The latest tidbit of Trump idiocy making the rounds is this disclosure about his call last week with Vladimir Putin:

When Putin raised the possibility of extending the 2010 treaty, known as New START, Trump paused to ask his aides in an aside what the treaty was, these sources said. Trump then told Putin the treaty was one of several bad deals negotiated by the Obama administration, saying that New START favored Russia. Trump also talked about his own popularity, the sources said.

There are, as usual, several things we can say about this:

  • Trump's ignorance is almost boundless.
  • He nonetheless refuses to be briefed before calls with foreign leaders.
  • The willingness of his staff to leak unflattering anecdotes about him is both epic and unprecedented.

But the bit that caught my attention was this: "Trump also talked about his own popularity, the sources said." This is far from the first time we've heard this. Trump is apparently nearly incapable of talking with a foreign leader without blathering about how terrific he is, how well loved he is, how epic his victory was, and how gigantic the crowds at his inauguration were.

And as long as we're on the subject, here's Trump idiocy #2 for the day. Sen. Joe Manchin passes along the following anecdote about immigration legislation from a White House lunch today:

According to the West Virginia Democrat, when Trump noted that there is no current immigration legislation under consideration on Capitol Hill, another senator in attendance, Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), mentioned the 2013 bill. Alexander also noted that the 2013 bill had passed with 68 votes, Manchin recalled.

“Well, that sounds like something good and you all agreed, 68? What happened to it?” Trump said, according to Manchin.

“I’ll tell you exactly what happened, Mr. President,” Manchin said he told Trump. “It went to the House and [Majority Leader] Eric Cantor gets defeated. They’re crying ‘Amnesty, amnesty, amnesty’ and [House Speaker] John Boehner could not bring it back up on the floor and get a vote — that’s exactly what happened.”

At that point, Trump said, “I want to see it,” Manchin said. “So he was very anxious to see it. He says, ‘I know what amnesty is.’ And I said, ‘Sir, I don’t think you’re going to find this [is] amnesty at all.’”

Sean Spicer later "clarified" that Trump opposes the 2013 bill and considers it to be amnesty. And I suppose he does, now that someone has told him what his opinion is supposed to be.

The New York Times reminds us today that the eurozone's debt worries are still with us:

Even as global stock markets climb, worries are building among investors that long-simmering debt troubles in Greece and Italy will put additional strain on the euro....The result has been a sell-off of European government bonds as investment funds reassess the risks of holding such securities. In Italy, for instance, some hedge funds are making direct bets that the prices of Italian bonds will collapse.

Italy’s debt as a share of its economic output has risen to 133 percent from 123 percent during that period. In Greece, debt has increased to an expected 183 percent of the country’s total economy from 159 percent....And with Italy and Greece held back by the fiscal constraints that the euro’s rules require and not expected to generate sufficient growth in the future, the only alternatives are a restructuring of debt or an exit from the common currency.

Ah yes, either debt relief or massive austerity or exit from the euro. But the two primary funders of the ongoing Greek bailout, Germany and the IMF, don't agree on which it should be. Here's the Wall Street Journal:

Germany and the IMF share an extremely low opinion of the quality of Greece’s political class and institutions. But from this they have drawn different conclusions....Berlin will keep funding Athens, but it wants to maintain leverage over the country’s economic decision-making to protect German taxpayers.

But the IMF sees this as a recipe for perpetual can-kicking fundamentally at odds with its own institutional priorities....The IMF’s credibility has already been battered by one failed Greek program and is determined not to be sucked into another. For the IMF, therefore, this Greek program must be the last—and given its extreme low confidence in the Greek political class, a program is unlikely to be successful without very substantial debt relief.

Germany wants a decade of austerity. The IMF considers this to be a fantasy and wants to face reality square on: Bite the bullet and write off a big chunk of Greece's debt so they have at least a fighting chance of kickstarting growth and becoming solvent again.

