Kevin Drum

At the SAGs, It's All About the Bragging

| Sun Jan. 31, 2016 7:18 PM EST

The folks at the Screen Actors Guild sure do seem pleased with themselves:

[Idris] Elba...summed up the tone of the evening onstage with this play on words: “Welcome to diverse TV.”

The talk of the evening, onstage and behind the scenes, was the show's strong display of inclusiveness....Laura Prepon...“This is what we talk about when we talk about diversity.”...Viola Davis...“They won because the actors have craft, they have a level of excellence that reaches people.”...Uzo Aduba...“It's amazing to see actors have the opportunity to celebrate other actors' work and to feel empowered by the voting process so they can see whatever actor they want reflected up there."

....From the outset, the show made a point of presenting the diversity of its membership and nominees. The ceremony opened with several actors — Rami Malek, Queen Latifah, Jeffrey Tambor, Anna Chlumsky, Kunal Nayyar — talking about what it means to be in their profession.

SAG Awards Committee Chair JoBeth Williams said the actor-focused awards show has “worked very hard to reflect the real world.” Williams noted its roster of presenters and nominees as proof of that.

OK, two things. First, these guys sound a lot less interested in diversity than in bragging about their nobility and getting in some digs at the Oscars. Second, I'd be a lot more impressed by their crowing if they had a better record of honoring black actors. The only reasonable comparison with the Academy Awards is in the solo film acting awards, and the chart on the right tells the story. In the past decade, 9 percent of all Oscar acting nominations have gone to black actors. For SAG, it's a whopping 10 percent. In the past two years, there have been no black actors nominated for Oscars and a grand total of 1 for a SAG. The SAGs are doing better, but they probably shouldn't sprain their arms patting themselves on the back for their performance.

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Donald Trump Isn't Really Anything New Under the Republican Sun

| Sun Jan. 31, 2016 2:00 PM EST

Is Donald Trump a sign of things to come? Or is he sui generis?

I tend toward the latter. I think Trump is basically the culmination of a series of conservative populist blowhards who have run for president recently. It started with Ross Perot, a Mexico basher like Trump. He was pretty popular with all his charts and his giant sucking sound. But in the end, he didn't really get many votes. Pat Buchanan ran in a similar mold, and he even won New Hampshire and almost won Iowa. Coincidentally, he was another Mexico basher! But he lost. In 2008 we were treated to the true proto-Trump, Sarah Palin. Unfortunately, she had major flaws: she was a woman;1 she had very limited experience; her version of word salad was truly incomprehensible; and she was terrifyingly ignorant about practically everything and unable to paper over it. She and John McCain lost. The 2012 primaries brought us a series of minor-league pseudo-populist blowhards in Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich. Coincidentally, they made Mexico bashing into a true team sport! And they all lost.

So now we have Trump. Like Palin, he has an almost animal instinct for what the conservative base wants. He was smart enough to make Mexico bashing his key calling card. His version of word salad is entertainingly stream-of-conscious-y, but almost always makes sense. He's 69 years old. He's male. He has lots of executive experience. He's a billionaire who doesn't need to beg for money. He's usefully flexible when it comes to abandoning the unpopular parts of conservative ideology. He's terrifyingly ignorant, but has an innate talent for changing the subject or simply blowing off the problem with some version of "It'll be easy. Just wait and see." And he's uncommonly skilled at self-promotion and projecting dominance on TV. He's the ideal conservative populist blowhard.

And he's showing signs of winning. But I don't think he's blazing a trail here. He just happens to be perfect for the part, and he has a style that comes to him naturally. Not many people can pull that off, and you can't really teach it.

So there's nothing all that new here. We've seen Trump's schtick before in Perot, Buchanan, Palin, Bachmann, Cain, and Gingrich. Nobody should be surprised that a big chunk of the Republican base likes this stuff. They've liked it for a long time. Trump is just doing it better than all these others.

In the end, though, I think he'll meet the same fate. He'll do better than any of his predecessor blowhards, but that won't be enough to actually win. And though I might eat my words in 2020, I don't think we'll see his like again. In the end, he doesn't represent an existential threat to the Republican Party; he just represents business as usual pulled off with more flair than usual. He's sui generis.

1I'm not defending this, just reporting it. Like it or not, she's a young woman who oozes a smirking sort of pulchritude, and that's not a recipe for being taken seriously in this country. Plus all the other stuff, of course.

