Friday Cat Blogging - 13 May 2016

Hopper has learned how to take selfies. It turns out that opposable thumbs are entirely unnecessary. All you have to do is jump up on Daddy's lap while he's reading on his tablet and tell him to take a picture. She looks pretty smug about the whole thing, doesn't she?

Three Sentences About the Cocoon

Sentence #1: Drew Altman on whether people are satisfied or not with their Obamacare coverage:

In the Kaiser survey, which will be published next week, 29% of Republicans in marketplace plans (i.e., Obamacare) say they have benefited from the ACA compared with 75% of Democrats, a 46-point difference.

This is now so common that it makes top-line polling almost useless. How's the economy doing? It depends on your party. Do you believe in climate change? It depends on your party. Is unemployment up or down? It depends on your party. We're accustomed to opinions about things like abortion depending on party ID, but more and more, views of objective reality depend on party ID too. Why?

Sentence #2: Ezra Klein on why Facebook is likely to become more biased, not less:

Before the web...it was possible to cocoon yourself inside an echo chamber, but you really had to work at it. Then came cable news.... Constructing an echo chamber became easier....But now we have personalized search results, handcrafted Twitter feeds, and a Facebook algorithm based on likes. Now you can end up in an echo chamber without even knowing it.

Aha. The cocoon. This is why the objective state of the world depends so much on party ID. If you watch Fox News and read the Drudge Report, you get exposed to more than just different spins compared to people who listen to NPR and read Mother Jones. You get exposed to an entirely different set of stories. Conservatives and liberals these days are increasingly exercised by issues that their opposites barely even know exist.

Sentence #3: Todd VanDerWerff on the ultimate hollowness of the latest George Clooney vehicle, Money Monster:

Hollywood used to excel at telling stories of people who lived and worked in the lower classes....Whether it was The Grapes of Wrath or Raging Bull, filmmakers used to treat the concerns and hopes of the working class as worthy of consideration. That happens less and less now.

The cocoon again! Back in the day, plenty of screenwriters and film directors came from working-class backgrounds. Today they all have degrees from the USC film school and live in Silver Lake. They get their news from Variety and the LA Times, not drive-time radio and People. In this cocoon, the working class is something to make money from via transparently condescending TV shows, not real people with real problems.

Years ago, I used to think that everyone who did the kind of thing I do—blather about public policy from the perch of an upper-middle-class existence—should read the National Enquirer weekly to get a better sense of what kinds of news shaped the views of ordinary people. I don't think the Enquirer fills that bill anymore, but what does? The media-verse is so fragmented these days that I'm not sure there's any single outlet you can count on anymore. Suggestions?

Jim Geraghty asks a question that's been on my mind too:

How happy do you think Hillary Clinton is with the Obama administration’s decision that schools must permit transgender students to use the bathroom they prefer?

Here’s an issue that will irk a lot of parents of daughters who might otherwise not care that much about politics. It’s not an automatic political winner for Obama and his allies; a Reuters poll found 43 percent saying that people should use public restrooms “according to the biological sex on their birth certificate” compared to 41 percent who opt for “according to the gender with which they identify.” Sure, Donald Trump said he opposed the North Carolina law, but if this rule makes you feel like Washington is arrogant, meddling, out-of-touch, and forcing changes upon your community that you don’t want, who do you think you’re going to vote for?

It's almost inevitable that liberals will annoy a lot of people over cultural issues like this. It goes with the territory. But I suspect Geraghty is right: Hillary Clinton would probably have preferred that this just stay on the back burner for a while.

It's true that she caught a break when Donald Trump said he didn't think this was a big problem and states like North Carolina should just settle down. But let me tell you something about Trump: he could change his mind. Really! I've seen him do it. It wouldn't even be hard. All he has to do is say that he favored leaving things alone, but if the Obama administration is going to start sending out decrees to schools about it, well, that's going too far. We need to fight back against this kind of government overreach in the service of PC nonsense.

We'll see. But as a voter turnout tool for conservatives, this could be the new gay marriage. I wonder if it will be for liberals too?

