As I mentioned the other day, conservatives are outraged over a report that Facebook manipulates its "trending topics" feed to favor liberal issues. So far, this allegation comes from one (1) ex-Facebook guy, so I'm inclined to wait a bit and see if it turns out to represent anything real or not. We have some history here, after all, and conservatives manage to routinely feel victimized by things that, in the end, turn out to be nothingburgers. So we'll see.

In the meantime, Megan McArdle suggests this might pose a problem for liberals:

We are headed for a clash of principles on the liberal side. On the one hand, the principle that the media must be free from government interference....On the other hand, the principle that corporations that have acquired a great deal of market power must not be allowed to abuse that power, even inadvertently.

Facebook has indeed acquired a great deal of power. It dominates the news diet of millennials, and is becoming more and more important for the rest of us....Liberals who are fond of press freedom and vigorous antitrust enforcement are going to be forced into making one of two arguments, neither of them perfectly satisfying. The first is that while heavy-handed government smiting of monopoly (or quasi-monopoly) powers is necessary and justified, the media is a special exception where the government should allow powerful corporations to do whatever they want.

....The greater danger is that liberals will end up falling back on an argument that is gaining more and more currency on the left: that this biasing of information is not merely an unfortunately insoluble problem, or so minor that it doesn’t make much difference in our politics, but that it is actually an affirmative good.

I don't think there's any problem here. For starters, the media is a special exception thanks to the First Amendment. This might favor liberals in the case of Facebook and conservatives in the case of AM talk radio, but it's an exception regardless.

More to the point, the limits on government interference apply only to content-based rules. The Justice Department routinely halts media mergers, for example, if they'd end up concentrating too much power in a single corporation. They did this just recently when they prevented the company that owns the LA Times from buying the company that owns the Orange County Register. That may or may not have been wise, but it posed no First Amendment issues.

Likewise, no liberal would suggest that the right way to rein in Facebook is to regulate its news feed. If there really is a news monopoly here, it would be addressed by breaking up Facebook; or preventing acquisitions that might increase their news monopoly; or (possibly) by asking Facebook to create a public interface that allows third parties to create their own news feeds. Or by doing nothing at all because there's nothing to be done. Plenty of metro areas have only one newspaper these days, for example, and that's just the way it is. Nobody thinks the feds can do anything about it no matter how biased any particular newspaper's coverage might be.

My guess is that (a) the whole Facebook news feed issue is probably overblown, and (b) even if it's not, it poses no special problems that we haven't seen before. Lots of news organizations are biased, and the government rightfully takes no action against them. I don't think liberals have a problem with that.

In a radio interview on Wednesday, Donald Trump backed off his call to ban Muslims from the United States:

We have a serious problem. It’s a temporary ban. It hasn’t been called for yet. Nobody’s done it. This is just a suggestion until we find out what’s going on.

Come on! It was just a suggestion. Why is everyone getting so upset? Greg Pollowitz updates the scoreboard:

Which Trump "policy" will be the next to fall? Perhaps there's a clue in Politico's top story at the moment:

Politico deployed its policy experts to study a week’s worth of Trump commentary and decipher what he’s saying, how his ideas would work and how far he could really go with positions that are unorthodox at best, and often heretical to his party’s ideology.

They actually did this, too, earnestly explaining why Trump's blathering is idiotic and unrealistic. Their conclusion for pretty much every Trump statement is that (a) he couldn't do it without congressional approval, and (b) fat chance of that. Still, just by taking Trump seriously they've probably done him a favor. You'd almost think his random bloviating added up to a real policy platform.

Jon Chait says there's a simple reason that Donald Trump defied expectations to win the Republican nomination: "The Republican Party turns out to be filled with idiots. Far more of them than anybody expected." Atrios says Chait is blind: "We hippie liberals have been telling you for years that a sizeable chunk of Republican voters are absolute blithering idiots."

Hmmm. I have to say, I've been reading Chait for years, and he's never held back his contempt for Republicans or Republican voters. Whatever his faults, having too rose-tinted a view of the GOP hasn't been one of them.

In any case, I think they're both missing the point. Whenever you look at anything even vaguely related to public policy,1 the key question is "Compared to what?" Whatever you think of the Republican electorate, they made it through 2008 without nominating Rudy Giuliani or Fred Thompson. Then they made it through 2012 without nominating Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann. Instead they nominated two very normal party warhorses, John McCain and Mitt Romney.

So what happened? Did the GOP electorate suddenly lose a couple dozen collective IQ points over the past four years? I suppose anything's possible, but it doesn't seem likely. Something other than the idiocy of the Republican base was at work here.

