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.

From the Washington Post:

As tensions mounted on the Korean Peninsula, Adm. Harry Harris made a dramatic announcement: An aircraft carrier had been ordered to sail north from Singapore on April 8 toward the Western Pacific. A spokesman for the Pacific Command linked the deployment directly to the “number one threat in the region,” North Korea, and its “reckless, irresponsible and destabilizing program of missile tests and pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability.”

Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters on April 11 that the Carl Vinson was “on her way up there.” Asked about the deployment in an interview with Fox Business Network that aired April 12, President Trump said: “We are sending an armada, very powerful.” The U.S. media went into overdrive and Fox reported on April 14 that the armada was “steaming” toward North Korea.

Sending a carrier somewhere is a standard way of huffing and puffing without really doing anything of substance. Every president has done it. Trump, however, has brought it to new levels of irrelevant theater. Defense News tells us where the carrier and its strike group were really headed:

Rather, the ships were actually operating several hundred miles south of Singapore, taking part in scheduled exercises with Australian forces in the Indian Ocean. On Saturday — according to photographs released by the U.S. Navy — the carrier passed north through the Sunda Strait, the passage between the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java. It's about 3,500 miles from Korea.

For the geographically challenged among us, here is the Sunda Strait:

As you can see, the Sunda Strait is south of Singapore. North Korea is north of Singapore. In fairness, neither Trump nor the Navy said when the Carl Vinson was going to head north, so technically no one lied here. Our "very powerful" armada will make its way to the Korean Peninsula eventually, but apparently no one's in any rush.

Matt Yglesias calls this a "wild" result. It's from a new NBER paper by a trio of researchers:

Medical and public health innovations in the 1940s quickly resulted in significant health improvements around the world. Countries with initially higher mortality from infectious diseases experienced greater increases in life expectancy, population, and — over the following 40 years — social conflict. This result is robust across alternative measures of conflict and is not driven by differential trends between countries with varying baseline characteristics. At least during this time period, a faster increase in population made social conflict more likely, probably because it increased competition for scarce resources in low income countries.

Initially, I was intrigued because this seemed like a distinctly un-wild result. Fast population growth as a cause of war seems like conventional wisdom, not something new. But I was curious, so I took a look at the paper. Stripped to its core, the authors present an equation that looks like this:

Conflict = 0.617 * log(Population)

They say that this "implies that the average change (0.676) in log population from 1940 to 1980 leads approximately to 4.17 more years in conflict during the 1980s relative to the 1940s." In ordinary language, it means that a doubling of population leads to about 4.3 more years of conflict per decade. Here's their chart:

I have some issues here. First, the authors say that a "faster increase" in population makes social conflict more likely—which makes sense—but their regression equation says only that bigger countries have more conflict, not faster growing countries. Second, the basic correlation here is that from 1940-80, both population and conflict grew. They believe that population growth spurred by health improvements caused conflict to increase, but the universe of possible explanations for this is almost limitless.1 Third, the correlation suddenly breaks down after 1980.

The authors suggest that "increasing population without a corresponding increase in resources and technology, raised the likelihood of civil war — presumably because there was an more intense competition for scarce resources." Again, this makes sense, but in fact there was an increase in resources. World population roughly doubled from 1940-80, but thanks to the Green Revolution, so did the production of cereal grains:

Food production increased faster than population growth from 1940-80, but conflict increased anyway. It continued to increase faster than population growth from 1980-2015, and conflict decreased. The authors suggest there's something special about the earlier period, but don't really provide any idea of what that might be. If I had to guess, I'd suggest the culprit is decolonization following World War II. That would explain both the increase from 1940-80 and the decrease after that. But this is just a guess.

1Before anyone asks: Given the timeframes involved here, lead is not likely to be a major factor. But it might have added a tailwind.

