Kevin Drum

Friday Cat Blogging - 18 September 2015

| Fri Sep. 18, 2015 3:05 PM EDT

This is how I often take a shower: with an audience of one trying to figure out what I'm doing. Hopper is, by turns, fascinated (movement! sprinkly stuff!) and appalled (he's covering himself with water! on purpose!). When I'm done, she peers suspiciously into the shower stall and eventually hops in. This gets her delicate little paws wet, so she sort of dances around as if she's walking on hot coals. A few days later she's forgotten all about this and we go through the whole routine yet again. With cats, nothing ever gets old.

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Carly Fiorina Keeps Digging a Hole She Never Should Have Started

| Fri Sep. 18, 2015 2:43 PM EDT

Over at Vox, Sarah Kliff asks the Fiorina campaign to back up Carly's claim that the Planned Parenthood sting videos show "a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain." On the first try, they emailed her a YouTube video that doesn't show any legs kicking and isn't one of the sting videos anyway. So Kliff asked again. On the second try, they did send her one of the sting videos, but it also doesn't show any legs kicking or hearts beating. There's a former organ harvester on the video who claims to have seen this, but no actual footage to prove it. As Kliff says, "there's no moment to 'watch,' as Fiorina urged debate viewers."

But here's an interesting thing. A long time ago I posted my personal guideline for gauging how misleading a statement is. I can't dig it up at the moment, but it was basically this: How easy is to fix the offending statement? And how badly does this change its meaning? If it's easy and doesn't change much, then it's not really all that misleading.

So let's try that with Carly. Here it is, with my additions in italics: "I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. Watch a former organ harvester describe a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain."

I hate to say it, but that's a pretty easy change, and it doesn't change the impact of her statement very much. This kinda kills me, but I have to conclude that although Fiorina's statement is clearly wrong, it's only mildly misleading. She should have just gone with the more accurate version in the first place. She wouldn't be in hot water now, and it wouldn't have weakened her debate statement by more than a smidgen. Unfortunately, not only did she not do this, but she doubled down the next day by assuring George Stephanopoulos that she had seen the "images" she talked about.

Bad move, Carly. You just made a bad situation worse even though there was no need to do it. But I guess that's no surprise. I gather this is one of your signature MOs.

PBO vs. BHO: The Twitter Differences Between Democrats and Republicans

| Fri Sep. 18, 2015 1:40 PM EDT

James Pethokoukis points me to a paper in PLOS ONE about different word usage on Twitter among Democrats and Republicans. Some of it was unsurprising. Democrats curse more, use more internet slang, and are more touchy-feely. Republicans are more religious and like to emphasize group identities.

The authors also report on the results of an algorithm (too complicated for me to understand) that ranks the top words among Democrats and Republicans. Some of them are just products of the time the tweets were collected (June 2014). The Kenya references among Democrats, for example, were related to the Kenya hotel bombing on June 16. We also learn that Republicans refer to President Obama as bho while Democrats prefer pbo.

But here's an interesting tidbit. Compared to Democrats, Republicans appear to tweet much more about specific political figures, and to tweet about things they're mad at. Five names make their top 20, and (by my count) 16 things they're outraged about. Among Democrats, one political name makes the top 20 and two things they're outraged about. I can't really account for either of these results. There are plenty of Republicans that Democrats don't like, and plenty of things they're outraged about. But apparently Dems don't tweet about them much.

One caveat: despite being a registered Democrat myself, there are a whole bunch of top Democrat words that I can't make sense of.  What is qampa? Is journey the band, or do Democrats just like to talk about travel? What about maya and nene? Are those the poet and the singer? Or the Mesoamerican civilization and the bird? And what's up with arsenal? Is this the football club or the place where weapons are stored?

Conversely, the top Republican words are all too easy to understand. I'm not quite sure about loi, but that's it.

To summarize: Republicans are pissed, and Democrats are young enough to use lots of words I don't get. Sigh.

Why Did Carly Fiorina Accept $500,000 From a Ted Cruz Super PAC?

| Fri Sep. 18, 2015 12:01 PM EDT

Ted Cruz has a stable of super PACs supporting him. One is called "Keep the Promise 1" and it did something odd a few months ago: it donated $500,000 to Carly Fiorina. I missed this at the time, but an FEC letter has brought it back into the spotlight:

Keep the Promise 1 had a healthy $10 million on hand from a $11 million donation from hedge fund CEO Robert Mercer as of the end of June. But it only spent $536,169. A little for legal services. A little for surveys. And a whole lot for Fiorina.

....The donation to Fiorina was made June 18, which shows tremendous foresight. Fiorina was barely registering then, not yet revealed as the scrappy underdog with killer debate skills. And Donald Trump had yet to steal most of Cruz’s disenchanted voters.

Nobody knows why a Ted Cruz super PAC would donate half a million dollars to Carly Fiorina's campaign. But that's not what I'm really interested in. What I want to know is why Fiorina's campaign accepted the donation. Fiorina has shown an impressive aptitude for tap dancing and misdirection, but I don't think even she can pretend that a gigantic check appeared out of nowhere and they didn't bother asking any questions about it. So what's the deal, Carly?