But what? Sometimes I feel like I'm the last person in America who still isn't quite sure how Trump managed to win. Seriously, America, WTF? But at a guess, the key factors were these:

  • A large and weak field. The traditional mainstream candidates—in particular Scott Walker and Jeb Bush—turned out to be stunningly bad campaigners. The best of the remainder were Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Rubio was pretty obviously too young and too out of his depth, while Cruz was just really, really unlikeable.
  • Trump is sui generis.2 Republicans have survived their Palins and Cains and Carsons, but Trump is just better at being a demagogue than any of them. He's the perfect TV candidate in a TV era.
  • Simple bigotry. The GOP has long had a significant base that's susceptible to racial appeals, but ever since Pat Buchanan's suicide run in 1992 everyone assumed this would henceforth have to be kept carefully buried by anyone who wanted to be taken seriously. Trump surprised everyone by unburying it with no apologies. And guess what? It turned out nothing much had changed over the past two decades. Buchanan won about 30 percent of the vote in the early contests of the 1992 race, almost exactly the same as Trump got in the early contests this year. Against a single strong competitor, this wasn't enough for Buchanan, but against a fractured field, Trump's frank appeal to the racist vote was enough to keep him in the lead.

Can a richer, shrewder, less ethnic, less Catholic version of Pat Buchanan win the presidency? I don't think so, but at this point, frankly, I'm afraid to venture an opinion.

1And if there's anyone vaguely related to public policy, it's Donald Trump.

2Admittedly, this is just a fancy way of saying: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Does Donald Trump think we should raise the federal minimum wage? Let's roll the tape:

November 10, 2015: NO!

CAVUTO: So do not raise the minimum wage? TRUMP: I would not do it.

May 8, 2016: YES!

I think people have to get more....Sure it's a change. I'm allowed to change.

May 8, 2016: NO!

I don't know how people make it on $7.25 an hour....I think people should get more....But I would say let the states decide.

May 11, 2016: YES!

Goofy Elizabeth Warren lied when she says I want to abolish the Federal Minimum Wage. See media—asking for increase!

So what does Trump really think about the minimum wage? There's no telling. Maybe he really has changed his mind over and over. Maybe he didn't realize there were separate state and federal minimum wages until someone clued him in on May 8. But his tweet today sure makes it clear that he wants an increase in the federal minimum wage. He even capitalized it to make sure we got the point. I wonder how long we'll have to wait before he claims he never said this and he really wants the states to decide after all?

It's easy to write this off to Trump's general buffoonery, and that would be fair. What gets me is that his fans continue to believe everything he says even though he does stuff like this all the time. Do they really believe he's going to build a wall? Why? I don't think it would take him more than a few days in office to change his mind and insist that he had said all along that everything was up for negotiation.

Here's an interesting thing. I was browsing over at The Corner and came across a post from Veronique de Rugy, who was unhappy about the federal government's rate of improper payments, which totaled $137 billion last year. That's fair enough. Here are the six worst programs:

This is the kind of thing that liberals should care about too—in fact, we should care about it more than conservatives if we want people to trust government to handle their tax dollars competently. Still, it got me curious. What exactly does this mean? $137 billion in waste and fraud last year? As it turns out, no. Here's one interesting methodological tidbit:

Another prevalent misunderstanding is that all improper payments are a loss to the government, but that is not always the case. For example, although most of the $137 billion in improper payments was caused by overpayments (payments that are higher than they should have been), a significant chunk of that total amount was caused by underpayments (payments that are lower than they should have been). The difference between these two amounts (that is, overpayments minus underpayments) equals the net amount of payments that improperly went out the door.

Huh. So if the feds overpay Joe $10 and underpay Jane $10, that counts as $20 in improper payments. This is a reasonable thing to track, since we'd like all the payments to be correct, but it doesn't give us much insight into how much money we're losing to improper payments. My guess based on a bit of googling is that underpayments are a smallish part of the whole number, but for some reason there's no official tally of this. Roughly speaking, though, you can probably shave 10-20 percent off the top and get pretty close.

What else? There's this:

Also, many of the overpayments are payments that may have been proper, but were labeled improper due to a lack of documentation confirming payment accuracy.  We believe that if agencies had this documentation, it would show that many of these overpayments were actually proper and the amount of improper payments actually lost by the government would be even lower than the estimated net loss discussed above.

An entire payment is labeled improper if complete documentation is not available. This appears to account for somewhere in the neighborhood of 50-60 percent of all improper payments. Most likely, though, once the documentation is in place, the vast majority of these payments turn out to be correct.

Put this all together, and the net value of genuinely improper payments is probably about $50 billion or so. Still high, but not quite as outrageous as it seems at first glance.

