On Friday, Donald Trump talked foreign policy for nearly two hours with David Sanger and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times. There's not much point in reading it. It's just Trump's usual incoherent babble in expanded form. The only thing it demonstrates is that he can pretty much talk forever no matter how little he knows about something.

But here's an interesting little factlet. Trump addressed the reporters individually by name 26 times during the interview. Here's the scorecard: Sanger 23, Haberman 3. And one of Haberman's three was this:

And — I’d love to ask David, Maggie, if he’s a little surprised at how well I’ve done. You know, we’ve knocked out a lot. We’re down to the leftovers now, from the way I look at it. I call them the leftovers.

In this case, Haberman asks Trump a question, and Trump responds first by addressing Sanger, and then telling Haberman that he really wants to ask if Sanger is surprised at how brilliant his foreign policy knowledge is. The transcript notes that this was met by laughter, and I can only imagine just what kind of laughter it was.

Anyway, take this for what it's worth. Trump spent the entire interview practically slobbering over Sanger. Haberman might as well have been nonexistent for all the attention she got and the number of times Trump interrupted her to turn his attention back to Sanger. You may draw your own conclusions.

Over at the Washington Post, Robert O'Harrow Jr. has a deep dive into the roots of Hillary Clinton's email troubles. As near as I can tell, once you cut through the weeds it's the story of a senior official who's technically illiterate and didn't want to change her email habits. Both Clinton and her inner circle of advisers were "dedicated [BlackBerry] addicts," but apparently neither the NSA nor anyone else was willing to help them make their BlackBerries safe. So, like millions of us who have tried to stay under the radar of our IT departments, Hillary just kept on using hers, hoping that eventually everyone would forget the whole thing. In the meantime, she grudgingly obeyed rules that required her to leave her phone behind when she entered her 7th floor office, but used it everywhere else.

That remains inexplicably dumb, but hardly scandalous. Nonetheless, we have this:

The FBI is now trying to determine whether a crime was committed in the handling of that classified material. It is also examining whether the server was hacked. One hundred forty-seven FBI agents have been deployed to run down leads, according to a lawmaker briefed by FBI Director James B. Comey. The FBI has accelerated the investigation because officials want to avoid the possibility of announcing any action too close to the election.

147 agents! To track down leads on one email server whose location and purpose have been known for two years. That's crazy. It's gotta be time for the FBI to either bring some charges or shut this thing down. Enough's enough.

Is Russia About to Shoot Its Future in the Foot?

A few days ago I read a piece about a proposed new oil tax in Russia, and it sounded vaguely important. But other stuff happened and I never wrote about it. Max Fisher says that was a mistake:

The most consequential development in international affairs this week may have come, believe it or not, in a proposed change to Russian tax policy....When oil was selling for $100 a barrel, about $74 of that went to the state in taxes...leaving oil companies with about $11 a barrel in profit....Now, oil is selling at $35 a barrel, and taxes only take $17 a barrel....Oil companies only take $3 a barrel in profit.

....While we think of oil companies as taking profits just to shower on themselves — and indeed, there is some of that — they also spend heavily on finding and developing new oil sources....[The new tax] would make it much harder for Russian oil firms to develop new oil sources. Over time, as current oil wells dry up, new ones would not come online to replace them....Even if oil prices go back up, Russian oil output will decline so drastically that its economy might never recover.

....The potential consequences here — of Russia so cannibalizing its own oil industry that its current economic decline becomes more or less permanent — are really difficult to overstate. Sooner or later, the Kremlin would have to do one of two things (or even both): cutting back the Russian military, which is wildly expensive but gives Moscow the geopolitical muscle it believes is so crucial, or cutting back already weak social services, which does risk political instability.

Read the whole thing for more details. This is still just a proposal, and even if it goes through it might well get modified before it does serious damage. Still, much of Russia's foreign policy is driven by the brutal fact that it has an economy about the size of Italy's and demographic problems even worse than Italy's, but still wants to be thought of as a great world power. As this becomes ever harder to pull off, Russia's leaders may feel the need to somehow prove that they still matter. This would be bad.