I don't have much to say about this, aside from the fact that as long as the eurozone's core countries continue to run big capital outflows and eurozone monetary policies continue to favor those core countries, there's likely to be steady stress on poorer countries in the south who are stuck using a euro that doesn't really fit their needs.

As long as these outflows don't turn into big inflows in the south, everything is probably sustainable. But how long can that stay true? I'm not sure, but it still doesn't look as if Europe is dealing with its fundamental problem of trying to maintain a single currency and a single monetary policy for a set of very different countries.

Mainly, though, this post is just a reminder that Europe is still quietly struggling with its economy. For the moment, their crisis is under control. But then, it always is until suddenly it isn't.

Amino is a health care startup dedicated to "making health care simple and intuitive using data, design, and a whole lot of empathy." Yesterday they posted the following map:

This is not the most common form of injury, which is "bruising" or "open wound" in nearly every state. It's the type of injury that each state has in unusually high numbers compared to other states. California, for example, has lots of motor vehicle accidents, which should surprise no one. Likewise, Florida is a leader in head injuries, which is equally unsurprising.

But what's up with the Rocky Mountain suffocation belt? Amino's Olivia Marcus explains:

Some broad trends stand out, including the prevalence of “suffocation” (a broad category related to oxygen deficiency) in six of the eight Mountain states: Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. Diagnoses related to "suffocation" were 1.8 times more common in Idaho compared to the national distribution, and 3.1 times more common in Utah. The other four states fell somewhere in the middle.

We can’t say for sure why this is. But the vast majority of “suffocation” diagnoses were for hypoxemia, the medical term for low blood oxygen. Interestingly, hypoxemia can be caused by exertion at high altitudes, where oxygen is scarce. We can’t prove that this is correlated to the altitude of Mountain states, but it could be related.

OK, so all those Mountain Staters aren't being suffocated in their beds or anything. They're just suffering from temporary oxygen deficiency. And those six states are indeed the ones with the highest mean elevation in America:

So yeah: exertion at high altitudes appears to be the culprit here. I guess they call them Mountain States for a reason.

From the New York Times:

Almost half of people in their early 20s have a secret, one they don’t usually share even with friends: Their parents help them pay the rent.

Moving into adulthood has never been easy, but America’s rapidly changing labor market is making it harder to find economic security at a young age....According to surveys that track young people through their first decade of adulthood, about 40 percent of 22-, 23- and 24-year-olds receive some financial assistance from their parents for living expenses. Among those who get help, the average amount is about $3,000 a year.

Earnings of young workers increased at the same rate as urban rents until the Great Recession. Since then, however, rents have outpaced earnings by about 8 percent. So it makes sense that parental help with rent has increased over the past decade.

But there's an oddity here. Whenever I see an article like this, I always want to know "compared to what?" Has this really changed over time? Or have parents always helped their newly minted adult kids with the rent? So I clicked on the link to one of the studies mentioned in the article. Here's the primary finding:

This is a measure of all parental support, not just rent, and it's relatively stable until 2004, when it begins skyrocketing. So what happened? My first guess was that the housing bubble increased the cost of buying a house, which meant more 20-somethings were getting help from their parents with a down payment. But that would certainly count as "high support," which didn't increase. What's more, one of the defining features of the housing bubble was home loans with tiny down payment requirements. So that's probably not it.

The Great Recession makes sense as a starting point for increased parental assistance. But 2004? What happened then to kick off this trend?

The LA Times reports that the biggest garlic producer in the country has adopted an intriguing new strategy:

Christopher Ranch, which grows garlic on 5,000 acres in Gilroy, Calif., announced recently that it would hike pay for farmworkers from $11 an hour to $13 hour this year, or 18%, and then to $15 in 2018. At the end of last year, the farm was short 50 workers needed to help peel, package and roast garlic. Within two weeks of upping wages in January, applications flooded in. Now the company has a wait-list 150 people long.

