A few days ago I noted that Republican views of the economy changed dramatically when Donald Trump was elected, but Democratic views stayed pretty stable. Apparently Republicans view the economy through a partisan lens but Democrats don't.

Are there other examples of this? Yes indeed. Jeff Stein points to polling data about air strikes against Syria:

Democrats are about as supportive of the strikes as they were under Obama, with 38 percent backing them in 2013 and 37 percent agreeing with them now, according to the Washington Post. Now 86 percent of Republican voters back the strikes, compared with the just 22 percent who did so in 2013.

This is a pretty stunning difference. Democratic views stayed solidly negative regardless of who was president. But Republican approval rates skyrocketed from 22 percent to 86 percent when Trump became president. This despite the fact that Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons was more extensive in 2013 than it was this year.

To be honest, I figured the data on economic views was a fluke. Now I wonder. It's difficult to make these comparisons over time because you rarely have identical circumstances to compare. Trump's Syrian bombing is unusually similar to the situation in 2013. Still, there are bound to be others. I wonder if this is a fairly consistent result? What other examples do we have of presidents of the opposite party doing extremely similar things and getting different responses from partisans?

How many Americans are atheists? Many people don't really like admitting it, but Brian Resnick points today to an attempt to get at the truth. In the cleverly titled "How many atheists are there?" a pair of researchers sent people surveys with a bunch of personal questions (Are you vegetarian? Do you work from home? Etc.). But they didn't ask for answers to the questions. All they asked for was the number that were true for you.

The researchers don't report the average number reported back. But let's suppose it was 4.3 out of 9. This is important, because they sent out a second set of surveys that were identical but added one question: "Do you believe in God?" If the average number of questions that were reported true in the second survey stayed at 4.3 out of 10, we can figure that no one believes in God. If it went up to, say, 5.1 out of 10, a little arithmetic suggests that roughly 80 percent of the respondents believe in God and 20 percent don't.

After grinding through all this, the paper concludes that about 26 percent of Americans are atheists. Maybe that's a reliable number, maybe not. This needs to be replicated a few times before we believe it. However, I was pretty gobsmacked by this table:

Granted, the error bars are large, but their point estimate is that no Republicans are atheists. None! If this methodology is accurate, it not only suggests a truly enormous religion gap between Republicans and everyone else, but also that self-reporting isn't worth a damn.

As it happens, the sample the researchers used was probably somewhat self-selected rather than being truly random, and that may have affected the results. There are other potential problems too. Still, it's an interesting first crack at this, and I hope that others follow it up.

Lunchtime Photo

This freeway sign hanging out in the middle of nowhere (well, above a Target parking lot anyway) has intrigued me for a long time, so here's a picture of it. Needless to say, your mileage may vary on how intriguing you find it. Marian's response to it was roughly the facial version of "oh."

Oddly enough, the next time I was over at Target after taking this picture there was no sign. At first I thought maybe I was living in some kind of virtual reality simulation after all, and the sysadmin had screwed up a detail. But no. I drove around a bit, and over in the corner was a mangled sign that some maintenance crew had hauled down. Apparently someone had taken the exit a little too fast and run into it.1

1Either that, or a software alert went off and the sysadmin, realizing what had happened, hastily created the mangled sign as a plausible way of keeping me from losing faith in consensus reality.

I missed this a couple of days ago, but Nancy LeTourneau alerts me to a recent CNN report about Susan Rice's requests to "unmask" the names of individuals in intelligence reports that she received when she was Obama's National Security Advisor. This was all part of the great Devin Nunes fiasco, where he went to the White House to read the reports, came back to Capitol Hill to hold a press conference, and then rushed back to the White House to tell President Trump all about it. But there's no there there:

After a review of the same intelligence reports brought to light by House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers and aides have so far found no evidence that Obama administration officials did anything unusual or illegal....Over the last week, several members and staff of the House and Senate intelligence committees have reviewed intelligence reports related to those requests at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.

One congressional intelligence source described the requests made by Rice as "normal and appropriate" for officials who serve in that role to the president.

Fine. Susan Rice did nothing wrong. It's not as if we didn't know that already, but it's nice to see it confirmed. Rice must be getting really tired of being a handy Republican punching bag.

I'm just writing these down for posterity:

Trump on health care: "I have to tell you, it's an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew health care could be so complicated."

Trump on China and North Korea: "[President Xi] then went into the history of China and Korea....And Korea actually used to be a part of China. And after listening for 10 minutes I realized that it’s not so easy. You know I felt pretty strongly that they have a tremendous power over China....But it’s not what you would think."

Trump on the Export-Import Bank: "I was very much opposed to Ex-Im Bank, [but] it turns out that, first of all lots of small companies will really be helped....So instinctively you would say it’s a ridiculous thing but actually it’s a very good thing and it actually makes money. You know, it actually could make a lot of money."

So far, Donald Trump has learned that health care is complicated; Korea used to be part of China; and the Ex-Im bank helps small companies too.

