Just a quick note about who Obama is going to nominate for the Supreme Court: it has to be someone willing to make a kamikaze run. It's going to be a grueling experience for nothing, since Republicans will be happy to put the nominee through the wringer but plainly won't vote to confirm. In fact, it might be for less than nothing. Whoever gets picked probably can't be renominated if a Democrat wins in November.

Most likely, then, you're putting yourself through a punishing ordeal in order to ruin your chances of ever getting a Supreme Court seat. That's the kind of thing a party loyalist might do, but a circuit court judge? What's the upside?

Anyway, all this is just to say that Obama may have trouble finding someone willing to be nominated. Keep that in mind when you browse through all the lists of potential candidates.

Is China Really Killing Us?

Donald Trump insists that China, Japan, and Mexico are stealing our jobs. Are they? A lot of people sure believe it. Carrier recently announced they were moving a factory to Mexico, which produced a viral video of worker reaction that's been viewed more than 3 million times in three days. It captured in a nutshell the fear of offshoring that Trump appeals to.

So how many jobs does the United States lose each year to offshoring? Surprisingly, nobody knows. The federal government doesn't try to track this, and companies are reluctant to talk about it. Here's a miscellaneous sampling of various estimates:

  • In a report for the year 2004, BLS estimated that out of 1 million layoffs, about 16,000 represented workers whose jobs were relocated outside the country.
  • The Hackett Group estimates that "business-services jobs in big American and European companies" were relocated at about the rate of 150,000 per year between 2002 and 2016.
  • Alan Blinder, an offshoring hawk, estimated in 2006 that "offshoring to date has cost fewer than a million American service jobs, maybe a lot fewer." In other words, maybe around 50-100,000 jobs per year.
  • EPI estimates that offshoring to China "eliminated or displaced 3.2 million U.S. jobs" between 2001 and 2013. That's about 250,000 jobs per year.
  • Forrester estimates that 3.4 million service-sector jobs were lost to offshoring between 2003 and 2015. That comes to about 300,000 jobs per year.

So we have estimates for all jobs in 2004; business services jobs in both Europe and the US between 2002-16; total jobs through 2006; total jobs to China between 2001-13; and all service-sector jobs between 2003-15. If I had to put all this together and average the high and low estimates, my horseback guess is that maybe we're losing a total of about 400,000 jobs per year to offshoring.

That's about 0.3 percent of America's 150 million jobs.

Now, this is plainly not the whole picture. Partly this is because there are lots of different things that can arguably be called "offshoring." There's the classic version, where you close down a plant in America and move it somewhere else. But there are also cases of brand new plants being built overseas. Is this offshoring, or is it a case of wanting to build stuff near a local market? Could be a bit of both. Then there are plant closures due to overseas competition. Technically, nothing is being offshored, but jobs are certainly being lost. And of course, all of these things contribute to pressure that keeps wages low.

Beyond that, offshoring can stand in for a host of other fears. Workers are scared of losing their jobs to automation; of equity buyouts from the Bain Capitals of the world; of losing the ability to work thanks to disability; or of being laid off and never finding a good job when the economy recovers.

In other words, 0.3 percent might not seem like much, but it stands in for a potentially much scarier number. That said, here's the thing I'm a little puzzled by: Donald Trump's schtick is nothing new. Anyone my age remembers this. In the 80s, it was Japan that was taking all our jobs and wrecking our economy. And it was no joke. There was real fear and real rage about this. Then, in the early 90s, it was Mexico and NAFTA. Later in the decade it was the Asian Tigers. (Remember them?) Now, for the last decade or so, it's been China. American workers have been in a fever about losing their jobs to foreigners for more than 30 years.

And yet, we're supposed to believe that this is the reason for all the blue-collar anger that's come out of nowhere to power the Trump phenomenon. But it doesn't add up. Very few workers are actually in danger of losing their jobs to offshoring. And even when you add in all the other stuff, the job market right now is actually in pretty solid shape. It's not booming, but it's not bad. True, there's some evidence of permanent job loss from the Great Recession, but it's a few percent of the workforce at most. It's not enough to produce huge rallies for a blustering xenophobe. What's more, the evidence from New Hampshire suggests that Trump is pulling support from nearly every demographic group: rich and poor, men and women, young and old, blue collar and white collar, dropouts and college grads, conservatives and moderates. They can't all be in a state of hysteria about China and Mexico taking their jobs.

Just to be crystal clear: This isn't a matter of wondering why cool logic doesn't prevail among the electorate. What I'm wondering more about is this: what are the lived, ground-level issues that are galvanizing Trump's supporters? The job market simply doesn't seem to be in bad enough shape—or in different enough shape—to be responsible for a sea change in attitudes. So what is it?