 “I knew it would help a little bit, but I had no idea that it would solve our labor problem,” Christopher said. He said the farm has been trying, without success, to draw new workers since 2014. Human resources frantically advertised open farm-labor positions, posting help-wanted ads online and urging employees to ply their networks for potential recruits. Nothing came of it.

Fascinating! Someone should tell the rest of corporate America about this. Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that California's farmers are taken aback that President Trump is getting tough on immigration:

Many assumed Mr. Trump’s pledges were mostly just talk. But two weeks into his administration, Mr. Trump has signed executive orders that have upended the country’s immigration laws. Now farmers here are deeply alarmed about what the new policies could mean for their workers, most of whom are unauthorized, and the businesses that depend on them.

“Everything’s coming so quickly,” Mr. Marchini said....He said that as a businessman, Mr. Trump would know that farmers had invested millions of dollars into produce that is growing right now, and that not being able to pick and sell those crops would represent huge losses for the state economy. “I’m confident that he can grasp the magnitude and the anxiety of what’s happening now.”

....[Harold] McClarty and others say that legalizing the existing work force should be the first priority....Farmers are also anxiously awaiting the administration’s plans to alter longstanding trade agreements.

Trump literally spent his entire campaign making immigration his first priority and trade his second. But all these conservative farmers in the San Joaquin Valley voted for him anyway because, you know, he was going to lower their taxes and Make America Great Again. Now they're shocked that his top priorities are...immigration and trade.

I'm beginning to think that maybe California's farmers aren't too bright.

Your Morning Trump

President Trump met with airline executives today:

Mr. Trump said the air-traffic control system is “totally out of whack”....“We want the traveling public to have the greatest customer service and with an absolute minimum of delays,” Mr. Trump said. “And we have an obsolete plane system, we have obsolete airports.”

What's your guess? When he said "obsolete plane system" was he referring to air traffic control? Probably. Do you think he's aware that the FAA is already in the middle of rolling out NextGen, a massive upgrade of America's air traffic control? Probably not. Would it be nice to have a president who doesn't sound like a third grader? I think so.

In other news:

  • Trump is pissed off at Sen. Richard Blumenthal for passing along the news that Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch called Trump's attack on the judiciary "demoralizing" and "disheartening." Trump's response: attack Blumenthal for misrepresenting his Vietnam-era military service a couple of times, and imply that he's lying again even though several other people have confirmed Gorsuch's comments.
  • Trump is also pissed off at John McCain for having the gall to suggest that a military operation under the Trump administration could be anything other than a resounding success.
  • Kellyanne Conway joined her boss this morning in trying to pump up sales of Ivanka Trump's clothing line. Unlike her boss, however, Conway is not exempt from conflict-of-interest rules. However, enforcement of ethics rules is usually left to the head of the federal agency—which in this case is Donald Trump. I think we can expect a pretty relaxed attitude toward these kinds of violations.

Welcome to Thursday.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the most war-torn places on earth. Much of the money to keep the war going comes from mining operations in the eastern part of the country that are effectively controlled not by the distant central government, but by militias and warlords that enslave workers and smuggle ore out through the DRC's eastern border. In an effort to cut off their source of funding, the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill includes a provision that discourages companies from buying the so-called 3TG metals (tin, tantalum, tungsten, gold) from conflict areas. So how has that worked out?

That depends on who you ask, of course. But a surprising number of neutral and lefty sources think the policy has been a failure. For example, here is Lauren Wolfe of Women Under Siege:

Barnard College political science professor Séverine Autesserre has...estimated that only 8 percent of the country’s ongoing conflict has anything to do with natural resources. Moreover, in the September 2014 letter, the signatories noted that “armed groups are not dependent on mineral revenue for their existence.” Many groups can easily turn from minerals to palm oil, charcoal, timber, or cannabis to make money — not to mention extortion, illegal taxes, and other means.