So how are we doing these days? Let's ask some economists. Their consensus, apparently, is that we're way better off compared to the golden days of our youth, but not so much compared to more recent years. In fact, economists are split about evenly on whether we're collectively better off than we were before the financial crash, which seems right to me. Roughly speaking, I'd say we've recovered to about 2007 levels, but haven't yet surpassed them.

But this raises a question: Why do so many Americans think they were better off 30 or 40 or 50 years ago? There are several obvious possibilities:

  • Wages were rising back then. They may be higher now, but it's steady increases that make things seem great.
  • Sure, we lacked cell phones and 500 channels and cancer cures back in the day, but we didn't miss them because we never had them. The fact that we have them now doesn't really make people think they're better off.
  • On a related note, all the new stuff we have doesn't really make us happier. If we grew up with it, it's background noise. If we didn't grow up with it, it's just a complicated pain in the butt that we're forced to keep up with even though we don't really like it much. (Except for those 500 channels, of course. Everyone loves those.)
  • It's basically cultural, not economic. A lot of people really were happier 50 years ago, but it had nothing to do with living standards. Whites didn't have to compete with blacks or Asians. Men ruled the roost. Everyone knew their place. We didn't worry about heroin epidemics. Etc.

It's a funny thing about living standards. Take cars. They're way better on practically every metric you can think of compared to, say, 1960. Cars today are faster, more reliable, more comfortable, more convenient, quieter, smoother, safer, and cheaper. And they come in way more varieties than they used to.

But do people like their cars today more than they did in the 60s? Probably not. We've gotten jaded. Cars were still kind of cool to the postwar generation. Today nearly everyone has a car and they're just another possession. Our automobile living standard is far higher than it used to be, but our automobile happiness probably isn't.

Hey, remember those ten sailors who were briefly held by Iran a few months ago when they drifted into Iranian waters? Of course you do. Donald Trump and Fox News will never let you forget. Well, it looks like maybe the investigation is finally starting to wrap up:

The head of a riverine squadron at the center of an international incident in January was fired Thursday....Cmdr. Eric Rasch, who at the time of the Jan. 12 incident was the executive officer of the Coastal Riverine Squadron 3, was removed from his job [...] for what a Navy Expeditionary Combat Command release said was “a loss of confidence” in his ability to remain in command.

Cmdr. Gregory Meyer, who was commanding officer at the time of the incident, is currently with Coastal Riverine Group 1, and has been put on “administrative hold,” meaning the Navy will not transfer him out of the unit, while a high-level review of the Navy’s investigation into the incident continues, said two officials familiar with internal deliberations.

Four months seems like a long time for an investigation like this, but I suppose you can't be too careful. In any case, if people are being fired, I assume that means the Navy is finally convinced that it has a pretty good idea of what happened.

A couple of days ago the big headline was "Why Aren't People Shopping?" Today it's "U.S. Retail Sales in April Grew at Best Pace in More Than a Year." What a difference a single new report makes.

Anyway, retail sales were up 1.3 percent from March and 2.8 percent over the past year. The biggest winner was building supplies. The housing bubble is back! The biggest loser was gasoline, but only because oil prices have been so low. The real biggest loser was electronics and appliance stores. I guess there just haven't been many must-have gadgets released in the past year. Apparently the smart watch revolution continues not to happen.

I just—I can't wrap my...um—I just don't know what to say anymore. Here is Trump doing his best Sarah Palin imitation:

For the record, Amazon now collects sales taxes in most states, including nine of the ten biggest. And if Bezos has said anything about fearing that Trump might go after him "for antitrust," I can't find it. (Although the last time Trump ranted about Amazon because the Post had annoyed him in some way, Bezos did suggest that he'd be happy to send Trump into space.)

Oh, and Bezos is a lot richer than Trump. Maybe that's what really has Trump irked.

Oh, and apparently Trump is now talking about banning Syrian refugees, not Muslims in general. Maybe.

Oh, and Trump agreed to stop insulting Lindsey Graham in the media.

