What Is Donald Trump Hiding?

From the Washington Post:

Trump remains the least transparent major presidential nominee in modern history. He is the first since 1976 to refuse to release his tax returns. He has declined to provide documentation of the “tens of millions” of dollars he claims to have donated to charity. He has yet to release a comprehensive accounting of his health. And, while Wednesday’s letter about Melania Trump’s immigration from her home country offers a few new details, there is no documentation to back up the claims.

In summary:

  • Trump says he's a billionaire, but refuses to release his tax returns to prove it.
  • He says he's a brilliant businessman but refuses to release any corporate financials to prove it.
  • He says he gives millions to charity, but refuses to release any records to prove it.

In the end, though, he gets away with this because everyone sort of assumes he's just bullshitting about this stuff anyway. That's too bad. It's pretty obvious that these records would put Trump in a bad light, and the reason he doesn't release them is that he figures the hit from being non-transparent is less than the hit he'd take from voters knowing the truth. He's almost certainly right about that, but only because he's not really taking much of a hit from being non-transparent. The only way to force candidates to be accountable is to hold their feet to the fire if they aren't, and this just isn't happening with Trump.

Sam Wang Wants Everyone to Settle Down

Polling guru Sam Wang thinks you're all being ridiculous:

My reason for generating the best prediction I can is to reduce the noise of campaign news. I thought it would clear mental space for thinking about policies, or downticket issues....The calculation says that Clinton’s win probability is 90%....Still, the comment section is still peppered with anxious questions about Clinton’s chances. Honestly, some liberals can be total ninnies.

When he's right, he's right, amirite? We really can be ninnies sometime. So go read Sam. Longtime readers know that although I normally post snapshots of the race from Pollster—mainly because they produce pretty pictures that are easy to manipulate—Sam is my go-to pollster. If he says Hillary Clinton has a 90 percent chance of winning, then she's got a 90 percent chance of winning.

So let's clear some mental space for downticket news. How are things going in the House these days? Jonathan Bernstein reports:

We’re about to see if House Republicans have learned anything in the last few years. That is, we’ll see if the small group of radicals can bully mainstream conservatives into casting irresponsible and counterproductive votes on two measures.

First, the House Freedom Caucus zealots are intent on forcing a vote this week on impeaching the Internal Revenue Service commissioner, John Koskinen. Even if they had a case against him — and they don’t — it’s an abuse of their power to go through with an impeachment procedure with no chance for a conviction in the Senate, and with limited time before the end of the current Congress.

Then sometime before the end of the month, the House will need to bring up a bill to keep the government running after the current fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. Since it has run out of time to pass regular appropriations bills (none have been sent to Barack Obama so far, even for a veto), the House will need to pass a “continuing resolution” to give itself more time....The obvious compromise, and one the Senate appears to be working toward, is a continuing resolution....But the House Freedom Caucus members will oppose any continuing resolution that doesn’t give them 100 percent of what they want.

For mainstream conservatives, both the impeachment decision and the continuing resolution will be tough votes. Though there is nothing substantive to be gained by voting with the radicals, it requires standing up to them and risking being called a “moderate” or “RINO.”

The Koskinen impeachment is completely ridiculous, nothing but a sop to the fever swamps. The budget bill, on the other hand, is the primary duty of the House—as Republicans are constantly reminding us. If Paul Ryan stands up to the zealots, he can easily get enough Democratic votes to pass a reasonable continuing resolution. But will he?1

1Probably not.

Over at Wonkblog, Carolyn Johnson writes about a new Kaiser study showing that deductibles have skyrocketed over the past few years:

During the past five years, deductibles have grown 10 times faster than inflation and nearly six times faster than wages, according to the new report....For the first time, employer-sponsored health plans also reached a new benchmark: Half of all workers who receive insurance through their employers faced a deductible of at least $1,000 a year for individual coverage — up from just 10 percent of workers in 2006,

"We've been so fixated on the Affordable Care Act, we've missed a gradual sea change in what health insurance is for most Americans," said Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation. "It's why, if we were ever to tell an average person that we’re living in a period of historic moderation in health care costs, they would probably think we’re out of our minds — because what they pay out of pocket has been going up over time....That’s kind of the pain index for people."

This isn't quite right, I think. Deductibles have gone up, but total out-of-pocket spending hasn't. Here's what personal spending on medical care looks like:

There's nothing fancy here. Out-of-pocket spending comes from the National Health Expenditure Accounts. Premium cost is an average of the worker share of single and family premiums from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Both are adjusted for inflation using the CPI.