Lead and Race In Flint—And Everywhere Else

| Sat Jan. 30, 2016 10:06 PM EST

Marcy Wheeler comments today on the lead disaster in Flint: "Think about how effects of lead poisoning feeds the stereotypes about race and class used to disdain the poor."

Yep. Lead poisoning is equally bad for everyone, but certain groups were far more exposed to lead poisoning than others. Here's a chart showing the percentage of children who displayed elevated blood lead levels over the past four decades. The data is taken from various studies over the years that have reported data from the CDC's long-running NHANES program:

All the rest of the data on lead poisoning is exactly what you'd expect. Not only is it higher among blacks than whites, but it's higher in inner cities and it's higher among low-income families. And of course, this is on top of all the social problems these kids already have from being black, poor, and living in rundown neighborhoods.

Needless to say, lead didn't cause institutional racism. But lead sure made it worse. White children were severely affected by the postwar lead epidemic, but it produced nothing less than carnage among black kids. Before we finally got it under control in the late 80s, lead poisoning had created nearly an entire generation of black teenagers with lower IQs, more behavioral problems in school, and higher rates of violent behavior—which, as Wheeler says, feeds into already vicious stereotypes of African-Americans and the poor. The only good news is that as lead poisoning has declined, it's declined in blacks more than among whites. The difference today between black and white kids is fairly modest.

But what about Flint? The big problem with lead is that it does its damage in children, and once the damage is done the brain never recovers. We're seeing lower levels of violent crime today because most crime is committed between the ages of 17-25—and that age cohort was all born after 1990, when atmospheric lead had dropped close to zero. But the effects of lead continue to dog people in their 40s and 50s. Once it's there, it's there.

This is what makes Flint so scary: if elevated lead levels damage young children, they'll be damaged forever. So how much damage was actually done? And how much damage is still being done?

Those are hard questions to answer for two reasons. First, we don't have as much hard data as we'd like. Second, lead is a horror show. Nobody wants to say anything that quantifies the damage and runs the risk of minimizing it. Public health experts are dead serious when they say the only safe level of lead is zero. Because of this, they simply don't want to publicly declare that any specific rise in elevated blood lead levels is...is...anything. I don't want to say it either. It's just bad, full stop, and it needs to be fixed.

That means I was surprised to see this in the New York Times today:

“Our kids are already rattled by every kind of toxic stress you can think of,” Dr. [Mona] Hanna-Attisha said....She emphasized, however, that not every child exposed to lead would suffer ill effects. Kim Dietrich, a professor of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, said that based partly on the blood lead levels of children in Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s study, he did not think serious long-term health problems would be widespread.

I've spoken with Dietrich, and he's not a guy who takes the effects of lead lightly. If he says the long-term effects in Flint are likely to be modest, I'd pay attention to him.

But why would the effects be modest? Three reasons. First, lead levels in Flint were elevated for about 18 months. That's a long time, but it's a lot less than having elevated levels for your entire childhood up to age five. Second, the use of filters and bottled water helped reduce the lead levels in the drinking water. And that in turn means that, third, the rise in kids with blood lead levels above 10 m/d was less than one percentage point—and the rise was less than three percentage points even if you use the more conservative level of 5 m/d. As recently as 2008, the levels seen during the Flint water crisis would have been cause for celebration.

And what about now? Data here is frustratingly hard to get. Marc Edwards, the water-treatment expert who first blew the whistle on Flint's water supply, says that (a) Flint's pipes are probably back in satisfactory shape now that water has been coming from Detroit for the past three months and is being properly treated, (b) the water is "much, much better than it was last August," and (c) there's a 50-50 chance it could even pass a full-bore federal testing regime. Beyond that, preliminary state data suggests that blood lead levels in children are now down to about where they were before the water crisis. That's good news, but it's tentative.

More recently, the US Public Health Service announced that 26 out of 4,000 water samples in Flint had lead levels above 150 parts per billion. This is important because above that level it's possible that filters won't work effectively. But it doesn't really tell us much about current lead levels in Flint's water. We can say that 99.4 percent of homes have levels below 150 ppb and are probably safe if the water is filtered. But how many are below the EPA "action level" of 15 ppb? And what's the "90th percentile" lead level, the standard way of measuring lead in tap water? We don't know any of that, even though 4,000 samples is enough to give us a pretty good idea. Overall, Flint's water is obviously much improved, but it's hard to say precisely how good or bad it still is.