This tax may or may not go anywhere, but it's something to keep an eye on.

Long post ahead. Sorry.

I think I've made it clear that I think more highly of Hillary Clinton than Bernie Sanders. I don't make a big deal out of this because I like Bernie too. My inclination toward Hillary is clear, but it's also fairly modest. Without diving into a long and turgid essay about this, here are a few quick bullet points explaining why I like Hillary:

  • Her entire career has demonstrated a truly admirable dedication to helping the least fortunate.
  • Unlike her husband, she obviously doesn't enjoy the cut and thrust of partisan campaigning. Yet she soldiers on after taking decades of sewage-level abuse that would overwhelm a lesser person. This demonstrates the kind of persistence that any Democrat will need governing with a Republican Congress.
  • She takes policy seriously and she's well briefed. She doesn't pretend that one or two big ideas can suddenly create a revolution.
  • She's a woman, and yes, I'd like to see a woman as president.
  • Special pleading to the contrary, a moderate candidate is almost certain to be more electable in November than a self-declared democratic socialist.
  • In the Senate she demonstrated that she could work with Republicans. Yes, it was always on small things, the GOP being what it is these days. Still, she built a reputation for pragmatic dealmaking and for her word always being good.

Needless to say, Hillary also has weak points. She has decades in the public eye, and voters usually prefer candidates with more like 10-15 years of national exposure. What's more, she obviously comes with a lot of baggage from those decades. On a policy level, I don't get the sense that her foreign policy instincts have changed much based on events since 9/11, and that's by far my biggest complaint about her. Finally, I'm not thrilled with political dynasties.

OK. That's the throat clearing. The real point of this post is Matt Taibbi's article explaining why he disagrees with Rolling Stone's endorsement of Hillary. There are, obviously, arguments in Clinton's favor, and there plenty against. But Taibbi's is surprisingly thin. Here's the nut of it:

The implication [of the endorsement] is that even when young people believe in the right things, they often don't realize what it takes to get things done. But I think they do understand....The millions of young voters that are rejecting Hillary's campaign this year are making a carefully reasoned, even reluctant calculation about the limits of the insider politics both she and her husband have represented.

For young voters, the foundational issues of our age have been the Iraq invasion, the financial crisis, free trade, mass incarceration, domestic surveillance, police brutality, debt and income inequality, among others. And to one degree or another, the modern Democratic Party, often including Hillary Clinton personally, has been on the wrong side of virtually all of these issues.

Let's go through those one by one.

The Iraq invasion: This one is totally fair. Hillary did support the invasion, and it was the wrong call. What's more, this is a good proxy for her general hawkishness, which is her weakest point among millennials and her weakest point among an awful lot of older voters too.

The financial crisis: Taibbi doesn't even bother making an argument for this aside from some snark about the speeches Hillary gave to Goldman Sachs. But that's just petty point scoring. Beyond that, it's plainly unfair to blame her by association for legislation signed by Bill, which she had no hand in. And look: the only Clinton-era law that probably had a significant effect on the financial crisis was the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which was supported by 83 percent of the House and 100 percent of the Senate. Even Bernie voted for it. The truth is that Hillary's positions on Wall Street reform are reasonably solid.

Free trade: This is a "foundational issue" for millennials? Starting in the late 90s, there was a 3-4 year period of anti-globalization protests, and that was about it for high-profile attention. Most millennnials were barely in their teens at that point. A recent Gallup poll asked Americans if increased trade was good or bad, and 35 percent said it was bad. Among millennials, it was 32 percent, lower than most other age groups. Trade is getting a lot of attention lately thanks to TPP and Donald Trump, but it's just never been a foundational issue for millennials.

Mass incarceration: This again? Taibbi says that Bill Clinton "authorized more than $16 billion for new prisons," and slams Hillary because she "stumped for that crime bill, adding the Reaganesque observation that inner-city criminals were 'super-predators' who needed to be 'brought to heel.'" The truth: Bill Clinton had barely any effect on incarceration; Hillary's "super-predator" remark was reasonable in context; and both Clintons have long since said they regretted the carceral effects of the 1994 crime bill—which, by the way, Bernie Sanders voted for. Give it a rest.