Something about this whole exercise seems kind of weird to me, though. We're only a few months into 2016 and we already have numbers for FY2015. That's fast work—too fast to be anything but a preliminary cut at flagging payments that might be incorrect. But how many of them really are incorrect? Nobody knows. For that, you'd have to wait a year or two and then re-analyze all the payments in the sample.

I'd be a whole lot more interested in that. $137 billion makes for a fine, scary headline—especially when the headline leaves the vague impression that this is all due to fraud and waste—but why don't we ever get a follow-up number that tells us how much the feds ended up paying improperly once all the documentation is rounded up and the final audits are done? Wouldn't that be a better number to care about?

Greg Sargent channels the conventional wisdom that Hillary Clinton's negatives are old and baked into the cake, while Donald Trump's could get even worse than they are now:

[Hillary Clinton] has been subjected to intense scrutiny for over two decades. Note that Trump’s attacks on her are largely rehashes: He’s going after Bill Clinton’s affairs and Hillary Clinton’s alleged role in “enabling” them....While it’s possible that a renewed focus on all these things could damage Clinton further, it’s more likely that they will accomplish little, because they don’t represent new information.

By contrast, we simply don’t know yet what is out there in the record on Trump....One Dem opposition researcher has estimated that approximately 80 percent of negative stuff out there on Trump has yet to surface publicly — and they continue to do so. Which means it’s possible that Trump’s negatives have more room to grow (as preposterous as that might seem) than Clinton’s do.

This seems like the right way to bet, but I'm a little less sure. On the Hillary side, negatives that are widely accepted can actually be easier to confirm than new ones. If Trump keeps banging away on "Corrupt Hillary," a lot of people might start remembering all that old stuff that they'd forgotten about during the past decade. And this could be easier than we think, since there are also a substantial group of Bernie supporters these days who are doing everything they can to help this narrative along.

On the Trump side, yes, his negatives have room to grow. But the opposite is true too. If a lot of people haven't really been paying attention to the campaign yet, it's quite possible that they might decide the guy isn't really as bad as rumors have it. Sure, he's not entirely PC, but he speaks his mind! He's going to bring back jobs from China! He's a man of the people!

Then again, maybe they'll eventually figure out that he's just another plutocrat Republican who plans to cut the hell out of tax rates for the rich, something a lot of people apparently don't believe yet. But that's not a certainty. For some reason, voters and pundits alike seem to give Republicans a pass on their tax plans, shrugging them off more as totems than as actual intentions.

In other words: I don't know. This is not a normal year and Trump is not a normal candidate. But there's one more thing to point out: if Pollster's algorithms are to be believed, Trump's negatives are actually about the same as Hillary's and they're both trending upward at about the same slow but steady rate. The only real difference is that Trump's ratings are more variable than Hillary's. This isn't necessarily good news for Democrats.

For the first time in a while, American workers are truly doing fairly well:

U.S. businesses are facing a problem that many haven’t thought about in years—rising wages. That could be one factor that tips over a market that has the uncomfortable combination of declining earnings and high valuations.

Workers, for the first time since the financial crisis, are demanding raises and actually getting them—or they are walking. The number of workers quitting jobs has increased, a sign they are confident they can get new jobs, and companies are loathe to lose good workers. It now takes 27 days to fill a job, the highest since at least 2001.

....“More revenues are going into the pockets of workers,” said Brian Schaitkin, a senior economist at the Conference Board, a corporate-research organization. “Higher wages are going to place downward pressure on corporate profits.”

Uh oh. Downward pressure on corporate profits. Must be time for the Fed to raise interest rates and put a stop to this nonsense. After all, inflation has skyrocketed recently to...about 1 percent.1 Put that together with actual wage gains for workers and we're in a heap of trouble. Something must be done quickly.

1Yes, yes, I know the Fed actually uses core PCE as its preferred measure of inflation. But that's pretty low these days too. And inflationary expectations are also low. Really, inflation just isn't a big worry at the moment.

Win or lose (hint: he's going to lose), Bernie Sanders should feel pretty good about his success in pushing Hillary Clinton to the left during the primary campaign. She's now against the TPP; she definitively favors a large hike in the minimum wage; and she supports expansion of Social Security. These may not seem like huge changes—and they aren't—but they're a lot more than most candidates accomplish. Dennis Kucinich ran twice without having any measurable effect at all on the Democratic race.

Now Bernie can take credit for one more move to the left:

“I’m also in favor of what’s called the public option, so that people can buy into Medicare at a certain age,” Mrs. Clinton said on Monday at a campaign event in Virginia. Mr. Sanders calls his single-payer health care plan “Medicare for all.” What Mrs. Clinton proposed was a sort of Medicare for more.

The Medicare program covers Americans once they reach 65. Beneficiaries pay premiums to help cover the cost of their coverage, but the government pays the bulk of the bill. Mrs. Clinton’s suggestion was that perhaps younger Americans, “people 55 or 50 and up,” could voluntarily pay to join the program.

