In late October, Harry Reid sent an angry letter to FBI Director James Comey saying that "it has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government." What was that all about? A few days later, David Corn summarized a dossier of raw intel provided by a "former senior intelligence officer for a Western country":

When he dug into Trump, he notes, he came across troubling information indicating connections between Trump and the Russian government. According to his sources, he says, "there was an established exchange of information between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin of mutual benefit."...The first memo, based on the former intelligence officer's conversations with Russian sources, noted, "Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least 5 years. Aim, endorsed by PUTIN, has been to encourage splits and divisions in western alliance." It maintained that Trump "and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals." It claimed that Russian intelligence had "compromised" Trump during his visits to Moscow and could "blackmail him."

This is where things stayed until today, when we learned a little bit more. Apparently the intelligence community now considers this raw intel credible enough that it included it as an annex to the classified version of its report on Russian hacking. CNN reports:

Some of the memos were circulating as far back as last summer. What has changed since then is that US intelligence agencies have now checked out the former British intelligence operative and his vast network throughout Europe and find him and his sources to be credible enough to include some of the information in the presentations to the President and President-elect a few days ago.

The Washington Post adds this:

A senior U.S. official with access to the document said that the allegations were presented at least in part to underscore that Russia had embarrassing information on both major candidates, but only released material that might harm Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton — a reflection of Russian motivation that bolstered U.S. spy agencies’ conclusion that Moscow sought to help Trump win.

....If true, the information suggests that Moscow has assembled damaging information — known in espionage circles by the Russian term “kompromat” — that conceivably could be used to coerce the next occupant of the White House.

BuzzFeed has the full 35-page memo here. Oh, and did I mention that the compromising information on Trump supposedly includes evidence of Trump's "personal obsessions and sexual perversion," including "golden showers" and "sex parties" in Moscow? Well, consider it mentioned.

Sen. Jeff Flake, who has taken up the mantle of Sen. Tom Coburn, who in turn was taking up the mantle of William Proxmire's infamous "Golden Fleece" award, has released the 2017 issue of Wastebook, documenting all the dumb ways the government is spending your hard-earned dollars. In keeping with tradition, it has a pun-heavy theme: this year it's Porkémon Go—get it? Pork-émon!—which probably seemed pretty funny a few months ago. But popular fads are fickle things.

In any case, the bulk of the report is pretty typical. Flake is unhappy that President Obama wants money to fight Zika when he's already squandering money on things that "most would consider obvious or even absurd":

Researchers were literally playing with dolls to prove what every child already knows—girls are more likely to play with Barbie dolls than boys—with support from National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants totaling $300,000.

Studies on the habits of college students funded with $5 million of NIH grants found fraternity brothers drink, smoke and generally party more than other students. They also sleep in later, which led the researchers to speculate “one explanation for this finding is that Greeks students recognize their sleep needs.” Perhaps a more likely reason is that they are sleeping off their party lifestyle.

NIH is also drilling down to determine why some people are afraid of the dentist as part of another $3.5 million research project. The researchers found “fear of pain has been shown to be a critical component.”

Your mileage will vary on whether you find this hilarious or not, but it's worth noting that even a dedicated investigator like Flake found only $5 billion in waste, of which $3 billion was for one project: the California bullet train. Now, I happen to agree with Flake that the train is a bad use of money, but it's certainly not waste. The money is being used to build a train. Flake and I happen to think the train is a bad idea, but the definition of waste is not "stuff you and I don't like."

In any case, take out that one project and you're left with $2 billion, which is something like 0.2 percent of the discretionary federal budget. That's actually...not bad. I wish my own household ran that efficiently. It's worth adding that of that $2 billion, about half seems to be legitimate waste1 while the other half is just sophomoric jeering at scientific studies that are perfectly reasonable but sound kind of funny. So the actual waste is probably closer to 0.1 percent of the budget.2

It kinda makes you wonder how much the US government spent researching and writing this report?

1This is just my horseback guess based on flipping through the report.

2This doesn't matter, of course. What matters is that Flake has presented the right-wing media with a nice sourcebook of funny-sounding projects that they can recycle for the next 12 months as evidence of idiotic government spending. Someone should ask for federal funding for a project to track how many times Flake's examples get recycled throughout the next year by Fox, Limbaugh, Drudge, etc.

Students in a single elementary grade classroom differ in age by about 12 months. Do the older students do better than the younger students? Plenty of evidence says yes, but all the existing studies have shortcomings, says Pablo Peña, "the most important of which is that their identification strategies implicitly assume the absence of selection into gestational seasons."

