Evening Garbage Roundup

Apropos of my previous post, Natasha Bertrand points out that at the exact same time the Russian RISS think tank recommended a messaging change to focus on voter fraud, Donald Trump suddenly started talking about "rigged elections." I'm sure it was just a coincidence:

And there's also this about Jon Ossoff's near-victory in Georgia last night:

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, in an interview Tuesday in Louisville, Ky., said he didn’t know much about Mr. Ossoff, a 30-year-old former House staffer. Mr. Sanders said he isn’t prepared to back Democrats just because of a party label. “If you run as a Democrat, you’re a Democrat,” he said. “Some Democrats are progressive and some Democrats are not.”

Asked if Mr. Ossoff is a progressive, Mr. Sanders, an independent who challenged Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential primary, demurred. “I don’t know,” he said.

I know how touchy this subject is, but come on. Ossoff is obviously no fire breather, but he's been the center of progressive attention for weeks now. Would it kill Sanders to spend a few minutes learning who he is and what he's about—and whether that's good enough for an endorsement? If Sanders wants to be a party leader—and he's given every indication that he does—he needs to pay more attention to this stuff. He can start here.

UPDATE: There were originally three items in this post. The third one was a tweet about something Mike Huckabee said, but the tweet has since been deleted because it misrepresented Huckabee's comment. I've deleted the reference to it.

Reuters reports that Vladimir Putin personally directed RISS, a Russian think tank, to develop plans to interfere with the US election:

A Russian government think tank controlled by Vladimir Putin developed a plan to swing the 2016 U.S. presidential election to Donald Trump and undermine voters’ faith in the American electoral system, three current and four former U.S. officials told Reuters.

....The first Russian institute document was a strategy paper written last June that circulated at the highest levels of the Russian government but was not addressed to any specific individuals. It recommended the Kremlin launch a propaganda campaign on social media and Russian state-backed global news outlets to encourage U.S. voters to elect a president who would take a softer line toward Russia than the administration of then-President Barack Obama, the seven officials said.

A second institute document, drafted in October and distributed in the same way, warned that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was likely to win the election. For that reason, it argued, it was better for Russia to end its pro-Trump propaganda and instead intensify its messaging about voter fraud to undermine the U.S. electoral system’s legitimacy and damage Clinton’s reputation in an effort to undermine her presidency, the seven officials said.

According to Reuters, there's no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded in this. It was purely a Russian operation. Nor did the RISS plans say anything about the release of hacked emails. "The officials said the hacking was a covert intelligence operation run separately out of the Kremlin."

So we have the RISS plan. We have the email hacks, which were far more extensive than initially reported. We have the RT cable network and the Sputnik news agency, which specialized in anti-Clinton stories. We have the Russian troll factory in St. Petersburg writing pro-Trump tweets under hundreds of aliases. We have thousands of Russian Twitter bots to make sure the tweets went viral. We have Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear and dozens of other covert Russian operations. We have Guccifer 2.0. We have DCLeaks.com. And finally, Russia appears to have used Wikileaks—either wittingly or unwittingly—for maximum exposure of all its hacks.

That's a pretty big operation. Did it work? We'll never know, but given how close the election was, the answer is probably yes.

Todd Ricketts, President Trump's choice for deputy Commerce Secretary, has withdrawn. Can you guess why? Yep: because he's so rich that he can't "untangle" himself from his financial holdings to the satisfaction of the Office of Government Ethics. Trump himself may not be subject to normal ethics rules, but everyone else is. And let's face it: no one with substantial wealth really wants to go through all this divestment and blind trust folderol just for a deputy position. Especially in the Commerce Department, which ranks pretty low on everyone's list of cabinet agencies.

There's an interesting backstory here that you may remember from campaign season. Last February Trump tweeted this: "I hear the Rickets family, who own the Chicago Cubs, are secretly spending $'s against me. They better be careful, they have a lot to hide!" He was apparently threatening Todd's mother, who contributed to anti-Trump causes early in the primaries, but Todd was willing to work for Trump anyway. Seems a little odd, no? In any case, I guess he was willing to work for Trump, but not all that willing.

Via Joe Romm, NOAA reports a new record on the climate change front. Actually, we've set lots of new records recently, but most have been due to last year's strong El Niño, which sent global temperatures skyrocketing. What about during a normal year with neither an El Niño nor a La Niña?

Well, the past couple of months have had neither. We have been "ENSO neutral," in the jargon. And boy was it hot. According to NOAA, March 2017 marks "the first time a monthly temperature departure from average surpasses 1.0°C (1.8°F) in the absence of an El Niño episode in the tropical Pacific Ocean."

Luckily for all of us, Donald Trump will soon defund NOAA's climate research so we can pretend none of this is happening. I feel better already.

Lunchtime Photo

I struggled with the choice of photo today. Should I post (a) the best possible photo of our backyard lizard? Or should I post (b) an OK photo that benefits from having a monstrous, Land-of-the-Giants-esque cat nose dominating one corner? Or, for the unsqueamish, (c) a picture of Hilbert picking up the lizard in a remarkable delicate way?

Decisions, decisions. I guess I'll go with option A, which really shows off the way this little guy can blend in with the surrounding foliage. He's pretty good at it, but not quite good enough to escape feline attention.

The jig is up for Bill-O:

“After a thorough and careful review of the allegations, the Company and Bill O’Reilly have agreed that Bill O’Reilly will not be returning to the Fox News Channel,” 21st Century Fox said in a statement.

....The decision to oust O’Reilly was a tricky one for Fox News because he is the network’s most popular anchor. But the Murdoch family, which controls Fox News parent 21st Century Fox, faced pressure to act in the face of mounting negative publicity surrounding the sexual harassment claims against O’Reilly.

And now for our next topic: Who will replace O'Reilly in his time spot? Tucker Carlson? A blonde woman? Stay tuned!

UPDATE: Meh. It's Tucker Carlson. He's now had the 7 pm, 8 pm, and 9 pm time slots in the five months he's been at Fox News. He took over the 7 pm slot when Greta van Susteren left, the 9 pm slot when Megyn Kelly left, and now the 8 pm slot when O'Reilly was fired. Pretty lucky timing for Tucker.

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.