Yesterday I wrote about the mystery of drunk driving: if stricter laws and harsher punishments really are responsible for a decline in drunk driving, why is it that alcohol-related fatalities have only declined at the same rate as every other kind of road fatality? Is it possible that all those laws have been useless?

I got several good responses, which confirmed that there's a bit of a mystery here but pointed out that my data only went back to 1994. This misses the significant drop in drunk driving during the 80s and early 90s. Then I got an email from Darren Grant, an economics professor at Sam Houston State University, pointing me to a paper that decomposes exactly what happened and when. Grant's paper, which relies on a microdata-based model of traffic fatalities, concludes that it's legitimate to use the percentage of all road fatalities that involve alcohol—which has been flat for many years—as a proxy for the amount of drunk driving. It also breaks down the reason for the decline in drunk driving during the 80s and 90s. Without further ado, here is his chart:

There are several takeaways from this:

  • During the 80s and early 90s, drunk driving decreased significantly.
  • By the mid-90s, the level of drunk driving flattened out and has been flat ever since.
  • The effect of laws on drunk driving has been pretty modest. That's the red band in the chart. Stricter laws are responsible for only a small fraction of the total decline.

There's potentially some good news here. Grant concludes that the biggest effect by far has been from social forces, namely the increased stigma associated with drunk driving. If you discount demographics, which we have no control over, social stigma accounts for about half the drop in drunk driving. This suggests that what we need isn't so much stricter laws, but a revitalized campaign to even further stigmatize drunk driving. I'm on board with that.

Look, I get that the Saudis want to ingratiate themselves with our gold-obsessed president. It makes total sense. But isn't this just a little too obvious?

Meh. Maybe not. Anyone with any self-awareness would sense overtones of mockery in such an over-the-top attempt to suck up, but not Trump. Subtlety is not the way to his heart. It's shiny! He likes it!

The Daily Beast has talked to a bunch of folks close to Donald Trump, and as usual they can't help themselves:

“Okay, he fired Comey,” the official conceded. “With a semi-competent comms operation, that would blow over in 24 hours. And that’s the worst part: he has a competent comms staff. But they can’t do their jobs because he keeps running his mouth.

....Trump’s repeated media missteps have frustrated even longtime supporters. “Every day he looks more and more like a complete moron,” said one senior administration official who also worked on Trump’s campaign. “I can’t see Trump resigning or even being impeached, but at this point I wish he’d grow a brain and be the man that he sold himself as on the campaign.”

Asked whether an administration staff change-up would ameliorate this latest crisis, a Republican source formerly involved with a pro-Trump political group told The Daily Beast, “yes, if it comes with a frontal lobotomy for Trump.”

Remember, these are people who are on Team Trump. Elsewhere, Reuters reports that Trump is already working on ways to sabotage its own special counsel:

The Trump administration is exploring whether it can use an obscure ethics rule to undermine the special counsel investigation into ties between President Donald Trump's campaign team and Russia, two people familiar with White House thinking said on Friday.

....Within hours of Mueller's appointment on Wednesday, the White House began reviewing the Code of Federal Regulations, which restricts newly hired government lawyers from investigating their prior law firm’s clients for one year after their hiring, the sources said....Mueller's former law firm, WilmerHale, represents Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, who met with a Russian bank executive in December, and the president's former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who is a subject of a federal investigation.

Hmmm. Preventing the special counsel from investigating Manafort hardly seems worth the trouble. He's not close enough to the White House to cause too many problems even if he does turn out to be involved in something fishy. So that leaves Kushner. Is he the guy the Trumpies are trying to protect?

On the bright side of all this, if you have some embarrassing news you've been waiting to release, now would be a good time. It's almost sure to be forgotten as soon as the next Trump shoe drops, which will probably take no more than a few hours.

Oh come on:

President Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office this month that firing the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, had relieved “great pressure” on him, according to a document summarizing the meeting.

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Mr. Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

....The White House document that contained Mr. Trump’s comments was based on notes taken from inside the Oval Office and has been circulated as the official account of the meeting. One official read quotations to The Times, and a second official confirmed the broad outlines of the discussion. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, did not dispute the account.

That's from the New York Times, and it's what Trump told the Russian ambassador and foreign minister the day after he fired Comey. Of course, Trump probably didn't realize that the Russians were already keenly familiar with Comey since the FBI is America's primary counterintelligence agency—that is, the agency that tracks down Russian spies. So they know perfectly well he's not crazy and not a nut job. I'll bet they also knew perfectly well that firing Comey was only going to increase the pressure on Trump over Russia. That's because they aren't idiots.

The Washington Post reports on just what this increased pressure is turning into:

The law enforcement investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign has identified a current White House official as a significant person of interest, showing that the probe is reaching into the highest levels of government, according to people familiar with the matter.