Gestational seasons? Let's not get into that. Long story short, Peña found a school district in Mexico that suddenly changed its age cutoff from September 1 to December 1 a few years ago and was willing to provide student test data broken down by birthdate. Unlike many studies, which only look at a data for a single year, Peña was able to track students across seven years. Here's the basic data after the change in age cutoff:

The bottom half of the chart shows scores on standardized Spanish and math tests, and year after year the older kids do better. However, one encouraging finding here is that the age effect fades over time. Eight-year-olds (far right of chart) show very large differences in standardized scores, while 14-year-olds (far left) show a smaller range of differences.

But now we'd like to know the cause of these differences. Is it a function of absolute age? Or is it a function of relative age within a classroom? According to Peña, it's both. For the younger kids, their relatively poor showing is strictly a function of age. By comparing results with a neighboring school district, he concludes that their scores would be the same as the older kids if they were tested a few months later. The older children, however, suffer a bit from having younger kids in the same classroom. "Holding age at test constant, being older relative one's classmates has a negative effect on test scores."

The long-term effect of all this is quite small. However, younger kids do have a slightly worse chance of getting into college, since they're younger when they take college admissions tests. This results in poorer scores due solely to their age, not their mental abilities. Peña estimates a difference of about 1 percent.

It's not clear to me how much this matters, or whether there's anything we can do about it. You have to have a cutoff date, after all. However, it does suggest that "redshirting," the practice of deliberately holding back your child a year so she'll be the oldest in her class, has mixed results. Overall, her education will probably suffer a bit. But her odds of doing well on college entrance exams will be slightly better. It sounds like a wash to me. Parents probably ought to stop worrying about it and spend their time on more productive pursuits instead.

Let the Lobbying Begin

Sure, Donald Trump may be a man-child with at least betting odds of destroying the world, but who cares? On K Street, it's time to par-tay:

Oil and gas firms are pressing to roll back federal regulations on drilling. Verizon Inc. and other large telecommunications firms want changes to the Obama administration’s net neutrality rules. Airlines are seeking stronger enforcement of an aviation agreement that they believe favors foreign carriers on the most prized international routes. Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp. and other defense contractors are scrambling to protect against cuts in the Pentagon’s budget....McDonald’s Corp., Choice Hotels International Inc. and other restaurant, hotel and retail companies are pushing to overturn an Obama administration decision to make it easier for unions to organize employees at franchises like McDonald’s.

This is called "draining the swamp," folks.

Sen. Bob Corker (R–Tenn.) supports repealing Obamacare and replacing it at the same time. The problem, he told Politico, is that he's not sure if Donald Trump does:

If it is his view, it would be really good if he would consider tweeting it out very clearly.

I guess this is how the White House will handle Hill relations in the future. Congressional leaders will toss out ideas in the press, Trump will give them a thumbs up or a thumbs down via Twitter, and the cycle will repeat. Eventually they'll come to a conclusion of some sort. Maybe.

This is a modern-day update of the rarely used "government by wall poster" system. Originally invented in ancient Assyria, it was most recently used in China in the 70s, where it produced chaos and, eventually, a reform government. We should be so lucky.

Rand Paul says Donald Trump isn't happy with "repeal and delay":

President-elect Donald Trump backed waiting to repeal the Affordable Care Act until a replacement proposal is in hand in a Friday night phone call with Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican said Monday, adding to momentum for changing GOP leaders’ strategy on dismantling the 2010 health-care law.

....“I believe we should vote on replacement the same day we vote on repeal,” Mr. Paul said in an interview Monday. Mr. Trump called the senator on Friday night “to say he agrees completely,” Mr. Paul said.

Uh oh. That's a mistake, though it's an easy one for an amateur to make. For the record: Mr. Trump calls no one. Other people call Mr. Trump. This is very important to Mr. Trump. He's very insistent on following proper protocol, which is that others should be seen groveling to him, not the other way around.

Unfortunately, there's a more serious mistake here too: Paul spoke publicly about Trump's wishes before Trump did. This gives others plenty of time to corner Trump and talk him into changing his mind and then "explaining" that Paul didn't get things quite right. It's much better not to alert others to your conversation.

All that said, this fits the various smoke signals that have come out of Trump Tower for a while now, so maybe Trump really is serious about offering a replacement for Obamacare at the same time as repeal. I hope so. Obviously I'd prefer no repeal at all, but at the very least the American public deserves to know what Trump has in mind when the health coverage they currently have is ripped away from them.

