Kevin Drum

Did Donald Trump Discover Religion in 2011?

| Wed Aug. 26, 2015 11:27 AM EDT

Here is Donald Trump on religion in a 2011 interview:

“I believe in God. I am Christian. I think The Bible is certainly, it is THE book,' Trump told CBN's David Brody.

....When asked by Brody about whether he keeps a lot of Bibles, Trump said, "Well I get sent Bibles by a lot of people... we keep them at a certain place. A very nice place. But people send me Bibles. And you know, it's very interesting. I get so much mail, and because I'm in this incredible location in Manhattan, you can't keep most of the mail you get.

I put this up for two reasons. First, Trump's claim that he puts all the Bibles he receives in "a very nice place" is pretty amusing. I'd like to see this Taj Mahal of Bible storage! Second, it's the earliest reference I can find to Trump talking about religion.

I don't have access to a good news database, so I can't really say for sure that Trump never displayed any religious tendencies before this. I can say that even though he's a Presbyterian, he got married in 2005 in an Episcopalian church. And when his daughter Ivanka converted to Judaism, he apparently had no problem with it. That's not much, but it's all I've got.

So what's the deal with Trump and religion? He seems to have discovered it pretty conveniently during his slow-but-steady conversion process into a viable Republican presidential candidate, but maybe not. Maybe he's been a regular churchgoer all along. Does anyone know?

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Quote of the Day: Donald Trump is the "Political Equivalent of Chaff"

| Wed Aug. 26, 2015 10:47 AM EDT

By now everyone has heard of Donald Trump's run-in with Univision reporter Jorge Ramos at his press conference yesterday. But just because it was so entertaining, I'm going to quote conservative blogger Leon Wolf at length about the whole affair:

Donald Trump just held a press conference prior to a speech in Iowa which was — and I say this without exaggeration — the most bizarre thing I have seen in a lifetime of following politics. It was at once an illustration of why the media fixates on him, and also why the other candidates in the race cannot deal with him.

He opened the conference by yelling at Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, who he claimed asked a question without being called on. He continued to yell at Ramos at some length about being out of turn, then turned to one of his campaign staffers, nodded, and pointed at Ramos, whereupon the staffer removed Ramos from the conference. (Note: I would have zero problem on principle with throwing Ramos out of a press conference on the merits).

The next reporter’s question, naturally, was, “Why did you have him thrown out?” Amazingly, Trump responded to this question, I’m not kidding, by answering, “I didn’t have him thrown out, you’ll have to ask security, whoever they are.” When reporters pressed him with the obvious fact that the person who had him removed was on his staff (he appeared to be wearing a Trump button even, but I can’t swear to that), he immediately changed his tune to say that it was because the reporter was a “highly emotional person,” with no mention of the fact that 30 seconds earlier he had been denying that he had Ramos thrown out at all.

....When a politician goofs once, it’s easy for that to get stuck in the feedback loop of the media and other candidates.

Watching Donald Trump speak and answer questions, though, is like watching a billion targets appear in the sky all at once, for a political opponent. Each thing he says is so bizarre, or ill informed, or demonstrably false, or un presidential in tone or character, that it becomes impossible to know which target to lock on to or focus on. And to the extent that he makes a policy statement, it is so hopelessly vague and ludicrous that it’s impossible to know where to begin, at least within the context of the 30-second soundbite that the modern political consumer requires (and chances are, he will say something diametrically opposed to it before the press conference is over anyway).

Donald Trump is the political equivalent of chaff, a billion shiny objects all floating through the sky at once, ephemeral, practically without substance, serving almost exclusively to distract from more important things — yet nonetheless completely impossible to ignore.

I have only one point to make here: Ramos was being a jerk and a bully, but in the end, he was only doing to Trump what Trump does to everyone else. And that made the whole thing worthwhile because we learned what happened when Trump is faced with someone willing to be as much of a bully as he is: he couldn't handle it, so he had the guy thrown out and then lied about doing it.

