Your Daily Trump Idiocy

What first? Today was religion day for Donald Trump, who met with conservative Christians in New York. So how did he do?

Trump's lack of religious faith is...what's the right word? I mean, it's obvious. Really, really, glaringly obvious. He plainly hasn't thought about religion for more than a few seconds in his entire adult life. And yet, apparently conservative Christians are willing to close their eyes and pretend otherwise. Why? Because he panders to them harder and more explicitly than anyone ever:

As president, he said, he’d work on things including: “freeing up your religion, freeing up your thoughts. You talk about religious liberty and religious freedom, you don’t have any religious freedom if you think about it,” he told the group, which broke in many times with applause.

Throughout the talk Trump emphasized that America was hurting due to what he described as Christianity’s slide to become “weaker, weaker, weaker.” He said he’d get department store employees to say “Merry Christmas” and would fight restrictions on public employees, such as public school coaches, from being allowed to lead sectarian prayer on the field.

....Marjorie Danenfelser of Susan B. Anthony List, which works to oppose abortion...said she couldn’t recall a candidate explicitly stating they would pursue “pro-life” justices. “They usually couch it in other words, like ‘constitutional,’ ” she said.

Remarkable. The reason that even committed religious ultras talk about appointing "constitutional conservatives" to the Supreme Court is that they understand you aren't supposed to have specific issue litmus tests for judges who are, in theory, making decisions based solely on the law. You're supposed to just hint at it. Trump is too ignorant to know that, so he just spouts off about appointing pro-life justices—and for people like Danenfelser, Trump's ignorance becomes a huge selling point. She views it as straight talking.

What else? Mark Cuban had this to say about Trump:

It's rare when you see someone get stupider before your eyes, but he's really working at it....But at some point, you’ve got to start learning and understanding the issues. You know, Donald has been at this a year but you don’t look at him and say, ‘Wow, he’s gotten so much smarter on this topic or that topic.' In fact, you look at him and say, ‘What the hell are you talking about?' That’s not good for America.

Trump's ignorance really is phenomenal. Just by osmosis, most people would pick up a fair amount of knowledge if they ran for president. It would be hard not to. But Trump is apparently so proud of his ignorance that he takes considerable pains to avoid learning anything. Even by Trump standards, this is truly peculiar.

But it goes beyond mere ignorance. In today's edition of the Trump Files, Max Rosenthal shows us a video of Trump not being able to multiply 17 times 6. (Neither could his kids, who acted as if they'd just been asked to solve a differential equation on the fly.) But that's not what's so great about this video. Lots of people might screw up this kind of mental arithmetic. What's great is that even after he's given the correct answer, he insists that his answer is really the correct one. So be sure to vote for Trump on November 9th! That's the right day. Not the 8th. No, no, no. It's the 9th. The 9th. It's really the 9th.

OK then. Aside from a momentary laugh at Donald Trump's expense, why else was I reading James Surowiecki's recent piece about startup companies? The pointer came from Jim Pethokoukis, who has been writing about the decline of American entrepreneurship for quite a while. This is potentially something to be concerned about, but I've always held back a bit. The problem is distinguishing between different kinds of startups. There's no question that we have fewer of them than we used to, but a lot of that is due to large companies taking over the mom-and-pop space in restaurants, retail, and other small businesses. Whatever your personal opinion of that is, there's not much reason to think the country as a whole is suffering because Wal-Mart has made it harder to start up a small general store and McDonald's has made it harder to start up a small local diner.

What we really care about are the kinds of startups that launch innovative products or adopt innovative business techniques to build whole new markets. Think light bulbs, radios, cars, package delivery, software, and social networks. Those are the kinds of entrepreneurs we don't want to discourage.

And apparently we aren't discouraging them—at least in the true startup phase. Surowiecki points us to some recent research suggesting that "high-quality" startups are as plentiful as ever:

New work by the MIT economists Scott Stern and Jorge Guzman shows that in 15 U.S. states between 1988 and 2014 there was no long-term decline in the formation of what they call “high-quality” startups...But there is a catch. While Stern and Guzman show that high-growth firms are being formed as actively as ever, they also find that these companies are not succeeding as often as such companies once did....As many seeds as ever are being planted. But fewer trees are growing to the sky.