The worker share of premiums has gone up considerably since 1999. However, out-of-pocket costs have stayed remarkably stable. Deductibles may be going up, but the amount people actually spend on medical care out of their own pockets hasn't.

Despite this, I think Altman is basically right. What's happening is that higher deductibles are making people far more aware of health care costs. They feel like they're constantly weighing whether or not to skip something their doctor recommends. Or they're shopping around for a better price. Or spending the money but then having to pay the bill. This makes them feel pinched even if, in the end, they're spending the same amount as always.

On a national level, the growth rate of health care costs has eased off considerably. But on a personal level, that's invisible. Premiums really are going up a lot, while high deductibles make OOP spending seem like it's rising even though it isn't.

So what's the direction of causation? Is the worker share of premiums going up because companies can't afford ever higher health care costs? Or is the growth rate of medical costs leveling off because consumers are getting pinched and starting to fight back? Yes and yes. Which is just another way of saying that medical costs will continue to rise until, collectively, we're not willing to spend any more. We're not quite there yet, but I don't think we're very far off.

The eternal wait for Donald Trump's "pivot" for the general election has become something of an inside joke among campaign reporters. People keep saying Trump will pivot any day now, and then he turns right around and says something typically Trumpish that makes it clear he has no plans to ever change.

But the other day it struck me that while we were all mocking him, he did pivot. Sure, a Trump pivot is like a battleship pivot, and it takes a while to make the turn. That's probably why we haven't noticed. But ever since he hired Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, he really has calmed down on the stump and changed his persona. Today, Monica Langley of the Wall Street Journal takes note:

The new team, said supporters, has fostered a more disciplined candidacy. “Actually I’m freer now, relying on my instincts and working with a team I trust,” Mr. Trump said in an interview.

....After Mrs. Clinton’s campaign announced late Sunday that she had been diagnosed with pneumonia, many expected Mr. Trump to pounce on the news, arguing that it proved his claim she lacks the stamina to be president. Instead, Mr. Trump told campaign advisers deluged with media calls to stand down. The response struck opponents as uncharacteristic, and some supporters attributed Mr. Trump’s restraint to his new campaign organization.

Mr. Trump said efforts by previous campaign leaders to remake him into a politician were “dishonest.” And, Mr. Trump said, he resisted at times by going off script.

The Republican nominee said he was more comfortable with his new team, which, ironically, has succeeded in some of the same changes sought by former campaign chairman Paul Manafort: Mr. Trump is sticking closer to a teleprompter, giving more policy details in speeches—and making fewer off-the-cuff remarks, which hurt his campaign after the GOP convention this summer.

This is actually kind of scary. I still doubt that Trump can keep this up, but if he does, he could be dangerous. I've always figured that if Trump really did manage to calm down a bit, it wouldn't take more than a few weeks for him to put his old reputation to rest. Pundits would start saying the campaign had "matured" him. Skeptical voters would move in his direction. Republicans would breathe a sigh of relief and embrace him.

Can he keep it up? No telling. But if he does, it will be the greatest con job ever from a man whose entire career has been built on conning the public. He'd probably enjoy that.

Macroeconomics is the study of big stuff: interest rates, recessions, unemployment, inflation, long-term economic growth, etc. It didn't exactly bowl anyone over with its predictive success during the Great Recession, and ever since economists have been locked in an epic existential struggle. What's wrong with macroeconomics? Paul Romer—former renowned academic and now chief economist of the World Bank—suggests that the answer is simple. It's all bullshit:

Once macroeconomists concluded that a macroeconomic aggregate could fluctuate in the absence of any decision by any person, macroeconomists piled on extra imaginary driving forces. The resulting menagerie, together with my suggested names now includes:

  • A general type of phlogiston that increases the quantity of consumption goods produced by given inputs
  • An “investment-specific” type of phlogiston that increases the quantity of capital goods produced by given inputs
  • A troll who makes random changes to the wages paid to all workers
  • A gremlin who makes random changes to the price of output
  • Aether, which increases the risk preference of investors
  • Caloric, which makes people want less leisure

With the possible exception of phlogiston, they assumed that there is no way to directly measure these forces. In principle, phlogiston can in measured using the methods of growth accounting. In practice, the calculated residual is very sensitive to mismeasurement of the utilization rate of inputs in production so that even in this case, direct measurements are frequently ignored.