Oh, and Trump's spox now says there are no plans to change his tax plan. "I'm a little bummed," said Stephen Moore, who had been tasked with suggesting changes. So Trump's tax plan for the common man still costs $10 trillion and still looks like this:

Bill Clinton...Did Something Back in 2010

I'm trying hard to remove my partisan hat and look at this objectively, but I'll be damned if I can figure out what the problem is supposed to be with this:

The Clinton Global Initiative, which arranges donations to help solve the world’s problems, set up a financial commitment that benefited a for-profit company part-owned by people with ties to the Clintons, including a current and a former Democratic official and a close friend of former President Bill Clinton.

The story meanders through nearly 2,000 more words, but it can be summarized pretty easily:

  • Energy Pioneer Solutions is a startup company that insulates people’s homes and allows them to pay via their utility bills. It's owned by several Democratic Party donor types and other assorted worthies.
  • Six years ago, a Canadian philanthropist named Kim Samuel decided to make a $2 million commitment to the company. (Though in the end, she decided to commit only $500,000.)
  • For some reason the Journal doesn't explain, Samuel routed this commitment through the Clinton foundation instead of just giving it directly to EPS.

And...that's about it. I gather that although this kind of matchmaking is common for the Clinton foundation, it only occasionally involves for-profit companies. But it's happened before. So what's the problem? Did Kim Samuel get some kind of benefit for directing her money through the foundation? Did Energy Pioneers get some kind of extra benefit above and beyond the money Samuel wanted to give them in the first place? Does this represent some kind of misuse of the foundation's mission? Is foundation money not supposed to go to anyone associated with Bill Clinton? Considering the fact that Clinton seems to be friends with nearly everyone in the world,1 that hardly seems likely.

I dunno. The Journal article does its best to make this sound shady in some way, but I'm not really seeing it. Can anyone help me out?

1Except me. What have I done wrong?

Another Look at Young High School Grads

Over at the Economic Policy Institute, I'm in hot water over my question about the unemployment rate for young high school grads:

Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum seems to dislike a New York Times article calling job prospects for young high school graduates “grim.” Along the way, he directs an odd bit of unprovoked snark at us....The reason we get 17.8 percent while Kevin gets 11.2 percent when looking at unemployment rates for young high school graduates is pretty obvious: we’re looking at 17-20 year old high school graduates who are not enrolled in further schooling while he is looking at 20-24 year old high-school graduates (no college).

For the record, I meant for my snark to be aimed not at EPI, but at the Times. Their reporter should have done at least a cursory check of standard BLS data to see if it backed up her story, but she didn't. That said, let's take a closer look at the EPI data.

I can't quite recreate their methodology, but that doesn't matter. As usual, I'm only asking, "Compared to what?" In this case the question is, "How does unemployment among young high school grads compare to the normal rate before the recession?" Here's the EPI chart:

I'm just eyeballing this, but it looks like the pre-crisis average was a little over 15 percent. Today it's 18 percent. In other words, about one-fifth higher than normal. That's roughly the same as 6 percent compared to 5 percent.

So if the headline unemployment rate were at 6 percent, would you call that "grim"? I wouldn't. I'd say there's certainly room for improvement, but it's not too bad. Ditto for young high school grads. There's clearly room for further improvement, but the current numbers don't suggest an ongoing crisis. Things are very much getting back to normal.

I realize that my hobbyhorse about the economy might be getting annoying. And I sympathize with everyone on the left who wants to make sure we don't declare victory and give up on further economic gains, especially for the working and middle classes. At the same time, we should also respect what the numbers are telling us. And by all the usual conventional measures, the economy is in pretty good shape. For now, at least, the recession really is largely over.

POSTSCRIPT: Just to make sure I'm as clear as possible, I'll repeat what I said a couple of days ago: what the numbers tell us is that the current state of the economy as conventionally measured is pretty good compared to normal. This has nothing to do with larger, structural critiques of the economy. If you think that tax rates are too high or wages are too stagnant or income inequality is out of control, those are entirely different issues. These kinds of critiques have very little to do with how well or badly the economy is performing at the moment.

Weekly Flint Water Report: April 30-May 6

Here is this week's Flint water report. As usual, I've eliminated outlier readings above 2,000 parts per billion, since there are very few of them and they can affect the averages in misleading ways. During the week, DEQ took 397 samples. The average for the past week was 10.91.