Punters Agree: Bush Won, Trump Lost on Wednesday

| Fri Sep. 18, 2015 11:16 AM EDT

Ed Kilgore is aghast that Politico ran a story using prediction markets to figure out who won Wednesday's debate:

I've been known to joke that at its worst Politico gives you a snail's-eye view of American politics. But this is self-parody: hourly variations in betting market!

Obviously Ed is a killjoy. But I kinda think he's wrong too. Betting markets are an interesting and sometimes useful tool for getting real-time feedback on high-profile races. For example, here's a chart from PredictWise, a Microsoft research project that aggregates several betting and prediction markets:

The winners: Fiorina, Rubio, and Bush. The losers: everyone else. Since this precisely matches my own post-debate judgment, I declare this an excellent analytic tool.

Media Advisory: Don't Help Turn Vaccines Into a Political Football

| Fri Sep. 18, 2015 10:45 AM EDT

During Wednesday's debate, Dr. Ben Carson was very clear that vaccines don't cause autism. "But it is true that we are probably giving way too many in too short a period of time," he added. And Dr. Rand Paul agreed: "Even if the science doesn't say bunching them up is a problem, I ought to have the right to spread out my vaccines a little bit at the very least." Carson's answer was flat-out wrong and Paul's was misleading. In fact, the medical community is pretty much unanimous in saying that the standard vaccine schedule is both safe and effective.

So a big thumbs down to Carson and Paul. But Eric Merkley and Dominik Stecula are unhappy that CNN even brought up the subject in the first place:

If CNN, and other media, continues on the course of unprecedented politicization of vaccine safety by treating it as a campaign issue, the societal consensus on the safety and efficacy of vaccines may be eroded at tremendous cost. Here’s why.

....Notwithstanding the quackery on stage at the GOP debate on Wednesday, Republican voters are just as likely to believe in vaccine safety as Democrats, at least for now. That may change if party elites become polarized on the issue, and if this is communicated to the mass public through the national press.

....Until recently, party elites were in consensus on vaccines. While some cues were present in the press, these did not have the potential to polarize the public. We fear that if party elites continue to polarize, the cues present in the press could begin to undermine the societal consensus on childhood vaccinations. Why are we reasonably sure this is the case? Because we have seen this movie before, with global warming.

....It would not be surprising if Democratic elites leap at this opportunity to solidify their own science-based credentials and make it a campaign issue, particularly if someone like Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination. These cues are then communicated to the public through the press, and we may be off to the polarization races.

Merkley and Stecula are noting something that's gotten a lot attention over the past few years: the mere fact of politicians taking a stand on an issue can polarize that issue on a national scale. There have been times when President Obama has stayed quiet about something simply because he knows that speaking up can turn it into a political circus. Global warming is the biggest obvious example of this polarization effect, but there are plenty of others. Obama took this to heart during last year's Ebola scare and mostly let others take the lead in talking about it.

Merkley and Stecula are pleading with the press not to aid and abet a similar dynamic with vaccines. It's bad enough that the anti-vaxers continue to get a lot of media attention. It would be much, much worse if it somehow becomes a Republican vs. Democrat issue.

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Obama Needs To Take Responsibility For Syrian Training Failure

| Fri Sep. 18, 2015 10:01 AM EDT

With a grand total of four—or maybe five!—Syrian rebels in the field following a year of training efforts, it's obvious that things aren't working well. President Obama apparently thinks it's not his fault:

The White House says it is not to blame....At briefings this week after the disclosure of the paltry results, Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, repeatedly noted that Mr. Obama always had been a skeptic of training Syrian rebels. The military was correct in concluding that “this was a more difficult endeavor than we assumed and that we need to make some changes to that program,” Mr. Earnest said. “But I think it’s also time for our critics to ‘fess up in this regard as well. They were wrong.”

Most of the comments from Republicans are pretty ho-hum partisan bellyaching. But this one seems on target:

Ryan C. Crocker, a retired career diplomat who was an ambassador to Afghanistan under Mr. Obama, said the president was right to think a train-and-arm program would not work. But the president, Mr. Crocker added, should have either continued to resist it or at least taken ownership of it rather than blame others for its failure.

“How un-presidential that sounds — ‘We didn’t want to do it, we thought it was unsound but you made us do it,’ ” said Mr. Crocker, now dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. “It’s just indicative of their whole approach to Syria, which is not to have a policy. This is the worst thing they could say.”

When he's right, he's right. Maybe supporters of the training mission ought to take some lumps too, but the buck stops in the Oval Office. Once he agreed to do it, it was Obama's plan. The failure is his too.

"When Do We Get Rid of the Muslims?" Donald Trump: "We're Going to be Looking at a Lot of Different Things."

| Thu Sep. 17, 2015 8:37 PM EDT

So what's the incident that will finally send Donald Trump back to his mansion to mope about not being president? I mean, the guy seems invulnerable. And he's certainly survived a stupendous number of gaffes that would have killed anyone else.

