Let's end the day with some good news. As you all know, violent crime began falling after leaded gasoline began its phaseout in the mid-70s. And because lead affects the brain development of infants and toddlers, the fall in crime began with the youngest kids. In the mid-80s, only young children were showing signs of reduced violence. By the mid-90s, everyone under 20 started to show effects. By the mid-aughts everyone under 30 was starting to get less violent.

In other words, the first cohort to benefit from reduced lead was juveniles. Kids born in the late-70s showed only small improvements because lead had been only slightly reduced during their childhood. Kids born in the late-80s showed more improvement because ambient lead had decreased quite a bit during their childhood. Kids born in the late-90s showed yet more improvement, etc.

Rick Nevin has sent me a new chart that shows this vividly:

In the early 90s, young people between the age of 18-24 killed an average of 33 police officers per year. By 2015 that was down to 4. For juveniles under the age of 18, the number was zero.

Kids just aren't as dangerous as they used to be, and that's likely to be a permanent change. As time passes, this will affect older and older generations as the cohort born in the late-80s (when most lead was gone) grows up. How much better does news get?

As long as we're on the subject of James Comey and Hillary's emails, here's a chart showing Google searches on the subject:

I know what you're thinking. Are you ever going to give this a rest, Kevin? No, I'm not. There may be periods when I don't happen to blog about it, but I'll never give it a rest. This is the second time in five elections that an arm of the US government, rather than the voters, has appointed a US president. It will never, ever be far from my thoughts, and the least I can do is make this blog a one-stop shop for anyone collecting evidence about the effect of the letter Comey released 12 days before the election.

Here are the most-read stories of 2016 in the New York Times, noted without comment.

(Except for the big red oval, that is.)

It's been a while since I've done one of these. After a flurry of activity Trump slowed down when he got to the tail end of his cabinet, but today he finally decided on a nominee for US Trade Representative. It might seem as if this position is more important than usual, since Trump campaigned heavily on trade, but it's probably not. Trump has already said that his commerce secretary will be more involved than usual in trade deals; Peter Navarro will head up a new National Trade Council; and Jason Greenblatt, Trump's longtime business lawyer, will be his "special representative for international negotiations."

That's a lot of cooks stirring the broth, and it's unclear just how much influence Lighthizer will have on this team. That said, Lighthizer knows the ins and outs of trade law, so he'll be pretty useful in a technical capacity. Aside from that, he's been a DC lawyer and lobbyist for the past two decades, but hasn't served in a government position since the Reagan administration. Does that make him part of the swamp? I'm not sure.

David French:

Remember when the Democrats passed ObamaCare through reconciliation, using procedural gimmickry to pass major social legislation over the unanimous objection of the majority party? So do congressional Republicans, and it looks like payback might be imminent.

I know this is an easy mistake to make, but I'm pretty sure Obamacare was passed over the unanimous objection of the minority party, the Democrats having won a massive, landslide victory in 2008. They figured this gave them a mandate to carry out the promises made during the campaign—silly, I know, since only Republicans have mandates—and they proceeded to do just that.

Less excusable is French's contention that Obamacare was passed via reconciliation. It wasn't. It was passed in the Senate under regular order, by a vote of 60-39 on December 24, 2009. Later, after Democrats lost their supermajority in the Senate, the House passed the Senate bill and then passed a second bill that implemented a few modest increases to subsidy levels and taxes. None of them were critical to the overall bill, but the Senate agreed to support these changes. These small, nonessential adjustments are the only part of Obamacare that was passed via reconciliation.

Everything else—the individual mandate, the pre-existing conditions ban, the subsidies, the Medicaid expansion, the medical loss ratios, the donut hole, the cost improvements, the taxes to pay for it all—in other words, everything that mattered, was passed via regular order.

As for the unanimous opposition of Republicans, that's perfectly true. Democrats in the Senate tried mightily to put together a plan that might attract some GOP votes, but Republicans were adamantine. They pretended to negotiate, but by October it was clear they were just playing delaying games and had no intention of ever supporting anything that would expand access to health care. This strategy of blind obstruction, which applied to every part of Obama's agenda, not just Obamacare, is a huge blot not on Democrats, but on the congressional Republicans who decided on it before Obama ever set foot in the Oval Office. It was only in the face of this unconditional obstruction that Democrats went ahead and passed something on their own.

From House Speaker Paul Ryan, on Republican plans to repeal and replace Obamacare:

There will be a transition and a bridge so that no one is left out in the cold, so that no one is worse off.

This quote is a month old, but I only noticed it today when Nancy LeTourneau brought it to my attention. Democrats need to hold Ryan to this.

That means no change in Medicaid expansion. It means no change in access to health coverage. It means no reduction in federal subsidies. It means making sure that insurers stay in the exchanges. It means no lifetime limits on covered medical care. It means kids can stay on their parents' plan through age 26.

This is also a good yardstick for Ryan's eventual replacement for Obamacare. Technically, he didn't say that the eventual Republican replacement would leave no one worse off, only the transition. But someone should pin him down on that too.

According to the Washington Post, House Republicans have backed off their plan to gut their ethics committee:

House Republicans scrapped plans to weaken an independent ethics watchdog on Tuesday after a backlash from President-elect Donald Trump, as a new period of Republican-led governance started taking shape on a tumultuous note.

The House GOP moved to withdraw changes made the day before to official rules that would rein in the Office of congressional Ethics. Instead, the House will study changes to the office with an August deadline.

Trump took to Twitter to slam House Republicans for voting behind closed doors Monday night to weaken the independent ethics office. The vote defied House GOP leaders and complicated Trump’s “drain the swamp” campaign mantra.

