Kevin Drum

The Political Generation Gap Has Become a Generation Chasm

| Mon Feb. 1, 2016 2:37 PM EST

This is nothing new, but I continue to find it sort of fascinating. Here's Pew's breakdown of the voting generation gap over the past 40 years:

At the turn of the century, there was no partisan difference in the votes of young and old. But in recent elections, there has been a huge generation gap at the polls. Today 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat in their core social, economic and political views, while 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican, up from 64% and 70% respectively in 1994.

There's more at the link. Approval ratings of presidents are now based almost entirely on party affiliation. Liberals and conservatives get their news from entirely different places. And they just flatly disapprove of each other more than ever.

And it apparently all started with George Bush. Even during the Clinton wars of the 90s, the gaps weren't that big. Only after Bush was elected—and the Republican Party became thoroughly Rove-ized—did all these trends really pick up steam. Thanks Karl!

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Health Update—So Far Filed Under "Huh?"

| Mon Feb. 1, 2016 1:19 PM EST

So what was the dexamethasone thing about last night? Here's the story.

During my first round of chemotherapy I took a three-med cocktail. One of the meds was dexamethasone, a corticosteroid. It helps the other drugs work better, and also seems to program cancerous myeloma cells to die on their own, which is a handy attribute. But one of the side effects is sleep disruption. For the first few weeks, it had no effect. But then it started disrupting my sleep on the day I took it. Then for a couple of days. Then all the time. Then even more. It was a pain in the ass, but for the most part kept under control with sleeping meds that varied over time.

Now I'm on a second round of chemo, and it's not working as well as we'd like. So a couple of weeks ago we added dex to the mix. It was half the dose I was taking last year, so I was hopeful the sleep disruption would take a long time to show up and would be milder than before. No such luck. Perhaps the first round created a heightened sensitivity to it? In any case, on the very first day I was up until 2 am. Hmmph. But maybe that was just a placebo effect I had talked myself into.

Again, no such luck. It's a weekly dose, and I took the second one on Saturday morning. I didn't sleep at all that night. Nor was I tired at all. In fact, kind of buzzed. I stayed awake all day Sunday, too. But last night I fell asleep normally and slept for nearly nine hours.

So how will this play out going forward? No telling. I'm in terra incognita. If it stays like this, it's not really a big deal. I'll just have a sleepless but otherwise pleasant night once a week. If it gets worse, though, I'll have lots of sleepless nights and start to feel like crap. We'll see! I'd just as soon not get back on the sleep meds, so hopefully it doesn't get worse. Unfortunately, I suspect that's a forlorn hope.

Here Are Your Final Iowa Poll Results Until 2020

| Mon Feb. 1, 2016 12:55 PM EST

It's neck and neck in Iowa! Who will have the best ground game? What will the weather be like? Who will scoop up Martin O'Malley's votes in the absurdly convoluted Democratic caucuses?

You'll find out tonight. In the meantime, here are the final Pollster aggregates. I've turned off smoothing this time in order to provide the most current possible results.

Happiness Tip of the Day: Ditch the Commute

| Mon Feb. 1, 2016 12:01 PM EST

From Alex Tabarrok on homebuying:

One final point: behavioral economics tells us that we quickly get used to big houses but we never get used to commuting. So when you have a choice, go for the smaller house closer to work.

A thousand times yes. Obviously not everyone has this choice, and it's not practical to move every time you get a new job. But yes, if you have the option, try to keep your commute under 20 minutes.

Want something more quantifiable? Here are two of "The Rules" from Joel Garreau's Edge City, a dated but wonderful book about the building of suburbia:

The maximum desirable commute, throughout human history, regardless of transportation technology: 45 minutes.

Cevero's law of the value of time wasted in traffic jams: People view the time they waste in a traffic jam as equal, in dollar value, to half their hourly wage. For example, if you make $50,000 per year, that's $25 per hour. That means you'll pay $3.12 each way per day to cut 15 minutes off your commute. That's about $125 per month, which scales to about $30,000 in the price of a house.

That sounds low to me—in Southern California that's a rounding error in the price of a home—but it's at least a good starting point. If you can buy a house 15 minutes closer to work for $30,000 more, grab it. If it's $50,000 more, behavioral economics says you should ignore your financial angst and grab it anyway. If it's $100,000 more, you might need to think things through a little harder. Or, as Tabarrok suggests, settle for a small house near work at the same price as the bigger house in the burbs. You probably won't regret it.

Anyway, from personal experience I can tell you that short commutes are great. And the greatest commute of all? A walk down the stairs each morning. That's hard to beat.

Late Night Miscellany—Powered by Dexamethasone!

| Mon Feb. 1, 2016 1:13 AM EST

I am currently taking a drug that appears to be supercharging my brain. I even almost got into a Twitter argument today, which is surely the biggest waste of gray matter known to man. But I was full of energy, so off I went. I was also full of energy all last night, and I have to say you guys are all a bunch of slackers. At 3 am there were no new blog posts, no one making clever remarks on Twitter, no new email, no nothing. I was reduced to reading a book. If this keeps up, I'm going to have to make more friends in Australia and Europe to pick up the slack.

So anyway, let's see what's going on right now. First off, here is Donald Trump explaining how politics works:

At a meeting with The Times’s editorial writers, Mr. Trump talked about the art of applause lines. “You know,” he said of his events, “if it gets a little boring, if I see people starting to sort of, maybe thinking about leaving, I can sort of tell the audience, I just say, ‘We will build the wall!’ and they go nuts.”

The charming thing is that he's willing to admit this on the record to a bunch of reporters. He just doesn't care, and he knows his supporters don't care either. Basically, they're all in on the con and enjoying themselves, so a little peek behind the scenes—"The Making of the Trump Campaign"—just piques their interest rather than disillusioning them. Not that they read the Times in the first place, so it probably doesn't matter much what he says to their editorial board anyway.

And speaking of Trump, here is Thoreau explaining that he loves the guy because he's smashing the Republican Party for us:

Some of you might doubt that Trump is deliberately doing good, and you’re probably right. But, hell, when the Hulk is smashing bad guys, do we really know for sure that he’s acting on his good side rather than just smashing for fun? Still, he’s smashing what we need him to smash. Well, same for Trump. I mean, FFS, he already dashed Scott Walker’s hopes of ever having a political career in Washington. That alone should make him the greatest liberal hero of the 21st century thus far.

What else? Gallup is always good for a laugh. They report this weekend that 50 percent of Americans think they're better off economically today than they were eight years ago. But wait. Here's how it breaks down by party affiliation:

In other words, this poll result is completely meaningless. I think it's safe to say that both Democrats and Republicans have done about equally well over the past eight years, and Gallup even presents some more detailed polling results that pretty much prove this. But when you ask a very general question, even if it's on a specific topic, what people hear is "Do you like President Obama?" And that's the question they're answering. It's all pure affinity mongering, and I'm sure the results would have been the mirror opposite if the question were asked in 2008 instead of 2016.

And as long as we're at the Gallup site, here are the top ten results for economic confidence by state in 2015. I'm showing them to you for two reasons. First, California handily beat Texas. Hah! Second, Washington DC is simply on another planet—with Beltway neighbors Virginia and Maryland also doing pretty well, though in a more earthbound way. Conservatives are constantly griping about the way that folks who feed at the federal trough always manage to do great no matter how poorly the rest of the country is doing, and it seems like they might have a point.

And now I'm off to bed. Whether I'm also off to sleep remains an open question. I'll let you know Monday morning.

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.