Kevin Drum

Quote of the Day: "He Didn't Think We'd Respond?"

| Wed Sep. 23, 2015 11:28 PM EDT

From a Carly Fiorina aide, defending their absurd smear today of Jeffrey Sonnenfeld:

After more than a decade of attacking Carly's character and misrepresenting her career, he didn't think we would respond? I guess he's not ready for the arena after all.

The context for this involves Trumpishly juvenile behavior from a whole cast of characters. Here's the nickel explanation. Back in 1997, Sonnenfeld was a professor at Emory University. That year, he accepted an offer from Georgia Tech to become dean of their business school. This apparently infuriated the Emory folks so much that they reverted to their kindergarten selves and hatched a scheme to tell Georgia Tech officials that Sonnenfeld had been caught defacing campus property. Georgia Tech promptly withdrew their offer, and Sonnenfeld was forced to resign from Emory.

This whole affair was basically ginned up out of whole cloth. A few years later, Emory withdrew their accusations of vandalism, and Sonnenfeld won multimillion settlements from both Emory and Georgia Tech.

But the fact that Sonnenfeld never did the things he was accused of didn't faze Fiorina. Last weekend Sonnenfeld wrote a Politico article criticizing Fiorina's tenure at HP, and that couldn't be allowed to go unanswered. In today's post-Trump Republican Party, the rule is, "He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue." So Fiorina had her aide send an email to reporters that said: "I'll give Sonnenfeld this: He would know something about getting fired. Of course, his was for vandalism of school property while he was at Emory."

Fiorina has obviously decided that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and is bidding to become the new Donald Trump. If someone criticizes you, you hit him back in a comically heavy-handed way—and then hit him back again as a crybaby if he dares to object. This makes for good copy, and maybe that's all that matters. But Fiorina should watch out. Trump is such a clown that he somehow makes his attacks seem like the actions of a charming rogue, not a vicious hit man. When Fiorina does it, she just looks mean.

As near as I can tell, that's because she is. But it's still best not to let it show too much. Just ask Scott Walker.

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If You Accuse Hillary Clinton of Lying, You Should Be Careful With the Truth Yourself

| Wed Sep. 23, 2015 8:09 PM EDT

I was noodling around this afternoon and decided to check out Drudge. Hmmm. A picture of Obama with 'horns' next to the pope. Some nutcases in California think the drought is part of a government weather-control conspiracy. China wants to control the internet. Obama has blocked a 13-year-old critic from following him on Twitter. Standard Drudge stuff. Then this: "FOURNIER: Come clean or get out..."

Ho hum. It was pretty obvious what the Fournier column was about, since he's been obsessed about Hillary's email server for months, but I went ahead and clicked anyway. I was pretty taken aback. He made three points at the top of the column:

  1. "The State Department confirmed that Clinton turned over her email only after Congress discovered that she had exclusively used a private email system."
    Nope. Fournier is referring to last night's Washington Post story, which says the State Department discovered it didn't know where Clinton's emails were. (Or Condi Rice's. Or Colin Powell's. Or Madeleine Albright's. Or much of anyone else's apparently.) Clinton turned over her emails when State asked for them.
  2. "A federal court has helped uncover more emails related to the Benghazi raid that were withheld from congressional investigators. Clinton has insisted she turned over all her work-related email and complied with congressional subpoenas. Again, she hasn’t been telling the truth."
    This is flatly false. The linked Politico story says nothing about Clinton not turning over all her work emails. It says only that the State Department has claimed executive privilege for a few documents—something with no relation at all to Hillary Clinton. From Politico: "The FOIA lawsuits provide a vehicle to force the agency to identify those emails, although the substance of the messages is not disclosed."
  3. "The FBI has recovered personal and work-related e-mails from her private server....The FBI has moved beyond whether U.S. secrets were involved to how and why. In the language of law enforcement, the FBI is investigating her motive."
    I guess this isn't flatly false, but "how and why" were words used by Bloomberg's reporter in the linked story. There didn't seem to be any special significance attached to them, and it's the airiest kind of speculation to say this means the FBI is investigating Clinton's motive. They've consistently said that she's not the subject of a criminal investigation. Why would they be investigating motive if they're not investigating any underlying crime?