....When Dodd-Frank passed, Congolese President Joseph Kabila put a ban on all mining and mineral exports in North and South Kivu and Maniema provinces. Though the ban was officially lifted in 2011...its ripple effects have persisted: Many artisanal mines have remained closed, and countless livelihoods have been destroyed, according to academics and activists. [Laura] Seay estimated in 2012 that between five and 12 million Congolese had been “inadvertently and directly negatively affected” by the loss of employment created by the ban and its aftershocks.

Here is the conclusion of a study by Dominic Parker and Bryan Vadheim:

Using geo-referenced data, we find the legislation increased looting of civilians, and shifted militia battles towards unregulated gold mining territories. These findings are a cautionary tale about the possible unintended consequences of imposing boycotts, trade embargoes, and resource certification schemes on war-torn regions.

The GAO says that most Western companies have no way of telling whether the minerals they buy come from conflict zones:

Ben Radley, one of the researchers behind We Will Win Peace, a documentary about the brutal warfare in the eastern DRC, says he has learned to be cautious about well-meaning movements:

There are three shortcomings to the “conflict minerals” campaign that came out of this work. It misrepresents the causal drivers of rape and conflict in the eastern DRC. It assumes the dependence of armed groups on mineral revenue for their survival. It underestimates the importance of artisanal mining to employment, local economies and therefore, ironically, security.

....The relationship between advocacy organizations headquartered in Western cities and their marketed constituency of marginalized and disadvantaged African groups is...tenuous. One of the most striking elements during the making of the film was the difficulty of finding Congolese groups in rural and peri-urban areas who knew about and supported the “conflict minerals” campaign. This suggests a lack of engagement with the people who stand to be most directly affected by campaign outcomes.

There are, of course, lots of advocates who continue to favor the ban on conflict minerals. They say that one of the biggest militias in the conflict area has been put out of business by the ban, and that more progress can be made by strengthening the hold of the central government in the eastern DRC and tightening the programs designed to trace the source of minerals. For the most part, though, their evidence of success tends to be very anecdotal.

Beyond all this, there's another reason it's difficult to know for sure what the ban is and isn't responsible for. The UN has been spending a billion dollars a year on peacekeeping operations in the conflict area for over a decade, and it's all but impossible to know how much of the recent success—if success there's been—is due to the Dodd-Frank ban and how much is due to the UN.

Bottom line: it's not easy to know whether the conflict mineral ban—which Europe joined in 2015—has been successful. The whole issue is also highly politicized, since large corporations that buy 3TG minerals have fought against the ban since the start.

Why bring this up now? Because a leaked memo suggests that President Trump plans to sign a memorandum suspending the conflict mineral ban for two years. I don't know if that's a good idea or not. However, I sure wish I had more confidence that it wasn't just a bit of payback to companies like Intel, which have lobbied for a long time to get the ban rescinded. Trump is hoping that these companies will play ball with his continued PR campaign to take credit for every new factory built in America—as Intel did today—and this sure seems like the kind of reward that will help keep his gong show going.

If you want to talk about mass incarceration, here's the most important fact to know: 90 percent of all American inmates are kept in state and local prisons. Unless you have some specific reason, you should pretty much ignore all statistics about the federal prison system.

This is not Keith Humphreys' main point in his Wonkblog post today about mass incarceration, but it might as well be. If you look at state lockups, here's the basic data for why most folks are incarcerated:

Drug offenses make up only about 15 percent of the total inmate population. And since it's common to plea down to a minor drug offense from a more serious offense, even this probably overstates the number of people in prison for nonviolent drug offenses. So if we want to reduce the prison population, decriminalizing drugs won't make much of a dent. Instead, we need to focus on our response to violent crime:

In the eyes of many politicians, activists and most of the voting public, tough punishment of nonviolent drug offenders is the main driver of mass incarceration in general and disproportionate imprisonment of people of color in particular. But in his new book “Locked In,” criminologist John Pfaff challenges that assumption, attributing mass incarceration primarily to violent crime and the public policy response to it.

