Here's the latest on our misplaced aircraft carrier:

Press secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday the White House does not bear responsibility for public statements indicating that a U.S. aircraft carrier was headed for the Korean Peninsula earlier this month when it was, in fact, sailing in the opposite direction.

All questions as to why the USS Carl Vinson and its accompanying strike group were photographed traveling south past Indonesia after U.S. officials said the vessels would be deployed in the waters off the Korean Peninsula should be directed to the Pentagon and U.S. Pacific Command, Spicer said.

Well duh. Of course the White House bears no responsibility. Just because Donald Trump is the commander-in-chief doesn't mean the buck stops with him.

But I still want to know something: Who gave the order for the Carl Vinson to steam toward North Korea? Was it Trump? What order did he give? Was that order carried out? Or was it someone else's decision entirely?

This is, admittedly, something of a gotcha question, but it's also a real question. The chain of command starts with Trump, and we all have a stake in how well it's working. This particular mistake—if mistake it was—was fairly harmless. That might not always be the case.

Are we in yet another housing bubble? The Case-Shiller chart I posted yesterday suggests we probably are: housing prices may not be at their previous 2006 peak, but they're nonetheless far higher than their historical average.

But wait. What about interest rates? Low interest rates mean lower monthly payments even if purchase prices are relatively high, and that's what really matters since that's what people actually pay. This is all true enough, but it raises a question: how low are mortgage rates? That is, real mortgage rates, which are adjusted for inflation. This low:

Historically, the average real 30-year fixed mortgage rate is a hair above 4 percent. Right now it's at 3.5 percent. In other words, mortgage rates aren't really all that low. This suggest that historically high home prices also mean historically high mortgage payments.

But there are other ways of looking at this. For example, total mortgage debt as a percent of GDP has retreated to 2002 levels and isn't rising. Mortgage debt service as a percent of household income is low and declining. Both of these are good signs.

On the other hand, these are aggregate numbers that include everyone with a mortgage. It would be better if we could see them just for new buyers, but I don't know where to find that. And if you look at the price-to-rent ratio, which is usually a good harbinger of housing bubbles, it's been rising since 2012 and is now at 2004 levels. That's not so good, and if we get to 2005 levels we should start being scared.

As usual, there are a lot of ways of looking at this, which is why different people will give you firm but very different opinions about home prices. Personally, I think the evidence suggests we're in another bubble. But I might be wrong.

Behold the Juicero. It is sleek, internet-connected, built like a tank, uses custom bags of chopped produce, applies four tons of pressure, and makes the world's trendiest cold-pressed juice:

But wait. Bloomberg reports that there's a dark side to the Juicero. Well, another dark side, anyway:

After the product hit the market, some investors were surprised to discover a much cheaper alternative: You can squeeze the Juicero bags with your bare hands. Two backers said the final device was bulkier than what was originally pitched and that they were puzzled to find that customers could achieve similar results without it. Bloomberg performed its own press test, pitting a Juicero machine against a reporter’s grip....In Bloomberg’s squeeze tests, hands did the job quicker, but the device was slightly more thorough. Reporters were able to wring 7.5 ounces of juice in a minute and a half. The machine yielded 8 ounces in about two minutes.

Hmmm. Tell me more about these reporters. Men? Women? Weakling nerds? Folks who hit the gym a lot? How much juice could I get from a Juicero bag? In any case, investors are upset:

After the product’s introduction last year, at least two Juicero investors were taken aback after finding the packs could be squeezed by hand. They also said the machine was much bigger than what Evans had proposed. One of the investors said they were frustrated with how the company didn’t deliver on the original pitch and that their venture firm wouldn’t have met with Evans if he were hawking bags of juice that didn’t require high-priced hardware. Juicero didn’t broadly disclose to investors or employees that packs can be hand squeezed, said four people with knowledge of the matter.

Oh come on. Juicero was recently forced to cut the price of its press from $699 to $399, so it probably isn't even much of a moneymaker. The bags, on the other hand, are highway robbery at $5-7 each. At a guess, the gross margin on the press is around 50 percent at best, but the gross margin on the juice bags is probably 90 percent or more. If Juicero can sell the bags without the juicer—and maybe tout hand squeezing as a good workout regimen while they're at it—they probably clear a thousand dollars per year. Maybe more. The press doesn't add much to that, even if it is 802.11b/g/n compatible and notifies you when your juice packs are about to expire.

The hardware is only necessary for two reasons. First, people are lazy and don't want to squeeze their own bags. Second, it makes everything high tech and cool. Regardless, differential pricing is a proven moneymaker, and now Juicero can sell its bags to cheapskates. There's always been more money in the blades than the shaver.

