Did Russian hacking during the 2016 campaign tip the election to Donald Trump? In the LA Times today, Noah Bierman and Brian Bennett have this to say:

The truth is no one knows for sure because the election was so close in so many states that no one factor can be credited or blamed, especially in last year’s highly combustible campaign.

This is exactly backward. The fact that the election was so close means that lots of things might have tipped the election all by themselves. The Russian hacking is one of them. Consider Bierman and Bennett's own case:

Extensive news coverage of the how the leaked emails showed political machinations by Democratic Party operatives often drowned out Clinton’s agenda....English-language news channel Russia Today...posted a video on YouTube in early November, for example. Called “Trump Will Not Be Permitted to Win,” it featured Julian Assange, the fugitive founder of WikiLeaks, and was watched 2.2 million times....U.S. intelligence officials say anti-Clinton stories and posts flooded social media from the Internet Research Agency near St. Petersburg, which the report described as a network of “professional trolls” led by a Putin ally.

Putin’s most tangible victory may have come last summer. On the eve of the Democratic National Convention in July, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) was forced to quit her post as Democratic National Committee chairwoman after emails posted on Wikileaks showed that supposedly neutral DNC officials had backed Clinton over her rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, in the primaries.

....In October, Trump similarly seized on leaked emails from Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. They showed that Donna Brazile, a former CNN commentator who replaced Wasserman Schultz at the DNC, had shared a pair of questions with Clinton’s team before a televised candidates’ forum and debate....The leak showed nothing illegal. But it bolstered the idea that Clinton was a Washington insider who benefited from fellow elites.

....The most damaging leaks for Clinton may have been transcripts of excerpts of her highly paid speeches to Wall Street bankers, released in October....There were no smoking guns in the leaks. But they included her admission that her growing wealth since she and Bill Clinton left the White House in 2001 had made her “kind of far removed” from the anger and frustration many Americans felt after the 2008 recession. She also called for "a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders, some time in the future, with energy that is as green and sustainable as we can get it."

That's a lot of stuff! Does it seem likely that all of this, plus the fact that it kept Clinton's email woes front and center, made a difference of 1 percent in a few swing states? Sure, I'd say so. Did other things make a difference too? Yes indeed. But given how close the election was, there's a pretty good chance that Putin's campaign of cyber-chaos had enough oomph to swing things all by itself.

I'm a little surprised this hasn't produced more panic. In the United States I understand why it hasn't: Democrats don't want to sound like sore losers and Republicans don't care as long as their guy won. But what about the rest of the world? It's been common knowledge for a while that Russia does this kind of stuff, but their actions in the US election represent a quantum leap in how far they're willing to go. And there's not much doubt that Putin will keep at it.

After all, it worked a treat. And thanks to a gullible press and normal partisan politics, it'll keep working. The next leak will get as much attention as these did, and the one after that too. We have no societal defense against this stuff.

Yesterday I noted that the intelligence report on Russian hacking devoted an awful lot of space to RT America, the Kremlin-funded cable TV network. That struck me as odd since I don't think RT had much influence on the election. Shortly after I wrote that, I got this tweet:

And this email:

I think you underestimate the influence of RT on the Jill Stein and "Never Hillary" crowd among Bernie supporters. This is only one aspect of delegitimizing the center. A leftist progressive friend who works on Syrian refugee issues was really disturbed by how many on that part of the spectrum think Putin is just dandy.

And this from Vox's Zack Beauchamp:

The ODNI report focuses, to an almost surprising degree, on RT — the Kremlin’s international, English-language propaganda media outlet. The report contains several striking observations about RT’s reach, message, and proximity to the Russian government.

....According to the report, RT — as well as Sputnik, another Russian government–funded English-language propaganda outlet — began aggressively producing pro-Trump and anti-Clinton content starting in March 2016. That just so happens to be the exact same time the Russian hacking campaign targeting Democrats began.

....During the 2016 campaign, RT aired a number of weird, conspiratorial segments — some starring WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange — that cast Clinton as corrupt and funded by ISIS and portrayed the US electoral system as rigged.