That's three stories linked to, and all three were described in a badly misleading way. This is one of the reasons I usually pay so little attention to the Hillary email affair.1 It's been months now, and there's simply no evidence of anything other than unwise email practices and an unfortunate but instinctive defensiveness from Clinton over trivial matters. At some point, when nothing more comes up, it becomes clear that this is just the usual Clinton Derangement Syndrome at work. We passed that point a while ago.

Fournier has all but shouted that he's never trusted the Clintons and never will, and that's why he's so obsessive about this stuff. We all need a hobby, I guess. Still, he's a reporter. Deliberately distorting his descriptions of news accounts in the hope that no one will bother clicking on them is a bridge too far. He repeatedly claims that Hillary is lying, but Fournier is living in a glass house.

1Except today, I guess. But it's just an odd coincidence that this is my third post of the day on this "scandal."

It Might Be Time to Rethink How We Do Emissions Testing

| Wed Sep. 23, 2015 7:04 PM EDT

This sounds cool. Max Ehrenfreund writes today about Gary Bishop, a research engineer at the University of Denver, who has been working on real-life emissions testing for cars:

Bishop's laboratory has developed a roadside sensor, which he and his colleagues have been using for more than a decade to see how cars actually do on the street in several major cities....Authorities are now using the sensors in and around Denver and in a few other states as a supplement to conventional testing. The state sets up the sensors at highway on-ramps and elsewhere along the road. Drivers don't stop. They just roll between two rows of cones while a camera records the car's license plate and the equipment registers the emissions from the tailpipe, and go on their way. If a car produces at least two passing grades, the driver is spared the trip to the inspection station.

How about that. Can we get this in California, please? Of course, there's also this:

One of the cities where Bishop has worked is Tulsa, Okla., where emissions tests have never been required. The group has found that emissions from the cars in Tulsa are no worse than emissions in other cities where standards are enforced.

That's true. In a 2007 paper, Bishop concluded that emissions reductions have been about the same everywhere he's tested, regardless of whether periodic inspections are required. So maybe we need to ditch the big-government regulations that mandate the inspection regime altogether. Instead we could rely on spot checks of real-world emissions as a way of holding auto manufacturers accountable for complying with EPA standards, which suddenly seems like it might be the real problem after all. Let's get Jeb Bush on this.

It Sure Looks Like Hillary Clinton Didn't Have a Cunning Plan to Foil Congressional Investigators

| Wed Sep. 23, 2015 2:34 PM EDT

This happened yesterday while I was away from my desk:

The FBI has recovered personal and work-related e-mails from the private computer server used by Hillary Clinton during her time as secretary of state, according to a person familiar with the investigation.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s success at salvaging personal e-mails that Clinton said had been deleted raises the possibility that the Democratic presidential candidate’s correspondence eventually could become public. The disclosure of such e-mails would likely fan the controversy over Clinton’s use of a private e-mail system for official business.

Nobody seems to have made the most obvious observation about this: It pretty strongly suggests that Hillary Clinton was not trying to hide anything when she deleted personal emails from her server.

At the risk of boring my technically-minded readers, files on a computer work sort of like an old-fashioned card catalog in a library. If you "delete" a book by tearing up the index card, the book is still there. It might be harder to find, but with a little detective work you can still dig it up. Eventually, though, the book will truly disappear. Maybe someone steals it and no one cares. Or the library needs more space and gets rid of all the books with no index cards. Etc.

This is how computers work. When you delete a file, you're just deleting the index card. The file is still there on the hard drive. Eventually, though, the file will truly disappear. Maybe another program writes over the file. Or you run a disk defrag program and whole sections of the disk get written over. Etc. Some files will get permanently deleted within days. Others might stick around for years. It's just random chance.

Needless to say, things don't have to happen this way. If you want to make sure that a file is well and truly deleted, it's easy to do. Anyone with even a smidgen of computer experience either knows how or knows how to find out. Here's one way, which took me ten seconds to Google. If I were really serious, I'd take the time to read a bit more, and also make inquiries about backups. This is IT 101.

But apparently Hillary didn't ask about any of this stuff. No one on her staff brought it up. They just pushed the Delete key and the emails disappeared. The IT folks were never involved.