The obvious response is that I'm an idiot. Middle-class incomes have been sluggish for decades, while CEOs and bankers have been raking in obscene paychecks. Wages flatlined completely about 15 years ago, and then plummeted during the Great Recession. Millions of people lost their jobs for frighteningly long periods during the recession; lost their houses; and lost their dignity. Maybe things are a bit better now, but not enough to make up for nearly a decade of misery. What's changed, then, is simply that people have finally gotten fed up.

The other obvious response is that I'm an idiot. Everyone knows that "economic anxiety" is just a wink-wink-nudge-nudge code word for ordinary racism. That's what binds together all of Trump's most popular positions. His supporters don't like Asians, don't like Mexicans, don't like Muslims, and don't like blacks. "China is killing us" is just a clever way to appeal to that racism in the guise of economic insecurity. Ditto for building a wall, keeping out Muslims, and "not having time for all that PC stuff."

Yet another obvious response is that I'm an idiot. Trump's supporters aren't reacting to their own lived experiences so much as they're responding to the funhouse version they hear every day from Fox and Drudge and the radio blowhards—and the Republican candidates. If you listened to these guys, you too would think America was just one presidential term away from moral degeneration and economic collapse.

So...I don't know. A cold look at economic time series data suggests that the economy and the job market are humming along fairly well. Polling data suggests that most people are pretty satisfied with their lives. China and Mexico aren't really killing us. I'm not trying to naively pretend that everything is hunky dory and Nigerian princes are all showering us in wire transfers, but the truth is that the vast majority of Americans are in tolerably good financial shape right now. Of course, Republicans are doing their best to pretend otherwise, and Democrats are inexplicably willing to go along with their dour predictions of doom. Maybe that's enough all by itself to explain the booming business in apocalyptic stories about economic anxiety. But I still think there's something missing here. I'm just not sure what.

John Holbo has an interesting notion: President Obama should take seriously the advise part of advise and consent and give the Senate an informal list of nominees to choose from to replace Antonin Scalia. Maybe they'll pick two or three off the list, maybe just one. Then Obama transmits his final choice for confirmation hearings.

The basic idea is that this puts Republicans in a pickle. If they flatly reject the entire list, it makes their obstructionism a little too barefaced for an election year where they need votes from more than just their base. But if they give tentative approval beforehand, then it's harder to pretend afterward that Obama has sent them an obviously radical and unacceptable choice.

I suspect this is the kind of idea that sounds better on a blog than it does in the Oval Office, but it's still interesting. Partly this is because the best Republican response isn't quite as obvious as it seems. If someone on the list is genuinely moderate, what do they do? They can bet the ranch on winning the presidency and then abolishing the filibuster, which would allow them to confirm a hardcore conservative in 2017. But if they lose—or if they don't have guts to abolish the filibuster next January—they'll almost certainly end up being forced to confirm a more liberal justice nominated by President Sanders or President Clinton. Decisions, decisions.

Let Us Now Praise the Culture Wars

Stephen Prothero has a very odd piece in the LA Times today:

Two surprising conclusions emerge when America's culture wars — from Jefferson's heresies to same-sex marriage — are stacked up and weighed together. Conservatives typically start the battles, and liberals almost always win them.

Conservatism is often said to be rooted in a commitment to states' rights, free markets and limited government. But American conservatives have been for and against all these things at various times. The more consistent idea behind American conservatism is cultural: a form of life is passing away and it is worth fighting to revive and restore it. Driven by this narrative of loss and restoration, culture warriors struggle to resurrect the patriarchal family or Christian America or the homogeneous hometown.

Conservatives typically lose these battles because the causes they select are lost from the start. For example, culture warriors took on Catholics when the Catholic population was mainstreaming and gaining power. They took on same-sex marriage when many gays and lesbians were already out of the closet and accepted by their heterosexual relatives, co-workers and neighbors.

This is backward. Almost by definition—as Prothero acknowledges—conservatives want to keep existing cultural mores in place. It's liberals who want to change them. Same-sex marriage is a typical case: the United States spent 200 years unanimously believing that it was too absurd even to contemplate. It was gay rights activists, eventually supported by mainstream liberals, who pushed it into the public sphere. Conservatives didn't fight it before then because there was nothing to fight.

This dynamic isn't quite universal. The temperance movement, which was generally conservative though a little hard to classify, tried to change a custom that was millennia old. Much more commonly, though, it's liberals who fight for cultural change. In the postwar era, we're the ones who started the fights over civil rights; gender equality; prayer in school; abortion; gay rights; voting rights; health care as a basic right; and many others.