Put this all together and you have a portrait of a sometimes Alex Jones-esque "alternative channel" that appeals to fringe elements on both the left and right and successfully hides its identity from them. As the charts from the ODNI report show, it's also one with a growing social media presence, even if the precise numbers in the report aren't wholly reliable. I still don't know whether this translated into more than a negligible impact on the race, but I thought it was worth passing along. It may be that RT is more important than I give it credit for.

The intelligence community released its unclassified assessment of Russian hacking activity today. However, anyone who was hoping to learn more about how they collected their information will be sorely disappointed. There's none of that at all. It's just a series of assessments, and you either believe them or you don't.

If you want to read the whole report, we have it here. Oddly, it includes a lengthy annex about the actions of the RT television network, which is a public organ of Russian influence. But RT probably played virtually no role in the 2016 election. The real damage was done via email hacking, and helped along by anonymous twitter trolls who spread ugly anti-Hillary memes. Placing that much weight on RT really makes no sense, and I don't know why they did it.

In any case, if you don't want to read the whole thing, the executive summary is below. The intelligence community seems pretty sure that (a) Putin directed the influence campaign, (b) he did it to discredit Hillary Clinton, (c) Russian military intelligence carried out the hacking and relayed information to WikiLeaks, (d) they also hacked Republican sites but didn't make any of it public, and (e) this all worked really well, so Russia will probably do it again.

Donald Trump, of course, brushed it all off. Minutes after meeting with the intelligence chiefs and hearing the classified version of all this, he released an obviously prewritten statement saying that lots of countries try to hack us; it had absolutely no effect on the election—zilch, Zero, NADA, NOTHING!; and from now on we shouldn't talk about any of this publicly because we don't want to give anything away to our enemies.

Seriously. That's what he said.

Hopper has become entranced with climbing lately. She loves the tree right near the patio, which gives her an easy onramp to the patio cover. She moves fast, though, and my camera is too slow to catch her most of the time. Clearly I need a new one.

The Washington Post reports today on the latest harangue from those hardline, deficit-hating, no-compromise, tea-party Republicans:

In a dramatic reversal, many members of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus said Thursday they are prepared later this month to support a budget measure that would explode the deficit and increase the public debt to more than $29.1 trillion by 2026, figures contained in the budget resolution itself.

....“I just came to understand all the different ideas about where we go next,” said Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), a member of the House Freedom Caucus that typically opposes massive spending increases. Schweikert now says he will probably vote for the budget resolution.

Here's the text of the budget resolution:

As always, Republicans only care about deficits when a Democrat is president. This time around they didn't waste even two days before they made that crystal clear. I wonder how many times they can pull this bait-and-switch before the public and the press stops taking them seriously on their alleged horror of the spiraling national debt?

Republicans want to cut spending on the poor and cut taxes on the rich. That's it. Deficits haven't bothered them since the Reagan era. But I have to admit that this latest U-turn is pretty brazen even for them. It was only a few short months ago that they were swearing on a stack of Bibles that debt was eating our nation alive and they would never, ever vote for a budget that increased the deficit.

But it turns out there was an asterisk. If the deficit is produced by cutting Obamacare taxes on the rich and repealing Obamacare benefits for the poor, then it's OK.

A little while back I mentioned that Google Translate had gotten a lot better overnight when they switched to a new machine-learning algorithm. Their voice recognition got better too. And so did its question-answering capability.

I was chatting about this at Christmas with my family, and we all decided we should test it. But not with anything boring. We know that Siri and Google and other digital assistants can find nearby coffee shops or tell us the weather in Berlin. How about something harder? The conversation then morphed into something about pencils, and my mother said she only trusted erasers that are pink. But why are they pink, we wondered? Why indeed?

So there you have it? Not only did Google understand me, even with a cold, but it also understood the question and provided a brief and precisely on-point answer, which it read off very nicely. Impressive!