Domestic surveillance: Taibbi doesn't actually say anything further about this, but I'll grant that I prefer Bernie's instincts on this issue, just as I prefer his instincts on most national security issues. But anyone who thinks Bernie could make a dent in this is dreaming. In concrete terms, mass surveillance enjoys substantial public support and virtually unanimous support among elites and lawmakers—and that's after the Snowden revelations, which were basically the Abu Ghraib of mass surveillance. It's really not clear that in practice, Bernie would do much more about this than Hillary.

Police brutality: Bernie barely even mentioned this until he was the target of protests from Black Lives Matter a few months ago. It's hardly one of his go-to subjects, and there's no real reason to think Hillary's position is any less progressive than his. In any case, this is almost purely a state and local issue. As president, neither Hillary nor Bernie would be able to do much about it.

Debt and income inequality: Once again, Taibbi doesn't bother to say much about this. Here's his only actual argument: "Hillary infamously voted for regressive bankruptcy reform just a few years after privately meeting with Elizabeth Warren and agreeing that such industry-driven efforts to choke off debt relief needed to be stopped." But this is just plain false. And while there's no question that Bernie is stronger than Hillary on Wall Street issues, both rhetorically and in practice, Hillary has generally been pretty strong on all these issues too. And her proposals are generally a lot more serious and a lot more practical than Bernie's.

Put this all together and here's what you get. Hillary's instincts on national security are troublesome. If that's a prime issue for you, then you should vote against her. It's certainly the issue that gives me the most pause—though I have some doubts about Bernie too, which I mention below.

She also lags Bernie in her dedication to bringing Wall Street to heel. But this is a much trickier subject. Bernie has thunderous rhetoric, but not much in the way of plausible plans to accomplish anything he talks about. Frankly, my guess is that neither one will accomplish much, but that Hillary is actually likely to accomplish a little more.

In other words, there's just not much here aside from dislike of Hillary's foreign policy views. That's a completely legit reason to vote against her, but it's hard to say that Taibbi makes much of a case beyond that.

Bernie Sanders too often lets rhetoric take the place of any actual plausible policy proposal. He suggested that his health care plan would save more in prescription drug costs than the entire country spends in the first place. This is the sign of a white paper hastily drafted to demonstrate seriousness, not something that's been carefully thought through. He bangs away on campaign finance reform, but there's virtually no chance of making progress on this. The Supreme Court has seen to that, and even if Citizens United were overturned, previous jurisprudence has placed severe limits on regulating campaign speech. Besides, the public doesn't support serious campaign finance reform and never has. And even on foreign policy, it's only his instincts that are good. He's shown no sign of thinking hard about national security issues, and that's scarier than most of his supporters acknowledge. Tyros in the Oval Office are famously susceptible to pressure from the national security establishment, and Bernie would probably be no exception. There's a chance—small but not trivial—that he'd get rolled into following a more hawkish national security policy than Hillary.

I'm old, and I'm a neoliberal sellout. Not as much of one as I used to be, but still. So it's no surprise that I'm not always on the same page as Taibbi. That said, I continue to be surprised by the just plain falseness of many of the left-wing attacks on Hillary, along with the starry-eyed willingness to accept practically everything Bernie says without even a hint of healthy skepticism. Hell, if you're disappointed by Obama, who's accomplished more than any Democratic president in decades, just wait until Bernie wins. By the end of four years, you'll be practically suicidal.

Health Update

My oncologist is surprisingly pleased with my progress. His theory seems to be that if my counts are going down slowly, they'll also go up slowly, and that means I have a slow-moving form of multiple myeloma—which is good news. In any case, if he's happy, I'm happy.

The more concrete upshot of this is that he reduced my weekly dose of the evil dex from 20 mg to 12 mg. Sadly, this came a few hours too late for this week's insomnia-fest, but in the long term it should reduce my dex-induced sleep disruption. I might even start getting some sleep on Friday nights. Hooray!