Needless to say, he can't have the Secret Service toss Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping out of the room if he gets annoyed at them. So what does he think he's going to do? If he can't even handle Jorge Ramos, how is he going to handle Enrique Peña Nieto?

And then there's the inevitable question: will this episode hurt or help Trump? Answer: It will hurt him with Hispanics, of course, but Trump doesn't care. He's playing entirely for the Republican base right now, and they're going to love this. If he has the guts to toss out Jorge Ramos, maybe that means he'll have the guts to deport 11 million illegal immigrants too. Vote Trump!

All of Our Negotiating Partners Think the Iran Deal Is Just Fine

| Tue Aug. 25, 2015 6:18 PM EDT

The New York Times reports that the Iran deal is just a big yawn in Europe:

The matter is settled, according to Camille Grand, director of the Strategic Research Foundation in Paris and an expert on nuclear nonproliferation. “In Europe, you don’t have a constituency against the deal,” he said. “In France, I can’t think of a single politician or member of the expert community who has spoken against it, including some of us who were critical during the negotiations.”

Mr. Grand said the final agreement was better than he had expected. “I was surprised by the depth and the quality of the deal,” he said. “The hawks are satisfied, and the doves don’t have an argument.”

No arguments? I got your arguments right here. 24 days! Self-inspections! $150 billion! Death to America! Neville Chamberlain!

If the Europeans have no arguments against the deal, they aren't even trying. They should try calling the Republican Party for a set of serious, detailed, and principled talking points.

CBO: Slow Growth Is the New Normal

| Tue Aug. 25, 2015 3:26 PM EDT

Here's something that ought to be good news: according to the CBO, the output gap—the difference between actual GDP and potential GDP—should disappear by the end of 2017. This depends on the recovery continuing, of course, but still. It's nice to see that the economy will probably be running at full steam within a couple of years.

Except that the news isn't so rosy once you understand why the CBO thinks the output gap will shrink to zero. It's not because GDP growth is great. It's because potential GDP growth is kind of sucky:

CBO projects that real potential output over the 2020–2025 period will grow by 2.1 percent per year, on average. That figure is substantially lower than the agency’s estimate of the rate of growth that occurred during the business cycles from 1981 to 2007—3.1 percent per year, on average....According to CBO’s estimates, the recession and the ensuing slow recovery have weakened the factors that determine potential output (labor supply, capital services, and productivity) for an extended period.

....The main reason that potential output is projected to grow more slowly than it did in the earlier business cycles is that CBO expects growth in the potential labor force (the labor force adjusted for variations caused by the business cycle) to be much slower than it was earlier. Growth in the potential labor force will be held down by the ongoing retirement of the baby boomers; by a relatively stable labor force participation rate among working-age women, after sharp increases from the 1960s to the mid-1990s; and by federal tax and spending policies set in current law, which will reduce some people’s incentives to work.

CBO is basically buying into the secular stagnation theory here. The recession, along with demographic factors, has caused a permanent slowdown in the potential capacity of the US economy. Slow growth is the new normal.

What Would It Take to Engineer a 4% Inflation Rate?

| Tue Aug. 25, 2015 2:09 PM EDT

If interest rates are 0 percent but inflation is running at 2 percent, then your real interest rate is -2 percent. It's easy to see how this works. If you borrow $100 for one year, then not only do you pay no interest on the loan, but you get to pay it back with dollars that are worth less. That's a bargain.

But maybe it's not enough of a bargain. If the economy is in really weak shape, even -2 percent might be high enough to make you think twice before borrowing to build a new factory that could end up laying idle and costing you a bundle. Maybe it would take -4 percent to get you off your butt.

But how do you do that? You'd need negative interest rates to go along with your 2 percent inflation. The answer is more inflation. If you keep interest rates at zero, but inflation is running at 4 percent, then voila! You have an interest rate of -4 percent. But not everyone agrees that this would be a good idea. Here is Brad DeLong:

I...find myself disturbed by a division in the ranks of those of us economists who I think have some idea of what the elephant in the room is. Some of us—Rogoff, Krugman, Blanchard, me—think our deep macro economic problems could be largely solved by the adoption and successful maintenance of a 4%/year inflation target in the North Atlantic. Others—Summers, Bernanke—do not. They appear to think that a strongly negative natural real safe rate of interest (there's at mouthful!) will cause significant problems even if 4%/year inflation allows a demand-stabilizing central bank to successfully do its job without hitting the zero lower bound.

