to switch parties. However, they were likely to become more extreme, electing very conservative Republicans and very liberal Democrats:

The point estimates suggest that about three quarters of the movement away from the political center induced by trade is the result of increasing conservativeness among elected legislators, while one quarter is due to increasing liberalness.

....Districts subject to larger increases in import competition from China are substantially less likely to elect a moderate legislator....Comparing more and less trade-exposed districts, the more-exposed district would become 18.5 percentage points less likely to have a centrist in power between 2002 and 2010. To put this magnitude in context, over the 2002 to 2010 time period, the fraction of “moderates” in the House declines to 37.1% from a baseline of 56.8%.

The authors believe that import competition from China following their accession to the WTO has played a big role in the polarization of American politics:

China bashing is now a popular pastime as much among liberal Democrats as among Tea Party Republicans. Our contribution in this paper is to show that this political showmanship is indicative of deeper truths. Growing import competition from China has contributed to the disappearance of moderate legislators in Congress, a shift in congressional voting toward ideological extremes, and net gains in the number of conservative Republican representatives, including those affiliated with the Tea Party movement.

Why did this benefit conservatives more than liberals? At a guess, it's because they were better able to tap into voter anger. Both sides could make similar economic arguments, but conservatives could add a healthy dose of nationalism to the mix, something that liberals are a lot less comfortable with. That made their attacks on China more resonant.

Ironically, voters on both sides were basically getting scammed. Big talk aside, neither conservatives nor liberals did much to reduce trade with China. In fact, it's not clear there was much they could have done. Short of abandoning the WTO and starting a trade war, there really weren't a lot of options on the table. The net result, then, was lots of windy rhetoric and a more polarized Congress, and eventually the Donald Trump campaign. But Trump, like all the rest of the China bashers, has nothing more than windy rhetoric too.

At this point, the game is almost fully played out anyway. China's impact on American jobs is a done deal, with little more to come as China itself moves to a less manufacturing-oriented economy and finds itself in competition with countries like Vietnam and Indonesia. But if the authors of this paper are right, the American political scene will continue to pay a price for decades to come.

Republicans Aren't Very Happy With the 21st Century

| Tue Apr. 26, 2016 11:01 AM EDT

If America is no longer great, when was it great?

When asked to select America’s greatest year, Trump supporters offered a wide range of answers, with no distinct pattern. The most popular choice was the year 2000. But 1955, 1960, 1970 and 1985 were also popular. More than 2 percent of Trump’s supporters picked 2015, when Mr. Trump’s campaign began.

Hmmm. Trump supporters seem to have a fondness for nice, even years. Not just Trump supporters, though: the year 2000 was the single biggest winner among both Democrats and Republicans. I suppose that makes sense. The economy was booming, 9/11 was still in our future, China hadn't joined the WTO, and nobody knew that our upcoming election would be decided by the Supreme Court instead of the voters. But let's return to Republicans:

In March, Pew asked people whether life was better for people like them 50 years ago — and a majority of Republicans answered yes. Trump supporters were the most emphatic, with 75 percent saying things were better in the mid-1960s.

....There were partisan patterns in views of America’s greatness. Republicans, over all, recall the late 1950s and the mid-1980s most fondly. Sample explanations: “Reagan.” “Economy was booming.” “No wars!” “Life was simpler.” “Strong family values.” The distribution of Trump supporters’ greatest years is somewhat similar to the Republican trend, but more widely dispersed over the last 70 years.

No surprises here. Old white folks pine for the days when other old white folks ruled the country. Democrats, by contrast, who are a lot less white, are considerably less enthusiastic about those days.