No special reason for posting this, but I was browsing through the latest ABC/Washington Post poll and was curious to see how things were going on the famous right track/wrong track question beloved of Beltway pundits. And since I took the trouble to graph it, I figured I might as well share. Answer: things are looking up. Not strongly up, but right track bottomed out last September and it's been rising slowly but steadily ever since.

I don't watch very much political TV, either on MSNBC or elsewhere, and I've been following the Trayvon Martin case only from a distance. But I'm aware that we've had videotape of George Zimmerman being taken into custody for some time now, and that one point of contention is whether the videotape shows evidence of any injuries, which might buttress Zimmerman's claim that Martin was pounding his head on a sidewalk before Zimmerman shot him. And in fact, the police video does seem to suggest that Zimmerman sustained some kind of head injury. So Bob Somerby, who does watch a lot of political TV, wants to know what happened on Al Sharpton's show last night:

At [about the 11:45] point, without comment from Sharpton, new videotape of Zimmerman appears. It offers a very large close-up of the back of his head as he arrives at the Sanford police station on the night of the killing.

This close-up isn’t grainy. And wow! In this close-up image, the back of Zimmerman’s head seems to be completely pristine. There isn’t the slightest sign of any blemish or injury.

There isn’t a stub of a hair out of place. There is no sign of any injury....Does that close-up represent an accurate picture of Zimmerman’s head on the night of the killing? We have no idea. But this close-up photo is impossible to reconcile with two earlier close-up shots, including one close-up which was aired by MSNBC on March 29. That close-up seemed to show an obvious goose-egg on the back of Zimmerman’s head, crowned with an obvious abrasion.

Later, ABC produced another close-up of Zimmerman’s head. This close-up was grainer, and more distant, than the image aired by MSNBC. But it seemed to show two abrasions on the back of Zimmerman’s head.

Especially given NBC's multiple problems with its editing of the Zimmerman 911 call, it really needs to be purer than Caesar's wife on this stuff. Did anyone else notice the same thing on Sharpton's show yesterday? How does the picture above compare to those you've seen elsewhere?

The New York Times summarizes a new bit of research:

They found that the more hours the men and women sat every day, the greater their chance of dying prematurely. Those people who sat more than eight hours a day — which other studies have found is about the amount that a typical American sits — had a 15 percent greater risk of dying during the study’s three-year follow-up period than people who sat for fewer than four hours a day.

That increased risk held true in the Australian study even if the people sitting eight hours a day spent at least part of that day exercising.

That's a drag. I think you can guess about how many hours a day my job keeps my butt firmly planted in a chair. I am doomed.

One of the big criticisms of Paul Ryan's budget plan is that he's eager to specify how much he'd lower tax rates, but not so eager to explain which loopholes and deductions he'd close in order to keep everything revenue neutral. He just casually fobs that off on the Ways and Means Committee. Philip Klein wishes that his fellow conservative were more forthcoming:

I think it's a fair criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney that the tax reform in their budget plans does not specify the loopholes that they plan to close to offset their planned rate reductions. I've taken issue with this and have urged Republicans to be more open about what type of favored deductions they'd get rid of, which have become cows as sacred as entitlements. This is something that Jon Huntsman deserves credit for doing in his presidential campaign — he vowed to eliminate every deduction, even popular ones on employer-based health insurance, mortgage interest and charitable giving.

Here's why this is so important. Ryan's proposed tax cuts are above and beyond the Bush tax cuts, which he wants to make permanent. According to the Tax Policy Center, this means that Ryan's plan would cost an additional $400 billion in revenue in 2015. So to stay revenue neutral, he needs to eliminate deductions and tax credits worth about $400 billion. The technical name for all these deductions and credits is "tax expenditures," and the table below, compiled from a recent report of the Joint Committee on Taxation, shows their estimates for the total value of tax expenditures in 2015:

Do you see how hard this is? The big ticket items are things like taxing healthcare and pension benefits; the mortgage interest deduction; the Earned Income Tax Credit; the charitable contribution deduction; various state tax deductions; and exclusions for Medicare and Social Security benefits. Needless to say, those are going to be eliminated over a whole bunch of dead bodies. Other big ticket items include tax breaks on dividends, capital gains, inheritances, and offshore income, and all of those would be eliminated only over Paul Ryan's dead body. There's not a single thing in this entire table that wouldn't be a stupendous political lift, and the prospect of eliminating not just one of them, but $400 billion worth of them, is very slim indeed.