Generally speaking, I'm in DeLong's camp. But here's my question: what makes him think that the Fed can engineer 4 percent inflation right now? And what would it take?

I ask this because it's conventional wisdom that a central bank can engineer any level of inflation it wants if it's sufficiently committed and credible about it. And that's true. But my sense recently has been that, in practice, it's harder to increase inflation than it sounds. The Bank of Japan has been trying to hit the very modest goal of 2 percent inflation for a while now and has had no success. Lately it's all but given up. "It's true that the timing for achieving 2 percent inflation has been delayed somewhat," the BOJ chief admitted a few months ago, in a statement that bears an uncomfortable similarity to the emperor's declaration in 1945 that "the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage."

So I'm curious. Given the current state of the economy, what open market operations would be required to hit a 4 percent inflation goal? How big would they have to be? How long would they have to last? What other extraordinary measures might be necessary? I've never seen a concrete technical analysis of just how much it would take to get to 4 percent. Does anybody have one?

Hispanics Really, Really Hate Donald Trump

| Tue Aug. 25, 2015 12:57 PM EDT

Gallup posted a pretty dramatic chart today. It shows net favorability among Hispanics for the Republican presidential candidates, and for 16 of them it ranges from +11 (Jeb Bush) to -7 (Ted Cruz). That's a fairly narrow band. But for Donald Trump, net favorability clocks in at -51.

-51! For Hillary Clinton, net favorability is +40.

How much does this matter? Potentially a lot. Between 2012 and 2016, the Hispanic share of the US population will increase by about 2 percentage points. That doesn't sound like a lot, but recent elections have all been close calls. If the Hispanic share of the population grows and they vote in ever greater numbers for Democrats, that could easily make a difference of 1 or 2 percentage points. And that could end up being the difference between victory and defeat.

And it could be even worse than that. In some swing states like Florida and Nevada, the Hispanic share of the population will increase by 3 percentage points between 2012 and 2016. Those states will soon be out of reach for Republican candidates if Hispanics flock to the Democratic Party in ever greater numbers.

"Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics." There's a lot of blather right now about how Trump is appealing to populism, appealing to the disenfranchised, appealing to all the anger out there. But that's strategy. If you're smart, you'll let the amateurs keep blathering while the professionals look at the cold realities of demographic trends and voter turnout. On that score, Trump is doing nothing but damage to the GOP.

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"Accident" vs. "Crash": Round 2

| Tue Aug. 25, 2015 12:03 PM EDT

I never thought I'd be writing about this a second time, but here goes: Round 2 on "accident" vs. "crash." Here's a sample of Twitter reaction to my post on the subject yesterday morning:

@emilymbadger: advocates would say this [i.e., drivers are rarely punished for killing pedestrians] is one consequence of a culture of "accidents": http://t.co/dJVUnJNcKi

@DroptheAword: 30k people die on US roads each yr. Acceptance of this as inevitable come from the “accidents happen” mindset.

@jakekthompson: Calling a crash an "accident" takes blame away from the cause, and removes incentive to fix the problem.

The problem is that these are just assertions, not arguments. There doesn't appear to be any evidence at all to back them up. I myself doubt that the word "accident" has any significant effect on how people view traffic safety, but then, I don't have any evidence either.

Now, it's not as if everything in the world demands a battery of rigorous studies. There's nothing wrong with just trying to persuade people. But in this case, a lot of energy and attention will be spent on this that could be spent on other campaigns to improve road safety, so it would be nice to have at least a little bit of research that's on point. It wouldn't be too hard to get a start on this, either. Read this paragraph:

A teenager from Smithville is in critical condition after a Monday morning accident in Jonesville that is being investigated as a hit and run. The teen's car was struck from behind by an Oldsmobile and then crossed into the northbound lane, where it was struck in the side by a Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck. The driver of the Oldsmobile left the scene of the accident, and his or her identity has not been determined.