Prothero basically says that conservatives take on these movements too late, only after they've already started to gain critical mass. That's why they lose. This is true, but how else could it be? There's no point in waging a war against something that has no mainstream support and isn't even a twinkle in the public eye.

And of course, conservatives don't always lose. Liberals have tried to change the culture around guns, and so far we've failed miserably. Drug legalization has made only minuscule progress. And after 70 years, we're still fighting for truly universal health care.

Nonetheless, the general principle is simple: Liberals start culture fights, and conservatives respond if it looks like we're starting to succeed. Beyond being the simple truth, it's also something liberals should be proud of. There's a lot of enduring unfairness in society, and the main reason I count myself a liberal in the first place is because we're the ones who fight like hell to bring public attention to this and work to change it. Why would any liberal not gladly accept this?

Republicans are pretty unanimously refusing to consider confirming a Supreme Court nominee to replace Antonin Scalia before the election. That's hardly unexpected, but what cracks me up is their effort to make this sound like a principled stand. "It’s been over 80 years since a lame duck president has appointed a Supreme Court justice," Marco Rubio said last night, apparently not understanding what "lame duck" means. "We have 80 years of precedent of not confirming Supreme Court justices in an election year," Ted Cruz agreed, apparently not realizing that Anthony Kennedy was confirmed in 1988. No matter. "It’s been standard practice over the last 80 years to not confirm Supreme Court nominees during a presidential election year," thundered Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, which will hold hearings on Obama's nominee.

This has quickly become a meme on the right. It's a deeply held American tradition not to confirm Supreme Court justices during an election year. Needless to say, this is ridiculous. Anthony Kennedy aside, the reason Supreme Court nominees haven't been confirmed during election years for the last few decades is just coincidental: none of them happened to have died or retired during an election year.1 Some tradition. Perhaps Scalia should be posthumously censured for having the gall to break this custom.

In any case, congratulations as usual to Mitch McConnell for not bothering with this self-righteous pretense. He says the Senate won't vote on a replacement for Scalia because, basically, they just don't want to. "The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice," he said yesterday, and that's that. Republicans have the power to delay in hopes of electing a Republican in November, and that's what they're going to do.

1Abe Fortas was rejected during the 1968 election year, but this had nothing to do with any kind of hallowed tradition. It was because Republicans and Dixiecrats were pissed off at the Warren Court, and preventing LBJ from elevating Fortas to chief justice was a way of showing it. They were able to use an ethics scandal to gin up opposition, and Fortas never even made it to a floor vote.

Over the past few weeks I've written five posts making the following points:

  1. The acting Oscars are not really all that white.
  2. Flint is not a public health holocaust.
  3. The 1994 crime bill didn't create mass incarceration.
  4. Photo ID laws probably don't have massive turnout effects.
  5. Social welfare spending has gone up a lot over the past three decades, and welfare reform had very little impact on either this or the deep poverty rate.

I'm not really very excited about writing stuff like this. I generally prefer to use my emotional energy fighting conservatives and boosting liberal causes. On the other hand, facts and realism matter. I don't want to see my side adopt the habits that we mock so mercilessly in conservatives.

One of the things that bothered me in all five cases is that these points could all be made perfectly well with the truth. The non-acting Oscars really have shut out minorities almost completely. Lead poisoning of children really is a serious problem. The 1994 crime bill may not have been responsible for mass incarceration, but it had plenty of other problems—though they turned out have a pretty modest effect in the end. Photo ID laws do have modest but pervasive effects on minority voting, and in a 50-50 country this can make a big difference. And social welfare spending may have gone up a lot, but it still hasn't made much of a dent in poverty.

What to think of this? Maybe it's just coincidence that I've noticed a bunch of items like this recently. After all, everyone in the political arena, friends and foes alike, has long used hyperbole as a way of marshaling action. Human nature being what it is, people just won't pay much attention to measured and nuanced debate. You have to hit them over their heads to get their attention, and sometimes that means going overboard on the outrage if you want to make a difference in the world.

And in the end, what's worse? Generating a lightly misleading meme about acting Oscars being white—because actors are the only part of the film industry that most people know or care about—or doing nothing and gaining no attention for the fact that behind the camera Hollywood remains lily white? That's not always an easy question to answer.

Still, that's me talking my book. When this kind of thing starts to define a movement, you end up with Fox News and the tea party. We should be loath to go too far down that road. Being reality-based matters, even if it's not always entirely on your side.

Donald Trump tonight:

I’m telling you, I’m the only one on the stage that said, “Do not go into Iraq. Do not attack Iraq.” Nobody else on this stage said that. And I said it loud and strong. And I was in the private sector. I wasn’t a politician, fortunately. But I said it. And I said it loud and clear.

