About That Wall....

Reuters reports on the progress of Donald Trump's Mexican wall:

Just a day after Trump's stunning election victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton, congressional aides told Reuters the lawmakers wanted to meet with Trump's advisers to discuss a less costly option to his "big, beautiful, powerful wall."

The plan would involve more border fencing and additional border staffing with federal agents....A House Republican aide and a Department of Homeland Security official said a wall was not realistic because it would block visibility for border agents and cut through rugged terrain, as well as bodies of water and private land.

So Congress doesn't want it because it would cost too much, and DHS doesn't want it because agents prefer being able to see the other side. And Mexico, of course, continues to laugh at the idea that they will pay for it. Then there's this comparison to the concrete wall Israel has built along the border with the West Bank:

Its main goal is to stop terrorists from detonating themselves in restaurants and cafes and buses in the cities and towns of central Israel....The rules of engagement were written accordingly. If someone trying to cross the fence in the middle of the night is presumed to be a terrorist, there's no need to hesitate before shooting. To kill.

In other words, a wall can be effective. But it's expensive to build, and it needs lots of expensive guard towers staffed by lots of expensive and ruthless guards or else it probably won't work very well. I'm not sure the American public is up for that.

UPDATE: Via email, reader SB adds this:

It's worth noting in this context that the Israeli army doesn't like the wall at all, and wherever they can they build a fence instead—not because it's cheaper, but because the fence is more effective (it offers defense-in-depth as well as the ability to see through it). They only build concrete walls through urban areas where they can't get the space for a fence (which requires 50 meters), or when a court forces them to (because local residents have sued to retain access to their land). So even in the West Bank walls don't work as well as fences.

Corey Lewandowski was once Donald Trump's campaign manager, then went to work for CNN as a Trump booster, and is now back in the Trump camp. So how did Trump make his big comeback?

"With eleven days to go, something amazing happened," Mr Lewandowski said in a speech at the Oxford Union debating society on Wednesday evening. "The FBI's director James [Comey] came out on a Friday and he said they may be reopening the investigation into Crooked Hillary's emails."

Yep, that was pretty amazing. I'm glad we all agree that this was a pivotal moment. So what happened next?

"In those last last eleven days Mr Trump was exceptionally disciplined. He used a teleprompter, and he did less media. The team used social media like no campaign in history....And then, Donald Trump won the election campaign by the largest majority since Ronald Reagan in 1984."

Huh. The largest majority since 1984? Really? Let's take a look:

There have been eight presidential elections since 1984. In popular vote margin, Trump is 8th out of 8. In the Electoral College vote, he's 6th out of 8. This obviously wasn't just a careless mistake on Lewandowski's part.

The Trump team seems to be hellbent on propagating the myth that Trump won a world historical victory last week. Is this just to soothe Trump's bottomless ego? Or is this part of a deliberate campaign to get his followers amped up into believing that Trump is a world historical figure? Is "Trump won big" the new "Iraq was behind 9/11"? You might recall that that one didn't turn out so well.

Twitter is finally taking steps to clean up its platform:

Long criticized for allowing bullies, terrorists and bigots to run rampant to the detriment of its own bottom line, Twitter made a surprising move Tuesday by banning a slew of accounts belonging to white nationalists and leaders of the alt-right movement — which holds that traditional conservatives don't sufficiently protect the interests of white people....Among recently banned Twitter users are Richard Spencer, head of the alt-right think tank National Policy Institute, and other alt-right leaders, including Paul Town, Pax Dickinson, Ricky Vaughn and John Rivers, according to news reports.