That's why it's important for Ryan to put his money where his mouth is. You can't plausibly claim that your tax cuts will be revenue neutral if that claim depends on a whole bunch of tax increases that are all but impossible politically. At the very least, you need to set out a marker so that everyone can judge just how palatable your preferred menu of increases is, and whether any of Ryan's fellow Republicans are willing to face up to the political backlash of supporting it.

We already know they love the rate cut part of Ryan's plan. Now it's time to see if they're willing to stand up and be counted on the tax increase part that goes along with it.

Alex Tabarrok posts a chart today showing that heavily urbanized states tend to be richer than less urbanized states. The correlation is impressive, but Ryan Avent asks us to focus on just the right hand part of the chart, which shows only the most urbanized states:

Ryan suggests that we look at the states above the line (wealthier than expected) and those below the line (poorer than expected):

In the rich, productive bunch, we have California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Washington, and, just hanging below the line, Massachusetts. Sitting well below the line we have places like Arizona, Florida, Nevada, and Texas. It's striking how dispersed wealth is at the high urbanisation end relative to the low urbanisation end; the gap between similarly urbanised states like Connecticut and Florida is enormous.

What accounts for this? Ryan has a couple of ideas, but as it turns out, the Credit Suisse report that this chart is taken from addresses this very question in the context of different countries. Why do some highly urbanized countries lie so far below the trend line?

A clue lies with the most disproportionate distribution of income for any particular geographical groups of countries in our sample....Government policy to improve income distribution and social mobility appears to be as essentential an ingredient to ensure successful patterns of urbanization, and its associated improvements in living standards, as sufficient infrastructure investment and city planning.

Maybe something similar is true of U.S. states. States that promote social mobility, discourage excessive income inequality, and are willing to invest in broad-based infrastructure, do well. Those that don't, don't.

Adam Ozimek lists a few things today that economists agree about almost unanimously, and I don't have a problem with most of them. But I do find this one a bit blinkered:

The benefits of free trade and NAFTA far outweigh the costs

Economists have emphasized the benefits of free trade for a long time, reflecting the field's belief in the importance of specialization, comparative advantage, and gains from trade. Indeed, these results are similar to other surveys that show economists strongly supporting free trade.

So why do pundits and voters lag economists in supporting free trade? In his excellent book The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan provides evidence that people suffer from a handful of systematic biases that influence their beliefs, and three of these can help explain why voters are skeptical of trade: anti-market bias, anti-foreign bias, and pessimism bias.

....As is reflected in the comments by some of the panelists trade will create winners and losers, which may also explain some opposition to trade. But economists on the left and the right still struggle the understand the level of opposition to trade....

OK, hold it right there. How much more do you need to know? Free trade may be good on an aggregate basis, but it does indeed create winners and losers. And I think economists pretty universally agree that workers without college degrees are always net losers from expanded trade. Given that two-thirds of Americans don't have college degrees, and that promises to help workers displaced by trade agreements are generally worthless, why is it any surprise that most Americans aren't very keen on trade agreements?

Rick Warren at a TED talk in 2006.

I see that fellow Orange Countian Rick Warren — he of Saddleback megachurch and Purpose Driven Life fame — is in the news again. He was on ABC's This Week yesterday, and Jake Tapper asked him what he thought about President Obama's suggestion that God tells us to care for those less fortunate than ourselves:

Well certainly the Bible says we are to care about the poor....But there's a fundamental question on the meaning of "fairness." Does fairness mean everybody makes the same amount of money? Or does fairness mean everybody gets the opportunity to make the same amount of money? I do not believe in wealth redistribution, I believe in wealth creation.

The only way to get people out of poverty is J-O-B-S. Create jobs. To create wealth, not to subsidize wealth. When you subsidize people, you create the dependency. You — you rob them of dignity.