On health care, Trump gets solid marks. It is complicated. On the other hand, pretty much everyone except Trump already knew this. And the graders would have liked him to demonstrate a little more familiarity with why health care is complicated. Still, it's a good first step. Let's give him him a B-.

On Korea, Trump didn't do so well. Is it true that Korea "used to be a part of China"? Sort of, in the sense that, back in the day, China repeatedly invaded Korea with varying success. At times it was a vassal state, at other times it wasn't. But Trump talks as though maybe Korea was a province of China until maybe World War II or something. It's actually been more than six centuries. Still, I'm feeling generous, so I'll give a gentleman's C-.

The Ex-Im bank is even more problematic. The bank itself claims that "more than 90 percent of EXIM Bank's transactions—more than 2,600—directly supported American small businesses." But take a look at dollars:

This comes from a longtime opponent of the Ex-Im Bank, so take it with a grain of salt. Small businesses do a little better on other metrics. Still, there's not much question that agitprop aside, the Ex-Im Bank is primarily a tool for gigantic corporations. On the other hand, Trump is right that it makes money and doesn't cost the taxpayers anything. But I still think I have to give him a D on this for his core claim.

Overall, then, Trump is learning, but he's not learning especially well. So far I'd give him about a C-. He really needs to spend more time on his homework and less time watching TV.

The Guardian reports that European spy agencies, including Britain's GCHQ, were the first to notice an unusual number of contacts between Trump campaign advisors and Russian officials:

GCHQ first became aware in late 2015 of suspicious “interactions” between figures connected to Trump and known or suspected Russian agents, a source close to UK intelligence said....Over the next six months, until summer 2016, a number of western agencies shared further information on contacts between Trump’s inner circle and Russians, sources said. The European countries that passed on electronic intelligence — known as sigint — included Germany, Estonia and Poland. Australia, a member of the “Five Eyes” spying alliance, which also includes the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand, also relayed material, one source said.

....It is understood that GCHQ was at no point carrying out a targeted operation against Trump or his team or proactively seeking information.... Instead both US and UK intelligence sources acknowledge that GCHQ played an early, prominent role in kickstarting the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation, which began in late July 2016.

....The Guardian has been told the FBI and the CIA were slow to appreciate the extensive nature of contacts between Trump’s team and Moscow ahead of the US election....“It looks like the [US] agencies were asleep,” the source added. “They [the European agencies] were saying: ‘There are contacts going on between people close to Mr Trump and people we believe are Russian intelligence agents. You should be wary of this.’

I don't know if any of this is, strictly speaking, new. But it's fairly damning. Five separate countries—Britain, Germany, Estonia, Poland, and Australia—noticed unusual activity in the Trump campaign. This suggests either a lot of contacts or an unusual level of ineptitude from the Trump folks.

Alternatively, of course, it could suggest that the Trump team didn't think it was doing anything wrong and therefore made no effort to hide its meetings. Knowing what we know about people close to Trump, though, I think that ineptitude probably has to be our first guess.

Yesterday I made fun of President Trump for not understanding why his tax cut plan would be easier to pass after Obamacare had been repealed. But I have a confession: I don't really understand it either. Jon Chait's explanation is typical:

The connection between the two issues might seem obscure, but it matters technically. The Republican plan to repeal Obamacare would eliminate all the taxes that were raised to help pay for the benefits — about $1.2 trillion over the next decade. This would lower the baseline of tax revenue, meaning that Republicans would need to design a tax code that raises $1.2 trillion less in revenue in order to be “revenue-neutral.” That makes it crucial for them to repeal Obamacare before they cut taxes.

I've read a whole bunch of explanations of why Obamacare repeal needs to come before tax reform, and this is the gist of all of them: It lowers the revenue baseline.

Fine. Using round numbers, suppose the tax code brings in $20 trillion over ten years. Once you repeal Obamacare, it brings in $19 trillion, so your shiny new tax plan only has to raise $19 trillion. Simple enough.

But what if you leave Obamacare in place? Now your new tax plan needs to raise $20 trillion. But $1 trillion is still coming from Obamacare, so you have to raise only $19 trillion ex-Obamacare. It's the same. I can't think of a chart to illustrate this, so instead here's one showing actual federal tax revenues aside from payroll taxes:

What am I missing here? The fact that all the explanations I've read vaguely invoke the phrase "revenue baseline" and then move on makes me suspicious. Is there something deeper going on here? It doesn't make sense that eliminating a roughly equal amount of revenue and spending by repealing Obamacare would have any effect on the deficit calculations of a subsequent tax bill. Could some grizzled expert please explain this?

The blog has been heavily Trump-centric today, but what can you do? When it rains, it pours. This evening brings us yet another story based on dozens of interviews with Trump's closest advisors, most of whom are apparently willing to make their boss look like a doofus.

But tonight's piece is actually about Steve Bannon, the slovenly, hardline Cardinal Richelieu of the White House who hates illegal immigrants and is working in the long-term to foment a final showdown between the Christian West and the Islamic Middle East. He's at war with factions in the West Wing who don't especially share his zealotry, and Trump himself suggested this week that his position was a little dicey:

The president’s comments were described by White House officials as a dressing-down and warning shot, though one Bannon friend, reflecting on them Wednesday, likened Bannon to a terminally ill family member who had been moved into hospice care.

