• Taxes Are Down, Down, Down

    As long as I’m making budget charts, here’s another one for you:

    Over the past 40 years, the total federal tax burden in the US has declined from about 18 percent of GDP to about 16 percent of GDP. Keep this in mind the next time you hear some Republican on TV moaning about the immense weight of taxes in our country.

  • Why Does the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page Lie So Much?

    As I was perusing reaction to the budget deal earlier this afternoon, I happened to run across the Wall Street Journal’s editorial opinion. It was generally uninteresting (they want entitlement cuts), but I was amused by their disapproving description of the slush fund used to bankroll overseas wars:

    The defense contingency fund is a gimmick from the Obama era that might not pass Congress again.

    Here is a history of the gimmick “from the Obama era”:

    The contingency fund, as anyone who was alive at the time knows, was a Bush-era gimmick that Obama steadily cut back. I can assure you that the editorial board of the Journal knows this perfectly well.

    This is why you can never trust a word they say. Even on something as trivial as this, they feel the need to flatly lie. It’s pathological.

  • Today’s Budget Deal Is Fine

    Congressional Democrats have reached a spending deal with President Trump. According to news reports, it increases discretionary spending by $320 billion compared to the caps set in the 2011 Budget Control Act. Budget hawks are outraged:

    “It appears that Congress and the president have just given up on their jobs,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which blasted out a statement arguing the tentative deal “may end up being the worst budget agreement in our nation’s history.”

    Yes. They’ve just given up. Here is a chart showing discretionary spending over the past 40 years:

    Discretionary spending has been declining steadily for four decades, interrupted only by the Iraq War and the Great Recession. The new budget deal will keep it at about 6 percent of GDP, the same as it was in 2000 and far less than it was in 1980. This is hardly a picture of a budget that’s skyrocketing out of control.

    If the hawks want to gripe about mandatory spending—primarily Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other social welfare programs—that’s fine. Gripe away. But today’s budget deal has nothing to do with that. It’s solely about discretionary spending levels, and there’s simply no reason to think either that discretionary spending is a big problem or that today’s deal will make it into one.

  • We’re Nowhere Near Another Debt Crisis

    Elizabeth Warren says nobody listened to her before the 2008 crash, so she’s sounding a warning again:

    When I look at the economy today, I see a lot to worry about again. I see a manufacturing sector in recession. I see a precarious economy that is built on debt — both household debt and corporate debt — and that is vulnerable to shocks. And I see a number of serious shocks on the horizon that could cause our economy’s shaky foundation to crumble.

    This is really not good. Sure, household debt is at an all-time high, but only if you don’t adjust for inflation or anything else. By that measure, household debt is almost always at an all-time high. Here is debt service as a share of income, which is the proper way to look at it:

    As you can see, household debt is at a historical low, and has been for several years. As for corporate debt, there are several ways of looking at it, but old-school debt-to-equity is probably the best. Here it is:

    This isn’t quite an all-time low, but it misses by only a couple of percentage points. Finally, although no one will claim that manufacturing is going gangbusters, suggesting that it’s in a “recession” is special pleading at best. The Fed’s manufacturing index went up in both May and June, and on a year-over-year basis it’s never gone below zero during Donald Trump’s presidency:

    Our current expansion has lasted a long time, and there are good reasons to think that we might be due for a normal cyclical recession. But there’s no reason to think we’re about to replay the 2008 debt crisis and there’s no reason to think that manufacturing is leading the way into economic catastrophe. Even if manufacturing were in a recession, it’s only about 10 percent of the economy and every other sector is doing well.

    I get that opposition candidates think they need to badmouth the economy if the economy is doing well.¹ It’s all part of the game. But this kind of stuff crosses the line into being deliberately misleading. We can do better.

    ¹I happen to think this is wrong, and even if it’s right it does no good to badmouth a strong economy anyway. But it does seem to be a widely held view.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    This is our fabulous new Apple store in the Irvine Spectrum shopping center. We’ve had an Apple store there for a long time, but the old one was just another storefront sandwiched in between Planet Beauty and L’Occitane. That, obviously, wouldn’t do.

    So now we have a beautiful little free-standing jewel box fronted by a beautiful little lighted fountain. What could be more Apple?

    July 18, 2019 — Irvine, California
  • Liberal Ideas Are Not As Popular As You Think

    A new PBS/Marist poll is out, and it shows that Americans are generally in love with liberal ideas. Hooray!

    But don’t get too excited yet. Americans say they like lots of things when they’re asked out of the blue, but in the real world the other side gets to weigh in before opinions become solidified. Because of this, there’s a rule of thumb that a political proposition doesn’t truly have majority support until it polls at about two-thirds or better. This is a pretty good rule of thumb, and with that in mind here are the results of the poll:

    Background checks for gun owners is a no-brainer. An optional version of Medicare for All is a strong contender, and government control of prescription drug prices is a close call, but probably pretty popular.

    And that’s it. There are a few more ideas on the list that might be good campaign fodder depending on how they’re presented, but they aren’t likely to be hugely popular selling points. As for the rest, just forget it. Any candidate who truly believes in them should feel free to say so, but no one should fool themselves into thinking that big majorities support them.

    At the bottom of the list, by the way, are five items that poll at levels less than about one-third. In real life, the number of people who really, seriously support them is probably on the order of 10-15 percent. They are total losers, period.

    BY THE WAY: These are all liberal ideas. Why didn’t Marist poll any conservative ideas?