Now read this one:

A teenager from Smithville is in critical condition after a Monday morning collision in Jonesville that is being investigated as a hit and run. The teen's car was struck from behind by an Oldsmobile and then crossed into the northbound lane, where it was struck in the side by a Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck. The driver of the Oldsmobile left the scene of the crash, and his or her identity has not been determined.

Does this alter your perception of what happened? Social scientists do this kind of research all the time, showing random subsets of subjects slightly different write-ups and then asking follow-up questions to see if the changes make any difference. This would hardly be conclusive, but it's relatively easy to do and would provide at least a bit of evidence one way or another.

So: are there any enterprising grad students out there who want to take a crack at this? Or, better yet, someone who's already done it?

Republicans Will Survive Their Destruction Derby Primary Just Fine

| Tue Aug. 25, 2015 11:04 AM EDT

I would like to highlight two common claims about presidential primaries that I see a lot:

  • Having lots of candidates and a long race is a big problem. When the Republicans have finished beating each other up this year, the eventual winner will be too exhausted to win in November. All that Hillary Clinton will have to do is roll the tape of her opponent being slagged by fellow Republicans, and she'll waltz into the White House.
  • Having no competition is a big problem. Democrats would be much better off if Hillary Clinton had some serious challengers who sharpened her campaign skills and took a little bit of the spotlight off her.

As near as I can tell, there is zero evidence for either claim. Off the top of my head, I'd say you can very occasionally make the claim that a primary battle matters—the 1968 Democratic race comes obviously to mind—but most of the time the candidate who emerges at the end seems to be unhurt by either too much or too little competition.

Does anyone know of any backup for either of these claims? I've never seen any. Republicans are putting the first one to a kind of destruction test this year, but even so I'll bet the eventual winner is in pretty normal shape by Labor Day.

Jeb Bush Gives Away the Game on "Anchor Babies"

| Mon Aug. 24, 2015 6:33 PM EDT

Jeb Bush wants us all to chill out about his use of the term "anchor babies":

What I was talking about was the specific case of fraud being committed. Frankly it’s more related to Asian people coming into our country, having children, and....taking advantage of a noble concept, which is birthright citizenship.

Um....no. Bush initially used the term in a radio interview with Bill Bennett. The conversation was entirely about Donald Trump's immigration plan, securing our southern border, and dealing with our third-largest trading partner. In other words, it was all about Mexico. Bush was very definitely not talking about Asians.

And if he was, there's already a perfectly good term to use: birth tourism. It's well known, well documented, and clearly a growing phenomenon. There's no need to describe it using a term that many people find offensive, since there's already one available.

Basically, Bush is tap dancing here. But he's also doing us a favor. In my tedious discussion of "anchor babies" on Saturday, I concluded that its offensiveness depended on whether it was an actual problem in the first place. Bush is pretty much conceding that it's not—at least as it refers to illegal immigration from Mexico. But if it's rare or nonexistent, then you're imputing offensive behavior to immigrant mothers for something they don't do. And that does indeed make it offensive.

It's Now Open Season on China

| Mon Aug. 24, 2015 5:56 PM EDT

In the midst of Trumpmania, it's good to see that some things never change. Here is Scott Walker today:

Americans are struggling to cope with the fall in today's markets driven in part by China's slowing economy and the fact that they actively manipulate their economy....massive cyberattacks....militarization of the South China Sea....economy....persecution of Christians....There's serious work to be done rather than pomp and circumstance. We need to see some backbone from President Obama on U.S.-China relations.

China bashing is the little black dress of presidential campaigns: always appropriate, always in style.

Of course, Donald "China is killing us!" Trump got there before Walker. And more than that: he not only bashed China, but was able to claim that he'd been warning of this all along. If only we'd sent Carl Icahn over there from the start, things would be OK today.