Anyway, this strikes me as close to Watson-esque. The thing is, this is not as simple a question as it seems. It requires a fairly sophisticated understanding of context and meaning. And finding a source that matches the question perfectly is also pretty amazing. If my phone can do that, how long before it can drive a car too?

Hmmm. Congressional Republicans might have a problem on their hands. Here's one of the findings of the latest Kaiser Family poll on health care:

That little orange pie slice at the bottom—the one that says 20 percent—represents the number of people who support the idea of repeal and delay. About half the respondents don't want to repeal Obamacare at all, and another 28 percent, showing the common sense that heartland Americans are famous for, don't want to buy a pig in a poke. They may not be thrilled with Obamacare, but they sure want to see what's going to replace it before it's ripped apart.

This is the mantra Democrats should be hawking every second of every day. We don't want a white paper, we want to see the real replacement. Does it really protect people with pre-existing conditions? Does it really keep premium costs down? Does it really reduce deductibles? Is it really a better deal for most working-class folks than Obamacare? Does it really keep the Medicaid expansion in place? Does it really guarantee that no one will be worse off than they are under Obamacare? And will it really cost less than Obamacare?

Every single person in America deserves an opportunity to look at the Republican plan, compare it to Obamacare, and figure out which one is a better deal for them personally. No one should support any kind of repeal plan until they're allowed to see this.

The Trump transition team has demanded that all politically-appointed ambassadors vacate the premises by noon on Inauguration Day:

The mandate — issued “without exceptions,” according to a terse State Department cable sent on Dec. 23, diplomats who saw it said — threatens to leave the United States without Senate-confirmed envoys for months in critical nations like Germany, Canada and Britain. In the past, administrations of both parties have often granted extensions on a case-by-case basis to allow a handful of ambassadors, particularly those with school-age children, to remain in place for weeks or months.

Mr. Trump, by contrast, has taken a hard line against leaving any of President Obama’s political appointees in place as he prepares to take office....The directive has...upended the personal lives of many ambassadors, who are scrambling to secure living arrangements and acquire visas allowing them to remain in their countries so their children can remain in school, the diplomats said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly on the matter.

I have to admit that I'm impressed with the creativity Trump has demonstrated to show he's a dick. It's all part of the plan, I suppose. Take every opportunity to demonstrate what a dick you are, and people will think twice before crossing you.

Donald Trump spent the morning tweeting about the passion of his supporters; Arnold Schwarzenegger's lousy ratings on Celebrity Apprentice compared to "ratings machine DJT"; his meeting with Anna Wintour and an upcoming meeting with the Condé Nast editors; and the fact that Mexico won't be paying for the wall after all.

Wait. What's this about the wall? Well, Trump may have said "Mexico will pay for it" about a million times, but it turns out that if you look carefully at the back side of his "Contract With the American Voter," he promises to introduce the End Illegal Immigration Act during his first hundred days. Here it is:

Fully-funds the construction of a wall on our southern border with the full understanding that the country Mexico will be reimbursing the United States for the full cost of such wall.

So you see, he was perfectly clear about this all along. You just had to read the fine print. Congress will pay for the wall and then we'll send Mexico a bill, payable on net 30 terms. This fits well with the Republican plan to "repeal and delay" on Obamacare. Apparently we're going to delay everything except those tax cuts for the rich. Those will be passed post-haste. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if they're made retroactive to redress the rich for the suffering they've endured during Obama's term in office.

The American economy added 156,000 new jobs last month, 90,000 of which were needed to keep up with population growth. This means that net job growth clocked in at a ho-hum 66,000 jobs—nearly all of it in the private sector. The headline unemployment rate ticked up slightly to 4.7 percent. Overall, it was sort of a blah showing, with 60,000 people finding new jobs and 120,000 people added to the unemployment rolls. The labor force participation rate stayed steady.

But there was also some good news: hourly earnings of production and nonsupervisory employees went up at an annual rate of slightly more than 4 percent. That's excellent, and suggests that the labor market is starting to firm up. If the Fed doesn't get too antsy about this, it could mean that 2017 will see some pretty decent wage growth.