Maybe I'm just getting cranky in my old age,1 but there's something fishy about this. Twitter critics have been asking for years for better tools to manage the tsunami of abuse that frequently engulfs users, especially women and people of color.2 Here are a few suggestions for abuse management tools that have made the rounds:

  • Ability to block IP addresses
  • Allow people to up/down rate new accounts
  • Provide some kind of human tech support for complaints
  • Ability to block new accounts
  • Ability to block accounts with certain words in bio
  • Ability to block all followers of an account (this helps prevent abuse storms from followers of popular accounts)
  • Ability to suspend retweets
  • Ability to block tweets that contain certain keywords3

This list is by no means comprehensive, but do you notice something? Nobody especially wants Twitter to eject specific individuals: it smacks of censorship; it's not something Twitter management is good at doing; and it will never come close to solving the abuse problem anyway. There's no way Twitter will ever be able to ban all the flaming assholes in the world, and very few of us feel comfortable with Twitter deciding on who they are in any case. We just want tools that allow us to manage our abuse problems, which are different for everyone.

So why would Twitter do the one thing that even Twitter critics might be uncomfortable with, instead of all the things Twitter critics have actually asked for? It's almost as if they're trying to make Twitter reform controversial. We tried, but nothing satisfies you guys!

But then again, maybe I'm just getting cranky in my old age.

1OK, fine, there's no maybe about it.

2If you want to learn more about this, BuzzFeed's "A Honeypot For Assholes" is probably the definitive piece about Twitter's problems.

3Twitter announced a tool for this a couple of days ago. Time will tell how well it works.

Inflation! It's always sneaking up on us:

U.S. consumer-price gains accelerated in October for the third-straight month largely due to rising energy costs, the latest sign inflation pressures in the economy are firming....The “report provided further confirmation of strong energy base effects boosting headline CPI,” said Barclays economist Blerina Uruçi. “Although core inflation rose less than expected, we still believe that domestic price pressures remain strong.

Hold on to your britches. Here's what the various measures of inflation look like through October:

Yes, you read that chart right. Headline CPI (the blue line) soared all the way to...1.6 percent. But of course, the Fed supposedly doesn't care about that anyway. They care about core inflation (the red line). Core CPI is slightly above 2 percent, but has been flat all year. No acceleration there. But wait. The Fed doesn't care about core CPI either. They rely on the PCE inflation index, which is...hovering around 1 percent (the green line). Data for October isn't even available yet. And data for core PCE isn't available either.

But what about future inflation? Well, the 10-year breakeven skyrocketed from 1.51 percent in September to 1.67 percent in October. In other words, expected inflation bumped upward slightly, but is still well below 2 percent and has been trending downward for the past two years:

And yet, inflation is always right around the corner. Here's the very last paragraph of the Journal article:

Separately Thursday, data showed workers’ earnings were flat in October from September, when adjusting for inflation. Stronger inflation offset the increase hourly wages, and the average workweek was unchanged.

Yeah, inflationary pressure is really a big threat. The labor market is so tight that wages were completely flat. Sigh.

Four years ago, Rick Perry said in a debate that he wanted to eliminate three agencies of government. Sadly for the Texas governor, he could only remember two. Oops:

The missing third agency that Perry wanted to eliminate was the Department of Energy. Now he's being considered to lead that agency. Who says irony is dead?

As Republicans go about their plans to repeal and replace Obamacare, attention is now turning to the second half of that mantra: what will they replace it with? Oddly, this is not something that Republicans have come to a consensus on even though they've had seven years to do it. It's almost as if they never had any intention of replacing it in the first place.

But that's just me being cynical. There may not be any consensus, but there are Republican plans out there. Andrew Sprung rounds up a few of them and concludes that one particular piece of Obamacare shouldn't cause any real trouble:

One change that need not be too disruptive, I suspect — if done right — is replacing the individual mandate with continuous coverage protection — that is, protection from medical underwriting for anyone who maintains continuous coverage.

"If done right" is doing a lot of work in that sentence, isn't it? But that's just me being cynical again. So let's get serious. Is Sprung right?

Yes he is. The details get a little complicated—click the link if you want to dive into them—but the "individual mandate" is nothing more than an incentive: buy insurance or else you'll pay a tax penalty. Likewise, "continuous coverage" is an incentive too: buy insurance or else you're going to be screwed when you get sick and no one will sell you a health care policy. Both are ways to motivate young, healthy people to buy coverage and help subsidize all the old, sick people like me. Honestly, the biggest difference between them is semantic: "mandate" just sounds a whole lot more coercive than "continuous coverage."