But his latest howler at a town hall in New Hampshire—especially after his weak debate performance last night—might finally be his death knell. Note: The issue isn't the questioner. There are lunatics in every crowd. This one declared, "We have a problem in this country: It's called Muslims....They have training camps growing where they want to kill us." Then he asked, "When do we get rid of them?" Did he mean all the Muslims? Just the fantasy training camps? Who knows. But all Trump said was this: "We're going to be looking at a lot of different things." No pushback, no nothing. I'm sure he'll be walking this back soon, but it might be unwalkable. If there's any justice, this might finally do him in.

Another Shot Fired in the Great Immigration vs. Wages War

| Thu Sep. 17, 2015 7:30 PM EDT

Does illegal immigration suppress the wages of native-born workers? The evidence suggests that it doesn't—or not much, anyway. One of the data points supporting this is a study done by David Card of the effect of the 1980 Mariel boatlift on workers in Miami. Even though Miami experienced a huge spike in immigrants during the boatlift, Card found no significant impact on wages.

Today George Borjas steps in with a different analysis. He's been arguing for a long time that immigration has a bigger effect on wages than we think—especially the wages of unskilled workers. In a new working paper, he looks specifically at the wages of high school dropouts and concludes that although overall wages in Miami were unaffected by the Mariel boatlift, the wages of dropouts were affected. In relative terms, they went down by 10 to 30 percent.

I wouldn't be surprised if this were true, but Borjas's paper does leave me with a few questions. Take a look at the chart on the right, which shows the wages of high school dropouts relative to high school graduates. Miami is the thick blue line. The other lines are various estimates of wages in cities that weren't affected by the boatlift. There are a few oddities here:

  • Before 1980 and after 1990, the wages of high school dropouts in Miami are above zero, which means dropouts earned more than high school grads. That seems very peculiar, and none of the control cities show the same effect. Does this suggest there's something wrong with the Miami data?
  • The Mariel boatlift produced a truly enormous spike in unskilled workers. Borjas estimates that it increased the number of working-age high school dropouts in Miami by about 18 percent in just a few weeks. I wonder if it's really possible to extrapolate from this to the much more gradual increase in illegal immigrants nationwide over a span of two or three decades?
  • This is especially apropos because the chart shows that the impact on wages was fairly short lived. Even with such a huge labor shock, wages of high school dropouts were only affected for about six years. By 1988 they had recovered fully. Borjas acknowledges that this is hard to account for.

I'm no expert in this stuff, and I imagine the folks who are experts will weigh in soon enough. However, even if Borjas is basically right, the question we care about is what this tells us about the effect of illegal immigration on wages more generally. If a huge spike produces a short-lived wage depression of about 20 percent or so, what does a gradual increase over a wide geographic area produce? Unfortunately, Borjas says that there was more going on in Miami during this period than just a labor supply increase, which means "it is difficult to say much about the dynamics of the wage effect of immigration from the evidence generated by the Mariel supply shock." Intuitively, though, it seems like it would be something far less dramatic. Maybe 5 percent or so? Less?

Obamacare Has Now Been MIA in Two Debates

| Thu Sep. 17, 2015 2:02 PM EDT

In the first Republican debate, Obamacare was barely mentioned. Over at National Review, Ian Tuttle notes that last night it was also MIA:

Beyond a few brief in media res mentions from candidates, a repeal line in Cruz’s closing address, and an allusion or two (e.g., the question about John Roberts), the president’s signature piece of legislation was a non-issue.

Which makes one wonder: Is it a non-issue?....I suspect that the anti-Obamacare fervor is in a period of quiescence. We have now seen Obamacare implemented sans “death spiral.” The website works. The Supreme Court has handed the Obama administration two affirmative Supreme Court decisions. And the president has made sure to do much in the interim — immigration executive actions and Iran deals, for example — to draw fire away from his healthcare law. Conservative heads have a limited supply of steam.

Tuttle is right. Obamacare has become a brief, pro forma applause line these days, but not much more. Partly this is for the reason Tuttle rather surprisingly concedes: It's up, it's running, and it's working reasonably well. The nation still stands, and it's hard to keep whipping up hysteria for years and years over something that, it turns out, just isn't affecting all that many people.

I don't think this means that Obamacare is going away as a political issue. But I do think that the repeal movement has lost a lot of steam as a winning issue for Republicans. The tea party types are starting to realize that nothing in their lives has changed, and the more moderate types realize—maybe via personal experience, maybe via news reports—that it's doing a lot of good for poor and working class folks. So it's become something of a wedge issue: Pounding on it loses about as many votes as it gains.

This is becoming a real problem for the GOP. A lot of issues that used to be pretty reliable winners have now turned into dangerous wedge issues: gay marriage, taxes, terrorism, illegal immigration, military adventurism, abortion, crime, education, global warming, Ukraine, free trade, Social Security cuts—the list goes on and on. And this is coming at the same time that their bread and butter, the angry white guy demographic, is declining. I'm not sure what they're going to end up doing about this. The GOP has a tough decade ahead.