....Given the outsize role of violent crime in mass imprisonment, what should be done about it? Pfaff favors “cutting long sentences for people convicted of violence, even for those with extensive criminal histories, since almost everyone starts aging out of crime by their 30s.” He also advocates for relying less on prison altogether and expanding community-based anti-violence programs that have strong evidence of preventing violence in the first place.

Our main reaction to the violent crime wave of the 70s and 80s was not just to lock up more people, but to lock them up longer. A lot longer. However, there's little evidence that longer sentences do much to deter crime, and as Pfaff says, once prisoners get into their 30s there's not much evidence that keeping them locked up prevents very much crime. My horseback guess (I haven't read Pfaff's book) is that we could cut the average sentence for violent crimes in half and it would have only a minor effect on crime rates. Partly this is because we overshot the sweet spot for reducing crime by a lot in the 70s and 80s, and partly it's because criminals these days aren't as violent as they were in the past.1

Unfortunately, this is one of the hardest lifts in all of politics. Even now, no one wants to be "soft on crime," and it's inevitable that if we did reduce sentences, some of the prisoners would go out and commit more crimes. All you need is a few examples of that to run some devastating TV ads, and there's no question that these examples would be out there. Pfaff has the right idea, but it's unlikely to get an audience anytime soon.

1Yes, because of reduced lead poisoning. Really.

Consider the following three things that have happened in the past month:

  • After years of promising to repeal Obamacare, Republicans finally have the power to do it. But they've suddenly discovered that it's going to be a lot harder than they thought.
  • President Trump kept his campaign promise to institute "extreme vetting" of refugees and visitors to the US, but the rollout was bungled so horribly that he's losing support for it even among Republicans.
  • Last week Trump approved his first military operation. It was a disaster. The evidence here is a bit murky, but it suggests that the raid was vetted less stringently than usual because of Trump's desire to cut through red tape and give the military more freedom to fight terrorism.

These are examples of what Barack Obama was talking about when he told Trump that "reality has a way of asserting itself." More generally, it's the result of a Republican Party that has been averse to policy for a very long time. They have principles and beliefs, but they don't spend much time thinking hard about how to implement those principles in the most efficient possible way.

They believe that Obamacare is a failure. They believe that immigration should be shut down. They believe the military should be unleashed. But these are just bumper stickers. They haven't spent much time developing serious policy responses on these topics because (a) that would give Democrats something concrete to attack, (b) their base likes bumper stickers, and (c) policy analysis has a habit of highlighting problems with ideological purity and pushing solutions toward the center.1

George W. Bush had the same problem with policy. Remember what John Dilulio said in his famous "Mayberry Machiavellis" letter to Ron Suskind?

In eight months, I heard many, many staff discussions, but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions. There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues. There were, truth be told, only a couple of people in the West Wing who worried at all about policy substance and analysis, and they were even more overworked than the stereotypical, nonstop, 20-hour-a-day White House staff. Every modern presidency moves on the fly, but, on social policy and related issues, the lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking — discussions by fairly senior people who meant Medicaid but were talking Medicare; near-instant shifts from discussing any actual policy pros and cons to discussing political communications, media strategy, et cetera. Even quite junior staff would sometimes hear quite senior staff pooh-pooh any need to dig deeper for pertinent information on a given issue.

This problem is now a couple of decades old and shows no signs of abating. Quite the opposite: Donald Trump makes Bush look like an analytical genius. But even on their own terms, conservative rule is going to end disastrously if both Trump and congressional Republicans don't spend a little more time on policy analysis and implementation issues. There are only so many disasters that even their own base will put up with.

1Democrats, arguably, have the opposite problem—too much regard for policy analysis—which is why lefties are often so contemptuous of them.

In the Wall Street Journal today, a couple of old-school conservatives propose a carbon tax as a response to climate change. But there's a catch. Here are George Shultz and James Baker:

We suggest a solution that rests on four pillars. First, creating a gradually increasing carbon tax. Second, returning the tax proceeds to the American people in the form of dividends. Third, establishing border carbon adjustments that protect American competitiveness and encourage other countries to follow suit. And fourth, rolling back government regulations once such a system is in place.