The senior White House adviser under scrutiny by investigators is someone close to the president, according to these people, who would not further identify the official.

Stay tuned.

First things first: the answer to the origin of yesterday's lunchtime photo. It's a picture of the neon-lit Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica Pier. It's a 1-second exposure at night, one of several I took where I deliberately moved the camera while the shutter was open. Then I ran it through the dry brush filter in Photoshop.

And now for catblogging. Here is Hopper trying to leap from one branch to another on one of our trees. It looks touch-and-go, but it actually wasn't. She immediately chinned herself onto the target branch, but the camera just happened to catch her mid-swing. I assure you that no cats were harmed in the making of this photo.

However, you're all lucky I didn't make this into some variation on "donate to Mother Jones or the cat gets it." That would have been totally tasteless, and I'd never do that. But I could do it if I were that kind of person—and maybe I will if we don't make the $500,000 goal for our muckraking fund to investigate the Trump-Russia connection. We're getting close, but we're not quite there. So donate! Read more about it here. Or go straight to the donation page here.

Today we learned that Jim Donovan, a 25-year Goldman Sachs banking and investment management executive, is pulling out as Trump's nominee to serve as Deputy Treasury Secretary. Why? "Family concerns." That may be true, but it's also likely that he's rich and doesn't want to divest everything he owns just to be a deputy in a dysfunctional administration where he could get fired at any moment if the president gets annoyed with him.

In other news, I've removed Sebastian Gorka from the dead pool since he still seems to be around. I'll put him back if and when he takes a position elsewhere in the administration that's allegedly more important than being on the president's staff.

As we all know, the Republican health care bill can't survive a Democratic filibuster, so it's being considered via reconciliation, which requires only 51 votes in the Senate. That means the bill has to obey reconciliation rules.

Normally, this is not a big problem. If some aspect of the House bill violates the rules, it gets removed in the Senate and life goes on. But what if the bill violates the prime rule of reconciliation—namely that it reduce the deficit? Then it's dead and everyone has to start all over. This means the House has to be pretty careful that their bill does indeed reduce the deficit.

But how do they know if it reduces the deficit? Easy: the CBO scores the bill and tells them. But Paul Ryan famously rushed passage of the bill in the House before CBO had time to deliver a score, so no one knows for sure if it still reduces the deficit. Bloomberg reports on what this means:

House Speaker Paul Ryan hasn’t yet sent the bill to the Senate because there’s a chance that parts of it may need to be redone, depending on how the Congressional Budget Office estimates its effects...."I had no idea," Dennis Ross of Florida, another member of the vote-counting team, said Thursday, adding that the prospect of another vote "does concern me." GOP leaders never said publicly they were planning to hold on to the bill for two weeks or longer.

In the end, I imagine the bill will get scored as a deficit reduction and then be sent to the Senate. But the fact that Ryan is still holding onto the bill shows that he knew perfectly well how irresponsible it was to force a vote before the CBO delivers a score. In addition to being callous and malignant, the whole thing is also a massive FUBAR.

Over at NRO, Kevin Williamson takes Chris Hayes to task for implying that we don't pay enough attention to drunk driving:

The fight against drunk driving is a success story. A big one....In fact, the campaign against drunk driving is one of the great examples of how policy-driven social changes of the sort imagined by progressives such as Chris Hayes can succeed — and it also demonstrates the shortcomings of that model.

....Overall, we’ve cut DUI deaths and injuries by about 50 percent. Well done, us. We did it with invasive and paternalistic laws that lend themselves to occasional abuse and wanton mission creep, punishments that have tended toward the draconian, a campaign of social stigmatization, and heavy expenditures....That’s what real, effective social change looks like: a role for public policy, sure, but also changes in personal behavior, social norms, and economic activity, coupled with trade-offs and progress that is meaningful if modest.

This gives me an excuse to put up some statistics that have puzzled me for a while. Williamson is right that plenty of people credit stricter laws, checkpoints, social stigma and so forth for cutting drunk driving deaths over the past few decades. But does the data actually support this notion? I'm not so sure. For starters, here's the DUI arrest rate in California over the past 20 years:

I'm sure that nationwide data for this is available somewhere, but I'm not sure where. In any case, I imagine that California is pretty typical, and the data on DUI arrests sure doesn't suggest that police activity toward drunk driving has gotten a lot more severe over the past couple of decades. Just the opposite, in fact. Of course, this decline in arrest rates is partly because there are just fewer drunk drivers to arrest, thanks to social stigma etc. Right? National data doesn't really back that up:

Drunk driving fatalities have almost perfectly followed the overall trend toward fewer traffic fatalities as people drove less during the Great Recession. Outside of that period, both overall fatalities and drunk driving fatalities were pretty flat (or down modestly if you account for population growth and total miles driven). Fewer people are killed by drunk drivers these days, but it appears to be for the same reasons—air bags, fewer miles driven, etc.—that fewer overall people are killed on the road.