We're going to be seeing a lot of this over the next four years:

How do I know? Because Trump sounds like Dr. Evil here. ONE! BILLION! DOLLARS! For comparison, here is total foreign direct investment since the start of the century:

Every year, there are hundreds of investments of a billion dollars by foreign companies in the US. The Fiat Chrysler announcement is entirely routine.

Still, that's hundreds of opportunities every year for Trump to blather about how he's making America great again. Just keep in mind that it's all nonsense. I figure trend FDI should reach about $3.9 trillion in 2017. Wake me up if Trump manages to get it significantly higher than that, but please don't insult me by trumpeting every piddling contribution along the way as if he were raining pixie dust over the entire economy.

UPDATE: The original headline and text way overstated the flow of new FDI each year. Sorry. It's fixed now.

With the announcement of son-in-law Jared Kushner as "senior advisor to the president," the inner circle of Donald Trump's White House has now taken shape. For those of you who want to understand the role each member plays, here's a quick reference:

  • Jared Kushner = Rasputin
  • James Flynn = Dick Cheney
  • Reince Priebus = H.R. Haldeman
  • Steve Bannon = Louis Howe
  • Mike Pence = Cardinal Mazarin
  • Kellyanne Conway = Baghdad Bob
  • Sean Spicer = Ron Ziegler
  • Mick Mulvaney = David Stockman

Any questions?

Who really lives in a bubble? The cosmopolitan residents of big cities or the tradition-minded residents of small towns and rural areas?

I don't know, and I'm not going to try to answer this question. I just want to remind everyone what the actual theory here is. The theory is that although country mice might not personally experience much diversity in their lives, they are saturated with it in the media. They know all about us city mice and how we live because they watch TV and movies, listen to music, and read magazines that relentlessly portray our lives and our beliefs. Nearly all of this media is produced by urban folks, and for the most part it presents cosmopolitan urban lives sympathetically and accurately. Even TV news gets in the act. The three network evening news broadcasts pull an audience massively greater than anything Fox News gets.

Most urban residents, by contrast, don't know much about small-town life because it's almost never portrayed in the media except comedically or satirically. They may think of themselves as open-minded and tolerant, but in fact they have little idea of how rural Americans really behave and are openly disdainful of most of their beliefs.

I'm not especially taking sides on this, just pointing out the actual argument that conservatives make. The "bubble" here isn't a question of whether you have a Somali family living down the street or have never traveled outside the US. The bubble is whether you have some genuine understanding of both American rural life and American city life. Conservatives argue that the country mice do much better on this score than the city mice.

Recently, the go-to argument from the anti-Obamacare forces has been about deductibles. Sure, 20 million people have insurance. Sure, most of them can afford the premiums. But what's the point if all it buys you is crappy insurance with a $6,000 deductible? As Nathan Nascimento put in National Review a few months ago, "what good is health-insurance coverage for middle- and low-income families if they can’t afford to use it?"

These crocodile tears would be amusing if they weren't so infuriating. Nobody on the right has ever been willing to support higher funding so that deductibles can come down. In fact, folks on the right love high deductibles. It puts "skin in the game." A combination of HSAs and high-deductible health policies is one of the standard bits of smoke-and-mirrors offered up by conservatives when you ask them what kind of national health care plan they'd like to see replace Obamacare.

But let's put that aside for a moment and ask another question: what are the deductibles under Obamacare really like, anyway?1 Here's the answer:

The average deductible decreased from $900 to $850 in 2016. And as you can see if we extrapolate from the figures in the table, it looks like nearly two-thirds of all enrollees had deductibles under $1,000. Only about a fifth had the horror-story $6,000+ deductibles that we hear so much about.

But that's not all. We don't have figures for how this breaks down, but my guess is that the majority of the people with high deductibles are the famous "young invincibles" who are single, don't qualify for subsidies because they're fairly well off, and don't think they're going to get sick. So they buy the cheapest plan they can, take advantage of the preventive care stuff they're allowed before the deductible kicks in, and go about their lives. No one in their right mind who had any kind of real health issues would ever buy a plan like this.

There are undoubtedly exceptions to this. There always are in a country the size of ours. I'm all for helping these folks out, but one way or another, that calls for more money, not less. Anybody who says otherwise is just playing with you.

1Hat tip to Andrew Sprung, who drew my attention to this table today.