Friday Cat Blogging - 25 March 2016

The evil dex will be keeping me up all night tonight, but that's OK. I actually kind of enjoy it. Unfortunately, every silver lining has a cloud, and in this case the cloud is lots of afternoon crashes over the next few days to make up for the lost sleep.

But then again, every cloud has a silver lining, and in this case the silver lining belongs to Hopper, who gets a great place for her afternoon snooze. Hopper thinks dex is a wonder drug that makes humans more like cats, and who's to say she's wrong?

Do you remember Carl Paladino? Sure you do. He's the wealthy developer and racist jackass who somehow managed to win the Republican nomination for New York governor in 2010 and proceeded to run a campaign drenched in almost fetid ugliness. He hasn't changed much in the intervening years and he is—unsurprisingly—supporting Donald Trump for president. A few days ago he sent a message to his email list:

We haven't heard from you following my last memo. The press said I was trying to bully you; obviously that is a misnomer. After all, you are the duly elected representative of your constituents and you know what is best for them. Don't you?

....This is our last request that you join Trump for President and try to preserve what's left of your pathetic careers in government. Whatever you do, staying neutral is not an option. Pick a horse in the race and you may salvage some of your constituents' respect for you. Not choosing paints you as a coward. The bus is leaving the station very soon. Get on, or you'll be left behind.

Charming, no? But typically Paladino. And he promised more to come: "This is the beginning," he had said of an earlier email blast. It's going to get worse for those that continue to hold out. I'm being nice. I'll up the ante a little bit more in the next one I send....People like to read what their representatives are doing."

Anyway, a couple of weeks before this email went out, Rep. Chris Collins had announced his endorsement of Trump. That was unexpected, since Collins is a moderate guy who had previously endorsed Jeb Bush. Had Paladino threatened to run a challenger against him in the primary, as he's done with other Republicans he dislikes? The Huffington Post's Matt Fuller makes the case:

In an interview with The Huffington Post this week, Collins denied he was “pressured” into supporting Trump, saying he endorsed the GOP front-runner without speaking to Paladino about it.

But pressed on whether the two had discussed an endorsement, he backtracked:

“Uh, so — I mean, Carl and I know each other,” Collins said.

Yeah, they know each other. Collins is the biggest recipient of Paladino campaign donations in all of western New York. He certainly knows how generous Paladino can be if he likes you, and how merciless he can be if he doesn't.

Justin Wolfers points us today to a paper by Eric Chyn, one of his PhD students, that investigates the benefits to children of moving away from bad neighborhoods. In order to avoid contaminating effects, Chyn followed children whose families had been forced out of public housing projects when the buildings they lived in were demolished. Then he compared them to families who stayed put.

This is a genuinely random selection since some families were forced to move, and others weren't, based solely on whether their building happened to be scheduled for demolition. Chyn found a substantial effect: when they grew up, children who moved were 9 percent more likely to be employed and had average annual earnings 16 percent higher than children who stayed.

But there are a couple of interesting charts in his paper that bear further study. The first one shows the level of neighborhood poverty for movers compared to stayers:

Immediately after moving, families end up in neighborhoods with considerably less poverty than the housing projects they came from. But within five years the effect is nearly gone, and after eight years it's completely gone. In one sense, this is bad news: it means that even families that move to better neighborhoods eventually just drift back into high-poverty areas. But in another sense it's good news: the effect on kids is substantial even though they typically spend only about five years in a better neighborhood.

Next up is a chart that shows the adult earnings of children who moved out of bad neighborhoods:

The odd thing here is that there's essentially zero effect up through age 28. Then there's a sudden uptick, and by age 32 the movers are earning upwards of $5,000 more than stayers. But why? A higher starting point, or a steady increase, would be understandable. But why a sudden and dramatic change right at age 28? If this is really true, and not just an artifact of sample size or study design, it deserves further study.