Stern and Guzman are agnostic about why this is happening. But one obvious answer suggests itself: the increased power of established incumbents. We may think that we have been living in a business world in which incumbents are always on the verge of being toppled and competitive advantage is more fragile than ever. And clearly there are industries in which that has been the case—think of how Amazon transformed book retailing, or how digital downloads and streaming disrupted the music business. But as Hathaway and Litan document, American industry has grown more concentrated over the last 30 years, and incumbents have become more powerful in almost every business sector. As they put it, “it has become increasingly advantageous to be an incumbent, and less advantageous to be a new entrant.” Even in tech, the contrast is striking between the ferment of the late 1990s, when many sectors had myriad players struggling for share, and the seeming stability of today’s Google/Amazon/Facebook-dominated world.

I would argue that this is yet another reason to be very skeptical of modern antitrust law and its emphasis on "consumer welfare." Forty years of experience suggests that it just hasn't worked: instead of producing an economy that's good for consumers, it's produced an economy dominated by large companies that have little to fear from antitrust authorities. They're allowed to get as big as they want as long as they're able to make a plausible case that increased bigness is good for consumers—and they're very, very good at making that case. As a result, big market incumbents get ever bigger, and startups have an ever harder time in ever more markets. In the long run, this is decidedly not very consumer friendly.

If we want a more dynamic economy, we should quit protecting large, hulking incumbents. Our key interest should be ensuring plenty of competition, not engaging in pointless arguments about consumer welfare—a concept that's inherently fuzzy and far too easy to manipulate by smart corporate legal teams. To accomplish this, antitrust law needs to return to its older, cruder goal of simply keeping companies from getting too big and too dominant.

Competition is the engine that drives capitalism. Without it, governments have to rely on ever larger stacks of regulation to keep corporations in some semblance of order. But why bother? Focus instead on making markets friendly to startups, and then let competition do the heavy lifting of keeping them in line. It's better for consumers in the long run and it scales back the need for heavy-handed regulation. This really ought to be something that both Republicans and Democrats can manage to agree on.

I'm reading James Surowiecki's piece about startup companies, and couldn't help but laugh when I got to this:

New work by the MIT economists Scott Stern and Jorge Guzman shows that in 15 U.S. states between 1988 and 2014 there was no long-term decline in the formation of what they call “high-quality” startups. Stern and Guzman have figured out the characteristics of startups that are trying to become high-growth firms, which include being chartered in Delaware, registering for patents, and not being named after the company’s founder.

Hmmm. Can we all think of an entrepreneur who (a) names all of his startup companies after himself, and (b) runs about the lowest-quality businesses imaginable? Sure we can. In fact, I'd like Stern and Guzman to rerun their correlations after removing all Trump businesses from their dataset. They might find out that he's personally responsible for the entire effect.

Today Brings Yet More Obamacare Non-Failure

I've written frequently about the fact that the rapid growth in US health care costs has slowed down in recent years. Here's the latest version of the slowdown, courtesy of the Urban Institute:

The raw data for this chart comes the national health expenditures forecast issued annually by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. As you can see, their latest forecast for the year 2019 is about $500 billion less than it was in 2010. The cumulative forecast for 2014-19 is now $2.6 trillion less than it was in 2010.

It's hard to say how much, if any, of this decrease is due to Obamacare. My own guess is that the cost-saving parts of Obamacare haven't had time to really kick in yet, which means the recent slowdown in health care costs is most likely just an extension of the slowdown that's been percolating behind our backs for more than three decades.

But that doesn't mean there's nothing to say about Obamacare here. CMS did forecasts both before and after Obamacare passed, and they predicted that Obamacare would increase spending. Lots of conservatives predicted the same thing. But it didn't happen. Here's the chart for private health care spending:

The figures are even more dramatic for Medicare and Medicaid spending. The jury may still be out on Obamacare's long-term effect on controlling health care costs, but one thing is sure: all the hysteria about Obamacare causing costs to skyrocket was entirely unfounded.

Peter Eavis says that Brexit is likely to lose and Britain will remain part of the EU:

Asking people to predict a result of an election has, over time, provided more accurate forecasts than asking people their voting intentions, according to a study by Justin Wolfers, a University of Michigan economist and an Upshot contributor, and David Rothschild, of the Microsoft Research and Statistics Center.

When Survation asked, “Regardless of how you plan to vote, what do you think the result will be?” just shy of 40 percent of people said the “remain” camp would win. Only 26 percent said that “leave” would prevail.

The betting markets agree:

The betting odds for the EU referendum changed direction over the weekend and now firmly favour a Remain vote with just three days to go....Ladbrokes has given just a 27% chance of a Vote Leave while William Hill has it as 28.5%. Ladbrokes added that 95% of betting on was a Remain vote on Monday.