Lunchtime Photo

The rest of you may be waiting for Congress to pass an infrastructure bill, but not us. In Irvine and other surrounding areas, it's build, build, build. We have not one, but two Marine Corps bases that were shuttered in 1994, and after a seemingly endless set of negotiations, followed by a housing bust that brought everything to a halt, we've given developers the green light to build with abandon. This particular truck is hauling away dirt at MCAS Tustin (home of the blimp hangars that I'll show you someday), but there's also plenty of action at MCAS El Toro. All this construction is, naturally, a matter of huge controversy for the usual reasons of traffic and noise (and, um, the possibility of more low-income residents), but the voters have more-or-less spoken, and they voted to build. So that's what we're doing.

I'm not quite sure what prompted this, but who cares? I will never forget that FBI Director James Comey was responsible for Donald Trump, and here's yet another example that illustrates this. It's the basic Pollster chart showing Trump's favorability rating:

After the release of the Comey letter, Trump's favorability shot up six points. It's dipped slightly since then, but only by a few hairs. In over a year of campaigning, only one thing had a serious impact on the presidential race. James Comey.

VP Mike Pence is on the Korean Peninsula today:

David Frum would like to see more than just a few staged visuals:

I was vaguely planning to write a post reminding everyone that we still have only two options regarding North Korea, but the New York Times reminds me that we have three:

  • a military strike that could ignite a full-blown war;
  • pressure on China to impose tougher sanctions to persuade the North to change course, an approach that failed for his predecessors;
  • or a deal that could require significant concessions, with no guarantee that North Korea would fulfill its promises.

I'd forgotten all about the diplomatic option, what with Rex Tillerson insisting that the era of "strategic patience" was over and Pence warning North Korea not to test US "resolve." But I suppose it might actually be the most likely one. A military strike designed to take out North Korea's bomb/missile-making capacity would require a lot more than a few dozen cruise missiles. It would probably take weeks and would indeed touch off a real, live hot war that I doubt Trump has any stomach for.1 The China option is currently underway, and I suspect it has a better chance of success than in the past, simply because China is a little more fed up with Kim Jong-un than in the past. But it's still unlikely to work.

And that leaves diplomacy. This also has close to a zero chance of working, but it might have a decent chance of providing Trump with something he can claim is the greatest treaty ever signed. Maybe that will be enough for him.

1I hope not, anyway.

Phil Klinkner takes to the pages of the LA Times this morning to tell us that immigration was a big deal in the 2016 election:

Comparing the results of the 2012 and 2016 ANES surveys shows that Trump increased his vote over Mitt Romney’s on a number of immigration-related issues. In 2012 and 2016, the ANES asked respondents their feelings toward immigrants in the country illegally. Respondents could rate them anywhere between 100 (most positive) or 0 (most negative). Among those with positive views (above 50), there was no change between 2012 and 2016, with Romney and Trump each receiving 22% of the vote. Among those who had negative views, however, Trump did better than Romney, capturing 60% of the vote compared with only 55% for Romney.

....Overall, immigration represented one of the biggest divides between Trump and Clinton voters. Among Trump voters, 67% endorsed building a southern border wall and 47% of them favored it a great deal. In contrast, 77% of Clinton voters opposed building a wall and 67 % strongly opposed it.

This gibes with my anecdotal view that a fair number of Trump voters didn't pay much attention to anything he said except that he was going to build a wall and keep the Mexicans out. All the budget and regulation and Obamacare and climate change stuff was just noise that they didn't take very seriously. But building a wall was nice and simple, and they thought it would bring back their jobs and keep their towns safe.

Having said that, though, I want to repeat a warning: everyone should stop looking for tectonic changes that account for Trump's win. Hillary Clinton was running for a third Democratic term during OK-but-not-great economic times, and that's always difficult. Most of the fundamentals-based models predicted she'd win by a couple of percentage points, and she actually did much better than that—until James Comey decided to destroy her. And even at that, she did win by a couple of percentage points. It was a fluke of the Electoral College that put Trump in the White House, not a historic shift in voting patterns.

The real question is how Trump won the Republican primary. At the presidential level, that's a far more interesting topic than what happened in a fairly ordinary general election.

According to Gallup, views of President Trump's have plummeted since February:

On the other hand, according to Pollster his approval rating has been improving for the past couple of weeks:

I guess a couple of high-profile bombings can do wonders even if people don't really trust you much anymore.