....Bannon’s supporters believe he is an essential conduit between Trump and his nationalist, populist base. The wealthy Mercer family, which has nurtured Bannon’s political rise and infused Trump’s campaign and allied groups with millions of dollars, is closely monitoring Bannon’s falling fortunes. Rebekah Mercer, who directs the family’s political activities, is unnerved and worried about losing her best link to a president her family takes credit for helping get elected but believes Bannon will be able to maintain his influence, people close to the family said.

....As tensions have heightened in recent weeks, the Bannon and Kushner camps have devolved into opposing firing squads. Team Bannon believes the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” a show the president watches regularly, are speaking regularly with Kushner and projecting his anti-Bannon sentiments. Kushner allies, meanwhile, finger Bannon as responsible for unflattering stories involving the president’s son-in-law, including those focusing on Kushner’s talks with Russians.

There are factions in every White House, but Trump's factions sound far more like a bunch of squabbling first-graders than most. "You've been bad-mouthing me to Joe!" "Yeah, well, who leaked that Russia stuff to the Times?"

Unfortunately, the story ends with this:

For Trump, one bright spot was the decision to launch 59 missiles in Syria last week. The president was pleased with the process, overseen by national security adviser H.R. McMaster, that brought together his war cabinet and corralled its expertise in a way that resembled a more traditional White House.

“He’s in the best place that I’ve seen him since the inauguration,” Barrack said. “He’s confident. He thinks he’s found the groove, and with his team too. . . . He looks great. His energy level is off the map. And I think he now feels the commander in chief role.

Great. It would be nice to have a president who felt terrible about launching missiles, even if he felt that it had to be done. But not Trump. It was the only bright spot in his week.

There's so much to learn in the world. A couple of days ago, for example, the Department of Health and Human Services issued this statement regarding CSR subsidies for Obamacare:

The New York Times report is inaccurate. The administration is currently deciding its position on this matter. We have not been contacted by Democrats to help save Obamacare, perhaps because they consider Obamacare to be a losing cause. Democrats need to help solve this failed Obamacare plan.

That sounded really aggressive for an agency statement, and I was a little surprised. How had they picked up the Trump style and rhythm so perfectly? Today I learned the answer via Politico:

Two administration officials said the HHS rebuttal was personally ordered by an incensed Trump, who feared that the Times story hurt his negotiating position. Trump took the unusual step of calling HHS Secretary Tom Price to dictate a blistering statement that challenged the story and swiped at Democrats, one senior administration official said.

Today Trump made his position even clearer. Insurers will most likely pull out of the exchanges or jack up premiums if CSR payments are halted, and Trump said explicitly that he was willing to do this if Democrats didn't come to the table. I'm not a world-class negotiator or anything, but isn't it sort of unusual to talk openly about your threat to personally blow up Obamacare unless Dems knuckle under? That makes it hard to subsequently blame Democrats, doesn't it?

In other news, I'm not the only one who's been learning new things. A few weeks ago Trump announced that health care was a lot more complicated than he had thought, and today he explained that Chinese President Xi Jinping schooled him on North Korea too:

Mr. Trump said he told his Chinese counterpart he believed Beijing could easily take care of the North Korea threat. Mr. Xi then explained the history of China and Korea, Mr. Trump said. “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Mr. Trump recounted. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power” over North Korea,” he said. “But it’s not what you would think.”

This is probably something I would have kept to myself, but maybe that's wrong. I suppose Trump is setting a good example by showing that you're never too old to listen and learn.

What else? There was this:

That was quick! Hooray for NATO! However, it's unclear what produced this change of heart. Was it the influence of H.R. McMaster? The alleged Russian collusion in Syria's use of chemical weapons? Or did the NSA pick up some sigint of Vladimir Putin mocking Trump?

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal today, Trump also said he's changed his mind and now supports the Export-Import bank. He's also thinking about reappointing Janet Yellen as chair of the Fed. And this:

Asked how he has changed since taking office, the former businessman—who as a candidate touted his ability to cut deals—said: “The magnitude of everything is so big, and also the decisions are so big. You know, you’re talking about life and death. You’re not talking about ‘you’re going to make a good deal.’”

Huh. The presidency isn't just about making good deals. Since that was basically Trump's sole alleged qualification for the office, I wonder what role he now thinks he's going to play?

Lunchtime Photo

Baby Canada Geese are coming our way here in Irvine, but only if Mama Goose can keep her nest warm and protected. Yesterday, a villainous maintenance man in a motorboat swung by with the obvious intent of stealing her eggs. But she knew how to foil his fiendish plot: get up on a rock and honk loudly at him. It worked. He sped away, terror-stricken at the prospect of continued honking.

Here she is making her way back down to her nest. It turns out that webbed feet are not so good at scaling rocks, so she ended up sort of half-flying down. Then, after moving a few feathers from one side to another and squooshing around a bit to get comfortable, she settled down to a serene morning of eggsitting.