My sense—though I'd prefer actual data if anyone has collected it—is that secession votes usually follow a pattern: the leavers get an upward bump a few weeks before voting day, but stayers get a bump in the few days before voting day. A fair number of people flirt with the idea of leaving, but then get scared at the last minute and decide to vote for the status quo instead. Basically, in any secession referendum, I figure that Leave needs to be polling at 55 percent or higher to have a realistic chance of winning.

As of today, the polls are still tied, so my guess is that Brexit will fail on Thursday. If I'm right that about 5 percent of the leavers will get cold feet and change their minds, the final tally will be something like 53-47 percent in favor of remaining in the EU. We'll find out in a couple of days.

Illegal Immigrant Tries to Kill Donald Trump!

An illegal immigrant who is apparently mentally ill tried to grab a policeman's gun yesterday so that he could shoot Donald Trump. I gather that it was a fairly half-hearted effort, but still: "Illegal Immigrant Tries to Kill Trump"! Where are the headlines? Jim Geraghty comments:

The recent chaos on the Trump campaign, as big a story as it is, shouldn’t cause this event to disappear from the public’s attention. It illuminates the disconcerting fact that once legal temporary immigrants enter the country, the authorities have no real way to keep track of them. And a lot of them take advantage of that fact....We need border security. But even if you completely sealed the southern border, America would still have a significant number of illegal immigrants walking its streets.

Quite so. But forget the media. We all know they're in thrall to political correctness and won't print anything that might cast Mexican immigrants in an unfavorable light. But what about Trump? His Twitter feed is empty. Why isn't he shouting about this from the rooftops? I mean, it totally vindicates his point about building a wall and—

Wait. What? I should read the whole story. Fine. Here's the BBC:

A British man arrested while trying to grab a policeman's gun at a Donald Trump rally in Las Vegas has been described in his home town as "a strange one"....Surrey Police said it was "providing family liaison support on behalf of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office"....The BBC understands he lived with his mother Lynne in Dorking, Surrey until about 18 months ago.

Surrey police? Dorking? A British man? What's that all about?

Ah, I get it. Michael Sandford is white. And he's from Britain. A wall wouldn't keep him out. And anyway, Trump's base doesn't hate residents of Dorking who overstay their visas. He's not the right kind of illegal immigrant. So we'll all ignore him.

POSTSCRIPT: On another note, Geraghty, like many conservatives, complains that we have "no real way to keep track" of visitors who overstay their visas. That's true. But what exactly do they expect? GPS tracking collars? It's not as if someone who's illegally overstaying their visa is going to voluntarily check in at their nearest consulate. And even if we did track them somehow, what good would it do? I'm puzzled by this whole thing.

Donald Trump Is Broke

Today's big news is the overall implosion of the Donald Trump campaign. He's repeatedly melted down on the stump over the past month. He's trailing Hillary Clinton by a mile in the latest polls. He fired his campaign manager this morning. His ego apparently doesn't allow him to beg other people for money, so he's barely done any fundraising at all. The fight to stop him at the Republican convention now has the support of nearly 400 delegates. With the election only 20 weeks away, he still has virtually no staff. He's being hammered by negative advertising on TV and isn't doing anything to fight back. (So far he's run exactly zero ads.)

Except for the personal meltdown stuff, all of this is basically a money problem. Trump doesn't have any. In fact, pretty much everything you need to know about Trump's campaign—and his underlying  business acumen, though that's a story for another time—is captured in FEC form 3P. As you can see, it shows that Trump ended the month of May with $1.28 million on hand. That's disastrous. It's unbelievable. It's less than a tenth of what he should have. It's less than a well-run congressional campaign should have. It's $40 million less than Hillary Clinton's campaign has. It's Donald Trump in a nutshell.

So will he just finance the campaign out of his own wallet? Not a chance. Bluster aside, he doesn't have the ready cash to do it. And he wouldn't even if he could. After all, this is the guy who eagerly transferred the five-figure salary of his longtime bodyguard to his campaign at the first opportunity. Do you really think he's ready to blow $500 million on a nearly certain losing cause?

tronc Unveils Its Content Monetization Engine

A couple of months ago, the company that owns the LA Times drew mockery for its plans to introduce a "content monetization engine" that would "create more revenue...than you've ever seen."