Gabriel Sherman, who has made a career out of reporting about Fox News, says serial lech Bill O'Reilly is out:

The Murdochs have decided Bill O'Reilly's 21-year run at Fox News will come to an end. According to sources briefed on the discussions, network executives are preparing to announce O'Reilly's departure before he returns from an Italian vacation on April 24. Now the big questions are how the exit will look and who will replace him.

…Sources briefed on the discussions say O'Reilly's exit negotiations are moving quickly. Right now, a key issue on the table is whether he would be allowed to say good-bye to his audience, perhaps the most loyal in all of cable (O'Reilly's ratings have ticked up during the sexual-harassment allegations). Fox executives are leaning against allowing him to have a sign-off, sources say. The other main issue on the table is money. O'Reilly recently signed a new multi-year contract worth more than $20 million per year. When Roger Ailes left Fox News last summer, the Murdochs paid out $40 million, the remainder of his contract.

O'Reilly's audience apparently likes the fact that he hits on women constantly in crude and demeaning ways. I guess this doesn't surprise me. Or does it? I'm not sure. But one thing is for sure: O'Reilly's audience really, really hates the idea of caving into the liberal social justice warriors.

So: no Roger Ailes, no Megyn Kelly, no Greta van Susteren, no Gretchen Carlson, no Bill O'Reilly. It's just not the same at Fox anymore. At least they still have Sean Hannity.

Most of the votes in the Georgia 6th congressional district special election have been counted, and Democrat Jon Ossoff is headed to a runoff after failing to win more than half the vote. But he came close! And it just goes to show what a good candidate could have done in the presidential election. It's too bad Democrats were stuck with Hillary Clinton, who ran such a terrible campaign and got stomped.

Over on the Twitter box, a reader asks if I can update a New York Times chart that I posted seven years ago. It shows average housing prices through 2006, and he'd like to see them through 2017. Well, so would I, and luckily for both of us, Robert Shiller keeps a spreadsheet of this stuff that he updates monthly. So here it is for the entire period since World War II:

The most remarkable feature of this chart is that between 1953 and 1997, average housing prices increased by zero percent. Zero. This is very much not what people expect to see. Conventional wisdom says that homes are always and forever good investments, but for nearly half a century that just wasn't true. Adjusted for inflation, home prices were flat.

The second most remarkable feature of this chart is, of course, the insane Bush-era boom. Here in California we considered the 80s boom to be a very, very big deal. But it was a mere blip. The Bush boom was without precedent.

Finally, we get to the third most remarkable feature of this chart: the Obama-Trump era boom that's happening right now. Compared to the previous boom it might not seem like much, but it's already far larger than any other previous housing boom. And we have no idea how much further it has to go.

So what happens next? Are things really different this time, and home prices will stay permanently high? Or are we due for another housing bust? Beats me. Nor do I know what will happen if housing prices do collapse. It would be painful, of course, but how painful depends a lot on what kind of mortgage loans people are taking out; how much equity they have in their homes; and what kind of crap Wall Street is packaging all this stuff into. So far, things look OK on that front, so a housing collapse would mainly have an effect via the wealth effect, which would slash consumption. That would be bad, but only half as bad as the previous bubble, and there would be no financial crisis tailwind to make it even worse.

I don't quite see how home prices can stay at their current level, which is historically very high, but I guess you never know.

Our little lost aircraft carrier (aka the USS Carl Vinson) is the story of the day on Twitter, providing laughs aplenty. But there's a serious side to this as well. The New York Times provides us with the official story:

White House officials said Tuesday that they had been relying on guidance from the Defense Department. Officials there described a glitch-ridden sequence of events, from an ill-timed announcement of the deployment by the military’s Pacific Command to an erroneous explanation by the defense secretary, Jim Mattis — all of which perpetuated the false narrative that a flotilla was racing toward the waters off North Korea.

There are only two options here. First, Trump ordered the carrier group to sail immediately for the Korean Peninsua, but naval officials disobeyed him. Second, Trump (or Mattis) ordered something different, but then deliberately lied about it to make it sound like the carrier was making flank speed for the Yellow Sea. So which is it? We're all adults here, and I assume no one is buying this nonsense that it was all just a big glitch.

In other news, the White House sent out this press release today. Seriously, they did:

The news here is that members of the Trump administration support Donald Trump. The other news, apparently, is that the White House was unable to find anyone else to praise Trump's feeble "Buy American" executive order.