These are not the actions of a staff trying to stonewall FOIA requests or foil a congressional committee. Any bright teenager could have done better on that score. By all the evidence, Hillary is telling the truth. She just told her staff to delete personal emails and turn over the rest to the State Department. There was nothing more to it.

But no one's reporting it that way. Peculiar, isn't it?

Jeb Bush Has No Clue About Business Regulation

| Wed Sep. 23, 2015 1:34 PM EDT

Jeb Bush today in the Wall Street Journal:

To understand what is wrong with the regulatory culture of the U.S. under President Obama, consider this alarming statistic: Today, according to the World Bank—not exactly a right-wing think tank—the U.S. ranks 46th in the world in terms of ease of starting a business. That is unacceptable. Think what the U.S. could be and the prosperity we could have if we rolled back the overregulation that keeps us from ranking in the top 10.

My goodness. That does sound unacceptable. Still, it never hurts to check up on these presidential candidates, does it? So let's click the link.

Sure enough, the World Bank ranks the United States 46th in ease of starting a business. But there's an asterisk next to that. Let's scroll down and see what it says: "The rankings of economies with populations over 100 million are based on data for 2 cities." Hmmm. It turns out the World Bank is ranking the United States based on starting up a business in New York City. That seems to tip the scales a wee bit, no?

But let's soldier on. New Zealand ranks first in starting a new business, so let's see how they work their magic. Here's the World Bank's comparison:

So it takes half a day in New Zealand and four days in New York City. Really? Half a day to start up a new business? Maybe they're not using the same definition of "starting" that I am. Let's check out the details for New York City. Here they are:

Now I get it. This isn't about getting a business up and running. It's solely about registering a new business. And it's got nothing to do with any of Obama's regulations. It's all about state and local stuff. The only part that's federal is getting an EIN number, which is free and takes a few minutes. I'm not sure what Jeb Bush thinks he's going to do to streamline this.

Bottom line: This is completely meaningless. It's a measure only of how long it takes to register a business, and it's only for New York City. And even at that, it takes only four days and costs $750. This is not stifling American entrepreneurship.

But wait! There's more. The World Bank does have a broader "Ease of Doing Business" rank that takes into account the things you need to do to get up and running: construction permits, electricity, credit, paying taxes, enforcing contracts, etc. As it happens, the bulk of this stuff is still state and local, and has nothing to do with Obama or the federal government. Still, let's take a look since Jeb chose not to share it with us for some reason. Where does the United States rank on this measure?

The World Bank has us in seventh place. We're already in the top 10 that Jeb is aiming for. Mission accomplished!

POSTSCRIPT: Jeb has many other statistics in his piece, and I'd take them with the same grain of salt as his World Bank numbers. He also promises that in his administration every regulation "will have to satisfy a rigorous White House review process, including a cost-benefit analysis." Apparently he doesn't realize that this is already the case. As for the outrageous regulations he promises to repeal on Day One, this would mostly benefit big campaign donors, not the yeoman entrepreneurs he claims to be sticking up for. No big surprise there, I suppose.

For Blue-Collar Men, Life Looks Increasingly Dismal

| Wed Sep. 23, 2015 12:19 PM EDT

Here's a merger of two charts that have made the rounds recently. The first, from Brookings, shows a familiar pattern: the median pay of a man employed full-time has dropped substantially since 2010. The second, from the Kaiser Family Foundation, shows that health care deductibles have risen substantially since 2010.

Put them together and you get the chart on the right. The light red line is bad enough: blue-collar men earn about $3,000 less than they did five years ago. The dark red line is even worse: if you factor in rising deductibles, they're earning $3,500 less than they did five years ago.

This explains a lot of the discontent of the past five years, especially among working and middle-class white workers. In theory, health care is getting better every year, and if you take that into account then total compensation starts to look a little better. Technically, this is true. But think about it from the average worker's point of view:

  • His cash wages have gone down.
  • Health care may be getting better, but that's mostly invisible. It doesn't seem any different than usual.
  • But high deductibles provide an incentive not to see the doctor when something minor is bothering you. So, in practice, health care actually seems not merely the same as always, but actually a bit worse and a bit more of a hassle. Either you ignore the minor stuff or else you go in and, thanks to higher deductibles, end up paying an infuriatingly high bill.

For your average blue-collar man, here's what life seems like: wages are down, health care is more expensive, and you have to spend a lot more time worrying about whether it's worth it to see your doctor. There's not much to like in this picture.

