Over at the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza presents a chart showing the dismal fortunes of the Democratic Party in recent years:

But 2008 was a landslide year for Democrats. Of course they'll look bad if you start from there. If, instead, you start at 1994—the post-Gingrich era—and eliminate the 2008 results, you get this:1

Neither of these charts is "correct." What's more, both show that 2016 was, indeed, a fairly dismal year for Democrats, especially at the state level. Still, it matters where you start. If your starting point is a landslide year, things are automatically going to look bleak. But if you expand your vision to the past two decades, 2016 looks bad, but it's not an epic disaster.

2016 was a pretty good year for Republicans. But that's all.

1For the record, I cobbled together these numbers from several sources, and they may be off slightly. But they show the trend accurately.

Earlier this evening I promised more on the TIMSS math test, and now I'm here to deliver. I could pretty easily just copy the full ranking table and consider it a job well done, but there's a problem with that: a bunch of Asian tigers are always at the top, light years ahead of everyone else. There's not much point in comparing ourselves to them. Do we really care that we do worse than countries that goad their kids into studying math until their eyes fall out? Likewise, there are lots of poor countries clustered near the bottom. There's not much point in comparing ourselves to them either. It might make us feel good, but do we really care that we beat out Malaysia and Oman?

Really, what we want to know is how we compare to peer countries. We also want to know if we're improving over time. So without further ado, here's the answer for 8th graders:

Basically, this isn't bad. We do pretty well among our peers, and our scores have been improving steadily for the past two decades. The full report is here, and it has lots of interesting tidbits.

It's worth noting that there are two big international math tests: TIMSS and PISA. The United States usually does fairly well on TIMSS and not so well on PISA, which claims to be more about concepts and actual problem solving. If your ideological preference is to show that American kids are doing fine, you'll focus on TIMSS. If your ideological preference is to show that American education is a cesspool and needs massive reform, you'll focus on PISA. Take your pick.

One other note. If you really want a takeaway from the latest TIMSS test, it's the same as the takeaway from every other test ever administered to America schoolkids: we do a terrible job of educating black children. The single biggest thing we could do to improve education in this country is to cut out the half measures and focus serious money and resources on poor, black school districts. But I guess the white working class wouldn't be very happy about that.

Yesterday I warned everyone to keep an eye out for details about the size of the bribe that Carrier got from Donald Trump to stay in Indiana. We still don't know that, but we do know a little bit more:

Carrier, the company that changed its plans to shutter a plant in Indianapolis and shift production to Mexico after talks with President-elect Donald Trump, confirmed Wednesday that it would receive financial assistance from the state of Indiana as part of the deal to keep the plant open.

....A statement from the company...“The incentives offered by the state were an important consideration.” The Indiana Economic Development Corp., a state agency, will grant Carrier a tax break in exchange for keeping the plant open, said John Mutz, a member of the corporation's board and a former lieutenant governor.

How big a tax break? And what else will Carrier get? Stay tuned as we learn more details about how many taxpayer dollars are being spent in order to provide Donald Trump with a PR opportunity.

Excellent news! The 2015 TIMSS test results are out. This is one of two international math tests for 4th and 8th graders (the other is PISA), and it provides us with yet another chance to bemoan the shoddy education of American students.

I'll get to that later tonight. First, though, I want to point out an odd thing about the TIMSS test. This year, for only the second time, they decided to add a third "advanced" math test for high school seniors who were in advanced math courses. Eight countries participated, and the United States did pretty well. We lagged behind only Lebanon.

Lebanon? You bet: their average score was 532, a whopping 50 points ahead of the two second-place countries (Russia and the US). But then I noticed something: only 3.2 percent of Lebanese students were in advanced math courses compared to 34 percent of Slovenian students. It makes sense that if you compare the top 3.2 percent of one country to the top 34 percent of another, the former is going to do a lot better.

So are differences in these scores just due to differences in how selective different countries are in accepting students into advanced math courses? Here's the scatterplot you've been waiting for:

Selectivity doesn't account for everything, but it does have a significant impact. If you restrict your classes to only the very brightest students (like Lebanon, Russia, and the US), they'll do well. If you open them up to more than a quarter of your students (like Italy, Portugal and Slovenia), the average kids will drag down the mean score. But which country is actually doing a better job of education? It's hard to say.

Regardless, there's always something to complain about. Here is Jeffrey Mervis in Science:

Students taking the most challenging math and science courses in their senior year were found to have performed progressively worse as they moved from elementary to middle to high school. The U.S. cohort, for example... deteriorated over time, from 29 and 9 points ahead of the midpoint in fourth and eighth grade, respectively, to 15 points below as seniors. Italy recorded the steepest drops, a startling 126 points below the midpoint in physics and 78 points in advanced math by the end of high school.

It's not clear to me that the "midpoint" of the TIMSS test means anything at all. In the advanced math test, every single country except Lebanon scored below it. What kind of midpoint is that? A pretty arbitrary one, I'd guess.

This is weird as hell. Between 12:55 and 12:57 pm on the East Coast this afternoon, the Office of Government Ethics sent out a tweetstorm addressed to Donald Trump:

We can't repeat enough how good this total divestiture will be....Brilliant! Divestiture is good for you, very good for America!....OGE applauds the "total" divestiture decision. Bravo!....As we discussed with your counsel, divestiture is the way to resolve these conflicts....OGE is delighted that you've decided to divest your businesses. Right decision!....Bravo! Only way to resolve these conflicts of interest is to divest . Good call!....this aligns with OGE opinion that POTUS should act as if 18 USC 208 applies. http://bit.ly/2fRpIG0....this divestiture does what handing over control could never have done....we told your counsel we'd sing your praises if you divested, we meant it.