You know, there's nothing really wrong with a Republican politician saying this. Or a Democratic politician, for that matter. My first preference for helping the poor is indeed to make sure they have decent jobs. Unfortunately, I haven't yet met anyone who has a brilliant plan for making the economy boom on such a sustained basis that jobs are always available for everyone.

But I'm a blogger, not a minister. And while I might not be an expert on the Bible, I've read enough to know that Jesus sure didn't seem to think that helping the poor robbed them of dignity. Can someone help me out here? What part of the gospels do you think Warren is referring to?

Over at the Plum Line, Jonathan Bernstein riffs off a White House infographic on judicial appointments to remind us that although the Senate has been pretty obstructionist when it comes to confirming judges, it's also the case that Obama hasn't exactly been a house afire when it comes to nominating judges in the first place. Point taken! But when I clicked the link to take a look at the White House's latest graphic wizardry, I was surprised to learn that one of Obama's Supreme Court nominees was the first ever with a disability to win confirmation. I had no idea. But Google, as always, is my friend, and after first coming up dry on Elena Kagan, I discovered that Sonia Sotomayor has diabetes.

Did I already know this? Maybe. My memory is so bad that I couldn't tell you whether I once knew this and have forgotten, or whether I had never heard this before. In any case, I guess I've added two new bits of knowledge to my brain pan today: (1) Sonia Sotomayor has diabetes, and (2) diabetes is considered a disability. Live and learn.

Paul Krugman is exasperated:

A good article in the Times about the terrible state of Texas schools — followed by a truly awful comment thread, in which many readers rush to blame, you guessed it, teachers’ unions.

Folks, this isn’t an article about New York, where three-quarters of public-sector workers are unionized. It’s about Texas, where only one in five public workers belongs to a union. Blaming unions for the problems of Texas is like, well, blaming Jews for the problems of Japan: there aren’t enough of them to matter.

Actually, it's worse than that. If these guys are to be believed — and they're trying to make look unions look as bad as possible, so I suppose they are — the unionization rate of Texas teachers is 1.8%. Don't any of the folks commenting on this piece remember the boomlet last year in articles comparing California to Texas, all of them claiming that the "Texas miracle" was largely due to its red-blooded, non-unionized workforce?

If you want to have problems with teachers unions, go ahead. They're hardly above criticism. But our educational system isn't any better in states with weak or nonexistent teachers unions. In a lot of cases, it's worse.

The Washington Post has a front-page story today about the dramatic rise in justifiable homicides in Florida since they passed the nation's first Stand Your Ground law in 2005. In the first half of the decade Florida averaged 12 per year; in the second half of the decade it tripled to 36 per year. "It’s almost like we now have to prove a negative," said Steven Jansen, an official with a national association of prosecuting attorneys, "that a person was not acting in self-defense, often on the basis of only one witness, the shooter."

But mostly I was amused by this juxtaposition in the piece, which I think was unintentional:

Florida has been at the forefront of expanding gun rights for decades, ever since an NRA lobbyist named Marion Hammer, the NRA’s first female president, became a force in the state capitol in Tallahassee.

....In Florida, where looters appeared in the wake of Hurricane Ivan in 2004, Hammer launched her drive for the new law based on the case of James Workman, a 77-year-old Pensacola man who fatally shot an intruder who entered the trailer Workman was living in after the storm damaged his house....Hammer told legislators her bill would protect citizens who simply defended themselves: “You can’t expect a victim to wait before taking action to protect herself and say, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Criminal, did you drag me into this alley to rape and kill me, or do you just want to beat me up and steal my purse?’ ”

....Asked about the Martin case last week, former governor Jeb Bush, initially an enthusiastic backer of the legislation, said, “Stand your ground means stand your ground. It doesn’t mean chase after somebody who’s turned their back.”

Hammer sees no cause to refine or backtrack. Neither she nor NRA officials responded to requests for comment, but Hammer told the Palm Beach Post that officials should not be “stampeded by emotionalism. . . . This law is not about one incident. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the law.”

So when it's time to pass pro-gun laws, emotionalism over a single incident is the order of the day. But when those laws go awry, we need to put on our Spock ears and soberly weigh all the facts and evidence in the cold light of day. That's good to know.