Moving on: Ryan Lizza has talked to some intelligence sources about all those classified intercepts in which Susan Rice allegedly "unmasked" the names of Trump aides. "There's absolutely nothing there," said one person who's read them all. So what's going on? Another person told us what I think we all knew already:

The intelligence source told me that he knows, “from talking to people in the intelligence community,” that “the White House said, ‘We are going to mobilize to find something to justify the President’s tweet that he was being surveilled.’ They put out an all-points bulletin”—a call to sift through intelligence reports—“and said, ‘We need to find something that justifies the President’s crazy tweet about surveillance at Trump Tower.’ And I’m telling you there is no way you get that from those transcripts, which are about as plain vanilla as can be.”

It's pretty obvious that this has been the motivation for everything that's happened since Trump's original clueless tweet. What a waste. And keep in mind that this idiotic strategy never would have come close to working if not for Fox News and Breitbart and folks like Devin Nunes, who are willing to shill for Trump regardless of the circumstances.

Finally, the Associated Press reports on Ivanka Trump's business acumen:

On April 6, Ivanka Trump's company won provisional approval from the Chinese government for three new trademarks, giving it monopoly rights to sell Ivanka brand jewelry, bags and spa services in the world's second-largest economy. That night, the first daughter and her husband sat next to the president of China and his wife for a steak and Dover sole dinner at Mar-a-Lago.

That paragraph used to be the lead, but later got demoted to the 7th graf. I'm not sure why. But AP reports that sales have hit record levels in 2017, "up an estimated 166 percent last year." And one day in particular was especially good:

Not bad! That Ivanka sure knows how to pick the right celebrity mouthpieces, doesn't she?

Lunchtime Photo

Here's a lovely field of California sunflowers, taken during my trip last month to Upper Newport Bay at dawn. Wide-angle lenses are wonderful things sometimes.

One of the remarkable things about Donald Trump's presidency is that every time he does something, you can find a tweet from a few years ago saying how terrible that thing is. Not just for a few things, either. It happens over and over and over. Aaron Blake finally brings this observation to the mainstream press:

Over the last two weeks, President Trump has attacked Syria without congressional approval, ratcheted up the use of force in Afghanistan with a huge bomb, and moved to reverse the Obama administration's policy of releasing White House visitor logs.

Each of these actions runs completely counter to the views and values once espoused by Trump on Twitter. And they join an amazingly long — and growing — list of old Trump tweets that have become eerily applicable to Trump's own presidency in ways that scream “hypocrisy.”

Blake follows this with a list of Trump's tweets, which reads like a time travel story about a younger version of Trump sending desperate tweets to his older self to try to warn him away from acts of folly. Sort of like that Sandra Bullock movie except with Twitter.

If anyone ever gets the chance to ask our suddenly press-shy president about this, I don't know what he'll say. What he believes, I suspect, is that we're all losers and morons. He said all that old stuff because he was attacking Obama. Duh. It's ridiculous to think it represents what Trump actually believes. When you're in a fight, you say what it takes to win. Truth is irrelevant. It's all performance art.

This is sort of like uber-conspiracy theorist lunatic Alex Jones, who is currently fighting a child custody battle by claiming that his radio show is just performance art, and no one could possibly take it seriously. This probably explains why Trump is such a big fan.

As for the rest of us, I guess we'd better get on the bandwagon. We need to start saying stuff about Trump without bothering to check if it's remotely true. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • American war casualties have gone up 100 percent under Trump. (This is actually true if you pick the right dates. Not that it matters.)
  • The February trade deficit with Mexico under Trump doubled compared to Obama's first February. The trade deficit with China was two-thirds higher. (True!)
  • Automobile sales have plummeted at an annual rate of 40 percent under Trump. (Also true!)
  • Interest rates have more than doubled since Trump was elected. (This is true too!)
  • Trump has the lowest recorded IQ of any American president ever. (That's what people have told me, anyway.)

You get the idea. Stop worrying about whether stuff is fair or accurate or any of that stuff. It's all performance art!

Tyler Cowen shocks us all today by suggesting that West Virginia has been the site of a productivity miracle lately. He admits he's mainly trying to provoke us, since West Virginia is unquestionably one of the poorest states in the nation. But it made me curious. How much has the West Virginia economy grown compared to neighboring states and to the US as a whole? I chose Maryland since it's next door and no one considers it especially poor. Here's what things look like:

In terms of growth, West Virginia has done OK since the start of the century. It was affected less by the Great Recession than the US as a whole—no surprise since West Virginia didn't suffer from the housing boom and bust—but its growth rate since then has been a little below average. Ditto for median household income, which has been flat since the end of the recession.

As for cost of living, this site says West Virginia is 3 percent lower than the US. It's a little cheaper on average to live in West Virginia compared to the rest of the country, but not by enough to matter.

So the bottom line is that West Virginia is poor; its growth rate since 2000 is above average thanks to insulation from the housing bust but below average since the end of the recession; and its cost of living is about average. That's not terrible, but I guess I'm not feeling the miracle.