Now, as Nancy LeTourneau points out, this is hardly something new in the Democratic Party firmament:

Back in 2009/10, Medicare buy-in was discussed as part of Obamacare — until Joe Lieberman weighed in. Given Republican obstruction at the time, health reform would not have passed unless every Democrat voted for it. One defection — ala Lieberman — was enough to end its prospects.

An expansion of Medicaid combined with the option of Medicare buy-in is an incremental path towards universal coverage. That is what Democrats (with exceptions like Lieberman — who was actually for it before he was against it) have been working towards for decades.

Be that as it may, this isn't something Hillary has publicly supported during this year's campaign. Until now. Why is she doing this? I'd call it a combined Bernie/Trump effect. Bernie has pushed Hillary to the left in order to win the Democratic primary and Trump has shown that it's surprisingly safe to take a more populist tone even among Republicans. This suggests that Hillary can move a bit to the left without endangering her chances in the general election.

Whatever happens next, I'd say Bernie has been more successful at pushing the mainstream Democratic Party to the left than any insurgent candidate since the early 70s. He may not win the nomination, but that's not a bad legacy.

How good is the current economy? There's no single variable that tells us and no single index that everyone agrees on. Depending on what they care about, different economists will put different weights on things like productivity growth, the trade deficit, the strength of the dollar, and so forth. However, if we only want to know how workers and consumers feel about the overall economy right now, things are a little easier. They care about the things that are visible to them: jobs, wages and debt. With that in mind, here's how the US economy did in 2015 on the five big variables that households pay attention to:

 

2015
Value

How Good?

Grade

Inflation

0.1%

Low and steady. Inflationary expectations are well anchored.

A

Unemployment

5.3%

Generally very good, but a bit worse than it looks since it's partly due to a decline in labor participation.

B+

Real GDP
Growth

2.4%

About average for the past few decades, but below average for an economic expansion.

C-

Real Wage Growth

2.0%

This is hourly wages for production and nonsupervisory workers. It's well above the average of the past few decades.

B+

Household Debt

10.0%

This is debt service as a percent of disposable income. It's currently at its lowest level since 1980.

A

Total

 

 

B+

This is pretty good. So why does everyone feel so lousy about the economy? We can't ask them directly, since polls have long since showed that answers about the economy are almost entirely driven by partisan feelings these days. But it's still pretty easy to intuit what's going: people feel lousy partly because we really have gone through a long and grinding recovery, and partly because everyone keeps telling them the economy is lousy.

On one side of the aisle, conservatives have every incentive to insist that the economy is still in terrible shape. The party out of power always says that. In 2016, Republicans want voters to feel lousy about the economy so that they'll kick the Democrats out of the White House.

On the other side of the aisle, liberals don't want to admit that things are going well either. They have a broad structural critique of the economy, and they can only get traction for that critique if voters continue to feel a lot of pain. In 2016, liberals want a higher minimum wage; restraints on Wall Street; student debt relief; spending on infrastructure; continued monetary looseness; and more. All of this is less likely to happen if Democrats start praising how well the economy is doing.

This is an unusual situation. Usually one party wants to badmouth the economy and the other wants to celebrate it. This year, both parties are insisting that the economy is listless and stagnant, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. The truth is that for the past year the economy has been in pretty good shape. We're all just afraid to say so.

From the New York Times today on the grim job prospects of high school grads with no college:

Only 10 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds have a college or advanced degree, according to a new study by the Economic Policy Institute, although many more of them will eventually graduate.

And for young high school graduates, the unemployment rate is disturbingly high: 17.8 percent....“It’s improved since the recession, but it’s still pretty poor,” said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, who noted the average hourly wage for high school graduates had declined since 2000 despite increases in the minimum wage in some places.

Ms. Gould is part of a growing chorus of economists, employers and educators who argue more effort needs to be put into improving job prospects for people without college degrees.

Is it unreasonable to expect reporters to hop over to FRED for five minutes and check this stuff out? I don't know how EPI measures unemployment, but the federal government measures it in a consistent way every single month. For young high school grads, the average unemployment rate during the expansion of the aughts was around 11 percent. Today it's 11.2 percent. In other words, it's not "pretty poor," it's completely normal. And there's no need to be grudging about how much it's improved since the recession. It's down by more than ten points since its peak.

It's true that young high school grads have seen their incomes drop over the past decade: their cash earnings have declined about 7 percent since before the recession. But that's also true of every other age and education cohort.

When it comes to both employment and earnings, young high school grads are doing about the same as everyone else. Maybe we should put more effort into improving their job prospects, but we don't need to wildly misstate the data in order to make the case.