ISIS Appears to Be Close to Collapse

Liz Sly of the Washington Post has an unusually optimistic report about the fight against ISIS today. She reports that both Palmyra and a string of villages in northern Iraq are being overrun by US-backed forces:

These are just two of the many fronts in both countries where the militants are being squeezed, stretched and pushed back....Front-line commanders no longer speak of a scarily formidable foe but of Islamic State defenses that crumble within days and fighters who flee at the first sign they are under attack.

....Most of the advances [] are being made by the assortment of loosely allied forces, backed to varying degrees by the United States, that are ranged along the vast perimeter of the Islamic State’s territories. They include the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, in northeastern Syria; the Kurdish peshmerga in northern Iraq; the Iraqi army, which has revived considerably since its disastrous collapse in 2014; and Shiite militias in Iraq, which are not directly aligned with the United States but are fighting on the same side.

The U.S. military estimated earlier this year that the Islamic State had lost 40 percent of the territory it controlled at its peak in 2014, a figure that excludes the most recent advances.

....In eastern Syria, the seizure late last month of the town of Shadadi by the Kurdish YPG — aided by U.S. Special Forces — was accompanied by the capture of nearly 1,000 square miles of territory....The operation was planned to take place over weeks. Instead, the town fell within days, said a senior U.S. administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly.

“Shadadi was going to be a major six-week operation,” he said. “The ISIS guys had dug trenches and everything. Instead, they completely collapsed. They’re collapsing town by town.”

This could just be happy talk, of course. It wouldn't be the first time. Or maybe ISIS is regrouping for an epic last stand. But if this reporting is true, it represents a self-sustaining dynamic: rumors of ISIS collapse inspire Iraqi forces to fight harder, which in turn contributes to ISIS collapse. At this point, Sly reports, the issues in the way of further progress are as much diplomatic as military: "We could probably liberate Mosul tomorrow, but we would have a real mess on our hands if we did," says Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

I wonder what Republicans will do if ISIS is truly on the run by the time campaign season starts in the fall? Whine that they could have done it even faster? Complain that we didn't steal all the oil while we were at it? They're barely going to know what to do with themselves if the weak-kneed appeaser Barack Obama first kills bin Laden and then takes out ISIS.

Good news! If you call the IRS, they'll probably answer this year. The bad news is that this is purely temporary:

The reduced wait times during tax-filing season, which ends April 18, were possible because of a cash infusion from Congress, but they only temporarily obscure continued problems at the U.S. tax agency. Audits are down. Identity theft is persistent. Tax lawyers gripe about the lack of published rules....“I can certainly understand the displeasure that Congress has,” said Fred Goldberg, who ran the IRS under President George H.W. Bush. “You can shoot at the IRS, but the issue is collateral damage, and the collateral damage on taxpayers is huge.”

....The IRS is trying to crack down on tax fraud, but with fewer workers. The agency had 17,208 employees doing tax enforcement in 2015, down 24% from 2010....In fiscal 2017, the IRS wants $12.3 billion to get back above the 2010 peak funding level. Congressional Republicans have already declared that a non-starter, which means reduced audits and longer wait times will continue.

Republicans would like to do away with the IRS. That's what they keep saying, anyway. They want all your taxes on a postcard, or a 3-page tax code, or an abolition of income taxes entirely.

Failing that, their goal is twofold: First, starve the agency of funding so that it operates poorly and the public gets pissed off at it. Second, starve the agency of funding so that it can't do as many audits of rich people. In real terms, the IRS budget is down 14 percent since 2010, despite a notable lack of either (a) fewer people paying taxes or (b) fewer rich people trying to cheat on their taxes.

But this all works out well anyway. The bigger picture looks like this:

  1. Reduce IRS budget.
  2. IRS service tanks.
  3. Hold outraged congressional hearing about lousy IRS service.
  4. Public convinced that IRS bureaucracy is bloated and inefficient.
  5. Reduce IRS budget to cheers of public.
  6. Rinse, repeat.

This works for lots of other agencies too. Basically, you do everything you can to gum things up, then use this as evidence that government is incompetent. But it works especially well for agencies like the IRS, which no one likes in the first place. The fact that it helps out corporations and rich people is just a nice cherry on top.