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Donald Trump Once Again Shows That He's Probably Never Cracked Open a Bible in His Life

| Wed Sep. 23, 2015 11:17 AM EDT

David Brody asks Donald Trump, "Who is God to you?...You’ve contemplated this before, or have you contemplated this?” Here's his reply:

Here we are on the Pacific Ocean. How did I ever own this? I bought it fifteen years ago. I made one of the great deals they say ever. I have no more mortgage on it as I will certify and represent to you. And I was able to buy this and make a great deal. That’s what I want to do for the country. Make great deals. We have to, we have to bring it back....

Wait. A question about God produces a stock speech about what a great dealmaker Trump is? Yep. Then this:

....but God is the ultimate. I mean God created this [points to his golf course and nature surrounding it], and here’s the Pacific Ocean right behind us. So nobody, no thing, no there’s nothing like God.

"There's nothing like God." Okey doke. It sounds like Brody has his answer: Trump has not, in fact, ever contemplated the nature of God.

Brody defends Trump's lack of a "biblically thorough answer" and says that Trump may well appeal anyway to the "I'm Sick and Tired" evangelical voter. That's good to know. I had no idea that it was so easy to appeal to evangelical voters. Using the Trump metric, I think I could do pretty well myself. I guess all I have to do is denounce abortion and praise the Bible as the best book ever written. That sounds easy.

You know, to this day it remains part of conservative legend that a Washington Post article 20 years ago described evangelicals as "largely poor, uneducated and easily led." It's one of the seminal wellsprings of white Christian grievance culture. I don't happen to know if evangelicals, on average, are poor and uneducated compared to the rest of us, but if Brody's take on Trump is correct, it sure seems as though "easily led" was right on the mark.

Did the State Department Throw Hillary Clinton Under the Bus?

| Wed Sep. 23, 2015 3:48 AM EDT

Hillary Clinton's emails are once again the subject of a front-page story, this time in the Washington Post. And once again, I'm mystified by what the point is supposed to be. I've read tonight's story three times trying to figure it out.

The entire piece is based on a statement the State Department sent to the Post explaining why they originally asked for Hillary's emails. Supposedly this statement "undercuts" Hillary's own explanation, which she's offered on multiple occasions. But does it? Here are the competing explanations as written by the Post:

Hillary Clinton

“When we were asked to help the State Department make sure they had everything from other secretaries of state, not just me, I’m the one who said, ‘Okay, great, I will go through them again,’ ” Clinton said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “And we provided all of them.”

State Department

“In the process of responding to congres­sional document requests pertaining to Benghazi, State Department officials recognized that it had access to relatively few email records from former Secretary Clinton,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement e-mailed to The Washington Post....Kirby added that the agency then recognized “that we similarly did not have extensive email records from prior Secretaries of State and therefore included them when we requested their records in October 2014.”

Hillary Clinton doesn't say anything here about why the State Department asked for her emails—though it was hardly a secret that they were responding to obsessive congressional inquiries about Benghazi. What she did say is that State also asked three other former secretaries for their emails, which is what the State Department says as well.

There's also alleged to be a "discrepancy" between Hillary's timetable and State's. But what is it? Apparently State first contacted Hillary informally in July, at which point one of her aides retrieved the emails and began going through them to decide which ones were official and which were personal. In October, State officially asked four former secretaries (Clinton, Rice, Powell, and Albright) to provide their email records. Hillary provided hers in December.

I don't get it. I'm not seeing the problem with this. Hillary's staff began the process of retrieving emails as soon as they first heard from State, and turned them over within a few months. What's the issue supposed to be here?

In any case, the truly gobsmacking thing here has nothing to do with Hillary Clinton. Can you figure out what it is?

“In the process of responding to congressional document requests pertaining to Benghazi, State Department officials recognized that it had access to relatively few email records from former Secretary Clinton,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement....Kirby added that the agency then recognized “that we similarly did not have extensive email records from prior Secretaries of State and therefore included them when we requested their records in October 2014.”

....The early call from the State Department [in July] is a sign that, at the least, officials in the agency she led from 2009 to 2013 were concerned by the practice [of using a private email server] — and that they had been caught off guard upon discovering her exclusive use of a private account.