Put this all together and what do we get? Several educated guesses:

  • At a public services level, the Flint water crisis was an unbelievable fiasco.
  • The long-term damage to Flint's kids is very real, but probably not catastrophic.
  • The water today appears to be safe in nearly all homes that use a filter.
  • However, there are also a small number of homes with astronomical lead levels in their water. It's unclear why, but these homes need to be the target of immediate crash remediation.

If anything positive comes out of the Flint debacle, it will be a better understanding of the dangers of lead. Ironically, though, it's not lead pipes that are really the biggest problem nationwide. Thousands of towns and cities have old lead pipes, and they generally don't cause any problems except when some bonehead decides to stop treating the water properly and the scale inside the pipes corrodes away. Rather, the biggest problems now are lead paint and lead in soil. Everyone knows about lead paint, and abatement programs are widely available. But lead in soil, the product of decades of leaded gasoline settling to the ground, just sits around forever and gets kicked back into the air every summer when the soil dries up. It remains a serious problem, and not surprisingly, it's most serious in heavily black, urban neighborhoods that had the highest levels of lead poisoning in the first place. You can read more about this in my piece about lead and crime (scroll to the bottom) or in this recent Vox piece by Matt Yglesias specifically about lead in soil.

How Donald Trump Could Become President, In 10 Words

| Sat Jan. 30, 2016 10:58 AM EST

Over at Vox, David Roberts writes 2,000 words explaining why Donald Trump will never become president. He makes some good points, but I think he misses some important issues that call his argument into question. Here's my rebuttal outlining how Trump could win in November:

The economy dips into recession and workers' incomes start falling. The end.

Hey, Have You Heard About the Top Secret US Drone Program?

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 7:53 PM EST

Via the AP, here's the latest on Hillary Clinton's email woes:

The Obama administration confirmed for the first time Friday that Hillary Clinton's unsecured home server contained some of the U.S. government's most closely guarded secrets, censoring 22 emails with material demanding one of the highest levels of classification....The 37 pages include messages recently described by a key intelligence official as concerning so-called "special access programs" — a highly restricted subset of classified material that could point to confidential sources or clandestine programs like drone strikes or government eavesdropping.

Special access programs are the most secret of all secrets, so this sounds bad. But wait. What's this business about drone strikes? That's not much of a secret, is it? Maybe you need a refresher on all this, so let's rewind the Wayback Machine to last August, when we first heard about top secret emails on Clinton's server that turned out to be about drone strikes:

The drone exchange, the officials said, begins with a copy of a news article about the CIA drone program that targets terrorists in Pakistan and elsewhere. While that program is technically top secret, it is well-known and often reported on....The copy makes reference to classified information, and a Clinton adviser follows up by dancing around a top secret in a way that could possibly be inferred as confirmation, the officials said.

Hmmm. A news article? Here's a Politico piece from a couple of weeks ago, when we heard that the inspector general's office was concerned about some of Clinton's emails. Politico's source is a "US official":

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some or all of the emails deemed to implicate “special access programs” related to U.S. drone strikes....The information in the emails “was not obtained through a classified product, but is considered ‘per se’ classified” because it pertains to drones, the official added....The source noted that the intelligence community considers information about classified operations to be classified even if it appears in news reports or is apparent to eyewitnesses on the ground.

OK then: the emails in question discuss a news article containing information that's widely-known but nonetheless top secret because...um, why not? Here's more from Ken Dilanian, formerly of the AP and now with NBC News:

The classified material included in the latest batch of Hillary Clinton emails flagged by an internal watchdog involved discussions of CIA drone strikes, which are among the worst kept secrets in Washington, senior U.S. officials briefed on the matter tell NBC News. The officials say the emails included relatively "innocuous" conversations by State Department officials about the CIA drone program.

So what do you suppose the "closely guarded secrets" in the latest batch of 22 emails are? Drones? That's a pretty good guess. Most likely, this all started with someone sending around a news article about the drone program in Pakistan or Yemen, and then several other people chiming in. It wasn't classified at the time, and most likely contains nothing even remotely sensitive—but the CIA now insists on classifying it retroactively. That's why Clinton's spokesperson calls this "classification run amok" and says, once again, that they'll seek to have all these emails released to the public.

Of course, this could just be a clever ruse on Clinton's part, because she knows the emails will never see the light of day. But there are other people who have seen the emails. How have they reacted? Well, nobody on the Republican side has leaked or even "characterized" any of them, and nobody on the Democratic side has withdrawn their endorsement of Clinton. This suggests pretty strongly that this whole thing is, indeed, just a stupid bit of interagency squabbling.