Well, this isn't going to make him any friends, is it? But he doesn't care:

When the person who says something that seems wrong is a revered leader of a group...there is a price to be paid for disagreeing with openly. This price is lower for me because I am no longer an academic. I am a practitioner, by which I mean that I want to put useful knowledge to work. I care little about whether I ever publish again in leading economics journals or receive any professional honor because neither will be of much help in putting useful insights to work.

For the record, Romer is calling out one theory and one mathematical construct. The theory is RBC, or Real Business Cycle theory, which suggests that fluctuations in growth are caused by external shocks (oil prices, new inventions, etc.) not by anything central banks do. The mathematical construct is DSGE, or Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium. Dynamic means that lots of things are changing over time. Stochastic means random, as in random shocks to the economy. General Equilibrium means that the theory produces a result in which the broad economy is in equilibrium.

Do you want to read Romer's paper? That depends. I found it bracing to read a famous economist trash the entire output of his own field over the past few decades, and do it with the acid tongue that only someone retired from academia can bring to bear. On the other hand, is he right? Are RBC and DSGE complete dead ends? Or are they merely in need of improvement and Romer is being crotchety about it? Beats me. The famous economists are going to have to hash that out among themselves.

You have to hand it to Donald Trump: he's a master showman. When he announced that he would release a full personal medical report on the Dr. Oz show, it was a stroke of genius. The press would eat it up, millions would tune in, and he'd be able to—wait. What's this?

Donald J. Trump on Wednesday scrapped his previously announced plan to go over results from his most recent physical examination in a taped appearance with the television celebrity Dr. Mehmet Oz, aides to the Republican presidential nominee said.

....The appearance on Dr. Oz’s show, announced on Friday, had been anticipated as a potential breakthrough, as Mr. Trump’s aides had said that over the next few days he would release results from a physical examination taken last week. It was unclear when those results will be available after the change in approach with Dr. Oz.

Oh man, now we really want to know what his doctor found in that examination. Bubonic plague? Gout? Some brand new disease that will be labeled Trump Syndrome? This is either the biggest tease in history, or else Trump's months-long innuendo campaign about Hillary Clinton's health has backfired spectacularly. But one thing is certain: we sure as hell all want to see that medical report now.

A couple of weeks ago Hillary Clinton announced a plan to rein in excessive price increases by pharmaceutical companies. It was a hot topic at the time thanks to outrage over the 6x price increase of the EpiPen. However, if my sleuthing is accurate, Clinton's plan wasn't covered at all in the print editions of the New York Times and Washington Post, and got only a short blurb in the Wall Street Journal.

Today Donald Trump announced a modest child-care and maternity leave plan that was almost comically underfunded. The New York Times produced a long front-page story. The Washington Post ran a long story in the A section and added a second analysis piece online. The Wall Street Journal provided Ivanka Trump with prime op-ed real estate to tout her father's plan. That's some great coverage! And all of these pieces barely mentioned that Trump offered no remotely plausible way to pay for his proposal.

I suppose you can argue that Trump's child-care plan is more important than Clinton's drug pricing plan. Or that an actual policy proposal from Trump is so rare that it's big news no matter what. Or that Republicans don't normally propose spending money on people in need.

Sure, I guess. I mean, I realize that the marvel of the dancing bear is not that the bear dances well, but that the bear dances at all. Even so, it sure seems like the press really doesn't care about Hillary Clinton's policy proposals—oh God, another boring white paper from Hillz—but swoons every time Donald Trump blurps out one of his laughably ill-thought-out ideas—he's using Ivanka to appeal to suburban women, we gotta get on this! But that's editorial judgment for you. I'm sure the pros know what they're doing.

POSTSCRIPT: Can I gripe about something else as long as we're on the subject? Thanks. Here's the New York Times:

But in selling his case, Mr. Trump stretched the truth, saying that his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, has no such plan of her own and “never will.”

The Washington Post doesn't even mention this, and needless to say, neither does Ivanka Trump's bit of puffery in the Journal. So props to the Times. But seriously: stretched the truth? As Trump knows perfectly well, Hillary Clinton has been pressing for better child-care and family leave policies for decades, and her current proposal has been on her website for months. It's far more extensive, more generous, and better thought out than Trump's.