....The eventual elimination of regulations no longer necessary after the enactment of a carbon tax would constitute the final pillar. Almost all of the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory authority over carbon emissions could be eliminated, including an outright repeal of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Robust carbon taxes would also justify ending federal and state tort liability for emitters.

Schultz and Baker recommend a $40 per ton "tax and rebate" scheme that would be progressive because it returns a bigger proportionate share of the tax to working families than to the rich. And since it's revenue neutral, presumably Grover Norquist wouldn't issue a fatwa against it.

Now, this is all pie in the sky, since Republicans will never agree to it. But how about liberals? What should they do if this deal were on the table?

For starters, $40 per ton of carbon1 is about the equivalent of 40 cents per gallon of gasoline and 10 cents per kilowatt-hour of coal-fired power. Coal is already declining because it's not price competitive with natural gas, and a carbon tax would pretty much put it out of business for good. Gas plants would remain competitive compared to wind and solar, but only barely. As solar prices come down and the carbon tax rises, even natural gas plants would become uncompetitive. Here's the effect on coal from a study by the Energy Information Administration:

So that's all good. But what regulations would get tossed out? There are two main categories: regulations on power plants and EPA's CAFE standards for cars and trucks. My guess based on the relative numbers is that a $40 per ton carbon tax would probably be as effective as current regulations when it comes to power plants. Giving up those would probably be a good trade. However, it would almost certainly be too low to have much effect on driving and fuel economy. CAFE standards aren't perfect, but they have succeeded in substantially raising the fleetwide fuel economy of cars and trucks. The carbon tax wouldn't—at $40 per ton, anyway.

Here's an illustration from the EIA study. They looked at a $20/ton tax on electricity generators vs. a $20/ton tax on all carbon sources. There's virtually no difference. The tax on power plants has a big impact, but expanding the tax to gasoline accomplishes almost nothing. It's just too small to have much effect.

Of course, in this study EIA was assuming that CAFE standards stayed in place. A carbon tax would obviously have a bigger impact if there were no other regulations already pushing up fuel economy. However, even with CAFE repealed it wouldn't be enough—though there is a possible compromise: a $40 per ton carbon tax plus another 60 cents per gallon tax on gasoline. As a side benefit, the gasoline tax would also provide the revenue to fund significant amounts of infrastructure repair. Offer me that, and I might well be willing to give up nearly2 all EPA regulations on carbon.

Of course, I'd want to know just how "gradually" the carbon tax is going to rise. One approach to this might be to target certain regulations for immediate repeal and others for repeal only when certain tax levels are met.

As always, the devil is in the details. But a carbon tax plus a gasoline tax in return for an end to EPA regulation of carbon might be a deal worth looking at. I doubt that the subject will ever seriously come up, though.

UPDATE: Here's an interesting calculation. The EPA has allowed auto manufacturers to trade greenhouse gas permits since 2012. This paper, in the middle of a bunch of math, says "In the first-order condition λ is the shadow value of the CAFE constraint. With permit trading this shadow value equals the permit price." Meanwhile, this paper estimates that the current permit price is roughly $40 per Mg. One megagram is about a ton, so the permit price is in the neighborhood of $40 per ton.

In other words, the effect of the current CAFE standards is about equal to the effect of a $40/ton carbon tax. This is a rough approximation, but it's at least suggestive that a $40/ton carbon tax would provide the same benefit as all our current CAFE standards, and probably do it more efficiently.

1This is actually $40 per ton of carbon dioxide, which is a common measurement. I assume that's what Schultz and Baker are talking about too, though their op-ed doesn't provide that level of detail.

2There are some exceptions. For example, methane leaks wouldn't be affected by a carbon tax. The only way to reduce them is by ordinary old regulation. There are some other exceptions too.