  • Was Al Franken Guilty As Charged?

    Al Franken hugs Sen. Amy Klobuchar at the end of a speech shortly before he stepped down from the Senate.Glen Stubbe/TNS via ZUMA

    Today’s big story is a Jane Mayer piece in the New Yorker taking a retrospective look at the Al Franken affair. Not to put too fine a point on it, Mayer basically concludes that Franken got railroaded:

    A remarkable number of Franken’s Senate colleagues have regrets about their own roles in his fall. Seven current and former U.S. senators who demanded Franken’s resignation in 2017 told me that they’d been wrong to do so….Patrick Leahy….Heidi Heitkamp….Tammy Duckworth….Angus King….Jeff Merkley….Bill Nelson….Tom Udall.

    ….His undoing began with a photograph, which was released by a conservative talk-radio station on November 16, 2017….The photograph captures him on a military plane, mugging for the camera as he performs a lecherous pantomime. He’s leering at the lens with his hands outstretched toward the breasts of his U.S.O. co-star, Tweeden, who is wearing a military helmet, fatigues, and a bulletproof vest. Franken’s hands appear to be practically touching her chest, and Tweeden looks to be asleep—and therefore not consenting to the joke.

    There’s too much in Mayer’s piece to excerpt just a few bits, but it’s obvious that she believes Franken’s version of what happened on that infamous 2006 USO tour with Leeann Tweeden. She amasses both facts and recollections from other people on the tour, and by the time she’s done there’s little left of Tweeden’s account except for the bare fact of the photograph that launched the whole thing—and even that turns out to be less damning than Tweeden makes out.

    I don’t suppose there’s any point in relitigating this now, but Franken continues to hold a grudge against the senators who called for him to resign before he had a chance to defend himself. “I’m angry at my colleagues who did this,” he tells Mayer. “I think they were just trying to get past one bad news cycle.”

    Charges of sexual harassment typically roll out in a drearily scripted way, and one of the inevitable moments is the scene where a bunch of people acknowledge that “everyone knew” about it all along. But this scene was not just missing from the Franken affair, it was specifically repudiated by virtually everyone who knows him. Literally nobody thought that Franken was in any way a sexual predator or anything even close. This is why I’ve never been comfortable with the whole thing. The accusations never quite added up, and not a single one of Franken’s friends produced an “everyone knew” moment. I suspect that the only thing everyone knows at this point is that Franken was treated badly and then tossed aside. It was not a shining moment for either the Democratic caucus or the #MeToo movement.

  • Mindset Training Is a Bust

    “Mindset training” is a trendy practice designed to help students—especially marginalized students—do better in school by teaching them that their brainpower is not fixed forever, but can grow and change with effort. This is called a “growth mindset.”

    But does it work? Several smallish studies have suggested it might, so recently a British team conducted a larger, more rigorous study. Without further ado, here are the results:

    The effect was zero on every single metric. In fact, there was nothing even close to a significant effect. The mindset training simply produced nothing.

    The more I read about education, the more I think everyone should give in and just admit that conservatives have it largely right. Direct instruction works. Phonics works. Discipline works. This doesn’t mean that classes have to be dreary rote drills all the time, but it does mean that most learning happens in pretty ordinary ways. Maybe that will change once we all have chips implanted in our brains, but that day is not yet.

    UPDATE: I changed the penultimate sentence slightly to remove the impression that nothing has changed since the days of togas and wax tablets.

  • Racial Resentment Is Down Since 2016

    Recent polling on race relations is pretty grim reading. Ever since Ferguson, both blacks and whites have agreed that race relations in America are getting worse. No matter how you ask the question, you get the same result.

    But this tells us nothing about actual racial attitudes, which are notoriously tricky to measure. However, there’s a question on the biannual General Social Survey that I’ve long thought was one of the best indicators of racist attitudes: “Are racial differences due to lack of will?” This, I think, is a fairly nonthreatening way to ask about the widespread belief among some whites that blacks (and other minority groups) should quit complaining and just work harder. The responses jump around from year to year, so I’ve chosen just a few key dates in the chart below to make the trend clearer:

    Among white Republicans in the pre-Obama years, the number who felt that the biggest problem among blacks was lack of willpower (LOW) was pretty steady at around 50 percent. But when Obama was elected president, LOW suddenly shot up by ten points. The mere fact of having a black man in the White House was enough to trigger feelings of racial resentment.

    This faded out a bit over the next six years, but in 2016 LOW was still five points higher than it had been before Obama was elected. This is one of the things that helped Donald Trump get elected.

    But look what’s happened since. With Obama gone, LOW plummeted 11 points. It’s now precisely where it would be if it had followed the pre-Obama trendline for another ten years.

    This suggests that racial resentment among white Republicans has been on a steady downward trend for more than 20 years, interrupted only by the election of Barack Obama. But with Obama now out of the picture, racial resentment is way down from 2016, which means that Donald Trump has far less raw racial material to work with than he did four years ago. This doesn’t mean that Democrats can go hog-wild in the wokeness sweepstakes, but it does mean that Trump’s increasingly vitriolic racism is probably having less of an effect than we fear.

    The most likely outcome of all this is that Trump will feel like he needs to go further and further to get the same response he did in 2016, and that will eventually force him to go too far. Maybe it already has. Even his fellow Republicans seem to understand the danger here, which is why they asked him to back down on the “Send her back!” chants. Trump’s base may love it, but there are a whole lot more people who are repulsed by it.