Needless to say, Trump has made no decision to divest his holdings. He has said only that he plans to hand over control of "business operations" to his kids.

So what happened? Here's a few theories:

  1. Trump really does plan to divest, and his lawyers have told OGE this. Then OGE screwed up and scheduled a tweetstorm about it before Trump's announcement.
  2. OGE did this "accidentally" in order to put pressure on Trump to divest.
  3. OGE did this deliberately in order to put pressure on Trump to divest.
  4. Something else.

As near as I can tell, #4 is the winner. Here's what the New York Times reports:

In a statement, Seth Jaffe, an agency spokesman, said that officials there were “excited” by Mr. Trump’s announcements on conflicts of interest and that the messages were not based on any information about the president-elect’s plans beyond what was shared on his Twitter feed.

Asked later about the disclosure of the advice that the Office of Government Ethics had given to Mr. Trump’s lawyers, Mr. Jaffe said he could not provide additional comment. But the agency has left the posts on its official government account.

So...they just misinterpreted Trump's tweets and got so excited that they couldn't contain themselves. I can't say that this seems especially likely, but I guess anything is possible.

UPDATE: NPR has more here. Their account seems to imply that maybe #3 is the right answer. If it is, then bravo. After all, if Donald Trump can make waves via Twitter, then so can everyone else.

This is a helluva tease:

That's all the Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee except Dianne Feinstein, who joined all the Republicans in apparently not wanting this to be made public. That's quite a partisan divide in a mostly nonpartisan committee. I wonder what it's all about?

The ball's in your court, President Obama. To quote our president-elect: at this point, what the hell do you have to lose?

Controlling illegal immigration has never seemed all that hard to me. The vast majority of those who are in the United States illegally—either by crossing the border or overstaying their visas—are here to find jobs. So if you want to reduce illegal immigration, you need to make it hard for employers to hire anyone who's not authorized to work. But in the LA Times today, Wayne Cornelius says that's not in the cards:

There has never been much public or congressional appetite for a harsh crackdown on employers, especially the small businesses that depend most heavily on workers in the U.S. illegally. They are pillars of their communities and campaign contributors. Besides, immigration agents have had higher enforcement priorities — tracking down immigrants who committed serious crimes or pose national security threats.

President-elect Trump has called for full implementation of an electronic employment eligibility verification system called E-Verify....E-Verify, however, is no panacea. It does not prevent immigrants who are ineligible to work from getting jobs by providing valid information pertaining to other people (borrowed documents). And as long as penalties are weak, requiring employers to use E-Verify will not significantly reduce violations.

Will Congress approve crippling fines or even prison sentences for business owners who ignore E-Verify rules? Will lawmakers direct the Justice Department to make these scofflaws a top priority? Unless and until that happens, many employers will continue to view hiring those in the U.S. illegally as a low-risk, high-reward crime. In 2014, the probability that one of the nation’s 6 million employers would be investigated for violating immigration laws was 0.03%.

I don't personally care all that much about the level of illegal immigration. The chart above, from Pew Research, shows the current numbers, which strike me as reasonable. But obviously a lot of people do care, and most of them are Republicans. They talk tough, they build walls and fences, and they promise to hire lots of border enforcement agents. But this is all a sham. If the economic incentives continue to exist, so will illegal immigration.

The problem is that Republicans can't come to grips with their two main constituencies. Social conservatives generally hate undocumented workers and want to deport them all. Business conservatives want no such thing. So Republicans thunder on TV that borders are borders, and by God we need to control them. Then they quietly go back to their jobs and do nothing.

The obvious way to cut down on illegal immigration has always been to go after employers. Not only does this attack the root of the problem, but it's practically self-funding. You hire lots of ICE auditors and then pay for them by levying big fines on employers who break the law. As the problem diminishes, you collect less money but you also need fewer auditors.

E-Verify isn't perfect. Nothing is. But it could be made good enough. And once that's done, enforcement could be made pretty widespread and the fines could be made pretty high. If you do that, you can forget about the wall. It's just a distraction.

Bottom line: Anyone who claims to be fiercely opposed to illegal immigration but doesn't support strong employer sanctions is just lying to you.

Sad news:

The Pittsburgh-area McDonald's franchisee who created the Big Mac nearly 50 years ago has died. Michael "Jim" Delligatti was 98....Delligatti's franchise was based in Uniontown, about 40 miles south of Pittsburgh, when he invented the chain's signature burger with two all-beef patties, "special sauce," lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.

I've never understood the Big Mac. It's basically just a double cheeseburger with an extra bun in the middle. But why would anybody want an extra bun in the middle of their hamburger? Has anyone ever eaten a hamburger and then said, "That was pretty tasty, but it could use some extra bread"?

Can someone please explain this to me? Thanks.

Donald Trump tweeted this morning that it is "visually important, as President, to in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses." As a result "legal documents are being crafted which take me completely out of business operations."

Despite this, the New York Times says that "skeptics" aren't satisfied. There's a good reason for this. Two good reasons, actually. First, we live in a new era. As a matter of fact, not of cynicism or partisan griping, Trump tweets should be treated as lies until proven otherwise. That's just the way it is. Second, removing himself from business operations doesn't accomplish a thing. Trump still has massive conflicts of interest. The only way to resolve this is to sell the Trump Organization, which he will never do. In the meantime, every two-bit autocrat in the world knows that the quickest way to Trump's heart is to do something nice for Trump's business: approve his permits, hook up his kids with connected financiers, move government offices into his buildings, whatever. It's just a way of showing respect, you know?

I suppose there are worse things than having the United States run along the lines of a Mafia family. Nuclear war. An economic crash. Miami settling into the sea. Unfortunately, the odds are at least nontrivial that we're going to get all of those things too.