Oh please. The backlash was in full swing last night, long before Trump's tweet. And anyway, Trump didn't object to Republicans gutting the ethics office. He just thought they should do it later, when fewer people might notice. And that's what they're doing. They'll "study changes" and then gut the office in August, when everyone is on vacation.

Can we please stop pretending that everything in the country is happening as a direct result of Trump's tweets? For God's sake.

Here's the news from Ford:

The automaker also said it is canceling plans for a new $1.6 billion plant in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, but confirmed that the next-generation of its Focus compact will be produced at its Hermosillo, Mexico factory.

Ford CEO Mark Fields said the decision to cancel the plant in Mexico was based in part on changing market conditions with sales of small cars declining as well as the pro-business climate the automaker expects under incoming President Donald Trump. "This is a vote of confidence for president elect Trump and some of the policies he may be pursuing," Fields at the plant today.

The real reason this is happening is that Ford has suffered sales declines in its Fusion sedan, which is made at its Mexico plant, as well as sales declines in the Mustang, which is made in Flat Rock, Michigan. There's not much point in building a new small-car plant anywhere if Fusion sales are down, and not much point in underutilizing its Flat Rock plant.

And it's not as if Ford is moving any production from Mexico to the United States. All it's doing in Flat Rock is some expansion to build self-driving and electric vehicles. This involves a grand total of 700 jobs, which were never going to be in Mexico in the first place.

In other words, this was a pure business decision. So why is Mark Fields giving Trump a big shout out? Because he figures there's no harm in spinning this into flattery of the incoming president. It might help and it can't hurt.

But it ain't so. Ford sales of sedans and small cars are tanking. If they were doing better, they'd still be building that new plant in Mexico.

The Wall Street Journal ran a piece yesterday about the folks who (accidentally) created the 401(k) retirement plan. They aren't happy with their creation:

Many early backers of the 401(k) now say they have regrets about how their creation turned out despite its emergence as the dominant way most Americans save. Some say it wasn’t designed to be a primary retirement tool and acknowledge they used forecasts that were too optimistic to sell the plan in its early days.

Others say the proliferation of 401(k) plans has exposed workers to big drops in the stock market and high fees from Wall Street money managers while making it easier for companies to shed guaranteed retiree payouts.

The Journal piece is accompanied by the chart on the right, showing the decline of the personal saving rate over the past few decades. It looks pretty bad. Just as old-style pensions were going away, Americans were saving less and less, including their savings in 401(k) accounts. Retirement is now a hellhole, just a grim march from retirement to death subsisting on cat food.

But let me show you another chart. There's more than one way to save, it turns out. For example, you can build up equity in your home. And as housing prices have risen over the past several decades, so has total personal wealth:

Even this number is down since the 80s, but a drop from 103 percent to 98 percent doesn't seem all that scary, does it? And it's worth remembering that housing wealth has long played a role in retirement, as retired homeowners either sell their houses, downsize their houses, or take out a reverse mortgage on their houses.

Now, this hardly tells the whole story. The truth is that there are good and bad aspects to both old-style pensions and 401(k) plans. Here are a few:

  • Most people vastly overestimate how generous those old-style pensions were. Half of Americans never got them at all, and most of the rest got modest pensions. The exceptions were public-sector workers and some unionized workers.
  • That said, old-style pensions were most likely distributed a bit more evenly than 401(k) wealth, which is skewed toward the wealthy. But the difference probably isn't huge. Unfortunately, there's no reliable data that tells us for sure.
  • Overall pension wealth hasn't changed much. It was about 13 percent of total wages in 1984 and it's about 13 percent today.
  • Early 401(k) plans largely bypassed the poor and working class. However, changes made in 2006 have increased the retirement saving rate among the young and the low-income. It's probably the case that more low-income workers are saving for retirement today than ever in history.
  • 401(k) plans are more vulnerable to stock market shocks. However, the 2006 changes included a provision that encourages employers to offer "lifecycle" funds, which become less volatile as workers get older. Hopefully this will become close to universal in the future.
  • The bottom third of the income spectrum is screwed now and always has been. Neither old-style pensions nor 401(k) plans have ever helped them much, and they rely almost entirely on Social Security. We should increase Social Security payouts for these folks.

I've written about this in more detail before, most recently here. Advantages of 401(k) plans over traditional pensions are here. The bottom line is that 401(k) plans aren't perfect, and we could stand to make more changes to them. I'd like to see hard caps on management fees, for example. Nonetheless, on average, old-style pensions weren't all that great either, and 401(k)s are getting better. I'm all for further reforms, and I'm all for expanding Social Security for the bottom third. But taken as a whole, 401(k) plans aren't bad, and as the 2006 reforms continue to make a difference, they're going to get better.

Corporate America is about to go on a spending spree! They're so excited about Donald Trump that they can't hold themselves back!

Except, um, maybe that's not it after all. The Wall Street Journal reports that the stock market rally of the past month might be due to something more mundane:

The 6.7% rally since then, much of it since Election Day, has largely been attributed to the potential for tax cuts, looser regulation and fiscal spending under the president-elect. But the rise has also coincided with a fundamental improvement: U.S. companies'return to earnings growth.

"It's earnings growth that drives stocks over the long term," said Tom Cassidy, chief investment officer at Univest Wealth Management Division…Earnings for companies in the S&P 500 grew 3.1% in the third quarter from a year earlier, according to FactSet, entering positive territory for the first time since the first quarter of 2015, when they grew 0.5%. Analysts polled by FactSet expect the rebound to continue, and are estimating a 3.2% growth rate in the fourth quarter of 2016.

The third quarter, needless to say, was back when everyone was expecting Hillary Clinton to be the next president of the United States. Corporations may indeed be excited by the prospect of lower taxes and the end of pesky regulations, but if you want to know why the stock market is rallying, profitable companies are a more likely explanation than anything Trump is promising.