....State Department staffers were trying to figure out where her work e-mails were stored and how they might try to assemble them, one official said. Clinton turned over copies of about 30,000 work-related e-mails to the department in December.

Holy crap. In 2014, the State Department suddenly realized that it had very few email records from secretaries going back to Madeleine Albright. Two years after Hillary had left office, they were trying to figure out where her emails were stored. This very much does not suggest to me that they were "caught off guard" by Hillary's use of a private server. Rather, it suggests only that the State staffers responding to the congressional inquiries didn't happen to know that Hillary used a private server. More importantly, it also suggests that for well over a decade, (a) the department had no oversight of emails sent and received by Secretaries of State, (b) didn't really care about these emails, (c) didn't archive them, and (d) had no idea where they might be. It happens to be Benghazi that finally got them to start checking on this, but that's irrelevant. It could have been anything.

The real question here is why, for nearly 20 years, the State Department seemingly had no real policies about and—apparently—no real interest in preservation of official emails from Secretaries of State. Seriously, folks?

Texting Can Save Your Life (Seriously)

| Wed Sep. 23, 2015 12:37 AM EDT

This comes via Dr. Aaron Carroll, who headlines his post, "Texting people actually gets them to improve their modifiable risk factors." I decided on a punchier version. Was I justified? You be the judge.

Here's the background: A team of 15 researchers recruited a group of 710 patients with coronary heart disease. Half of the patients got the usual treatment. The other half got the usual treatment plus one other thing: four text messages each week reminding them to exercise, eat right, quit smoking, etc. That's it. Patients did not respond to the messages. They just received them.

Common sense and all previous research suggests that this would have almost no effect, even with a highly motivated population like this. Here's Carroll:

Let’s take a pause here. If you had asked me to bet, I would have put all the money in my pocket on this being a negative trial. I mean, random text messages? That’s all? One-way communication? No way this would make a difference.

I was wrong. LDL cholesterol was 5 points lower in those in the intervention (79 mg/dL versus 84), and it started higher in the intervention group. Systolic blood pressure was 8 points lower (128 mm Hg versus 136). BMI was 1.3 points lower (28 versus 30.3). Physical activity was way up (936 metabolic equivalent task minutes per week versus 643), and the percentage of people smoking was way down (26% versus 43%).

These results are so spectacular that they cry out for replication. Offhand, I'd note two possible reasons for tentative skepticism:

  • This was a group of people already highly primed to change their lifestyles. How well would this work on people who weren't staring death in the face?
  • The trial lasted only six months. It's one thing for an intervention to get people motivated for a short period. It's quite another to keep them motivated when their enthusiasm flags and the text messages start to become routine and therefore mostly ignored.

Nonetheless, this is pretty interesting. I'm honestly not sure that I want to give the medical establishment yet another medium they can use to bombard me with well-meaning advice, but then, I'm a grouch. If this stuff improves outcomes even modestly when done right, then it's worth doing. And Republican presidential candidates take note: it costs next to nothing. Put it in your next healthcare white paper!

Scott Baio Got a Great Birthday Present Today

| Tue Sep. 22, 2015 9:47 PM EDT

Good news! A judge has ruled that "Happy Birthday To You" isn't copyrighted after all:

[Warner/Chappell Music] had been enforcing its copyright claim since it paid $15 million to buy Birch Tree Group, the successor to Clayton F. Summy Co., which owned the original copyright. Royalties on the song bring in about $2 million a year for Warner, according to some estimates. Judge George H. King ruled Tuesday afternoon that a copyright filed by the Summy Co. in 1935 granted only the rights to specific arrangements of the music, not the actual song itself.

Why is this such great news? Because it means that chain restaurants can now stop singing all those dreadful birthday songs they've invented as a way of avoiding royalty payments. These "songs" usually go something like this:

Happy Birthday
Thump thump thump
Happy happy happy
Clap clap clap
Another year, another cheer
Clap thump clap thump clap clap clap thump
Yay whistle clap clap hoorah yay

This is just dreadful. Judge King has rendered a service to mankind—unless he gets reversed on appeal, of course.

Alternatively, Warner/Chappell Music could do a service for mankind and just relinquish the copyright voluntarily. Do they really care about the measly $2 million per year? Come on, Warner. Do the right thing.