Then, a few weeks ago, they drew yet more mockery by renaming themselves tronc, for Tribune Online Content. Seriously. tronc. All lower case. I thought we'd gotten over that kind of nonsense in the 70s.

Today they officially began trading as TRNC on NASDAQ—and employees began receiving videos describing how all this content monetization will work. Monday's blast features Malcolm CasSelle, tronc's Chief Technology Officer, and Anne Vasquez, tronc's Chief Digital Officer, who team up to toss around a whole mess of trendy buzzwords. tronc is all about "having a tech startup culture meet a legacy corporate culture." They tell us that an "optimization group" will feed content "into a funnel and optimize it." There will be "machine learning" and "artificial intelligence." Stories will be "more visual."  But what does all this mean? About three-quarters of the way in, we finally find out. It's all about video:

VASQUEZ: Right now we're averaging about 16 percent of our article pages have the type of video player that we can monetize. By 2017 we need to get to 50 percent of our article pages have a Brightcove video player attached to it.

CASSELLE: The CPM that we can earn with a video, or visualized content, is significantly higher than a page without it. And that's the reason why we have to raise these numbers. It will significantly increase our annual revenue per user, which is a key metric for us to grow as a company.

I have too many friends who work for the Times to give this quite the snark it deserves. And besides, who knows? Maybe print really is dead. Maybe video is the future. And not just any video, but video being played on a Brightcove player that can be suitably monetized.

I hope there's more to tronc than just this. Using artificial intelligence to slap monetizable viral videos onto every piece of journalism tronc produces is surely a wonderful thing, but it's not exactly a vision of the future likely to inspire the troops. It sounds more as if reporters are now going to get daily summaries telling them how many of their pieces have Brightcove video attached, with stern talking-tos for everyone who fails to make their 50 percent quota. Exciting!

On Friday, Donald Trump offered up this comment on the Orlando shooting: "It's too bad that some of the young people that were killed over the weekend didn't have guns attached to their hip....Had people been able to fire back it would have been a much different outcome."

Presumably Trump figured that this was the "strong" pro-gun position, only to discover that even the NRA thinks it's not a great idea to mix firearms and alcohol. So today he Trumpsplained that he was "obviously" referring only to "additional guards or employees."

This is, obviously, a lie, as even the lightest perusal of his original remarks proves. Nonetheless, the term of art for this is that he "walked back" his comment. If that sounds familiar, it's because Trump has practically made a career of walking back his endless buffoonery. The screen cap below of a Google News search for "Trump walks back" displays it in all its glory.

I totally ripped off this idea from Andrew Sprung, but it really requires its full length to do it justice. As Andrew says, "Perhaps some of these proposals didn't evince quite the level of deliberation we could wish for?"

What really gets me is why Trump's supporters continue to believe a word he says. He's gonna build a wall? Sure. He'll never walk that back. Honest.

From Pema Levy:

In 2012, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback launched a "real live experiment" in conservative governance. He slashed income taxes for top earners and eliminated them for more than 330,000 small businesses, promising the cuts would be "a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy." Instead, the result has been disastrous. By the end of 2015, the state had lost nearly $3 billion in revenue and was behind most other states in job growth. And when the courts challenged the constitutionality of the bare-bones budgets, Brownback and his allies launched an all-out war on the state's judges.

Click the link to read all about the farcical war that Brownback waged on his state's judicial system. But if you'd like some cold, hard numbers to go with your story, Menzie Chinn is your man. Here, for example, is economic growth in Kansas before and after Brownback took office:

Ouch. From 2005 to 2011, Kansas was growing faster than the US economy. This continued for about a year after Brownback took office, at which point economic growth declined and then flatlined. But hey—maybe things are just tough in the Midwest? Not really, it turns out. Here's how Kansas compares to her neighboring states since 2011:

Chin has also done a forecast of how well Kansas should have done based on historical trends, and the picture is just as un-pretty as these. Basically, (a) Kansas was doing OK, (b) Brownback rolled in and decided to make Kansas a test bed for conservative economics, and (c) Kansas promptly went to hell.

This, of course, has caused conservatives to think long and hard about their contention that cutting taxes on the rich and slashing bloated budgets will supercharge the economy. Haha. Just kidding. What they've actually done is either (a) ignore Kansas or (b) spend lots of time trying to dig up reasons that Kansas is a special case and would have done even worse if Brownback hadn't stepped in. These reasons tend to be pretty ridiculous, but so far they've been good enough to keep the rubes in line. And that's what matters, right?