It's unquestionably true that drunk driving laws are stricter, social stigma has increased, and punishment is heavier than in the past. But in the past two decades, at least, this really doesn't seem to have changed things much. Relative to our our overall penchant for killing people on the road, drunk drivers are killing people at about the same rate as always.

Donald Trump may or may not be trying to destroy Obamacare, but his sheer incompetence is doing the job regardless. Noam Levey spoke to health insurance companies about their plans for 2018:

Health insurers across the country are making plans to dramatically raise Obamacare premiums or exit marketplaces amid growing exasperation with the Trump administration’s erratic management, inconsistent guidance and seeming lack of understanding of basic healthcare issues.

....Privately, many executives, including chief executives of major health plans, offered withering criticism of the Trump administration’s lack of leadership. “It’s hard to know who’s home,” said one chief executive. “We don’t know who is making decisions.” Another chief executive said: “There seems to be no coordination or coherent planning....It’s a mess.” A third official observed: “There is a sense that there are no hands on the wheel and they are just letting the bus careen down the road.”

....The uncertainty created by Trump comes as some Obamacare markets were beginning to stabilize, according to many industry and government officials. In several states, insurers and regulators noted that 2017 was shaping up to be a better year than the first several years of the marketplaces.

In addition, Trump's team continues to haul out the threat of killing CSR subsidies. Trump has done it twice with Democrats, and Levey reports that a Trump appointee has also done it with insurers: "At one recent meeting, Seema Verma, whom Trump picked to oversee the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs, stunned insurance industry officials by suggesting a bargain: The administration would fund the CSRs if insurers supported the House Republican bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act. 'It made no sense,' said one official at the meeting."

(The Trump administration denies Verma said this. But I assume they're lying.)

Trump is both incompetent and a terrible negotiator—and that combination is wreaking havoc with the insurance market. If Trump really does kill the CSR subsidies and stops enforcing the individual mandate, insurance prices are going to go through the roof. Ironically, that wouldn't affect the poor too much, since their premiums are capped at a percentage of income. But for middle-class buyers, especially those over 50, it would be a disaster as premiums skyrocket.

Republicans have been claiming forever that Obamacare is failing. That's been flatly untrue: Obamacare has its issues, but has basically been running just fine—and the Congressional Budget Office projects that it will continue to to run just fine for years. Apparently this is too much for Republicans to bear, so now that they're in power they're going to force it to fail. The sheer callousness and venom this displays is breathtaking.

Let's finish the evening with a quick roundup of all the shoes that dropped today. By Trumpian standards it was actually a calm day, but not totally free of shoes. First up is deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who testified before Congress today about how and why he came to write a memo justifying President Trump's firing of James Comey. How did it go?

Rosenstein says he knew that Trump planned to fire Comey, and provided a memo justifying it at Trump's request. This was apparently typical of Trump's relationship with the Justice Department: they work for him, so of course they should provide him with anything he needs. The same seems to have been true of the FBI. Ben Wittes tells us what was going on between Comey and the Trump administration during its early days:

Comey was preoccupied throughout this period with the need to protect the FBI from [] inquiries on investigative matters from the White House. Two incidents involving such inquiries have become public: the Flynn discussion and Reince Priebus’s query to Andrew McCabe about whether the then-Deputy FBI Director could publicly dispute the New York Times’ reporting regarding communications between Trump associates and Russian officials. Whether there were other such incidents I do not know, but I suspect there were. What I do know is that Comey spent a great deal of energy doing what he alternately described as “training” the White House that officials had to go through the Justice Department and “reestablishing” normal hands-off White House-Bureau relations.

This fits with everything we know. Trump just doesn't understand the concept of the FBI being an independent agency free of presidential interference. Comey knew this and prepared diligently for his meetings with Trump:

Comey was very apprehensive heading into a dinner with the president in late January, because of his previous encounters with Trump during the transition and immediately after the inauguration, according to one associate.

....Before going to the dinner, Comey practiced Trump’s likely questions and his answers with a small group of his most trusted confidants, the associates said, in part to ensure he did not give Trump any ammunition to use against him later. The director did not take notes during the dinner with the president, but there were times, one associate recalled, when after meeting with Trump, Comey started writing notes as soon as he got into a car, “to make sure he could accurately record what was said.’’

In the Trump administration, the Justice Department is an arm of the White House, and the FBI is expected to follow the president's direction. The weird part of this is not that Trump believes it—of course he does—but that plenty of other folks in the White House seem to believe it too. At the very least, you'd think Reince Priebus would know better, but he's as bad as the rest. There hardly seems to be anyone in the entire building with any genuine knowledge of how the government works and how other people are likely to react to Trump's actions. Very peculiar.