So sure, there are more ways to skin the incentive cat than a tax penalty. But I think we're putting the cart before the horse here. We really ought to be talking about something else: the pre-existing conditions ban. Unlike the individual mandate, which affects the federal budget and can therefore be repealed by a simple majority, a repeal of the pre-existing conditions ban can be filibustered. That means repeal requires 60 votes, and that means Republicans can't repeal it. But if it's not repealed, Republicans can't do much of anything else. As long as the ban is in place, any Republican plan is almost certain to cause total chaos in the health care market.1 It would be political suicide.

So if Republicans want to do something that's not political suicide, they need Democratic votes. And that means Democrats have tremendous leverage over the final plan. They can either negotiate for something much better than what Republicans are proposing, or they can simply withhold their votes and leave Republicans between a rock and a hard place: either abandon Obamacare repeal, which would enrage their base, or pass a plan that would cause chaos for the health care industry and for millions of registered voters. This is not leverage to be given up lightly.

1If you don't understand why, shame on you! My blogging has been in vain. However, Jon Gruber explains it here. Also, check out conservative Michael Cannon at National Review. He gets it too. The pre-existing conditions ban is the key roadblock in the way of Republicans repealing Obamacare.

Killing the TPP was easy—though I suspect it will make a comeback after Donald Trump renegotiates a few bits and pieces and then loudly announces that he's made it into the greatest trade deal in the history of the republic. But what about NAFTA? What exactly does Trump want to do? Zeeshan Aleem writes that a transition team memo makes it clear that NAFTA is at the top of Trump's to-do list:

Suppose Trump wants to keep the US in the pact but put his self-professed negotiating skills to work in crafting what he insists would be a better version of the deal....There are a number of ways to pursue that end goal, but Trump’s rhetoric suggests he wants to do it by raising tariffs on imports from Mexico. That’s something he’d have difficulty getting Mexico to agree to, so he’d have more latitude to do it if he were to actually withdraw from NAFTA. But withdrawal is a tricky business, given how deeply the countries’ economies rely on each other.

....It would require loads of American businesses bringing existing components of their supply chains and outsourced services back onshore to avoid tariffs or other penalties — a process that takes time and money. It would also potentially increase costs for those businesses going forward.

If that’s [not] enough, the move could set off a trade war by prompting Mexico to raise tariffs on American goods in response. That could cause a downturn in the US economy and a spike in the unemployment employment rate that would undermine the very reason Trump is considering withdrawing from NAFTA.

....The upshot? Trump’s departure from the decades-long bipartisan consensus was politically brilliant....But following through on his promise is going to be difficult. The murky future of NAFTA may be one of the first places where Trump disappoints his followers; it won’t be the last.

Well, we'll see. Trump almost has to do something, considering how central NAFTA was to his campaign. But in the real world, there's not much upside. The OECD estimates that NAFTA had essentially no effect on employment, and the International Trade Commission estimates that it had essentially no effect on wages. So withdrawing wouldn't do any good for all those working-class folks Trump appealed to, but it would cause plenty of upheaval for businesses that are tightly integrated with their Mexican supply chains.1

Of course, NAFTA's impact hasn't been the same everywhere. There are a few industries where employment has been negatively affected. So Trump could focus on those and boast about how he's bringing jobs back to America. Prices of Mexican imports would go up too, but that's a pretty diffuse effect and most people probably wouldn't notice it.

So...who knows? As with many other things, I suspect that Trump will get agreement on a few smallish things and then take to his Twitter account to declare that he's just done more for the American worker than any president ever. At least, I'm kind of hoping that's what he does. The alternative is almost certainly worse.

1Needless to say, there are lots of estimates of the impact of NAFTA, and some of them suggest large employment effects—like this one from EPI. The general consensus, however, seems to be that it's had a pretty small impact.

After Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, gun shops did a land office business selling firearms to folks who were convinced that Obama was going to take their guns away. Now the shoe is on the other foot:

Since Donald Trump became president-elect, many women in California say they’ve started looking into long-acting, reversible birth control methods, in case access to contraception or abortions is rolled back. Trump has not said he wants to restrict birth control, but he has spoken often of repealing Obamacare, which could have that effect.

Collins said 45 people were ahead of her in line when she called the clinic. “So I was not the only person with that idea,” she said.

Doctors and Planned Parenthood offices across the state report that in the last week an increased number of women have asked about IUDs. The devices are inserted once and some types could even outlast a two-term Trump presidency. Google Trends shows more searches for “IUD” on Nov. 10 than in the previous 90 days.

I suppose there's no harm in this. Long-acting birth control is generally a good idea, and IUDs are an excellent choice for many women. Still, don't be like the gun nuts. It's possible that Trump could take executive action that rolls back birth control to the dark ages of 2013, but that's about it. And he hasn't given any indication that he even wants to do that.

Still, IUDs are great! And there's a chance that a year from now you might have to pay more for them. Might as well get one now, I suppose. Especially if you work for Hobby Lobby.

I suppose this is about 157th on the list of things to worry about from a Trump presidency, but I still have to wonder: Are we going to continue giving Trump's tweets the same banner treatment that we gave to the Hindenburg disaster? Shouldn't the press have a little more self-respect than that? If the guy won't talk to them, and instead relies on tweets that sound like they were written by a fourth grader ("The failing @nytimes story is so totally wrong on transition. It is going so smoothly. Also, I have spoken to many foreign leaders.")—well, maybe they should be given no more than the attention they deserve. Which is to say, about the amount that the press gave to Barack Obama's tweets. Which is to say, none.

UPDATE: Here's an idea. Instead of going crazy over every Trump tweet, maybe the Washington Post should inaugurate a regular feature: Today's Presidential Tweets. Every day, on page A14, they could have a box that reprints all of Trump's tweets for the previous day, along with a fact check for each of them. Something like this:

Pretty good idea, huh?

Donald Trump—or someone speaking for him, anyway—says that he plans to label China a currency manipulator on "day one" of his presidency. Fair enough. China does intervene in currency markets to manipulate the value of the yuan. Unfortunately, Trump might not like what would happen if China decides to call his bluff:

The simple act of calling out China for manipulating the value of its currency to gain an export advantage shouldn’t roil Beijing to the point of retaliation, said Derek Scissors, a China economy expert at the American Enterprise Institute....But slapping retaliatory tariffs on Chinese goods would be more difficult because it would require congressional approval — a problem given that Republican leaders have been opposed to legislation to punish Chinese currency devaluation with duties, Scissors said.

There’s also the question of whether China is actually devaluing its currency. Most economists agree Beijing intervenes heavily in its currency markets, but in recent years has actually been propping up the value of the renminbi rather than lowering it.

Hmmm. Here is Brad Setser:

The monthly data suggest China has not bought foreign exchange in the market to keep the yuan from appreciating in the past 6 quarters or so, only sold. Its intervention in the market has worked to prevent exchange rate moves that would have the effect of widening China’s current account surplus over time. Every indicator of intervention that I track is telling the same story.

....If China stopped all management (“e.g. manipulation”) and let the yuan float against the dollar, China’s currency would drop. Possibly precipitously. China’s export machine would get a new boost. And rising exports would take pressure off China’s governments to make the difficult reforms needed to create a stronger domestic consumer base.

In other words, right now China's currency is overvalued. If they weren't manipulating it, it would most likely have fallen even more than it has—something along the lines of the chart on the right. This would mean Chinese imports get even cheaper, American exports get more expensive, and the trade deficit increases. This is exactly the opposite of what Trump wants.

Demonizing foreigners as the cause of all our problems is apparently a good campaign tactic. Dealing with the real world is a little different. Hopefully Trump will talk to a few actual economists and trade experts before he makes good on this particular promise.