He's lying. He didn't oppose the Iraq War before it started. Long ago he promised us 25 clippings proving that he spoke up against the war, but he's never coughed them up. That's because he can't. It's pathetic.

I didn't get to watch the debate tonight, so I don't have any further pearls to offer at the moment. But I'm sure I'll get around to it later tonight. It sounds like it was quite the edifying food fight.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia Has Died

Of "apparently natural" causes during the night. This is going to set up an unbelievable battle in the Senate. I wonder if Republicans will even make a pretense of seriously considering whoever President Obama nominates?

In the meantime, the court is split 4-4 between conservatives and liberals. So even if Republicans refuse to confirm a new justice, Obama's laws and executive orders are safe for another year in any case for which the opinion hasn't yet been finalized. You can't overturn an action on a 4-4 vote. This means that EPA's carbon rules are probably safe. Ditto for Obama's immigration executive order. Union shops in the public sector are probably safe. Abortion restrictions probably won't go anywhere. One-person-one-vote is probably safe.

Either way, this is now the most important issue in the presidential campaign. Appointing Supreme Court justices has always been one of the biggest reasons to care about who wins in November, but it's stayed mostly under the radar until now. No longer. Both sides will go ballistic over this, and the Supreme Court will suddenly seem like the most vital presidential power ever. If you thought things were getting nasty before this, just wait. You ain't seen nothing yet.

POSTSCRIPT: The last time a justice was confirmed during an election year was Anthony Kennedy in 1988. However, the stakes weren't as high. He was a conservative replacing a conservative, and didn't change the balance of the court much. Clarence Thomas was confirmed in late 1991, shortly before an election year, but we all know how that went. Among other things, he was replacing William Brennan, a very liberal justice, and his confirmation changed the balance of the court considerably.

Rick Hasen has more on the political implications of Scalia's vacant seat here. Ted Cruz has already announced that the Senate should not allow Obama to choose a successor, and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell agrees. Other Republicans are sure to follow. Fasten your seat belts.

The 1994 crime bill has come in for a lot of attention lately, and even Bill and Hillary Clinton have said they now regret some of its provisions. But which ones?

Generally speaking, liberals still applaud several of its biggest accomplishments: the assault weapon ban, the Violence Against Women Act, and the COPS program that funded additional police and better community training.

But Republicans exacted a price for this. In particular, they wanted an expansion of the death penalty and several provisions that stiffened sentencing of felons. As it turns out, though, Republicans didn't have a very good idea of what their own favorite policies would actually accomplish. Are you surprised? For example, here's the death penalty:

The crime bill created lots of new capital crimes, but its actual effect was nil. The death penalty was already losing support by 1994, and has been banned by an increasing number of states ever since. On the federal level, death sentences have always been a tiny fraction of the total (around four or five per year), and that didn't change after 1994.

So what about sentencing? The crime bill did have an effect here, but it was generally pretty modest. Here are a couple of charts from an unpublished review of the law seven years after it passed:

Why the small effect? In the case of 3-strikes, it simply didn't affect very many people. It did increase average time served by several months, but that's about it. And the much-loathed Truth-in-Sentencing provisions had even less effect. This is because more than half the states already had TIS requirements even before the 1994 bill passed, and not many passed new ones as a result of the law. It did push up the trend in incarceration and time served by a few tenths of a percentage point, but that had only a minuscule effect on overall incarceration rates.

The crime bill also included a few other witless measures, like reducing educational opportunities for inmates, and it unquestionably contributed to the crime hysteria that was prevalent at the time. Nonetheless, its most hated features never had a big effect.

Two years later Clinton also signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which had some pretty objectionable changes to habeas corpus. This was arguably worse than anything in the 1994 bill, but it didn't have a substantial overall effect on incarceration rates.

Things Donald Trump Will Do In His Second Year

A non-exhaustive list:

  • Make tomatoes great again.
  • Rename Denali to Mt. Trump.
  • Forbid stupid homeowner association rules.
  • Fix Windows once and for all.
  • Eliminate ex-president Obama's Secret Service detail.
  • Annex Cuba.
  • Build a permanent moon base as favor to Newt Gingrich. Also: lots of new zoos.
  • Send Atrios to a reeducation camp until his attitude improves.
  • Build a beautiful new Strategic Petroleum Reserve to handle all the oil he's going to take from ISIS.
  • Nationalize Twitter.
  • Present Sarah Palin with a Kennedy Center Honor for the Performing Arts.
  • Invent really good artificial sugar and fat substitutes.
  • Declare war on Denmark, just to piss off Bernie Sanders.