Friday Cat Blogging - 29 January 2016

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 3:00 PM EST

Behold the mighty hunter. Today Hopper is stalking the elusive camera strap as it slinks quietly away, guided by its giant eye and human protector. But it was no match. Seconds after this picture was taken, it fell to the swift reflexes and awesome claws of Felis catus.

And speaking of hunting, Hopper has a new favorite game. She has discovered that she can bat toys from the upstairs balcony down to the first floor and then run downstairs to swat them around. Sometimes she carries them upstairs herself and then knocks them down, other times I toss them up and she goes tearing after them. I'm not sure how long this game is going to last, but she hasn't gotten tired of it yet.

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How Many Molars Do You Need, Anyway?

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 2:24 PM EST

A few years ago I was at a party in Newport Beach and found myself buttonholed by an elderly dentist who had a real thing for wisdom teeth. He talked my ear off about how the dental profession removed way too many wisdom teeth unnecessarily even though most of them don't do any harm. I didn't know anyone else at the party, so I didn't really mind listening, and by the time he ran down I had to admit that he seemed surprisingly convincing. I didn't have any personal stake in this since my wisdom teeth were removed long ago,1 but he seemed to make a pretty good case. Then I left the party and forgot about it.

Anyway, the guy's name was Jay Friedman, and it turns out that he is to wisdom teeth—aka third molars—what I am to lead poisoning and crime. I had no idea at the time. But if you're curious to read more about this, Rob Wile has you covered. It's worth noting that lots of dentists think Friedman is full of crap, but it's also worth noting that apparently more of them are coming around to a somewhat more cautious view of the whole thing. Bottom line: You might want to think twice if your dentist tells you to get your wisdom teeth removed just as a precaution.

1I wasn't having any particular problems. One of them was slightly impacted, and my dentist figured I might as well get them all taken out. I shrugged and said fine. Nor did I have any problems: a little bit of pain, but not much, and a day or two of eating pudding. I couldn't figure out why people make such a big deal out of it. I guess some of you had it a lot worse, didn't you?

A Cable Host Explains Why They Covered Donald Trump's Publicity Stunt Last Night

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 1:02 PM EST

Last night I griped about the endless news coverage Donald Trump got for a political stunt that obviously had no purpose except to get endless news coverage. A few minutes ago, MSNBC host Chris Hayes and Jim Tankersley of the Washington Post had a Twitter conversation about this:

Hayes:

this is not very complicated.

there are 3 cable networks competing for viewers. 1 had a debate that will draw millions and millions of viewers. Other 2 have to figure out how to best compete with that. Usually there's nothing to do but be crushed. And then: boom! A competing event to cover

obviously this hits home to me, but people outside of this industry *vastly* underestimate a) the competitive pressure and b) the appetite for spectacle, theatrics, etc...

Tankersley:

This wud be more convincing if CNN/MSNBC didn't show so much Trump at all other times.

On Wed, CNN gave Trump 70 percent of all its candidate coverage. That includes both Ds & Rs.

I report, you decide.

Economic Growth Slows to 0.7 Percent in Q4

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 12:37 PM EST

Yuck. The US economy slowed down a lot in the fourth quarter of last year. GDP growth clocked in at a hair less than 0.7 percent:

For the year, GDP increased 2.4 percent, which is pretty much what it's been for the past six years. So overall, this isn't crushingly bad news. It just means the economy continues to putter along without really building up any steam. That's better than Europe or China can say. Still, in the fourth quarter growth slowed, income growth slowed, and inflation was close to zero. And, as we all know, the stock market has been tanking lately. It's sure not looking like it was a great idea to start raising interest rates—and if the Chinese economy goes south, it's really not going to look like it was a great idea to start raising interest rates.

Naturally we want a political spin on all this, and that's pretty easy: If this is just a blip, and growth returns over the next two quarters, then the presidential contest will remain a close-run thing. But if the economy flags badly for the next couple of quarters, Democrats are going to have a very, very hard time holding onto the White House. Are you ready for President Trump?

Three Things I'm Still Waiting For

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 11:56 AM EST
  1. Donald Trump's new corporate policy allowing unrestricted carry at his golf resorts.
  2. A look at the "very nice place" where Trump keeps all the Bibles that people send him.
  3. A list of the "25 different stories" documenting his pre-invasion opposition to the Iraq War.