This is why Trump feels like he can simply say anything he wants, no matter how ridiculous. The obvious way to describe Trump's statement is to call it a lie. That's what it is. Instead, it either goes unmentioned or, at best, gets tiptoed around inaccurately. In what way, after all, did Trump "stretch the truth"? That implies there's some kernel of truth to what Trump said, but he exaggerated it. But that's not what he did. He just lied.

Another email hack from Guccifer 2.0! [See update below.] So what did we learn?

Let's see. Colin Powell thinks that Donald Trump is a racist idiot who has no shame. That seems fair. Also, Powell thinks that Hillary Clinton could have handled her email affair better. Hard to argue with that. And Powell really, really didn't want her email woes to be connected to him. That may or may not be fair, but it's certainly understandable.

In addition, there's apparently some unremarkable stuff about "tech initiatives from Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s time as governor of Virginia, and some years-old missives on redistricting efforts and DNC donor outreach strategy." Exciting! Plus a bunch of spreadsheets listing DNC donors. That's a bummer for the DNC, but otherwise pretty dull.

I don't know who Guccifer is, or whether he's a front for the Russian government, but he needs to step up his game. If there's any more like this, he's going to give email hacking a bad name.

UPDATE: The stuff about Tim Kaine and the DNC came from a Guccifer 2.0 dump. However, Powell's emails came from a different source. Here's the Intercept:

Powell’s private messages were leaked by DCLeaks.com, an anonymously managed website that shares hacked emails from U.S. military and political figures. DCLeaks has a relationship with Guccifer 2.0, a hacker that many allege to have ties with Russian intelligence.

I took this to imply that DCLeaks got the emails from Guccifer 2.0, but the authors of the story say that wasn't their intent. For now, anyway, it appears that the source of those emails is unknown.

Today's announcement that incomes increased 5 percent in 2015 was genuinely good news. But it's also worthwhile to put it in perspective. As most of you know, income growth was very high in the 50s and 60s but slowed down after that. However, it didn't flatline. Income continued to grow, only at a slower rate. However, since 2007 we've fallen far behind even that anemic growth rate:

Even with last year's spike, the effects of the Great Recession are still with us. If we'd continued growing at the rate of 1980-2007, median household income would be $4,500 higher than it is. That's a big hit. There's still plenty of work to do.

Here's what we've all been waiting for: Donald Trump's maternity leave proposal. It is, we are told, the result of consultations with his expert on women's issues, Ivanka Trump:

Mr. Trump’s proposal calls for allowing taxpayers—both those who take the standard deduction and those who itemize deductions—to deduct child-care expenses up to an amount equal to the average cost of care in their state....The proposal also calls for providing six weeks of paid maternity leave through unemployment benefits to parents whose employers don’t offer paid maternity leave....The Trump campaign said the cost of his paid-leave policy would be offset by reducing waste and abuse in the unemployment insurance program. The Trump proposal also would offer “spending rebates” of up to $1,200 a year to lower-income families through the Earned Income Tax Credit.

This is, as usual, as clear as mud. On the maternity leave front, we apparently have a one-sentence proposal: six weeks of leave "through unemployment benefits," whatever that means. Does it mean that new mothers will simply receive normal unemployment benefits for six weeks? That maxes out at $450 per week—or $2,700 for six weeks—which is about half of the median weekly earnings level.

As for the cost, well, who knows? But let's take a rough swag. There are about 4 million births per year in the United States. Figure 70 percent of women are in the labor force and 90 percent don't get employer maternity leave. That gets us to 2.5 million women eligible for Trump's program, and on average each will get a total of, oh, let's say $2,000 or so. That comes to $5 billion.

And how will it be paid for? By reducing "waste and abuse" in the unemployment insurance program. Again, let's take a rough swag at this. Total benefits in 2016 are projected to come in at $32 billion. Of that, about 10 percent represents overpayments, or $3.2 billion. A vigorous program could probably cut that by half, saving $1.6 billion. Finally, the federal share of UI is roughly 20 percent, so that means the feds would save about $0.3 billion.

So it seems like Trump is a wee bit short—not that he cares, I'm sure. In his world, one takes the word for the deed. As for his child-care program, it's hard to analyze. As a tax deduction it would mostly benefit the middle class and above. However, he's also offering something or other through the EITC. How would this all add up? Beats me, and I doubt that it will become any clearer when we see his program details.

Still, snark aside, at least he's accepting the principle that we ought to help out new mothers with maternity leave and child-care expenses. Will any other Republicans follow his lead?